The Birth of Purpose: Foundation Emerges from Stillbirth

A mother’s viewpoint of grief: deep and profound

Nicole Alston recalls: April 29, 2005, was our due date, and like any typical first-time parents responding to the initial signs of labor, my husband Paul and I dashed to the hospital full of hope and promise. After years of unexplained infertility and a miscarriage in 2003, we had rehearsed this long-awaited occasion countless times.

However, there was no dress rehearsal for what happened next. Only minutes after being admitted and taken to a labor and delivery room, our lives took an unex­pected and painful turn. With a quick glance at the monitor, the nurse’s face became pensive and grim. Immediately our minds replayed the accumula­tion of events over the last nine months — sonograms, doctors’ visits, baby shower, planning a nursery, endless cravings, choosing a name — that we had imagined would build to the happiest moment of our lives.

But every­thing came to a screeching halt when we heard our physician say, “I’m sor­ry, there is no heartbeat.” Suddenly, the same labor and delivery room that once carried an air of hope and joyous expectation had become permeated with unyielding agony and muffled cries of bewilderment and despair. The horror continued after being induced and having to endure the merciless pain of labor and delivery. Hours later, the probability of a miracle was shat­tered by a macabre new reality: our seven pound, one-ounce baby named Skye was born still.

Consistent with African American culture, our funeral directors and pastors conducted her wake and funeral service (Rosenblatt and Wallace, 2005). The haunting loss that followed Skye’s death made us feel like two rookie boxers in the ring, fighting against a set of frightening opponents: rage, despair, depression, the loneliness of social isolation, and unparalleled grief.

Amid the deluge of grief, I became consumed with reading about stillbirth, and learned that African American women were twice as likely to have this experience (Ananth, Shiliang, Kinzler, and Kramer, 2005). Most salient was the mounting research showing that despite income or educa­tional level, this disparity continued to persist among black women (Jack­son, Phillips, Hogue, & Curry-Owens, 2001).

A father’s viewpoint – grief delayed and sometimes denied:

Paul Alston recalls: Skye’s death was deeply traumatic, but my grief was often overlooked. Most of the focus was on Nicole and her pain, and her grief should in no way be minimized. Conventional wisdom suggests that a mother’s grief is felt in a most intimate way, due to the physical bond between mother and baby. For 40 weeks, Nicole carried Skye; she knew our baby’s schedule, her favor­ite foods, and her “in utero” personality. Although my bond with Skye was different indeed, it was still significant. I enjoyed talking to Skye through Mommy’s tummy, watching her respond to my voice with powerful kicks or slow, deliberate movements.

Growing up, I had learned to imitate the model established by the men in my family – my father and uncles. “Being strong” emotionally was the hall­mark of becoming a black man. Head (2004) wrote, ”from the time we are young boys, black males have ingrained…an idea of manhood that requires a silence about feelings, a withholding of emotion, an ability to bear burdens alone” (p. 3). I emulated this behavior as I knew of no other strategy to cope with Skye’s death (Rosenblatt and Wallace, 2005).

I was taught that my assignment as a man would be to take care of my family. But Skye’s death left me emotionally bankrupt, rendered helpless against this most challenging grieving process. “Fixing” this overwhelming problem required doing something I knew was impossible – bringing Skye back. Strong feelings of failure and frustration emerged: I had failed my wife and my child. Was there something I could have done to save Skye and prevent this tragedy from happening (Head, 2004; Rosenblatt & Wallace, 2005)?

A crusade is born:

We have always relied on prayer and fasting to aid us in our search for understanding and wisdom. Disability ran out, and Nicole was laid off from an 11-year career. The hard road of disappointment was becoming even harder. A 21-day partial fast would reveal a glimpse of our purpose.

Four months after our daughter’s death, the Skye Foundation, a non-profit or­ganization, was established with the standard of care for bereaved women and families at the forefront of our mission. Within a year, Skye’s story had been shared in national magazines and on television and radio (Gray, 2006; Power of parents, 2006; Whitfield, 2006). Additionally, Nicole produced a video on infant mortality from the African American perspective. Our vision became clearer after Nicole began speaking to audiences of nurses, social workers, and physicians about providing comprehensive psychosocial sup­port to families experiencing the death of a baby.

Conclusion:

Painted on the canvas of our imagination is the wish that our due date would always commemorate Skye’s “birth” day rather than her death. Yet, we realize that our life’s work could not have been discovered except through this experience.

On what would have been Skye’s third birthday, we followed the tradition of decorating her gravesite with flowers and balloons. This year, one of the balloons slipped away. I (Nicole) stood there quietly, following its journey into the clouds for as long as I could — smiling and crying. As on most days, I was caught on an emotional see-saw of wishing Skye were here, while feel­ing immeasurable gratitude for the mission that her life has initiated.

References

Ananth, C.V., Shiliang, L., Kinzler, W. L., & Kramer, M. S. (2005). Stillbirths in the United States, 1981-2000. An age, period, and cohort. American Journal of Public Health, 95 (12), 2213-2217.

Gray, K. (2005). Do you need a faith lift? Essence, 36(8),158-162.

Head, J. (2004). Standing in the shadows: Understanding and overcoming depression in black men. New York: Broadway Books.

Jackson, F.M., Phillips, M.T., Hogue, C.R., & Curry-Owens, T.Y. (2001). Examining the burdens of gendered racism: Implications for pregnancy outcomes among college-educated African American women. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 5(2), 95-107.

Power of parents. (2006, December). Parents Magazine, 26.

Rosenblatt, P. and Wallace, B. (2005). African American grief. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Whitfield, T. (2006, April 24). Finding hope. New Morning Show: Hallmark Channel. Lightworks Producing Group, Inc.

About the Authors:

Nicole and Paul Alston are co-founders of the Skye Foundation, www.theskye­foundation.org. An international speaker, Nicole is pursuing her Masters at Co­lumbia University School of Social Work; her research interests are grief and suicide. Their e-mail address is skyefoundation@aol.com.

This article originally appeared in The Forum, the managzine of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Reprinted with permission.

Nicole Alston

More Articles Written by Nicole

As Founder and Executive Director of The Skye Foundation, Nicole Alston’s mission is as heartfelt as it is hard-won. The New Jersey-based nonprofit organization was established in memory of Nicole’s firstborn daughter, Skye, in 2005. Skye’s sudden death deluged Nicole in grief. In seeking a new “normal,” her life’s work was revealed. Drawing on experiential knowledge, Nicole has spoken to audiences internationally about providing comprehensive psychosocial support for families who are grieving the death of a baby. Nicole’s story has been shared in Essence and Parents magazines, the Amsterdam News, on radio, Hallmark television’s New Morning Show, and a host of local venues. In 2006, she produced a video about bereaved parents and their grief experience, interspersed with commentary from the medical community. Nicole serves on various state and national boards, focusing on improving birth outcomes and providing compassionate care to families experiencing reproductive loss: the Northern New Jersey Maternal Child Health Consortium, the Black Infant Mortality Reduction Resource Center Advisory Board, and on the national expert panel of the African American Faith-Based Initiative. Passionately driven, Nicole addresses standards of care for bereaved women and families coping with reproductive loss. “Physicians, nurses and the health care system at-large play a vitally important role. What is done and said in moments of acute grief can either set families in motion toward healing, or make an already arduous journey much more difficult,” Nicole explains. Currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Social Work at Columbia University, Nicole hopes to continue to explore her twin research interests, reproductive loss and suicide, particularly among those who are disproportionately affected by adverse birth outcomes. Reach Nicole at skyefoundation@aol.com or through one of her website -- http://www.theskyefoundation.org or www.complicatedgrief.org.

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  • Warren says:

    What poignant remembrances Nicole and Paul present. Having experienced similar ordeals with my wife, I can appreciate the pain these two brave souls have expressed here. I’m sure many others would join in acknowledging the grief felt over such an intimate loss.

  • Coleste says:

    What an inspiring story. I have forwarded this page to a co-worker. Her friend recently lost a child in the second trimester. She is devasted. I am hoping that your story will be encouraging to her.

  • Karen says:

    I am so glad to hear someone articulate the feelings so many can relate to, well done!

  • Robin says:

    Nicole your words about your ordeal are so profound I was moved to tears even learning about this just today (Dec. 8, 2009). So many times I’d see you at the gym and never knew… Never knew this was yet another thing to be added to the list of statistics that plague our folks. My heart, my blessings, my thoughts go out to you, your husband, and your mission to educate and help heal.

  • Tom Test says:

    Thank you for your words!