Listening through loss

Jul 18 2017

Nursing student explores how to support mothers in times of grief


The journey into parenthood is supposed to be one of the most joyful times in a person’s life. But for mothers who experience stillbirth, that joy is quickly replaced with profound, unimaginable grief. Having a network of people who can offer support is vital in beginning the healing process, and that support network starts with the nurses who provide care as the mother recovers.

When Bachelor of Science in Nursing alumna Lindsay Carter took a second-year residency on a gynecological surgery unit, she noticed that there was trepidation in the way some nurses communicated with patients who had just experienced stillbirth. Though the nurses had a desire to connect and provide the best care possible, many were simply uncertain how to approach such a uniquely painful situation.

“I found that the nursing staff were sometimes uncomfortable communicating with those patients because that wasn’t their field,” says Lindsay. “Normally they were doing surgical type things so it was brand new to them. They didn’t always know how to interact with the mothers.”

The experience stuck with Lindsay. She continued to wonder how the nurses’ hesitant interactions were affecting the mothers at such a vulnerable time, and how nurses could be better prepared to provide care in these circumstances. After taking a Research in Nursing course the following year, she decided to explore the issue further. “I learned that a big way you can advocate within nursing is through research,” she says. After completing a literature review, which was published in the International Journal of Childbirth Education, she began her own original research by interviewing mothers who had experienced stillbirth.

“ I remember one story in particular about a nurse who sang to a stillborn infant as she was wrapping her up in a blanket. Things like that matter.” Lindsay Carter 

“My research focused on the relationship between a registered nurse and a mother who has had a stillborn delivery,” she explains. “I looked at what the nurse did that was positive and what might have inadvertently caused some extra grief.”

Though every mother she spoke to had a unique story, there was a common thread in what they felt they needed from their attending nurses. “They wanted someone to take the time to just listen,” says Lindsay. “Being an active listener is such a valuable trait in nursing, because often people aren’t looking for an answer. They just want somebody to hear them out.”

It was also important to the mothers that their babies were shown the same validation as as any other newborn. “These mothers want to be able to talk about their baby, and have nurses acknowledge it as a real baby and to call it by the name that she and her partner had picked out,” she says. “I remember one story in particular about a nurse who sang to a stillborn infant as she was wrapping her up in a blanket. Things like that matter.”

The principles Lindsay learned from her research still guide her work, even though she is currently working in another nursing field--the operating room. “Listening is important in any area of nursing,” she says. “I’m only with my patients for five or ten minutes before they’re sleeping, but now I know that’s more than enough time for listening, support, emotional encouragement and a bond to form between nurse and patient.”

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