Community born of tragedy

Community born of tragedy
Day of Remembrance

Ten years ago, Laura Kelly experienced a tragedy that still affects her greatly. She joined the club that nobody ever wants to join. She lost her twin baby girls. 

October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Every year, in cities nationwide, folks gather to recognize the many pregnancies that end in miscarriage, stillbirth, or the newborn’s death. This year, Kelly will have her own private Remembrance Day gathering in honor of what would have been her daughters’ tenth birthday. She will surround herself with a small group of family and close friends at her parents’ house in Venetia, and they will remember what happened.

9th birthday celebration
9th birthday celebration

In mid-2010, Kelly, a Jacksonville native, was 30 years old, single, and teaching high school in Central Florida. She would regularly return home to Jacksonville for family visits, and always came back for several weeks in summer when she would schedule all annual medical check-ups. In July, her doctor confirmed that she was pregnant, already in her second trimester. The news was unexpected because the previous month, during a routine annual exam, she had tested negative, though she hadn’t been feeling her usual self since March.

Friday, August 13, 2010 was a significant day for Kelly. Not only was it her 31st birthday and she was 18 weeks pregnant, but also it was the day she found out that she was carrying identical twins. Kelly was assigned to a high-risk specialist due to her asthma and because baby B, cramped for space in the uterus, hadn’t been growing at the same rate as baby A. That doctor confirmed that both were girls.

Into her sixth month of pregnancy, Kelly had been showing signs of early labor. Her cervix had begun to dilate, though she didn’t feel any contractions. She underwent a cerclage procedure to prevent premature labor. Daily bed rest, frequent obstetric visits, and weekly counting became the norm—the goal was to stave off the girls’ birth to 30 weeks, 32, as close to 40 as possible. 

By week 33, both babies had grown, and Kelly had a hard time breathing. At her next ultrasound appointment, the doctor did not have to say a word; Kelly read it on his face. “There are no heartbeats.” A moment froze in time. She remembers the lab coat he had on. She can tell you what she was wearing. Her mom walked in the room alongside a technician, Kelly caught her eye, shook her head from side to side and said, “They’re gone.” 

Kelly chose the latter of two options. She wanted a day to take care of her two long-time companions, her dogs, the only children she knew she’d ever have. So, she spent a day at home before being admitted to the hospital to proceed with the induction of labor on November 18. Three weeks later, Britton and Rylan were buried in a family plot at Riverside Memorial Park. 

“Nearly a year later, I was still in complete and total shock,” Kelly said. “I read all of the what-to-expect-when-you’re-expecting books. There wasn’t a section in there that talks about stillbirth,” she said. 

Kelly learned from a family friend about Tear Catchers, the support group run through Baptist Hospital for parents suffering the effects of perinatal mortality. She attended the weekly meetings for years and today is considered a veteran member. She has spoken in front of hundreds of doctors, nurses, and chaplains. She is called upon to speak on parents’ panels about the loss of multiples, which adds a different dynamic to the grief of losing a singleton. She tells her story because she wants women to know, “You are not alone. You did nothing wrong. Babies die. It’s not a stigma,” Kelly said.

Celebrating the girls’ 5th birthday
Celebrating the girls’ 5th birthday

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States, a miscarriage is the loss of a baby before the 20th week of pregnancy, and a stillbirth is the loss after 20 weeks. According to the CDC website, stillbirth affects nearly 1 in 160 births, approximately 24,000 babies per year nationally.

“Most women feel very alone and think they’re the only person who has ever lost a baby. They just don’t know of the resources available,” said Linda Rosengren, lead chaplain for Bereavement Services at Baptist Health.

Kelly pointed out some insensitive comments that people make to these families who are grieving in silence. Most loved ones cannot relate to this type of loss. They don’t know what to say, what not to say, what to do, what not to do to show support for bereaved parents. It’s a unique kind of grief. “People will say things to you, and you want to just scream and yell at them,” she acknowledged.

“You don’t have to be afraid to talk about it,” Kelly said. She urges parents to allow the grief, and she said that Tear Catchers meetings with Chaplain Rosengren are a great place to start.

Rosengren is the current coordinator of Tear Catchers. She leads the perinatal support group twice monthly on the first and third Monday evenings. For now, they meet virtually on Zoom while COVID-19 remains an issue. The group is open to bereaved parents, both women and men, whether their loss was recent or years ago. “We do offer other support for people who have experienced the loss of an older child or an adult loved one. We hope to provide community for those who long for and need it,” Rosengren said. 

In addition to Tear Catchers, our local community’s support includes an annual Walk to Remember, a tradition since 1990. The first of these perinatal awareness month walks began at Friendship Fountain and ended at the School Board where a balloon release took place. Over the ensuing years, the crowd grew, the number of walkers increased, so the starting point was moved to underneath the Fuller Warren Bridge where the Riverside Arts Market meets. The ending point was at the YMCA down by the river, which culminated with a butterfly release. 

A sibling releases a butterfly
A sibling releases a butterfly

The event grew even bigger and was changed from a walk to a ceremonial gathering on the lawn behind the One Call building at 841 Prudential Drive. Last year drew the largest crowd yet; nearly 350 attended. Every year has brought a variety of commemorative activities, from a daisy garden to a memory book, all to honor the babies. Each year, families make keepsakes that always include their babies’ names. Grandparents and siblings take part. This year will mark the event’s 30th year, and due to the coronavirus pandemic, it will be held virtually via Zoom on Sunday, Oct. 25. 

October was set aside for such ceremonies by President Ronald Reagan when he signed Proclamation 5890 on Oct. 25, 1988. This type of tragedy was not foreign to him. He and his wife Jane Wyman had lost their third child, Christine Reagan, in 1947. She died hours after her birth. Some believe it was the grief over this loss that contributed to the couple’s divorce two years later. Their family’s calamity, unfortunately, is not unique.

People still ask Kelly how she gets out of bed every day. She tells them, “Because of two little girls named Britton and Rylan.”

If you are a parent grieving over a perinatal loss, know that you are not alone. There is help available. For an understanding and compassionate connection, feel free to contact Laura Kelly directly at LauraKelly813@gmail.com. For information about the Tear Catchers support group or October’s Walk to Remember, including registration details and login credentials, call (904) 202 – 2240 or email Linda.Rosengren@BMCJAX.com.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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