She knows the feeling all too well. Slogging through the days, barely perceiving anything around you. Accepting awkward pats on the shoulder and sympathy cards from people wanting to help and knowing they can’t. Staring at an empty stroller, ready for a baby who will never lie in it.
Dr. Kim Whitmore, assistant professor of nursing, knows because she has lived through it — she has seen others doing so, as well.
“Society has so much stigma around loss, especially when it comes to the loss of a child,” Whitmore says.
Fighting that stigma is the purpose of the Alana Rose Foundation, which Whitmore founded in 2019 to raise awareness and provide hope, healing, and support to families who experience pregnancy and infant loss. The foundation is named after Whitmore’s daughter, who was delivered stillborn as a result of a placental abruption that nearly took her life as well. On Feb. 26, 2019, Whitmore began a grieving process that lasts a lifetime.
“There is no timeline for grief,” Whitmore says. “Everyone is going to grieve differently, but there’s not a day that goes by where a bereaved parent doesn’t miss their child and wish they were here.”
October was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, an occasion the Alana Rose Foundation observes by holding the Annual Empty Stroller Awareness Walk around the Wisconsin State Capitol. Bereaved parents and supporters are encouraged to walk with an empty stroller as a powerful image of the emptiness families are left with after a baby dies.
The walk gives the parents two essential support mechanisms: a space to honor their children and a support network that can help them through a tragedy unimaginable to those who haven’t gone through it.
“As a nurse, I have helped support other parents who have lost their children; I thought I knew what it was like to lose a child,” Whitmore says. “Then it happened to me, and it was a night and day difference between what it was like from the outside and what it was like living it.
“Connecting with other people who have gone through similar loss and having their presence in the room is so helpful to just feel not alone.”
The walk is held in conjunction with Healing Our Hearts, a nonprofit organization dedicated specifically to helping African American parents who experience the loss of a child. Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that African American infant mortality rates are more than twice as high as they are among non-Hispanic white people. These health inequities are brought to the forefront alongside parents’ grief each year during the walk.
“Many pregnant Black women have not been believed when they tell medical professionals that there’s something wrong or they’re experiencing pain; there’s this biased thought that they’re just trying to get pain medication” says Felica Turner-Walton, CEO of Healing Our Hearts. “This walk is just another way to bring awareness to the multitude of losses that people in our community have experienced.”
Whitmore describes the walk as necessary to counter what she calls a “grief averse” society. This can take the form of institutional norms, such as companies offering a limited number of personal days to people mourning a loss, to interpersonal behavior, such as friends often choosing not to reach out because they don’t know what to say.
“No matter if it’s a child or a sibling or a parent who dies, we often tend to try and make those who are grieving feel better by telling them ‘it’s going to be OK’ or ‘try to forget about it’ or even ‘they’re in a better place,” Whitmore says. “We use well-intended but ultimately hurtful words that dismiss and minimize the grief they’re experiencing. Instead, grievers need someone to sit with them in the pain and uncomfortableness of their experience and validate their feelings.”
Some people show up to the empty stroller walk having just lost an infant in the prior year, and some do so to honor children who passed away decades ago. For each, there comes a moment after the funeral and the cards when the memorial wreath has been laid and friends stop dropping off home-cooked meals, when everyone else has returned to their normal lives. Only in that moment does the enormity of the loss sink in, a sensation that stays for life.
Therein lies one of the greatest misconceptions about the grieving process: that “acceptance” means something akin to “get over it.” Instead, it simply means a “new normal,” Whitmore explains.
For her, that meant returning to work and caring for her two sons, Quentin and Christian. The cadence of life resumed, but nothing about it felt the same as it did before Alana.
“I’d be on vacation having a great time with my family, but in the back of my heart is a longing for my daughter to be there,” Whitmore says. “Eventually, I began to realize that it’s OK to be both sad that she’s not here and happy that I’m enjoying my time with my living children. Once you can get to that point, you’re on that path to integrating grief into your life.”
“There’s no time limit,” Turner-Walton says. “It doesn’t get any better. Year one offers something different than year five, no different than when a child becomes a pre-teen or a teenager or an adult. That’s still your child. Others may only remember on the anniversary of the loss, but this is a 365-day journey for the parents who have to experience this.”
Along that journey, many discover purpose. For Whitmore, it’s the healing work of the Alana Rose Foundation. Turner-Walton helps heal her own heart through Healing Our Hearts. Together, they co-founded the Wisconsin Grief Collective, a group of individuals and organizations across Wisconsin working together to support all who grieve.
To date, Whitmore has raised tens of thousands of dollars, primarily through an annual “Butterfly Ball” held each February in honor of Alana’s birthday. Whitmore serves as a tireless advocate for families who experience pregnancy and infant loss, helping them find peace and educating those around them on how best to offer aid, all with the knowledge that a lifetime of mourning takes a lifetime of support.
“Grief is a reflection of love, and love never ends, so neither does grief,” Whitmore says.