Program lets families store clothing, photos and other tangible reminders of their stillborn babes.

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KINGSVILLE, Texas — When Kristen Compary awoke at 3 a.m. Nov. 23, she knew at once that something was terribly wrong with her pregnancy.

Courtney Marie wasn’t due for another three months. Doctors later would say the baby girl died from a blood clot in the umbilical cord.

Grief overcame Compary, who had waited 15 years for this baby. But in the months since, the Kingsville woman has sought to lessen the sorrow of other families of stillborn babies.

“It brings meaning to the grief and it brings meaning” to Courtney’s life, Compary said. “It’s almost that she’s living on through giving me a story to tell.”

Aided by traveling nurse Grace Dabney, with whom she bonded during delivery, Compary has created a memory box program at Corpus Christi’s Christus Spohn Hospital South. The program, modeled after others nationwide, lets families store clothing, photos and other tangible reminders of their stillborn babes.

At her home and office — Compary and husband Phillip both work at Texas A&M University Kingsville — she hung portraits of their daughter and posted them online. And Compary set up a blog, an unflinching chronicle of life after loss.

About one in every 160 deliveries ends in stillbirth, classified as the loss of a pregnancy after at least 20 weeks, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Pregnancy loss before that is classified as a miscarriage, harder to quantify because many women don’t report it.

Compary sobbed the entire 45-minute drive to Corpus Christi, where an ultrasound detected no movement.

“I’m sorry,” Kirsten Compary told Phillip.

From the labor-and-delivery ward, Dabney saw a doctor walk a sad pregnant woman down a hall to a room where she couldn’t hear babies crying.

Dabney, a veteran labor-and-delivery nurse, instantly knew that Kirsten Compary had lost her baby.

“It was very hard to watch,”said Dabney, whose own mother lost nine children in miscarriages and stillbirths.

Dabney walked into Compary’s room and pulled a chair beside her hospital bed.

“She said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ acknowledging (loss) from the get-go,” Compary recalled. “It was a comfort I didn’t know I needed.”

Dabney, who travels to different hospitals around the country, had been trained in grief counseling at Phoenix’s Banner Desert Medical Center, which has a room designated for families to spend time with their stillborn children.

Dabney was stationed for three months in Corpus Christi, where she found Christus Spohn Hospital South’s bereavement program fell short. It offered information on funeral homes, but no counseling or follow-up. The hospital had a camera for families to take pictures of their stillborn babies, but it didn’t work.

In the Comparys’ hospital room, Dabney walked Kirsten and Phillip through the next steps: Kirsten would be given medication to induce labor, a doctor would deliver Courtney and a funeral home would have to be contacted. She talked about the stages of grief — anger, denial, depression, acceptance — and how these could drag on.

“She didn’t tell me not to cry,” Kirsten Compary said. “She sat there and held my hand.”

Courtney was born at 11:35 a.m. Nov. 24. She was 16 inches long and weighed 2 pounds, 4 ounces. Kirsten was 26 weeks pregnant.

Dabney snapped a photo with her camera phone.

“Courtney was beautiful,”she said.

Dabney instructed Kirsten and Phillip to hold their daughter. To inspect her fingers, toes, ears and nose. To bathe and dress her.

Then she called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a national program in which photographers volunteer to take portraits of stillborn babes for their families. Kirsten Compary’s favorite photo shows Courtney in a knit cap.

A week after Courtney’s delivery, Dabney heard her name over the hospital intercom. Phillip and Kirsten Compary were waiting with a card and an angel trinket.

“God brings people into your life when he knows you need them,” Kirsten Compary told Dabney.

The women met for coffee and developed the idea for memory boxes. They spent an evening at Kirsten’s kitchen table decorating box lids while Phillip cooked enchiladas.

Kirsten Compary filled the boxes with tissues. A camera. A photo album. A poem. A seed packet of forget-me-nots. A blank journal. Then she included a link to her blog, named after Courtney.

“That’s probably been for me one of the biggest tangible things I can do to direct my grief in a positive way,” Kirsten Compary said.

So far, she has made 25 boxes, which cost her about $10 each. Laurie Graham, who manages Spohn South’s labor and delivery section, said the boxes comfort families.

“Everybody else goes home with a baby,”Graham said “… All the items in there are reminders of their baby.”

Compary treasures the items Dabney insisted she keep when leaving the hospital: an ink print of Courtney’s feet, the tiny handmade dress in which she was photographed.

“I’m surrounding myself with her reminders not to make myself sad but just to keep her here and present with me,” Compary said.

Her office computer’s screen saver is a photograph of Courtney’s feet, inscribed with a quote: “There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world.”