July 2011 – I can remember eagerly opening the post to reveal the registration certificate from Companies House for Petals – this was our first formal document and it felt special:
PREGNANCY EXPECTATIONS TRAUMA AND LOSS SOCIETY (PETALS)
Petals is an acronym – and there is a whole other story about how we got to that! But 10 years ago, those 6 words seemed to encapsulate all that this new adventure needed to be; an organisation formed to support those whose hopes and plans of pregnancy had been shattered in a traumatic way.
To formally register as a charity with the Charity Commission, we had to then raise £5000 – we achieved this in January 2013, launching our counselling service on 3rd February 2013.
I am Karen Burgess and I am the founder and CEO of Petals. I have worked as a counsellor for 21 years. In 2009 I had the privilege of working in a maternity unit supporting couples who suffered the utterly devastating experience of pregnancy loss or the death of a baby. This job changed my life – not only did it have a profound effect on me as a woman, a mother and as a counsellor, it also proved to me that the subtle and gentle nurturing qualities of my counselling approach could make a real difference to people when their world had been shattered in this way.
Starting a new charity in an already busy charity sector has been challenging but rewarding. My drive continues to be my passionate belief that every parent should have timely access to specialist counselling following the loss of a pregnancy or a baby. 10 years ago only the midwives, nurses, doctors or consultants working in maternity services recognised this – they were witnessing the impact of baby loss on a daily basis. For me as an outsider coming into the maternity setting this seemed like a hidden world – a world of deep sadness, despair and shame, the psychological impact of which was completely being missed. It was clear to me that couples were experiencing deep trauma as the shock of what was expected to be a normal healthy pregnancy or birth suddenly turned into their worst nightmare.
The word ‘taboo’ seemed the best way to describe this phenomenon and I have found myself talking about the taboo of baby loss a lot over the past 10 years. Who wants to contemplate, let alone talk about the death of a child, particularly at a time when the focus is on new life and birth? It all feels so wrong. So one of the greatest challenges for Petals has been to engage support for a charity that tackles such a depressing issue.
How have we tackled that? The simple answer is we have done what most others are afraid to do – we have walked towards the problem rather than shy away from it.
Firstly, we have engaged with the clinicians in this field – at every step we have worked with midwives, nurses, doctors and consultants to understand their perspective to ensure our serviced is what they believe is needed for couples as their next step of care when leaving the maternity setting after a pregnancy or baby loss. Secondly, we have talked to the people who have suffered this experience – the bereaved parents – ensuring we fully understand what they go through, how this has impacted on their lives and what help they need to move forward.
But most importantly I believe our work has had real impact for bereaved parents because we focus on recovery.
Recovery is a tricky word to use in this field as it implies ‘getting better’. From Petals’ perspective, recovery is a process of healing that enables parents to live with their loss and carry their memories in a more comfortable and healthy way. The focus of our counselling intervention is to help our clients understand what has happened, how it has impacted on them and changed them, and how they can rebuild their lives with this experience in it. At its best, this can be an incredibly fulfilling and transforming experience for parents as they learn so much about themselves in the face of adversity.
I am proud to say that the past 10 years of Petals has confirmed that this type of specialist counselling works. Through supporting over 5000 clients, we have been able to fine tune our model to really meet the needs of the individual or couple, whether they have suffered a miscarriage, TFMR, stillbirth, neonatal loss or are struggling to cope with a new pregnancy following a previous loss. We have conscientiously collected robust evidence of the impact of our work every step of the way and I am reassured by the enormous gratitude our clients share with us not only in their feedback, but through their donations and fundraising for our charity.
The community of Petals that has grown in the past 10 years utterly warms my heart. From staff, to trustees, our 25 counsellors and of course, our wonderful volunteers and supporters, everyone gives so much to Petals and believes in what we do and why we do it. Without doubt, none of this would have been possible without such generosity, warmth and kindness – for me this makes it all worthwhile and I thank everyone involved.
Mental health services provided through the NHS deliver clinical evidence-based psychological support which clearly has impact. I believe our counselling intervention is unique because not only is it a theory and evidence-based practise, but at its heart is a caring, genuine and mutually meaningful relationship. At Petals, I personally help select all Petals Counsellors to try to ensure that each and everyone of them has the capability of forming this strong nurturing relationship with clients. Confidence in their knowledge of the experience of baby loss, along with a strong foundation of grief and trauma theory are essential too, but the ability to deliver this knowledge with skill, sensitivity and be adaptable to ensure each client’s case is managed individually, is key.
Most of all, to help a parent who has suffered the loss of a baby, you must be able to truly hear what has happened to them, and how they feel about it. Bearing the intensity of feeling, the strength of emotion, the horror of the story that comes at you when you listen to someone who have just suffered the loss of a baby is tough. In the same way that a parent will only allow their newborn baby to be handled by those they trust, a bereaved parent will only be able to truly share their experience of loss with someone who they believe will understand and fully respect what it means to them. We aim to be that person.
In 10 years, much has changed – back in 2011 when I visited the UK’s Department of Health to meet with the NHS Lead for Maternity Services to present the impact of my counselling intervention for bereaved parents and my proposal for Petals, I was met with blank expressions and denial that psychological intervention was necessary. I was told there were other charities successfully providing peer support groups for parents who lost their babies and that was sufficient.
10 years later, whilst Petals voice is still not heard as much as larger more powerful voices in the field of baby loss, I do believe that we have an impact and have helped to change attitudes, highlighting the need for psychological support for bereaved parents, and that this has influenced NHS strategy. The announcement in 2020 that the NHS would be rolling out Maternal Mental Health Services to support new and bereaved parents is a huge step forward and means that many more women (and we hope, their partners) will now get psychological support following baby loss. The demand is huge, and so we will support these services however we can, with help from donors and supporters like you.
So what’s next for Petals? Don’t worry, we have lots of exciting plans for the next 10 years which we will share in the weeks and months ahead. We have come a long way but there is still so much more to do, and we are all very determined.
I hope you can stay with us!