SAN DIEGO — When Ann Nickel's 9-day-old son died in 1973 of a congenital heart defect and Peggy Macy's 1-year-old son succumbed to a neuromuscular disease in 1975, both women wished there was someone by their side who understood the grief of a newly bereaved parent.
It was this need and their compassion for others that led them and another San Diego mother in early 1982 to found Empty Cradle, a nonprofit group for those who have experienced the loss of a child through miscarriage, stillbirth or in early infancy.
The organization, which attracts 20 to 60 people at its monthly meetings, is steadily growing. Its founders say hundreds of San Diegans have sought help from the organization, and its participants say it helped educated the local medical community about how to handle grieving parents.
"We are just parents who have experienced the same thing, and that is our greatest validity," Nickel said. The child would have been her second son. She said she had a healthy pregnancy and that doctors were unable to detect any problems until a day or two after the birth.
"When people come to us, they feel safe and secure because they know we are not going to analyze their feelings, we are going to support and understand them," Nickel said. "Frequently people come about two months after the loss. It is when they have to get on with their lives, but there is this terrible emptiness.
"Also, friends and family members feel you should not be talking about it anymore. You feel very isolated and misunderstood."
Rosemary Brenig, who had a stillbirth in 1983 followed by three miscarriages, said the organization is so strong because each grieving parent is assigned a "resource mother" who has had a similar experience.
"So my resource parent was a mother who had a stillbirth," said Brenig, who learned of the organization from a social worker at the hospital and a friend who is a nurse. "It is the only way it is meaningful. It is a healing process to talk to someone because no one really understands until they have been there, and these people had been there."
The meetings usually begin with a guest speaker, such as a psychologist or a physician, and the participants then divide into "small sharing groups," said Brenig. During one of her last checkups before delivering the baby, doctors failed to detect a heartbeat. They never determined the cause.
She said people must deal with their grief by accepting the different stages of it, including denial and then anger. She emphasized that some people are never allowed to do this, a detrimental mistake.
"We have even had people who are grandmothers who come to our group because they have never ever dealt with their loss," she said. "It was sort of shoved under the carpet and nobody talked about it in the parlor.
"Years later they have come to the group and said, 'I lost a daughter or a son 30 or 40 years ago, and nobody would let me grieve.' They've cried for the first time, and all those years they carried all those feelings around unresolved."
Brenig and Macy said the medical community is also beginning to help in the healing process by being more aware of how to handle newly bereaved parents, in part because of the group's efforts.
"The first year, we spent a lot of time doing in-service presentations in hospitals to doctors and nurses, creating a liaison between ourselves and the professionals," said Macy, whose child was not diagnosed as having the fatal disease until he was 4 months old. "Many self-help groups set themselves a part from the professionals.
"We wanted to ally ourselves with them. We don't feel we are here to take their place--we are there to add to what they do."
While the infant mortality rate decreases as medical technology becomes more advanced, doctors still must deal with this type of trauma.
"Doctors are really beginning to realize how traumatic it is and that it may not have been right to not encourage the mothers to hold their babies," Brenig said. "The parents need to have that contact with the (deceased) baby to resolve their grief. In the past, nobody would feel comfortable saying, 'If you would choose to hold your baby, I would feel comfortable with that.' So these people fantasize for the rest of their life about how the baby felt or that something was horribly wrong with it."
Brenig's husband, Brian, said the loss of a child, particularly a fetus, is not readily understood by society, and that every step taken by the medical community and others is beneficial to the parents.
The grief "lasts a long, long time, and that is one of the things people get in touch with in the process of this group," said Brian Brenig, who participated in the group for a little more than a year.
The group also offers help for those who have had a loss and are now pregnant. The resource mothers in this offshoot group have all had successful pregnancies after a loss.
The Brenigs recently celebrated the birth of a son.