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  • Writer's pictureGlen Burkholder

One In Four

(Volume 6 - 2020)

One of the most under-rated forms of death is pregnancy loss. This month, October, is recognized as Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month and October 15th is the official day of remembrance. It seems only proper to consider this as my subject this time around.

Here is a staggering statistic… One in every four pregnancies, ends in loss of life. One in four…think about that for a moment. I think if there was a mathematical equation; the “one in four” would equal one hundred percent. One hundred percent of all peoples will be directly or indirectly affected by a pregnancy loss at one time or another. You, the reader, may have had or will experience a pregnancy loss. Or, it may be your mother, your daughter, your grandchild, your niece. It may be your spouse, your friend, your co-worker.

So, I contemplate, why do we not properly acknowledge this form of death? Is it because that tiny life didn’t take a breath, so it wasn’t alive? Ask the individual who is (or was) carrying that life in they’re belly, if that tiny life doesn’t count. For some strange reason there is a stigmatism attached to pregnancy loss. Maybe even a sense of failure. Before medical science, the one in four was perfectly natural, even expected. Following advancements in medical science, when something doesn’t go as planned, it is viewed as a failure; and I wonder if this somehow lends to that stigmatism.

Ultimately, no matter how you look at it; a a a loss. With loss comes grief. Recently I sold my motorcycle of 16 years. I bought it with the inheritance that followed my mother’s death. I was troubled and felt the loss, even when the sale was instigated by my own doing. Recently, I lost a niece. My niece was mine through my first marriage and I couldn’t share my loss with those who were once my family, yet I grieved her death. Further, I have had many, many worse losses, and I am no different than you and you have grieved losses yourself.

That being said, why do we feel it appropriate to “sweep under the carpet” pregnancy loss?

My true confession…

As a professional in funeral services, I was never given the tools on how to help a family who experienced a pregnancy loss. They don’t teach that in college. For far too many years I underserved the families that called upon me for help. Not intentionally but by my own ignorance alone. Because I wasn’t comfortable with the sight of an under-developed fetus born at 14,18, 20 or 26 months of gestation. It was not natural to me. It took me too many years before I understood how deeply attached parents are to that life they could not visualize first hand. To a life that changed a person’s appearance while it grows from with-in, changed moods, changed appetite. Anticipation; marked by morning sickness and soft pink, blue, green and yellow paint droppings on the floor of a future nursery ... all ended in loss of life. To get over myself; I had to recognize all of this in others. Once that was achieved, I had to find the courage to help those who didn’t know themselves; that they are entitled to acknowledge, process and grieve the loss of their child, sibling, grandchild, niece or nephew. A mechanism I have used, while I teach the Infant and Pregnancy Loss Program, through the efforts of the Home Hospice Association, is two photos. One is depicting an infant still born at 20 weeks of gestation resting a yellow baby blanket. It clearly depicts the perceived “unnatural” appearance of this life once lived. The image that fed, my fear, of every allowing another to see this body. The second picture I follow up with; is the mother of that child; holding it’s sweet beautiful remains in the cups of her hands and kissing it. I can’t even write these words without tears in my eyes. You don’t have to personally know someone to fall in love.

Today, I try to help those who have experienced infant and pregnancy loss, by allowing them (maybe even teaching them) that it’s right and good to mourn the loss. Further, if I can help a fellow funeral professional, to better guide a family effectively through this form of loss, this type of that just terrifies us, I would feel more complete.

Returning to work from a week of vacation, I went directly to our daily activity schedule, This outlines what funeral service each funeral director is assisting with that day and what your responsibility is. I was posted to conduct the graveside service of an infant at 1 o’clock pm. The pregnancy loss was premature and unexpected. I then went to the file only to see the parents wanted no service. They just wanted to meet at the cemetery and witness the white plushette infant casket lowered into the grave. My colleagues did offer for the parents to come to the funeral home and spend time with their daughter (of 22 weeks of gestation). If they wanted to do so they were to contact us by Sunday morning so we may be prepared for their visit. They didn’t come. So, at 9 am, I picked up the phone and called. The soft and timid voice of a female answered. I introduced myself as the funeral director who would be helping them today. I acknowledged the offer to come into the funeral home and spend time and she replied by saying her and her husband made the decision not to do so. I respected that decision and explained sometimes it’s really beneficial to have that time. I told her we still have time and if you reconsider to call me and I will prepare some space for you. She said they were firm in that, and I said “we are a phone call away, and if you chose not to come to the funeral home first, I will see you at the cemetery”. Twenty minutes later the phone rang and with the encouragement, the parents agreed to come in, spend time and follow me to the cemetery. I prepared a naturally sunlit room with a table, and an empty infant casket, a candle and I broke and separated rose petals and sprinkled them on the table top. A short while later the parents arrived. They made me wonder...did I look that young when I started a family. We went to the room and before I opened the door I explained what they would see when they entered, and with that I would excuse myself to bring them their daughter. Before I excused myself I asked them if they had decided to name their baby. Her name is Star, they said almost in unison. Going forward, I only used her name…that is very important! The father expressed his concern and thought they would have been visiting a closed casket. I asked them if they had spent time with Star at the hospital. “Yes”. Was her appearance, to you, that she was pretty small, kind of a dark red in colour. “Yes, she was.” “I think I can safely assure you that her appearance has not greatly changed since you last saw her, however, I can privately place her in her casket and close the casket, if you wish.” They were uncertain, but I could tell they wanted to see her again. I returned with the swaddled remains of Star. They sat on the couch together and gazed at her. Then I knelt down and softly explained I was going to leave them now for some private time. I also explained that in my experience many parents who have experienced pregnancy loss have taken photos. I offered to do so using my cell phone camera, email the pictures in a Zip file so they can look at them when you feel ready to do so; or if they wanted they could do that with their own camera. Leaving the young couple I returned about 45 minutes later to see them taking pictures. I took a couple of snaps for them so they could have a few photos with the three of them together.

It was time to go to the cemetery. I encouraged them to place Star in her casket and we closed it together. I then asked if they want to drive Star to the cemetery and personally hold the casket. Cutely Star’s mom said she was worried that her husband would be distracted and get in an accident. I asked if they wanted a ride in our car. They lived closer to the cemetery than the funeral home, so Star’s mom rode in my car with the casket on her lap and her husband safely and without distraction, followed behind. We were greeted by all the grandparents. There was to be no clergy representative. One of the grandparents brought roses and I handed one out to each of them. I asked if there was any religious faith base for the family to which they said they were Christian. I used the analogy of remembering the beauty of the rose after it was destroyed. (Go back to my blog: “There Is No Playbook” for a better understanding). I recited a poem about the rose, and we placed our roses on Star’s casket. Using the straps provided by the cemetery we all lowered her casket into the grave. We then used the shovels provided and we filled her grave together. As we were preparing to leave, I noticed a smooth round rock that came from the grave, left over on the ground beside. It was about the size of a melon. I asked the parents if they had a garden or balcony to which they said “yes”. “Maybe you would like to take this stone that came from Star’s grave, clean it, paint it and keep it at home with you.” Star’s dad found a bag in the truck of his car and took the rock home. Lastly, I had a heart to heart with Star’s parents. I said the death of a child can lead to the separation of parents and I didn’t want to see that happen. I begged them to be patient with each other, for we all journey our grief differently. There will be times when he wants to go for a walk or to the movies and she would just rather sit on the couch and eat ice-cream. And there will be time when she wants to go for a drive or shopping and he just wants to sit and listen to music in his headphones and that’s okay as long as you both understand your waves of grief will be very different and distinctly unique to yourselves. If you understand that, and live your lives in love for each other you’ll be better for it! It was very emotional and I couldn’t help but to cry with them, and in return there were hugs.

With some courage, I hopefully took the simple disposition of fetal remains and created a permanent memorial for a life lived and lost; and for the parents and grandparents who represented and qualify that 1 in 4 =100%.

As rose bloom and petal fall,

So it must be, that even we,

Masters of the soil, to the earth return.

Even though the rose will bud and bloom again,

On a different day and in a different way,

The human spirit, released from care and pain,

Lives on today.

-Author Unknown

(Written by the friend of a friend of mine)

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