Heartstrings helps grieving parents heal
Like all mothers, Dawn Sperry will never forget the day she delivered her newborn son, Walker, into the world.
“We were able to spend time with him and hold him,” the High Point woman says. “Our family got to meet him, and some of our close friends got to meet him. We had an organization come in and take some pictures.”
“And then,” she softly adds, “we had to say goodbye the same day.”
Walker Thomas Sperry, long-awaited firstborn child of Dawn and her husband, David, was stillborn when he arrived on Sept. 7, 2010, turning what should have been one of the couple’s happiest days into what clearly was their worst.
There had been no warning. Although Dawn had suffered an early miscarriage in 2009, this pregnancy had been a healthy one — “fine and normal, with no signs of any complications,” she says.
Until Labor Day — only two days before Walker’s due date — when Dawn noticed something suspicious.
“I just didn’t feel any movement from the baby,” she recalls. “We called the nurse on call and she had us wait another hour, but I still felt nothing, so we went to the hospital.”
Doctors there confirmed what the Sperrys had feared — their son had died in the womb. Then, in a cruel twist of irony, Dawn learned she would still have to deliver her son stillborn. Labor lasted through the night, and Walker finally arrived at 7:11 a.m.
“He was beautiful,” Dawn says. “There was nothing physically wrong with him.”
Doctors couldn’t say why Walker had died. Maybe an umbilical cord accident. Maybe it had something to do with a condition called placenta accreta, in which scar tissue from Dawn’s 2009 miscarriage had attached to the placenta. They couldn’t be sure.
Dawn’s initial response was shock and disbelief, but grief would come soon enough.
“I came out of my shock the next day, when they moved us to a different floor,” she tearfully recalls.
“It started to sink in that we didn’t have our baby with us — he wasn’t going to go home with us. When we left the hospital, that car seat in the back seat was empty. The nursery at the house was not going to be used. It’s like a part of you is missing.”
* * * *
Before the Sperrys had even left the hospital, several people had told them about Heartstrings, a nonprofit agency serving Triad families that have experienced pregnancy and infant loss.
Their words, though, fell on deaf ears and heavy hearts that had not yet had time to process what had happened. The couple thanked them for the information, but had no plans to call Heartstrings.
“I thought I could get through it myself, with support from family and friends,” Dawn explains.
What she hadn’t expected was how alone she would feel, even when surrounded and supported by family and friends.
“The loss of a child, no matter what stage, is very different from any other type of loss,” she says, “and if someone has not experienced that type of loss, they can get frustrated because they don’t know how to help you.”
After three months of grieving, that’s where Dawn found herself. Friends and family consoled her, but couldn’t reach her heart. Even David, though he’d suffered the same loss, could not help his wife. Yes, he’d lost his son, too, but he didn’t have — he couldn’t have — the same intimacy Dawn felt after carrying Walker for nine months. He couldn’t relate to the unfounded guilt she felt, wondering if her son had died because of something she’d done wrong.
“Honey,” he finally said, “I don’t know how you’re feeling. I wish I knew how to help you, but I don’t. Maybe we need to call Heartstrings.”
The next month, they joined a Heartstrings support group, and healing slowly began. The biggest revelation, Dawn recalls, was that she was not alone.
“You go and you hear these other stories, and it validates your feelings,” she explains. “You don’t feel so alone anymore. It gives you a chance to talk about your baby.”
The group, which meets eight times during a span of 12 weeks, is not just for moms, but also for dads and other support persons. It also includes a couple of breakout sessions specifically for dads.
“So many men go through a loss and don’t have the opportunity to let their guard down and share how they’re feeling,” says Ashley Wall, executive director of Heartstrings. “These breakout sessions, which have a male facilitator, allow them to do that.”
Dawn also took advantage of another Heartstrings program called Connections, which matches a newly grieved parent one-on-one with another bereaved parent who has experienced a similar loss. That program, too, was part of the healing.
“I was still going through some emotional things, and I was having some anxiety about trying again (to have a baby),” Dawn says.
“I talked to this other mother who had gone through the same type of loss as me, and she just validated my feelings. She was a listening ear. No two people have the same emotions and grief, but just the fact that she was listening was very comforting to me.”
* * * *
It’s been 2½ years since Walker’s death, and much has changed in the Sperrys’ lives. The biggest change has been the arrival of Allister James Sperry, who just turned 9 months old.
Another thing that has changed is the couple’s affiliation with Heartstrings. They’re no longer the newly bereaved parents trying to make sense of it all; they’re the ones who have already walked that road and are now trying to come alongside others who need help finding their way.
Dawn, for example, is now a Connections volunteer, offering one-on-one support and encouragement to other grieving mothers.
“A lot of us who have gone through the support group want to give back — we want to do things like this to help out Heartstrings,” she says. “If I hear of someone who has lost their baby, I try to let them know about Heartstrings. I want them to at least know that Heartstrings is there for them.”
Last weekend, the Sperrys participated in a Heartstrings conference designed to help health-care professionals better understand how to care for families who have suffered a pregnancy or infant loss.
They also participate in the organization’s annual Walk To Remember, a fundraiser that supports Heartstrings and gives families an opportunity to memorialize the babies they’ve lost.
“We’re very grateful for Heartstrings, and we want to do anything we can to help them,” Dawn says.
“Also, anything we do for Heartstrings is honoring Walker, and we want to do things to honor his memory. As tragic as it is, he changed our lives and he’s a blessing, so it’s our goal to honor him however we can.”
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Want to go?
“Raising Hope With Heartstrings,” a fundraising event for the Triad-based nonprofit Heartstrings, will be held May 2 at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts, 251 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem.
The program will feature Dr. Eben Alexander, internationally acclaimed author of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.”
The evening will begin with a reception with Alexander at 6 p.m. That will be followed at 7:30 p.m. with Alexander’s address, “A Message of Hope,” about the near-death experience that is the focus of his New York Times best-selling book.
Tickets for the reception (including the program) are available now and cost $100 apiece if you purchase a package of 10, or $125 apiece if you purchase two or four. They will be available through April 15 or until they sell out.
General admission tickets, which do not include the reception, go on sale April 2 for $50 apiece. There will also be a special seating section for book clubs, who will watch the program through a live camera feed and have a facilitator-led discussion about the book; those tickets cost $25 apiece.
A book-signing will follow Alexander’s address.
To purchase tickets or for further information, call Heartstrings at (336) 335-9931 or visit www.heartstringssupport.org.