I have a friend I’d like you to meet because she understands humanity at a depth many of us will never come to know in our lifetimes, and she has a message.
Tammy Ruiz is a perinatal loss nurse, a medical professional who assists parents as they do the unimaginable – perform a lifetime of “sacred parenting” in a brief moment, and then say good-bye to a dearly loved newborn baby.
Everyday Tammy works with parents who have suffered the deaths of their baby in the course of pregnancy or soon after birth, some of them live brief, treasured lives. She and a few hundred colleagues across the world tend to the hundreds of thousands of bereaved parents who need this type of care each year. She cares not only for the child, but for the parents and the whole family. In addition, she instructs other medical professionals, and promotes the development of perinatal loss programs around the world. I had the opportunity to ask her some questions.
What is a Typical Day Like?
She begins her day like many of us, checking messages and returning inquiries, but the nature of her inquiries is something special. She oversees several programs, a support group for grieving parents, the burial process of infants, and referrals to other bereavement resources. It’s not uncommon, however, for her to get urgent messages from sobbing parents, “I’m calling from far away, and I just found out my baby will die. You took care of my sister’s baby and I don’t know who else to call. Please help me.” When she gets these calls, she goes from working her way through inquiries to pouring her whole self into another person’s suffering. You see, this part of her duty.
On any day, it is the norm to have at least one family with an “expected death at upcoming birth” situation. Tammy helps parents as they grieve these deaths, both emotionally and logistically. She goes to Labor and Delivery to help prepare for the birth, and facilitates every detail from time management during the brief life, to selecting the tiny clothing, to arranging for the burial. Sometimes, the baby has already died and she helps the parents prepare for stillbirth.
She is usually the one to take the baby from the room after he or she dies, and later in preparation for burials, she is the one who checks consent forms, retrieves the babies from the histology lab, and lovingly dresses them for burial. The babies are bundled individually, she says, often with mementos given to them by their families.
What Advice Do You Give Parents of Young Children?
It’s more than just the adults who suffer grief, there are often small children in the families too. Tammy says that parents are unprepared to guide their small children through the grieving process, and can feel as if they have failed to protect them from from pain and suffering. “Protecting children from pain is impossible,” she reminds us, and “the task needs to be seen as accompanying them through the experience.”
She believes it is best to tell children the simple truth, even if the answer is “I don’t know.” Parents should let children see genuine grief responses, let them be physically present to witness the dynamic transition from life to death, and let them hold their deceased sibling if it can be done in a visually gentle manner. Let them take pictures, let them name their sibling, let them mourn the loss of the big-brother or big-sister role they anticipated, especially for the youngest surviving sibling. In addition, she warns against using the word “lost” to describe what happened to the baby as this can frighten, even more than death, a small child. She says to tell them, again, the truth – the baby died.
What is Sacred Parenting?
In the video at the end, which has been seen around the world as both Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals in other countries are establishing perinatal hospice programs, Tammy uses the term “sacred parenting” to describe the moments a couple spends with a dying newborn child. I asked her about the origin of this term.
There is, it seems, a ethereal quality to those special moments when time is suspended, and a lifetime of love transpires. The first couple she ever used this term with was a lovely faith-filled couple who had a daughter diagnosed with Thanatophoric (death-bringing) Dysplasia. She told them that she understood something she hadn’t grasped before, that when she got married, she considered the Sacrament of Marriage to be something the priest did to the man and woman. Much later, she realized that the priest is the Church’s witness to the Sacrament that the man and woman do to and with each other, in creating a marriage.
Similarly, when people come to the hospital, they request that things be done to them, in the hopes of recovery. Even when a baby is very sick, parents expect and hope for a recovery. However, when a baby has a condition that is unalterably life-ending, Tammy says she understands the process like she now understands weddings. Her job is to create a safe place for parents to be parents to their child, and to honor the ability of parents to perform parenting the way God intends it. “You are the sacred do-ers of this process, it is yours,” she affirms.
She remembers immediately after this couple’s daughter was born, the father baptized her and then gave the instructions for the child to be taken to her mother, against the standard neonatal care procedures. Tammy was able to honor the father’s wishes, and forty minutes later, when the baby died in his arms, he remarked, “She just left, I felt her spirit leave her.” His bond was that deep and sacred. A little girl’s Daddy connected with her soul, and cradled her into eternity. This kind of care and respect for parenting is missing in so many hospitals today.
How Can We Help?
So, the next time any of us get up in the morning thinking we have such a full and demanding day ahead, please take a minute as you sit down to log-on to your email accounts to say a prayer of gratitude for people like Tammy, and a prayer for fruitfulness in her efforts. Most of us won’t ever face a day like this as parents, but for those that do, professionals with such keen respect for humanity are a beacon in the world.
Each of us can show love by seeking out our friends whose children have died, and resist building the walls that too often get built out of our own fears. Send a card to arrive on a due date, or anniversary date to tell a friend you are thinking of her and her baby, acknowledge her on Mother’s Day, or donate bereavement books to your local hospital.
Please help to spread the word about these programs by sharing Tammy’s video, which she made herself with the help of friends (she’s the nurse in it). If you know someone who can help develop a program in your local hospital, Tammy is available for guidance through the contact information at the end. God bless you Tammy, you are an angel and a hero.