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Cherished memories

Group helps families cope with the loss of a baby

Almost a year ago, Arah Kunz gave birth to a baby that she knew wouldn’t live.

Olivia, a 3-pound infant with dark brown hair and a face that resembled her father’s, died less than two hours after she was born.

In the brief time she spent with her family, the baby girl was showered with love. Kunz held her close as Olivia clutched her finger. Her father, Matt, bathed and dressed her in a white cotton outfit crocheted by a friend. Her older sister, 5-year-old Brinley, spoke to her through tears. Her grandparents and other relatives also were in the hospital room – welcoming Olivia into the world and at the same time, saying goodbye.

During their 19th week of pregnancy, Arah and Matt Kunz learned from an ultrasound that their baby had problems with her kidneys and likely wouldn’t live.

Terminating the pregnancy was never an option for Arah Kunz, who had already suffered five miscarriages in the past. “I just wanted her to have the opportunity to get to know her family,” she said. “I wanted her to know that she was loved.”

Every year, more than 27,000 infants never make it to their first birthday, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Some die shortly after they’re born. In addition, one in about 200 pregnancies results in stillbirth, according to the March of Dimes.

In 2004, a total of 25,655 fetal deaths at more than 20 weeks gestation were reported in the United States – nearly as many as the total of infant deaths, which was 27,860, according to the CDC.

In the months before Olivia’s birth, the Kunz family did all they could to make the baby a part of their life. They took numerous photographs of Arah as her stomach swelled. At night, they sat in bed with their hands on her belly feeling the baby kick. They talked to her, sang to her and told the infant all about her family.

It is a grief beyond words, said Arah Kunz. To feel your child move inside your womb knowing she will never be part of your life. To have to explain the circumstances to strangers who congratulate you and inquire about your pregnancy. To face the painful truth that you will come home from the hospital without a baby in your arms.

It is a grief that changes you forever, she said.

“She was with us and she gave our family a lot of strength,” said Arah Kunz. “She wasn’t just a baby that was born and died. Her life meant something. … We learned so much about ourselves because of her. She made us stronger people and a stronger family. She taught us that life doesn’t end.”

Almost a year after her death, Olivia’s memory lives.

She lives through her mother’s kindness to others, especially in the way Arah Kunz has reached out to grieving families through the Forget-Me-Not Program at Sacred Heart Medical Center and the Spokane chapter of the MISS Foundation.

Established two years ago by a Sacred Heart nurse who lost her own child, Forget-Me-Not provides supportive care for families with unborn infants diagnosed with life-threatening or life-limiting conditions. As part of that program, Arah Kunz uses her talents as a photographer to help families create keepsakes of their babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Arah Kunz, 30, is also involved in the MISS Foundation – a volunteer-based organization committed to providing crisis support and long-term aid to families after the death of a child from any cause.

Since it was founded in 1996, the nonprofit has been offering services, resources and support to families throughout the country.

The MISS Foundation gives parents, grandparents and others who have suffered the loss of a child a chance to let out their tears, anger, grief and other emotions, said Sara Weaver-Lundberg, a co-facilitator of the Spokane chapter. It’s a place to ask questions and to connect with and lean on others who have been there.

For some families whose babies were stillborn, it sometimes feels as though their child never existed to the world, said Sarah Bain, a co-facilitator whose baby, Grace, died in her womb at 33 weeks in 2003. No one ever asks them about the birth of the babies who died, she said. By being part of the MISS Foundation, these parents are able to acknowledge the existence of their children and know that their lives, no matter how brief, mattered.

Arah and Matt Kunz attended their first MISS meeting while Arah was still pregnant with Olivia. They wanted to meet other parents who had survived what they were about to face. They wanted to connect with people who knew what it was like to experience loss in order to cope with the feelings and comments from strangers about the impending death of their child.

“Through her work … she is helping families build the only memories they will ever have of their babies,” said Weaver-Lundberg. “She has been able to turn her own personal tragedy into something beautiful and bigger than just her and her story – an opportunity to help others in the same situation.”

She does this with gentleness, respect and love, Weaver-Lundberg explained, because “she gets it – she’s been there.”

Weaver-Lundberg lost her daughter in 2004. At 29 weeks, she found out baby Isabelle wouldn’t live long after she was born. Doctors never determined what was wrong with her. Isabelle’s parents were able to spend a day with her – to witness her open her eyes, to hold her, to be part of her brief yet precious life.

Through the MISS Foundation, women like Weaver-Lundberg have found healing and strength. “Losing a child is the worst thing ever,” she said. “This is a group that you never want to belong to, but it’s there for people who come into this difficult situation. … We’re not counselors, but we’re moms who have gone through the same thing.”

MISS also encourages parents to honor their children through actions, particularly through a program called the “Kindness Project,” which entails doing random acts of kindness – buying someone a meal, collecting backpacks with school supplies for impoverished children, reaching out to someone in pain – all in the name of their children.

“My hope is that I can make a difference in someone else’s life,” said Arah Kunz.

Arah’s second daughter, Olivia Kamille, was born Nov. 11 at 12:27 a.m., about 12 minutes after Arah walked through the doors of Sacred Heart. When she died less than two hours later, her family stayed with her for another 20 hours. They not only held her as they mourned, they recorded every detail of her brief life through photographs and by making molds of her hands, toes and her face.

Keeping these mementos, including a clipping of their hair, not only helps families remember their child, explained Arah; it can also help them heal.

On Sundays after church, the Kunz family often drives to the old Saltese Cemetery in Veradale, where Olivia is buried. Brinley brings pictures and painted rocks. Sometimes, she’ll bring apples so that the deer will visit her little sister. On several occasions, including Mother’s Day, the family has a picnic at the cemetery.

“I looked at Olivia’s birth not as a trial, but as a chance to experience her life,” she said.

Arah and Matt Kunz are now pregnant with their third child, a baby girl named Sarah Mae. Her due date is Nov. 12 – one day after the birth and death of her older sister.

Like Arah, some of the mothers who come on a regular basis to the MISS meetings say they, too, feel a sense of hope by sharing the stories of their children. It is a way to honor their memories, said Lundberg-Weaver. Some also are motivated by a sense of obligation to help others who have experienced loss and to be there for them in their grief.

“Each one of our children lives on through the kind things we do for others in their name,” said Weaver-Lundberg. “Baby Olivia will be remembered because of Arah’s generosity with her time and her heart.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at virginia_de_leon@yahoo.com. You can also comment on this story and other topics related to families and parenting by checking out The Spokesman-Review’s Parents’ Council blog: www.spokesman review.com/blogs/parents.


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