An Interview with Barb Saurez of Birth Happens
(NOTE: While I hope that this post will provide information and be a positive resource for women and families, it’s important to note that the subject matter of this post involves pregnancy loss and bereavement.)
B: Jen, I’m so glad that you agreed to an interview for Birth Happens. There are lots of things that we could discuss, but I wanted to interview you about your latest venture into the world of Maternal Health as a Bereavement Doula. This idea might be something that’s new to my readers, and an important offering that people might not even know exists.
First, tell us a little bit about yourself and your family. When, how and why did you begin working in this field?
J: When I introduce myself, I say that I’m working in this field because of my family. My career started when I became a mom, with a great birth. I began volunteering with Nursing Mother’s Counsel when my oldest daughter was 6 months old. She’s now an ambitious freshman in high school!
Motherhood allowed me the time to volunteer additionally with Birthright of Vancouver, Washington where I listen to women while they take a pregnancy test or come in seeking resources. I always qualify my work at Birthright, while listed as a pro-life organization, as simply pregnancy support. I have no more ability to make a mom keep her pregnancy than I have to fly to the moon. I support moms wherever they’re at. The nurturing that I learned there, encouraged me to reach further in my career to become a certified childbirth educator over a dozen years ago, and now more recently, to become certified as a doula.
Baby number two came along two and half years after big sister. She taught me patience and that pregnancy and birth goes the way it wants. That birth also showed me how women working and supporting women during labor can be life altering! I had a doula, I had a nurse who believed in my goals, and I had a partner who was willing to watch me dig deeper and fight harder for this unmedicated birth. That support broadened my expectations of what we can do for each other.
Our miscarriage occurred less than two years later and I knew at the time, while we wanted and loved this little angel, his or her birth was there to teach me compassion for other women. It was then that I learned birth is not all rainbows and unicorns. While I knew this from a Childbirth Educator’s standpoint, it was in experiencing it myself that I really understood. Our baby’s name is “Eliti” which means “gift of the sun,” and I’m so clear in my work that this baby was a gift to us.
My sweetie and I were brave a few years later and got pregnant again. And this is where support from other women who had walked similar paths carried me through the pregnancy. I distinctly remember a conversation with my good friend Mary, who had experienced numerous miscarriages, when I asked, “When will I feel safe?” And she answered, “Maybe not until you hold that baby in your arms.” Our shared stories helped build up my courage.
My last kiddo was born at home as the sun came up, his 7 year old sister there to welcome him, and his almost 4 year old sister dragging her blanket into our room wondering what all the cheering was about. My family story is so intertwined with my career, it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other ends.
B: When did you start considering doing something “extra” in this field, in addition to your work as a Childbirth Educator?
J: Expanding my career to midwifery came while pruning the heather in my backyard! Heather is one of the flowers that struck me while I was on my pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, and I had planted some to commemorate that experience.
I realized in Spain that my career was intended to be about the babies. While pruning the heather in my backyard, the realization was it’s about the babies… andtheir mommas. So midwifery became the plan. Last year, I had to let that dream go as balancing school, tending to 3 acres, and my work as an educator did not equate to me functioning at my best, for everyone involved.
B: So, how did you make the move from midwifery to what you’re doing now?
J: Well, at the same time, a beloved friend endured a pregnancy with a fatal diagnosis. It was heartbreaking. I just kept racking my brain with the question, “Who is supporting her through this?!” She had a loving partner and family, but they were in the midst of dealing with their own grief. Who was supporting her?! That marked my transition to becoming a bereavement doula.
B: Why does this work matter to you personally?
J: I have always said that if I was not in the “beginning of life work” that I would be in the “end of life work.” Both have incredibly spiritual, profound moments that our culture as a whole does not recognize. I’m now able to do the work of witnessing both – and support the family whose world has been transformed by pregnancy and death.
B: How do you think your work as a bereavement doula will impact women and families?
J: When women and families acknowledge life and death, they can integrate these experiences and begin to process the emotions around them. For some, this may be more simple than others. I’m not here to judge women and families on how they do it. I’m here if they want support doing it. Yes, family and friends will be there, but even than that does not constitute best care practices. Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, do better.” By being trained to be a doula for both birth and death, I can assist families moving through their mourning and grief. Inevitably, when we are grieving, we seem to turn on those who are closest to us. With concerted support from a professional that sits outside the circle of family and friends, maybe the blow to ourselves and our loved ones can be lessened.
The other aspect of this work is integrating subsequent pregnancies and births. When we’re mourning, and we begin to assimilate the experience and move on from the loss, that has its own set of emotions. If, and when, we get pregnant after experiencing a loss, guilt can flood in and override our emotions. As a doula, being at the next baby’s birth, even with an expected positive outcome, is as important as the prior birth. This family may have a spectrum of emotions that need to be understood and they need to be reassured that what they’re feeling is normal. Experiencing happiness is okay – it doesn’t mean we love any less.
B: How do you envision working with families in this way? What does the model of care for EnCourage Doula Care look like?
J: EnCourage Doula Care was developed this year to offer birth and bereavement doula care in the Portland/Vancouver area. I’m happy to attend births wherever this family is ready to meet – home, hospital or birth center. It’s such a privilege to witness the birth of a baby and, a new family. My philosophy is, whoever can love this baby is the perfect parent. I’m happy to support any birth and family combination.
As typical for a doula, I would like to meet first, have a conversation about birthing ideals, then attend the birth and follow up with a postpartum visit. However, in loss, especially when it is sudden, attending birth to provide emotional and physical support is my first priority. Then we would meet postpartum as well.
EnCourage Doula Care is a community resource. I see working with families, maternal fetal medicine clinics and family birth centers as my primary focus. I envision my role as a bereavement doula as backup for the nurse who may have many additional jobs that need to get done when a family is experiencing loss – and I can be there to provide the emotional and physical support to help this family as they try to make sense of what has happened.
B: What are the next steps for EnCourage Doula Care?
J: The next phase is grant writing, so I can be paid for on-call bereavement care. I’d like to try and roll this out at a local family birth center so women who are having unexpected loss have bereavement doula support as an option. Lastly, I want to design a study to look at the impact bereavement doula support can have on the birthing family. Can we lower stress? Can we integrate care to lessen the negative postpartum impact such an experience can have on a family? Can we increase options of support for this mom and family so the processing of their birth and loss are complete?
B: What do you know for sure about the work you’re doing as a bereavement doula?
J: What I know for sure about this work is that I have no inhibitions about it. When midwifery was the end goal, I spent quality time stressed out about how I would manage school/work/kids/family. Now with this doula work, I feel completely at ease, that all needs will be met and that this is the path I was meant to be on. When we discussed it as a family, my husband and kids were so supportive that this work needs to be done, and thankfully – they believe I have the courage to do it.
B: Jen, thank you so much for taking the time to provide my readers with this information. I really believe in this work and in you! I also think this is the path that you’re meant to be walking and I’m thrilled to be able to refer my families who have experienced loss to you so they can better process and integrate this experience into their lives.