The following post deals with stillbirth, and contains images which may be distressing for some readers. For confidential, 24-hour support, please call the SANDS helpline on 1300 072 637.
Megan Baker is a proud mum like any other. The shelf in her lounge room has treasured photos of her son, Kai, moments after he was born. Cradled in her arms, he appears to be sleeping peacefully. Outside in the bushland setting of her home on the edge of Sydney, a dog runs around the garden, a place full of adventure ready for a young child to explore.
But these photos tell a different story on second look. With them is a teddy bear, carefully weighted to match Kai’s birth weight. And alongside that, a small white box containing his ashes.
Almost two years on, talking about losing her baby has become easier, but still immensely painful.
“It’s like living in a nightmare. I even went through labour, and now I’m on the other side, but there’s no baby. That’s not the order of things. You go through pregnancy and then you end up holding a baby and raising a child. There were even physical symptoms, so my arms ached, my heart ached. So it was complete loss, it was being completely lost.”
Megan’s pregnancy was a fairly typical one. Sometimes challenging, often joyful. When the time came to give birth, she went into hospital with a mixture of excitement and anticipation.
But she woke from her C-section to the news every parent dreads. Her son’s heart had stopped during labour, and he was stillborn.
Kai had caught an infection when Megan’s waters broke; despite the best efforts of medical staff, it proved too much for him.
Suddenly everything changed. A lifetime of hopes and dreams were now just a few precious moments together as a family. Those moments were caught on camera by a professional photographer. Brought in by an understanding midwife who knew the future value of such pictures, they’ve since helped to ground Megan’s son in reality.
“I’ve got some beautiful photos of me and Kai, and just Kai, and my partner, and all of us together. You can’t prepare for seeing your son lifeless. A lot of them are beautiful but some of the photos show the pain, show us crying, and you don’t usually see that in photos. But they are just precious.”
Warning: these images may be distressing.
A family album with a stillborn baby can undoubtedly be confronting. But for bereaved parents, it captures their baby’s presence and ensures their place in the world, however brief. Picaluna Funeral Planner and Celebrant Elizabeth Trevan says there are other ways too.
“These are final, precious moments with their baby. Some people take footprints, obviously photographs, other mementos, people can get hand casts and foot casts of babies, there are lots of recording that baby’s presence so even though they’re only fleetingly with the family, they can hold on to tangible things.”
And when it comes to saying goodbye, acknowledging the impact a baby has had on a family is essential. Elizabeth has worked with several families following their time of loss.
“That baby’s history within that family, although only a few weeks, sometimes 40 weeks or less, that 40 weeks could have been an incredibly journey, even just to get to the point of pregnancy. So that baby is an embodiment of that journey in many ways. And then also on top of that, are the dreams, the hopes, the wishes that the family had for that baby as they grew and as they got older. And those are really important to acknowledge as well.”
For anyone going through grief. (Post continues below.)
Gilbert and Spencer Missio were twins, stillborn at 27 weeks. For their parents Jess and Dave, creating a fitting farewell was a vital part of the grieving, and ultimately the healing, process. They helped to organise a family funeral in a garden setting, with their twin boys sharing a coffin; David says it was a crucial decision.
“They were twins who had died together and that’s what we really wanted. They’d been together forever and we wanted them to stay together. We had the most beautiful hand woven coffin for them.”
They turned to Picaluna to help them create a bespoke ceremony; a network of professional planners creating authentic meaningful, family-led farewells. Location is often key, as well as giving families the space and time to make their own, often creative, choices. Having that input made an impossible time easier to bear.
“We were surprised and almost shocked I guess by what we were able to do. We were so convinced there was only one way, a 45 minute set service in a chapel, and that’s just not true. There’s so much more you can do. We had such a huge hand in it and that was such a healing part as well. We were able to include our own style memorial things in the ceremony that we could remember the boys by. We had a candle ceremony and it was just glorious. People came and lit a candle for the boys right around their coffin, all these little candles and these burning lights for our boys. It was just beautiful.”
Megan Baker is now a mum on a mission. She's working to honour her son Kai by helping to support other parents facing the same situation. And she's become part of the Picaluna family to help plan funerals for other families, using her experiences to help families find a better way to say goodbye.
"I've got a Facebook group which is Earth Mamas of Angel Babies and through that I'm creating a community and creating a space where bereaved mothers can come together and share their experiences and feel understood. Also I work with other women that aren't bereaved mothers, so it's helping them understand as well the journey of grief. There is something about connecting with someone who has been through that same experience and so I've created a letter. It's really brief, easy to digest, and some things to think of doing, because you don't know. You haven't been there, unless you know somebody else that's been there, you don't know what to do."
And Megan's advice to those who want to help but don't know how? It's a simple as saying a name.
"I had one person say to me as one door closes, another one opens. And it's like, I didn't just lose my job. My son died. And I know there's not ill intent behind it. It's just people are uncomfortable and we don't talk about it. But I live with this every day. If you can just be uncomfortable around me for a short while and hear about my baby, just say his name - that is so precious. And yeah, maybe we'll cry, but we want to talk about our babies like any mother. I'm proud of him and want to share him with the world, and I want to have that opportunity to honour my motherhood."
For more information on creating a memorial, visit the Picaluna Funerals website.
For support coping with miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death, call SANDS on 1300 072 637 or visit the www.sands.org.au.