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'Silent Birth' Helps Grieving Parents

Program at Durham Regional Hospital provides a chance to say hello and goodbye

MEMENTO BOXES: Davis Blount, whose family's experience with a stillborn baby boy helped inspire the Silent Birth program, drops off memento boxes whose donation he helped organize. Surrounding him from left are Dina Hayes, RN, nurse manager of the labor and delivery unit; Bonnie Smith, MSN, RN, coordinator of the Silent Birth program; and Takenya Feaster, RN, and Kelli Smith, RN, both labor and delivery nurses. (photos by Tom Wooters/courtesy Durham Regional Hospital)

Durham Regional Hospital, Durham, NC, offers moms who deliver stillborn babies and their families the Silent Birth program, which allows parents to honor and remember the life of their child.

"The program was named Silent Birth because the mother is having a baby that isn't going to cry," said Bonnie Smith, MSN, RN, coordinator of the program. "In some instances, the mother knows before arriving at the hospital by finding out at her doctor's office, but, sometimes they do not find out their baby isn't alive until during labor or after due to intrauterine fetal demise, anencephaly or cardiac anomalies. The mother still has to vaginally deliver the baby even if it is no longer alive inside them, which can take hours or even days."

Program's Origins

The program began at Durham Regional in 1991, a year after Smith helped deliver Janet Blount's stillborn baby boy. "I explained to her that we had no set program for when this happened," Smith said. "A year later Janet had become part of the team that helped get the program started."

Blount met with labor and delivery nurses and told them about her experience. She gave input on materials to give the families. She suggested a wooden memento box with the baby's clothes, a picture of the baby, a lock of hair, measurements, a "Certificate of Life" and resource materials on grieving.

"Parents are distraught when this happens to them," Smith said. "Our nurses ensure that they are treated with respect and do the best we can to offer support and provide mementos to remember their child by. Many times this involves more than just the mom and dad; sometimes there are siblings and grandparents we need to console as well. We also have grief information specifically tailored for them and are available for their needs as well."

INSIDE MESSAGE: The card Davis Blount put inside each box so families know the box was made with love from a family that understands their situation

Finding Closure

After the baby is delivered, he or she is cleaned, dressed and brought back to the parents so they can say good-bye.

"Some parents are scared to see a deceased baby, but it is a good way for them to hold their baby and say hello and goodbye," Smith said. "Our nurses always offer to stay with the family during this if they want support." Durham Regional's pastoral care department also is involved in the program. They contact the family's pastor and also visit the family and offer prayer and comfort.

Memento Box

The items parents receive have evolved over time to include a memento box that is filled with helpful information on managing grief and memories of their baby. It includes a book called <i>When Hello Means Goodbye,</i> packets of information on mourning, all of the clothes the baby wore, all of the blankets he or she was wrapped in, the baby's measurements, a lock of hair, photos courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (a company that enlists professional photographers to donate their time to come to the hospital and take pictures of the baby) and a certificate of life, signed by both the nurse and the physician and stamped with the baby's footprints.

"Some parents do not think they want the box with the keepsake items, they say they just want to move on with their life," Smith said. "Many of those same parents come back and say they are thankful for the mementos and that they helped them remember their child."

Close to Home

The Silent Birth program relies on donations for clothing, blankets and other materials. The most recent donation came from the Blount family. Blount's son, Davis, made 100 wooden memento boxes for the Silent Birth program at Durham Regional, as part of an Eagle Scout project.

"I thought I could do something to help the families at Durham Regional that have stillborns," Davis Blount said. "I know how much this issue has impacted my family, so I wanted to do something to help."

He asked for volunteers to assist with building the memento boxes and 120 people showed up ready to sand, paint and spackle.

"It was of bigger interest than I expected," Davis said. "Some wanted to help in honor of someone they lost. My goal was 100 and they were finished that day."

"This is a great project for Davis," Smith said. "It is tough since the subject is so close to home, but will be well worth it. And the hospital greatly appreciates his initiative and desire to help these families. These memento boxes will last us a long time."

"Many people don't think of death and dying as part of labor and delivery," Smith said. "Even though we don't like to think of babies dying it does happen occasionally. We are here to serve the patient no matter if they are having a live birth or stillbirth."

Articles Archives

I delivered my son, Ryan, at Durham Regional Hospital on January 15th. He was stillborn due to a nuchal cord accident. I spent 4 days in the care of the wonderful nurses, doctors, and support staff on the Labor and Delivery Unit. My husband and I learned of Ryan's death during a scheduled ultrasound at our OB's office.

After 4 long days of inducing labor, I delivered Ryan...he was a perfect little boy and his death was caused by an unavoidable cord accident. I was devastated as was my husband and family. We spent several hours holding Ryan and gazing at our beautiful son's face. These were the only moments we would ever have with him.

To respond to the comment posted above, YES, holding my son did help me. It did not prolong my grief nor did it leave an image of death in my memory. Instead, it gave me the sweetest memories of my son as I had hoped and imagined we would have if he had been born alive. Holding Ryan felt natural and wonderful. My arms ached for him for the 8 moths I carried him in my body and it was amazing to finally hold him. My fabulous nurses were kind and patient with me, allowing me as much time as I needed with my son. There is MUCH scientific evidence to support this. I am a Legal Nurse Consultant and medical research is part of my job. I have numerous sources that absolutely support what the Silent Birth Program promotes. The gentle guidance that I received at Durham Regional has inspired me to start an organization in my son's honor. The organization is called Ryan's Footprints. I encourage you to look us up.

I started Ryan's Footprints after receiving a gift bag from a grieving mother as a random act of kindness on the 2nd anniversary of her son's birth and subsequent death. Her beautiful gift touched me and moved me beyond words. I decided to "pay it forward." I also received a memory box from the Eagle Scouts. It is so beautiful. It contains my son's footprints, pictures, measuring tape, his baby hat and outfit, and a lock of his gorgeous black hair. At the time of my son's death, I thought I would never look in that box, but would keep it in his nursery to honor him. Instead, I found myself opening that box and looking at the mementos of my son quite frequently. It has helped me to heal and also to remember him. I love that box!

We utilized the services of the Silent Birth Program and the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographers. Originally, I didn't think I wanted to take pictures, but I am SO glad that I did! I adore the pictures of Ryan. They are one of the most precious gifts I've ever received. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to receive this service.

I am forever grateful to my nurses, doctors, and the Silent Birth Program for the care I received at DRH. As a nurse, I know the value in receiving good care and I had the BEST care! I plan to donate to DRH in hopes of helping other mothers and families who have experienced loss due to stillbirth. Thank goodness for programs like this one!

PS- If Amy and Jason (parents to Liam) ever read this...please find me. I would love to thank you personally for the gift you gave me. I wear my beaded bracelet everyday!

Cheryl Patel,  RNMarch 16, 2011
Cary, NC

I am the friend of a young woman who delivered a still born baby and after the baby was cleaned and dressed, the family spent several hours holding the baby and saying good bye. I come from a different culture, I am also a graduate student of clinical psychology. I was not familiar with such rituals and I'd appreciate any scientific studies reflecting the long term benefits of the ritual of giving the dead baby back to the family to say their goody byes for extended periods of time. Do the studies show long benefits to the parents and the other sibilings? What type of grief counseling is recommended after the burial of the baby? I would imagine that the image of your dead baby is one to stay with a mother forever and the prolonged saying good bye re enforces the process. Is it scientifically shown this ritual helps the grief process, rather than complicating it? Any research articles and statistic concerning the silent birth rituals are appreciated. Thank you.

Rodica MihalisAugust 18, 2009
Glenside, PA


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