Stillbirth: Ending The Isolation Of A Unique Grief

Tasha Smith holds two teddy bears containing the ashes of her lost twins, Aubrey and Abe.
Tasha Smith lost her twin babies, Aubrey and Abe. She placed their ashes in teddy bears, as a way to have something to hold on to. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]
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Tasha Smith had been told she had fertility issues, so in May of last year there was unexpected but welcome news.

“To my surprise did I not find out I was pregnant, not just with one but with two babies — two fraternal twins. Baby A was Aubrey; baby B was Abe,” said Smith.

The pregnancy progressed fine up until late summer when, at week 23, she started severely cramping. The doctor told her not to panic but to come in immediately.

“Minutes into getting hooked up onto the machines,” she said, “I was alerted that Aubrey’s heartbeat was no longer beating.”

Smith’s experience isn’t common, but it also isn’t rare.

In Ohio, babies that reach 20 weeks gestation or older and die before delivery are considered stillborn. In 2017, there were more than 850 stillbirths. And, as with infant mortality, the data show a disturbing consistency: for more than a decade, the black stillbirth rate has been about double the white stillbirth rate.

 

Source: Ohio Department of Health

While any loss of a child is devastating, the pain of a stillbirth is unique.

“It’s a great grief,” said MetroHealth Supervising Chaplain Jim Kulma, who works with women during labor and delivery. “You start to build expectations, hopes, dreams, especially if you’ve gotten past the first trimester. And then also for the mom, to experience the baby growing inside of you and kicking and hearing the heartbeat.”

With a stillbirth, a woman still has to deliver the baby. Some go through this alone.

“It’s such a deep experience many people have no words,” said Kulma.

Removing the Taboo

Tiona Gosha runs the Glory Foundation, which provides support for families in grief. She is a counselor who works with women who’ve experienced stillbirths.

“Some moms develop what we call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome because they actually see their baby dead — a lot of blood and different stuff,” she said.

Not only is the labor experience difficult, but afterwards, society doesn’t want to hear about dead babies, says Gosha.

“Often their grief is not acknowledged. A lot of times people actually dodge them because they don’t know what to say to them. So it’s almost hushed and put under the rug,” she said.

She encourages her clients to talk about their children and think about how they want to celebrate them.  

What’s hard about stillbirths is that there are limited memories to look back on. That’s why some groups offer to take professional photos of the babies, so there’s something tangible to hold on to.

Some hospitals offer what’s called a “CuddleCot” that’s essentially a cooling bed which preserves the infant’s body so the woman has more time with it.

Gosha says there’s no wrong way to grieve, even if others might think it’s strange.

This advice hits home for Tasha Smith, whose son Abe died just three days after his twin sister Aubrey was delivered stillborn. The funeral home offered to put their ashes inside teddy bears.

“I just immediately smiled,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I’m getting a bear like that?’ So then it made me feel more excited, so then I’d have something to love on even when I’m missing them.”

She says she’s lost some friends because of the way she’s chosen to grieve, but she’s also gained new ones by sharing her story.

“I want to share my experience with someone. I don’t want them to forget about Aubrey and Abe. I want people to say their names,” said Smith.

If MetroHealth chaplain Jim Kulma could have one wish for improving the stillbirth experience, it would be to take it out of the shadows.

“It’s so quiet, it’s so unspoken, so therefore this kind of grief is so isolating,” Kulma said.

He says that removing the taboo might make it just a little bit easier to go through.

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