For families that experience infant loss prior to childbirth or during, returning home from the hospital is anything but a joyous occasion. Now, however, they have resources in the newly opened Center for Child Loss, run by the Massachusetts Chapter of the TEARS Foundation, and the organization’s annual Rock & Walk fundraiser.
Although the Massachusetts Chapter was formed four years ago, in September 2015, the brand-new Center for Child Loss only recently opened in June as a safe, supportive resource for families who have lost a baby. Located at 300 West Main St. in Northboro, the center offers support groups, a lending library, remembrance ceremonies and self-care days to help families through the grieving process and beyond.
“I have so many big dreams for this place,” said chapter co-leader Brenda Johnston, who lost her son, Liam Michael, at 19 weeks due to a miscarriage in August 2009. “This is what I wanted when I went through this.”
Johnston, however, only received support from the social worker at the Cambridge hospital where she delivered, and it wasn’t until years later, when she moved to Marlboro, that she discovered the local chapter of TEARS, a national organization based in the state of Washington that was founded in 2002. She became a volunteer for the local chapter in 2016 and leader a year later, and has been joined by Grafton resident Emily Coelho, who became co-leader during the summer.
“I love what I do,” Johnston said. “Emily has the same vision for the chapter. We’re both doing it for the same reason.”
Coelho has experienced two losses — an early miscarriage and then the loss of a girl, Lena, in January 2016, months before the baby’s May 3 due date. Although she later attended a support group meeting at UMass Memorial, she found it too difficult to return to the hospital.
“Right after I lost my daughter, I was going crazy doing Google searches trying to find other people who had experienced the same,” Coelho recalled. “It’s a very unique loss where you can’t compare it to something else.”
But to be around other families who have Experienced Infant Loss, “it’s a common bond you have,” Coelho said. “It’s a club no one wants to be part of, but when you’re in it, you’re definitely supported.”
The center offers support group meetings the first Monday of every month from 7 to 9 p.m. — previously, those were held at Becker College’s Linden Hall in Worcester. And before the center opened, when families approached the TEARS chapter for assistance or support, the volunteers had no private space to talk; often, they huddled in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Now, the center has dedicated open hours Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., or by appointment after hours, when families can privately talk with staff, get help and resources, use it as a meeting location for their own support staff like therapists, or just take a moment for themselves.
“They don’t have to meet with us. They can just sit and read a book,” Coelho noted.
In addition, the second Sunday of every month, from 10 a.m. to noon, is a dedicated self-care day for bereaved adults who might need some quiet time.
Whatever reason people choose to visit the center, Johnston said, “now they can come and let it all out. We’re not going to judge them. Even for me, I’ll just walk in and say, ‘This is so calming.’”
The Central Massachusetts center is only the fourth TEARS one of its kind in the country, according to Johnston. The original is at the TEARS national center in Washington state, and others are located in New Jersey and Alaska. The goal is to have a center for every single chapter, she said, adding, “I think it’s really important to have it. It’s a safe space for the families.”
The Massachusetts Chapter and the center are completely staffed by volunteers (meetings are held the third Wednesday of every month from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. for those who want to help the organization), and the center itself is solely funded through donations and fundraisers. Even all the furnishings were contributed, Johnston said.
The chapter’s main fundraiser is the annual Rock & Walk, this year being held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 22 at Nashoba Regional High School, 12 Green Road, Bolton. The event has typically been in June, but for this year, the fourth annual, the chapter decided to instead try September, away from the hotter weather, graduation and wedding season, and summer vacations. Open to all families who have experienced infant loss and also to the general public, the walk is a beautiful, moving tribute to babies who have died. Currently, about 20 teams are registered and 25 names of babies will be honored that day.
“Being able to honor someone who’s passed is so important in the grieving process,” Coelho said. “It’s a healthy way to process your grief and remember your babies. Their life did matter. They were a person.”
For many families who have experienced infant loss, they don’t have a lot of time to create memories with their babies. The Rock & Walk allows them time and space to reflect upon that — even years later. At past events, people who had lost babies 20 and 30 years before participated, Coelho said.
Registration begins at 9 a.m. — teams or individuals can sign up even on the day of the event — with the opening ceremony at 10 a.m., usually a reading or poem recitation or sometimes words from a bereaved parent. The Hero for Compassion Award, given to someone in the medical or clinical field, is presented, and then the names of the babies are read. Participants can also view the memory board, where the babies’ names are written.
“That’s always important for me, seeing her name,” Coelho said of her baby Lena.
The top team leader starts off the walking portion of the event with the Lap of Hope, and participants can circle the track as much or as little as they would like. Some choose to walk through the pathway, lined with the babies’ names again on butterfly drawings, which leads to a reflection area lined with rocking chairs.
“It’s a nice chance to someone to sit and reflect, especially if they need some quiet time,” Coelho said.
Throughout the event, families and participants can enjoy free entertainment, outdoor games, angel readings, the kids’ corner with crafts such as rock painting and a yoga demonstration, concessions and more before the closing ceremony, which begins at noon.
“It’s definitely a safe place to cry,” Coelho said of the event. “But it’s not depressing at all. It’s very family-friendly. I’ve learned over the years you can be happy and sad at the same time. That’s exactly why we have the reflection area.”
“The walk,” said Johnston, “is the one time you get to see other families who are going through the same thing as you. You can see you’re not alone. That’s when you see the numbers. Seeing all the people supporting this cause makes such a difference.”
This year, the event has an added purpose — the chapter leaders are hoping to spread the word about the center. “We’re hoping the Rock & Walk will be our big chance to advertise it,” Coelho said.
And even if people experienced a loss years ago or maybe recently but are grieving silently, “I want people to know even if they’re not ready right away, they can come to us any time,” Coelho said. “Some people need a couple years to get through it.”
Said Johnston, “We want people to know we’re here for them to get help and all the support they need.”
For more information about the Massachusetts Chapter of the TEARS Foundation, visit thetearsfoundation.org/massachusetts/. For more information about the Rock & Walk, visit https://give.thetearsfoundation.org/event/2019-massachusetts-rock-and-walk/e212466.
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