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Infant Death and Sacred Parenting: An Interview


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.


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About Stacy Trasancos

Stacy Trasancos, Ph.D. is a scientist turned homemaker raising seven children with her husband in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. She is pursuing a MA in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, and she is Editor-in-Chief at Ignitum Today and Catholic Stand, and a Senior Editor at Catholic Lane. She writes about popular science, dogmatic theology, and mountain life at her website.

  • Tammy - I think Stacy for her kind words, but more than anything, I thank blogs like this for creating a safe place where perinatal death can be discussed. Even people mentioning babies in heaven in their bios is a powerful (countercultural) witness. I was awestruck to read that your contributor Michelle had 12 losses. The fact that bereaved moms can see that here and thing “and that woman is still breathing and look at her smile” is a HUGE gift. If we waited for the mainstream media to shine a light on this topic, we would wait forever.

    The mother of the little girl with thanatophoric dysplasia is not the mom in the video, but they are friends and the girls arent buried far from one another…and they have gone on to mentor others. They are the real beacons to me.August 21, 2012 – 10:59 amReplyCancel

  • Kerri - This was such a great post to read. Thank you for sharing! I fondly remember two of the nurses that tended to me and my baby when he died before birth. They were such gifts! I’m so glad to see that there are professionals that do this kind of thing on a regular basis. God bless you, Tammy.August 21, 2012 – 11:39 amReplyCancel

  • TUESDAY AFTERNOON EDITION | Big Pulpit - […] Infant Death and Sacred Parenting: An Interview – Stacy Trasancos PhD, Catholics Sistas […]August 21, 2012 – 12:10 pmReplyCancel

  • Adrienne - This is beautiful. I’m glad to see that their are nurses in this field willing to take their time. When we found out our son’s heart had stopped beating at a routine ultrasound, the nurse came in, handed us a purple box, told me she was sorry and was gone. I had no idea what to expect or where to go for resources. It was a harrowing experience.

    God bless her for her respect for life.August 21, 2012 – 2:21 pmReplyCancel

  • Candice - Tammy cared for me and my family after my loss. I didn’t know my lil Madie was going to die. I was 39 weeks pregnant with her. You said it best when you said Tammy is an angel. She is an amazing woman and I thank God for her each and everyday.August 21, 2012 – 6:59 pmReplyCancel

  • Perelandra - What a beautiful article! Although I’ve never lost a child,I belong to my parish’s unit of the national group Threads of Love. We make burial clothes, prayer shawls, and memory gifts for bereaved families. (There are other organizations across the country doing the similar work.) These are only small gestures but we’re trying to be helpful.August 22, 2012 – 7:56 amReplyCancel

  • Christiane - If only we had this here. 3 years ago I delivered a son. He died unexpectantly 2 hours after birth. Our treatment was awful. Because they realized he died due to their mistake and he just needed oxygen at birth something my husband I were begging for since he was blue and having trouble breathing. They only let us be with him for 1 hour and them took his little body away with no nice words. A few hours after his death, they sent me home. No one asked me how I was. they just wanted us gone because we made the other moms uncomfortable and the staff felt guilty. We received no literature or help. We didn’t even get the little hat he wore on his head. We were sent home unprepared to break the news to his 6 siblings anxiously waiting to meet him. They didn’t get to see him until the funeral home a week later. The only good we got was our priest baptizing and confirming him. We only have a few pictures of him. I was never offered counceling or recieved an apology. 7 months later when I miscarried another son at 18 weeks they put me in the room next to where Matthew died. I heard the staff say, “it’s that family.” I was suffering PTSD and was freaking out being there. Instead of comfort and councelling they drugged me to keep me quiet so as not to disturb the new mothers happily being with their new babies. I luckily had one nurse who was with me while I was in labor with Matthew but was off shift before he died. She took pity on me. After I delivered Simon, she placed his little body next to me so I could sleep with him. She then found a box to place him in and called the priest to baptize him. As was her job to immediatly remove him for the basement or something, she told her boss she didn’t know where his body went and let us take him home to be with his brother. We went through so much angiush and pain and then left alone to fumble through with our other kids. I learned we were treated wrong and in their embarrassment, they punished us. I pray for more people like her to make sure no other family goes through what we did. And the worst part is learning we were right. Matthew was a healthy little boy. HIs pathologist confirmed this with his autopsy. He just needed some oxygen.
    Thank you for doing the work you do.August 22, 2012 – 2:17 pmReplyCancel

  • Tammy - Christiane,

    I’m so sorry that your baby died and that you got stinky care. I also wish I had been there to care for you. The staff missed so many chances to care for you well. Maybe you would consider becoming a nurses someday…you could teach them the RIGHT way to do it.August 22, 2012 – 5:24 pmReplyCancel

  • Barbara - Beautiful story.August 22, 2012 – 7:42 pmReplyCancel

  • Infant Death and Sacred Parenting: An Interview : Accepting Abundance - […] Infant Death and Sacred Parenting: An Interview Originally published at Catholic Sistas […]August 23, 2012 – 12:51 pmReplyCancel

  • Claire - 23, 2012 – 2:16 pmReplyCancel

  • anna lisa - Thank you Tammy, I’ve appreciated your comments on blogs at the NCRegister. Thank you Warner family for sharing your beautiful, intimate photos. We buried our baby Ambrose this month last year. His headstone arrived just a few days ago, and I still don’t have the courage to open the crate and look at it. The most unforgettable aspect of having to go through such an agony as this was the incredible humanity of those who cared for all of us: the technician who first told us the news, the doctors that walked us through his imminent death, the good priest that cried with us and anointed me and my pregnant belly, and most importantly, the Eucharistic minister that “happened” to come to bring me Jesus, in holy communion, when I was at 10 and ready to push, after a day of labor. We were not alone, and Jesus was there to help me carry that cross. I joyfully anticipate rejoining Ambrose, Angelina, Michael and Teresa in heaven some day.
    Thank you for the beautiful work that you do.August 23, 2012 – 3:29 pmReplyCancel

  • Tricia - I read this article yesterday, and it’s been floating around in my head since. First of all, I would like to say God Bless you, Tammy, for the work that you do. I’m sure it is not easy work, but I can only imagine how you have comforted parents at such a painful time.

    The other thought that occurred to me is that in the world’s eyes the lives of these precious babies would be meaningless because they never were able to live or “do” anything, and that the suffering of their parents would be meaningless too. It would seem they endured the suffering involved in pregnancy, delivery, and especially in grieving, and never have been able to experience any of the joys of bringing new life into the world. But that’s were the beauty of our Faith comes in. These children may never have been born to live a life here on earth (or only were able to do so very briefly) but they were born for eternity. And what greater gift can a parent give their child but to open themselves up to suffer (as we all do as parents), and therefore cooperate with God in creating souls to live forever with Him?August 24, 2012 – 1:09 pmReplyCancel

  • Tammy - Adrienne, Im sorry I meant to say hello before and my mind failed me. I know exactly what purple box you speak of and its a shame the nurse didnt have more skills to walk with you through your experience…I teach every nurse who comes near me so that were ready to respond. I hate stories like yours.

    Anna Lisa…funny you put the pieces together of who the Nurse Tammy is. I never quit speaking up for these wee ones. I hope that someone remembered Ambrose’s anniversary day. I try to handwrite cards to arrive close to the 1 year day. Seeing his name on a stone is sobering : ( How dear that God kept dropping people into your world when you needed them.

    Tricia, thank you for your kind words…what you said is true and these babies give us a huge opportunity to show our faith when we value them in a world that tells us doing so is a waste of effort. The effect these babies have on the world does NOT go away soon after birth/death. I tell consoling stories of babies who died 12 years ago. The photos in the video were taken in a small town in Virginia and have been seen in 97 countries. It is being used to teach perinatal end of life care in Japan. One of the Japanese nurses is coming to visit me here in sept +]:oDAugust 28, 2012 – 8:55 pmReplyCancel

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