Back in July, the medical journal The Lancet published a study that looked at 65 women who had had stillborn children. The researchers concluded that women who saw and held their babies experienced deeper depression and anxiety than women who didn't see their dead infant.
These findings clashed with informal "good-practice guidelines," in place at most U.S. hospitals for the past 25 years, which encourage parents to see and hold the child, and even dress the baby and arrange a funeral.
After the article appeared, hundreds of women contacted the MISS Foundation, which provides support to bereaved parents, expressing their anger over its conclusions.
Even Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, issued a statement. "When are people going to realize that the only way we'd expect a loving mother to feel who has lost her child to death is overwhelmingly sad and experiencing grief?" she wrote. "Can we really put a one-year, two-year, or five-year time limit on emotions of this type?"
The "movement," as insiders call it, started about a quarter century ago with the voices of two parents, Pam and Bob Sampson, whose daughter, Anna Marie, was stillborn. Pam Sampson had developed preeclampsia during her pregnancy and fell into a coma. By the time she regained consciousness, Anna Marie had been born, died and was already buried.
"There were no pictures, no mementoes, no anything and Pam really struggled with not being able to be with her baby," says Cathi Lammert, executive director of SHARE, a Missouri-based organization that provides support to parents who have lost a baby.
Because of the Sampsons' efforts, it is commonplace today to give a mother the choice of seeing her baby.
"We talk to them about whether they want to see the baby," says Dr. Mary J. O'Sullivan, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Miami School ofMedicine. "We have a whole process. We dress the baby up, take pictures after it's born."
O'Sullivan says that about one third of mothers she encounters don't want to see or hold the baby, another third just want to see the infant, and the rest actually hold them -- sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few hours or a day.
The issue of choice seems central to the controversy.
"Not everybody can see their baby at the time of the loss due to their choice or their emotional state," Lammert says. "We have to be careful not to force anyone."
Nevertheless, Lammert and others say that women who do hold their lost babies benefit from the experience.
"I can only tell you from personal experience the importance of a mother bonding with a child," says Pat Loder, executive director of The Compassionate Friends Inc., in Oak Brook, Ill. "For the parents to spend some time with that child after the death helps them tremendously during their recovery efforts. I always recommend it."
Loder's two children, aged five and eight, died in an automobile accident in 1997.
"When a child is born still, you still have memories of that child," she says. "It gave you heartburn when you ate such and such, and you had hopes and dreams for that child and you need to work through those feelings that you have and to say goodbye. To say that it would not help a person sounds so archaic."
Many women were also upset with The Lancet article because they felt that a time limit had been imposed on their grief. According to O'Sullivan, the grieving process takes an average of two years. Of course, some mothers need more time, and some less.
"I find myself becoming frustrated with the clumping of losses in categories. We all deal with our grief in our own way and as bereaved parents we have that right," says Kathy Evans, of Somers Point, N.J. "It doesn't matter that my son never breathed the air, it matters that he was and is my son."
Evans's fourth child, Sean, was stillborn in November of 1997.
"I cherish those moments with Sean," Evans says. "Although painful, that was my time to put a lifetime of love into holding and kissing my son. Do I wish I had more time? You bet I do. I only had Sean for 10 minutes, 10 very quick minutes.
"The next time I saw my son, he was in his coffin, all dressed in his Christening outfit, wearing his daddy's shoes from when he was a baby," Evans adds. "Sean was surrounded by teddy bears, notes and little trinkets to show our love. Do I regret seeing him in there? Well, yes. Who wants to see their child in a coffin? However, I am so glad I had that opportunity."
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