I first wrote about losing James who was stillborn at 42 weeks, years ago when I was newly pregnant with Joe, now a beautiful golden boy. I wrote as a catharsis, as a way of dealing with something so horrific, in the very real sense of the world, that I couldn’t get my head around it. When I finished writing, I put it away and haven’t looked at it since.
Re-reading what I wrote then I am stuck by my naivety. I didn’t know when I wrote and prepared for a birth I knew in my bones would be fine – and was – that I would go on to have two miscarriages, both at three months. The first resulting in a life-threatening haemorrhage. I didn’t know when I finally managed to carry my gorgeous girl to term, I would have to suffer scans every month of the pregnancy, which led to panicked worries about her heartbeat. There were concerns about my blood pressure, and at 36 weeks we thought we might lose her as my waters seemed to disappear. (It turned out she had managed to gather the entire contents of her amniotic sac beneath her, fooling the ultrasound technician).
I didn’t know then that the relief of the safe birth of my daughter would trigger a breakdown in my husband who would suffer severe, chronic depression for years afterwards. Years when dealing with a baby and a toddler were hard enough without having to yell at someone who wouldn’t get out of bed, or wash. A therapist told me Rob had stayed strong for me, despite reeling with grief from the stillbirth. He kept it together until our second child was born and then he just collapsed.
It is only now I feel able to look back on what I wrote, both as a way of remembering, but also as a way of letting go. The scars are healed, pretty much, but they are still there – reshaping who I was and fixing in place who I am now. The facts are, sadly, around one in a hundred babies die between 24 weeks of pregnancy and the first days of life. (Stillbirth is ten times more common than cot death)
I had no idea that this statistic is the same all over the world and hasn’t changed since records began. This is appalling. And if me posting this helps other women, or raises the profile of stillbirths – a strange, medieval sounding word – so that more is done to stop them, then something good will come from James’ death.
We hadn’t been married long when I got pregnant. My husband, Rob, wanted to wait – to spend more time together as a couple – but I was pleased. At 33 I didn’t want to wait too much longer to have children. This was in September and once we knew all was well, (following the first scan) on Christmas day we told both sets of parents they were to be grandparents for the first time. Everyone was delighted.
All was normal: I saw the midwife; I went for scans; I read all the pregnancy books I could get my hands on. Apart from some first trimester bleeding I had a wonderful pregnancy. I was happy and healthy. We started to gather bits and pieces for the baby. I didn’t want to buy anything at first, but at six months I lost my head in a toy shop and bought a set of three rubber ducks – Daddy, Mummy and baby sized.
By seven to eight months I was huge; the possibility of actually having a new addition to the house started to become more believable. Rob and I watched the bump wriggling and kicking in my belly and most nights Rob would read Winnie-the-Pooh to the baby so he or she would get used to the sound of his voice.
We went to ante-natal classes (which Rob absolutely loathed) and started preparing the nursery. At 37 weeks Rob created the most beautiful murals of Winnie-the Pooh characters on each of the sunshine-yellow walls we had painted. Looking back I can see it was such a joyful time, but all the while I kept feeling this was too good to be true – I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something would go wrong. People tried to reassure me but I felt I didn’t deserve to be so happy.
At 41 weeks, a week overdue, I went to see the midwife for my regular check-up and she offered to do a membrane sweep. She tried, but didn’t see any signs of imminent delivery. She monitored the baby’s heartbeat and all was fine. We booked in for an induction the following week. That afternoon I was reassured that all was well because the baby kicked so much – at one point he kicked so hard he knocked my book aside and Rob and I laughed. This is so difficult to write because I realise now that the baby was dying at that point, and was twisting and gasping for air.
Thursday dawned and I had a really happy day. Rob and I just lazed about together and I was convinced I was going into labour soon. I felt really close to Rob and that I should savour these last moments alone with him. I vaguely noticed the baby didn’t seem to be kicking as much but assumed he was getting ready for labour.
On Friday, now nearly two weeks past my due date, I hadn’t felt movement for a while. I rang the birthing unit and they told us to come in. We arrived sick and clammy with anxiety. I knew something was wrong. Rob tried to tell me everything would be OK but I knew with a heart-pounding certainty something catastrophic had happened.
The midwife placed the monitor on my belly and for the first time since I got pregnant she couldn’t find the heartbeat. I knew the baby had died. She tried to blame the equipment but it was clear to me. She told us to go to hospital to get scanned. The journey passed in a blur. It took us ages to find the right place to go – eventually we were met by a midwife. She unsuccessfully tried to find a heartbeat and then called for the scan. Nothing.
I asked her to leave us alone then Rob put his arms around me and we just wept.
It was late Friday night. I was in a state of shock (I now realise) but I was very calm and Rob never stopped holding my hand. The plan was my Mum was going to come with us when I went into labour, so my parents were waiting for a call. The hardest thing I have ever had to do was to phone them. It was my father who answered the phone. I said ‘Dad. I’m so sorry. The baby died.’ I heard him tell Mum, and her wail of despair still haunts me. Dad told me later I sounded as if I was drowning.
We talked briefly and I told them I’d call back. His sadness was terrible. It was then I started to go into labour. I pleaded for a Caesarean but was persuaded that the best thing to do would be to deliver the baby naturally. When I argued they told me that it could put future pregnancies at risk; I gave in and agreed. The medical staff, professional and expressionless, started to administer drugs to speed up the process. I phoned my Dad back – it was about 2 in the morning now – he asked if they could come up: they couldn’t bear sitting at home.
The next two days passed in a blur. I was given an epidural which meant I had to lie down, which I absolutely hated. The baby had swung round against my back causing a crippling ache. I wish they would have let me go on all fours or at least stand up, I’m sure it would have helped. Rob felt terrible for me as he knew this was so against all my plans of a natural, mobile birth. My parents arrived and my Dad couldn’t stop crying. He made me laugh as he said he was just like Del Boy. Mum was absolutely fantastic. She looked after Rob and kept spraying rose oil from the Body Shop in the air; wiping my face with cooling tissues and rubbing my feet to warm them up.
Rob’s parents turned up as well and I was glad because I was so worried about him, he was absolutely exhausted and being 6ft 3 couldn’t sleep on the tiny chair next to my bed. I felt very calm. I kept telling him I was going to be OK. We would get pregnant again and everything would be fine. I was driven by an absolute certainty of this.
It took me ages to fully dilate. Saturday evening came around and I was finally ready to push. In the position I was in, along with the epidural, I had no idea how to push properly. The midwife helped but it wasn’t easy. Later, I was absolutely astonished to discover I was pushing for five hours. I thought it was no longer than ten minutes.
By Sunday morning worries were raised about my blood pressure. I was exhausted and longed to go home. Rob later told me he couldn’t help thinking if he could just take me home everything would be OK. He didn’t tell me for a while he thought I was going to die as well. Finally, the staff said they were going to try forceps and if that didn’t work I would have to have a section. I was ready for anything by that point and in quite a lot of pain. They wheeled me into the theatre with Rob and in came the head Doctor who was the biggest, blackest man I had ever met. His hands were huge. When he examined me I heard him say ‘I’m going to need longer gloves’ which filled me with horror but even at this darkest of dark times it made me smile because it reminded me of the immortal line ‘we’re gonna need a bigger boat’.
After an episiotomy and forceps James was finally born at 6am, Sunday 29th August. The relief was incredible. The baby was taken away to be washed and looked after but I didn’t really notice, I was dazed and exhausted. The pain of labour had ended straight away though I then had to suffer the agony of having the placenta scraped out, which is indescribable.
The midwife came in and said ‘Did you know what you were having?’ I hadn’t even thought about the sex of the baby I had just delivered. Rob told her we didn’t, and she looked at us with huge sympathy. ‘You had a baby boy,’ she said. I can still hear Rob’s gasping sobs when he heard this. I held his hand as tight as I could.
I asked Mum to go and see James, I didn’t know whether I wanted to see him. I asked her to see if he was OK to look at because I didn’t want to be frightened of him. She returned to tell me he was beautiful. She had left Dad with James because he wanted to introduce himself and didn’t want to leave him on his own. Rob’s parents saw him too and told me how lovely he was and that he looked like Rob. I broke down and couldn’t stop saying how sorry I was.
They took us into a double private room away from all the other new mothers with healthy, live babies. Whenever I heard a new born crying it was like a knife in my side. They brought James to us. When the midwife put him in my arms, bundled in a blue blanket with a little hat on, we saw his face and dark lips, blue because of the lack of oxygen; we saw the scrapes on his cheeks from the forceps and Rob said ‘Oh, our poor little boy’ and I saw how beautiful he was. I held him and cried. He weighed nearly 9 pounds and was almost two feet long. As I cried his body jiggled horribly, like a doll, and I felt afresh the tragedy of his death. Rob held him and then they put him in a crib by the bed. We then fell asleep and I was ridiculously comforted to have Rob’s arms around me.
We had James blessed and the chaplain was wonderful. She lit the room with candles, cuddled him, told us he had my nose and we named him James Edward. They took him away and Rob signed an agreement for James to have a post-mortem. We went home. Mum and my father-in-law had gone round the house and packed away all the tiny baby clothes, the Moses basket, everything. I was grateful. I was bleeding and sore and needed to sleep. My family and Rob’s brother were there and looked after us. Midwives came and went but my world was Rob, me and the memories of our baby.
My milk came in three days later. It was painful but it didn’t upset me because I felt it showed my body was strong and knew what it was doing. It would be ready soon to carry another baby. We went to Spain to get away from the town where everyone knew us. We talked about what had happened almost constantly and cried an awful lot.
When we returned we felt able to arrange the funeral. Throughout my pregnancy I wore a shocking pink maternity t-shirt that read ‘FBI: Fabulous Baby Inside’ and I put it to be placed with James in the coffin. First, though, was the post-mortem result. That was horrible. As we expected there was no obvious reason why James had died. He was a well-nourished fully grown baby. It was upsetting to read how he had swallowed meconium – evidence of him ‘gasping’ and the description of the weight of the brain and other organs was very distressing. Rob was upset for ages that his only role as a father was having his boy cut up.
The funeral was beautiful. James was placed in a wicker-work, Moses basket like coffin with a lid. Rob carried him up the aisle. Afterwards, we looked out at the lovely hills that surround the crematorium and one of the gardeners offered to show us where James’ ashes would be scattered: a beautiful rose garden overlooking the valley with a small statue of a child at the centre. He said, ‘this is where we put the little ones,’ and I cried because it was such a lovely thing to say and made it sound like a playgroup. I said with utter certitude that I would bring James’ brother and sister up there as it was a beautiful place that wasn’t at all frightening.
Seven months later I was pregnant with another son, Joe. It had been a difficult time. I never thought I could be happy again but it is amazing what you can cope with. Sometimes Rob was so sad it broke my heart. I found him one day in the nursery upset because the murals were starting to peel off the walls, the paint had cracked slightly. ‘We made such a beautiful room,’ he said, ‘and James never saw it.’ I don’t know what to say when he says this. There isn’t anything to say. I can’t answer him when he asks me ‘why us?’ What can you say when someone says ‘we’ve done nothing wrong, we’ve never hurt anyone, why did our baby die?’ We can only hold each other, and try to remember the happy times of the pregnancy when a golden light seemed to surround us. James may have never seen us, but he knew his father’s voice and would often stop hiccupping in the womb when Rob stroked my belly.
Most people were wonderful. We received piles of cards and letters. Many knew others to whom it had happened and helped us with tales of the next babies being born happy and healthy. Shockingly, one friend behaved in a way which I found inexcusable. A week after we lost the baby and came home, my friend called to say, ‘as you won’t be needing the Moses basket I lent you any more, could I take it back for my friend who has just had a baby?’ Rob never forgave her for making me go up to the loft to search through the hidden baby things for that Moses basket. I remember sobbing with rage as I looked for it. In contrast, another friend was so saddened by the poor quality of James’ Polaroid photograph, she ran a marathon to raise money to buy a good quality SLR camera which she donated to the maternity ward of the hospital where James was born.
The card that touched me the most, and had the most powerful message, was from my Aunt. Her daughter died hours after being born because of Rhesus disease. She wrote: ‘Sadly there will never be a satisfactory answer to ‘why you’, but the strength, love and concern you have shown to one another and have shared with those who love you both are the gifts your baby boy has given you.’ And that message, more than any other comforted me as it recognised James as an important member of the family who brought something into our lives even though he never lived to meet us.
I remember holding it together for weeks after the stillbirth until I looked in the mirror and recognised with a sadness that made my bones ache that my baby never saw his mother’s face. I only every cried publicly twice: once on a plane when a woman thought I was still pregnant – a few weeks after the birth – and another in a fish and chip shop when the server asked, ‘hello, love – what did you have in the end? Girl or boy?’ Both those times I cried like I’d never cried before. Without restraint. With loud sobbing and so much water pouring down my face I felt desiccated afterwards.
The pregnancy that followed was magical. Joe kicked every 30 seconds for the entire 38 weeks. It was like he knew I needed constant, minute by minute, reassurance. The birth was easy and didn’t need to be induced. The first months of his life were some of the happiest of mine. Joe’s birth coincided with England winning The Ashes so the men in our families were over the moon twice over. All of us were drenched with the relief of this birth after the darkness of the previous year. I am glad I didn’t know then about the miscarriages and the depression that would follow.
I don’t know what to do with this experience. It showed me that I am much stronger that I thought I was – but then I think everyone is, what else can you do except keep on going? When Joe was born Rob and I were already parents. James was and is always with us. He bonded the two of us, and our families, more strongly together than ever before. I still think of him, and when my irritation with my children rises I try, not always successfully – I am only human – to remind myself how blessed I am to have these two. I was lucky, I managed in the end to make the family I wanted, many don’t.
If I can offer any advice to someone who has suffered the loss of a baby it would be to cry, a lot. Don’t be ashamed or afraid. Crying releases something in you that helps – albeit temporarily at first. A kind man, a priest urged, ‘Tell your story’ and that helped too. All I can say is it gets better. You won’t believe how long it takes. But it does. It stops crippling you. I promise. But you’re never the same again.
If you ever know anyone who has gone through this, please talk to them. Acknowledge they are parents, even if the baby is gone. Let them talk to you, let them cry on you. Please, please don’t forget the father. People always support and comfort the mother and forget the impact on a man who has also lost his child. In a way it is harder for them: James had a complete life within me, I got to know him. Rob was waiting for the relationship with his son to begin, and the grief he felt at the loss of that affects him still, years later. I was comforted by the support of my friends and work colleagues. Time and time again people would walk past Rob to hug me, forgetting he was hurting as much as I was. One day I will ask him to write his side as I think fathers are often forgotten. In many ways I found his grief harder to deal with than my own.
Stillbirths should not still be happening. Think of those fifteen families a day whose lives are forever scarred by the loss of a baby. SANDS and Tommy’s are wonderful charities who have helped by advising hospitals on how best to support newly-bereaved parents. Private double rooms and chilled cots are some of the ways to help facilitate that very precious time when parents can say goodbye to their child.
That long night when my family waited in the hospital corridors while I was in labour, my Aunt phoned begging my father to tell me to spend time with James. When he was born I didn’t want to see him, but she was so insistent I agreed, and I am so glad I did. Later, my Aunt told me it was because when she lost her daughter it was believed that the best thing was to pretend the baby had never existed. Her child was whisked away and later buried between the legs of an old Catholic man who had just died. My Aunt never knew where her child was buried. The barbarity of this makes me gasp.
Charities like SANDS and Tommy’s have helped to change this and are also committed to developing research to try and stop these deaths altogether. If this article moves anyone to donate then something good can come out of this, so please have a look at their websites.
Click here to donate to SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity)
Click here to donate to Tommy’s