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Stillbirth: #iamthatstatistic

Donna Penny

These are the words I hope you never have to read.

I hope you never seek comfort or counsel from these words as you try and make sense of a baby born still, or sleeping. To be guided on ways to comfort and support a family bereaved by stillbirth. Because what is there to say or do? Stillbirth violates the circle of life and is completely outside the realm of possibility in this day and age. Except that it isn’t.

My baby boy, Patrick, was stillborn on 29 October 2015. He was my first baby, much longed for and carefully nurtured for 41 weeks. I had a wonderful, uncomplicated pregnancy and started labouring naturally. The day before he was born, my midwife came to check on the progress of my labour and my baby. His heartbeat was strong and he was proclaimed a “perfectly happy baby”. Less than 24 hours later, my husband and I desperately clutched each other, sobbing, as we were told “I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat”. Our story and our pain are palpably real but they are not unique.

In Australia, babies born without signs of life that weigh at least 400 grams, or who had a period of at least 20 weeks gestation are considered stillborn. In 2012, there were 2,255 stillborn babies in Australia; 52 of them were in the Australian Capital Territory. That’s 52 Canberra families who prepared nurseries, chose names and nurtured hopes and dreams for their babies, but who left hospital rooms with empty arms.

Grief is as individual as fingerprints. But six weeks after losing Patrick, here are some things that I can tell you with certainty about how to relate to families bereaved by stillbirth.

Use our baby’s name. Often.

We’re very proud of the name we’ve given our baby. Not just because it’s a legal requirement in the ACT to name and register a baby born after 20 weeks gestation. But because we gave careful thought to our baby’s name and it was imbued with the hopes and dreams we had for our child.

Don’t fear that speaking our baby’s name will remind us that our baby isn’t here. We completely understand this part, we get it. Using our baby’s name honours their memory and reminds us that they were here.

Remember that our babies were born

Our babies were birthed, just like the babies that went home with their families. Ask us about their birth, just as you would any other new parents. Ask us about the colour of their hair, their weight and who our babies looked like. Just so you know, our babies are often one of our favourite topics of conversation! (For the record, my Patrick had my lips and complexion and his father’s black hair and nose.)

We’re bonded to our babies in the same way that other new parents are. We marvelled at the miracle of pregnancy and birth and were gobsmacked by our baby’s beauty when we laid eyes on them. We felt the same overwhelming rush of love and the fierce protective instincts that other parents feel. The only difference is that we don’t take our precious babies home with us.

Don’t be afraid of us

Worse still, don’t avoid us. We understand that nobody knows what to say. That’s ok. We quickly grow adept at navigating difficult conversations. We have daily practice with the unsuspecting neighbour or colleague who excitedly asks about our new baby. We know that you find these conversations just as difficult as we do. That’s ok.

Pretending that we haven’t had a baby is gut-wrenching. It’s bad enough that our baby isn’t with us; not acknowledging them makes it worse for us. If you don’t know what to say to us, tell us. If you avoid us, we notice. Be brave and pick up the phone, send a text or a message, write us a card, or whisper your condolences as you brush past us in the street. Just don’t avoid us because you don’t know what to say.

Ask us about us. Ask if we need help.

We’re likely to be physically and emotionally battered. We’ve just experienced the best and worst day of our life when our baby was born. Ask about how we’re coping and be prepared for an honest answer on our ugliest days. Ask whether there is anything you can do to help us. If we say no, ask us again and again. If you don’t know what we need, ask us. Check in with a simple message and don’t take it personally if we don’t reply. You’ll never know the profound impact of kind thoughts or messages. Sometimes they’re all that get us through the darkest times.

Don’t forget the grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.

It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. Our babies were eagerly anticipated by our villages. In particular, grandparents bear the pain of a double-edged sword. While they keenly feel their own children’s pain, they also suffer the loss of their grandchild. Siblings and cousins never know their most intimate playmates. Those special friends they would have shared a lifetime of laughs with and shouldered familial sorrow with. Aunts and uncles mourn the loss of a baby to teach, cuddle and spoil. Please check in with our families and look after them for us.

We don’t want anyone sinking under the weight of their own grief in order to be strong for the family. Acknowledge the special grief felt by a grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle and cousin. Ask them about their loss, ask them what they need and let your presence be a comfort for our families. I can’t promise that any of this will be easy. In fact, I know that offering comfort and support to a family bereaved by stillbirth is hard, grubby work. But it’s worthwhile work.

Stillbirth is still considered taboo and families bereaved by stillbirth are largely invisible in our society. Since Patrick’s death, my family has learnt about stillborn babies of our families and friends whose names and stories we never knew. Had we known about these precious babies, we still wouldn’t have known what to say or how to provide comfort or support to their families.

This stops with me. I am a mother and will talk about Patrick and all the other stillborn babies to anyone who’ll listen. #iamthatstatistic

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Donna Penny

Donna grew up in Queensland but is now a proud Canberran. Like a lot of proud Canberrans, Donna is a public servant. Unlike a lot of Canberrans, Donna loathes summer and adores winter! At night, Donna sheds her public servant uniform and teaches Vinyasa and Curvy yoga. In her spare time, Donna studies, cooks and enjoys walking her dog and husband around north Canberra. More about the Author

  • Michelle

    Donna, what a fantastic article, but one I wish you never had to write.

    As a friend, I would like to admit to that initial avoidance, not knowing what to do and say, feeling like I had to take care in the words I was saying. But, it’s not about how I feel, as much as I felt that gut wrenching pain, it was about being there, it was holding your hand, or making you laugh, it’s about extending that hand of friendship. I’ve seen the effect one small gesture has, and I encourage all friends in this same situation to make that gesture, cook a soup, make a cake, ask the stories, send a text, just make your presence felt. During that time and now in into the future, it is about being there, saying Patrick’s name, sharing stories, and showing that emotion – both the happy and sad ones.

    Therefore, I would like to add to the list of ‘village’ people, the friends of the parents, the chosen Aunties and Uncles. We too love those stillborn, and in this case, Patrick, there will always be a special love for Patrick in our hearts.

  • Lesley

    Donna my heart goes out to you, your husband and baby Patrick. My firstborn Grace was born sleeping 18 months ago, and I know firsthand the kind of pain, grief and turmoil you and your family are suffering. I’m sorry for your loss and wish you peace; words are just never enough in this situation.
    Thank you for being brave enough to share your story and to speak out against the taboo that surrounds stillbirth and pregnancy loss.

  • Rachel

    Donna our whole family was so very sorry for your loss of darling Patrick. So many many tears shed. Thinking of you still.
    xo Rachel Green.

  • Cheryl-anne

    Donna, beautiful words. To be able to share your pain and that of your family to help not only those whose babies are born sleeping but also those who sometimes don’t know how to help is incredibly generous. Patrick is firmly centred in our village and we love him dearly, xxoo ca

  • disqus_NPYgpNWCyF

    Thank you Donna for your thoughtful and heartfelt article. My little girl Caitlin was one of those 52 stillborn angels in 2012 in the ACT. The hardest time of my life made just that little bit easier by the heartfelt gestures of my mums group who rallied around me with hugs, care packages, and enduring friendships.

  • Farzana

    20th December 2016, my world collapsed around me as I found out my baby had died inside me at 30 weeks gestation. It was my first pregnancy, after 8 1/2 years of marriage I got pregnant without any medical intervention.My pregnancy was great until 12 weeks. In my 12 Weeks scan I was told there was an abnormality with my baby’s growth. I was offered the choice to abort my child but I was against this. Every time I went for check-up and they told me they are concern but not confirm. I had many scans, tests and appointments.Doctors told me future of my baby boy didn’t look good. But I continue my pregnancy till 30 weeks with a strong hope. On 29 weeks 6 days I went to hospital for my routine check-up and I learnt that my first child, my son had passed away .There was no heartbeat when sonographers scan me with probe. I started crying hysterically as the sonographer checked again but nothing, no heartbeat, no movement. It felt like our hearts were being ripped out. I kept asking ‘Why?’ but they didn’t have an answer. My whole body was shaking. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me, remove me from this pain. Doctor told me to go home and then come back tomorrow or day after tomorrow to admitted. Then she explained I need to give natural birth because a natural delivery would be better for me physically and emotionally. The hospital didn’t have a bed so I have to wait for a call to let me know when I can go and give birth to my lifeless baby. So we walked to the car in silence and went home. At home we crumbled together. Then I started to feel sick, I had a lifeless baby in my womb. I didn’t know how to feel, it was horrendous. Then my husband keeps calling to hospital to arrange a bed for me and after few hours they called us and tell me to come in. When we arrived I froze, doubled over in pain, emotional pain. I couldn’t do this, how could anyone? Irrationally, I was secretly hoping I’d feel a kick or movement. What if they’d made a mistake?
    Next day, they gave me medication to induce labour and I had to wait a further 48 hours for my labour to come on. They offered me an epidural, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to own it. I needed the pain, the agony, and misery to mirror what I felt in my heart. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done ever. Dealing with the unbearable contractions, knowing that all of it was for nothing.I was delivering a lifeless child. My delivery was so complicated and at one point of my labour I was about to die. I survived only to save my poor husband from suffering another loss. I delivered my precious son on 21st December 2016 at 11.35 pm. Then they check for the placenta, the cord snapped and it hasn’t come out. They continued checking through the night but nothing. Then doctor says if my placenta doesn’t come out they’ll need to take me to theatre to remove it, subsequently 2 hours later the placenta removed manually.
    The hardest part was letting him go when he was being taken for the burial, knowing this is the last moment with him I gave him a goodbye kiss and sent him off!
    Knowing he is in heaven and in a much better place brings great ease to my heart! It’s also brought me much closer to my creator and if it wasn’t for my faith I would be lost. Though he was stillborn but still breathing in my heart and always. I was going to be a mother of a beautiful boy, now I am a mother of an angel. My precious son name is AARIB MOHAMMAD HOSSAIN. To this day, and for the rest of my life I will remember how sweet he smell, like a never ending horizon of roses, a river of the sweetest honey, his smell, I can smell it now.💕🌹

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