by MIA FREEDMAN
Seven weeks ago today, friends of mine lost their precious son. He was their first child, a beautiful boy called Leo and he died the day after he was born. In all the photos I’ve seen of him, Leo looks nothing like a sick baby. A mop of black hair. Plump, squeezable thighs. Pudgy little arms. A sturdy body. A kind, peaceful face. Somehow, this robustness made his death even harder to fathom for anyone, let alone his parents whose hearts shattered into a thousand pieces the moment they understood he wasn’t coming home.
The cause was nothing preventable; nobody’s fault. An undiagnosable condition called Vasa praevia that meant the little guy had no chance. The abruptness of it was breathtaking in its random brutality.
Like many friends of Leo’s mum and dad, Sian and Paul, I heard of his birth and death at the same time. This is our way now. We share happy baby news via text message and I exclaimed out loud with joy as I began to read only to feel punched in the stomach by the time I finished. Oh no. Please no. Not them. Not two more grief-stricken members for the club nobody wants to join.
Every so often, too often, I’ll hear about someone who has lost a baby. To miscarriage, neo-natal death, stillbirth, SIDS or some congenital complication in the first few months of life. Sometimes I know them. Usually, I don’t. But I always reach a hand into the darkness because I’ve been there and I know its bleakness well.
Rebecca Sparrow and I met this way in 2010. Mutual friends contacted me quietly after Bec’s daughter Georgie was stillborn two years ago, hoping I’d have some words of wisdom or comfort for her. I don’t think I did. My own grieving process for the baby I lost halfway through a pregnancy had been stunted more than a decade earlier. Knowing no other women who knew how I felt, I withdrew deep into myself. When you lose a baby, a light flicks off and you’re plunged into black. Despair. Grief. There’s no roadmap. No end point. No closure. Eventually you become more comfortable with the discomfort but there’s no way to fast track the process. Friends and family want to help but they can’t. Grieving for a baby you may not have even held in your arms is deeply personal and utterly surreal because you have so few memories, such scant proof of their existence. Some blurry ultrasound images. Maybe a hand and footprint. Through the incredible work of Heartfelt – a charity that sends professional volunteer photographers into hospitals to capture extraordinarily poignant images of babies and their bereaved parents – some families are lucky enough to have photographs.
Lucky, I know, it’s a relative term. Fancy envying parents who get to weep over photos of their lost babies. But people like Bec and I do envy those parents, as weird as that sounds. Such is the pitiful lack of tangible proof most of us have of the children we never got to take home.
Leo’s memorial service was magnificent. By the end of it, we all knew Leo. We knew him through the recollections of his parents, his doctor and the social worker who was gently, masterfully helping two broken people make sense of the baffling wreckage in which they now stood. Of all the parts of the service that made us laugh and cry and hold each other a little bit tighter, one moment stood out for me; when Paul asked everyone to congratulate his wife for being a Mum. And we did.
As we clapped and smiled and cried, I noticed women around me wide-eyed with admiration that such an important detail had been acknowledged. Even if your baby is no longer alive, you are their mum or dad and will forever be. And the mother’s role in a baby’s life – and death – is particularly visceral.
In the years since we met via email, Bec has helped me as much as I’ve helped her. The rawness of her grief somehow unlocked mine and instead of rushing to find silver linings (as well-meaning people so often do), we spent a lot of time simply considering the cloud. But I was able to tell her this: You will laugh again. You will find joy. You will stop crying every day. You will survive.
I’ve come to believe those of us who’ve come out the other side of the inferno of grief have something to offer those newly stumbling around in the dark: our stories. By articulating how we felt, we can map the often unexpected paths down which our grief has taken us. From anguish to black humour. These words are the candles we light for the women and men who follow behind us. Because they will find respite from the darkness in time. Forever changed but slowly, tentatively re-emerging back into the light.
Many families have been helped by the incredible work of Heartfelt – a volunteer organisation of photographers who go into hospitals to photograph stillborn babies and terminally ill children so that their parents have a record of the moments they shared. You can support their work here.
These images are being shared with the kind permission of the families.
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Mia Freedman & Rebecca Sparrow are compiling a book for parents who have experienced the loss of a baby, filled with words from other parents who have been through it. If you would like to contribute, leave a comment below.
Please include how long ago your experience was…..that sense of “it gets better” can be really helpful for someone in the dark…..
All proceeds from this book will go towards charities including Heartfelt, The Stillbirth Foundation and The Humpty Dumpty Association.