Silence After a Stillbirth Is Deafening -- and Painful, Say Parents

Parents say doctors, friends and family can be insensitive, making hurt worse.

ByABC News
December 11, 2013, 3:02 PM

Dec. 11, 2013— -- This is the final story in a series about stillborn babies: How families deal with their grief, how friends can help and what medical science knows about why these babies die.

Keirnan's heartbeat stopped somewhere around 26 weeks in the womb. Her mother, Ann Faison, learned at a regular check-up in 2005 that her unborn daughter had died and that the birth had to be medically induced.

The infant had a large tumor nearly the size of her head protruding from the back of her neck, and doctors suspected she had Turner syndrome, a rare chromosomal condition.

Still births still baffle the medical community.

"I must say, anticipating the birth of my dead baby was one of the worst moments of my life," said Faison, 49, of Pasadena, Calif.

"What was shocking to me was the experience of the birth itself was so beautiful -- sadness and joy and beauty and horror all mixed in together," she told "It's really the richness and breadth or everything in one moment."

But Faison was stunned by the silence that followed the stillbirth -- an event that happens in one out of every 160 pregnancies and affects 25,000 American families a year.

"The nurses took Polaroids -- though I don't remember being asked," she told "They gave us a box with a picture in it and a footprints card that was supposed to be signed by the nurse, but no one signed it."

Most hurtful, her parents were "horrified" that she wanted to name the child and talk about her.

"I never questioned naming her," said Faison. "The most difficult of all for me was I had this love for somebody I didn't know. All this love and mourning, and I had no idea who this person was."

Grieving parents find solace through social media.

When fetal death occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy, it is called stillbirth, an event that happens 10 times more often than sudden infant death syndrome. Most occur before labor begins, according to the March of Dimes, and a small number happen during labor and delivery.

Women who have had a stillborn report that the pain of loss is often exacerbated by the insensitivity of family and friends who say the wrong thing or worse -- have nothing to say at all.

Although attitudes are changing, society at large often ignores these deaths when what parents want most is recognition that their unborn children existed.

"From the moment we found out what was happening, there was a hush around us from the doctors and nurses that reflected our own shame and horror," said Faison. "Because we lack any conventions around stillbirth, other than the hush that makes everyone feel uncomfortable, and because friends, family, medical personnel are so unsure how to act, one feels ashamed, as if you have done something wrong or there is something wrong with you."

Faison, who went on to have two healthy daughters, now 11 and 7, writes about the inadvertent pain in "Dancing With the Midwives," the 2011 book she wrote to find healing.

"I am often asked by friends and sometimes people I don't know, what to do when a friend or a family member loses a child. How can they help?" she writes.

"We tend to freeze when we hear the news. It brings up our own fears of death, and we don't know quite what to do or say. Even people who have been through grief can be struck dumb or fall into platitudes that are comfortable. 'He's in a better place' or 'You can always have another' are the last things a grieving parent wants to hear."