Minnesota counseling center turns grief inside out

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2013 - 3:09 PM

After her first child was stillborn, Candy McVicar founded what has become a national resource for parents who have lost an infant.

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G.R.A.C.E. founder Candy McVicar, right, said goodbye to Hallie Hoppe and her 3-week-old son, Hudson. At top, a candle with a charm bearing baby footprints.

Photo: Ann Heisenfelt, Special to the Star Tribune

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Grace McVicar never got a chance to take a single breath, but her mother has turned the stillborn girl’s memory into an international center that supports others who have lost an infant.

Candy McVicar is the founder and driving force behind the Center for G.R.A.C.E., a resource and counseling center. More than 7,000 people a year contact the center, with calls ranging from mourning parents looking for a sympathetic ear to hospital chaplains seeking advice on how to relate to their patients.

“I didn’t set out to do all this,” McVicar said of the center, which holds counseling sessions, offers phone and online support to bereaved parents, hosts educational seminars for medical personnel and sends care baskets to families.

“I didn’t want Grace’s death to be in vain — I wanted her to have a lasting impact. But I was looking to partner with someone who was already doing this. I couldn’t find anyone else. I still get calls from people saying that we’re the only facility like this in the country.”

The 4,000-square-foot center in Rogers includes a library, play area for children, gift shop and meeting rooms, including one with a vaulted ceiling that can be used for funerals.

Knowing that grieving families often struggle with mundane tasks like grocery shopping, there’s a communal kitchen where “the refrigerator is always stocked and people are welcome to eat whatever they want,” said McVicar.

The center focuses on helping families that have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth or had a baby die before its first birthday. (There are other support organizations that focus on children’s deaths.)

In addition to being her daughter’s name, the center’s acronym stands for Grieve, Restore, Arise, Commemorate and Educate.

It’s not a coincidence that grieve is listed first. The worst thing that a bereaved parent can do is skip the grieving.

“There are people who try to pretend that it didn’t happen — they just try to move on with their lives,” McVicar said. “They’re the ones who come to us years later with even bigger problems. If you don’t deal with it, it will deal with you.”

Although there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, she said, the McVicars had a funeral for Grace and buried her in a cemetery that they visit as a family. She believes that such things help bring closure to the mourning, which is why she makes the center available for memorial services.

“We want people to feel affirmed and validated in their right to grieve,” she said.

The reaction outside the center often is the opposite. In fact, shortly after Grace was stillborn, the McVicars noticed that some of their friends pulled away from them.

“My husband and I would discover after the fact that there had been a party that we hadn’t been invited to,” she said. “People don’t want to be reminded that life is fragile.”

Some bereaved parents drive hundreds of miles to get to Rogers. And they keep calling, not only from all over the country but also from Asia, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Counseling parents who have lost a baby might sound like a depressing mission, but McVicar insists that it’s not. One of the first things she tells callers is that their sadness needn’t be permanent.

“There definitely will be a day when you will have joy again,” said McVicar, who since Grace’s death has given birth to two healthy daughters.

The center was one of the first places that Hallie Hoppe took her newborn son, Hudson. It was where she had wrestled with her grief after her first son was stillborn, and it was where she wanted to share the joy of Hudson’s arrival.

“I had to stop in and see Candy,” she said. “She’s a very special person.”

An avoidable tragedy

Grace McVicar was stillborn in 2001. It was Candy McVicar’s 33rd week of pregnancy, but she suspected a couple of weeks earlier that something was wrong because the baby’s movement curtailed dramatically. She went to see her obstetrician but was told not to worry about it.

“They sent me away, saying, ‘babies don’t move as much late in pregnancy,’ ” she said. “In fact, she needed an early delivery by C-section.”

Had that been done, Grace likely would have survived, McVicar said. She and her husband, Stephen, were devastated, but not vindictive. They decided against filing a malpractice lawsuit, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t going to take action.

“We wanted to change things through education,” Stephen McVicar said. “Instead of going through a long legal battle, we wanted to work with doctors, hospitals and parents so this wouldn’t happen to anyone else.”

Candy McVicar, who was running her own marketing business, closed that in order to launch the Missing GRACE Foundation to provide educational, bereavement and support materials.

She ran the organization out of her house. People found her by surfing the Internet or hearing about her from hospital social workers or other bereaved parents.

“It was all word of mouth,” she said of the organization’s growth.

In 2011, the foundation finally had the means to get an office. Candy, whose official title is executive director, runs the center on a day-to-day basis. Stephen, who has a full-time sales job, leads some of the peer counseling sessions — “Men grieve differently than women,” he said — produces educational videos, does the bookkeeping and, he added with a laugh, serves as janitor.

All of the services are offered on a sliding scale that starts at zero. “If people can pay, that’s great,” Candy McVicar said. “But if they can’t pay, that’s OK, too.”

Pass it on

Sandy Lowe, a retired teacher, volunteers to staff the phones two days a week. Whenever she works, sitting on the desk directly in front of her is a framed photograph of a granddaughter who lived only 10 days before succumbing to a genetic lung disorder.

“For me it was double grief,” she said. “My own daughter was suffering, but I also had lost a grandchild.”

After she and her daughter used the center’s services, “I felt that I should give back to the place that helped me heal,” she said. “Now I’m able to help other people who are struggling with a really difficult loss.”

Helping thousands of people a year is impressive, Candy McVicar will admit. But she does so grudgingly because she knows that she is only scratching the surface. According to the center’s website, there are 40,000 stillbirths in the United States each year. Combining stillbirths, miscarriages and other forms of infant losses, the number jumps to 1 million a year.

“I’d love to have these centers all over the country,” she said.

But lacking that, she wants to be able to do more with the center she has. In addition to needing more money — “All nonprofits need more money these days,” she said — she also needs more volunteers. She’d like to be able to keep the center open in the evenings and on weekends because, many times, just being there is the most valuable thing it has to offer.

“Sometimes you just need to talk to the right person,” she said.

 

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

  • Center for g.r.a.c.e.

    To reach the center:

    By phone: 763-497-0709

    By e-mail: info@missinggrace.org

    By mail: 21370 John Milless Dr., Suite 210, Rogers, MN 55374

    Website: www.missinggrace.org.

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