SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital -
Madison Infant Memorial Service:
Mourning the Little Ones
|Rev. Melva Bishop-Hewing, St. Mary’s chaplain (l-r) and
Amy Helt, chair of the Perinatal Bereavement Team, work
with families who have suffered a death of a child.
Back in the mid-1980s, she lost her infant son to what was called back then Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It was crushing.
“Back in the day, people pretended like the baby never existed,” Bishop-Hewing recalled. “You wouldn’t talk about it. Nobody else would talk
about it. I would go into a store and I would hear a baby cry. Or someone who didn’t know would walk up to me and say, ‘Where’s the baby at?’
And then I would have to say, ‘He’s no longer here with me.’ I remember standing in line at church. And I remember every person who said
something wrong. I remember exactly who they are to this day. And it is 33 years later. But I also remember the women who walked up to me
and said, ‘I know how you feel. I lost a child.’ I remember those women. It was almost like they were whispering it because it was like it was
better if it was kept a secret.”
Little did Bishop-Hewing realize that she would be called to serve these women and their loved ones a couple of decades later.
“I was introduced to Clinical Pastoral Education through Sue Quigley,” Bishop-Hewing said. “She called me when I was working at Dane
County Mental Health. She called me and asked me to come over with her to do rounds with her to see a patient. And when I left there, I knew
that was my passion. CPE is Clinical Pastoral Education. One the way out, I prayed to the Father to open the door for me to get that kind of
training. I would be the best chaplain they could ever have. And three weeks later, I was in the program. It was a true calling. I really owe Sue
Bishop-Hewing went through CPE and finished her residency in 2001. For almost 10 years, Bishop-Hewing served at Mt. Zion Baptist Church
before being hired at St. Mary’s Hospital in 2010.
“I came to St. Mary’s as a PRN and was then hired permanently as a core staff in 2012,” Bishop-Hewing said. “A PRN is called in as needed. I
was a chaplain, but came in as needed. In 2012, I became a full-time chaplain. And I was hired specifically for the women and children’s unit
and for psych. It’s pretty heavy stuff. I can work the whole hospital and I did that through PRN. I do that on Saturdays when I work. But if I had a
specialty, it would be working with women who are high-risk pregnancies and people who have babies that died, people who have
experienced some kind of loss.”
Bishop-Hewing has a deep, yet soft voice that is just soothing as she listens to people and gives them affirmation. She provides emotional and
spiritual counseling to people who have experienced a loss.
“I visit every patient on my unit, every one of them,” Bishop-Hewing said. “I knock on their door and introduce myself. And I say, ‘I’m just here
to check on you to see how you are doing.’ And then after we talk, I go on to the next one. Sometimes I stop in thinking I’m only going to be
there for a minute. I’m task oriented. I have 25 patients to see on one floor and so I’m going to run through. And then somebody wants to have a
very deep, emotional conversation, so I have to be very attentive and present and not look at my watch. Those are the ones who really need
you the most.”
Bishop-Hewing is there when they need her.
“If it’s an infant death, I can stay in the room all day,” Bishop-Hewing said. “In most cases, the still-born baby will still be with the parents. I try
not to leave until the parent is ready to be alone. And you will get a clear sign from them that I need to leave. And some parents don’t want you
to leave. And some parents want you to bless the baby and then they would like to be alone. And some parents are like, ‘I don’t know what to
do. I just need you to be here.’”
While in another age, people hushed up the death of an infant, St. Mary’s staff try to get the mother and others affected to open up about it, to
express their grief openly.
“I feel that talking about it makes people feel like it’s recognized versus they have to hide it,” said Amy Helt who has been a nurse in labor and
delivery for almost 15 years. “They will never forget. But because they don’t have this child walking next to them, they can’t show them off. But
they are still proud of this child. And they still want to talk about it and share it. I think culturally we’re getting to that point where it is okay to
And no matter how early in the process that the death occurs, there is still a strong sense of loss.
“Even in early miscarriages where they never felt anything, they still have that hope and that belief and that love that they are growing their
family,” Helt said. “And they had the love in their mind. And it’s really hard especially because there is nothing to hold onto. The mother may
have been trying for 10 years and this is the first time that they got pregnant. We don’t know. They may have had five losses before this and
couldn’t get pregnant again suddenly they had been dealing with infertility and then they got pregnant and then they lost it.”
Bishop-Hewing works with the women and their loved ones to express the grief and then to help them start preparing for the very emotional
transition that they will begin to experience once they leave the hospital.
“We’re trying to open it up for the people and women and families and fathers so that they don’t carry it around with them and not share it,”
Bishop-Hewing said. “We’re trying to open it up so that it can be an open conversation. One of the things that I tell a patient all the time is that I
ask the question, ‘Did your family and friends know that you were expecting?’ And they say, ‘Yes.’ So I tell them that this won’t just affect them.
It will affect family. Someone will walk up to them one day and start rubbing their stomach and ask, ‘When is the baby due?’ And what will you
say? I try to help prepare them for when they leave the hospital. They don’t have to answer it when I am asking it. But I just want them to think
about how they will respond to people once you’ve had a loss.”
St. Mary’s also works to help put in place a continuum of support for the mothers once they leave the hospital.
“Grief is a journey,” Helt said. “That’s what we call it. It’s not something that you ever forget. It never goes away. You just learn how to cope
with it. The Bereaved Parents Support Group, a year ago, started something called HUGS. It stands for Help Understanding and Grief Support.
And the facilitators of the Bereaved Parents Support Group put this together and did a lot of interviews and training of parents who have had
losses who want to give back by being at the bedside of patients who have had losses. They’ve gone through hours and hours of training. We’
ve interviewed each one to make sure that they would they would be a good match. And they are wonderful! They actually fill the gap from
when patients leave the hospital to going home. They will follow-up for up to a year if they choose. They will meet with them in the hospital from
two minutes to 45 minutes if a patient wants to talk that long. And then follow-up with as little as emails to as much as phone calls or meeting
for coffee or coming to their house if they want. They will do anything to give back and help these families.”
If a child dies in the womb after more than 20 weeks of gestation, is still born or dies after delivery, the child must be transitioned to a funeral
home. But in most cases, for the children who die less than 20 weeks, the nuns at St. Mary’s have conducted twice-annual burials for the
In order to open up the process of grieving to more grieving parents regardless of their faith or culture, Bishop-Hewing, Helt and the Resolve
through Sharing group, St. Mary’s child bereavement group, are sponsoring an Infant Memorial Service on Sunday, April 23rd at 2 p.m. in SSM
Health St. Mary’s Madison in the Healing Garden.
“I’m hoping by then we’ll have flowers coming out and we’ll have people singing and will have violinists,” Bishop-Hewing said. “And we’ll
even have an Indian flute player. We want to make sure that people of all faiths or no faith will feel welcome to come and not feel that religion
or their beliefs stand in the way of them coming to this occasion. Our local hospital presidents will give the welcome. And then we will hear
from the director of Women and Children. We’re going to have women — and hopefully their husbands will accompany them — who will talk
about their losses. We want people to understand that they are not alone in this. We don’t want to share our fear, but we would love for people
from the bereavement group to share. And I am hoping that this year that people who will be at the memorial service will say, ‘I would love to
be a speaker next year.’ That may be two years out. We feel that two years out from your loss is a good time. If someone would have asked me
to speak a year after my loss, I probably would have been crying. Everyone in the room would have been crying. And the program would have
been over. People get a lot of affirmation. And it is okay to cry. And it is great to remember.”
Helt also emphasized that it is important that anyone feeling that sense of loss, no matter what their background is, feel welcome to come to the
ceremony. The loss of an infant is a universal sense of grief.
“We’re trying to make the ceremony as open to the public as possible,” Helt said. “It’s going to be for anyone who has had an infant loss at any
age. And at the end, we want to have a fellowship. We’re going to have refreshments so that they can mingle and talk and maybe even ask
questions of the speakers who have been through what they are going through now. And we’re trying to provide a time for them to come and
The loss of a little one causes such a fundamental sense of loss that can be overwhelming and debilitating. Just as we have shared the joy
with everyone, it is important to share that sense of grief as well in order to begin and continue the healing process. The loss will never be
forgotten, but life must also move on.
By Jonathan Gramling
It is probably one of the most powerful moments in human existence, the birth of a
child. There is the moment when the woman realizes that she is carrying a life
within her. Perhaps the couple has been trying to conceive for years. And then
there are the joyous announcements and congratulations as family, friends, co-
workers and others find out. There are all of the preparations, from buying clothes
to preparing a room.
The anticipation of the birth of a child is all-consuming as the parents get
everything ready. There is a heightened sense of energy and connection. It is as if
nothing else exists.
But then something goes wrong. And for some reason, the child dies within the
woman’s womb, is still born or dies after delivery. It is a crushing blow to the
woman and her partner, a time of intense sadness and feelings of loss and the
rest of the people in their worlds must be informed of this terrible turn of events.
Some don’t get the message.
Rev. Melva Bishop-Hewing, chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital, knows what it is like.