October 28, 2005

Couple encourages people to support parents who experience infant loss

By Mary Ann Wyand

Grief changes people’s lives forever.

St. Bernadette parishioners Cary and Teresa Bracken of Indianapolis learned that extremely painful life lesson eight years ago when their daughter, Sophia Marie, died shortly before birth and again seven years ago when their second daughter, Madeline Hope, died shortly after birth.

Sophia was a full-term stillborn baby and Madeline had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a rare genetic disorder of the diaphragm that caused her death.

The Brackens were among dozens of grieving parents who participated in St. Francis Hospital’s 20th annual Walk to Remember on Oct. 22 at Sarah T. Bolton Park in Beech Grove.

With their 5-year-old son, Jarod, and 2-year-old daughter, Ava, and relatives, they remembered Sophia and Madeline during a memorial service that honored and validated the lives of babies who died because of ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death.

“It is a nice comfort to be around other parents who have lost children as well and understand our feelings,” Cary Bracken said. “Now that time has passed—eight years for Sophie and seven years for Maddie—it’s still recognizing that they did exist. We have four children, and the walk helps validate that.”

When their infant daughters died, the Brackens received a variety of types of assistance from St. Francis Hospital staff members and spiritual support from Father James Farrell, their pastor at the time, and St. Bernadette parishioners. They also relied on family members and friends to help them take their first steps on their grief journey.

“Right away, we became involved with Resolve Through Sharing,” he said, and the support group for grieving parents helped them cope with the deaths of their babies.

They also spent time at Calvary Cemetery in Indianapolis, where their daughters’ bodies are interred in the Infants’ Circle.

“The people at our church rallied behind us,” Cary Bracken remembered. “St. Bernadette is small so everybody knows everybody. … Everyone grieved with us.”

The church was filled with family members, friends and parishioners for their daughters’ funerals in 1997 and 1998, he said, but it was still hard to go home to an empty crib in the nursery.

“We had all this love to give,” he said, and had to cope with the heartbreak of losing two children.

“We almost fell away from God a little bit after losing Madeline too,” he said. “I was giving it to God, and I felt like it would be OK and it wasn’t. It probably took a good year for me to come to the realization that I could handle it. … And even with all that we had been through, we still wanted children.”

They found ongoing support from their family and friends and by attending monthly Resolve Through Sharing meetings.

Three years later, he said, Jarod’s birth helped them continue to heal from the loss of their daughters then two and a half years ago they were also blessed with the birth of their third daughter.

“Teresa and I have always been excellent communicators with each other and I think that helped,” Cary Bracken said. “We learned that we could get through this time. The Resolve Through Sharing program helps make that easier.”

The Brackens talk with nurses who are training to become bereavement counselors to help them prepare for this ministry.

“Even though our two daughters passed away, it was still the most beautiful experience of a lifetime,” he said. “It’s who we are today because of it, and even though they passed away it was very holy. They were alive and we felt that we knew them. … In the short time that Maddie was alive, she touched many, many lives. Because of her existence, many people’s lives were changed for the better.”

Going home from the hospital with empty arms is heartbreaking, Teresa Bracken said, and they had to do that twice.

“It was very difficult walking into the house,” she said. “The house never felt the same again because there was always that emptiness in our hearts and our home. … When we were able to bring Jarod and Ava home to the house, that made it feel better. … But it was kind of like our innocence was shattered.”

At first, she didn’t think she could even go into the nursery, but then felt herself being drawn to the empty crib as she tried to accept the reality that their daughters had died.

“We had a great support system with family and friends who took turns going into the nursery with us and letting us talk about it, and that helped,” she said. “It’s such a shock as a parent to walk through the door and know that you were supposed to come home ‘three’ and you’re coming home ‘two.’ ”

They appreciated the support system at their parish, she said, but it was hard to see other expectant mothers at church.

“Some people don’t know what to say so they shy away from you and that hurts more,” Teresa said. “Sometimes people didn’t even acknowledge it, and we felt like, ‘Wait a minute. This was a life-changing [experience] for us.’ … People that I felt comfortable with wanted to talk about Sophie and Maddie. They wanted to see their pictures.”

By sharing their grief stories, Cary and Teresa Bracken said they hope people will learn how to reach out to grieving parents.

“It’s such an isolating experience that if you don’t have an outlet for that [grief] it builds up in you,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to talk with a friend about it. The best thing people can say is ‘I’m here for you, and I would love to listen if you ever need to talk. Whatever you need from me, I’m here for you.’ I had so many people tell me that, and it meant a lot that they wanted to talk and listen.” †


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