When a Baby
April 1984; anthologized in Death and Dying (Greenhaven Press,
Feature, 1800 words
As a baby grows in his mothers
womb, the parents love him and invest in him their dreams for the
future. When he is born, this love flowers. But when a baby dies—and
each year some 600,000 American babies are lost to miscarriage, stillbirth
or neonatal death—many otherwise well-meaning people simply assume
that he will be forgotten as if he never existed. “Its
all for the best,” they say. “You can have another baby.”
But its not
all for the best. Such parents suffer just as any of us would suffer
at the death of a loved one.
This is the story of one
couple whose child died and how, with the help of others who had gone
through the same experience, they learned to cope with the tragedy.
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 werent 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 shed
had a minor car accident eight hours before. Though doctors who checked
Sandi at the emergency room had heard the babys heartbeat, she
couldnt rid herself of worry. She kneaded her stomach, pleading,
“Move, Derek! Do something.”
At last she woke her husband, Jim. “Somethings
wrong,” she said. “Lets get to the hospital.”
Sandis 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,
Im sorry.” The baby was dead.
It was Friday, August 6, 1976, one month and two
days before Sandis due date. Sandi and Jim had wanted this baby
so much. They would never have one now, they agreed. They couldnt
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, “Its only a miscarriage. Youll have another
baby.” But they had wanted that baby. Now, after eight months
of planning for Dereks arrival, he wouldnt be there either.
Jim and Sandi clung to each other on the narrow hospital bed and wept.
For Sandis 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 Ive 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 Judies
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 dont 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 hadnt driven....”
“Im sure it wasnt your fault,” Judie
said. “The doctors heard his heartbeat after the accident. Maybe after
theyve examined the placenta theyll have a better idea
of what happened. Write down all your questions and have a long talk
with Dr. Johnson.”
Judie doesnt seem to have any answers, Sandi thought. Yet Im beginning to feel a little better.
She really hears what I say.
“Judie, when will it stop hurting? Will I ever
“In time,” Judie said. “But remember, youve
lost a very important person in your life. Hes worth grieving
for, the same way you would cry for your parents or for Jim. Dont
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 Dereks
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. Johnsons
office after her six-week checkup, Sandi phoned Judie. “He didnt
know for sure about the accident, but he didnt think it caused
Dereks death,” she said. “He thinks I can try to get pregnant
again, but he wants us to wait until Im stronger. Besides, Im
not ready. I still think about Derek all the time. I dont have
space in my heart for a new baby yet.”
The brightest spot in Sandis life soon became
Life Seekers, A.M.E.N.D.s parent organization. She volunteered
to do secretarial work—the first step shed taken into the world
since Dereks 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.
Sandis sister Cheryl, eight years her junior,
had been five months pregnant with her first child when Derek died.
On December 18, Sandis mother phoned. “Cheryl had a boy,” she
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 dont
want it to happen to her. I dont want her to lose that baby!”
The sisters found a new rapport that endured after Joshua recovered.
With springs arrival, Sandis “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
By June the world looked remarkably different:
Sandi was pregnant. And to everyones 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. Doesnt anyone realize that Im the
father of this baby?’ ” Sandis story eventually became a standard
part of A.M.E.N.D.s instruction.
After Sandis 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 groups 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. “Im 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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