Jennie Wyckoff, LCSW


Little did I know when a physician friend called and asked me to see one of his patients, who was grieving the loss of her son, who died in utero at 19 weeks, that this client would be teaching me so much of what I would need to know to cope with the loss of my first grandchildren. She would also teach me how to help my daughter and son-in-law through the agony of a birth with no good outcome, through the yearning of empty arms, and through the sorrow caused by well-meaning people who don't know what to say and thus avoid saying anything.

My client talked at great length about needing other people to acknowledge that she had indeed been a mother, that she really had been through a hard labor and given birth, and that there really had been a baby boy named Justin. Besides the fact that she had tried for seven years to get pregnant, and then had the baby die before he had a chance at life, one of the complicating factors for her was the disposal of his body. She was never informed that she had an option when it came to deciding what to do with Justin's remains. She was just told that the hospital would "dispose" of him, and thought she had no choice. However, in other ways the nurses at the hospital were caring, and she has photos of Justin and spent precious time holding him, but she grieved not having a place to go to where she could put flowers, Christmas trees, etc., a place where she could openly mourn her loss. Her agony, because it was an agony, not a little loss to be glossed over, became personally real for me when I had to face the loss of our grandchildren on October 19, 1995.

The summer of '95 was a time of joy and anticipation. Our daughter Kerin, who had been having difficulties with infertility, was pregnant with twins. My husband Phil and I started knitting baby clothers, and talking about Christmases with babies in the house, the fun of buying in the toy stores again, and what being grandparents would be like. We were excited by the idea of twins. Kerin and her husband Mike would have their whole family at one time. They were besides themselves with joy, but a little afraid of the responsibility. How would they cope with two fulltime jobs and twins? Their fears became moot when Kerin started having pain on October 13. She was taken to the hospital and was told that one of the babies had died, but the doctors were hopeful that they could save the other. For six days she struggled to save the remaining baby, but on the evening of the 19th Jess and Sarah were born, both perfect but dead.

I don't think I have ever felt more helpless as a mother. Accuse me of magical thinking, but I always had this faint hope that if I had children, I would somehow be able to prevent awful things from happening to them. Life has a way of intruding into those magical dreams!! There was nothing I could do to change what had happened. None of my training as a grief therapist prepared me for the pain of experiencing this loss and listening to the sorrow and grief in my children's voices.

However, at least in one way Kerin and Mike were better off than my client had been. They were living in Denver and were cared for at Swedish Hospital, where the doctors and nurses were most cognizant of the needs of the parents at such a time. Before Jess and Sarah were born a pastor visited them and told them of the options available to them. Mike and Kerin opted for baptism after the birth, followed by cremation at a local mortuary and burial of the ashes in a special plot in Littleton cemetery reserved for previable babies. The baptism occurred at 8:30pm on the 19th, and my husband and I participated over the phone. (Mike and Kerin decided not to have any family present at the hospital, and deal with the waiting and loss alone together. A difficult decision for us, but one that we respected.) Mike washed the babies and wrapped them in blankets for the service. Photographs were taken, and hand and foot prints were made. Kerin and Mike spent time with the babies before they were taken away for cremation. As you can imagine, it was an incredibly painful time for all of us, but the baptism was a wonderful way of welcoming, naming, and saying goodbye to Jess and Sarah. A week later Mike and Kerin drove out to the cemetery and placed flowers on the babies' grave. They have been back several times since and placed a tiny Christmas tree there for the holidays. Unlike my client, they have a place to go to, a place to acknowledge their loss, a place where they can have the rituals that help to heal their grieving hearts.

There is a statue in a cemetery in Salt Lake City, placed there by the author of "The Christmas Box," Richard Evans. The statue is dedicated to the author's sister Sue, who died at birth. Each year there is a candlelight ceremony there for parents who have experienced a fetal loss. My client went to the ceremony this year to mourn Justin and Justin's sibling, who died at 8 weeks gestation in August. She said that it felt good to publically acknowledge her loss, but it wasn't the same as having a place that is both precious and personal.

This Christmas was difficult for our family, but at the same time the deaths of Jess and Sarah have drawn our little family closer together. On Christmas Night Kerin and Mike opened a present from Phil and I of two brass angels, ornaments to go on their tree, that was engraved with Jess and Sarah's names. It was a very poignant moment, an opportunity for Kerin and Mike to talk at length about their sad loss and how they were grieving, and an opportunity for Phil and I to talk about how much we hurt as well. They talked about family members who have been unable to discuss the twins, and other people who have gone out of their way to grieve with them. They talked about how difficult it is to grieve when so many people don't acknowledge that they really had a loss. "You never knew the babies, it can't be that hard." Yes, they knew those babies. From the moment they found out Kerin was pregnant there were weekly ultrasound pictures. As grandparents we bonded too. I was privileged to hear the heartbeats over the telephone, and we have copies of the ultrasound pictures as well. Jess and Sarah were alive to all of us, and we will always miss them.

I would like to encourage those readers of this column who know someone who has experienced a fetal loss to become a good listener and allow that loved one or friend to talk about the loss without fear of being judged. Grief is complicated when the mourner feels like the loss is considered minimal or essentially unimportant. "You can always have another baby," can be a real stab in the heart!

Wouldn't it also be wonderful if we could encourage all maternity departments to do as well for their patients as Swedish Hospital did for Kerin and Mike. I know that most maternity departments in Salt Lake City have very caring doctors and nurses, and that they are well trained in the grieving needs of their patients, but "disposal" is still an issue that is not being dealt with well.

To end on a note of hope. My client and her husband were fortunate enough to adopt a baby boy, Joshua, who came to them a few days before Christmas, and Kerin and Mike are planning a new pregnancy soon. Jess and Sarah have already opened our hearts to the possibility of grandchildren. A new baby would be most welcome!


Jennie Wyckoff, LCSW

I have been working in the bereavement field since 1987 when I trained as a volunteer at the Holy Cross Hospital Grief Center (now defunct) in Salt Lake City. I worked at the Grief Center as an employee 1988-1991 where I facilitated support groups, provided 1:1 assessment sessions, supported grieving families in the hospital, visited persons living with AIDS, and presented on grief-related topics to community organizations. I was also a member of the State Advisory Committee on SIDS losses.

After leaving the Grief Center, I continued to make bereavement work a part of my practice. I continue to facilitate grief groups, and provide therapy to persons with complicated grief issues. For the last three years I have been working as a counselor at Westminster College of Salt Lake City, where I provide 1:1 counseling, facilitate groups, and act as a referral and resource person for the staff, faculty and students.

October 19, 1995 is not a day I will easily forget. At the time that I was beginning the first session of a new grief support group at the college, my daughter was giving birth prematurely to her twins, Jess and Sarah, in Denver. At 19 weeks gestation there was no way they were going to survive. It was an extraordinarily difficult day, especially as my husband and I were not able to be with her. Somehow I managed to get through the support group and was glad to be able to focus on others' pain rather than my own. The following column is about grieving fetal loss and the issues that can complicate that loss.

Jennie may be contacted at: [email protected]

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