The benefits of peer support – a grief worker’s journey

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  • November 5, 2015

The benefits of peer support – a grief worker’s journey

There is an interesting fact about me. I am not the same person I was before 2011. The pre-trauma me would likely have never: traveled alone, lost her fear of flying, worked with a life coach, believed bonding with virtual strangers was possible or attended a women’s retreat. Ever. Never ever. Not me!  But in early 2011 premature labor caused the death of my twins. I nearly died as well. My daughters were born two weeks apart, one “sunset” (stillborn) and one “sunrise and sunset” (born and died).  It was and always will be the most traumatic events of my life.

I learned to never say never.

I was in a daze for well over a year. I struggled to talk, breathe, eat, sleep, communicate, engage, socialize.  I struggled to live and love. The rug had been pulled out from under my feet so fast and unexpectedly, I didn’t know how to get past my past.  I stayed in that place, of anticipation and anxiety until I thought I was going to lose it.  Mentally exhausted, sad beyond belief and unable to appreciate or see good anywhere or in anything.  I was in therapy and had a life coach. They were helping me, then one of my three therapists made me angry. She didn’t want me to discuss my trauma and PTSD diagnosis outside of therapy. She advised me to suffer in silence. It was the judgement factor. People, employers, friends and family would judge me for admitting I was hurting and needed help. My life coach was able to put things into perspective. And my very first therapist had insurance bureaucracy and a treatment deadline. I guess insurance companies think you should be well by a certain date. I stopped seeing the therapist that angered me. I sadly had to phase out of my first therapist (my half hour a week allotted slot) but continued my weekly discussions and nature walks with my life coach.

Through the help of my life coach I noticed that my overwhelming sadness slowly started to fade. I started focusing on recovery and healing. I was still a fraction of the person I was prior to 2011 but I was moving in the right direction.

I decided to give back to my bereavement community by helping other families who also lost a pregnancy; the families who lost a baby or babies.,the medically necessary termination families, the ones the world doesn’t want to admit exist. I became a certified birth and bereavement doula, flew alone to North Carolina for perinatal mood and anxiety disorder certification and attended a bereavement support group facilitation course.

It felt good to help others. My meeting with my first mom, my first peer, was incredible. We had so much in common and had actually been neighbors until recently. I was her support system and soon met with other families.

However, something was missing. Though I wasn’t exactly sure of what.

I took all these steps to help me but what I had was basically paid, clinical support and a life coach. Now, I needed that at the time but what about long term? Who will understand when I get sad on Thanksgiving, Christmas, feel robbed on New Year’s Eve and how I celebrate my dead daughter’s birthdays? I have two separate dates and two weeks in between to linger in that headspace. To remember and acknowledge it was all real.

I am not sure who mentioned the Lifetime movie about stillbirth but I was intrigued. The movie starred Minnie Driver who is a great actress, but why Lifetime?  What did I know about Lifetime movies?  Not much. I like dramas, the travel channel, cooking shows and gritty documentaries. I started reading everything I could about this movie “Return to Zero”.

I recorded it and tried to watch it but had to shut it off. I realized whatever misconceptions I had about this made-for-tv movie flew out the window. The dialogue could have been mine; the phrases, the baby shower scene.  It was hitting home. It took me three separate attempts to watch the movie in its entirety. It was emotional, heartfelt and spoke to me.

Finally, the media was talking about this!  I no longer felt alone but wanted more. I followed the movie on Facebook and joined their local leader group. I then learned the first official “Return to Zero” women’s retreat was being held in Stowe, Vermont.  Pre-loss I didn’t like to do anything alone, let alone take two plane rides to the East Coast by myself. But I was different now. A friend set up a go fund me and I figured if the cost of the retreat was donated, I could cover the ticket. It was the most expensive ticket I  had bought to date and I needed a hotel the first night.

The donations came in and I began connecting with other attendees. Since it was  on the East Coast I only had one peer in California (along with the California based facilitators Kiley and Ivy), Gina. Kiley connected us via email and we decided to meet in Burlington, Vermont. Another attendee, Laura, reached out as well. She was based in Michigan and we began communicating via email.

With the time zone, travel time and logistics Gina and I had to fly in a day early, me from Northern California and Gina from Southern California. We made plans to sightsee and drive a rental car to Stowe, about 45 minutes from the Burlington airport. It gave us a chance to bond and made it easier to walk in that door. We had exchanged phone calls and emails but I was flying 3,000 miles to hang out with a virtual stranger.

Once we met she wasn’t a stranger at all!  Immediately, we hit it off.  It was unlike any other connection I ever had.  I had a peer! Not one I was helping through her loss, she was a peer for me personally.  We were there for each other.

I walked in that door of the retreat to join over 20 other peers.  I literally sat next to a woman who had my identical birth trauma story only both of her girls had passed on the same day. It was surreal, heartbreaking and beautiful.

Laura, Gina and I hit it off and became a trio over that three day weekend.

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Three amigas

Three other ladies stood out. When I looked in the eyes of “J, M & J” I saw myself in 2011.  I then realized how far I had come in my grief journey.  I knew I could help them as much as they helped me understand my recovery.

I had a horrific bout with insomnia and fell asleep during yoga!  I am also horrible with names and called everyone by their state (and still do today).

We lit candles and said our baby’s names every morning and every night. We hiked, had traditional and equestrian yoga, group meals, and bonded in a way I never knew possible.

In loving memory of ...

In loving memory of …

There were art projects and a special place to read all of our handwritten stories, and leave messages for each other. We had quiet time to journal and reflect.  At times we split up into different groups based on length of time since our loss, or losses.  If we wanted, we could reflect and share in group. It was then I then realized I could accept that this was my story.  It was real and I was not alone. And none of us wanted to leave each other or the safety and compassion of the group. We knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I am in contact with the women to this day and we can call, text, or email each other at any time. To date I was able to visit personally with four of them and can’t wait to one day see the rest of them.

We are here through: subsequent pregnancies, losses, births, breakups, makeups, moves, life – 100% in unity.

The best thing I did for me post-loss was attend this wonderful retreat.  It helped me find me finally find me again.

To my Vermont soul sisters I love you all!

Massachusetts, Virginia, Delaware, Rhode Island, New York, Brooklyn, Maryland, Texas, Ohio, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Michigan aka Detroit, Rhode Island, my soul sister in North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, Southern California, Alaska and Boston – San Francisco loves you with all her heart!  

RTZ Vermont Retreat

RTZ Vermont Retreat

I believe whatever tragedy or heartbreak you endure, and survive, there is no support as great as peer support. For more information on regarding pregnancy and infant loss and additional resources click here


Special thank you to:

Our facilitators, Kiley, Ivy and Deb – keep doing what you’re doing. We love you, we needed you, we needed each other and the grief community needs you.

Our hosts JerDog, Tess, Paulette, and Georgia – your hospitality, food and kindness was much appreciated, much needed and only increased our love of Stowe, collectively.

For more information about Return to Zero the movie click here

For more information about the RTZ retreat click here

Read retreat testimonials here

To my life coach and lifelong friend Greg Carroll Creating you now thank you for helping me find me again

To all of our children – you came and left our lives so briefly, you brought us all together and we take comfort knowing you are together and your lives have purpose.

To my daughters Tierney and Eden – because of you I met some of the best people. The best people I wish I never met but you brought me to them. As much as I wanted to be your mom on earth you’ve taken me on a very different journey. Thank you for choosing me as your mother. I will always love you.


Jennifer “Jake” McKenna Ibarra Jake studied Early Childhood Education at San Francisco City College, is a certified birth and bereavement doula through SBD University, certified in perinatal mood disorders by Postpartum Support International and is also a PSI member. Jake co-facilitates local H.A.N.D. meetings. She is a 4th generation San Francisco Native and mother to six including her preterm twin angels. Her personal experience combined with extensive birth and bereavement training make her an invaluable asset to the DoulaSpot team.



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