Julie McDonald: Resources available today to help parents grieving stillbirths


Editor's note: This commentary was published alongside Julie McDonald's Nov. 20 column, "Celebrating with thanks — and a bit of grief ," which can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/2f2r3nva 

More than a year ago, fellow historian Kerry Serl, of Napavine, emailed me a copy of a page from Lewis County’s register of births in 1891 because of a listing that caught her eye: Louisa Ware, 32, the married daughter of John and Matilda Jackson, gave birth to a stillborn son, John Ware, on Nov. 16, 1891. 

When I researched the life of Matilda (Glover) Koontz Jackson for a book, I discovered all her direct descendants had died. I wondered at the time why Louisa and Josiah Ware never had children. Now I know they did — the record described John as the second child born to Louisa — but neither of her babies survived.

Despite vast improvements in medical care in the century since Louisa lost her babies, the United States still sees 21,000 stillborn babies each year, or one in 175 births. Worldwide, nearly 2 million babies are stillborn each year — one every 16 seconds. The United States defines stillbirths as after 20 weeks of gestation; the World Health Organization classifies a baby who dies after 28 weeks of pregnancy as a stillbirth.

More than 50 years ago, a friend gave birth to a son who lived only moments because of a heart issue that today can be fixed inside the womb. He was her second child, and they named him Guy. Hospital staff whisked away the dead baby without letting his parents hold or photograph him. Yet this friend, who also suffered miscarriages, wore jewelry with charms listing each of her five children—with Guy as her second.

My niece, Robyn Riat, whose first child was stillborn in January 2022, told about her friend whose eldest sister lived only a few weeks because of a genetic disorder. But Valerie is still her eldest sister, and her mother works Valerie naturally into conversations.

In September 2021, only a few months before Robyn lost Lincoln, my cousin’s daughter in the Midwest posted on Facebook that her son, “Ryker James Raymond Dudek was born sleeping to this world.” He was perfectly formed, but connective tissue had wrapped around the umbilical cord and cut off his blood flow. The family snuggled, kissed and caressed him as they said hello and goodbye. 

“I love talking about him and staring at his pictures, but know that kind of discussion isn’t for everyone,” Nichole Dudek wrote. 

She also noted that sometimes a hug and a hello are enough.

“Until we meet again, my sweet perfect baby boy, Mommy loves you more than you could ever imagine, ‘to the moon and back.’ We may not be able to hold and hug you every day, but we will always be squeezing you in our hearts until we can hold you in our arms again.”

Nichole also posts on his heavenly birthdays, sharing how she sees him in every toddler, every sunset, every white butterfly, in his brother’s smile. 

“You will forever be my favorite ‘what if,’” she wrote on what would have been Ryker’s second birthday. “Snowman pancakes, a hike through the woods and playing at the waterfall, happy meals for dinner, ice cream cake with candles. We did it all. Wrote messages on wish paper and released our balloons. You are so loved.”

October was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Whether it’s an ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, or stillborn, the loss is real but seldom talked about. Some call them angel babies. Others say stillborn or, when only one twin survives, sunset babies. About 48 percent of babies born without a heartbeat can be successfully resuscitated, sometimes in perfect health and others with mild to moderate disabilities, according to an article posted at www.reliasmedia.com.

According to www.nidirect.gov.uk, some causes of stillbirth include complications with the placenta providing the blood supply from the mother to the baby; bleeding before or during labor; placental abruption (separating from the womb); pre-eclampsia, which causes high blood pressure in the mother; umbilical cord prolapse, knotting, or wrapping around the baby’s neck; genetic defects; pre-existing diabetes; obstetric cholestasis (a liver disorder); or an infection in the mother that passes to the baby. About a third of stillbirths have no specific causes.

Risks are increased with mothers over 35, those carrying twins or multiple babies, smoking, drinking alcohol or misusing drugs, obesity and epilepsy.

Prenatal care and regular checkups can help gauge the baby’s growth.  Movement in the womb, and tracking of those movements,  is also important.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “The further along a woman is in her pregnancy, the more likely it is that the stillbirth will be unexplained.” 

An autopsy might pinpoint a cause but not always.

The CDC says stillbirths are more common in women who are Black, 35 or older, of lower socioeconomic status, smoke cigarettes during pregnancy, have medical conditions, carry multiple babies at once, or suffered previous pregnancy loss.

On its website, the March of Dimes lists ways to help parents who have lost a baby. Suggestions include being patient, listening when they want to share feelings, asking if it’s okay to use the baby’s name, asking what you can do to help, and attending the baby’s memorial service. 

“The loss of a child is one of the most devastating experiences anyone can go through,” said Chris Thomas, senior manager of communication for Providence Swedish in South Puget Sound. “It is an experience that can bring overwhelming grief, sadness, shock, anger, and disbelief. The loss of a child can lead to feelings of emptiness, guilt and confusion. Some parents can experience physical symptoms such as headaches, difficulty sleeping, and aches and pains.”

At Providence, the caregivers provide as much support as possible to ease the way of the parents and families affected by such losses, he said. 

“Our clinical caregivers work with our Spiritual Care and Care Management teams to provide wrap-around services,” Thomas said. 

Families meet with social workers and the spiritual care team, which can direct them to resources such as the TEARS Foundation (which helps pay for the funerals of children and offers bereavement care through grief support and peer companions); grief literature from Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support, Inc. (Grandparent’s Grief, A Father’s Grief, Children’s Grief); a letter with information for Parent Support of Puget Sound; and educational literature regarding stillbirth, miscarriage, and infant death. 

“The pain of losing a child can be intense and can affect all aspects of a person’s life including their relationships, work, and overall sense of wellbeing,” Thomas said.

Providence offers parents, when appropriate, an autopsy, cytogenetic studies (of chromosomes to see how genetics play a role in the development and progression of certain diseases), seeing the baby, photographs of the baby (provided at no cost by a community member as part of the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep nonprofit organization), and the opportunity to bathe and dress the baby (community members have donated beautiful clothing and blankets to wrap the baby in for burial or cremation).

Care teams also offer family members the options of preserving memories of the baby, including hand and foot prints, locks of hair, the ID band, a blessing of the baby, a gold ring/heart, and a hat and gown, Thomas said. They also offer to help with documents and records requested along with funeral arrangements.

“Each situation is unique, but I hope this helps describe some of the support our caregivers provide families during this tragic situation,” Thomas said.

The internet is filled with articles about how to cope with the tragedy of losing a baby through miscarriage or stillbirth, yet each person’s journey is different, just as each child is unique. It’s a path nobody wants to travel, but God can provide comfort and solace during the journey. So can friends and family — if they acknowledge the loss, and the pain, and provide support when needed.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at chaptersoflife1999@gmail.com.