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Published September 16, 2013, 03:46 PM

An open heart: Group that comforts families who face infant loss inspired by child

Fargo -- Val Kleppen couldn’t understand what the doctor was telling her.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

Fargo -- Val Kleppen couldn’t understand what the doctor was telling her. Her daughter’s heart had stopped beating in her womb. She briefly wondered how they would fix it. That was before the tragic reality sunk in.

It had been a beautiful pregnancy. She was 36 weeks along, noteworthy as her first child, now age 3, was born prematurely. The baby had been active, and moved anytime her husband, Brent, talked to her stomach.

“I didn’t understand how this baby who never stopped moving” could be stillborn, Kleppen says. “Babies aren’t supposed to die. Nobody prepares you for that.”

Harlynn Renae Kleppen was born April 10. She was buried April 16.

While she never took a breath, Harlynn’s life inspired a friendship between her mom and a photographer. It also inspired Harlynn’s Heart, an organization named in her honor to help other families who face this dark road.

Michelle Warren has taken photos for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, a nonprofit that provides infant bereavement photography, since 2012. She was at work when the text seeking a photographer for the Kleppens came through. Another volunteer responded first.

Later, however, a friend of a friend called to ask how much Warren would charge to take photos at Harlynn’s funeral.

Of course, there’d be no charge, Warren replied.

She met Val Kleppen at the funeral home.

“It was the hardest situation I’ve ever been in,” Warren says, “the hardest but the most rewarding.”

She tried to hide behind her camera, but it was impossible not to feel connected, she says.

Two months prior, Warren had attended Spark of Awesome, a retreat to inspire women to pursue their true passions. Warren, a mortgage lender for more than a decade, was just happy to have a break from her three kids, but during a vision board exercise at the retreat, had an epiphany that her life was not the path she wanted.

The day of Harlynn’s funeral “solidified what I should be doing in my life,” Warren says. She later quit her lending job and now has a photo studio.

On Mother’s Day, Warren called Kleppen and told her what a profound impact Harlynn had made on her life. She said she wanted to create something to help others, though she didn’t know what it would be.

Kleppen said she’d help any way she could.

Within a matter of weeks, out of the blue, Warren told Kleppen she thought they should start Harlynn’s Heart.

Kleppen had been secretly hoping since Mother’s Day that Warren would name the organization exactly that.

Harlynn’s Heart exists to provide support, resources and comfort to families who have or will face perinatal loss, the women say.

“We received excellent medical care at the hospital, but there’s so much the doctors and nurses couldn’t provide,” Kleppen says.

No one told her what Harlynn would look like, or what she could expect in the minutes, hours and days following her stillbirth.

“It was me and Google trying to sort this out,” she says, plus the dozens of books she ordered from Amazon.

Harlynn’s Heart allows Kleppen and Warren to walk alongside others, offering reassuring words, a shoulder to cry on, a nonjudgmental ear to listen.

They might provide a list of support groups or resources or advice on planning a funeral.

“It’s a matter of being there, giving a little piece of yourself to help others,” Warren says.

Momentum grew quickly. Kleppen began training to be a birth and bereavement doula, so she could be in the delivery room with families. They started a Facebook group, and were incorporated by the state.

Friends offered to design a website and logo. Someone donated tiny knit hats. Strangers asked the women if they could start a chapter of Harlynn’s Heart before the organization officially existed. They are still working on securing its 501(c)(3) designation.

They helped their first client in July, three months after Kleppen lost Harlynn.

Miranda Hanson of Dilworth thought her health issues meant she’d never conceive naturally. She became pregnant in late 2011, but miscarried her son Grayson before 19 weeks.

Months later, just as she began to seek fertility treatments, Hanson unexpectedly became pregnant again.

Her pregnancy was closely monitored and progressed well, until she suddenly felt no movement.

At 36 weeks, she discovered her daughter, Mauriana, was stillborn, an umbilical cord accident. Hanson delivered her July 14.

Warren responded to the bereavement photography request, and Kleppen accompanied her.

Kleppen helped pose Mari on Hanson’s chest. Hanson says Kleppen provided assurance she needed that Mari’s physical appearance was normal.

“They both cried with us and expressed how deeply sorry they were. They almost felt like part of the family,” Hanson says. “They’ve been really great at keeping in contact with me.”

They asked Hanson if she would share her story on the Harlynn’s Heart blog, which Hanson says helped with the healing process.

“I really wanted to get my story heard, to be able to help someone else,” Hanson says.

Hanson has read Kleppen’s personal blog posts, and treasures them. They express exactly what she’s experienced, she says.

She says she couldn’t pick two better people to provide this service.

“I think they are very courageous people to go and do that and see that sadness every day that this type of thing happens,” Hanson says. “You really have to have a kind heart, a gentle heart to be able to continue.”

Kleppen says she wants to do what she can to make Harlynn’s life matter to other people because it will always matter to her.

“In losing Harlynn, I feel like my husband lost a daddy’s girl, I lost a daughter, Haley lost a sister,” says Kleppen, who wears a silver heart engraved with Harlynn’s name around her neck. “We don’t know how to live with the one we all longed for.”

She mourns a sibling rivalry that will never be, the “stuff that would drive parents crazy.” She laments that the dear friends whose last name inspired Harlynn’s first won’t be able to coddle their namesake.

But Harlynn herself has become a namesake.

Kleppen says she still has grief to work through, but connecting with women, seeing she could provide Hanson some measure of relief, solidifies the purpose of Harlynn’s Heart.

“I want people to understand just because she died that doesn’t mean she wasn’t here,” Kleppen says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556