Baby loss - what may help you as a parent and advice for those supporting them.
This week is baby loss awareness week, it runs from today to the 15th October.
My least favourite day of the entire year was three weeks ago. Frederick George Arthur Greenwood would have been 15. He would have just started year 11 and if he was to be anything like his brothers and sister, blonde, long and pretty awesome actually. He had the same mouth as Rocco and a chin like his Grandad, he never got to open his eyes, so I can’t tell you about those. But his siblings all have brown eyes, so I expect the hazel gene would have pushed its way through to Fred.
I don’t talk about him very often, we’ve done three interviews for three separate charities, Bliss, Tommy’s and Borne. All doing incredible work into researching why these precious little people make their appearance, before their fluttering tiny butterfly lungs are ready to take a breath.
I know why Freddie was born 16 weeks early, I have an incompetent cervix. I can’t get passed 20 weeks without it opening. It’s completely and utterly useless for no reason whatsoever. I hate that flawed piece of my body more than I can put into words. One tiny piece of flesh responsible for my tiny son, gasping for his last breath whilst his miniature fingers were wrapped around mine. All I could do was kiss him and breath him in, completely helpless. It’s just such an unreasonable and preventable death.
I am not sure that telling you about my most beloved first baby is either useful or interesting, I love talking about the other three and I genuinely feel bad when someone asks me how many children I have, I say three, because I don’t want them to feel bad. I don’t want to embarrass them, so that they look down at the floor, up at the sky, anywhere, but at me. I don’t want it to be mistaken for a sympathy vote or some need for a shoulder to cry on. But I am a Mother of four children, I gave birth to four children, but I only got to parent three of them.
In the last fifteen years I have had a steady stream of e mails from either bereaved parents or a family member of those who have lost a baby. So rather than tell you about that utterly vile day, I find it so terribly hard you see. I thought it would be more useful to do something pragmatic, that may help a Mum or Dad who have just lost a baby or a friend or family member supporting them. I appreciate that everyone feels differently, but it might help. For the sake of this piece, I have used ‘he’.
Firstly what not to say to person grieving baby loss
1) "Life goes on/chin up"
What the bereaved parent is thinking - I’d rather life didn’t go on actually. I mean ‘Life goes on’?? Can no-one please ever use that phrase again ever. The latter is what you say when someone loses their credit card, not a human being.
2) "There’ll be other babies"
BP (bereaved parent) I don’t want other babies , I want that baby, that one, he was perfect and I only want him.
3) "It may have been a blessing if there was something wrong with it"
BP- I don’t care if he was the most imperfect specimen of a human, I still want him, only him.
4) "I hope you’re feeling better, weather's been a bit ropey" (avoiding subject entirely talk about anything but the baby)
BP- I don’t want to be here either, if you don’t know what to say, just say, ‘I don’t know what to say’.
5) "My Granny lost a baby/I know someone that…."
BP - I don't care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don't care, I don’t care.
Don’t try and bring it back to someone else. Its about their baby. How they feel. Comparison to another situation is really unhelpful.
The Friendship Guide - Tips that may help Support Your Grieving friend.
When you are grieving a tiny life, you don’t need or want good meaning folk rocking up with all the answers, you can’t make it better, you just can’t. In fact I think that is probably what Mrs T (my Mother) found the hardest, she couldn’t help her baby who’d lost her baby. To see your child suffer like that must be pretty tough. I know its hard for me to see one of mine upset now and over nothing at all.
Don’t try and be the oracle, be the person who is there when they are ready. Even if you don’t know that person well, be the honest one who says,
‘I don’t know what to say’.
No one does, so rather than fill the air with well meaning sentiment, just be honest. You're sorry and you don’t know what to say. Because you are, right?
Initially, everyday will be dark for your friend and a commonality for parents grieving baby loss, is that ALL of their mates are having full term, perfectly healthy babies. Everyone is talking about the breast pads least likely to leak, the most efficient baby bag, teething issues… it's heartbreaking. You feel so isolated because you don't want to be around these humans with their ‘in perfect working order’ cervix and episiotomy comparisons. But you may need one of the them. A friend who know you best in the world to sit with, to listen, just to sit next to in silence.
Find someone to have your baby, even a new baby can be left for an hour. My sister had literally just had my niece. I couldn’t call her because I was afraid Lucy would cry or make any audible sound, which just broke me. For Freddie’s funeral my brother in law stayed with her in a hotel nearby so my sister could be with me, I am awfully grateful to them both for that.
Be practical. When you are grieving, all practicality is lost. Be useful, cook something, bring ready meals, take their dog on a walk, feed their cat, wash some clothes.
One of the most helpful things you can do is along the line of cancelling anything to do with the birth of a baby. Call the NCT group and explain. Let John Lewis know the cot isn’t needed. Call their work place for them.
Be mindful of suggesting ‘things to do’. Countless people were all, ‘let's get some fresh air’. What is it about fresh air?!
Gauge the feeling of the day, it will obviously be a somber one, but if you know that person well, you will know when they are ready to leave the house.
I was petrified to leave for weeks because I was genuinely fearful of bumping into someone I knew with their baby or any baby actually, so remember their mind is not rational. It is consumed entirely and utterly by the baby they created but can never have.
Rather than go in with ‘how are you feeling today?’. Perhaps try ‘I know its another day without him, I’m here when you’re ready to talk’.
Voice messages are good. I couldn’t pick up the phone for a while but listening to vm’s made me feel less alone. So if they don’t pick up the phone, leave a message. Write it down if you have to. So you’re not all ‘ummmm, uhhhhh, you ok?’ Just be yourself, be calm. Don’t be emotional on a message, there’s enough of that.
On the emotional front, my feeling is, that’s its ok to cry with them, remember it's all about them and their baby. Which is why in the above ‘what not to say’ part, I have pointed out that it’s important you don’t try and relate what they are feeling to another person who may have suffered similarly. They will tell you when they are ready to speak to someone who may have been through the same.
Another weird bit of advice. Don’t wear perfume when you visit, strong scents of any kind takes you right back to that that time.
My sister in law gave me the bracelet pictured. I have all my children's initials on it, his is right next to mine, exactly where it should be. I treasure this above all things. If you were wishing to get something, consider this. Perhaps a group of you could get together, it would be mean so much.
So in short-
1) Acceptance of how they are feeling is the key.
2) Don’t try and make things better, just be there.
3) It may happen all over the world to a gazillion people or to your Granny three times but its not about any of them.
4) Time, time, time - give them this. It takes time.
The Parent Guide - What Might Help After Baby Loss
Firstly if you are reading this having recently lost a baby, I am so truly, truly sorry. Waking each morning, for the first intake of breath, you forget, just for a split second. It won’t always feel this way.
At the beginning….
The most common question I am asked by grieving parents is; 'when will I feel like I did before?'
The short answer to this is, you won’t. Because you’re not that person anymore. That’s ok. How you feel now, will not be how you feel forever, because you can’t live like this. No one can. But it is important that you allow yourself time to grieve. To remember what this felt like. Eventually you will find a place for this, the deepest of desolation, and be able to function. But that day is not today.
Today you are a silent pocket of black. Death is very quiet. Apart from the mumblings of family questioning your mental state, there may not be an awful lot of noise. Don’t worry about that, just do what you have to do, to get through the day that doesn’t involve any harm to yourself or anyone else.
It’s ok to shut people out if you have to. Opening up will come when you are ready, you might be doing this already.
Anger is equal to sadness. It’s the injustice of it all. Giving birth to a baby that you loved and wanted so desperately. You’re right to be angry. Be fucking angry. Breath that in. Blameless anger is the worst. If you need to vent, vent. Mine was very internalised. I am a great communicator, but struggled hugely to communicate anything after Freddie. If I’m honest, I just wanted everyone to disappear. I was happy when I didn’t have to see anyone and everyone had left.
Leaving hospital without your baby is hard - especially when you’re leaving a labour ward where you are surrounded by those leaving with their's. That’s when I felt out of control. What helped a miniature amount, was knowing where Freddie was to be kept. It may help finding this kind of information out. I went back everyday to sit with him. I realise this isn’t for everyone, it helped me. In fact all of Freddie’s grandparents visited him. Maybe this helps their grief too.
Let other people deal with the stuff you can’t- our friend arranged Freddie’s funeral with us. I chose the poems and the hymns. Get help with this, it’s really tough. I was there when the funeral directors came to collect Freddie. I had my hand on his tiny coffin all the way to Norfolk, where we had him cremated. It had to be kept on a freezing block so that it would keep him cold. I felt I couldn’t move my hand, so at the end of the 4.5 hour drive, my hand was completely numb. Which was very much my entire feeling anyway.
Other practical stuff - my milk came in quite quickly which was painful in every sense of the word. There is medication that can stop this which I took, although I was reluctant, because I was desperate to cling on to any part of him. But I recommend that you do take these meds if this is happening to you.
The Funeral - I am not at all religious, well not anymore. But for some reason, I felt obliged to do this at the time. Whatever you chose is right for you, is right. But something recognising his existence, most definitely helped me.
After the funeral - this is a definite ‘stage’ because you’ve been building up to that day, it gives you a focus. It is still the beginning. I was still at the ‘do whatever it takes to get through the day’ phase.
Ok so now for survival - you will get through this. Try and do this together or with help. I’m actually not sure we did. Also by this stage, possibly the practicality of going back to work kicks in. This is unbelievably hard if you were meant to be on maternity leave. Ask a friend or family member to help with this, if they haven’t done already.
Important things to note - If you think you’re going to struggle with other people's babies, say so. Don’t feel bad about it.
If you don’t think you want to sit in coffee shops full of newborns. Avoid all high street beverage sellers until at least midday. Or just don’t go in them at all, for the short term at least.
If you arrange to meet up with friends, do so on your terms. It’s ok to call the shots for now.
The greatest advice I can give you as a whole is a bit of a life mantra for me actually.
'CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLE'S’
You can control the physical movement of your day, but nothing more. Consider the below.
What you can control:
- When you leave the house.
- Where you go.
- What you do.
What you can’t control:
- Who you will see
- What you will see
- How you will feel
Be prepared when you do leave for what may distress you:
- Other babies
- Friends that don’t know what to say
- Friends that do know what to say with their babies
- Anything at all baby related. They are everywhere.
Prepare yourself as much as possible for a situation that may arise that you cannot control. Try and find a mental place you can go to protect yourself. Even if that strength is only for the time it takes to get home.
Talk to someone if you can. This is one of my greatest regrets, I didn’t talk to anyone. It was an error. There are people that can help you. People that listen and understand, but I was so consumed with grief, I didn’t do that and regret this now. I’ve made a list of charities that may help at the bottom of this piece.
Talk to your partner, we didn’t do this either really, I didn’t support Will at all. Another regret. In fact even now on his birthday , Freddie is the elephant in the room.
Mental health is very much at the forefront now, even more so than when Freddie died. It’s okay not to be okay. Take as long as you need. As long as it takes.
When there is loss, the line ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think of them…’ Is banded around. This isn’t true. There will be. You’ll laugh when something’s funny. You’ll find strength when you need to. In fact, you’ll be stronger than ever before, because the unthinkable has happened. So when sad and challenging circumstances occur, you’ll have this rhino under layer that you didn’t have previously,.
Write a letter to your baby. I wrote masses. One was over 20 pages long! It helps, it helped me. Pop them in a box. It’s most cathartic.
We planted a tree, a crab apple. It's in Norfolk in my Mother’s garden and has grown so much, like he would have done. Freddie’s Tree. It brings me peace every time I see it or think about it. Especially at this time of year, it is so beautiful. I could not recommend this enough.
Perhaps do something in the name of your baby? We hosted dinners for Tommy’s The Baby Charity. I appreciate we are in a position to be able to do this. But there are countless ways in which you could do something that could help you mentally, whilst helping other’s in a very real way.
The most important thing to remember is this. This is my advice, this might help. How I feel or felt could be entirely different to how another person reacts to baby loss. No one situation is the same. This is not a ‘how to get through baby loss in pointers’. It’s just, what may help. If you can’t resonate with any of it, that’s okay. Anything and everything you are feeling, is okay.
It won’t feel like this every day. Time will be your salvation. Time is your greatest ally. Give yourself time. You’ve got that in droves. Your baby can’t be replaced, but if you are fortunate like we were, to go on and and have more babies, it won’t make you less forlorn about your baby loss, but it will of course bring you more joy and happiness than I could possibly scribe.
This article has taken me almost a month to write on and off, because I had to keep walking away from it. I don’t have to face this time of my life very often. Facing what we find painful is not what we would usually choose to do. It has underlined to me that I have definitely boxed feelings away which may not be overly healthy. If you are able; be braver than me, face this incomprehensibly hard point in your life, better than I did. It may offer you a less painful path in the future.
From one parent to another I send you warmth, love and support.
In Freddie’s very short little life, the money that has been raised in his name, has helped countless tiny humans survive. I am incredibly proud of him and doubly so to be his Mother.
Someone told me once, that one day we will be together again. They were wrong. He is the babies that survived, he is the children at school who remained in the womb and defied the odds, he is the research that goes on in his name to this day. He is everywhere. But most importantly, he is the watcher of his siblings, my greatest listener, my comfort, my Birdy, my boy. He is with me every single day, because you see, he never left.
Charities that can help
These guys really helped our family to try and understand what we were going through. They will absolutely be able to listen and understand your mental state.
This is who we are heavily involved with. Based at Chelsea and Westminster where all our children were born and headed up by Professor Mark Johnson who saved the life of Archie our eldest son. Their aim is to identify why babies are born prematurely and spread this research world wide to lower the figure of 15.1 million babies born too soon.
We raised money in Freddie’s name for Tommy’s. That money went straight into the research that they do to prevent miscarriage and prematurity.