Grief: Losing Children Before You Knew Them

By Alexandra Grenier

On July 8th, 2021, Falbala Cloutier, a young woman in her 20s, suffered her worst experience in her life: the loss of her child. “I felt like I’d had the most precious thing to me in the world ripped away.”

Three miscarriages and two years of waiting – that’s what Cloutier had to go through before finally becoming pregnant with a girl named Éliane: “Our little miracle has come!” Sadly, 38 weeks later, Éliane’s heart stopped beating.

According to Québec’s public health institute, L’Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), perinatal deaths include all those that happen during pregnancy, whether from an involuntary or a voluntary interruption of the pregnancy. Any neonatal death of a baby less than 28 days old is also included in perinatal mortality statistics.

Fully 15 to 20% of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage, meaning the death of the foetus within the 20 first weeks of pregnancy. “It’s rare that a baby dies after (this period). The probability is 4 deaths during pregnancy for every 1,000 births, and 3 deaths in the first month of life for every 1,000 births,” according to the INSPQ’s website.

Breaking the Silence

After losing her daughter, Cloutier began writing a blog in which she documented her experiences and her feelings. She thinks that talking about perinatal bereavement is a way to make the subject more accessible. “Some people have already told me that they didn’t know it was possible to lose an infant at full term,” she says. “It’s extremely taboo! You’re supposed to live in silence and shut up because people are ill at ease, but I don’t share this point of view. You have to talk, open up, and listen.”

That’s also Linh Quach’s advice. She’s the coordinator of perinatal and pediatric services at Laval’s integrated health and social services centre, the Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux (CISSS). She notes that grieving parents are sometimes misunderstood. “They’re often told that they’ll have another baby, but those aren’t necessarily comforting words for them,” she explains. Perinatal bereavement should be taken as seriously as any other sort of grieving. “When people haven’t experienced it, they can’t understand it. For them, losing a foetus doesn’t require grieving,” Quach laments.

Since the early 2000s, a worldwide commemorative day devoted to perinatal mourning has been held each year. Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day is observed on October 15th, but some health care centres choose to mark the occasion on another date. At the Laval CISSS, this occasion is observed during the second weekend in June, just before Father’s Day. Grieving parents who lost a child in the previous year are invited, and event organizers call out the name of each lost child. Even though the day is not devoted to their children, parents who lost a child farther back in time are also welcome.

“We ask our intervenors, doctors and nurses who are available to attend the ceremony. It’s nice for parents to meet up again with the nurse or the doctor who was there when they lost their child,” Quach says.

Unavoidable Bureaucracy

One aspect of perinatal bereavement often forgotten about is the bureaucracy parents have to deal with. Giving birth is often not a pleasure cruise, but when a child is stillborn, the trials can be unexpectedly difficult. The mother’s state of distress is profound, and caregivers have to do their best to motivate her despite what she’s going through, explains Quach.

Like any death, that of a newborn requires certain administrative decisions in the hours following the tragedy. “Since patients usually don’t stay very long in the hospital afterwards, within 24 hours we have to know how to dispose of the body, if an autopsy has to be carried out, etc.” Quach says. Before arriving at the hospital, the patient often doesn’t even know that their baby is deceased. She therefore isn’t ready to make all these decisions in such a brief time period.

At the Laval CISSS, it’s generally the nurses that will help parents make these decisions. “We help to equip these nurses and give them training on the subject, even if they’re not necessarily the best people to manage all this. Nurses in a maternity ward are there to bring life in the world, and they aren’t at ease with death,” Quach adds. She specifies that everything is done to put the most suitable and qualified people in charge of the patient’s care.

An Unusual Form of Grieving

On top of losing her little girl, Falbala Cloutier also lost her two parents when she was a teenager. Though all these trials have been difficult for her, losing her baby remains her greatest challenge. “It’s such a different sort of grief. Our children should never leave this world before us. It’s not normal. Grieving my parents gave me the tools to get through the death of my daughter. But you’re never ready to lose a child,” she confides.

There is no real vocabulary attached to perinatal bereavement. “There are words to designate almost everyone who loses someone,” Quach points out. “You’re a widow, or an orphan, etc. But when a parent loses a child, there’s no official word to designate you. It’s recent, but (in French) we can call them paranges (mamanges or papanges), the parents of an ange (an angel).”

Now that she’s become a mamange, Cloutier would like to see the day when people are less reticent about talking about perinatal grief. “Our children existed and will exist forever. Talk to us about them. Ask us questions. Include them. It does a lot of good.”  

– As seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 30, No. 4, April 2022

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