How do you cope when you lose a baby?
It's a question all too many families wrestle with every year. Families where children are lost to ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage or stillbirth. Families who receive a fatal diagnosis for their newborn, or who are hit out of nowhere by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
To ask the question is to know there are no easy answers. In a small but growing number of places, however, these families don't have to get through it alone.
Rockford, Ill., is one of those places.
That's the home of The Haven Network, commonly known locally simply as The Haven. It's a Christian ministry devoted not only to helping families cope after their loss, but to make precious memories during the few hours they may have with their little ones.
Among other things, that means time together as a family, including siblings if parents think that's appropriate. It means parenting as much as possible—Mom and Dad holding and cuddling baby with skin-to-skin contact, bathing and dressing baby in tiny, handmade clothes. It means creating visible, tangible ways to preserve baby's memory, from handprints and footprints to beautiful, sensitively done photography of children as young as 16 weeks, whether alive or departed to the arms of their Lord—capturing moments that, even through the sorrow, can bring comfort down the road.
And it means being there for the family afterward, as often and for as long as needed and wanted—helping with funeral or memorial arrangements, providing support groups, resources and spiritual counseling, even lending aid through future pregnancies.
In short, Haven is providing much-needed—and all too scarce—help to deal with a crushing loss.
"We're in a world where people don't know how to talk or listen to someone who's lost a child, or don't feel they should," says Haven Director of Family Services Stephanie Grimm, who's also a bereavement doula.
"We're there for the families, providing services they wouldn't have had and validating their loss," she says. "We know you didn't lose your clump of cells. You lost your baby."
That's why many pro-lifers consider efforts like Haven's a vital addition to their movement.
Tender Loving Care
Haven is part of a relatively new approach called perinatal hospice and palliative care, which comes into play when parents—faced with the prognosis that their baby will perish before or soon after birth—choose a path other than abortion.
"Perinatal palliative care helps parents embrace whatever life their baby might be able to have, before and after birth," explains the website perinatalhospice.org. Starting at the time of diagnosis—the site calls this "hospice in the womb"—it extends through the child's life and beyond, allowing families "to make meaningful plans for the baby's life, birth, and death, honoring the baby as well as the baby's family."
"Perinatal hospice is not a place," the site says. "It is a model of care, an extra layer of support that can easily be incorporated into standard pregnancy and birth care." It's a team effort, with cooperation between a host of professionals—typically including doctors, nurses, clergy and others who may pitch in at times, such as social workers and midwives. Most programs are based in hospitals, with a smaller but significant portion operating out of pregnancy care centers.
From a handful of such programs in the 1990s, the number now has multiplied many times over. Perinatalhospice.org lists more than 200 known programs in the U.S., which rises to more than 300 worldwide.
To Grimm, that's welcome progress. But considering the number of hospitals nationwide. (5,500-plus, according to the American Hospital Association) and the number of families who need these services, there's still a long way to go.
"The need is huge," she says. "There still aren't many organizations like this—not nearly as many as there need to be."
The Haven is a rarity. It's a freestanding ministry, not affiliated with any hospital or pregnancy resource center. Grimm is one of just two staffers, along with Director of Photography Kathy Pittman. Notwithstanding separate titles and specialties, the two of them basically split the work.
But behind those staffers are many, many volunteers—hundreds of them, from board members to photographers to clergy to donors to craftspeople.
"Every time we speak to a church about what we do, they ask what they can do to help," Pittman says. "The ladies always want to crochet and knit for us. We probably have 50 to 100 knitters, crocheters and craftspeople with a lot of different talents."
Behind all that craftsmanship is plenty of tender loving care.
"All the clothes meet our standards," Pittman says. "There are no doll clothes. There's no Velcro: When you're with your baby, you don't want to hear it crack or feel its rugged texture on that delicate skin. Everything must be pressed and perfect for the baby, down to the last detail."
The same is true for the half-dozen volunteer photographers who work with Pittman. Dealing with families at this time, with infants this small and often underdeveloped, takes special skill, sensitivity and dedication.
"Whenever you get the call to the hospital, you've got to go within two hours—sometimes less," Pittman says. "Our photographers can be called as late as 9 p.m., and they can be there deep into the night by the time they're done. I can't say enough about how great they are."
'Thank God She's Here Today'
Neither can Kelly Jarvis, a bedside nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mercyhealth Hospital in Rockford. She's seen Haven's people at work for years now, and she's got nothing but good things to say about them.
"They're awesome," Jarvis says. "They're so helpful. As a bedside nurse, you're usually busy doing your clinical stuff and helping with the family. But they're also playing their role, which is so important at the end of life."
Part of that role entails knowing how to do their work unobtrusively, respecting the needs of the family and of medical personnel.
"You know they're there, but they're silent and not in the way," Jarvis says. "You kind of feed off each other. You have an unspoken relationship. I see a woman from Haven show up and I think, 'Thank God she's here today.' "
Jarvis makes sure her patients know about Haven when their situation calls for it. She knows how much they can help, both as a nurse and a grandparent: Two years ago, she lost her granddaughter as an infant, and Haven was there.
"I'm never pushy," she says. "But I say, 'Let's have them show up, and if it's too much for you, they can step out. But we'll have the photos on file: At least they're there. And someday you'll be glad you have them.'
"Once we explain The Haven, most families want it. They want these memories. Some of them say afterward, 'Thank God you told us to do that.' We hear from them after a while: They'll call and thank us."
Jarvis isn't unique in her profession. Haven is welcome in all three of Rockford's major hospitals, and nurses are some of its biggest boosters.
That's been the case since soon after the ministry was formed in 2004, says Cofounder and President Emeritus Jean Heise.
"We had a rough start," she tells Citizen. "It was a challenge to convince doctors that this would work and it was important. As outsiders and not medical people, how do you tell experts at delivering babies that you have a new approach for them to consider?"
In time, Haven found allies and advocates. Some were in strategic positions, but many were the people who spend most of their shifts with patients.
"God just kept opening doors," Heise says. "The nurses were key. We targeted them as well as doctors with our message and it really worked. The way to reach the families is through the nurses."
Although Haven is an avowedly Christian ministry, it's welcome in secular hospitals as well as faith-based ones in the Rockford area. While they'll pray with anyone who wants—and may offer a cross if they think families might want one—they pressure no one.
"There's something that's always been on my heart: Always, always, always, Jesus goes ahead of us," Heise says. "We are there because of Him. We don't preach, but people can identify us as different because we are a Christian ministry."
These days, Heise stresses, her role at Haven is "just a volunteer." But the current staff have the same priorities.
"We're not there to convert the people we serve," Grimm says. "We're there to care for them and show them God's love."
'We Get to See Him Again'
It was Holy Week when Sarah Jakymiw (pronounced jack-a-mew) found out she'd lost her son, Silas, to a miscarriage at 16 weeks.
"I found out March 27 that our baby was born in Heaven," she says. "And a few days later—Good Friday—I had an appointment to be induced so I could bring his body earthside."
Jakymiw and her husband knew about and supported The Haven. And they knew they wanted The Haven's support.
After a day and a half, she delivered Silas in the middle of the night. At 8 a.m., Haven's people were there.
"They took such care with him," she says. "They swaddled him in a little crocheted diaper and gave him a bracelet volunteers had made. Our son was so tiny—the size of my hand. And so were his clothes. You wouldn't believe how small everything was. The care they put into their work was just awesome to me."
They cared for the family too. Jakymiw and her husband held Silas, saying goodbye. Their two daughters, ages 8 and 5, got stuffed animals ("Silas bears," they're called in the house) to remember him: They still like to look at his photos and footprints.
"That's one thing I love about The Haven: They know it's not just a loss for Mom," Jakymiw says. "My husband was a grieving father. My daughters lost their brother.
"But we are Jesus people. We know Silas is fine: He gets to be with his God and he never had to know any pain in this world. And we know that we get to see him again."
Samantha Strohfus hadn't known about Haven before she lost her daughter seven months into her pregnancy. After a C-section, Alexa Rose Strohfus survived six hours outside the womb.
But Strohfus is thankful the nurses told her and her husband about Haven.
"They were such an amazing source of support," she says. "To this day, we—including our other children—still look back on those pictures. If they hadn't walked into our room, we wouldn't have any of those, or the other little things that remind us of her."
She's so thankful, in fact, that she's now Haven's donation coordinator—doing inventory, keeping records and organizing donated supplies. Not to mention talking up Haven every chance she gets.
"I'm always on Facebook, sharing their work," Strohfus says. "I have quite a few good friends who've turned to The Haven, and it's helped them tremendously."
Like Samantha, Jimmy Smith has both been served by Haven and taken a position there. In fact, he's on the board of directors.
Smith and his wife lost their daughter, Lindsey—their first child—in 2011 with no warning. They've since had four more, ages 6 to two months. And he credits Haven's ministry with giving them the courage to try again.
"You can't process it all at once on the spot, and it's all you can do to make it through the weeks and months after that," he says. "But The Haven helps you not have to do it all at once—with the photos, the footprints, the mementos, the counseling, everything. I wish more hospitals would have something like that."
To anyone who wonders if The Haven brings closure, Smith says that's the wrong way to look at it.
"It's not closure; it's a way to remember Lindsey," he says. "You never move on. You move forward."
That's just the message Heise wants to deliver.
"We don't do closure," she says. "That means you close something off. We enrich memories and family history. You never want to close those off.
"What we do is life-affirming. We're not only affirming the life of the baby, but also the family's life. We want them to look back and be proud of how they handled this baby they dearly loved. It can be a beautiful story, and they're all part of it."
For More Information:
To learn more about The Haven Network, visit thehavennetwork.org. For information on perinatal hospice programs around the country, visit perinatalhospice.org. For information from Focus on the Family about losing a baby, click here.