Kennedy: What to say when a baby dies

Infant deaths call for empathy

Lisa Cahill is a bereavement coordinator at Erlanger hospital.

In the anguished and disorienting moments after the death or stillbirth of an infant, Lisa Cahill's whispering voice often becomes the first breath of comfort for the child's grieving parents.

Cahill is an RN and a bereavement coordinator at Erlanger hospital, which means she is on call to help parents negotiate what, for many, will be the most excruciating hours of their lives.

Erlanger is a regional perinatal center and handles many high-risk pregnancies and baby deliveries. Patients come here from four states - North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee - with complicated medical emergencies. As a consequence, it is not unusual for the hospital to report multiple infant deaths a week, Cahill says.

Generations ago, parents of deceased newborns were encouraged to "move on," as if grief could be sidestepped through strength of will.

Now, we know better. How parents handle those fragile minutes after a baby's death can be key to their emotional and psychological recovery, Cahill said.

"When I first encounter parents, most are in shock or disbelief," she explained.

She helps fill the void by offering the grieving parents choices of how to process the loss. Some, for example, agree to an offer to bathe the child. Others opt to hold the swaddled infant, sometimes peeling back the blanket to view, and to spiritually bond with, the deceased baby.

"They are still mom and dad although the baby has died," Cahill said.

Cahill has special training for her job through a Wisconsin-based nonprofit called Resolve Through Sharing, which has served some 50,000 bereavement workers worldwide since 1981. Her training allows her to teach other nurses how to approach and comfort families during their time of loss.

photo Mark Kennedy

View other columns by Mark Kennedy

Still, there is a fair amount of improvisation that goes with the job, Cahill explained.

"If you have 100 people in a room, they are all going to go through this differently," she said.

One activity that seems almost universally helpful is assembling "memory boxes," little containers often covered in satin that parents take with them after they leave the hospital. Contents of the boxes often include a baby's ID bracelet, hospital blankets and infant toys used in the nursery.

"Eventually, the boxes become one of their most cherished mementos," she said.

Another touchy subject is photography. While some parents can't immediately appreciate a photo of a deceased infant, for many, it becomes important later.

Cahill, a mother of four, has special empathy for parents who lose unborn children or see them die soon after birth. She previously had two miscarriages, she said.

"When I had those it was devastating," she said. "There's nothing like that. I know what these families are going through. It's heartbreaking."

Every year, Cahill helps preside at a year-end candlelight ceremony to remember the children who have died. Sometimes she reconnects with parents who experienced losses years ago. This year's service was at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Basilica in Chattanooga.

She also helps lead a peer support group for families facing infant loss called "Moments to Share" which meets the fourth Thursday of each month at the Ronald McDonald House on Central Avenue near the Erlanger campus.

"I feel so blessed to be able to do this," Cahill said. "I definitely feel he [God] has given me the strength and the grace to do it."

Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected]

Next Thursday

Meet a Signal Mountain woman who sews "angel gowns" for deceased infants using fabric from donated wedding dresses.