In honor of National Infant and Pregnancy Loss Awareness month, we would like to highlight a unique program that West Michigan families can turn to when experiencing the devastating loss of a baby. Cameron’s Garden, a program offered by MomsBloom Inc, offers emotional support to families experiencing a perinatal loss including miscarriage and stillbirth. We interviewed one of their wonderful volunteers, Justine Braford, to learn more.
Justine and her husband Zach have a 5 year old daughter named Claire, 1 ½ year old son named Truman and twin girls named Charlotte and Isla who died at 28 weeks gestation due to Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome. Charlotte was born still and Isla died in Justine's arms shortly after birth. Justine now volunteers for Cameron’s Garden. We are grateful to Justine for sharing a bit about the loss of her babies and her calling to comfort and serve other grieving families.
GR Doulas: Why did you decide to start volunteering for Cameron's Garden?
Justine: After you've faced the loss of your child and you've weathered the initial storm of shock, trauma, and cultural grief rituals many women, myself included, may feel a need to do something. That "something" looks so different for everyone. Some women blog, present to physician offices, create awareness/remembrance walks. There isn't one way of doing this. For me, having other women who had experienced infant loss to hold that emotional space was a key piece of my healing. I knew I could offer similar support one day. About a year or so after my losses, a friend told me about Cameron's Garden so I applied, went to the training and jumped in.
Pictured: Justine's daughter Charlotte
GR Doulas: In what ways do you support families?
Justine: The reality is most family members and loving friends are very good at "doing." While, In many cases, this is very helpful, my motto is "don't just do something, sit there." So I listen and I nod and I validate what they are feeling. Grief is a funny thing, it washes over you at times when maybe it's expected (like on an anniversary) or unexpected (like if a stranger asks how many children you have). It's not unusual for me to get a long text from a mom or dad I've met detailing what I call a "grief encounter." Mostly there isn't much I can "do" but I can listen and comfort. People say to me, "I know you get it." And I do.
GR Doulas: What is the most rewarding part of your work with Cameron's Garden?
Justine: It's my hope that I am helpful in some way. I know my girls, Charlotte and Isla, would have brought so much good to this world. It's not easy to bear witness to this kind of pain. But I do for them and as a way of bringing some tiny fraction of their light to this world.
GR Doulas: What is the most challenging part?
Justine: There is a concept in trauma work called "triggering." It happens when you hear, or see, or feel something that activates your own trauma. Each time I meet a new family I'm triggered. I always try to process those feelings with my close friends and family and that is my form of self-care.
Pictured: Justine's daughter Isla
GR Doulas: If anybody reading this is experiencing the loss of a baby, what would you like them to know?
Justine: I want to say to you, sweet mom or dad, that I don't know you, but I see you. I know your whole world has changed and you are somehow trying to understand how to carry on. In the beginning your journey may proceed by surviving minute-to-minute. This pain is real and it deserves to be honored so give it space in your life. I'm only 2.5 years post-loss. My life is different but I don't have a "bad life." There are still moments of great sadness. But my life has depth, and meaning. I can laugh again and enjoy living and it doesn't take away from the fact that I love and miss my daughters.
GR Doulas: How can people support their loved ones who are going through a loss?
Justine: Every person will differ regarding their needs in the early days of the loss. Knowing your loved one will be a good place to start. If they've had very trying times in the past I think reflecting on how they coped during that time might be helpful. But if you aren't sure, ASK! I had many loved ones do and say things that I felt hurt and offended by, but rest assured, I don't hold this against them. They were really trying to connect and the love and intention overrode any feelings of animosity.
“What would be helpful for you right now?”
“Is there something concrete I can do (grocery shopping, child care, meal prep, transportation, cleaning, laundry)?”
“May I come sit with you today?”
“How does it feel right now when I say baby's name?”
“I'm here to support you, if I do something that is unintentionally hurtful, can you find a way to let me know that?”
“What can I do to honor this life? May I attend the walk with you? May I help with the grief packets for the hospital?”
“As the holidays approach, what can I do to honor _____?”
In general, follow your loved one's lead. Don't push them through their grief as might be our first inclination for a hurting loved one. Check in often-even years later. Look for red flags (have they not left their bedroom in a week?). If they need professional help, try to remove as many barriers as possible to your loved one getting the help (i.e. commit to caring for children so they can make it to counseling appointments, help them find resources for help, offer a ride to appointments).
Justine is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Grand Rapids. She enjoys running and spending time at home with her family. Since the loss of her daughters, she has found running to be a perfect metaphor for her grief work, giving her the opportunity to access the physical manifestations of her trauma and grief.
To learn more about Cameron’s Garden