Dealing with loss

Activity at our house is picking up in advance of the Dec. 1 opening of the Festival of Trees at the Greenville Convention Center. This event is an annual fundraiser for the Family Support Network of Eastern North Carolina, a non-profit group that uses a parent-to-parent support model to help families adapt to the demands of caring for and raising children with special needs. We (OK, mostly my wife Bettie Ann) have volunteered with this group for almost all of its 25 years of existence.

One of the inevitable consequences of life is death. Our first child, Frances, was stillborn 26 years ago. The pregnancy progressed to full term, and after a normal prenatal checkup on Monday, Bettie Ann went into labor on Thursday. The regular rush and confusion characteristic of the emergency department 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.

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. 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.

A group called “Parents Supporting Parents” (now Family Support Network of Eastern NC, formed a few years later, and my wife and I joined and were trained to support parents who experienced neonatal loss. Twenty-five years later, this group remains an important part of our lives. 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.

I hope you can visit the Greenville Convention Center this holiday season, enjoy the beautifully decorated trees, and learn more about the power of support groups.

Robert Carroll, PhD

Professor of Physiology

Pirate decorations adorn one of the featured Festival of Trees in 2011.

Associate Dean of Basic Sciences for Academic Affairs

Brody School of Medicine