Newswise — Corsages, brunches, and awkwardly folded cards with "I love you" written in crayon are images that come to mind when one thinks of Mother's Day. Though the holiday is a beautiful time of appreciation and celebration for some, for many other women it's a harsh reminder of what they lost, a child.
According to the Centers for Disease Control there are 28,000 deaths to children under age one in the U.S. each year. Though the numbers seem staggering the individual stories are even more impacting.
Lockport resident Karen Novak and her husband Pete received a late Christmas present on December 26, 2007, when they learned they were having twins. Their joy soon turned to fear after an ultrasound revealed the twins were sharing the same amniotic sac, a risky complication that required specialists. The Novaks were referred to the Loyola University Health System Maternal-Fetal Medicine Clinic where they were able to get the help and support they needed to face the complicated pregnancy.
"The doctors were wonderful and honest with us. Nothing was sugar-coated and we felt like they really wanted to help us," said Karen.
In late March 2008 Karen was rushed to the local hospital when her water bag broke.
"They wanted to send us to another hospital, but I insisted we go to Loyola. They knew my history and really cared about us. So, we left the hospital and drove ourselves to Loyola," said Karen. "Doctors, nurses, staff kept coming in to make sure I was OK and they answered all our questions. We felt supported and cared for during that difficult time."
On April 1, Karen delivered her twin girls at 23 weeks. Though neither survived the Novaks were able to hold their precious daughters and take pictures with them. During the difficult process of dealing with their loss the Novaks found solace from Loyola's pastoral care staff. They also learned about the health system's honoring unspoken grief (HUG) support group designed specifically for parents who've lost a child from conception to one-year-old.
"When someone loses a young child it can be overwhelming and confusing. This group offers a safe place where people can express their feelings, share experiences with others who are facing a similar situation and travel together through this healing process," said Ruth Jandeska, facilitator for the HUG Group and chaplain for the Loyola University Health System's Obstetrics and Neonatal Intensive Care units.
The group meets once a week for six weeks and tackles a variety of issues helping parents to work through their feelings such as fear and guilt, and to understand that a loss affects the whole person: body, mind and soul.
"Losing a child in many cases is an isolating experience and many people don't understand how difficult it can be. We want our parents to know that what they're going through is normal and affirm that it's OK to grieve this baby, that there was life and it was lost. The grief, the pain, the bitterness, the sorrow are all natural because you are attached to and love your child," said Jandeska.
For the Novaks that validation was exactly what they needed to hear.
"People who have never been through this don't understand and make well-meaning comments that can be hurtful like, 'You're young, you'll get pregnant again,'" said Karen. "Hearing other people's stories and knowing they understood what we were going through put validation to all the thoughts in my head. It helped me to put things into perspective and to heal."
In addition to providing a supportive setting the group offers tips on how to handle grief, what to expect while grieving, the warning signs of depression and answers to clinical questions. At the last session a candlelight ceremony is held where all parents say their lost child's name and light a candle.
"This is their story and what they have said throughout these weeks is sacred, and God is present in that. Each candle represents a life that came into our world and though it may have been short it had significance and meaning. It is a light that will shine on in their parents' hearts forever," said Jandeska.
Karen has taken that light from her girls' short lives to make a difference for other parents. She is part of a project called Diana's Angels that makes tiny clothes for premature and stillborn babies. The group also gave the Novaks the courage to fulfill their dream of being parents.
"When I found out I was pregnant I went to the girls' graves and asked them to protect the new baby. When we found out we were pregnant with boy and girl twins I said, 'This is my fault. I asked the girls for help and they each wanted a baby to take care of,'" said Karen.
The Novaks are due in August and again have chosen Loyola for prenatal care.
"Every day I'm terrified and thrilled. Though I live 40 miles from the hospital there was no where else I'd go. Everyone is so well trained and genuinely cares about us," said Karen. "This has taught me to never take anything for granted and I know one thing for sure, my kids are going to be spoiled."