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Empty Arms Fosters Community Among Those Who Have Lost a Baby


Published May 10, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Chelsea Levis holding a teddy bear calibrated to her son Timothy's weight - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Chelsea Levis holding a teddy bear calibrated to her son Timothy's weight

In 2014, Chelsea Levis unexpectedly lost her first child, Timothy, during childbirth in Massachusetts. Stunned, grief-stricken and at a loss for where to seek support, she was referred by her obstetrician to a Massachusetts-based nonprofit called Empty Arms Bereavement Support. There, she was able to ask questions and find answers that helped her feel less alone.

When Levis, who grew up in Essex, moved back to the Green Mountain State four years later, she found that Vermont lacked an organization focused on supporting parents who had lost a baby before or after birth. So, she decided to start one.

Levis and Jen Thompson — a friend who lost her own infant daughter, Lydia, in 2009 — founded Empty Arms Vermont in January 2022. Modeled on the Massachusetts program, the organization offers peer support groups and other resources to women who have lost babies through miscarriage, stillbirth, early infant death or termination for medical reasons.

While these experiences are not unusual — one in four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage, for example — few resources exist to help those dealing with them. Empty Arms aims to bring into the light the often private and isolating experience of a traumatic loss and to create a community that can provide empathy and understanding.

"Just the process of talking about something integrates it into your own story," Levis said. "Grief, in its basic sense, is telling your full truth ... Sharing that among people has been helpful for me and also for others."

The centerpiece of Empty Arms' work is support groups with trained leaders who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss themselves. The monthly groups are tailored to different needs: There's one for bereaved parents who have experienced any type of pregnancy or early infant loss; another for those who are pregnant, trying to conceive, or beginning the surrogacy or adoption process; and a third for those who experienced miscarriage during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Since groups are held virtually, people from all over the state can join. (Fathers or support partners are welcome, but few attend, Levis said. In the future, she's hoping to find other ways to engage with them.) Some participants are grieving a loss that happened years ago, while others have experienced it more recently.

All groups follow the same guidelines. For one, there are no expectations that participants must contribute to the discussion, though most end up doing so, said Marie Frietze, a peer facilitator for the Pregnancy After Loss & Trying to Conceive group.

"Occasionally, we will have those silent moments where everybody's looking at each other," Frietze said, but that often means that people are reflecting on what has been said.

Leaders typically begin the session by sharing their own thoughts — often organized around themes such as navigating the holidays or tapping into support systems. If people in the group want to comment, ask a question or provide advice in reaction to what someone has shared, they must ask the person's permission. Group members are also asked to refrain from sharing specific providers' names or locations.

Frietze said she sees her primary job as "a person of validation" — responding to participants' comments by thanking them and letting them know that what they're saying makes sense. After every meeting, she sends a follow-up email summarizing the discussion and encouraging participants to connect with each other if they'd like more support.

Jamie Frey of Montpelier joined the Empty Arms Vermont bereavement group after the loss of her infant daughter Hadleigh in 2021. Finding Empty Arms, Frey said, helped her realize "I'm not the only person in this small state going through this ... These people are nearby if I need them. [It] made me feel a lot less isolated."

When Frey found out she was expecting another child, she started attending a second Empty Arms group, the one for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive. The Pregnancy After Loss group has provided her with a community of women who have also experienced loss and have mixed emotions about giving birth again.

Recently, Frey began serving as a leader of the group, a role that she said allows her to help others while also continuing to process her own grief.

"I've had my baby after loss, and she's here safely," Frey said. "I can offer that space to hold hope for the parents who are struggling right now to have hope."

While peer support is not meant to replace more traditional therapy, Levis said, it can be an effective complement.

"You need people who've been through it," she said, "and then you need somebody to talk with one-on-one about your own goals and objectives and feelings."

Amy Johnson, director of the Parent Child Center of Northwestern Counseling & Support Services in St. Albans, agrees. Her center employs clinicians who visit families at home to help them work through a miscarriage or infant death. It also provides teddy bears calibrated to the weight of the baby a family has lost as a way to offer comfort.

The center had tried to run its own bereavement support groups before the pandemic, but they weren't very well attended. When Johnson learned about Empty Arms, she saw a partnership as a way to address "a huge gap in the system of care." Now, the Parent Child Center refers clients to Empty Arms and provides stipends for the organization's group leaders.

"I'm so happy that families have this really wonderful, thoughtful organization that is there for them," Johnson said.

Empty Arms has also forged connections that have led to referrals from the University of Vermont and Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical centers and from local obstetrics and gynecology practices.

At Maitri, an ob-gyn practice in South Burlington, women who have experienced a miscarriage are presented with "bags of love" prepared by Empty Arms that include tea, chocolates, a card and a wooden heart.

It's a way to say, "Hey, we see you, and we honor you, and we want you to know there's support for you," Levis explained.

Empty Arms holds an annual remembrance ceremony in October, at which grieving families light candles in honor of their babies and connect face-to-face with peers. On August 19, the group will host its first 5K Run & Walk, a community event in Burlington to raise money and awareness.

For now, Empty Arms is run by volunteers, with financial support from individuals, corporate donors and small grants. Levis said she sees great potential to scale up her work by forming new partnerships that would allow her to increase the number of support groups across the state and provide more group leaders with stipends.

"In our culture, grief is hard to talk about, period," Levis said. "When we have a safe space to actually hold those emotions and honor those emotions, then I think we can heal."

The original print version of this article was headlined "CompassionateConnections | Empty Arms fosters community among those who have lost a baby"

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