Program to help pregnancy, infant loss grief counselling

A province-wide grief counselling program is in the works to help Manitobans cope with the impact of miscarriages, stillborn babies and infant deaths.

In August, health officials started the process of trying to find an organization that can develop and run a pregnancy and infant loss program across Manitoba — a request for proposal closes next week, with $275,000 budgeted for 2020-21 and 2021-22 to get the program off the ground.

The program is expected to offer one-on-one and group counselling, as well as training for health providers, and aims to serve at least 200 clients a year, according to the RFP. It notes an estimated 15 per cent of women experience perinatal mental health issues.

“The complexity of grief that can be associated with pregnancy and infant loss presents additional risk for worsening mental health issues,” the document states.

About one in four pregnancies are lost.

Shared Health wouldn’t discuss the program while the tender process is ongoing, but those who offer similar support to mothers and families say there’s still high demand for services that give Canadians tools to cope with a once-taboo, but all-too-common, type of loss.

“We already do a lot of work in this area and we do see a need, and there is more of a need than is being met, so we are very happy to see that request for proposals, because it will mean more support and more programming in that area in Winnipeg,” said Erin Bockstael, team leader of the mothers’ program and health promotion at Women’s Health Clinic.

Women’s Health Clinic officials say they have seen a need for pregnancy and infant loss counselling among its clients who attend various prenatal and parenting programs.

About two years ago, the clinic put together brochures geared toward grieving mothers and health-care providers. A peer-support program for families has been running in Winnipeg for more than five years, and the clinic still hears from doctors and clinicians who want to know how they can help families cope with pregnancy and infant loss — a term meant to include everything from a miscarriage (loss of pregnancy under 20 weeks gestation), stillbirth (over 20 weeks gestation), and the death of a baby in their first year of life.

“I think there is a change in attitude, there’s a change in the way people talk about it, and I think people want to acknowledge that this is part of their lives,” Bockstael said.

“We’re really looking to break the isolation that people feel when they experience these losses.”

In Ontario, where provincial legislation began mandating pregnancy-loss education for health-care providers and expanded support for families about five years ago, Michelle La Fontaine has been advocating for greater change — including a federal bereavement leave for parents who don’t qualify for maternity leave because their babies died.

She wants to see pregnancy-and-infant loss programs functioning across Canada the same way programs exist to support cancer patients.

The program manager of Ontario’s volunteer-run Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network was involved in surveying nearly 600 families who were grieving pregnancy or infant loss. In research published last year, most of them expressed wanting to feel validated, but not knowing where to turn for help.

“Families did not feel that they were being cared for in a way that was kind and sensitive and that met their needs, so I think that’s been a really difficult thing for our health-care providers in Ontario to recognize that,” La Fontaine said.