A Month for the Lost Ones
Faribault Daily New
By Pauline Schreiber
October 15, 2005

The death of a child during pregnancy or early infancy leaves a painful void only others who've experienced such a loss can fully understand, say parents who've been there.

"There's an emptiness that can't ever be filled. I think of Preston every day. Often I think of what he would be doing now, if he was still with us," said Natalie Crooks.

Natalie and her husband, Leif Crooks, never thought about losing a child in early infancy before their marriage and the arrival of their first child, Preston. He was a healthy baby, developing normally, and bringing much joy to his parents, grandparents and other relatives.

"Our son was walking and had just started talking, when, just before Christmas in 2003, it was discovered he had brain tumor. He'd been throwing up and we didn't know the reason," Leif Crooks said. "Doctors removed the tumor, but the cancer had spread down his spine. He died in January, leaving a hole in our lives that will likely always be there."

The couple now have a 7-week-old daughter, Emma, who has brought new-found joy to their Faribault home on Brick Circle. Preston, however, is still with them in memory. A photograph of him, castings of his feet and hands, and other memorabilia of their son fills a cabinet that sits in their living room.

Infants Remembered in Silence Inc. (IRIS) served as their lifeline in the sharp days of grief they suffered directly following Preston's death, the couple says. A volunteer from the organization came to the funeral home and made castings of Preston's hands and feet, free of charge, and provided them bereavement help.

"It took us a couple of months before we went to an IRIS support group, but when we did, we found it a great help," Natalie Crooks said. "In fact, we've made many friendships with others in the support group, who've suffered a similar loss to ours. There is just something very helpful about sharing your grief in a group with others who've had similar losses."

The Crooks are pleased with the fact that October has been designated National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and that today is being recognized as a special Infant Loss Awareness Day. Parents, family and friends of those who've lost babies in pregnancy or early infancy are asked to light a candle at 7 p.m. in remembrance of those children.

"It happens more than people realize. It's something you never expect to happen to you," Natalie Crooks said. "When it does, it's great that IRIS has advocates and volunteers to help you deal with such a painful loss."

Stillborn loss
Jennifer Braun of Morristown agrees that people don't expect to experience a pregnancy or early infant death. She and her husband, Gary Braun, were expecting their fourth child, a son, last year. They went to what they expected to be a typical seventh-month check up, but instead received the news from a doctor that their baby no longer had a heartbeat.

"We'd picked the name, Michael Norman. He was going to be a playmate for our daughter, Rachael, then 1; be another boy in the family to play with for our son, Maclean, 6 at the time; and a real baby for our oldest daughter, Nadia, now 9, to babysit," Braun said.

She remembers asking the doctor, "Are you sure he's dead? Is there another test?" It was a great shock to the Brauns.

"There is no training that can prepare a mother or father for this type of news. We had so much anticipated the birth of our fourth child," Braun said. "My husband and I are both trained professional educators with years of experience in our fields, but we were both at a complete loss at this news. A part of our hearts was torn out."

Instead of going home to wait another two months for the birth, she and her husband found themselves that night in the delivery room as she gave birth to their stillborn son, Michael Norman. But a bright light in such a terrible time, Braun said, was Diana Sundwall, founder of IRIS.

"She came to the hospital in the middle of the night to be with us. She helped us know how to hold and love the dead child we delivered," Braun said. "Diana also helped us bathe our son and had brought clothes specially sewn to fit his petite size. She helped us celebrate the precious short time with our son, Michael, and she took pictures of our family together with him, and made casts of his tiny feet and hands we have to cherish as part of his memory."

Braun said she had some friends who had miscarriages, but none who had lost a baby from stillbirth or in early infancy.

"The loss is so great you can't describe the depth of the pain," Braun said. "Diana Sundwall and IRIS helped us deal with such an unexpected loss. We'd had three healthy children. Having our fourth be stillborn was just not something that crossed our minds."

Sundwall, director and founder of IRIS, located at 101 NW Third St. in Faribault, said she never hesitates when called to go to a hospital or funeral home in the middle of the night, or on Christmas or other holidays, to help a family suffering a loss of a child in pregnancy or early infancy.

"I understand their loss," Sundwall said. "It was 20 years ago that my husband Mark and I had to deal with the loss of our son, Derek, who was stillborn at full-term. It was devastating. You never forget the infant you've lost. There is pain even after 20 years. You've had hopes and dreams for the infant you are expecting that will never be fulfilled."

IRIS serves families in six counties: Rice, Steele, Dodge, LeSueur, Goodhue and Waseca. In the Faribault area last year, advocates and volunteers helped approximately 100 families deal with their losses. Overall in a year, she said, the organization estimates it touches 3,000 to 5,000 parents, grandparents, siblings and other family members experiencing the death of an infant in pregnancy or early infancy.