This is the story of Sonia, Dan and Lyra.
There’s something uniquely isolating about your baby dying. Death is such a taboo in our society and the death of a child is the natural order turned on its head. People care, but don’t know how to show it. Everyone is terrified of making it worse (which they really can’t). But I don’t care about such things any more. A leaky-eyed conversation about someone you love is to be cherished There’s no shame in showing the world that you loved them.
So here’s my story. I’m writing it partly because it feels good to be strong enough to share it, but also because raising awareness and prompting discussion is important.
At the beginning of 2018 I was 45, the mother of 3-year-old Dylan, and had sailed through my pregnancy. Then three days before my planned c-section, I woke in the morning to realise that the baby wasn’t moving. I didn’t want my partner to worry, so let him go off to work as normal, then ate a mountain of jam on toast & lay down, waiting for the baby to move. Nothing. Weird! Usually the flip flopping would have started immediately – this was a kicky baby! I rang the Rosie & they said to go in straight away. I can remember clear as day my slow saunter to the car – to me this just meant the c-section happening a few days early. No bad thing! I called my husband Dan as I entered the Rosie saying he really didn’t need to come yet, and not to worry or make a fuss. The doctors would sort it. I cannot thank him enough for ignoring my words.
I remember the shaking hands of the trainee midwife, as she tried again and again to find a heartbeat. Me telling Dan, brightly, when he arrived, ‘Oh, it’s okay, they’re just struggling to find a heartbeat. It’ll be fine – she’s a trainee – I don’t think she’s very good!’
But she was right. No heartbeat. Which meant it was over.
After it all came crashing down, I am still blown away by the kindness of the NHS staff. You hear such stories, but to personally experience such genuine heartfelt compassion was incredible. The Rosie Bereavement Team talked us through every aspect of what was to come, both while we were in the hospital and afterwards, and I’ll be forever grateful to them for their support.
People know so little about what actually happens when a baby is stillborn. After we found out our baby was dead, we went home, as you do! After copious Google searches, we found the words to tell our son what had happened. The directness and simplicity of language that is required to explain death to a 3-year old is shocking. Your mind screams don’t talk about our baby like this! But euphemisms protect adults, not children. And what did Dylan say at the news? He looked around the room and his eyes lit upon something tempting on a table nearby. ‘Chocolate cake?!’ Pure delight! No news can compete with the unbridled joy of chocolate cake, let’s face it. Now, looking back on that moment, it feels symbolic. Just seconds after the toughest words I’ve ever said, I was laughing. Laughing at my funny, gorgeous boy. It’s impossible to stay sad all the time when you have kids, no matter your circumstances. Dylan has been a huge part of our healing.
That night, at home, I had to decide whether or not to stick with the c-section or be induced and give birth ‘naturally’. I thought about it all night and finally knew that I didn’t want the doctors to cut me open and deal with our ‘problem’. Terrified as I was, I delivered our daughter naturally and am so proud that I managed it.
Dylan’s little sister Lyra Rose Attwell was born on 19th January 2018. She was 5lb 2oz, had dark hair like her big brother and long legs like her dad (the kicky ones).
All labours are unique, all painful, mostly joyful. Mine was joyful too, believe it or not. I treasure the memory of the time we spent with our daughter. But then we left the delivery ward, and walked past a proud new dad, striding in with his car seat. We returned home, full of love, but with a cardboard ‘memory box’ in our arms.
And then there’s the other part of our story. The Bereavement team at the Rosie warned us of this on the day we left the hospital. There are two sides to this struggle: our own struggle to accept what’s happened, to re-orientate ourselves again in this new shattered existence. But the other struggle is with everyone else. The silence, the awkwardness. Who knows, who doesn’t? Who is it safe to talk to about this? This most personal and private agony that consumes your every thought. It’s exhausting being with other people because a large part of your brain is taken up with your own horrors. You don’t bring up it up because you don’t want to depress the people around you, who don’t bring it up because they’re worried of upsetting you, and you get caught in this ridiculous cycle of not saying anything! It’s incredibly unhelpful. And then there are those precious conversations with your true friends, who’ve made the time to be with you and talk with you … but you just can’t open up in that moment. It’s jammed too tightly inside & you can’t express a damned thing.
Enter Petals. Sue, our counsellor is one of the few people in our lives who really gets how we feel. She’s helped me find some words to navigate those awkward conversations, and to just forgive myself when I can’t do it. She guided us through the funeral, the post mortem, the lengthy investigations and ‘what if?’ questions that followed. Sue helped us to find strength in each other, to find the things that made us happy and to focus on doing them more. Build up the joy around the pain and it helps to lessen the pain over time. Make new happy memories, because even though the shadow of the person who isn’t there will always follow you, happy memories are what keep us going.
Six months later, I felt I ‘should’ return to work, but was scared. After such a public loss, returning felt huge. I felt notorious. But my line manager and HR put great thought into how to ease my return. They asked me what information they should share with my team beforehand, allowed me a phased return, and didn’t give me work with hard deadlines. I was able to pick up jobs from my colleagues to help them out, rather than having my own specific projects to juggle. That helped me gain confidence as it increased slowly to a full workload.
What to say if you know someone whose baby has died? If you’re glad to see them back at work, tell them so! I’ll always remember the brave soul who was the first to approach my desk & say that. It was good to hear. Ask the baby’s name. Use it. To others the idea of a baby is easily dismissed (it has no character, no lived experience, has made no relationships) but to those parents it was a person with a network of family connections, a huge part of their future. Find a quiet time to talk to them. Ask specific questions and move on to the bigger, more open ones. For me, the most impossible conversations opened with ‘How are you?’ There’s just no way to answer that question when you’re holding on by your fingernails. Specific questions are far easier: ‘How are you settling back into work?’ or ‘How are you doing physically?’ (labour is traumatic for the body, whether the baby lived or not!). ‘How’s your partner/child/mum dealing with things?’, then maybe, ‘… and how are you, really?’ or ‘Do you want to talk?’
Be brave. Believe me, that person will be grateful that you asked! I am so so grateful to those amazing friends and colleagues who were fluent enough in grief to talk fully with me. You know who you are, ladies!