When I first learned about the practice of bringing stillborn babies home, I was struck by how different it was from my own experience when our son, Toren Edward, was stillborn at 38 weeks due to an umbilical cord accident. Nine months after he was born still, we were in Arizona attending the MISS Foundation conference for bereaved parents and health professionals. I attended a session called “Taking Them Home”, about how in New Zealand, families know they have the option of bringing their stillborn babies home prior to a funeral or memorial service. I was aware that in the past, wakes and visitations used to happen in the home, but in modern times, so many people die in hospital that families are much more removed from caring for their loved ones after they die. During the presentation, we watched a video of parents talking about what it was like to bring their stillborn babies home, how peaceful it was and how grateful they were for the time they got to spend with their babies. It doesn’t mean everyone does it, but people know it’s an option. It is not viewed as bizarre, morbid or unhealthy in any way.
Our family’s story was very different from families in New Zealand. On the morning of January 6, 2012, I had gone into labour, and when we got to the hospital, we found out our baby had died. I said to Peter, “We have to look at him, we have to hold him. Everyone always says you regret it if you don’t.” And yet when he was born, my brain shut down and I went into extreme shock. I didn’t know if I was supposed to think of him as my baby. I was very confused and didn’t know if I could be his mother. I didn’t look at him, I didn’t hold him, and we very definitely did not take him home. Peter witnessed his birth but did not hold him. No one got to meet him. We have two photos taken by a nurse. No pictures of his mama or daddy holding him or of his big sister with him. No family portrait. It took us two months to name him and three months to pick up his ashes from the funeral home. After five months, I was sobbing on my bathroom floor in a complete panic because I didn’t know where my son was, what he looked like or what he felt like, and it was too late. His body was in ashes. It’s hard to describe the feelings of intense regret, guilt and shame that go along with all of this.
What struck me most about the New Zealand presentation was the peaceful, almost joyful way parents spoke about their experience of bringing their baby home. Are they grieving? Very much so. Do they wish their babies hadn’t died? Absolutely. Those things will never change. And yet having their babies at home seems like a much more peaceful, gentle way to integrate their babies’ story with the story of the family. It’s so important for parents of stillborn babies to be able to create memories and to actively parent their children. It is part of the grieving process and the first steps on the long, difficult path to healing. When those activities are denied to parents, it adds to the burden of grief.
Not everyone will choose to bring their babies home. But parents need to be given every opportunity to minimize regrets when their babies die.
About the author: Andrea Regimbal has a beautiful daughter at home and a beloved baby boy in her heart, her thoughts and her actions. Her son, Toren Edward, was stillborn due to an umbilical cord accident in January 2012. She grieves him through remembering and through helping others. Andrea is the Secretary and one of the founding members of Still Life Canada.