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Richmond Remembers Pregnancy and Infant Loss with Karla Helbert

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October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

We conclude our series on pregnancy and infant loss with another interview with Karla Helbert, who shares how caregivers and medical professionals can best assist a family in mourning.

Karla Helbert, LPC, C-IAYT, is a professional counselor, yoga therapist, Compassionate Bereavement Care® provider, award-winning author of multiple books on grief, and a bereaved mother. Her life changed after her first-born son died in 2006. Her therapy practice has a focus on loss, grief and bereavement, working in particular with those affected by trauma and traumatic death. Karla is a volunteer with the MISS Foundation, an international non-profit organization dedicated to supporting families after the death of a child. She is a support-group facilitator, chapter leader, and member of the Foundation’s Bereaved Parent Advisory Board. Karla is also co-creator of the Foundation’s training program for yoga and mental health providers, combining current science and research on grief and trauma with the ancient teachings of yoga. She lives in Richmond with her husband and daughter. You can learn more about her workshop for birth attendants on perinatal loss here

How can a caregiver best support a mother and family who’ve suffered a pregnancy or infant loss?
For providers whose job in birthing is often paired with joy and fullness, to be fully present with devastation and loss can be very difficult. But, along with best professional practices, it's the  greatest gift a provider can give to mothers and families experiencing perinatal grief.  To be with them without trying to “fix” this unfixable situation; to listen to them without trying to make them feel “better,” to be present, to simply hold their pain and their experience without judgment. Say you are so very sorry this happened to them and to their baby. That this just must be so awful for them. Validate their experience.

Depending on the situation, whether early miscarriage, a later in-utero loss, a stillbirth, or infant death, the ways a provider can support a grieving family can be very different. Some things include fully explaining what has happened, what is happening, helping them understand all of their options through the entire process. Helping them understand what they might expect through the loss and afterward, preparing them for how the baby may look, supporting them in spending time with the baby, encouraging them in creating memories, helping them connect with the love they have for the baby, supporting them in choosing burial options. Doing all of this gently but honestly.

What specialized training is available for medical and birth staff to help grieving parents?
There is little specialized training, though some does exist. The MISS Foundation offers certification as a Compassionate Bereavement Care® (CBC®) provider through a 30-hour post-graduate program that teaches providers about the current research and science of traumatic grief and how families are impacted, as well as how they can support their clients and patients. We also offer the CBC-Y®, a Yoga based version of the training, which can be very helpful for all healthcare providers who are also yoga teachers, or who have an interest in yoga. I also teach periodic workshops and trainings specifically on perinatal loss and am currently working with toLabor, a Richmond based doula and birth education training center, on a curriculum for a full certification program in perinatal loss for doulas and birth educators and other providers. The nonprofit Resolve Through Sharing is another fairly well-known program that provides bereavement education for healthcare professionals in perinatal, neonatal, pediatric, as well as adult death. There are a few more independent trainings that focus on loss, some specific to individual fields, such as oncology or hospice, and these include some focus on perinatal and neonatal loss. The field is growing and I am encouraged that things are changing, we are talking about grief and grief support more widely and openly. One of the problems is that it can be difficult to know or learn about the programs that do exist unless a provider is specifically searching. I would love to see medical schools, hospitals and birth centers include these kinds of trainings on a regular basis as part of learning in general. Particularly for those in the fields of obstetrics and midwifery, for labor and delivery nurses and birth attendants; the question should never be whether you will have to support a mother through a loss, but when.

Is there one piece of advice you like to share with birth and pregnancy caregivers?
Be present. Be loving. Be compassionate. Be genuine. This is not a medical situation to this family, this is their baby. Their entire lives have just been altered. Your responses to mothers and families in grief and loss extend far beyond the moments that you spend with them.  Research shows us that for families experiencing traumatic grief, the way they are treated by their providers in the acute stages—when it happens and after it happens—impacts how they move forward. Don’t rush out of the room. Stay. See what they need. Be gentle with them. They remember what is said to them; they remember how they and their babies are treated and it makes difference. If they are treated with kindness, love and compassion, they will carry that with them into the rest of their lives. If they are treated callously and without care, they carry that as well. You have the power to bring compassion and tenderness to one of the most painful moments in a person’s life.

Please find good training to help you understand more fully how the trauma of perinatal loss, in all its forms, impacts mothers and families and how you can best help them. Also do your own inner work. Take care of yourself, find places to share your own experiences. It can be very uncomfortable to be with others in this kind of pain. Those who work with families faced with this kind of loss need support.

How does offering empathetic care in these moments of grief impact providers?
Even though it is painful, I believe that providers who are able to be fully present when they walk through these moments with families understand that they are part of a sacred moment. This can be an immense gift for you personally. You can also know that you are giving a gift to the families you are supporting. When love and compassion are present, when families are given the opportunity to feel what they are feeling, to connect with their baby and with each other, when they can do these things feeling held with compassion by professionals who understand the significance of the moment, their experience is made far more bearable. And this is no small thing, it can truly change how the entire family can move forward in their lives. Birth is sacred and significant and death is sacred and significant. Being a part of both of those things for a family, and for a provider, is powerful. And always, always take care of yourself afterward. Self-care and having your own centering practices helps sustain you so that you can continue to do the crucial work that you do.

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Learn more about her perinatal grief trainings for caregivers

Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU: We spoke with Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough to learn practical advice for a healthy pregnancy and safe newborn care.
Richmond MISS Foundation: Karla Helbert spoke with us about the grief of pregnancy and newborn loss.
Good Mourning Counseling: Anisa Glowczak shares more about the intimate aspects of this kind of grief.

The MISS Foundation: This international nonprofit provides counseling, advocacy, research, and education to families experiencing the death of a child.
Kennedy's Angel Gowns: This local nonprofit provides free hand-crafted final-rest garments to bereaved families who have suffered the loss of a child before, during, or shortly after birth.
Mourning Miscarriage: learn how an often-silent grief is growing a voice. Grief Groups - Loss of a Child: Connect with other families who can understand and share your journey on Facebook.