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Empty Arms: the heartbreak of stillbirth

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On 26 June, Ellena Bisset gave birth to her first child. Blair was born still but perfect. Ellena shares the heartbreak of stillbirth in this very personal account.

This article contains material that some readers may find distressing.

23 July. A date with mixed feelings. In 2017, it was when I miscarried at eight weeks. This year, it was meant to bring happier times.

You can imagine my surprise when my husband Adam and I heard a heartbeat inside me for the first time at the eight week scan—23 July 2019 was to be Baby Bisset’s (BB’s) due date. I thought I was being taught a lesson in how life’s obstacles can bring happier times.

But today, my arms are still empty. I have more to overcome.

This time, this pregnancy, we were blessed to be able to see what our love could create, but our little girl was not for keeps. On 26 June, I gave birth to our first-born, Blair Ann Bisset, still but perfect. Adam and I had less than 24 hours to treasure her, cramming as many precious moments as possible into that time, and leaving the rest to a lifetime of dreaming of all that could be.

The moment everything changed

Ellena at her baby shower at 32 weeks pregnant.

It was a little before my scheduled 36-week appointment when I began to wonder when BB had last kicked. I had been so distracted, wrapping up at work before starting maternity leave that I honestly couldn’t recall and told my OB so straight away.

The scan was still.

My heart dropped before the words were even said. BB had no heartbeat. All our hopes for our growing family were crushed at that moment. I was in shock, crying and surprised this could even happen to our darling baby who was so wanted and loved already.

With BB’s due date less than four weeks away, I was expecting my life was to change forever. This still rang true, but not in the way we had planned.

I was in a fog for the next two days as we waited in hospital for induction to work and bring on labour. My body took forever to realise it didn’t need to protect a baby anymore. I spent hours staring out my hospital window, trying to make sense of how this had happened, a perfect blue Canberra winter sky taunting me.

My friends had regularly joked in the months leading up that I was having a “Beyonce” pregnancy. Aside from battling waves of tiredness and night-time leg cramps, I didn’t have any morning sickness, back pain, swelling or food aversions. I had glided through my pregnancy with great hair, glowing skin and a fabulous wardrobe—because dressing a bump was the most fun I’d had in years. The only hiccup was a gestational diabetes diagnosis, which meant I had to focus on healthy eating and exercise habits while BB continued to grow well, and at an average size, no less. I felt so unprepared for any other outcome than a healthy baby to enjoy winter snuggles with.

The wait and so many decisions

Photography: Hilary Wardhaugh for Heartfelt

While we waited for BB’s arrival, Adam and I were handed pamphlets about grief after baby loss, local support groups we could join, post-mortem options, birth registration and death arrangements with the funeral home. Honestly, it felt like too many decisions about a little person whose face we hadn’t yet seen and kissed, and whose gender we were yet to find out.

Through all these conversations, my mind was elsewhere. How was it possible that I would never see my baby smile, giggle, have a first Christmas or birthday? How were we going to tell family, friends or potential siblings about BB? How was I ever going to be me in the future—I was a Mummy but not in the same way; the energetic old me that was carefree and joyful about life seemed like a stranger. At the same time, I was obsessing over whether I had somehow done this to BB, that I had missed the chance to save my baby.

Adam was amazing. One of the many reasons I married him was because of how he centres me, and during the most traumatic time of my life he was my shining light. I can still hear him saying “give me a moment” when I wanted to make a decision as quickly as possible to make the pain of processing what was happening just go away.

I could barely communicate what I wanted, aside from asking for yet another bottle of sparkling water from the vending machine. But Adam was considered and thoughtful about how we should meet, treasure, say goodbye to BB, and wrap our love around her in her forever crib.

I was crippled by the thought we were going to walk out of the hospital without our baby and drive home with a car seat hauntingly empty—thank goodness Adam spoke up about taking BB home, even if just for a few hours. He wanted us to see and feel BB in our home, amongst our things, and needed photos with BB to reflect us. In essence, he wanted us to have as many firsts with her as possible and to get out of the hospital where we had spent nearly three days wishing it all wasn’t true.

The role of Heartfelt

The one thing I wanted to do was to call Heartfelt, a volunteer organisation of photographers who capture parents with their stillborn babies. I didn’t want our family members behind the camera for the time we had with Blair—they were in as much pain as us—and I knew I would look at these photos every day for the rest of my life. Just because BB wouldn’t take her first breath with us, we still needed to be true to ourselves and celebrate her arrival as we had planned to.

I think it’s important more stillborn parents—and their family and friends—know about the many options and choices available to them through organisations like Heartfelt, because it has the potential to change the short but precious time you have with your child. Instead of being forced to say goodbye to your baby before you are ready, you can create some happier memories to treasure forever.

I am so thankful to the few family and friends who suggested support and options. We desperately needed a guide through the fog we were in.

It’s also important we all talk about stillbirth because it happens. In 2018, of the 6172 babies brought earth-side by strong mummies in Canberra, 41 were stillborn. In 2019—to 30 June—of the 3166 babies, 19 were stillborn.

BB’s arrival

By the time we made it to the delivery suite, a level of calmness had taken over me. I was so ready to meet BB—growing a baby is pretty incredible and giving birth empowering, no matter how it happens.

I’ll admit, I took all the drugs. The pain I was battling in my heart and mind was enough, and knowing I had so few hours to spend with BB, I needed to be at my best.

My body finally realised what it was supposed to do, and BB looked out for me even more because within five hours and 10 pushes, the midwife was telling me we had a beautiful baby girl. Of course, this was a complete shock as the majority vote throughout my entire pregnancy had been “boy”.

When we saw our Blair for the first time, she was an undeniable mini-me, with chubby cheeks, a button nose, and pouty lips stained bright red. It was like she was already obsessed with lipstick like her Mummy.

I wanted to hold her immediately. I told her how much we loved her even though she couldn’t hold on for us, and imagined what a lifetime of cuddles would feel like. Everything in our delivery room, like our little girl, was peaceful. The only noise was our cooing, like any other proud parents, admiring her beautiful features, her sweet hands and long legs (about the only look-in Adam got in the gene mash-up). I simply couldn’t believe I had everything I had ever wished for—a little girl that looked just like me and my own Mummy.

The Bears of Hope Cuddle Cot

After all health checks were completed—plus a few additional ones, we prepared to go back to our hospital room. This is when we first saw the Bears of Hope cuddle cot.

A cuddle cot is a cooling system within a small cot that allows for stillborn babies to stay with their families instead of in a mortuary environment. Cuddle cots give parents choices. They let parents spend as much time as needed with their baby, whether in hospital or at home. We are truly grateful for the cuddle cot we were able to take Blair home in. It allowed us to create treasured memories with Miss Blair in the short time we had with her.

Adam carried Miss Blair back to our hospital room and I went to sleep with her right next to me. Three hours later, I woke up to realise I was still living the nightmare of becoming a Mummy to a beautiful stillborn baby. I cried at how cruel life seemed, but at the same time thanked Blair for holding on as long as she did so she could show us how beautiful she was. I didn’t want to go back to sleep, I didn’t want to take my eyes off her. I needed to stroke those chubby cheeks, and that little nose was just too cute not to smother with Eskimo kisses.

The midwife came in not long afterward and offered me a cup of tea, and, bless her, she brought it in a cup and saucer. Miss Blair and I had our first tea party together! While I would have loved it to have been Royal Albert, I was loving this precious Mummy-Daughter moment and wondered what else we could do together.

The day before, Adam had found a recording of waves on a beach that transported me back to our family shack (note: Tasmanian word for beach house) at Sisters Beach, so I turned it on and pictured us there at Christmas together. Of course, while I was picturing a very calm six-month-old staring around in wonder at all the new smells and sounds, I also realised the reality would probably have been crying if Miss Blair was anything like me as a newborn who, on the same beach some 32 years ago, did not appreciate the wind or the sand.

I will never forget seeing our family members poke their heads around the hospital door and step tenderly into our room, as if they didn’t want to wake a sleeping baby. It was just as it could have been. Together, we marvelled at this cuddle cot that was helping us all connect with Blair before we had to say our final goodbyes.

The cuddle cot was the gift that kept on giving. No parent ever forgets taking their baby home, and I am so happy we were able to as well. Adam carried our sweet girl out to the car and I sat in the back seat with her as we drove past all the Canberra monuments that make this place feel like home. Blair saw it all.

Bringing Blair home

Once home, it was time to prepare for our session with Heartfelt. Earlier when I said we wanted photos to reflect us, for us this means dressing up. Savouring even more Mummy-Daughter moments with my darling, I had Blair by my side as I did my hair and make-up, picturing her as a toddler asking to put on lipstick, begging for photos to be taken once she had “her face on” (a dream based on my own memories of spending time with my Nanny at the same age).

Cue the photoshoot.

Hilary Wardhaugh from Heartfelt was incredible. It had been easy to organise. I called her and suggested a time, and she was there. Hilary was so gentle with us. Some people might view it as odd to have someone you don’t know with you at such a distressing time, but Hilary was thoughtful and sensitive, guiding us through a series of photos that captured us as loving parents and celebrating the tiny features we had created. We were lost in the moment and barely heard her asking us to hold Blair, kiss her and hold her hands and feet. Everything felt natural and gave us more time to stare in wonder at Miss Blair.

Our family members were in the next room and Hilary took photos of each of them with Blair too. I cannot fully express how grateful we all are for Heartfelt and its volunteer photographers who provide this lifetime gift. I would recommend Heartfelt to all stillborn parents. Forget any worries or concerns, because you will never regret having the perfect photo of your family in the days, months and years following.

I have looked at our photos every day since, and several are already on our wall because we are like every other parent—convinced our little girl is the most photogenic child going around. We have love bursting from us and want all our family and friends to continue to remember Miss Blair, which in part has been made possible by sharing these images.

At the end of our session, Hilary had tears in her eyes. It was the first time she had been invited to take photos at a home—the nearly 60 sessions she had done prior with stillborn parents had been in hospitals. We were calm and happy in our home, which shone through in every photo—it was such a special hour. Taking a baby home is not possible for all parents, but if you have the option, please consider it. The next morning, I may not have been woken by our baby girl crying, but I felt Blair with me, and it made me smile.

We only had 24 hours with Blair because we opted to do a full post-mortem. I need to know why this happened because it’s difficult to silence the Mum guilt. I am trying to prepare for no answer. In about 40% of all stillbirth cases, the baby’s death remains unexplained.

I’m not alone—the surprising statistics

When I first began to digest that I was giving birth to a stillborn baby, I initially felt so alone. Now, I realise I have joined a rather large club of heartbroken parents.

In Australia, there are more than 2000 babies stillborn each year—that’s six still, but perfect, babies every day—and this number hasn’t changed in 20 years. About 60% of all stillbirths occur in the last trimester, making it so important for mummies-to-be to heed health clinicians’ advice to count kicks because 55% of women who experience stillbirth notice a change in their baby’s movement prior to finding out there’s no heartbeat.

Why aren’t we talking about stillbirth more? For every child who dies of sudden infant death syndrome, 35 babies are stillborn. So I encourage you to talk about stillbirth with each other and expecting parents because some are preventable. Familiarise yourself with the support available, including organisations like Bears of Hope, Heartfelt, Still Aware, Stillbirth Foundation, SANDS and Red Nose, that help parents get through the most unimaginable time.

My final advice: say their name.

I had reserved so much love in my heart for our little BB from the moment I saw the double lines appear on the pregnancy test. Hearing Blair’s name is now music to my ears, and I know being open with our family and friends about her stillbirth means they feel comfortable talking about her, too.

I hope in years to come we will celebrate birthdays and special occasions together. The support Adam and I have received from our family and friends has been staggering and the awareness we have already raised in our little community makes us so happy.

For such a little girl, Blair sure has made a big impact.

How to help

You can support the Bears of Hope cuddle cot and Heartfelt by donating to these importance services:

Bears of Hope cuddle cot: cuddlecot.gofundraise.com.au/page/BearsOfHopeAppeal

Heartfelt: Hilary’s ACT Facebook fundraiser facebook.com or via heartfelt.org.au/donate

If you need support

If you, or someone close to you, needs information and support, here are some valuable links:

SANDS – Stillbirth and Newborn Death

Red Nose

Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand

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