Sheila & Maureen – 10th Anniversary Case Study – For Eric.
It can sometimes be a challenge for us at Petals to show people who haven’t experienced baby loss or used our specialist counselling support the value of what we do. They perhaps think that counselling is just a nice to have add-on if you want it, not that it is a necessity – If ever there was a story to dispel this myth it is that of Sheila and Maureen whose baby boy, Eric, was stillborn in 2018.
The impact of their trauma and loss was devastating and as they tell me their story it is achingly clear that they were both in a really bad place when they first started counselling.
Their story began with two rounds of IVF, of which the second was successful. They were both delighted to find out that Sheila was pregnant and excitedly anticipated the arrival of their baby at the end of the year. Initially, everything was going well with the pregnancy, it had been tough but there had been no major concerns.
However, towards the end of the pregnancy, Sheila became very unwell as Maureen explains: “At the end, she got very, very sick and we were in and out of the hospital a lot, but they kept telling us everything is fine, go home, she’s fine, everything is fine.”
So it was that the couple found themselves at home again when Sheila started to feel incredibly unwell, and at this point, she realised she could no longer feel the baby moving.
They went back to the hospital one more time and Maureen describes the devastating news that followed: “That’s when we found out that Eric has passed away and the next day, Sheila delivered Eric and then our worlds just completely smashed. It was kind of like we didn’t really know what was going on and we didn’t have any support from anyone.”
As if the death of their much longed-for baby wasn’t enough to contend with, Sheila became incredibly unwell. She says: “I had a urine infection that was never treated, and I was feeling very unwell so, in the last week of my pregnancy they performed several sweeps to speed up the labour. However, this caused stress in the baby and helped the bacteria causing my infection to go through to the placenta. As a result, baby Eric got congenital pneumonia secondary to an ascending genital tract infection and I had sepsis.”
As they relive this time it is clear to hear in their voices just how traumatic it was for them both. Sheila continues: “There was one day I was bleeding a lot and my blood pressure went down really badly and I collapsed in the room, and I thought that day I was going to die – you know I even saw that light that people talk about and I’m not building this up, that is something that I really saw. You know I wasn’t conscious then, but she [Maureen] was in the room and that’s why we both ended up with PTSD and depression.”
It is so common for people going through these traumatic experiences to feel a tornado of emotions and as they continue their story and remember that time again, the sense of confusion, loneliness, anger and sadness are all palpable.
Cultural differences between Sheila, who is Spanish, and the hospital complicated things even further with Sheila wanting to be with Eric and the hospital seeming to think she needed to be away from him at home.
When Sheila did return home to recuperate, her mental health deteriorated rapidly and she says: “After that, I was very depressed, very down and I didn’t want to leave my bed, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, and I didn’t want to know anything about anyone, and I remember Maureen saying you know we have to find some help.”
I ask them how it was they found out about Petals and Maureen explains: “We didn’t know about Petals, it was some lady at the end of our time in hospital who said to us do you know about Petals, and at that point, I was like no I don’t know who they are, I don’t care who they are – I was just so angry because it felt like the hospital had done nothing for us, they just said goodbye and gave us a few leaflets.”
Thankfully, the name Petals stuck with them and as they both began to struggle more Maureen reached out to us in desperation and their story of recovery began.
As is so often the case with people who haven’t received this kind of support before, Sheila and Maureen were both doubtful about the benefits of counselling but, for Sheila at least, the connection made in her sessions quickly reassured her that she was in the right place. She says: “I was a sceptic about going to see Flora (the couple’s Petals counsellor), but I have to say she saved my life because I was in different types of treatments for the depression at that time but obviously you know you need to talk it’s not all about medication.”
As Sheila begins to talk more about Flora her voice breaks as she is overwhelmed by her appreciation for Petals. It becomes clear that the relationship between the couple and Flora was what built the strength needed to get them through such a tough time.
Sheila continues: “You know, now we can talk about it and laugh but living through it at the time was horrendous, having to go and do the shopping, I would be in the shop and think why did I come here? What am I doing? And I couldn’t move, and I would have to call Maureen and say please come and collect me because I can’t do this or anything.
And when people see you and they say oh you are being so strong and I’m like, no – I could smash this whole house up, my anger was crazy. You have to process a lot of things – everything was new. It was not only to lose the baby, which was huge, but to try and learn to live again as a different person. I had to learn to be a different Sheila, I’m not the same Sheila as before.”
As Sheila speaks and remembers that time, I can feel how stuck she was in the grief, she says: “It is a very deep thing, a pain that I have never felt before, it is like someone has taken from inside of you half of your heart.” And I know this will resonate with so many people reading this. As will the knowledge that that piece of you does not return or ever get replaced but that what Petals help to do is to reframe all the love, the loss and the whirlwind of emotion into a thing of strength that allows you to carry your baby with you into a meaningful future.
The thing that enables this to happen is the deep connection that is formed between the clients and their counsellors and for Sheila, this is something that came quickly. She says: “I think we really connected well with Flora, the first day you don’t know her, and we were really in a bad place, but she was so calm, and it was like she could feel our pain and she doesn’t tell you things that you are tired of hearing from people – she tells you things you can do to improve.”
Acknowledging the reality of the grief and the trauma in this way can be so important in helping bereaved parents to move forward no matter how they are reacting to their experience, and this was certainly true for Sheila and Maureen who responded in very different ways to Eric’s death.
As the one who had witnessed the events rather than experiencing them physically, Maureen found herself struggling in a very different way to Sheila as she explains: “We were in two different places and had two different experiences – Sheila had lost Eric and I was dealing with the trauma of what was going on and I work in the hospital as well and I know things that were not correct, that protocol wasn’t followed, and I think, to protect my body, my brain had kind of switched off and I had been switched off for a very long time and I didn’t even realise really. If it wasn’t for Flora ‘fixing’ me, I don’t know where I would be really. I wasn’t the same person at all, my brain and body couldn’t connect. It affected everything, it affected life, it affected work, it affected our relationship.”
All the way through our conversation I am struck by the way Sheila and Maureen are able to articulate each other’s pain and react with such empathy. Going through counselling has given them a real understanding of what the other one was going through, free from judgement.
Sheila’s next words show this perfectly: “I think at the beginning Maureen’s job was to protect me, so she forgot about herself and then we were in different places completely – I was in a very bad depression, I didn’t want to live anymore, I wanted to disappear, and she was looking after me and forgot completely about herself. For a long time, everything that happened was in a box for her and she needed to open the box and it took a long time.”
Maureen agrees, almost unbelieving now that it took so long: “It took more than a year, I think! I didn’t think it would ever happen. I didn’t know what was wrong, but Flora obviously knew what was going on and was able to get me to open the box and file a different piece of it in my brain every time.
Before that, I was just going along and I didn’t even know how to cross the road, I was scared to use the traffic lights – I couldn’t figure out HOW to use them, it was bizarre, it was like nothing was working.”
Given how shut down she was at this stage, I ask Maureen if she had also been sceptical about going to counselling and she replies with a wry laugh: “At the beginning, I did nothing she told me, I didn’t even look at her. I told her I’m just going for Sheila, I’m not here to be fixed and then probably after a month or two I was like, ok, I can listen to her. When we started, I was like I’m not into this, I’ll deal with it on my own and do my own grieving, but I didn’t know how to grieve! I didn’t know how to deal with sadness until we met Petals – it allowed us to cope with what happened and allowed us to deal with the grieving as best we could and to find the new us and to keep us together as we were falling apart as a couple because we were having such different emotions.”
It is always so hard to describe what the process is that allows that change to come and I ask Maureen how she thinks Flora enabled that change. She says: “Everything about her was just beautiful. Her calmness, her openness, she was waiting for you to open up. She wasn’t feeding us with ‘I know your grief’, she didn’t know our grief, but she understood people have different types of grief and she just waited for us. And she always listened, always, even to the smallest things, she’d pick it up and she’d listen to our feelings, our thoughts. Not like the people who would just say oh I’m so sorry and then just expect us to get over it.
You could tell her anything, not even just stuff about Eric but other stuff in your life because you trusted her, and I don’t trust anyone! But you know, I took that barrier down and I trusted her with my life.”
Sheila is nodding throughout this and agrees simply saying: “She knows what she has to say in that moment for you to open even more.”
Throughout our conversation, they talk about being new people and a new couple now and I think this is so common with people who have experienced baby loss. But I am certain too, listening to them both, that the counselling process itself has changed them as people. Maureen strongly agrees: “With people, I’m calmer and I listen more, whereas before I never listened. I was very much you just get on with things you know. I’ve learnt things from Flora that I can use throughout my life. She’s changed us in every single way – we are calmer, more relaxed, there is more understanding and acceptance of what happened whereas before there was no acceptance.
That acceptance took a really long time because the hospital hadn’t followed protocol and that really affected me and Sheila – how can you trust people when you have been let down in that way and not listened to?
Flora broke down whatever barrier I was holding up and when it came down it was suddenly such a relief because I had been stuck in that hospital and whatever she did it brought my brain and my body back together and I realised I wasn’t trapped in the hospital anymore, I could walk out.”
This transformation enabled Sheila and Maureen to truly move forward with their lives; they now have a two-year-old son, Sean whom Maureen carried and whom they clearly adore, and when I speak to them, they are just a week away from moving to Australia to begin a new life on the other side of the world. It is clear this will be a life that is filled with hope and love, a life that they tell me will allow Sean lots of time in the great outdoors and a life that will make it possible for Sheila to return to the nursing work that she loves.
Sheila expands on how Petals helped them get to this place: “Flora really tried to connect with us and you know she even cried, I was always taught as a nurse don’t empathise, don’t connect with a person because it can be hard, but she really did that and it made the difference, she gave us everything. Without her help I wouldn’t be able to work as a nurse, I wouldn’t be able to try and have more babies. What I am and how I am now, and I don’t say this because I am having this interview, I say this to everyone, at the beginning I was suicidal, and Flora spoke to us about it all about all the small things that were happening, and it really saved us.”
When I ask them how they see their lives now, they both smile and Maureen says: “We are much better, we are totally different – we are able to openly have discussions about how we are feeling which we wouldn’t have done before. Before we get mad, we can say ok, we know how to chat to each other and get through this. We have learnt how to get on with life, to be better people and to love each other and there are many, many happy moments now and we are just in a nice place.”
As much as Petals has played a part in transforming Sheila and Maureen’s lives, they have also done a huge amount for Petals in return. As well as making donations and raising awareness wherever they can, they also told their story to the Director of Nursing at the hospital where Eric was born and explained the impact of the poor care they received, along with how important the very specialist support they received from Petals was. Following this, Petals is now contracted to work with the hospital to provide support for those experiencing baby loss.
It was an important part of the couple’s recovery to make changes to the system in this way. Maureen explains: “I can imagine there are a lot of women out there suffering in silence not knowing there is hope out there, there is support and care. You are left with the burden of, you’ve just lost your baby, you’ve lost yourself, you are in another world and then you think now I’ve got to leave here and then what, who is going to look after me. I have nowhere to go. Everyone should know about Petals at this point.”
Sheila agrees: “You know, I’m a nurse and even I never thought this was going to happen, you just never think this is going to happen. No way is it in your mind and during your pregnancy, you saw all these posters about what will happen when everything is ok so then, when it isn’t, you don’t know where to go, what to do.” And this is something that we hear so regularly at Petals, that stillbirth or neonatal death are just not in people’s vocabulary, and it makes them feel so lonely when something so unexpected happens – and this is why it is so important that we all keep talking about baby loss and doing everything we can to eradicate that stigma.
Along with continuing the baby loss conversation, my job in the telling of these stories is to bring to life the very real connection that our clients have with Petals and how special and significant that is in helping them find their way to a more hopeful place in their lives. However, I believe that no matter what I wrote in this piece, I was destined to fail in conveying to you what Petals means to Sheila and Maureen – to portray the passion in their voices and in their eyes is almost an impossibility.
These words from Maureen perhaps best sum up the impact Petals has had on the couple: “Flora made us see the colour at the end. We were going through a tunnel, and it was always black and when I started seeing the light I was like ok, this woman, she’s doing it, she’s fixing me and when I saw that light, I was able to take my first breath and I was like Jesus that’s amazing, I’m not gulping water, I’m not drowning anymore.”
I wish this incredible couple a life full of that colour – they truly deserve it all.