During Baby Loss Awareness Week, a number of bereaved parents from Derry speak to Liam Tunney about how their loss has affected them and how the stubborn stigma that surrounds the issue is gradually being eroded.
Sheena and Justin McGrath with baby Isla.
Justin and Sheena McGrath, from Maghera, were 37 weeks pregnant, and their first daughter Thea had been looking forward to becoming a big sister.
She had attended her mum's final appointment, held the doppler and listened to baby Isla's heartbeat, but later that evening, Sheena knew something wasn't right.
“Initially, when there was no movement I never thought much of it, because I'd just come from the hospital and heard a heartbeat,” she told the County Derry Post.
“Then when we got home, after my dinner I started panicking that there was no movement. I went to lie down and try drinking iced water to get some sort of movement, but it wasn't happening.
“I just kept thinking, 'this can't be right', even though you know yourself, you know your own body, but you hope you're wrong.
“We landed to the hospital about 10 o'clock and we sat down. They were telling me to come on in and everything should be grand.”
After the midwife was unable to find a heartbeat, she looked for someone more senior, and Sheena says it took five different sets of eyes before they confirmed that the baby's heartbeat was not there.
“That was the start of the end. You crumble, you don't know where you're at. That morning you were full of plans and now you're just blank. Your world is taken from under your feet,” she said.
“All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball, be in my own bed and get some sort of sleep. They said to take some tablets and they would look again at things in 24 hours.
“I told them if nothing had happened by then, I was coming in anyway. I had a child at home looking at a bump and wondering where there sister or brother was.
“On the Friday night, they took me down to the delivery suite. It was a quiet room with dimmed lights. They were very good in Coleraine I have to say.”
Sheena and Justin opted against a post mortem, having been provided with a clear reason for her loss.
“They gave us the choice of a post mortem, but because we had this obvious answer, we didn't go for it. The thought of having to send her to Liverpool was heartbreaking – I didn't want to leave her,” she said.
“When she came out, there was a true knot in her cord, and another knot in formation. You rarely get one knot, let alone two.
“I didn't feel any jerk or kick to indicate anything had happened, so it was obviously peaceful for her. In a way, she dropped off to sleep and passed away.”
Sheena and Justin were able to spend the night with Isla in the hospital, where both their parents were able to visit, providing support and allowing them to see their grandchild.
The couple felt conflicting emotions following Isla's passing, with the grief of loss accompanied by the pride they felt in their daughter.
“That's the weird thing too; I had just delivered a child, so there's a whole part of me that was still really proud,” said Sheena.
“My friends were coming in traumatised, but although you're heartbroken, but also proud of your beautiful baby.
“We were chatting away to people and they probably thought there was something wrong with us, but I was just so proud.”
Sheena handing over funds raised to Sands Befriender Tommy Ferguson.
After they had Isla, Sheena – a hairdresser – and Justin – a barber – found clients were opening up to them about their own loss.
“Justin went back to work quite quickly and it was surprising the amount of men who opened up to him. Every person was an older man and they all had a story,” said Sheena.
“I would never have thought I'd hear the day when men would talk about labour, or childbirth or anything like that.
“Unfortunately, it is so common. It is good to know that people support you in that way and they open up. They know that you know how they're feeling on some level.
“We went to a couple of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support (Sands) meetings, but with Covid it's all locked down.
“It's nice to chat to other people who are on the same level. Even though everyone's story is all so different, you have that similar feeling.
“The support in the hospital was amazing too. The woman from Sands cleaned her up and dressed her, brought her in on a Moses basket with all the blankets. She looked like a little sleeping angel.
“She took pictures of us with Isla and to have those photos and all those wee memories is the best thing. Those photos are priceless.”
Aware of the potential impact on her mental health, Sheena sought preventative help, something which has really helped her.
“In January time, I was put in contact with a reflexologist in Draperstown and it was the best thing I have ever done,” she said.
“The very first appointment was just reflexology and at the end I asked if she did trauma therapy. She asked what happened and when I told her she was shocked.
“She said there was actually a part of my spine that was completely locked and she'd assumed I'd been in a car accident.
“It was such a traumatic experience that it resulted in the same trauma as a car accident. How could you deal with that kind of trauma yourself?
“No matter what you do, you have to deal with it. It can be awful for people who can't find the words, because it must trap the grief inside you.”
Mellissa McKenna's crafted box in memory of baby Scarlett.
Mellissa McKenna, from Clady, was just four days from her delivery date when she started to notice her baby's movements had become reduced.
When she arrived at the hospital thinking she was going into labour, the doctor delivered the news that the heartbeat had stopped.
“I'd been to the hospital the day before and as a first time mother, I thought it was grand, because they'd said it was,” she said.
“It was such a shock, they tried three times for the heartbeat and then when they did the scan they confirmed it.”
The consultant explained that there had been an issue with placenta that had led to Scarlett's blood entering Mellissa's bloodstream.
“He described it as two rivers flowing alongside each other and said it was as if a canal formed between the two of him and her blood went in,” she said.
“They'd only ever seen it in a textbook and said it usually happens if you had suffered an impact like a car crash.
“We wanted a post mortem, because you want to know what happened. You're blaming yourself and saying you should have protected your baby. It's a mother's instinct; to protect her baby, and I didn't.
“Even 11 years later, there's a guilt that eats away, but my friends will put me in my place and tell me to catch myself on.”
Mellissa and husband Martin were able to spend some time with Scarlett afterwards, but opted not to spend the night with her, something she now regrets.
“I regret not keeping her in the room that night, I was just so overcome with grief and fear. The nurses took her, bathed her, changed her and brought her in on the wee Moses basket,” she said.
“I remember my family all standing around the bed in a circle before she was taken away and they all held her, which was lovely. My sister held her and her wee chubby leg was swinging back and forth.”
After Scarlett was buried, Mellissa says isolation became a problem. She was traumatised by what had happened, but also felt aware of others not knowing what to say.
“You don't want to see anybody, you don't want to go out the door. When I did go to my local town, you could see people crossing the road to avoid you,” she said.
“It was shocking, but it wasn't all their fault, they didn't know what to say. People were devastated for you too.
“You feel like nobody can help you. It just takes a long time and no matter what words are said to you, they mean nothing.”
Mellissa and Martin lost Scarlett in 2009, in a different era of aftercare for bereaved parents of stillborn babies. In the eleven years since, social media has amplified the conversation.
The experience has changed her profoundly as a person.
“It really frustrates me now when people complain over small things,” she said.
“I'm a lot stronger and in ways I feel my heart has hardened to some things, but I'm also more compassionate.”
As we chatted, two of Mellissa's sisters popped in to the house, an indication of the strong support network that exists around her.
Having an understanding ear and the chance to talk about baby Scarlett has helped Mellissa come to terms with her loss.
“Scarlett is talked about all the time in the house. Our other children, Darcie, Tristan and Fionnán, pray to her at night – not for her, but to her if they're sad or just to chat to her,” she said.
“I think the main thing is that people need to acknowledge that your child was a wee person and they existed. To mention their name. That's all you want.
“Parents of lost babies carried those children, you had so many hopes and dreams for them and it was all taken away from both them as children and us as parents.”
Clare and Darren Mullan with baby Madison.
“I had such a perfect first pregnancy that the thought of this happening never crossed my mind,” said Clare Mullan from Derry, whose daughter Madison was stillborn over twelve years ago.
“Now, you're so aware of every pregnant person that you meet. You become a different person.”
In 2008, Clare, her husband Darren and their daughter Rachel, were preparing to welcome a new arrival to the family.
The pregnancy had been straightforward, she hadn't even experienced any sickness, and the family had taken a trip to Bundoran in the days leading up to what was their final appointment before giving birth.
Five-year-old Rachel was with the couple when the consultant delivered the news that no heartbeat could be detected.
“The hospital were fantastic, but no one really knew what to do,” said Clare.
“We were in a ward with other people who were in labour. When I was being told the news about Madison, there were three other beds with people who were in labour.
“We found out after she'd passed away 12 hours before us finding out there was no heartbeat. I had a foetal maternal hemorrage. The placenta had split, it happens to one in every 50 stillborns.
“I was internally bleeding for three days and didn't know. When that happens, they said they'd never seen anyone walking into the hospital internally bleeding and not bleeding out.
“They said it was lucky I came in when I did, or I could have died myself.”
Clare says a memory box provided to her, as well as the hospital allowing for parents to spend time with their babies, was hugely important.
“I know Sands now have the memory boxes which are absolutely beautiful. There wasn't much of that then, but we got a wee wooden box and got to take loads of photos,” she said.
“We stayed the night with her, dressed her and got photographs taken. They gave us privacy and then the next day we went home and then came back and brought Madison with us.
“Those photographs to us now are more valuable than anything. That's the one thing I would advise every person to do.
“As hard as you think it is, and as much as you don't want to, you must take those photos. Around Madison's 10th birthday, my head went blank and I was forgetting certain things that happened.
“I had the photos there, so I could look at them. I got really upset that I thought I was going to forget her.
“It's so important to have that time and we tell our girls now we have a lullaby that we sang to her that we don't sing to them. As heart-wrenching as it is, you need that time.”
The theme for this year's awareness week is isolation, something that is particularly apt as Covid-19 renders human contact ever more fleeting.
A lack of awareness, or worry about finding the right words, can lead to friends and family unintentionally shunning victims of baby loss.
“When people ask me how many children I have I say I have three, and two living. Then people feel uncomfortable, but they shouldn't,” said Clare.
“After Madison we had gone to town and run into people who didn't know. They were asking 'where's the wean now? How is she?'
“Obviously people wouldn't have known, but I don't think we should have to ease other people's discomfort.”
An ambiguity around baby loss in Ireland has left many bereaved parents unable to grieve the loss of their child as they would the loss of any other relative.
Clare believes bereaved parents should be proud of their child and says Madison is a huge part of her and her family's life.
“We embrace Madison, our families and friends know all about her, we have loads of pictures of her. She's a massive part of our lives,” she explained.
“We go to Bundoran every year on July 5 for her birthday, because that's the last place we were with her.
“We had a five-year-old, so I wanted Rachel's memory of Madison to be that she was always happy growing up.
Clare with her other two daughters, Rachel and Abigail, visiting baby Madison.
“I didn't want her to think that her mammy and daddy fell apart when her wee sister died. I always wanted to be positive about her, to be grateful that we got to nurse her, dress her, kiss her.
“Our other girl, Abigail, has never met her but she idolises her. She loves the idea she has this angel sister who looks after her, and if she needs anything or is worried, she talks to her.
“It's not just losing your baby, it's their birthdays, their Communion, Confirmation, all the things we're supposed to have them here for.
“I've written down letters to her; on her birthday, or just if I'm missing her. I sat down with my oldest girl a while back and showed them some of the letters I'd written during those first few months.
“To see the hurt and pain meant she understood how big a loss it was for us.”
The taboo around losing a baby belies the scale of the loss. For Clare, seeing the cemetary fill up year on year with lost babies is a stark illustration.
“Madison is in the City Cemetery, in the Garden of Angels. When she went in, the whole other side was empty, there was grass. There is no room left now,” she said.
“It's heartbreaking. It's unbelievable that there are so many wee babies up there and we all just nod at each other as we pass by.
“I think it should be talked about. There are so many events put on for cancer, and rightly so, but loss impacts everybody as well.
“It's a big thing for a family to go through and it's a massive thing in your life that you have to cope with. Support should be there for those people too.”
John, Claire and Bobby Haire with baby Charlie.
John and Claire Haire had been preparing to have twin boys two years ago. The pregnancy had been going well, even allowing for the higher risk of twin pregnancies.
Claire, a midwife, knew she had woken up in labour after 31 weeks and four days and the couple headed for the hospital, unaware of what was to follow.
“They thought there were two heartbeats and I was transferred through to the labour ward, but they couldn't find Charlie's heartbeat there,” she said.
“I was sectioned afterwards and delivered our two boys. Charlie came out first and it was obvious he'd passed away a few days before.
“Then our other wee boy, Bobby, came out alive. It was really a conflicting emotional experience. The complete and utter grief of losing Charlie and the joy that Bobby was okay.
“Bobby spent five weeks in hospital so we had that experience of trying to grieve while also trying to take care of a baby.”
For the couple, the contrasting emotions of losing Charlie and having Bobby still with them made things difficult, but the time they were able to spend in the hospital as a family were precious.
“That time is massively important. Those memories you create are all you're going to have for the rest of your life, so you want to have as much as you can,” she said.
“We had a photographer from a charity called 'Remember Our Baby' and took photos of the two boys together, wearing wee matching outfits that we had bought for them.
“They are precious wee memories for Bobby to have too.”
In her role as a midwife, Claire has seen first hand how lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the grief felt by bereaved parents.
The closing of the cemetery during the lockdown in Spring is a particular bone of contention.
“Being told we couldn't go to the cemetery during lockdown was totally uncalled for. People can go to a cemetery and respect social distancing,” she said.
“I'm a midwife and I've been out with bereaved families since lockdown has occurred, and there is nowhere to signpost them for support, because the groups aren't going.
“We attend the monthly Sands meetings in town, and not having that support, even two years down the line, you do feel isolated and cut off.”
Both John and Claire have leant on Sands for support, and have also been proactive in fundraising and helping with that support for other bereaved parents.
John in his Sands United FC jersey, along with Claire and Bobby.
John helped set up Sands United FC Maiden City, a Derry-based football team for bereaved fathers, something he says has helped men open up about their loss.
“The first actual training was last April, and nine men came. It just built every week and we have around 25 now,” he said.
“As men, it's hard to talk to other men about loss, but any player can comfortably chat to anyone else.
“Some men haven't mentioned a thing since the day they came, but I know I can go to any of them.
“I openly chat about Charlie to anyone who will listen, but it's not a Sands meeting. It's about general life, but you can openly chat about it.
“Some of the men in our team might have had a loss maybe ten years ago, and they never spoke about it, but now they're chatting to partners, to their families, because they know it's not a big taboo now.”
Bereaved parents opening up on their loss is something that has encouraged John and Claire as they engaged in Sands events.
“Older women who have had losses 20, maybe 30 years ago now talk about it. We went for counselling after we lost Charlie and the counsellor had had a loss 30 years ago,” said Claire.
“She still goes and puts things on his grave for Christmas and birthdays and that gave us courage to do different wee things.
“The minute those two lines appear on a test, you're making plans, you're dreaming about the future and then when you lose a child, you're grieving those hopes and dreams.
“You keep putting it out there and hope that any small thing you do this week, or this month, will be enough to impact how somebody thinks.
“We're all survivors trying to do the best we can.”
Support for parents who have suffered baby loss is available.
Sands have been working with bereaved parents for over 40 years.
More information can be found on their website.
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