In communities of mothers who have only ever had healthy birth outcomes, a bereavement doula is probably not a frequent topic of conversation. I certainly had never heard the term early in my pregnancy with my first daughter.
WHAT IS A BEREAVEMENT DOULA?
The lingo at that time was all about midwives, birth and postpartum doulas, birthing tubs, something called a Snuggle Me…basically everyone and anything I might need to bring a healthy baby into this world. In other words, I had no Plan B in case things didn’t go as planned (i.e. I never got to bring that healthy baby home), and why should I have? It was my first pregnancy, we conceived quickly, we have no known genetic conditions in our family histories, I was 30 years old, and in good health.
Something I have reflected on often since losing my daughter is that becoming pregnant does not, in fact, guarantee you a happy, healthy baby. Sure, assuming the worst from the get-go isn’t conducive to good mental and physical health for the mother, and statistically, the odds of a positive outcome are in your favor. But the more I learn of other women’s stories of pregnancy loss, often kept hidden from standard topics of conversation (can we please fix this?), the more I have come to believe we, as women who are choosing to go on the huge journey that is becoming a mother, should arm ourselves with more than optimism. Even if all this means is getting a name and phone number to put in your metaphorical back pocket in case you ever need it, the future self you hope never to meet will thank you. Or, hiring a birth doula who is also certified as a bereavement doula can be a great option.
Hiring a bereavement doula was one of the best decisions I made in the days after we learned our baby would never be coming home with us as we had imagined. When someone made the suggestion to me, I remember thinking, “What would they be doing?” In my head, a doula is supposed to hold your hand through your birth experience, advocate for your needs when necessary, and help guide you through the mental, emotional, and physical journey you are embarking on. And that’s precisely what she did.
SUPPORT WHEN YOU’RE AT YOUR MOST VULNERABLE
In a story of pregnancy loss, it can almost feel as though it doesn’t count as a “birth.” Like somehow laboring and delivering a stillborn baby will just take less time, or be less painful (it should be). Or, if you’re having a surgical procedure like a D&E, it’s not uncommon to think that because you will be sedated and likely asleep, you won’t need a support person by your side. If you find out you are miscarrying, even an early miscarriage, hiring a doula may not feel like a justified decision. But I believe birth is birth. And your baby is your baby. No matter what your situation of loss is, it is hard. Having someone present whose sole purpose is to make the experience as bearable and manageable as it can be for you and your partner (if applicable!) can be invaluable.
You may have an excellent doctor, familiar nurses, or a trusted friend by your side through your loss, but there is something to be said for having someone you are employing whose only objective is to take care of you. They are in your corner no matter what. You may realize having your mom in the room while you’re in labor is not actually what you need, and your bereavement doula can communicate to your mother without the burden weighing on you in the midst of your pregnancy loss. You may have a doctor performing a D&E on a recommended timeline or sedation plan that you aren’t comfortable with, and your bereavement doula can go to bat for you with the doctor, so you aren’t handling that at your most vulnerable. If you miscarry at home, your bereavement doula can help you make decisions about what to do with your baby’s remains. If your milk comes in after a later term loss, a bereavement doula can coach you through that experience and help you strategize a plan for managing your milk supply and keeping your breasts healthy.
REFLECTION AND RESOURCES
In our case, my bereavement doula has become a friend of our family. She knows our baby, she knows our story, and she supported in ways we couldn’t have anticipated needing through the worst thing we have ever been through. She was there with us every step of the birth. She filled out paperwork for me. She advocated for my needs to nurses and physicians. She helped us make decisions about having our baby cremated. She visited us several times postpartum to help with my milk coming in, she checked on how we were doing emotionally and mentally. We have cultivated that relationship and now hope to hire her as a doula in our next pregnancy. It comforts me greatly to know that she will support us through that pregnancy no matter the outcome. It is also common and completely OK to put that person and relationship behind you after experiencing a loss.
Full Spectrum Doulas, Still Birthday, and Birthwaves are all resources that were recommended to me or that others have found useful for learning more about and locating a bereavement doula in their area. If you have previously worked with a birth doula or plan to, you can ask if they are certified as a bereavement doula as well, or if they could recommend someone to you.