Sharing grief, loss

Employers, society should better empathize with families grieving stillbirth or miscarriage

With the rate of stillbirths now topping that of infants who die before their first birthdays, employers--and society in general--must become more empathetic to families grieving the death of a baby through stillbirth or miscarriage, according to a Baylor University researcher who helped form Cradled, a Waco-based nonprofit serving bereaved families.

While infant mortality in the United States has declined by 11 percent since 2006, little progress has been made in reducing stillbirth and miscarriage rates, according to a recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Research shows that approximately one in four women will experience a miscarriage, a loss before the 20th week of pregnancy, but it's not something that we are comfortable talking about," said Joyce Nuner, PhD, an associate professor of Child and Family Studies in Baylor's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences. "It's a silent sorrow."

Perinatal bereavement is minimized in the workplace, she said. A recent article by The New York Times that explored Amazon's treatment of employees noted that workers who suffered from miscarriages said they were evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover. One mother whose child was stillborn said she left Amazon after being told her performance would be monitored to make sure her focus remained on her job.

"Such actions and attitudes are not as unusual as we might think," Nuner said. "In our support groups, I've been shocked by the stories of some parents and how they have been treated at work by supervisors and co-workers. Many report a lack of sensitivity, empathy or even recognition that their baby has died."

Nuner, a mother of three, who also lost a baby girl at 16 weeks, is conducting research to learn how and when attachments are formed with a baby during pregnancy, how maternal mental health is affected by a loss, how the loss impacts future parenting--and how healing can be promoted.

"Through my research and work with Cradled, I am interested in providing parents a place to tell their story," Nuner said. "This is often a subject that many are hesitant to talk about--even taboo."

Cradled, founded by Rachel Craig, BSEd '00, a counselor in Texas School Neuropsychology, offers confidential support through peer groups, a six-week bereavement curriculum and individual meetings with families who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, death within the first year of life, or infertility.

Nuner said she felt uncomfortable having to ask for things--pictures, the opportunity to hold, hand and footprints--for which she did not have to make a request after the birth of her living children.

The loss of a baby through miscarriage or stillbirth can be accompanied by many of the same physical symptoms experienced after giving birth to a full-term, healthy baby, such as hormonal changes that affect mood, breast discomfort and abdominal cramping.

Nuner said her research quickly showed that unaddressed grief eventually manifests itself.

"Sometimes healthy, sometimes not," she said. "When our baby died, many people didn't want to talk about it--even close family members. I was fortunate to have several co-workers that had also experienced a loss provide support."

She discouraged the use of phrases that imply the child is replaceable, such as "You have two children" or "It's God's will." Nuner points out that every child is unique and, therefore, irreplaceable.

According to the American Psychological Association, 15 percent of women will experience clinically significant depression and/or anxiety that can last up to three years after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Other complications following loss include attachment issues and a spiritual aspect.

"Many people struggle tremendously," Nuner said. "While Cradled is not designated as a Christian nonprofit, it is led by Judeo-Christian individuals. But our goal is to provide a safe place for all--all denominations, all belief systems and all parents suffering the loss of a child."