GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR, N.L. – People often think the obstetrics wing is the happiest place in the hospital, and for the majority of patients and their families, it is.
But ask Debbie Foss-Wells, an RN and clinical care facilitator, and she will tell you that when obstetrics is good, it’s really good. And when it’s bad, it’s really bad.
“Everyone gets pregnant and they think they’re going to have the perfect baby, have the perfect outcome,” she said. “And that’s what we want too, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s hard for everyone.”
Foss-Wells has been on the perinatal bereavement committee with Central Health since the 1990s. She knows motherhood is not predicated on a living child.
“Mothers who have lost babies will always be mothers,” she said, adding that family and friends often try to avoid talking about a baby lost before or shortly after birth. “That baby will always be a part of her and the father.”
The committee, made up of staff and community members, help support women and their families as soon as they learn they have lost their baby. They can help with everything from immediate and ongoing postpartum care to making funeral arrangements. Foss-Wells said that for many parents, who are typically quite young, a perinatal loss is the first big loss they experience and they have no idea what to do.
“Most times I find they just want someone there with them,” she said. “They don’t know what happens next, they don’t even know what questions to ask.”
According to data from Statistics Canada, there were 26 perinatal deaths in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2015, the most recent year for which there is information. The term encompasses a child who dies after at least 28 weeks of gestation up to six days after birth. Earlier losses are far more difficult to measure, but the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada estimates between 15 and 20 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.
Support is built around what the family needs and wants. They can keep the baby in the room with them, Foss-Wells said, for as long as they need. Mementos like footprints can be made and pictures taken. The items are places in a flannel bag adorned with lambs – the symbol of the perinatal loss group. If the mother and family don’t want the bag right away, a social worker will keep the items for up to a year, in case they change their minds.
Into the bag also go tiny clothes, made by community members, staff, and church groups specifically for these babies. The sweaters and caps are made in all different sizes, as are the dresses, made from donated wedding gowns.
The clothes may be small, but for the mothers who receive them, they are an acknowledgement from the wider community that their baby is a baby, and not only a loss.
Mothers often come back to the obstetrics ward for subsequent pregnancies, something Foss-Wells said takes an enormous amount of strength. Indeed, some have children to return to after their loss, and explaining what happened can be a whole other traumatic event. Whether or not they have been on the ward before or are ever there again, however, doesn’t change who they are.
“It never leaves you,” Foss-Wells said. “These moms are always moms.”