Empty Arms Bereavement Support helps parents cope with their infants’ deaths before, at or shortly after birth

  • Krystal and Lawrence Barnes of Florence, left, Carol McMurrich of Westhampton, Beth Pellettieri of Florence, Marisa Pizii of Leverett and Greg Reynolds of Westhampton, all part of Empty Arms support group, are gathered in their meeting space in Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Carol McMurrich of Westhampton, lost her baby Charlotte Amelia Reynolds in 2003. She now leads a support group in Florence that helps people recover after having a similar experience. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Carol McMurrich of Empty Arms Bereavement Support holds Zadhayra Vazquez's hand so the baby’s brother can help make a print of it.

  • Yahayra Luciano’s son, Yadriel Reyes, 7, helps make a print of his baby sister’s foot. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Companion Emily Brownlow steadies the paper while Yadriel does his own handprint. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Yadriel Reyes’s handprint aside his sister’s footprints, made as keepsakes

  • Carol McMurrich of Empty Arms Support makes a footprint of Zadhayra Vazquez. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Yahayra Luciano, 32, of Springfield, who lost her daughter five hours after the child’s birth in April at the Holyoke Medical Center connected with the Empty Arms Bereavement Support group. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Yadriel Reyes,7, was at the hospital following the birth of his sister, Zadhayra Vazquez, who died shortly after birth, and he was able to hold the baby. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Empty Arms Bereavement Support offers comfort to families and help, if they want it, in preserving memories of their baby at the hospital. Afterward, the organization provides assistance in the form of support groups. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Yahayra Luciano, 32, of Springfield, who lost her daughter five hours after the child’s birth in April at the Holyoke Medical Center, connected with Empty Arms Bereavement Support during her pregnancy when she learned her child would not survive long. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Empty Arms Bereavement Support which has been active for over 10 years, finally got its own space on Pine Street in Florence where resources are available. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Empty Arms Support offers to help to families at the hospital and then afterward, in the form of support groups. Jessica Marie Photography inc.

  • Carol McMurrich of Empty Arms Support makes a footprint of Zadhayra Vazquez. Jessica Marie Photography inc

  • Empty Arms Bereavement Support offers help to those who have had miscarriages or lost babies just before or after birth. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Carol McMurrich of Westhampton lost her baby Charlotte Amelia Reynolds at birth in 2003. Here, she displays a photo of herself, Charlotte and husband, Greg Reynolds. The experience led McMurrich to form support groups and offer other assistance to those going through similar experiences. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Some parents find making prints of the baby’s hands and feet comforting as Carol McMurrich did. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Carol McMurrich of Westhampton lost her baby Charlotte Amelia Reynolds at birth in 2003. Here, she displays a photo of herself, Charlotte and husband, Greg Reynolds. The experience led McMurrich to form support groups and offer other assistance to those going through similar experiences. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Some parents find making prints of the baby’s hands and feet comforting as Carol McMurrich did. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Carol McMurrich and Greg Reynolds of Westhampton are shown holding their baby Charlotte Amelia Reynolds, whom they lost in 2003. McMurrich now leads a support group in Florence that helps people in similar circumstances. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Carol McMurrich of Westhampton lost her baby Charlotte Amelia Reynolds at birth in 2003. Here, she displays a photo of herself, Charlotte and husband, Greg Reynolds. The experience led McMurrich to form support groups and offer other assistance to those going through similar experiences. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2017 3:40:25 PM

As Carol McMurrich of Westhampton labored to give birth to her first child at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton 14 years ago, she was told the child’s heartbeat had stopped.

The umbilical cord had been compressed, cutting off the infant’s oxygen supply. The baby girl never got a chance to take a breath.

“When this happens, you are in shock,” said McMurrich. “You are messed up.”

When she saw her daughter’s lifeless body, all McMurrich wanted to do was to cradle her in her arms.

At the suggestion of a social worker, she took pictures, but she wishes she had taken more.

“I don’t think I really understood that I was never going to see her again,” she said. “I don’t think I understood how much I would want to look at her and hang on to every detail of her existence.”

McMurrich spent half of the day curled up in the hospital bed with the baby, who she named Charlotte Amelia, and her husband, Greg Reynolds. A nurse volunteered to take pictures of the three of them together.

“You look at this little person and you think, ‘I love this person so much, but she’s not real to anyone else,’” she said.

In the weeks that followed, McMurrich wrestled with feelings of isolation. She didn’t take a leave from her job and returned to her teaching position in the fall.

Nothing felt right. She says she had what seemed like a primal urge to be with her baby. At the time, there were few social supports to help.

“It can feel very unsurvivable,” she said.

Moved to help others

But McMurrich did survive. She went on to have four healthy children. Still, Charlotte’s death left her determined to help other parents experiencing a similar tragedy.

She founded a small support group which eventually became Empty Arms Bereavement Support, a nonprofit that harnesses a network of volunteers to give emotional help and other assistance to women who have lost a child before or at birth, or during early infancy. The organization now runs six groups that address different stages and circumstances surrounding loss and a hospital companion program that brings volunteers to support grieving families in the hospital.

“We present ourselves as survivors,” McMurrich said.

Nurses at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Holyoke Medical Center in Holyoke and Mercy Medical Center in Springfield alert Empty Arms when a baby has died in utero or at birth.

There are two volunteers who work with McMurrich to respond. One of them will answer a call and go to the hospital to provide comfort, answer questions and arrange to have a professional photographer take pictures of the baby if the parents want them. The volunteer will also help the parents make impressions of the baby’s hand or foot if they want that remembrance of their child.

“People can and do find beauty in their own story if they are given the opportunity,” McMurrich said. “We can give meaning to our child’s life.”

Among women who know they are pregnant, up to 25 percent experience miscarriage — the loss of a fetus before 20 weeks of pregnancy, says the American Pregnancy Association. Stillbirth — when a baby dies after 20 weeks of gestation — occurs in about 1 percent of all pregnancies, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

These parents leave the hospital empty-handed, facing funeral expenses rather than a joyful homecoming.

“For people who have later losses there is such an incredible shift in their thinking,” McMurrich said. “If you have been pregnant for seven or nine months your whole life has been shifted toward thinking about this baby. All of the things that you thought you were going to do were going to include that person and yes, you can still wake up and eat breakfast tomorrow, but that person is not going to be there.”

Saying goodbye

Yahayra Luciano, 32, of Springfield, who lost her daughter five hours after delivery in April at Holyoke Medical Center, connected with McMurrich after she learned, five months into her pregnancy that the baby would die at birth. The infant was diagnosed in utero with anencephaly, a rare condition which left the girl missing part of the skull and brain.

Doctors said she would not live long and suggested that Luciano terminate the pregnancy.

“I said, ‘No.’ ...I wanted to keep the baby. I’d rather give her a name, have a birth certificate, know that she was somebody, that she came to the world, that she was born,” Luciano said.

In the month leading up to the birth, McMurrich met with Luciano every week to talk about what she was going through and to make a birth plan.

“That peer companionship really fills a void that nursing can’t provide,” said Megan Mayo, a perinatal registered nurse at the Holyoke Medical Center. “They are just such caring people.”

In addition to assisting parents, Empty Arms holds training workshops to educate the hospital staff on compassionate care, said Mayo.

When Luciano arrived at Holyoke Medical Center with the baby’s father, Gilberto Vazquez, to give birth by cesarean section, McMurrich was at their side.

Two professional photographers, Erin Long of Easthampton and Jessica Kaczinski of Hatfield who volunteer their services, also came to document the experience.

Luciano named her daughter Zadhayra Vazquez. Over four days in the hospital, Long took photos of the child’s baptism and Kaczinski took pictures while McMurrich helped make imprints of  Zadhayra’s hands and feet. She included Luciano’s son, Yadriel Reyes, 7, in the printmaking and encouraged each family member to hold the baby.

“If I didn’t have the program, I would have missed out on so much,” Luciano said. “I think that helped me get through it.”

When her son and her daughter, Rosalinda Rivera, 14, met their baby sister before her death, they cried, Luciano said.

“They knew they really had to cherish the moment,” said Luciano. “They knew that they weren’t going to hear their baby sister cry for long.”

Since leaving the hospital, Luciano says, she has tried to make it to the Empty Arms Bereavement support group meetings, which are held in Florence on the fourth Wednesday of the month.

But for those who can’t make it to the group, there is a number they can call for any reason — including just to talk. The organization will also help organize funeral arrangements and help set up therapy appointments if that is needed.

“People instantly have this safe space and this community,” McMurrich said.

Isolation after miscarriage

This help also extends to women who have miscarriages and never get to hold their babies.

Lexi Walters Wright, 35, of Florence says she struggled with feelings of isolation when she lost her first child in 2009. She was a graduate student, working full time as an editor, and it was near final exam time in November when her pregnancy ended at about 13 weeks.

Only her husband, Thom Wright, had known she was pregnant; she had planned to tell her parents at Thanksgiving. Now she was uncertain about how to talk about her loss.

“There is this paradigm that if nobody knew then how do you get the support that you need,” she said.

The acupuncturist she was seeing at the time told her about the Empty Arms support groups.

She was relieved, she said, to meet other women who understood what she was going through.

“I went to this group and nobody judged me. Nobody told me I was feeling too much or too little,” she said. “Even though the circumstances were different from person to person around the room, we had all lost the dream of having a family. That commonality and that camaraderie, I found to be really powerful.”

In the months that followed, she got pregnant a second time. Once again, she miscarried.

During her third pregnancy, Wright said, a support group of women who, like her, were pregnant following a loss, helped her deal with her emotions.

“We were on this journey together in another pregnancy and we were all able to hear one another and bear witness to this incredibly complex experience of pregnancy after loss, which is such a wild ride,” she said.

The group, she said, helped her balance feelings of elation for the future and the terror that she could again lose her child.

In May of 2011, she gave birth to a baby boy she named Arlo. She describes him as a “totally healthy, really amazing dude.”

Wright also attended Empty Arms parenting after loss group, where the women can get together with their kids for play dates. And, now, she volunteers to host the miscarriage support group.

Finally, a home

The organization, which started over 10 years ago, with a few men and women meeting informally in conference rooms at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, has now grown into a nonprofit that runs the six support groups, the hospital companion program and, this past summer, finally had raised enough money to move into its own space. In the basement of a mill building on Pine Street in Florence, there are comfy couches, a wide selection of teas on hand and plenty of tissue boxes. There are no regular hours, but if someone coping with a loss needs to talk for any reason, the space can be opened by request.

So far, the organization runs mostly on volunteered time, but some money comes from donations and a grant from the The Howard E. Stark Charitable Foundation.

Two years ago, McMurrich says, she was able to begin taking a stipend for her work, and she has hired a development director, who is writing grant applications.

As years go by, women who get help from Empty Arms continue to stay connected and involved in the group’s work, McMurrich said. “We allow people the space to be able to look at what’s happened and to be able to sit with their story in a place where somebody is willing to hear it. Their loss is an important part of their life story and we are helping them figure out how they are going to weave this thread ... into their future, so it becomes something that doesn’t feel like a fierce pain, so it feels like a part of them.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.

 

How to connect with Empty Arms

 Empty Arms offers free individual consultations any time by text, telephone, email or in person. Call or text 544-5922 or email emptyarmsbereavement@gmail.com.

Following are two support groups it offers at its office, 140 Pine St., Room B2, Florence. Other groups run at various times and can be found by visiting www.emptyarmsbereavement.org.

Bereavement. Open to those who have had any loss experience — miscarriage, stillbirth, early infant death. Fourth Wednesday of each month.

Miscarriage. Open to those who have experienced an early loss. Second Wednesday of each month.




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