One’s strength is tested and defined by unexplained tragedies. Thirty years ago Bettie Ann and Rob faced one of their greatest challenges as the joyous anticipation of new parenthood was swiftly replaced with mourning, insecurity and fear.
One of the inevitable consequences of life is death.
Bettie Ann: However, parents never expect to outlive their children. Our first child, Frances, was stillborn 30 years ago in March. We were at full term, 38 weeks gestation. I was in for a normal prenatal checkup on Monday, and then went into labor on Thursday afternoon. I was thrilled when I called Rob at work to let him know we’d soon be parents.
Rob: I walked out of work with the biggest grin on my face. After we got to the hospital, the regular rush and confusion characteristic of the delivery room became more focused and frantic….the fetal heartbeat was absent. More intensive imaging and monitoring equipment brought the same result. After a fairly typical labor, Frances was stillborn. Testing placed the time of death about 24 hours before Bettie Ann went into labor. And in spite of extensive record and tissue analysis, Frances remained in that 1 percent of fetal deaths for which no cause can be determined.
Bettie Ann: I remember our obstetrician looking across the bed at Rob and saying “she’ll be okay, but the baby won’t.” I was close to delivery and so focused on staying in control, breathing through the contractions, that I couldn’t ask what he meant. I couldn’t handle knowing.
Rob: Dealing with the loss of a child is tough, and for us magnified by the build-up of the anticipated arrival of our first child. The next year was grey – I was emotionally numb and just going through the movements.
Bettie Ann: Getting your life back on track after the death of a child is unbelievably difficult. We went from the high of our first child being born to despair in a few hours. I don’t even remember most of the first two months after Frances died. With tears streaming, we packed away the nursery. I couldn’t let anyone else to do it. I wouldn’t go out for fear of running into a pregnant woman or acquaintance who knew I was pregnant. When I did, answering questions such as what did you have, how old is the baby now, were incredibly painful. Just like ripping a bandage off a wound. People would ask and say the most insensitive things. However, there were two women who became part of my support system. Independently of each other, they would pick me up and take me out to lunch. One had had a daughter who died at birth and understood my feelings. The other was incredibly supportive, keeping me from hiding from people. We also participated in a support group through church.
Rob: For me, one of the strange sources of support was organized by the Brothers at St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Two other couples in the parish also lost babies in a three-month interval. It was strangely comforting to gather and talk about our loss, knowing that you were not ruining the other person’s day. Their day was already ruined. For all of us, the pain was constant, and never far from the surface. Even today, the pain never goes away; it is just joined by other emotions.
Bettie Ann: We all got pregnant again, within just a few weeks of one another. At first we were afraid to tell each other for fear of upsetting whoever was not pregnant. But we shifted to supporting each other during our pregnancies. We were terrified of what would happen. When our babies arrived safely, we were thrilled.
Rob: A group called “Parents Supporting Parents” (now Family Support Network of Eastern NC, www.fsnenc.org) formed later that year. Bettie Ann and I were trained to support parents who experienced neonatal loss.
Bettie Ann: Family Support Network works because someone else understands what you are going through.
Rob: One mechanism to deal with loss or struggles is to turn to others who face similar challenges. Support of other parents provides an effective, personal compliment to the health care system. Thirty years later, this group remains an important part of our lives.
By: Dr. and Mrs. Robert Carroll