A blurry image of people sitting in a waiting room.

GriefSPEAK: Empty Arms – Mari Nardolillo Dias

by Dr. Mari Nardolillo Dias, contributing writer

Kara came home from Women and Infants Hospital with empty arms. Her pregnancy with her baby girl, Martha, seemed normal, according to ultrasounds. She was at thirty weeks when her OB thought Kara looked dehydrated and pale. He sent her to a local hospital who didn’t see anything out of the ordinary on the ultrasound.

They did hydrate Martha, and for safety’s sake, sent her to Women and Infants. The sophisticated testing here which her local hospital lacked indicated some potential issues with Martha, but could not define them. The staff suggested Kara stay in the hospital for the next four weeks to prevent early labor. Despite their efforts, Martha seemed to be in a hurry, and Kara quickly went into hard labor. Kara said she could feel Martha kicking up a storm. In retrospect, Kara feels like it felt she was fighting to live.

Given that Martha was breech, organized chaos ensued, and they performed an emergency cesarean section. Kara remembers hearing one very small, weak cry before they whisked her off to recovery. and Martha for abdominal surgery. They never reached the OR. When Kara could process what happened she asked about Martha, thinking she was in surgery. Her husband just shook his head. She was gone.

The staff asked Kara if she would like to swaddle Martha. She did. She took pictures. And sobbed. She already had plans and dreams for this little girl. All erased. 

The incidence of infant death is still fairly prevalent, even in first world countries. Many women struggle with guilt that feels “like drowning in sand”, blaming themselves for something they did during the pregnancy (or neglected to do), knowing that is rarely the case. They can subconsciously punish their bodies for betraying them. Sometimes, the punishment manifests itself through starvation or overeating. On the surface, it may appear that they are not hungry or constantly starving. Yet, with a sudden, traumatic loss, the psyche is fragile, and thus we need to remember that “The Body Keeps the Score” (Van der kolk). 


Dr. Mari Nardolillo Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. Dias is a Certified death doula, and has a Certificate in Psychological Autopsy.

She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to: