A university professor, a homemaker and teacher, and an obstetrics and gynecology doctor — these are women who are part of the one in four statistic who experience the loss of a baby during pregnancy, delivery or infancy.
According to the Star Legacy Foundation, October is observed as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, as many families are devastated each year by the death of their baby. The observance not only serves as an educational tool for the public on how to support families, but also helps those families going through this grief to know that they aren’t alone.
Often times, subjects such as miscarriage and stillbirth aren’t widely discussed. Because of the lack of communication, when these tragedies take place it can make a person feel abnormal, said Kathy Webb Farley.
“I’m thankful for awareness month because it’s allowing people to speak out more, or making them feel comfortable that they can,” Farley said.
Farley is a professor at Appalachian State University and a board member of the Watauga County Children’s Council. She is also a loss mom who has experienced three miscarriages and one stillbirth.
She said a loss mom can feel awkward, guilt, fear, sadness and shame after being given the news.
“When you’re in that room and they say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat. Your baby isn’t developing,’ you didn’t walk in knowing that that was going to be what you hear that day,” Farley said. “So often there’s no reason given, so you think is it something I did? The doctors will tell you. ‘No. It’s very unlikely it was anything you did or anything that you could have prevented.’ But it’s still something that sits with you.”
Lynda Gioia-Flynt, an OBGYN at the Harmony Center for Women in Boone, said that about 50 percent of losses are a result of a genetic anomaly with the baby.
“The first thing I tell people when they have this happen is that you didn’t cause it,” Gioia-Flynt said. “It isn’t the box you lifted; it isn’t the time you went running; it isn’t anything of those things. People naturally try to look back and think of something that they can blame.”
Gioia-Flynt said that almost on a weekly basis she has a family come into her office that has experienced an early loss. An early loss takes place during the first trimester (ending around 12 weeks) and halfway into the second trimester (ending around 22 to 26 weeks). Losses taking place before 20 weeks are considered early and likely account for between 80 to 90 percent of losses, she said.
Gioia-Flynt added that a single loss does not put a woman at a higher risk than the general population after a first trimester miscarriage. Gioia-Flynt herself has experienced an early loss. She said it’s still difficult as a provider to deliver the news to families who experienced a loss.
Intrauterine fetal demises — also known as a stillbirth — are considered to be anything after 20 weeks, Gioia-Flynt said. These types of losses can have various causes.
Farley and her husband, Ronnie, experienced early pregnancy losses in September 2010 and January 2011. The two got pregnant again in 2016, and Farley said the pregnancy was tough. Through a series of events on Christmas Eve of 2016, the couple went in to be induced but was told that the baby didn’t have a heartbeat and their daughter — Kyra — was stillborn with no known cause of death.
Through tears, Farley explained how she felt going through each loss.
With the first miscarriage, Farley said she felt sadness and disbelief, and with the second she felt despair. With Kyra’s death, Farley said it was a traumatic experience because her house was ready to bring home a baby, but rather she had to make funeral plans. The Farleys endured a fourth loss close to Father’s Day 2017 with a third miscarriage.
“You just can’t understand what you’ve done to deserve it and why everyone else gets to have a baby, and you don’t,” Farley said. “You go into triage mode just trying to survive.”
The couple gave birth to a healthy baby boy — Kyson Lane Farley — in July 2018. She said two of the toughest questions she would get asked is when she was going to have kids before she had Kyson, and how many children she has now that she has Kyson.
“My answer is, “He’s the one I’ve gotten to bring home from the hospital,” Farley said. “Awareness about the topic hopefully starts to make people aware of how tough that question can be for a lot of people. At any moment you’re not expecting it and the trauma comes right back up.”
Supporting loss parents
Daphne Petrey and husband Dustin Petrey help facilitate a six-week class called Broken H.A.R.T. (Healing and Restoration Together) for couples who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss. As loss parents, the Petreys wanted to help others with this experience know that it’s OK to grieve and what grief may look like.
The class uses the book “Good Grief” by Granger E. Westberg, which talks about the 10 stages of grief. These stages can be: shock; expression of emotion; feelings of depression or loneliness; experience of physical symptoms of distress; feelings of panic, feelings of a sense of guilt; feelings of anger and resentment; the resistance of returning to life; the gradual build of hope; and the struggle to affirm reality.
Daphne Petrey experienced a loss in 2007 at 37 weeks pregnant, and said she had feelings of such sadness and anger. She said she remembers thinking she didn’t know if she could keep breathing or if her heart would keep beating because she was hurt so badly. Dustin Petrey said he had to work through the grief process and work to find a new normal after the loss.
“It was something I wanted to fix and I couldn’t do anything about it,” Dustin Petrey said. “A lot of us guys tend to try to fix things. When we’re not able to fix something, it makes us upset. We feel like we need to be doing something rather than just walking the journey of grief with our spouse. I wanted to snap my fingers and have the whole situation changed where we weren’t experiencing the loss. Not being able to do that was very frustrating. It got to me.”
Farley said people shouldn’t forget to check on less dads too. She said in her case, her husband was hurting while also trying to be strong for her.
Dustin Petrey added that he doesn’t know how he would’ve made it through his grief without his family and faith community.
The Broken HART class is faith-based, and Daphne Petrey said participants will explore what the Bible says about grieving, how grieving is normal and how God is with you a family on that journey. She said faith isn’t pushed on those who participate, and those who aren’t Christians are welcome to attend the class as well. The class will also allow couples to share about their experience with others who have similar stories.
The class started on Oct. 17 and will meet every Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Alliance Bible Fellowship until Nov. 21 (it will not meet on Oct. 31). People can still attend the class even if they have missed the first meeting; contact email@example.com for questions. More information about the class can be found at brokenhartgroup.wixsite.com/2019.
Daphne Petrey also wrote a book, “I Have A Brother — My Brother is in Heaven,” for families to read with their children to explain what that loss is like and that a sibling may be in heaven. The book can be found at Boone Drug and Cornerstone Book Store.
After the loss of her daughter, Farley’s doctor put her in touch with another loss mom who offered her support as well as the hospital chaplain connecting her with a counselor. When she started working for App State, she started a support group with other loss moms who would read books together about overcoming grief.
Sometimes a parent can experience physical pain from the loss of a child, such as aching arms. Farley said she used to be going through the grocery store and holding gallons of milk just to see how it might compare to the weight of Kyra. She then learned about Molly Bears, a nonprofit organization that creates weighted teddy bears for families coping with infant loss.
Molly Bears was started by a mom who would pick up bags of flour — equal to the weight of her baby — who just needed to feel that weight, Farley said. The bear Farley got in memory of Kyra has a stocking on it, as she was a Christmas Eve baby. For other loss parents looking for a Molly Bear, visit www.mollybears.org.
For friends and family of a loved one who has experienced a loss, Farley said asking to see pictures of the baby if they have them, simply saying the baby’s name and acknowledging the person as a parent is helpful. Additional support can look like offering them a space to cry, reminding them to be gentle with themselves, remembering people on important days such as Mother’s Day and Fathers Day and not getting offended if a loss parent chooses not to respond to a call or text because they’re grieving.
Daphne Petrey added that just being available in person, even if the person doesn’t want to talk, can be comforting.
Phrases that aren’t helpful to say to a loss parent include, ‘It was meant to be,’ ‘be thankful for the living child you do have’ and ‘it’s time to move on,’ Farley said.
Farley said she has suggested that the Watauga County Children’s Council board consider a program for loss parents. Elisha Childers, the executive director of the Children’s Council, said it is a topic the agency has started discussing.