By guest writer Hannah Elcock.
When we began trying for a baby, I naively thought I would fall pregnant quickly, have an easy, plain sailing pregnancy and welcome a beautiful baby before embracing a world of coffee dates and baby sensory classes with the mums I’d met at pregnancy yoga and NCT groups.
I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d tried. Billy, my firstborn son, was stillborn at full term (38 weeks) following a textbook, healthy and worry-free pregnancy in August 2018. A turn of events no one saw coming that has changed my life forever.
I went into labour a couple of weeks before my due date. We arrived at the hospital where the tragedy began to unfold immediately. The midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat so we were taken for a scan and met by two sombre-faced sonographers. In hindsight, the look on everyone’s faces in that room should have told us everything we needed to know. A few minutes later, I was given the devastating words that no pregnant woman ever wants to hear; “I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat”.
Billy was stillborn just hours after we’d been told that he’d already died and there was nothing anyone could do to save him. He was perfect: tiny and perfectly formed with chubby cheeks and little rosebud lips. My heart was so full of love from the moment I laid eyes on him. At that point, there was so much love in the room for Billy and it’s this I remember rather than the devastation that was unfolding beneath the surface. I sat stroking his face for hours and talking to him, telling him how much we loved him, how we’d never forget him and how he’d always be a part of our family. I couldn’t believe how beautiful his little face was.
I was so naïve about stillbirth before it happened to me. I didn’t think for a moment that perfectly healthy babies died whilst still in the uterus. I wrongly assumed that stillborn babies must have died because they were ill or following complications during labour. Billy died because my placenta failed due to restricted blood flow and oxygen. If we had known this was happening, they would have delivered him earlier and he would be here with me now.
Life became a paradox, taking me from the best, most exciting time of my life to the absolute worst in the blink of an eye. We were so ready to meet our son, to become parents and begin the next chapter of our lives and then it all got taken away from us. Giving birth to a baby that you know has already died is indescribable. I was completely shell-shocked; going from waking up in labour and thinking I would have my baby in my arms to signing post-mortem consent forms and being asked to make decisions about my son’s funeral. To plan a funeral for your child and try accept that a future you have dreamed of for so long can just disappear is unfathomable. It’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, not you.
I don’t think I will ever be able to accept his death. We just navigate a new normal following such a tragic and life-changing loss. Even three years later, I still have moments where the surrealness of the situation blindsides me, when I see a photograph of a child starting school and realise I will never have those memories with Billy. It isn’t just the baby that dies that you grieve, it’s the life you had planned for them that disappears like a puff of smoke.
Baby loss often feels like a taboo subject. It can be hard to know the right thing to say to someone and for this reason, many people just don’t say anything. Losing a baby is so isolating and when those close to you seem to disappear, it intensifies the worst time of your life. The truth is, just saying something is usually going to be helpful to a bereaved parent. Even a simple “I’m so sorry” will go a long way.
I would advise against cliches such as “it wasn’t meant to be”, “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s all part of God’s plan” as they can feel dismissive and unhelpful. These babies were meant to be. They are our children and you would never broach the death of another family member in the same way. Imagine saying to someone whose husband has just died, “You can always get another husband”. It seems ludicrous, but that kind of comment is akin to the frequently heard “You can always try again” that so many of us hear after the loss of a baby.
Instead try things such as “I am here. I know I can’t imagine your pain but I love you and I love your baby” or “tell me about your baby, I bet he was beautiful”. Don’t see their pregnancy as a taboo subject, ask them questions like how they decided on the name of their baby or who they looked like. A stillborn baby was still born, and still very, very loved.
If you want to do something meaningful, you could buy a little keepsake for their memory box (memory boxes are given to parents of stillborn babies at the hospital and contain their baby’s hand and foot prints and a lock of hair) such as a trinket with the baby’s name on it, a poem or card. A lot of my friends have written Billy’s name in the sand whenever they are on holiday. I love this, it’s like he’s getting to travel all over the world!
Of course, I can’t speak for every bereaved parent, but I do know many bereaved mothers who will happily talk about their babies. We love them, we miss them and it means so much to us when you ask us about them. Don’t be afraid of upsetting us – we know it can be a tough conversation and you might be worried about saying the wrong thing but our worst fear is feeling like our children are forgotten or that people don’t care about them. They were real, they were here and we love to say their name. If the last three years have taught me anything, it’s that love and grief will last forever and life and loss will co-exist. You never get over the death of your child, instead you learn to live with the loss. Billy will always be my favourite what if.
“Grief I have learned is really just love, it’s all the love you want to give but cannot. Grief is just love with no place to go.” – unknown.
9th-15th October 2021 is Baby Loss Awareness Week. You can find support and information here.