Five years ago, Jianna Wright, her husband, and their 3-year-old son were eagerly preparing for the birth of her second child, a little girl who was just two weeks from her due date. A morning visit to the obstetrician’s office went well, but by mid-afternoon, Wright noticed the baby wasn’t moving. That evening, her doctor confirmed the baby had died. Wright credits a sensitive nurse who happened to have bereavement training for helping her get through the delivery, her shock and grief, and the myriad questions swirling in her head. “I was prepared to order a birth certificate—did I now need a death certificate?” Wright remembers wondering. “How do I tell others? Do I still send out the announcements I’d purchased? Should I even give a name to a baby whom I will never be able to call?”
As the evening unfolded, Wright says, “Most of all, I just wanted human touch. I needed to feel that I wasn’t alone. [The nurse] held me and let me cry and told me very kindly and gently, ‘Don’t worry about it. You have a name in your heart and when the time is right, you will name your daughter. You don’t need to make that decision right now.’ That’s what I needed at the time.”
Wright and her husband, Brad, went on to establish the Wishbone Foundation, which offers bereavement training to labor and delivery nurses, social workers, and other hospital staff, who might otherwise be at a loss for the right words and actions when a baby dies. The two-day training sessions are offered free of charge and count as continuing education credits. One aspect that sets the Wishbone Foundation training apart is its equal emphasis on helping healthcare staff work through their own mental health needs after dealing with tragedy on the job.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 24,000 babies are stillborn each year in the United States. The CDC considers stillborn babies to be those who were at least 20 weeks along in the pregnancy. The agency estimates about the same number of babies die during the first year of life. In Wright’s case, neither an autopsy nor genetic testing revealed a reason for the stillbirth.
After she shared her tragic news on social media, Wright was amazed at the outpouring of support and donations she received: “My husband and I kind of looked at each other and we’re like, ‘This is bigger than you and I. What are we going to do with this money?’ We realized we wanted to give back to the hospital because we had gotten such amazing care. Two or three days after we got home from the hospital, my husband created a quick, generic website, kind of sharing our story and what we were going to use the donations for, and it kind of evolved from there.”
The Wishbone Foundation guides nurses in what to expect and what to say when a patient’s baby dies. The first half of the training provides suggestions to help grieving parents gather mementos to remember their baby and celebrate the short life that he or she had while in the womb. That can mean encouraging parents to dress the baby in a cute outfit and helping arrange for photos. Footprints and locks of hair can also become treasured keepsakes.
Doctors and nurses also feel distraught and helpless when an infant dies. Yet few hospitals offer bereavement training. Lori Adams, a labor and delivery nurse at Parker Adventist Hospital in Colorado, puts it this way: “Working in labor and delivery is normally the best of the best. With a fetal death, it’s the worst of the worst. It’s not something they teach you in nursing school. It’s important to have a program to tell nurses, ‘Here’s what you can do to help yourself get through the stress of that.’”
Adams says the Wishbone Foundation has developed a useful checklist that describes all the things that need to be done for the patient. “The patient may only be here for 24 hours, and you have a lot to capture in that 24 hours,” she says.
The second day of training helps nurses to address their own mental health issues and ways to take care of themselves. “It’s very hard for nurses to go through that process,” says Wright. “They take it very personally, and it makes all the difference for families to have a nurse who’s confident and in a place to help them.”
To date, the foundation has trained 350 nurses in 18 hospitals in Colorado. More than 5,000 families have been helped. One of the most powerful aspects of the training is bringing in parent panels to share their stories. Wright has even inspired numerous other grieving parents to volunteer for the program.
Wright’s compassion for mothers who lose an infant goes beyond helping them get through the immediate aftermath. She realizes that the impact of the loss lasts for years. For Wright, bereavement counseling helped her realize that her daughter had really existed: “I carried her for nine months. She was alive. I felt her.” It helped her to assuage feelings of guilt and move on with her life. In addition to son Jace, now 8, the Wrights have since had two more sons. Ultimately, Wright did give her deceased baby a name, Mackensie, which helps her family to talk about and remember her.
“Once families leave the hospital, their journey is just beginning,” Wright said. She is now working with hospitals to continue to reach out—on the due date, after six months, after one year, on Mother’s Day, and on Father’s Day. “Those little pieces can really help families get through their new life and remember their child,” she says.