Giving time to grieve

The birth of a baby usually brings joy and excitement for parents and loved ones. But for families experiencing a stillbirth or the death of a newborn, their anticipation turns to shock and grief.

“When we lose a loved one, we’ve lost a big piece of our past, and it’s tragic. But when you lose a newborn baby, you’ve lost a piece of your future,” says Charmaine McLeod, clinical nurse educator at Bonnyville Health Centre. “And that’s something that can be extremely devastating to recover from.”

Charmaine says Bonnyville Health Centre offers families a range of supports to give them the time and space to grieve their loss. The hospital recently acquired a cuddle cot, a bassinet with temperature-controlled pads to keep newborn bodies cool, giving parents more time.

“There are a lot of critical decisions to make, and they’re still in a little bit of shock,” says Charmaine. “It gives them the gift of time.”

The cuddle cot’s cooling pads give parents the option of spending a few days with their newborn, where previously they would have only had several hours. The cot gives parents an opportunity to bathe and dress the baby, take photos or simply keep the baby with them a little longer. Charmaine says research reinforces the value of having more time.

“The more we know about grief, we know that developing memories of something that they don’t have any tangible memories of — other than mom feeling the baby kicking her tummy — it gives them something to hold on to and look back at and helps with that healing and grieving process.”

Charmaine McLeod stands next to Bonnyville Health Centre's new cuddle cot.

Bonnyville Health Centre sees between one and three stillbirths a year, and its cuddle cot was purchased earlier this year by the Bonnyville Health Foundation. The Misericordia Community Hospital labour and delivery unit usually has between 12 and 15 stillbirths or infant deaths a year. It has two different sizes of cuddle cots, one for full-term-sized newborns and one for early deliveries. Both were purchased with funds from the Covenant Foundation.

At both sites, the cuddle cots are part of a range of supports. Staff help parents gather keepsakes — like locks of hair, handprints and footprints — that can be placed in memory boxes. They offer “angel dresses” that volunteers make from donated wedding gowns for families that want to dress their babies. The Misericordia offers professional bereavement photography through volunteer organization Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. And the Bonnyville chapter of the Twinkle Star Project knits baskets to hold the babies.

Michelle McDougall, assistant head nurse for labour and delivery at the Misericordia hospital, says parents choose what supports they want in their grief journey, and they have time to change their minds along the way. If parents are not ready to be with their baby, the cuddle cot can be wheeled into another room.

“When people go through a loss, it’s a process. Things we offer to them at the beginning aren’t necessarily what they want. As their time evolves through their grief during their stay at the hospital, most people are quite thankful to have the option of keeping their baby with them.”

cuddle cot

Michelle says staff are sensitive to how each family wants to grieve.

“Everyone’s grieving journey is unique to that individual family because it has a background in their culture or previous experience. So we try to tailor our care to what they want and what they need. We always offer them all of the options as far as creating those mementos and having the baby with them, but at the end of the day, it’s their journey, and we’re there to support them with whatever they need.”

Charmaine says hospitals have come a long way in supporting parents. Her best friend experienced a stillbirth 22 years ago, when Charmaine was in nursing school.

“At the time, there were zero resources. I didn’t know what to say or how to help her,” says Charmaine. “But we know now that this is all part of the healing process when the families want that.”

In Bonnyville, community supports are also available. Last year, the town, in partnership with a local perinatal loss support group, dedicated a gazebo in a lakefront park across the street from the hospital. Little footprints are painted on the sidewalk, and parents can use chalk to write memorials to their babies. Charmaine says those actions are helpful for parents experiencing “empty arm syndrome.”

“It’s called empty arm syndrome when they leave the hospital with an empty car seat and nothing in their arms. We encourage them to go across the street and take some time for themselves when they leave the hospital without a baby.” 

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