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'That little person will leave a giant hole'

New Westminster support group that helps parents coping with the loss of pre-born, stillborn and infant children holds a movie screening this weekend

The tiny pink dress says more than words ever could.

There it is, smaller than a doll's dress, lovingly folded and nestled in the pages of the scrapbook remembering wee Angel Slinn. It's the dress she wore for the short amount of time the tiny perfect girl spent with her parents on that day they'll never forget.

That day when her mother and father found out that they were never going to bring their baby home. That this cherished pregnancy - so welcomed, so longed-for, following two earlier miscarriages - would end at 20 weeks in the stillbirth of their daughter.

It was March 20, 1995.

Silent tears run down Nancy Slinn's cheeks even now, talking about it.

"Twenty years ago, and this still happens," she says, wiping her face as she tells her family's story.


Nancy and her husband, Peter, were already parents by then. Nancy's first pregnancy went as pregnancies are meant to do, ending in the joyous birth of a little girl named Nicole.

It was after that that things went wrong. Nancy's next pregnancy ended in miscarriage. And her next.

Nicole was five then, and her parents hadn't yet told her about the impending arrival of another sibling. So, when they lost that baby on Dec. 23, they found themselves having to pretend their way through Christmas happiness, for Nicole's sake.

"That was a really tough Christmas," Nancy says softly. "How do you tell a five-year-old that Mommy was going to have a baby, but now you're not."

Nancy had just packed all her regular clothes in boxes and hung up all the maternity clothes. Now she had to put her regular clothes back and pack the maternity clothes away.

She still remembers Peter finding her in the closet that night, bawling as she hung up her clothes and packed away her dreams.


When Nicole was six, Nancy got pregnant again.

She made it through the anxiety of the first trimester, and things appeared to be fine.

Then, on St. Patrick's Day of 1995, she started to experience some bleeding at work. She was taken by ambulance to B.C. Women's Hospital, where they found she was already starting to dilate. It was far too early; Nancy was only at the halfway point, some 20 weeks into her pregnancy.

She was taken in for emergency surgery, a cervical cerclage - essentially stitching the cervix closed. There was a chance, she was told, it would be okay. With bedrest, she could be fine.

She held on for another two days. But on that Sunday, her water broke.

That night her baby was very active, and they found a heartbeat. They would take Nancy in for a full ultrasound in the morning.

By morning, there was no heartbeat. They induced labour at 6:15 a.m., and Nancy was a mother again - to a stillborn baby girl.

Angel was nine inches long. She weighed 11 ounces. In every way, she was a complete human being - just far too small for survival.

"She was absolutely perfect," Nancy says, her voice breaking just a touch. "She just hadn't had that extra 20 weeks to grow."

Tiny Angel was given a little pink dress and a chance to lie in the crib next to her mother's bed. Nancy spent time with her then, using the radio to try to drown out the cries of the baby in the next room - cries she would never hear Angel make.

There are no words for the heartbreak. But she cherishes the fact that she could spend time with her daughter.

"This is the only parenting you're going to get to do for this child," she says.

She has the photos of them in the hospital together, saved in a baby album along with the few mementoes of Angel - the pink hospital information card bearing her name and birth weight; the pink dress; a soft pink animal-print blanket; letters and cards send to Angel and to the family.

It's the scrapbook of a life that never happened. But a life that was no less real because of it.


They reached out for help, then.

Nancy knew she needed somebody who would understand. Somebody who could help her cope with not just the real loss of her babies but the loss of the lives she'd already started dreaming about.

That's the thing about infant loss, she says. It's not just the physical loss that hits you, but the loss of that life you were already planning - the frilly dresses you were going to buy for your daughter, the little tuxedo you would dress up your son in, the ballet classes and soccer games they were going to take part in.

Whether the loss is a miscarriage, a stillbirth or an early death from SIDS or illness, the parent ends up in the same place.

"When a loss occurs, it's the loss of a dream, the dream of a life together," she says. "Regardless of whether a woman is six weeks along or 36 weeks along, the loss is very much the same. That little person will leave a giant hole."

Nancy and Peter found their way to Empty Cradle, an infant loss support group that was then operating in Coquitlam.

It has been founded by Patty Lou Bryant in November of 1994, after she lost her full-term son when he was stillborn.

"We had no idea that such a group existed. We had no idea we were going to need such a group," Nancy says.

They arrived at their first meeting to find a room packed full of parents, all coping with the loss of children taken far too soon.

When Patty Lou first got pregnant and later moved to the Okanagan, Nancy took over the reins - with Peter at her side as her right-hand man, offering emotional and practical support at every turn. The group eventually moved to New West after it found a meeting spot at Nancy's church, Olivet Baptist. But it never wavered from its mission to provide peer support to parents coping with the loss of pre-born, stillborn or infant children.

"I haven't really looked back," Nancy says. "It's the only gift I can give to our three lost children. It's the only parenting I can do for them, to help other people heal from their pain."


Nancy got pregnant again not long after starting with Empty Cradle.

Every day of that pregnancy, she held her breath.

"Every day you're thinking, something is going to happen," she says.

In her earlier pregnancies, Nancy had bought things for the baby in advance. This time, she refused.

"I didn't even buy a package of diapers until Jennifer arrived in my arms," she says.

She didn't believe it would be fine until the healthy baby girl was there.

Nancy remembers them all spending time in the hospital together, Peter pacing the room with the newborn girl in his arms.

"Put her down," she told him as he struggled to get things done with baby in arms.

But Peter wouldn't.

"I don't ever want to put her down," he told Nancy.

"It was in that moment that I realized how much the loss of Angel had affected him," Nancy recalls, now.  "It was his baby, too."

Recognizing that infant loss is not just a mother's loss, Empty Cradle is open to both bereaved mothers and fathers - and to their extended support network, be it grandparents or friends who want to help the parents in their grief journey. The only stipulation is that no children are allowed to attend meetings. There are no professionals involved, just fellow parents who are on their own journeys of coping with infant loss.

It can be difficult, Nancy admits, meeting month after month with parents who have lost children - reliving, again and again, the miscarriages of her own two babies (she believes in her heart that they were sons, but she'll never know for sure) and the stillbirth of Angel.

But every time she reaches the end of her rope, she says, something happens to bring her back - usually a message from a parent who has been helped by the group, who has started to find their way back into living again.

Every new year, she makes a wish: that this will be the year that pregnancy loss doesn't happen, that infant loss is just a distant memory. Every year, it doesn't happen.

"The group still sees to be needed," she says. "I just don't feel like I'm ready to let it go."


Infant loss is never over.

That's the reality Nancy lives with.

"It has forever changed who I am as a parent," she says.

Some days, she sees parents getting impatient with their children - kids who are being loud or rambunctious or acting up - and she just wants to go over and tell them to have patience.

"You don't know what you've got," she wants to say, over and over again. "You don't know what you've got that people would give their eye teeth for."

It's so much a part of her now that she welcomes the chance to talk about it, knowing that by telling her story she may make it possible for someone out there to grieve over a miscarriage or a lost infant - a loss that society at large is ill-equipped to cope with.

"As a society we just do not understand and know how to deal with death," she says. "People will tell you it's okay, just get over it now and try again. They just want to sweep it under the rug. But when you sweep it under the rug, the bump is going to eventually trip you up."

She hopes that the Return to Zero screening her group is hosting this weekend (see sidebar below) will help to bring the issue into focus - not just for bereaved parents, but for their friends and family, for medical professionals, for social workers and pastors.

"It is such a beautifully put-together story that will help people heal," she says.






Infant loss is such an enormous - and delicate - topic that it's often impossible to know where to start talking about it. That's where Return to Zero comes in.

The movie, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, tells the story of a couple who are forced to confront loss when their son is stillborn.

The movie is being screened on Saturday, March 21 at 7 p.m. at Olivet Baptist Church.

The screening is hosted by Empty Cradle, an infant loss support group based in New Westminster, in recognition of the group's 20th anniversary.

Refreshments will be provided and a discussion session will be held after the screening. Child care will also be available.

It's free, but donations will be accepted to help cover costs, and anyone who wants to attend is asked to pre-register.

For information or to register, or for more on the support group, see, email or call Nancy at 604-525-4349.