Little Footprints: Grieving Parents Find Support, Friendship At Amanda the Panda

“Unfortunately, fortunately.” 
That's the mantra for those attending EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda program's Little Footprints: Perinatal & Infant Loss Support Group. 
"Unfortunately, we're here because we lost our babies, but fortunately we met each other," says Annie Rivas, who along with her husband, Nick, were among the first couples to attend the support group when it began in spring 2019. 
Nick and Annie lost their son Noah at 21 weeks and one day on March 24, 2018. 
At their 18-week appointment, when the couple was expecting to find out the gender of the baby, the ultrasound technician left the room and a doctor informed the couple that the baby was measuring about two weeks smaller than he should have been.  
After a referral to the hospital and more testing, the couple were told things were normal. Two weeks later, Annie knew something was wrong. The couple went to the emergency room and were quickly sent to the labor and delivery floor. 
"They tried the Doppler and couldn't hear anything," Annie said. "Then they did an ultrasound but hid the screen. After an exam they told us I was right, that the umbilical cord had prolapsed." 
When the doctors couldn't find a heartbeat, the couple was moved to a private labor and delivery area. 
Annie was induced at 6:30 p.m. Their son was stillborn at 7:36 p.m. due to an insufficient placenta. 
The Rivas', who previously shared their story with EveryStep, first learned of the Amanda the Panda support group nearly a year after their loss. 
"We were uneasy about going at first, but we said, 'let's go,'" Annie notes.  
The couple were joined by Igor and Azra Cavlovic at the first support group session in April.  
The Cavlovic's found the support group less than three months after the loss of their son Benjamin, who died during delivery on Jan. 30, 2019 at 20 weeks. 
The couple should have been preparing for their son's arrival, not sitting in a room discussing their loss. Azra and Igor, who have been married for 11 years, tried for nearly four years to get pregnant, and finally did so after taking fertility medication. 
"It was a great pregnancy up until the 20th week," Azra recalls. "I went to the emergency room with cramping, but they did an ultrasound and said things were fine." 
A few days later, the couple went to the doctor's office for their 20-week ultrasound and to find out the baby's gender. 
Instead, the couple found out that Azra had what’s called an “incompetent cervix”; her body could no longer support the baby. Doctors determined it was too late for a medical intervention. 
"That was really, really hard," Azra says. "We had thought of all the what ifs, but not this kind of complication after the 20-week mark, because that's when you usually think you're in the clear. That turned our world upside down." 
The couple immediately went to the labor and delivery floor at Mercy Hospital. They were quickly joined by their families and held an impromptu gender reveal. Hours later,  Benjamin who had a healthy heartbeat prior to delivery, died during labor. 
After the delivery, the couple received a packet of resources from the hospital. Inside was a flyer for EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda infant loss support group. 
"My sister signed up us for the support group and came with us the first week," Azra recalls. "After that we came on our own. It's really been emotionally supportive for us. The others here are going through the same situations." 
Azra remembers feeling a sense of hopelessness after her son's death, noting that it was hard to function on a daily basis, and that she took two months off from work. 
"I was really depressed, I didn't know how to handle my emotions," she says. "Then we met Annie and Nick, and we instantly connected. You're meeting someone who has gone through the same loss. They helped us realize there was hope and a way to manage our grief." 
The group, which met from 5:45 to 7:30 p.m. on Mondays for six weeks in the spring and again in the summer, isn't a therapy session, the couples say. 
Instead, it's a place where they can express their emotions and discuss their shared experiences. The fall session runs Oct. 21 though Nov. 11 at the EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' office, 1821 Grand Ave. in West Des Moines. 
"It's a safe environment, they're non-judgmental, and it's helped me move forward," Azra notes. "They ask helpful types of questions. There's something so healing about the way we share." 
The group is also unique in that fathers are able to receive support and discuss how the loss has affected them. The Rivas couple had previously found there were few resources for dads going through the loss of a child. 
"The dads don't get a lot of attention," Annie Rivas notes. "To meet Igor, I think that was a great thing for Nick." 
"Nick and I had a connection right away," Igor said, adding that the two now belong to the same networking group and meet for coffee outside of the support group meetings. "We don't necessarily talk about the babies, but they come up." 
This summer, the Rivas' and Cavlovic’s were joined by Annie McCoy. She and husband Tanner lost their son Weston after he was born at 23 weeks and one day. 
Annie and Tanner, who have been married nearly five years, knew right away they wanted to be parents. But like the Cavlovic’s, the couple dealt with fertility issues. In March 2018, they found out they were pregnant. 
Annie remembers being nervous about her long-awaited pregnancy. At 12 weeks, she suffered a subchronic hemorrhage, requiring medication to stop the blood irritation. 

“I was at the midwives or emergency room every three weeks it seemed,” Annie notes. 

At the 20 week mark, she started losing her mucus plug. While she was assured things were fine, and she sent Tanner on a long-planned kayaking trip, Annie returned to the hospital a few days later. 
Doctors determined she also had what’s called an “incompetent cervix,” and she was then admitted to the labor and delivery floor at UnityPoint, where she stayed for three weeks. 
"Things were good until the last day, which was the last day," she recalls. Weston was born at 4:22 a.m. on Friday, July 27, 2018. While Annie had received two steroid shots to strengthen and help develop Weston’s lungs, they simply weren’t strong enough, and he passed away shortly after birth.  
"I left the hospital at 10:30 on Friday and went to work the next Monday," Annie notes. "I couldn't be home any longer, I needed to be with people, to tell people what happened. No one understands, they try, but they just don't get it." 
Annie McCoy was introduced to the support group by Annie Rivas, as the two knew each other through mutual friends. 
"Annie saw a post I made on Facebook. At first, I didn't want to join the group," Annie M recalls. "She talked about the group and said, 'you should really come.' So, I did." 
When Annie Rivas reached out about the support group, Annie McCoy was hesitant to come, but eventually relented. 
"It had almost been a year since our loss and I didn't realize how angry I was," she says. "By our sixth session, there was a huge transition in my heart. It was an amazing feeling." 
The parents have taken their support for one another outside the walls of the Amanda the Panda offices. And while Tanner doesn't attend the support group, he's joined them in other activities. 
"When the group was ending, we thought, ‘let's do something to celebrate our babies and bring us together again,’" Annie says. 
And so, the group decided they would continue to honor their lost boys by dining at restaurants that include their names. 
"We decided it would be good to get together," Igor says. "We went to dinner at Simon's, which used to be called J. Benjamins. We want to do something little like that to remember the babies." 
Soon, the group plans to dine at Noah's Ark in honor of Annie and Nick's son. They've also discussed plans to go camping in the future. 
"We're our own little infancy loss family," Azra says. "It's a support group, but it's become so much more for us. It's become a friendship." 
That friendship will endure as the Rivas', Cavlovics and Annie McCoy plan to continue attending the Amanda the Panda support group. 
"I don't know when I would stop," Annie McCoy says of attending the support group. "This is something we'll deal with the rest of our lives."