Helping parents deal with an early loss

Katie Cervenec created this picture in the weeks after the death of her son Jonah, who was stillborn.
Katie Cervenec created this picture in the weeks after the death of her son Jonah, who was stillborn.

Her pregnancy "was awesome," said Katie Cervenec.

Because she had a history of endometriosis, she and her husband, Mike, had struggled for several years to get pregnant. But things seemed to be going well as she entered her seventh month with her son, Jonah.

Yet, in November 2006, "I just started feeling that things were weird."

"I just felt emotional and really, really sad," she said. "It was my body telling me something was really, really wrong."

At the hospital, the first sonogram technician couldn't find a heartbeat. The next tech couldn't find one either. A doctor came in and spent an eternally long 30 minutes silently searching the screen, Katie Cervenec said.

"Then she said 'I'm sorry.'"

"I didn't even know what happened," Katie Cervenec said. "I couldn't feel anything. It was just an awful, dark time. "

She found herself waiting to deliver a baby boy who would never take a breath.

When Jonah Michael Cervenec came into the world, he was perfectly formed and healthy looking, but the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck.

The most joyous time of the Cervenecs' life had suddenly turned, and the Lexington couple found themselves unsure of what to do; so did the people around them.

"People didn't know what to say," Katie Cervenec said.

Talking about the loss of a child through miscarriage or stillbirth is still a social taboo, said Beth Silence, chaplain at Central Baptist Hospital, which holds public memorials twice a year for those who've lost a child. The next one is scheduled for Dec. 7 and is for anyone who's lost a baby through miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth or newborn death regardless of when the loss occurred.

"People just don't want to think about the death of a child," she said

Debbie Mueller, the perinatal bereavement coordinator at the hospital, said such loss happens much more often than people think. Between 20 percent and 25 percent of pregnancies don't result in a live birth, she said. There are about 1 million miscarriages a year across the United States, according to the March of Dimes.

"There are some pretty staggering numbers when you look at it," she said.

The emotional toll is made all the more traumatic by the fact that parents have often spent months preparing for the baby's arrival.

Katie Cervenec had painted a mural in her son's room. His due date was circled on the calendar on the refrigerator. Shower gifts were still in boxes and bags.

Instead of deciding which outfit they should take the baby home in, she and her husband were being asked to decide in which cemetery he should be buried.

Hospital staff will encourage parents to spend time with their baby because "it is the only parenting time that there is," Silence said.

It can be helpful for people to attend a support group, Silence said. Central Baptist offers one. But, she said, people should also know, "there is no wrong way to grieve."

Katie Cervenec said she didn't know what to do immediately after her son's birth. She had so many emotions.

"I just wanted to explode. My body couldn't maintain what I felt," she said.

The couple made it through together. They went to counseling. They went to support groups. For a while, she said, "we couldn't do anything without crying."

"On his hard day, I was there. On my bad days, he was there," she said.

Deneza and Jason Napier know about bad days. In the past few years, the couple lost two children — Ian Samuel and Ethan.

Deneza Napier, who lives in Richmond, found comfort in reaching out to other couples who have suffered a loss, and in doing little things to honor the memory of her sons, like making charitable donations in their names.

When she lost her sons, she said, "the first thing I did was blame myself. Why wasn't my body able to do this? I'm a woman. It's what we are supposed to do."

Loss can also be hard on the father, Central Baptist's Mueller said. Often men feel the need to be strong to support their wife. Also, family and friends tend to focus on the mother and how she is handling the situation and think less about the father and his feelings, Mueller said.

Becky Turner of Lexington, who lost her son Barton Joseph in January 2004 to a rare disease, said it took time to come to terms with the death. She has since had another son, Brody.

But, she said, one of the things she found comfort in is the annual bereavement ceremony where the name of each child being honored is read aloud. She said there is something comforting in hearing someone else speak your child's name.