Idaho Falls couple healing after stillborn baby loss

Nathan and Erica Hansen pose for a photograph with their children, Allison, left, Natalie and Maxwell Nate, who was stillborn, at their home near Idaho Falls. Monte LaOrange /

“How many kids do you have?”

For Nathan and Erica Hansen, that simple question has a tough answer.

On May 17, 2013, Erica gave birth to Maxwell Nate, who weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces. But Max was stillborn. Doctors never were able to determine Max’s cause of death.

“When people ask, you feel like you’re lying if you (don’t count Max),” Erica said. “But then, you feel like you’re lying if you (do). And you don’t always know the person well enough to go into the whole story. I’ll always feel like I (should count Max), whether or not I always answer that, I don’t know.”

Max’s birth

Everything had been normal in the months leading up to Max’s birth. The couple had prepared a cozy crib just for Max, tucked with blankets. They’d tacked stickers on the wall, picked out clothes and prepared a large supply of diapers. They’d set up a bunk bed for their two daughters, Allison and Natalie, so three beds would fit inside the children’s shared room. They’d even bought a minivan.

“We had everything ready to go,” Erica said.

Erica’s labor started the night before Max was born. The couple headed to Mountain View Hospital the following morning and they were rushed to a room. Erica was hooked up to an external monitor and nurses started punching buttons, Nathan said. He didn’t think anything of it.

Then, things quickly became more frantic. Nurses asked: “When did you feel your baby move last?” “When did you feel him kick last?”

The doctor was rushed in.

“It was just happening too fast for me to take in,” Nathan said. “They hooked up the internal monitor and they were like, ‘Push push!’ The doctor basically took Max and just kind of yanked him out.”

Once born, the doctor confirmed the couple’s worst nightmare: Max had been dead for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.

“She knew there was no chance. She was like, ‘He’s gone,’ ” Nathan said. “I’m kneeling by the bed just like, ‘You can’t tell me that. You cannot tell me that.’ I said that over and over. … In just a matter of minutes, things had changed.”

At that, nurses wrapped Max up in a blanket and the couple had their first moments with their son.

Helping mom and dad

Mountain View employs certain practices in the instance of stillborn births, said Jayne Bridgewater, manager of the hospital’s Women’s Center.

In accordance with a couple’s wishes, stillborn babies are wrapped up and a couple is given as much time as needed. That can range from one hour to 24 hours, depending on the family, she said. Then the hospital makes certain things available, if possible, such as moving the couple to a unit away from other families, providing a photographer free of charge and taking casts of feet and hands, or a lock of hair. Then, when parents are ready, after-death arrangements are made.

“When they first handed him to us, I felt like I was holding this little corpse,” Erica said. “It was like, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ I didn’t love it immediately, it was just really hard. But the nurses picked him up, held him and treated him like he was still alive. They said, ‘Come here, little buddy,’ they were so respectful and so sweet to his little body. That’s what allowed me to see past the fact that he was dead.”

Stillbirths in Idaho

In Idaho, the number of stillbirths falls within the range of the national average. Data from the state’s Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics shows that, in 2012, there were 115 stillbirths — or 5 fetal deaths per 1,000 live births. That’s based on a stillborn defined as 20 or more weeks gestation, and records sent from hospitals. In Bonneville County, that ratio was 4 per 1,000 live births.

A national Center for Disease Control and Prevention report released in 2012 showed the national rate in 2006 was 6.1 per 1,000.

While some causes of stillbirth are known — such as an umbilical cord accident or the placenta coming away from the uterine wall — determining a cause isn’t always possible, said Cecilia Olson, a registered nurse certified in labor and delivery.

Olson estimated about 50 percent of stillbirths at Mountain View are the result of an unknown cause. Sometimes, when the cause is unknown, parents can work with their physician and look into chromosomal studies.

“Sometimes we’re able to tell and sometimes we’re just not able to determine a reason,” she said.

Healing process

Shortly after Max’s death, the Hansens began attending a miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss support group at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.

The group, East Idaho Angel Babies, started about six years ago. It was founded by Shari Lane.

Today, about 10 people attend each of the group’s monthly meetings, Lane said. The group seems to help families heal, because, talking about their deceased child helps make the child feel real. And being around others who’ve suffered the same loss helps parents know they’re not alone, she said.

“When people first come in, they’re just heartbroken and in shock and in so much pain,” Lane said. “But as time goes on, they’re able to talk about their baby and they’re able to know it’s OK to talk about their baby — the light kind of comes back into their eyes. They realize, ‘This baby can still be part of my family’s life.’ It’s like a little bit of hope returns.”

Lane said there’s another option in eastern Idaho for parents: Compassionate Friends, a support group with a chapter in Idaho Falls. The group is designed for parents who’ve experienced the death of a child of any age.

Following Max’s death, the Hansens held a graveside service attended by about 100 people, mostly family and friends. Support from others has been helpful, Nathan said; though, at times, others have said insensitive things or intentionally shy away from talking about Max for fear of creating discomfort.

“People act like they don’t want to bring it up, they don’t want to say anything,” Nathan said. “They act like they don’t want to make us uncomfortable — as if we don’t think about him every day, as if mention of him is, ‘Oh, I forgot about him.’ No, we don’t forget.”

There are certain times that inevitably Max comes to mind. For instance, as Max would be 1-year-old now, being around other 1-year-olds invokes strong emotion, Erica said. Even with the passage of time, that won’t change.

“When he’s 5, I’ll be mourning not having a kindergartner,” she said. “And I’ll be mourning not being able to teach him how to ride bikes — there’s always what could have been. So, it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ll always miss a newborn.’ You miss their whole life.”

One year later

Erica is pregnant again — about seven months along — with a girl they’re planning to name, Megan. The couple decided to get pregnant again to move forward with their original plans of expanding their family, though the decision was tough.

“This pregnancy has been a challenge,” Erica said. “I feel a lot of guilt because I’m pregnant with her and I want to be excited for her, but then, I just want Max a lot of the time and I feel mommy guilt — ‘Why can’t she be enough? Why can’t I be happy she’s coming?’ There’s a lot of that.”

It was at a graveside service in May, on the one-year anniversary of Max’s birth, when that started to change. Now, a picture of Max at birth remains on a shelf in the Hansen’s home, where it will stay — after all, he’s part of the family.

“I never got to meet him face-to-face in his body, but it’s just become like he’s still around, I’m just not pregnant anymore,” Erica said. “Parents and family and friends all love and appreciate you, but this is different — Max loves in a way that human beings can’t.

“When people say they love you, you assume they’re just being nice, you tend to discount it. But when you feel it from your angel baby, you can’t argue with that at all. And that’s been such a blessing to feel, to get a taste of what heaven’s like.”