The journey through infant loss
When Annie Matanin, 36, of Rockville went in for her 20-week anatomy scan in May of 2019, she expected it to be routine, as it had been for her first two children.
But the scan showed her son had aortic stenosis, a condition that prevents the blood from pumping through the body normally. After careful monitoring and seeing specialists, Annie learned the condition would claim the life of her baby.
In June 2019, she delivered her son, Gabriel Matthew, at 24 weeks. He was stillborn.
“Obviously, the physical part of going through labor was really tough,” says Annie, who labored for 15 hours. But the emotional toll was far more difficult for Annie, who says she was lifted by her care team at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center.
“It’s tremendously important for us to be cognizant of the fact that these moms have lost a baby,” says Judith Gurdian, MD, an obstetrician/gynecologist and chair of Shady Grove’s Medical Staff. “They’ve lost their view of the immediate future. They’ve lost dreams. We have to be aware and sensitive to that.”
COMPASSIONATE CARE BEYOND DELIVERY
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are about 24,000 stillborn births each year in the United States. Shady Grove Medical Center has a comprehensive fetal loss program that involves several departments across the hospital. In the Birth Center, parents receive a support box, a blanket and if possible, their baby’s footprint.
“All of that made me feel like his Gabriel’s life and memory mattered,” Annie says. “The nurses and staff didn’t have to do all of that, but they did it because they wanted to make his life special.”
In the Birth Center, team members encourage parents to hold their babies, to name them and to start the grieving process. This program, Dr. Gurdian says, and how Shady Grove staff interacts with these parents is crucial to their healing.
“How we handle these losses with the moms and dads who lose their babies will stay with them the rest of their lives.”
Another resource for parents experiencing loss is the spiritual care team at Shady Grove Medical Center. Chaplains are called in for every loss at the hospital, including the loss of infants.
“What we do during those times is facilitate grief, hold a holy space for the parents as they mourn, and then help them to process the loss and say goodbye to their child,” says Chaplain Stephanie Grant, Manager of Pastoral Care for Adventist HealthCare.
At the parents’ request, the spiritual care team can also facilitate baptisms or blessings for the child.
After the birth of their son, Annie and her husband, Brad, were given as much time as they needed with him.
“They went by my lead, and gave him to me when I was ready,” Annie says. “They were ready with all these resources specifically for women who were going through infant loss.”
When Annie and Brad were getting ready to be discharged, Annie says leaving the hospital empty-handed was the hardest part. As they were leaving, they were escorted to their car by a certified nursing assistant who had cared for them, Juliet Morris.
“She kept telling me how strong I was,” Annie says, “and when my husband pulled up with the car, she dropped to her knees and started praying for us and our son. She gave me the strength that I just didn’t have in that moment. She knew exactly what my husband and I both needed.”
FINDING EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
Because the emotional effects of infant or pregnancy loss typically far outlast the physical ones, taking care of your emotions is critical.
“We follow up with our patients after their discharge and provide a list of resources that can be helpful when they’re ready,” Dr. Gurdian says.
In addition to referring out to therapists, Shady Grove Medical Center also facilitates its own Infant Loss Support Group. Following her own discharge, Annie and her husband decided to attend.
The group was made up of about eight other mothers and couples who had all experienced pregnancy or infant loss.
“The neat thing about the group was that every person in it walked different paths. We came from different backgrounds, different cultures, but it didn’t matter. In that room, we all share the same grief, and we were all connected,” Annie says.
HOW TO HELP
After the loss of Gabriel, one of the hardest parts of losing her son was that others weren’t sure how to respond.
“People say things that hurt, like, ‘oh, everything happens for a reason,’ or, ‘well, you have other healthy kids.’ Or, they avoid the subject altogether.”
It’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently.
“If someone you love has experienced infant or pregnancy loss, let them take the lead on how they need to grieve,” Dr. Gurdian says. “If they want, put your arms around them and let them cry. Be receptive to where they are and allow them to talk if they’re ready.”
‘GIFTS COME FROM DEVASTATING TIMES’
In July of 2020, Annie gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Graham. When she and Brad arrived at the hospital to deliver, one of the first people who greeted them was Juliet.
“She remembered both of our names and checked in on us several times throughout our stay,” Annie says. “That love and compassion makes all the difference.”
Despite losing Gabriel last year and experiencing what she says was the darkest time of her life, Annie acknowledges that gifts come from devastating times.
“It’s made me stronger,” she says. “I can handle anything that comes my way, because I’ve been through the unimaginable.”
The loss of Gabriel has also taught Annie to slow down and be grateful for the little things.
“The life we’re given isn’t always a guarantee,” she says, “so we have to focus on the things that truly matter. That’s another gift that Gabriel has given me.”