From the time he was 5 years old, Irv Leon has intimately witnessed the trauma and grief left behind after the loss of a child.
In the mid-1950s, after his 8-year-old older brother unexpectedly died of ulcers, grief became an integral part of Leon’s world.
“As overwhelmed and devastated as my parents were for many years, they were resilient, devoting themselves to raising my brother and me,” he said. “But our upbringing left its mark. Not coincidentally, my brother became a doctor of the heart (cardiologist) and I became a doctor of the psyche.”
For almost two decades, Leon, a clinical psychologist and adjunct associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Medical School, has channeled these early experiences to help those who have endured reproductive loss learn how to grieve and heal.
Reproductive loss can encompass a wide variety of bereavements, including stillbirths, miscarriages, infertility and ectopic pregnancies. Some of these losses, such as pregnancy termination for fetal anomaly, are more stigmatized and less studied than others, he said.
At the University of Michigan, Leon leads bi-monthly reproductive loss case seminars for health care professionals, including nurses, social workers, obstetricians and psychiatrists. Participants especially appreciate the opportunity to discuss cases from multiple disciplines and perspectives.
During these seminars, hospital health care practitioners present cases they’ve encountered on the job that deal with reproductive loss and describe how they interacted with these patients. Attendees give feedback in group discussions and recommend other approaches that can promote families coping with their grief.
“These losses are unique,” he said. “When you have someone older who dies, you’re thinking of the experiences you had with that person, what they look like, what their voice was like. When you have a reproductive loss, you don’t have any of those memories. That is why it is so important for parents to have the choice to see, hold and get to know their deceased baby. It is creating in real time the memories upon which grief is based.”
One key element to interacting with families who experience this loss is empathy, Leon said. There are several aspects to empathy that health care providers can emulate, including allowing oneself to feel the parents’ emotions, understanding from the patients’ perspective of what has been lost, and accepting patients for who they are instead of judging them and their reproductive decisions.
“I’m not suggesting that the health care provider is weeping and the patient is giving tissues,” Leon said. “But emotionally resonating with her sadness is felt by the patient, helping her to know she is not alone, that someone cares.”
Looking back on how he first began to specialize in reproductive loss, Leon said he encountered several of these cases and published several journal articles about the subject in the 1980s.
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Ironically, soon after these papers were published, he and his wife struggled with infertility along with three ectopic pregnancies. They eventually adopted their only child.
“So what initially was a research interest became very personally relevant for me,” he said. “I’m sure because of that, I stayed in this area.”
Leon said he thinks growing up in a household grappling with his brother’s death also made him comfortable with the grieving process.
“I can feel a certain satisfaction that I’m able to help people get through a grief that was much harder for my family to get through,” he said. “It kind of closes a circle in a positive way.”
Q & A
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
I vividly recall a case presentation by a team of neonatal specialists who described their attempts to save the life of a very small premature baby. They seamlessly worked together complementing each other. The room was filled with their expertise, compassion, and devotion.
What can’t you live without?
Dark chocolate! To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Life without chocolate (music) would be a mistake.”
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The Diag. It’s the heart of the university.
What inspires you?
In the midst of overwhelming parental grief, I see so many of these parents change their demeanor, displaying a quiet smile as they describe in detail how meaningful it was to have seen and cuddled their beloved child. It is inspiring to witness love commingling with and not daunted by such deep sadness.
What are you currently reading?
“An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Jamison. It demonstrates how even with extreme emotional disorders such as bipolar illness it is possible to make a meaningful and gratifying life.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Dr. Tim Johnson. He brought me on board and hired me as adjunct faculty when he was chair of obstetrics and gynecology. Most importantly he steadfastly supported in word and deed over many years my teaching and training in the department in an area that most hospitals overlook.