Filling the Empty Arms of Grieving Parents: Meet Heather White

UPMC Life Changers are employees who go above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of patients and staff, friends and family, and the community. Follow their stories in this monthly series to see how UPMC employees are changing lives in more ways than one.

When you’re a nurse, changing peoples’ lives is part of the job description.

Sometimes, though, it’s the patients who influence the nurses caring for them.

Heather White, RN, recalls vividly the day 16 years ago when an experience with a patient at UPMC Horizon changed her life. It was early in her career, and White was working with a family who had suffered the loss of a child. In that instant, she knew more had to be done for grieving families.

“I knew right away this was something I was supposed to do,” she says. “I remember watching as they walked off the unit after their loss, and they were carrying a clear plastic baggy with an Angel Gown in it. All I could think was, ‘Gosh, we should be doing more for them.'”


 

Doing More for Grieving Parents

The loss tugged on White’s heartstrings; after work that day, she headed to the local craft store to pick up supplies for what would become her first memory boxes. White continues to make those boxes that are given to grieving parents before they leave the hospital. Each box is filled with small mementos of a child taken too soon — including footprint and handprint molds, photos, and other items to help parents coping with loss. For White, the boxes are meant to help fill the empty arms of grieving parents.

“Nobody expects to lose a child,” says White, who has had additional training to help in her work with grieving families. “Families who lose a baby don’t have many memories to fall back on. A memory box can become that memory.”

Making a Difference

White’s quest to help grieving families did not stop with creating memory boxes. She’s now incorporating community-wide events that bring families together through the Makenna’s HUGS: Healing & Understanding Gestational Loss and Stillbirth support group.

Every year, Makenna’s HUGS, formerly called Empty Arms, holds three events for families in the community— a candlelight memorial, Turkey to Tinsel (focuses on ways to get through the holidays), and a Mother’s Day event.

“Our events are not sad events,” she explains. “These gatherings are happy times. We celebrate the baby who touched their lives, even for just a little bit of time.”

Along with celebrating each baby’s life, White uses the events as a way to connect families with one another, creating a network of understanding and support. She also talks with participants to get ideas for other events and recommendations for programs. These events are open to the public, a good way to “get the word out to people,” says White.

Helping Families: Past, Present, and Future

Recently White spearheaded fundraising efforts to purchase a CuddleCot for the unit. This special bed keeps the baby cool, preserving the body to allow the family to bathe, dress, hold, and spend time with their child.

“The baby can stay with the parents for their entire stay,” White explained. “The cot is the parents’ memory; it’s their time to be with their baby. We really encourage parents to give the child a bath and enjoy the brief moments they have together. These memories can help with their grieving process.”

As White looks to the future, she plans on finding new ways to help grieving families at UPMC Horizon because helping those families gives her job meaning. “If I help one person, then it’s all worth it.”

UPMC offers resources for parents coping with the loss of their child. Visit UPMC Horizon for more information.