Birthdays can be a joyous occasion.
For some people, however, especially those people who have lost a child either mid-pregnancy or shortly after birth, it can be a painful reminder of loss.
Charlene Chambers knows that feeling, having experienced a stillbirth in 2011.
“When you experience a loss, you feel you can’t talk about it, let alone celebrate it,” she says.
After losing her baby, Chambers – who has other children – felt compelled to undertake a project that would help steer grieving parents to the resources they needed to begin their healing journey.
Thus, Empty Arms, Healing Hearts was born in 2012.
The group recently hosted an event called the Always and Forever Birthday Party at Jeneece Place next to Victoria General Hospital, with the goal of giving parents who’ve lost babies a chance to share their experience with others in similar situations, and to celebrate children who never saw their first birthday.
“We took moments to celebrate and laugh and to cry and support each other,” Chambers says, noting there were roughly 35 people in attendance. “When parents are not given the opportunity early on to deal with (the loss of a baby), it becomes a long complicated process to get past it.”
With less paid counselling options now available for grieving parents in B.C., given changes to provincial health policies, she recognized a gap in the system that needed filling. Chambers is a bereavement doula who works with parents to start their grieving process – sometimes before the death of their child – and helps direct people to other resources in the community.
Her plan was to help better co-ordinate the pregnancy loss community in the region and create an umbrella organization where people can go to find help.
The website emptyarmsvictoria.com offers links to grief counsellors, and a child loss support group, among other services.
Another aspect of the Empty Arms is fundraising for such projects as a cuddle cot for VGH, which allows parents to spend precious time with their baby before the final separation, as a way to help them begin to deal with their loss. A recent online auction of donated items collected money to pay for perinatal bereavement counselling for family needing financial assistance.
Chambers says there remains a stigma around pregnancy and infant loss, such that other people are afraid to talk to those who are going through it for fear of upsetting them.
“There’s very little dialogue around it. It’s a very, very tough topic to discuss,” she says. “I think a huge part of it is the Western culture’s unhealthy approach to death.”
Encouraging parents to talk about their experiences is a good first step to healing, she adds. Events such as the Always and Forever Birthday Party, which she hopes will become an annual event, can help facilitate that discussion, Chamber says.
For more, visit emptyarmsvictoria.com or find Empty Arms, Healing Hearts on Facebook.