STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- From the moment the pregnancy test reads positive, a couple begins envisioning and planning for the physically little, but huge new presence that will enter their life in nine months. For some, however, the joy surrounding the miracle of life is cut short when the incomprehensible happens: The mother suffers a miscarriage, or complications arising after delivery result in the infant’s death.
Is one loss more difficult to bear than the other?
“We don’t make a big distinction about it — a loss is a loss,” said Diane Werneken, co-coordinator of Staten Island University Hospital’s perinatal bereavement support group.
Either way, dreams are crushed, hearts broken and anguish becomes imprinted on the soul.
Thanks to the perinatal bereavement support group, which launched nearly a year ago, these survivors don’t have to suffer alone. Both men and women grieving a miscarriage or death of a baby under the age of one come together in Ocean Breeze on the first Thursday of the month to share their stories and embark on a journey of healing.
“It’s usually taboo to speak of someone’s passing, but we embrace that passing. We celebrate this child who was lost,” group co-coordinator AnnMarie Catello said, insisting grieving individuals not only want to speak about their baby, but need to as part of the bereavement process.
The group provides an outlet where members can express their anger, guilt, sorrow, resentment and religious turmoil in a supportive, judgment-free environment with others who “get it.”
As Joanne Parker, whose son, Marcus, did not survive his three-months premature delivery, observed, “It’s nice to be around people who are in the same position as you.”
The Bay Terrace resident, who started attending meetings in the spring, said she tried therapy but found conversing with others who understand what she’s going through to be a more effective way of dealing with her grief.
At each meeting, Ms. Catello and Ms. Werneken outline the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Members then may share at which stage they are — but not as any sort of comparison of where they “should” be in their journey.
“Everyone suffers grief in a different way and there isn’t a timetable to it,” stressed Ms. Catello, a patient representative with SIUH.
The group, which includes a few fathers, also addresses common issues that can arise between grieving couples.
“Men grieve a different way than women do,” noted Ms. Werneken, a clinical nurse at the hospital. “A lot of times,” she continued, “they try to fix and comfort their wives or significant others.”
In turn, they may get frustrated when they can’t make the healing process happen fast enough for them, Ms. Werneken said, and that can create tensions in the relationship.
At one meeting, a father in the group noted men also might feel resentment and jealousy toward the mother.
“For nine months, she was able to carry the baby, felt the baby kick and move, and he never had that connection,” Ms. Catello said, repeating what this father previously had expressed.
WHAT (NOT) TO SAY
Another topic that often comes up at meetings is the insensitive responses from those reacting to the news of the loss. Responses such as: “You have other children. It’s OK.”
“That’s pretty much the worst thing you can say to someone,” Ms. Catello said.
It’s right up there with “Oh, you’ll get pregnant again,” said Marianne DiStefano, the hospital’s patient care unit manager of labor and delivery.
Still, Ms. Werneken noted, “It’s better to say something wrong than not say anything at all. [Otherwise] the mother thinks, ‘I just lost a child; can’t she say something to me?’”
“We felt like we had the plague,” a group member said of the silent treatment she and her family received after her baby was delivered stillborn last summer.
“People didn’t know how to approach us,” Lisa, the mother of two surviving children, continued, adding she eventually told people, “'It’s OK,’ just to make them feel better.”
But, she confessed, “I get tired worrying about how other people feel because of what happened to me.”
“Unless you’ve had a loss, you won’t understand what they’re going through,” Ms. DiStefano said.
For anyone who knows someone who has suffered such a tragedy, she recommends acknowledging the loss and asking if there is anything you can do.
And don’t be offended if a grieving parent distances him or herself, especially if you are pregnant yourself.
“It’s not that they don’t want to be your friend,” Ms. DiStefano explained, “It’s just that they are trying to work through their grief.”
By exploring her feelings in the group — which she says is like a family — Lisa says she’s been able to work through much of her sorrow. A year after her baby’s death, she feels a sense of empowerment, realizing she’s a lot stronger than she originally considered herself to be.
“I feel strong. I feel more powerful; it’s crazy,” Lisa said, concluding “I used to feel guilty about feeling good, but I don’t anymore.”
Elise McIntosh, editor of the Relationships section, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.