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Reclaiming Love and Life Through the Loss of an Infant

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 11:24 AM

It is an unimaginable loss. The unexpected death of a child fills parents with unbearable anguish and sorrow. Losing an infant is a particularly painful and complex trauma, representing the loss of a new life and an entire future.

NorthShore’s Perinatal Family Support Center (PFSC) offers a range of supportive services and care for patients and their families dealing with challenges related to pregnancy, birth, prematurity or perinatal loss.

Pain Beyond Words
Briana Quinn of Evanston was one of those patients who endured the devastation after her daughter Chelsea was stillborn. Like others before her, Quinn left the hospital empty and lost.

“It was horrible,” she recalled. “The night I got home, I just needed so badly to hold something. It was a consuming emptiness.”

Quinn, a nurse, and her husband Ryan wanted to do something to keep baby Chelsea’s name alive, give meaning to her life and help others experiencing the same loss and desperation.

Friends and family donated to a fund in Chelsea’s memory and her parents worked with PFSC Supervisor Janet Winslow to bring Comfort Cubs—therapeutic, weighted teddy bears—to NorthShore patients who experience a perinatal loss, the loss of a premature infant in the Infant Special Care Unit (ISCU) or place a baby for adoption.

“Holding a Comfort Cub triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters like oxytocin, and helps the body relax,” explained Winslow. Studies have shown that the Comfort Cub also decreases heaviness in the chest and aching in the arms, as well as other physical manifestations of a loss.

Paying it Forward
Jessica Shell, also of Evanston, was one of the first mothers at NorthShore to be given a Comfort Cub after her son Shiloh was stillborn at 37 weeks.

“What we dreamed for, anticipated and imagined was all completely invalidated,” said Shell. When Shiloh was born silent, it was us wailing for all the life that should have been there.”

Shell and her husband Geoff initially had mixed emotions about holding their son, but are grateful to Winslow for her gentle guidance and the nurses who attended his birth and helped them survive the trauma.

“When I held him, he was familiar to me. He was absolutely beautiful and perfect, and it was natural to me. I didn’t want to let go, as he was meant to be in my arms,” said Shell, who clung to the Comfort Cub on the way home from the hospital.

“I would have done anything in those moments to help make my wife’s grief more manageable. It was the worst day ever,” said Geoff Shell, who also found solace in the Comfort Cub.

“The nursery was empty, my womb was empty and my arms were empty,” added Shell. “In those moments of complete despair, I found a sense of comfort wrapping the bear in my arms and gently swaying in the nursery rocking chair.”

Both Quinn and Shell had high praise and enormous gratitude for the labor and delivery nurses who supported them. “The wonderful team of nurses came to my aid like angels, reminding me that there’s love and gentle compassion despite the sorrow,” noted Shell.

Helpful Support and Guidance
The PFSC team assists families in creating lasting memories of their children. “We encourage parents to hold, sing, read, bathe and dress their baby, as appropriate, while still in the hospital,” explained Winslow. Families are offered professional bereavement photography, provided at no cost. PFSC staff also can provide follow-up calls in the weeks after a loss, as well as referrals to trained counselors.

“We don’t ‘do’ death very well in our culture, especially when it’s the loss of a baby,” noted Winslow. “Well-meaning people struggle to find appropriate words intending to comfort or inspire hope, but sometimes their words can have the opposite effect. That’s why we try to provide some anticipatory guidance.”  

New Beginnings
After their losses, both Shell and Quinn had healthy pregnancies and parallel positive experiences with NorthShore’s Maternal Fetal Medicine (MFM) team. Quinn gave birth to a daughter Vivian, who joined older brothers Mark and Ben. Shell welcomed son Dylan who happily made three-year-old Kaydence a big sister. “The MFM team was tremendous in helping me through the entire pregnancy. Midwife Gina Russano was phenomenal, especially toward the end when I was feeling really scared,” said Quinn.

“Vivian is our beautiful, vibrant gift. We had two daughters, and one child does not replace another,” added Quinn, who always carries daughter Chelsea in her heart.

“There’s always part of me that wonders, if Shiloh was here, what his personality would be like and what he’d be doing,” said Shell. “But every single day, even if Dylan is up all night crying, I think how lucky we are. I’m so grateful to have my family.”