GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Larisa and Jim Barth arrived at their Browning home in October 2011 with their son, Asher, in a casket. They held a funeral for him a few days later.
Asher was stillborn Oct. 9.
“I used to be that naive pregnant woman. You don’t think anything could go wrong,” said Barth, 27. “To bring him home in his casket, it was not only the loss of a child but the loss of the future.”
At the funeral, Larisa Barth read a poem to her son. In it, she told him, “I held you your whole life.”
Nearly two years later, Barth sits in Gibson Park with her 7-month-old daughter, Kamari, who is sporting a pair of tights with a rainbow design.
It is a fitting garment for Kamari, who is the Barths’ “rainbow baby,” the name given to a child born to a family that previously suffered a miscarriage, stillbirth or the baby’s death in the hospital.
Barth has found a way to work through the grief she felt with the loss of her son. A year after Asher’s death, she began Held Your Whole Life, a growing organization that makes memorial jewelry for babies whom their parents lost too soon.
“It’s helped me grieve,” she admitted.
While on bed rest when she was pregnant with Kamari, Barth made dozens of necklaces, stamped with the names of babies mourned by their parents.
In less than a year of existence, Held Your Whole Life has produced and sent out 2,400 pieces of jewelry to families across the United States and around the world. According to its website, there is a two- to three-month waiting period to receive a necklace.
The Barths run the operation out of their Browning home. Jim Barth is a United Methodist pastor. Larisa Barth worked as a substitute teacher and cheerleading coach until becoming pregnant with Kamari.
With 10 volunteers who live in different states across the country, the U.K. and Canada, Held Your Whole Life is able to meet the demand for hundreds of necklaces each month.
Barth admitted she was surprised by the response to Held Your Whole Life. She believes it meets an urgent need among families who lose children so soon. In some cases, having no physical reminder of their child is difficult for families.
The Barths received a physical token of Asher’s existence several months after his birth and death.
The funeral home was able to get a good quality handprint from Asher after his death, and the Barths had the print put on a piece of jewelry in his memory.
“I know how dear that was to us,” she said. So dear, in fact, that the Barths got matching tattoos of Asher’s handprint with his name written below in Hebrew.
The Barths knew they wanted to do something in memory of Asher. They registered the domain name http://www.heldyourwholelife.com but weren’t sure what their project would be.
When the Barths received the necklace with Asher’s handprint, they decided to dedicate Held Your Whole Life to memorial jewelry. First, they offered necklaces with the child’s name stamped on a charm. They are now offering key chains for dads, and Barth said she hopes someday to offer items for siblings.
The project has connected the Barths with a network of other families that lost their babies, too.
“I felt like I was the only one,” Barth recalled. “I felt like it was my fault, like my body betrayed me.”
In reality, fetal death, defined by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the spontaneous intrauterine death of a fetus at any time during pregnancy, is shockingly high. One report compiled by the National Vital Statistics Report estimated that of the 6.3 million pregnancies in the United States in 2004, just over 1 million of them ended in fetal death. Mothers younger than 15 and older than 40 are at highest risk of their pregnancies ending in fetal death.
Barth eventually learned she has a rare clotting disorder that causes blood clots to form in the placenta. Asher’s body could not get proper nutrition during the third trimester of pregnancy, and he died in utero. Before her second pregnancy, Barth was put on an anticoagulant. Kamari was born in January, a few weeks early, but healthy.
“We got a whole new wave of grief when Kamari was born,” Barth said.
She said they realized for the first time what they had missed — the joys of being a new parent.
Barth said some people don’t seem to understand the grieving involved in having a stillborn child.
“Who wants to talk about a child dying? But I want to raise awareness. These are their parents’ children. They were loved and anticipated,” she said.
But Barth still considers Asher part of their family.
“This is the way we parent Asher,” she said of Held Your Whole Life. “We’re parenting his memory.”
If there is one guarantee about the grief process for humans, it is that for everyone it is different, mental health professionals at the Center for Mental Health in Great Falls said.
Roslyn Gallagher, a licensed counselor who has been working with bereavement groups for several years, said a person’s relationship with the deceased, their own personality, their past experiences with grief and the strength of their emotional support system can influence how they deal with grief.
The oft-mentioned “stages of grief,” denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, aren’t completely clear-cut either.
“You can experience, say, denial, get past it, then go back there again,” licensed counselor Jennifer Whitfield said..
As a grief counselor, Gallagher said it is important to take the lead from the person going through the loss. The timeline for experiencing grief varies, too.
“There are stages with loss, but for the individual . it may take years and it maybe is never fully processed,” said Dana DelGuerra, who leads a grief support group with Gallagher at Center for Mental Health.
But Whitfield, Gallagher and DelGuerra agree that engaging with others and talking about one’s feelings can help the grieving process.
“Loss connects us as human begins. It’s a very common experience and shows how much we need each other because we are wired for connection,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said many people find comfort in honoring or remembering their loved one in some way.
“Seeing other people going through painful times is helpful,” Whitfield said. “They can say, ‘I’m not the only one going through this painful experience.'”
DelGuerra pointed out that American culture doesn’t want to deal with grief, nor is it acceptable to grieve in an outward way for a prolonged period of time. That can make it difficult for the person going through grief to process their pain.
But, DelGuerra pointed out grief is the product of losing a person we love.
“Most people would rather grieve and be sad than not love,” she said.
Gallagher said many parents who lose children continue “looking” for their child, seeing him in other children at the age he would be.
Barth anticipates what would have been Asher’s second birthday, and she thinks about what he, as a 22-month-old toddler, might be like. But she is busy with being a mother, a wife and now entrepreneur, and she admits she may sometimes not allow herself to grieve for Asher sufficiently.
But she never wants her firstborn baby to be far from her. Pursuing Held Your Whole Life means his memory never will be.
“I’m not afraid to speak his name,” she said.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com