When my best friend’s baby was stillborn I was utterly devastated for her. I will never forget the day I found out. I had just started maternity leave myself as I was 38 weeks pregnant. Both my sons had arrived early so we were expecting labour could start any time. My partner, a teacher, had taken two days leave prior to the school holidays just in case, and if bub didn’t come we could enjoy the luxury of a couple of days to ourselves before our boys were on school holidays.
To take advantage of us both being off work with no kids to take care of we headed out to a café we’d been meaning to try for a late breakfast. I had forgot to turn my mobile phone on that morning, so I switched it on as we drove off down our street. Of course it instantly bleeped out a reminder to attend to all the emails and texts which had accumulated in off mode. It was my best friend’s due date, so when I saw there was a text from her of course I clicked into it straight away. We were still driving down our street when I sobbed out the word ‘No’. My husband asked me ‘what is it?’ I couldn’t talk. I just handed him the phone so he could see it for himself. We turned the car around and pulled up in our driveway. Shattered. How could this have happened to her?
No one deserves such a tragedy to happen to them but still my thoughts illogically asked, of all people, why her? She is the most wonderful person, would have been the most wonderful mum this second time around, and wanted her baby boy so, so much.
Statistics show that in Australia around 1 in every 130 pregnancies will result in stillbirth. About 60% of stillbirths occur at term. These are beautiful, perfect babies, who would most probably have lived had they been delivered earlier. Stillbirth is unexplained in up to 1/3 of cases providing parents with no clues as to how to prevent the tragedy from re-occurring.
Stillbirth is 10 times more common than SIDS. Yet pregnant women are rarely told anything about it. It’s as though we don’t want to induce fear and worry. But by maintaining silence around stillbirth, we help keep those who have experienced it within a suffocating silence, and fail to prepare others that it is a genuine risk in pregnancy. It’s something we don’t talk about – almost like we don’t want others to ‘catch’ it. But if we can educate pregnant women and their partners about SIDS and safe sleeping, surely we can break the silence around stillbirth? Yes we tell women if they don’t feel movement to lie on their side and drink some juice, but we have other tiny morsels of research that show, for example, that contrary to what many people have believed babies don’t slow their rate of movement as labour is approaching (in fact possibly they increase their rate of movement despite the restricted room) and that sleeping on your back when pregnant increases the risk of stillbirth 6 fold.
I first spoke to my best friend at her son’s funeral. In her initial text she had said she wasn’t up to talking, but perhaps in time. We had texted and emailed back and forth, in the days that followed Walter’s death but we hadn’t talked. She lives several hours drive away from me and since she had moved to the country our friendship had largely been maintained via text and email. This suited us as neither of us are great talkers and in this circumstance it felt like it was easier to talk about such confronting and overwhelming sadness in writing. But as time went on we began to talk as well.
As the weeks and months went by, I learnt so much about grief and loss through my friend, and through reading other peoples’ stories online. What I want to relay most I think is that there is a silence around grief in general, and around stillbirth particularly, that is utterly suffocating. As if losing your child was not enough! Being caught in a world where so many people either brush over your grief “you can have another baby” or seem to pretend the birth never happened (perhaps because they just don’t know what to say, or don’t want to inadvertently hurt the parents) hinders parents doing what is natural and helpful – talking about their loss.
Born in Silence is the saddest, and yet the most necessary, film clip about stillbirth because not only does it create awareness about stillbirth, but it helps create awareness about ways you can help grieving parents. It was created by the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS).
The phrases held up on cards by parents in this clip are so powerful because they echo the words not only of my best friend but the hundreds of parents whose stories can be found in online blogs (like Missing Liam) and communities. When people lose their baby, they not only lose their child, but their hopes, dreams and expectations for the future. Everything they thought would be is no longer. They are left having to carve out a new path for themselves at a time when they have neither the energy or spirit to set a new direction. They are often left with feelings of guilt or blame – second guessing any actions which may have contributed to their child’s death.
Like other new parents, parents who have had a stillbirth experienced pregnancy and birth. They often have their own pregnancy anecdotes and tales to tell. But because of the silence surrounding stillbirth they often find that they cannot share their experiences of pregnancy and birth with others. When the outcome is that your baby died the shroud of silence descends around every memory of your baby publicly. Yet the reason that parents grieve is that their baby was loved. They don’t want their baby to be locked away in a prison of silence. More than anything, they want their baby to be loved and remembered. Their baby will always be a part of their lives. And what is more, every life matters, and should not be shut away.
Walter’s death has taught me a most beautiful, yet painful lesson. Each new life, no matter how brief, forever changes the world.
And so I’ll close with some words that sum up the nub of this post far more succinctly and beautifully than I can:
“If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you’ll make them sad by reminding them the child died… they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them is that YOU remember they lived and that’s a GREAT, GREAT gift” – Elizabeth Edwards
When someone dies, silence is not golden. It is a suffocating darkness. It’s never easy to talk about death but we must learn to break the silence.
Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/leecraven/6248436470/sizes/z/in/photostream/ with thanks to Crazy Craven.