eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

Mothers craft a gift from their grief

“The hardest thing to do is to go home from the hospital empty-handed, with a car seat in the back of your car, to a house with a room for a baby that you don’t have,” says Melanie Adams.

When Adams arrived at Virginia Hospital Center in July 2014, she was told that her full-term baby girl, Eleanor or “Ellie,” had no heartbeat. Adams then went through 14 hours of labor for a child she would never get to take home, never get to take to her first day of kindergarten, never see graduate college.

A year and a half later, Caitlin Yerkes checked into VHC with labor pain. Her 39-week-old baby had appeared healthy on hospital monitors just hours before, but by the time Yerkes gave birth, her daughter, Evangeline, had died.

“We were in really bad shape for a long time, and we still are,” Yerkes says.

Through a loose network of therapists, hospital staff and friends that exists to support bereaved parents of infants, Adams and Yerkes met in early 2016. The women, both of whom now have a living child but experienced four losses each before their 2017 deliveries, are each other’s “lifeline,” Yerkes says.

“We just really bonded in the fact that we were really living in the same boat. We didn’t know what our future looked like. We just would sit and just be with each other because what the heck else are you supposed to do?”

In the United States, 5.9 percent of infants born annually die before their first birthday, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Not long after Evangeline’s death, Yerkes read an article on a website for grieving parents about a woman who was tired of constantly being encouraged to be happy—especially by mundane products like “joyful” shower gel.

“And she was like, ‘I don’t have to be happy. I’m taking a shower because I need to take a shower,’” she says. The message struck a chord with Yerkes, who says she was regularly told to shake off her tears in a world that wanted her to hurry up and finish grieving.

Together with Adams, who has a background in science, she decided to create soap for women experiencing a recent loss, with soothing ingredients such as chamomile. As they waited for the births of their own children, they began working on a product that could bring a bit of comfort to other women.

“In that moment, when all you can do is take a shower, we wanted them to know that they weren’t alone,” Adams says.

The mothers worked with Lisa Brady—the nurse who attended to Adams during Ellie’s birth—to add the soap to memory boxes given to parents with a loss in labor and delivery at VHC. Tied to the soap is a card listing ingredients and the names Ellie and Evangeline. When Brady treats grieving parents, she shares their story.

Last October, Yerkes connected with a family at a VHC mourning service who knew of Ellie and Evangeline from the bar of soap they’d received. “It was really beautiful to have someone say, ‘You’re Evangeline’s mom.’ No one ever says that.”

Thanks to Adams and Yerkes, VHC also has a Cuddle Cot—a bassinet and cooling system that delays the change in a baby’s skin post-mortem and allows families to have more time with their child before they leave the hospital. Ellie and Evangeline’s parents gathered their own resources and donations from friends to purchase the device, which has a plaque that recognizes both children.

Other area hospitals, such as Inova Fairfax and Sibley Memorial Hospital in D.C., also use Cuddle Cots to assist families in the initial grieving process.

“Every family grieves differently; we have a very multicultural population, so some families do not want their babies at the bedside,” Brady says. “For the families that want their babies at the bedside, the Cuddle Cot has made a big difference.”

For community members supporting those with a loss, Adams and Yerkes are quick to point out an often overlooked group needing support: fathers. The women also encourage parents struggling with a recent loss to reach out to others who have walked a similar path, through support groups or word-of-mouth.

Yerkes and Adams hope to eventually mail soap to anyone experiencing intense grief. Their website (ellieandevangeline.com) shares the story of Ellie and Evangeline and is also a place where families can connect with the two mothers.

“Our girls can still do really good things,” Yerkes says. “People know their name, and whoever else reads this will know that there were two little girls that had parents that loved them very much.”


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