Four years ago, I skimmed birth plans unaware, although with skepticism. I knew I would be having a Caesarean due to my own medical history, and that my hospital wasn't that flexible on procedure around the C. I can't even tell you what the myriad options were, except one. In one comprehensive plan (that I wish I could link to, but I don't know where I saw it), there was a note to tell the staff if you want to see the baby in the event of a stillbirth or other complications resulting in death. I have no idea what my hospital protocol would have been. As I got on the operating table, however, I remembered that guidance and told the nurse that I wanted to see my baby. She looked surprised, but responding gently and practically, she asked "Right away or would you like us to clean him up and bring him to you?"
And so the wonderful nurses who held our hands through the worst days of our lives brought me a beautiful baby boy wrapped in a receiving blanket with his own little hat and beautiful red lips. We had our time as a family before they had to take him away. They made us a memory box with a lock of hair and a special hat with his name on it. They tucked a little heart pillow into the blanket while we held him and then gave us the pillow he snuggled with to bring home. I am so grateful for those moments and memories.
From where I sit, those nurses did everything right. Everything they could do. I, however, had no idea what to do. What I could do. What one does in such a situation. How could I know? And so I put together a list of questions and things you might consider. This is my list from my experience, and if there is anything I've learned, we all do this differently.
- Do you want to see the baby? This is your choice and well-meaning hospital staff may assume that you don't. Hospitals are getting more modern in this and realizing that people want to spend time with their child, but I've heard lots of stories where parents weren't asked. As I said, I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't.
- Make your time with the baby your own. When you see the baby, touch or look at every part you can. Look at his fingers and his toes. Kiss his cheeks and look at his hair. We were stunned into careful handling, and each year I wonder what his fingers looked like. I have a lock of his hair, but I didn't see it on his head. Was it as much as my other children? Was it curly?
- Consider taking pictures. Our hospital offered us special photographer services. In the moment, we thought it was morbid. We took a few cellphone shots with sad mommy and daddy faces. Those pictures are so precious to me and I wish I had let someone make them beautiful. For someone to help make those moments even more special. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a great organization that helps with this. Their Facebook feed offers a lot of support as well.
- Ask the hospital how long they can leave the baby with you. There may be procedures they have to follow, but they may also have procedures they can put in place to extend the time you can have with him.
- Call your family or support people as soon as possible. We waited because I couldn't imagine how to possibly say the words. We waited because it was late Sunday night by the time we knew and were settled in a hospital room. We had each other and that worked for us, but we also lost an opportunity to have family meet our baby. I didn't know anyone would want to. Not everyone will want to, but at least one family member told us she would have loved to meet our boy. And I would have loved that too.
- Consider an autopsy. I refused because I couldn't imagine anyone performing surgery on my perfect tiny baby. He had endured enough, I thought. Now, I don't know if the autopsy would have shed light on a cause of death, but we may have gotten some peace. I'm not upset that I honored my feelings, but I also didn't think it through.
- Consider organ donation. I don't know the complications around stillbirth babies and organ donation. I did hear a beautiful story on Radiolab about a mother who donated her baby's organs after his death (a live birth) and followed up on the amazing research that followed. If you are comfortable with organ donation, your child's life could be a great gift that enriches, even saves, the lives of others.
- Consider doing nothing. It is okay if you don't want to hold your baby or have pictures or answer questions. Please do what feels right for you in the moment and give yourself space and forgiveness and kindness.
- Know you're not alone. There are so many good books and resources and groups out there. For starters, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart, They were Still Born and the MISS Foundation. Your hospital or local church may have a support group. It's an unfortunately large club that we belong to, the worst kind. The benefit, though, is you don't have to do this alone.
I hope you never find this in a late night broken-hearted Google search, but if you are searching, I want there to be something to find. And if that is how you came here, I love you. I am you. You are not alone