When Funeral Homes Fail Pregnancy Loss Parents

This post was supposed to go live on October 1st, to mark the start of Carry Your Heart’s recognition of Infant and Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month.

It’s an important occasion for so many of us that have been personally touched by miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss, and it’s been brought into sharper focus for me by the phone surveys I completed in August and September with nearly 45 of the 411 participants in the Funeral Home Experiences survey Carry Your Heart carried out this summer in coordination with Bereaved Parents of Madison, Inc. and Cress Funeral & Cremation Service.

My life right now revolves around infant and pregnancy loss, as I’m not only heavily involved in the remaining launch work of Carry Your Heart, but I’m also preparing to head to Philadelphia in a few short weeks to speak on the subject at the National Funeral Directors Association’s annual convention.

Because of this, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember how desperately needed awareness of these subjects still is.
But then, I get on the phone with women who have been through the tragedy and grief of infant and pregnancy loss, only to find themselves completely let down by their medical and funeral care teams.

Then, I remember how critical it is that those of us in this line of work continue to gather and share our community’s stories.

I write for a living. It’s rare for me to find myself at a loss for words. And yet, here I sit - here I’ve been sitting for more than two weeks - trying to figure out how adequately honor the depths of the pain experienced by one of the women in our survey who entrusted me with her story.

Jennifer has graciously allowed me to share her story here. I can only hope that what I’ve put together below does Jennifer and her love for her beautiful son Andrew justice, and that it encourages the funeral professionals reading this to take a closer look at the way they support families like hers.

Jennifer’s Story

At 38 weeks pregnant, Jennifer Livingston lost her son Andrew to sudden, unexpected stillbirth.

After feeling no movement for most of a day, Jennifer went to the doctor, where it was confirmed that there was no heartbeat; that her son had passed away just a week before his scheduled c-section.

Jennifer’s loss is heartbreaking enough on its own. But the experiences she was put through by her funeral home - the institution to which she’d entrusted her family’s care - defy, to me, explanation.

The problems began with her family’s first contact. In a serious display of unprofessionalism, Jennifer’s sister-in-law, who made the initial phone call, was forced to explain the situation three times before she was connected with someone who could help her, leaving her - understandably - distraught.

At the arrangement conference her sister-in-law was finally able to schedule, Jennifer and her family were told she’d be able to see Andrew before the visitation, at which point the casket would be closed to those attending the visitation and memorial service.

She was also told to drop off an outfit for her son’s burial the day before the service - a task that she, too overwhelmed to do so herself, entrusted to her mother-in-law, who paid the overnight shipping fees to rush in a sweet, perfect little suit.

On the day of the visitation, Jennifer arrived at the funeral home to learn that she would not be able to see her baby boy again; that Andrew had not been prepared for viewing, and that his casket had already been closed.

The funeral home brushed Jennifer and her family off. To them, it was a clerical error - one of those that simply “happens” in the course of business.

To Jennifer, it was being robbed of her last chance as a parent to say goodbye to her son.

After the service, Jennifer was handed a bag with Andrew’s name on it. Inside was the suit her mother-in-law had so carefully selected as his burial outfit.

In shock, Jennifer asked the funeral home what he was buried in.

“He was buried in a diaper,” the funeral director responded in a hushed voice, his eyes averted as if it was clear he knew he’d made a mistake.

Never once did she receive an apology, or follow-up of any kind.

Parenting in the Face of Loss

If you’re a parent, stop with me for a second and imagine how this must feel...

You begin with the trauma of your child’s unexpected death (as another interview subject so succinctly put it, “I wasn’t planning a funeral; I was planning a future.”).

Now, reeling from the incomprehensible loss of that child, your one chance to say goodbye is stolen from you.

The moment you’ve been steeling yourself for - the courage you’ve summoned to undertake the simple act of saying goodbye, forever, to someone you love - is snatched away in an instant of callous disregard.

Then, to have one of the last acts of caring, parent for child, that you’re able to perform - the selection of burial clothing - be treated so indifferently is unimaginable.

Jennifer will think about the son she lost every day for the rest of her life. She’ll wonder what he would have looked like, what he would have enjoyed and who he would have eventually become.

But now, where her memories of her short time with him could have been turned into treasures through the compassionate care of funeral professionals, she’s left imagining him buried in the cold, hard earth - clad not in the outfit that was carefully chosen for him, but in nothing more than a diaper.

Can you even imagine an older child or an adult being buried in their underwear alone?

If you haven’t experienced pregnancy loss and this description seems overly dramatic, know this: the love parents feel for their children and their instinct to care for them does not begin at birth.

If you’ve brought home a living child, you know what it is to want to do right by your child; to want the best for them and to struggle over whether or not the decisions you make on their behalf are the right ones.

Pregnancy and early infant loss parents often feel this too, yet our ability to act on any of these impulses feels limited to the small window that exists between the child’s delivery and their burial or cremation.

The impact of every decision made during this time can seem magnified; the sum of what should have been a lifetime of parenting compressed into something as simple as choosing the only outfit a child will ever wear.

These experiences deserve the dignity of recognition by funeral directors. They deserve the sacred space granted to the families of older children and adults, without question.

Caring for Pregnancy Loss Families

I want to end this post by telling you that, out of all the surveys we took and all the follow-up phone interviews we conducted, Jennifer’s story is unique. That every other participant felt nothing but care and compassion from their funeral professionals.

I can’t do that.

I heard about good experiences, for sure. In the best cases, the funeral directors involved cared for the children entrusted to them as tenderly and as lovingly as their parents longed to themselves.

But I also heard about funeral directors who referred to the child as “it” to grieving parents; about funeral directors who joked in front of parents about whether the child’s birth or death date should be listed first in the program, and who carelessly wiped away ashes from a child’s urn while handing it to the parents.

We have to do better.

On Sunday, October 23rd from 3:30-4:30pm, I’ll be giving a presentation titled “What I Wish My Funeral Director Knew: Supporting Pregnancy Loss in Families” at the NFDA convention.

Join me because you don’t understand what it means to be a pregnancy loss parent, or why the families you serve care so much about the children they’ll never get to meet.

Join me because you’re afraid you’ve been underserving - inadvertently or intentionally - this misunderstood community.

Heck, join me because, in this digital era, the negative experiences of one family like Jennifer’s can be shared from person to person through social networks or in online reviews.

But join me. Come hear our survey participants’ experiences and learn 10 key takeaways you can put into practice right away that’ll better prepared to appropriately support the pregnancy loss families you serve.

I hope to see you there.