Six babies are delivered stillborn every day in Australia. And the loss of every single one of those precious children is keenly felt by their mothers, fathers and family.
Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day, and in honour of all the families who have ever experienced the devastation of a stillbirth, Mamamia brings you this beautiful post by ABC journalist, Lyndal Curtis.
As a journalist, I'm used to asking the questions. When I’m asked questions it’s usually part of a live cross when I have given some thought to what I’ll be asked.
But when I'm off air, there’s always one question I don’t answer easily. I pause and consider my answer, and sometimes I lie.
“How many children do you have?”
For most people, it’s an easy question to answer, there’s no hesitation, and a smile darts across the face as people remember the life they have outside work.
For the past nine years, since my second daughter was born, I’ve struggled with it. It wasn’t the easiest pregnancy, but the difficulties were niggling, annoying, nothing to cause concern, just some lost sleep and frustration.
But on February 19, 2001, when I was 38 weeks pregnant, I felt my daughter give an almighty kick as I rested in bed. I thought no more of it. I turned over and went back to sleep.
The next morning, February 20, when I woke up I realised I hadn’t felt her move all night. Not even a little bit. I told my husband and watched the panic I was beginning to feel being reflected on his face.
He got our daughter dressed and we headed to hospital.
My mind was racing and the next thing I remember was sitting in a large room in the maternity ward as a midwife strapped a foetal heart monitor around my waist and tried to find a heartbeat.
She moved it again, and again.
And still nothing.
My mother arrived and it took one look at her to know she had taken one look at my face and knew what was coming.
She took my daughter and we promised we’d call.
Then I was in a wheelchair being taken down to have an ultrasound.
I saw my baby on the monitor, but there was no heartbeat.
I remember wanting to walk back to the ward, and the nurse wanting me in the wheelchair. I don’t know how I got back.
What I remember next are snippets, little bits of time that stretched over hours.
We were in a room in the maternity ward. My brother visited. A priest, a family friend, came. My doctor came. Nurses came and went. Each face registered part of the shock I was feeling.
And everyone struggled with the words. Trying to find the right way to say the unthinkable.
As the night fell, my husband and I rested on beds moved together in the ward meant for two mothers, with room for their newborns.
My labour was induced, and at 5.25 on the morning of February 21 2001, my Madeline was born.
There was a knot in the umbilical cord that was supposed to keep her alive. As she grew and moved, doing tumble turns in my stomach, she put a knot in the cord. And as she prepared to make her way into the world, the knot tightened and cut off the life I was supposed to supply her with.
And she died.
She was a beautiful baby, looked like her sister, with a shock of black hair. We held her and took photos, building quickly a small stock of memories to hold onto because there were no years ahead to do that slowly.
And eventually, a few hours later, we left her at the hospital and went home.
It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I left my newborn baby all alone, knowing I would never hold her again. I had a piece of cardboard with her footprint on it and a lock of her hair. And the quilted blanket she was wrapped in at the hospital.
Back to the car with the baby capsule inside. Back to a house where the newborn clothes I’d washed a couple of days before hung on a drying rack.
Hanging there was a new outfit I’d bought for her. She was buried in it, along with a singlet I wanted her to wear because she was so small and I didn’t want her to be cold. I was her mother and that’s what mothers worry about.
From the day we came home and for months later, time in our house stood still. I watched the world outside moving at a normal pace, but I was not part of it.
For a while I blamed myself. I should have kept her alive. That was my job. There was something I should have, could have done. But it was just an accident, a terrible, awful accident.
Things were very black, but life has a way of picking you up and moving you forward. At Madeline’s funeral, my eldest daughter — then two-and-a-half — wandered round the small circle of family pulling faces at us to try to cheer us up.
Cards and letters and flowers flooded into our house, from work colleagues, friends and politicians. Not one of them had a hackneyed message. Each was original and heartfelt. Each person struggled to find the words because there are no easy words to cover the pain and loss. I treasure each of them today.
At the time I couldn’t talk to people. My husband and mother dealt with the phone calls. But just knowing that people were thinking about us helped more than I can say. Along with my daughter, husband, and family, the people who took the time to let us know they were with us helped tether me to life at a time when I often felt the pain was unbearable.
Helpful too was the advice a midwife gave when she came to check on me a couple of days after I left hospital. She told me that, “Whatever you feel is OK.”
Everyone grieves in their own way. I expected the tears and the pain, although the strength of it and the deep place where it came from surprised me. I didn’t expect the days when I felt kind of OK, when there were some moments where I didn’t cry. It was good to know that feeling all right was OK too.
And eventually there comes a day when there are more smiles than tears, and when it’s time for your world to start moving in sync with everyone else’s. And that’s OK too.
People have told me I was brave to carry on, but that’s not true. Once you’ve made the decision to go on breathing in and breathing out, life just happens to you. Groceries need to be bought, dinner needs to be cooked, my eldest needed her parents. And after a while it’s normal again.
I am permanently changed by Madeline’s death. My emotions run much closer to the surface and I cry much more easily than I ever did before. There are news stories I cannot listen to, television programs I cannot watch because they are about children lost or dying. Every disaster sends my thoughts immediately to the mothers who’ve lost children and for a moment I’m paralysed with the pain they must be feeling.
I know now I am stronger than I ever thought I could be, partly because the worst thing I could imagine happening to me has happened and I’m still here.
I understand when people say, after a tragedy, that they didn’t think it could happen to them. I struggle to believe I’m the person who lost a daughter. That wasn’t who I thought I’d be, and yet that’s who I am.
I think about Madeline every day. I talk about her when I’m asked. We celebrate her birthdays with a cake and a present we give to a charity to pass on to a girl of the same age. We leave balloons by her graveside on her birthday and a tree at Christmas. She’d still be a little girl and would be unimpressed by flowers. They are for another day.
We build memories in a different way. I keep track of what year she would have been in at school, but I deliberately don’t think about what she would have been like if she’d lived. For me, imagining her alive would only illustrate what I’ve lost and I worry if I did that, I’d start crying and might never stop.
Talk about closure annoys me immensely. People should, if they want, seek answers about why someone they loved has died and if there’s someone to blame. But even after the answers have come and the blame, if there is blame, been placed, the memory of the person who’s been lost doesn’t go. The pain of losing them and the joy they brought remain. They are one of the threads in your life that continue on. Nothing ends or closes.
Should someone you know go through the same thing I did, be there for them. For a while they may not want to talk to you, or see you. But let them know you’re there. And when they’re ready, let them talk about what happened. It’s sad, painfully sad, but talking is a way of helping keep the memory of their baby alive.
The memory of Madeline is always with me.
So, when I’m asked how many children I have, after I’ve looked to see if you’re pregnant and paused to think about whether I want to have the conversation, more often than not I’ll answer.
I have four children. Two girls who are 11 and seven, a boy who is five, and my second daughter, Madeline, who would have been nine.
Lyndall Curtis is a Political Correspondent for the ABC and host of Capital Hill ABC News 24.
This extract was originally published on The Drum (ABC Online) and has been republished here with full permission.
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This week marks the start of Never Forgotten: Mamamia's Pregnancy Loss Awareness Week.