Episode 13, Season 2: Stigma and support — A conversation with a Pittsburgh bereavement doula

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Should we talk about loss more? Does it make a difference if it’s a loss of an elderly parent or an infant? Pittsburgh bereavement doula Heather Bradley helps parents through infant loss and thinks everyone could stand to benefit from talking about end-of-life issues more openly.

Heather Bradley is the executive director of Pittsburgh Bereavement Doulas. From the Source Host Jourdan Hicks speaks with Heather about her 20-plus-year career as a doula, how the prevalence of poor prenatal experiences for women make her work essential and the need to reduce the stigma around death and grief.

Jourdan: Hello again, friends. We are now at Episode 13. We’re about three episodes out from our final episode of the season. I know, clap-clap. We made it, tear, so sad, but you know we’ll come back for season three. But we'll get to that later. On this episode, we are going to be continuing our theme of looking at the quality of life in Pittsburgh, who is afforded it, where and why. I want to share with you a snippet of the conversation that I had with Heather Bradley. She is a part of Pittsburgh Bereavement Doulas and illustrates how taboos that we have around talking about death, birth and the inequities in our region all intersect within the realm of maternal health. Care should not be dictated by the zip code that you live in or the color of the skin that holds your body together. After listening to Heather, you'll learn about the expanded options available to families who lost new loved ones sooner than they would have liked to or expected. And how having more holistic support at work and inside hospitals helped Heather to do her job better for families.

Episode 13 contains a sensitive discussion about pregnancy loss and the context in which death doulas or bereavement doulas work in, which some listeners may find triggering or disturbing. So please proceed and listen with caution and care. Thanks.

Heather: My name is Heather Bradley, and I'm the founder and executive director of Pittsburgh Bereavement Doulas, most of what I do is support families who are experiencing pregnancy loss, whether it be miscarriage or stillbirth or termination for medical reasons, support them through the decision-making process beforehand, through labor and birth of their child, and then afterwards trying to make that time meaningful together that they have left when they're, you know, physically together. You know, I do see a lot of things that I don't feel are right. I had a Black mom once who went into the ER at 35 weeks pregnant, bleeding, and she had to wait 30 minutes to be seen. She has to make this decision. She tells me, do I play the angry Black woman to get attention or do I just wait and wait till someone sees me? And I just thought to myself, you know, I've never had to make that decision in my life or even think of that. It's horrible that anybody who comes into the ER bleeding at 35 weeks would have to wait and not be seen immediately. When she finally was seen, there was no heartbeat. And, you know, she's always going to wonder when I got there, maybe, was there a heartbeat when I got there? Could they have saved my baby with, you know, an emergency C-section? But she'll never know. I do wonder and have wondered. How I can best serve Black families because I'm white and I've talked to some Black doula friends of mine and they reassured me that if I was sincere, that it would be OK. But I think it's important that we can offer a Black doula to a Black family if that's what they want. I feel like sometimes I've had to be their advocate and use my privilege to stand up for them. This is going back 20 years, I was working with a clinic patient, she was a young Black woman and I still have her story written down because it's so unbelievable. They weren't going to give her an epidural or pain medication because the doctor didn't believe in giving — now they didn't say Black — they said, you know, women like her, which, you know, young woman having a baby because they wanted her to, I guess, discourage her from having another baby. But it was known that this doctor would not give pain medication to certain patients, I guess. That story always sticks out with me. She was not getting an epidural. The nurse told me flat out that that's because that doctor didn't believe in them.

Heather: We want to educate people how to interact with, you know, parents and families who have lost a baby because people usually just clam up and they don't know what to do. I mean, that's what happened to me. That's what, why I started this, because, you know, my friend had a stillbirth and despite being in birth work for 20 years, I really didn't know what to do for her. And then I realized, well, nobody knows what to do. And these people are really suffering. They're not just suffering the loss of their baby at that time, but it just trickles over into the years afterwards when their relationships with other people are affected because people don't know how to talk about death.
People do not know what their options are. A lot of times I feel like there are doctors pushing for termination when there's an anomaly with the baby. People can totally choose to carry to term in that situation. Our goal is to present all their options. If someone goes in for a doctor's visit and there's no heartbeat, you know, we want to talk to them as soon as we can because we want to give them all their options. You can go home for a day or two and process. And as far as funeral care, I feel like a lot of parents don't know their options when it comes to funeral care. They can take their baby home if they want. They can, you know, after their baby passes, they can keep their baby with them as long as they want. There's no rush through that process. And so our job is to just really give everyone all their options.

Heather: I mean, I've always been comfortable with death, you know, I watched my grandfather die. I really researched and learned before I started interacting with families, because you can do this wrong as someone who supports families in grief. And I didn't want to do that. People say a lot of dumb things to people in this situation, and they mean, well, they really do. But they'll say things like, well, at least you have living children, at least, you know, you can get pregnant. All these at least statements, at least you're young. You can try again. Like these phrases are not helpful when your baby dies. Those phrases are helpful or things like, you know, there's a reason for everything or God had a plan, you know, all these things that they're just not helpful at all.

Heather: You know, in the past, they were really encouraged not to see their baby and not interact with their baby, making decisions for the family is doing it wrong. Parents are the best people to make decisions for their child. I've been thinking about actually writing something formal for families to give to their place of employment. We always have this discussion with the family after they have their loss and they can have some conversation and give them some advice. We talk to them about, OK, so think about how this is going to play out? When you go back to work, what do you need to do? We suggest, you know, writing an email to your, you know, your boss explaining what happened and telling them what you need. If you don't want anyone to come up to you and talk about your experience, your baby, then you need to say that. The hard thing is, you know, after this happens to people, the burden is on the parents to, like, to do all the educating, which is really unfair. But it's just, you know, more work for them. But to say, you know, please talk about my baby. If you see their picture on my desk, don't be afraid to pick up the picture and admire my child just like you would if I had a live baby. And also just, you know, you still had a baby, plus you're mourning. Do you get your maternity leave? How is your company going to handle that? I mean, I definitely feel like they should get the entire maternity leave that they're entitled to and fathers, too, and partners, too. And I think there are some things in this Family Care Act in Pennsylvania that they're trying to pass that would be helpful.

Heather: We've made it scary and we've moved away from caring for people during this time and trying to find the meaning in it and the beauty in it. And I think that's possible. When we go into a situation where someone has lost a child, that's one of the first things we do is slow everything down. With the whole stop and pause, we don't need to rush through this. Let's think about how we're going to give this person a good death, how we're going to make this meaningful, how we're going to create memories. Let's try to put all the darkness, and all the fear and the scary feelings aside. You can come back to them later. You definitely will come back to them later. But we want to think clearly now and think rationally and be present at this time. You can come back to all that darkness later.

Jourdan:
I think it's more than fair to say that it is inevitable that one day you'll need to take time off to care for an ill loved one, be it your parents or your partner or a baby, or someone will need to take time off to take care of you. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, you can take 12 weeks off from your job, keep your job, but you won't get paid despite your employer's ability to or not. They do not have to pay you. FMLA rules only apply to employers with 50 employees or more.

Jourdan: President Biden wants to guarantee workers 12 weeks off with paid leave. According to data found on the Family Care Act website FamilyCareAct.com, when employees have paid time off, 40% of mothers are likely to not need food stamps or any type of public assistance. Dads are able to take leave and help take care of their new child, which decreases the rates of infant mortality and improves health outcomes. It also increases the likelihood of parents returning back to the workforce after taking time off. If you live in Jersey, D.C., New York, California, Washington State, Rhode Island, you already have access to paid leave. On May 6th of this year, State Rep. Tim Briggs introduced legislation to support working families by creating a paid family leave act for Pennsylvania: House Bill 788.

Rep. Briggs: My bill would provide a safety net to help ensure workers have the time they need to deal with serious medical issues, care for sick family members, raise their children or other circumstances without worrying about how they'll pay the bills.

Jourdan: House Bill 788 would require employers with at least four employees to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to eligible employees. The leave will be counted against the FMLA leave, which employees are entitled to based on certain eligibility requirements, with a significant difference being they would be paid versus unpaid.

Rep. Briggs: Too often folks are put in a situation deciding between compassion and doing what is right versus being able to pay the rent.

Jourdan: For more information about Pittsburgh Bereavement Doulas and the services they provide, you can find more information about them at pittsburghbereavementdoulas.com.

Jourdan: This podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, please get in touch with me, you can send me an email at jourdan@publicsource.org. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at PublicSource.org. I'm Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe and be well.

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