When a Baby Dies
Reader’s Digest, April 1984; anthologized in Death and Dying (Greenhaven Press, 1987).
Sandi Greeley (the names of the family and their doctor have been changed), 30 years old and eight months pregnant, lay wide awake and rigid with fear in the early-morning hours. She was in labor, but the contractions weren’t coming fast enough to warrant leaving for the hospital. So she waited in the Greeleys’ neat little brick-and-frame house in a St. Louis suburb. Waited not just for more frequent contractions but to feel her baby kick inside her. (For months they had called the baby Derek, certain he was a boy.)
Sandi had not felt Derek move since she’d had a minor car accident eight hours before. Though doctors who checked Sandi at the emergency room had heard the baby’s heartbeat, she couldn’t rid herself of worry. She kneaded her stomach, pleading, “Move, Derek! Do something.”
At last she woke her husband, Jim. “Something’s wrong,” she said. “Let’s get to the hospital.”
Sandi’s obstetrician, Dr. Fred Johnson, met them there. Moving the fetal stethoscope slowly over her stomach, he listened carefully. At last he turned it off and said, “Sandi, I’m sorry.” The baby was dead.
It was Friday, August 6, 1976, one month and two days before Sandi’s due date. Sandi and Jim had wanted this baby so much. They would never have one now, they agreed. They couldn’t go through this agony a third time. It had been so awful after the miscarriage two years ago. They had felt such pain, yet no one seemed to understand what that baby had meant to them. Even family members had said, “It’s only a miscarriage. You’ll have another baby.” But they had wanted that baby. Now, after eight months of planning for Derek’s arrival, he wouldn’t be there either. Jim and Sandi clung to each other on the narrow hospital bed and wept.
For Sandi’s health and the safety of future pregnancies, Dr. Johnson wanted her to go through labor. Since her contractions had stopped, the Greeleys went home to wait—and grieve.
Later that morning they began the difficult task of telling their family and friends. Janet Wittenauer, a neighbor, was hanging wash when Jim came into her yard. “The baby died,” he said, tears in his eyes. Janet came to see Sandi in the afternoon. “Some of the women in a group I belong to have lost babies, like you,” Janet said. “They formed an organization to help one another out. Would you like to talk to one of them?”
Sandi was surprised. She knew that Janet was an active member of Life Seekers, an organization of St. Louis women who raise funds to save the lives of critically ill newborns. But she had never heard of A.M.E.N.D. (Aiding Mothers Experiencing Neonatal Death). Surely another mother who had lost a baby would know what she was feeling.
The call came that evening. “This is Judie Constantino. I lost a baby too, and I’ve been trained to help other mothers cope with a miscarriage, a neonatal death, or a stillbirth like yours.”
Sandi made a date for Judie to come over Monday, but the visit had to be postponed when Sandi went into labor on Sunday night. Monday morning the baby was delivered. Neither of his parents ever saw Derek, but Sandi pictured him in her mind as a chubby blond, and her arms ached with loneliness.
Judie, the mother of two young boys, came to visit the following Monday. Sandi asked immediately about the death of Judie’s baby. Judie told her briefly and then said, “But each experience is unique, and although we feel many of the same feelings, each of us reacts differently and has different ways of coping. Tell me about your baby. How did he die?”
“They don’t know exactly,” Sandi said. She told Judie about the car accident. “I keep thinking about it, wondering if I killed him. I feel so guilty. If only I hadn’t driven....”
“I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,” Judie said. “The doctors heard his heartbeat after the accident. Maybe after they’ve examined the placenta they’ll have a better idea of what happened. Write down all your questions and have a long talk with Dr. Johnson.”
Judie doesn’t seem to have any answers, Sandi thought. Yet I’m beginning to feel a little better. She really hears what I say.
“Judie, when will it stop hurting? Will I ever stop crying?”
“In time,” Judie said. “But remember, you’ve lost a very important person in your life. He’s worth grieving for, the same way you would cry for your parents or for Jim. Don’t be afraid to talk to Jim about what you feel. That will help.”
Sandi cried with relief when Judie left. She had been told that her feelings—the anger, the depression, the fear she was going crazy—were all normal. The grief she and Jim were having would pass, and maybe they would try to have another baby after all, an idea that had seemed impossible two hours before.
Judie had said it would help to visit Derek’s grave. Bringing daisies, Sandi and Jim went to the cemetery in September. They cried and then wandered around reading the dates on other small headstones, feeling less alone.
When she and Jim returned from Dr. Johnson’s office after her six-week checkup, Sandi phoned Judie. “He didn’t know for sure about the accident, but he didn’t think it caused Derek’s death,” she said. “He thinks I can try to get pregnant again, but he wants us to wait until I’m stronger. Besides, I’m not ready. I still think about Derek all the time. I don’t have space in my heart for a new baby yet.”
The brightest spot in Sandi’s life soon became Life Seekers, A.M.E.N.D.’s parent organization. She volunteered to do secretarial work—the first step she’d taken into the world since Derek’s death. In the back of her mind was the idea that eventually she would be an A.M.E.N.D. counselor, but first she had to resolve her grief and successfully have another child.
Sandi’s sister Cheryl, eight years her junior, had been five months pregnant with her first child when Derek died. On December 18, Sandi’s mother phoned. “Cheryl had a boy,” she said.
It took Sandi three weeks to summon the courage to visit Cheryl and her son, Joshua. But when the baby got pneumonia, Sandi went at once to be with Cheryl. Sandi told Judie, “I don’t want it to happen to her. I don’t want her to lose that baby!” The sisters found a new rapport that endured after Joshua recovered.
With spring’s arrival, Sandi’s “down” days were fewer, but the emotions were still there, waiting to be triggered. In April Sandi went to watch Jim play softball. Among the other wives and children, there were three babies born over the winter. She felt the pain all over again and wandered slowly to another field to collect herself. Later she phoned Judie. “How long will this go on?” she asked.
“A year is perfectly normal,” Judie reminded her. “Even five years from now when you see children getting on the school bus to go to kindergarten, you may think about how Derek should be with them.”
By June the world looked remarkably different: Sandi was pregnant. And to everyone’s surprise and delight, the pregnancy was practically trouble-free. On February 15, 1978, six-pound, two-ounce Valerie Dawn Greeley came into the world.
Now a mother, Sandi signed up for A.M.E.N.D. training in the summer. During the six three-hour sessions run by professional psychotherapists Louise Felts and Jacquelyn Wheeler, she formed strong bonds with the other seven trainees. As they exchanged stories of their losses, reactions and ways of coping, each woman, so seemingly under control, revealed a part of herself that was not healed.
Sandi learned that the other mothers had seen and even held their babies who died. She ardently wished that she had been surer of herself when Derek was being delivered. She told the group, “If it happened tomorrow, I would make sure I saw my baby. I never got to say hello, and I never got to say good-by.”
In a discussion about grief, Sandi told the group how, when their baby died, her husband would answer the phone, and people would say, “How is Sandi?” Nobody ever asked how he was. “One night,” Sandi said, “he just had more than he could handle. He got off the phone and cried. ‘Everyone asks how you feel,’ he said. ‘But nobody ever asks me. Doesn’t anyone realize that I’m the father of this baby?’ ” Sandi’s story eventually became a standard part of A.M.E.N.D.’s instruction.
After Sandi’s training was completed, her group joined the other counselors, who meet each month to discuss their cases with Felts and Wheeler. When Sandi had been to two meetings Maureen Connelly, the group’s coordinator, phoned her. “I have a mother for you,” she said.
Scared to death, but ready to listen as intently and compassionately as Judie had listened to her, Sandi dialed the number. “My name is Sandi Greeley,” she said. “I’m your A.M.E.N.D. counselor, and I lost a baby too. Would you like to talk about the death of your baby?”
Sandi, who counseled 13 mothers over the next five years, is now the mother of three girls. Emily Kathleen, a chubby blonde, was born on February 27, 1980. And on December 30, 1982, Laurie Elizabeth joined the Greeley family.
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