Gillian’s entire pregnancy had been smooth-sailing.
She was a few days past her due date and was waiting impatiently to meet her baby girl – the first child for her and her husband, Gavin – when she noticed her baby hadn’t moved for a while.
She tried the usual methods of rousing the little girl they had named Layla — drinking cold water, changing positions, pressing the bump.
But nothing worked.
“Layla was stillborn at 40 weeks and 5 days,” Gillian told Mamamia.
“Her little heart just stopped beating and unfortunately, since that time, the doctors haven’t really been able to tell us why that happened.”
The first time Gillian heard the word ‘stillbirth’ was when one of the doctors came to talk to them about a study the Stillbirth Foundation was funding.
“I can actually vividly remember turning to my husband and saying, ‘Stillbirth. Is that what this is? Is that what’s happening to us?’,” she says.
“Because, to me, that was a term from medieval times. It was something that happened to Henry VIII’s wife. It wasn’t something that happened to me… it wasn’t something that happened in this day and age with all the medical advancements we have. So it took me a long time to grasp.
“I remember feeling quite angry because we’d done our birth classes, been to all the obstetrician appointments, I’d read every book under the sun, and not once did I read about the risk of movement slowing down, or of a baby dying in utero.”
Gillian had no idea that eight babies die each day in Australia due to health complications at birth, stillbirth and SIDS.
Layla’s stillbirth was almost four years ago, but Gillian – now 37 – says it’s still difficult to talk about.
“I feel like I had to learn how to do everything again. It was such an intense, dark place to be in. I had to learn how to put one foot in front of the other, how to be in a social situation, how to carry on with every day normal activities and errands and jobs,” she says.
“It was incredibly dark and I was very lost, completely lost. I felt like I’d been engulfed by the darkness. That’s the only way to describe it. It felt heavy and dark and I couldn’t see a way out of it at all.
She said someone at the hospital handed her a brochure for SIDS and Kids and she found herself on the doorstep of their offices days later.
“I can actually remember ringing the doorbell and not feeling confident to talk on the phone because I was in such a dark place that I probably would have just sat there and cried and not been able to get a word out. So turning up was really the only option for me at the time,” she says.
“I felt very alone, very vulnerable and didn’t really know where to turn — and they welcomed us with open arms.”
Gillian says regular (and free) counselling and support group sessions with SIDS and Kids helped her and her extended family get through the first 12 months following Layla’s death. As did utilising the organisation’s online support forum.
She says being able to talk to specialised baby-loss counsellors was cathartic during a time when all she felt was intense sadness.
“To fathom having to live under that fog for the rest of your life, with that really intense, heavy, overwhelming sadness, was just a suffocating thought because it was so hard to do anything,” Gillian says.
“But SIDS and Kids helped me to understand that it was possible to have hope that I would one day, even though it seemed impossible at the time, learn to smile again. And even though things wouldn’t ever be quite the same as they were before, that I would be able to find a new normal and I would learn with time to adapt to that new normal. And I think that’s really true.”
Six months after losing Layla, Gillian became pregnant again.
She says that despite “the incredible fear…. you have hope in your heart and I think that hope is the best healer that there possibly is”.
But the birth of her daughter Adia also made the loss of Layla more real, Gillian says.
“As well as feeling the incredible love beginning to heal me, I think it was also a hard period because I then had a really tangible example of what it was that I had lost when Layla died,” she says.
“Because, until then, it was the hope and the dreams and the wishes of having a baby, but until you physically have one in your arms, and she was breathing and healthy and safe, it was very hard to imagine that, I suppose.”
Gavin and Gillian’s son Jonah was born about 11 months ago.
She says her little family has helped her heal, but they will always remember and celebrate Layla.
She and Gavin – both keen travellers – have honoured Layla by asking family and friends to take Layla’s ‘travel stones’ with them on trips to the places she will never be able to see for herself.
“Birthdays are difficult. Special occasions are difficult. Sometimes it just hits me randomly and I think it probably always will, but we choose to talk about Layla and celebrate Layla,” Gillian says.
“And that promise that I made to her before we said goodbye – to speak her name and not forget about her – we’ve lived up to that and that definitely helps us.”
Now Gillian wants help other families on their “grief journey”.
She is training to become a SIDS and Kids volunteer, manning the 24hr hotline and moderating the online forum, and has raised funds to support the organisation (which receives less than five per cent government funding).
“It’s certainly my intention to begin to pay back some of the amazing support that they’ve offered us,” she says.
Red Nose Day is this Friday, June 26. To make a donation to support SIDS and Kids in providing grief counselling, support, education and research into stillbirth, SIDS and other causes of the unexpected deaths of babies and infants, click here.
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