Support is here for Alaskans who have experienced the loss of an infant or pregnancy

Candles lit on a table with cookies and flowers.
Misty Fitzpatrick created a display in memory of the baby she lost in 2021, Livia Jo Burgess. (Photo courtesy of Misty Fitzpatrick)

It’s impossible to know how many pregnancies end in miscarriage because it can happen before someone even knows they’re pregnant. The March of Dimes has been tracking this issue for generations and estimates it could be as high as 50%. That means that someone you know has probably experienced pregnancy loss.

But until this year, there was no official support group in Juneau for people who had experienced the loss of a pregnancy or an infant. Doctors who had treated patients for miscarriages or stillbirth would reach out to Sara Gress at Bartlett Regional Hospital, looking for help.

“They would often come to us to see if we had any ideas about where to go,” Gress said. “And for many, many years, we came up empty-handed with that.”

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Gress teaches birth preparation classes at the hospital and facilitates groups for new parents. And even though she’s really experienced in creating space for people to talk about all aspects of having a baby, she knew the topic of loss and grief was out of her expertise.

So, she teamed up with Teri Forst, a licensed professional counselor and a grief recovery specialist, to help facilitate the group, which supports people who have had recent losses or even losses in years past.

“There’s no timeline on grief,” Forst said. “Grief is a process that does not have a definition of time, and we will accept and support anybody.”

And the group doesn’t distinguish between early term pregnancy loss known as miscarriage or later term loss known as stillbirth. There are also people in the group who have lost infants after birth or even people who have been unable to get pregnant who really wanted to have a baby.

“If that feels to you like it’s a loss —because it is — that’s somebody who’s welcome to attend [the] group as well,” said Gress.

Forst says that we are lacking in rituals for this kind of death.

“When we lose somebody, you know, a parent or a sibling, there’s memorials, there’s funerals, there’s feast and potlucks and obituaries,” she said. “And with pregnancy loss, there’s rarely those things.”

She says she wants to change the taboo around pregnancy loss. And that starts with being willing to talk about it.

“I am trying to think back in 12 years of doing this job [if] I have ever heard anyone say, ‘I don’t want anyone to bring up my loss’,” Forst said. “It’s more of a ‘I just want them to be talked about and remembered and I want my experience to be validated’.”

That brings us to the holidays. It’s a time of joy and getting together with family that can be awkward — or triggering — for people who have experienced loss.

“Everybody typically wants to help and wants to have good intentions, but doesn’t know what to do and is afraid of saying the wrong thing,” Forst said. “So, it can be really helpful to just tell them what you need and want from them,” Forst said.

She has advice for people who are grieving.

“I always recommend to not have the holiday dinner be at your house so that you can leave early or you can choose not to go at all, if you [don’t] want to. Give yourself some options — some plan B — to be able to remove as much unnecessary stress as possible,” she said.

And for friends and family who are there to support people who are grieving, Forst says be open to listening. And it’s better to say nothing than to let your discomfort lead you to say something insensitive. She says there are some things you should avoid saying.

“We hear some of the most common ones are: ‘Well, at least you have other kids’ or ‘Now you know you can get pregnant, so I’m sure you will, again’ or ‘Luckily, it was just early in the pregnancy.’ Those types of statements that are really not helpful. They’re not validating that this person, that this family, experienced such an enormous loss,” Forst said.

Instead, she says, offer to bring over dinner or babysit the kids so the grieving parents can have some time together.

Heading into the holidays the group has been sharing ideas with each other for ways to honor their loss — things like lighting a candle or setting a place for the baby at Christmas dinner, taking a photo with a pair of baby shoes or writing a poem, which are all ways of acknowledging the loss in a real and tangible way.

The group meets on the last Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m. on Zoom. You don’t have to be in Juneau to participate, but one-time registration is required.

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