Guiding Others in a Time of Loss
For most, the Family Maternity Suites at Memorial Medical Center is a place of great joy. But it can be very different for parents experiencing miscarriage or stillbirth.
Among those parents are Heather and Mitchell Davidson, who lost their son Heath at 37 weeks on June 17, 2017. Now, the Davidsons are using their experience to help others, by donating baskets filled with comforting items that Family Maternity Suites staff can distribute to parents who have lost a child.
“It’s something people don’t think is going to happen to them until it happens to them,” Heather said.
Kendra Henke, RN, a nurse in the Family Maternity Suites, heads up the hospital-wide perinatal loss committee. That group’s mission is to support those who experience miscarriages, stillbirths or other infant loss. She said they’re grateful to the Davidsons and other families who choose to memorialize their children by reaching out to help others experiencing the same grief.
“We just want to give them love and compassion while they’re here and throughout their journey,” she said.
Mitchell and Heather, both teachers, met at Illinois College and married in 2015. On Halloween 2016, Heather found out she was pregnant. She and Mitch were instantly excited.
“It was a perfect pregnancy,” Heather recalled. “Everything was really normal.”
There was only one troubling sign: On an ultrasound, Heather’s doctor noticed that the umbilical cord was attached to the side of the placenta instead of the middle, something that she felt warranted close observation. But Heather and Mitch never imagined something was seriously wrong.
At her 37-week appointment, Heather told her doctor that she no longer felt the baby moving. Instead, she felt a gentle rolling movement. The doctor checked for a heartbeat but couldn’t find one.
“I knew immediately from her face that something wasn’t right,” Heather said. “I don’t know if I yelled out to God or if it was just in my head, but I remember saying, ‘Please, please, please let it be okay.’”
Instead, Heather received the news she dreaded: her baby had died. A delivery was scheduled for that afternoon, and she and Mitch went home to wait.
In shock, she found herself thinking about a documentary they had watched the night before. It had cited statistics showing that many couples who lose a child eventually divorce.
“I remember looking at him in the kitchen and saying, ‘Are we going to get through this?’” she said. “He said, flat-out, ‘Yes.’”
Later that afternoon, they went to Memorial Medical Center, where Heather’s labor was induced. She gave birth to a boy they named Heath Wade.
“The nurses were amazing,” Heather said. “They all took him and held him like he was alive.”
A photographer affiliated with the national organization Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep took photos of Heath with his parents. At the time, Heather and Mitchell weren’t sure they wanted them. Now, they treasure these photos as the only images they have of their son—images they are able to share with family and friends as they talk about Heath.
“One of the hardest things is that no one except a few family members got to meet him,” Mitch said.
Before they left MMC, a nurse named Shari Hickey gave them advice they’ve never forgotten.
“She said, ‘You are going to grieve differently, but just hold onto each other,’” Heather said.
Hickey’s advice turned out to be true. “She was more outward with it,” Mitch said of his wife’s grieving process. “I wanted to keep busy.”
“And I just wanted to sit there and cry,” Heather said.
Despite the differing trajectories of their grief, the couple says the loss of Heath brought them closer together. One of the things that helped them the most was connecting with other people who had experienced a similar loss, both in person and online.
“The loss community is an amazing community,” Heather said. “You never want to be a part of it, but once you are, it envelops you.”
She started a blog called “Hiking After Heath,” moving her nightly journaling from the page to the screen. The name of the blog evoked her grief journey, and her goal was to help others in the same situation.
The couple also wanted to give back to MMC Family Maternity Suites as a way to pay tribute to Heath’s memory and help others. Each year, they deliver baskets to the unit for distribution to families who experience a loss. There are many organizations that provide keepsakes for these families, but Heather and Mitchell’s baskets are unique because they focus on the experience of grief. Many of the items are donated by their friends and family.
The baskets include several books on grieving, a journal and pen as well as many items to provide comfort during the days to come: gift cards for meals, a cooling mask for swollen eyes, essential oils and much more. Although returning to the unit is emotional for them, Mitchell and Heather say they’d like to continue donating the baskets in order to help others.
In addition to the baskets, there are many ways in which FMS staff and volunteers honor infant loss. The perinatal loss committee works with many organizations, both local and national, to provide handmade blankets, hats, gowns, footprint molds and other mementoes. The committee and unit staff donate materials and time to create some of these keepsakes.
When a patient on the unit experiences a miscarriage or stillbirth, a card with a photo of a butterfly hangs on the door. “The whole unit knows what’s going on and it’s hard on everybody,” Henke said. “It’s not something we take lightly.”
“I always tell my patients, ‘You guys are in my heart forever,’” she added. “When they leave here, they’re still in all of our thoughts.”
The Davidsons said that well-meaning people can sometimes say tactless things after the loss of an infant, or avoid talking about it entirely. If you know someone going through this type of loss, “acknowledge their pain, but don’t try to take it away,” Heather said. “Say their baby’s name, and ask questions.”
Henke agrees. “These moms and dads need to hear people say their babies’ names and talk about them,” she said.
Mitch and Heather want people to feel more comfortable talking about stillbirth, which occurs in about 1 percent of all pregnancies in the United States—and about the grief journey that follows.
“There is no timeline for grieving,” Heather said. “There is no playbook. We will never get over losing our son—ever. But we try to make the best of each day.”
If you or a loved one has experienced loss, contact a provider at Memorial Behavioral Health. Memorial Behavioral Health is providing telehealth and phone appointments with their patients. In addition, MBH has established an emotional support hotline, available at 217-588-5509, to provide support to individuals who are experiencing anxiety or stress, even if they are not MBH patients.