As we continue to observe Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, I would like to discuss a difficult topic that may come up for childbirth educators. Last week, Robin Elise Weiss shared ways to commemorate the loss of a baby. Today, I would like to talk about when a class member experiences a perinatal loss while taking your class, or after the class is over. If you work long enough as an educator, eventually this will be an issue that you are going to need to face.
Sometimes, you may be contacted by the family, with a somber email or phone call, letting you know that they won’t be returning to class. Other times, a family just stops coming, with no explanation, midway through a series. You are not sure why. Was it your teaching style? Did they have their baby early? Has something happened? You will also have to consider that this family may have experienced a late term loss.
When a family does not return to class, I always suggest that the childbirth educator reach out to the family via phone or email to politely inquire and determine that all is okay. Possibly the mother has been placed on bedrest and will need some accommodations or arrangements in order to complete her childbirth education. Often, you will find out that something has come up and the date and time no longer work, and you breathe a sigh of relief at this information. You may find out that their baby arrived prematurely, and you have an opportunity to connect them with resources that they may find useful while dealing with a baby in the NICU and adjusting to the new reality of having a baby weeks or months before they thought they would. It is likely that their baby may require additional resources and have some immediate needs they had not thought about. And sometimes, unfortunately, you learn that they have lost their baby either in utero or after birth.
If you are a successful childbirth educator, you work hard to build community in your childbirth classes, helping families to connect with each other through engaging activities and interactive learning. The families start to see each other as resources and comrades in the transition to parenthood. Connections are made, friendships are developed and a feeling of community is established. You are faced with the task of sharing with the class that a family will not be returning. They are missed and class members usually will be inquiring as to their absence.
When you learn of such a loss, I believe you have several responsibilities as a childbirth educator. First, determine if the family is open to receiving resources that can help them as they deal with the loss of a baby. These resources may included peer to peer and facilitated support groups in their community, counselors and therapists specializing in perinatal grief and loss, lactation consultants who can help with the transition of not needing to breastfeed, online resources to help them and more.
If there is a public funeral or memorial service, I make every attempt to attend if possible, in order to show my respect. Sometimes this is not possible or the family has decided to keep the event private. Regardless, I always try and promptly send a sympathy card to the family, expressing my sadness at the loss of their son or daughter.
I also politely inquire if they would like me to share the news with the rest of the class. This information needs to be handled very sensitively. The family may not want the news shared, and their privacy and wishes are my first priority. But no doubt, someone in the class will soon ask where the missing family has gone. In my experiences, the family usually has given me permission to share the information with the rest of the class. This can be a huge challenge – finding a balance of informing the class and not creating fear and worry for them.
In my experience, the best way to share the information is toward the end of class, with just a few minutes to go. I respect the family’s wishes and only share the information I have been asked to share. I tell the truth, but I don’t feel the need to go into great detail. I answer any questions from the class as best I can and stick to the facts, while respecting the family’s wishes. If allowed, I provide information about a service or how to contact the family. I acknowledge that this event is hard to hear, and may bring up concerns and fears for the class members. Sometimes families get very upset or cry as they hear the news. I provide some resources where they can get more information and support, and also suggest they speak to their health care provider about their fears. I make myself immediately available after class and in the future to listen to their concerns if they feel the need to connect.
Sometimes a family loses a baby after the class has ended, but before a reunion (if you do class reunions, which are very common here in my area.) If I am made aware of the loss by the family, I follow the steps above, but ask how they would like me to handle sharing with the class. I provide this information to those in attendance at the reunion, sharing only information as allowed by the family.
If you have class email lists, or Facebook groups for your childbirth classes, be sure to find out what the parents’ wishes are regarding remaining on the list or in the group. Some families will want to be removed and others will want to stay connected. When in doubt, I would discreetly remove them from further communication about class activities, baby announcements or planned gatherings.
Losing a baby during pregnancy or after birth is one of the most difficult things a family can experience. Our society does not do a great job in honoring this type of loss. The role of the childbirth educator becomes very important when one of your class members has lost a baby. How you handle this loss, with both the family and with other class members is critical and can impact the experience of all. As childbirth educators, we are in a unique position to help both the family and our other students when given permission by the grieving family.
Have you had this experience as a childbirth educator? How have you handled this situation? Do you have any tips for other educators in case they have a similar experience? What did you find worked? What did you do? Please share your thoughts and suggestions along with any resources in our comments section.