Lyndal Curtis is an extremely talented and well-respected political journalist for the ABC. On their online opinion site The Drum, I recently read the most beautifully written and moving story she wrote about her daughter Madeline who was still-born nine years ago.
If you were reading Best & Worst a couple of weeks ago, Anonymous shared a truly horrific Worst – her sister’s baby was still-born, having died unexpectedly in the final stages of labour. If there was any way for this story to be more tragic, this little girl was conceived in a last-ditch round of IVF.
Sometimes, life seems too brutal.
According to the SANDS website (Sudden And Neo-Natal Death Support):
Each year in Australia approximately 58,000 couples experience reproductive loss:
About 55,000 experience early pregnancy loss, 1,750 babies are stillborn
and about 900 babies die in the first twenty-eight days after birth…….
Reading Anonymous’s bewildered, devastated post and the wonderful and warm messages of support from the MM community, I remembered Lyndal’s piece about her daughter Madeline and thought I might publish some of it here. You can read it in full here and I strongly suggest you do, especially if you or anyone you know has lost a baby during pregnancy, birth, or, in fact, ever.
Of her baby Madeline, Lyndal writes…..
…..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 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.
This is what I wrote two days after Madeline died, and what I read out at her funeral:
These are the things I had hoped for Madeline:
I thought for a long time she was going to be a boy, but deep down I had hoped she’d be a girl we could call Madeline.
I hoped I’d looked after her well while she was growing inside me and that all the things I hadn’t done quite right wouldn’t have affected her and made her underweight or caused a problem – and she was perfect; our beautiful little girl.
Apart from that I had simple hopes for her.
I hoped she’d fall asleep on my shoulder when I was cuddling her.
I hoped she and her daddy would fall asleep together on the couch and that I could sneak in with a camera and take a photo of them.
I hoped she and Jessie would love each other and be close and that they’d enjoy playing together… and she’d have fun when Jessie showed her all her toys and all the things she can do.
I hoped she’d sleep well and eat well… and that she and I and Jessie would do a lot of things in my year off – that we go for walks, and go to lunch a lot, and do all the things I meant to do while Jessie was a baby but never got around to.
The things I hope for Madeline now:
I hope she knows how much we love her and how much we will always love her.
I hope wherever she is that she doesn’t think she caused us pain because we’re not sad because she came into our life, only because she was in it for such a short time – because we couldn’t bring our beautiful girl home and because we had to say goodbye before we’d had a chance to say hello.
I hope she’s with her grandparents who also can’t be with us now – I hope she’s giving them cuddles and falling asleep in their arms and that she’s giving them some of the joy Jessie gives her Nana.
At the moment I’m in the middle of a big black void… but there are three bright lights in that void.
One is Madeline – a reminder always of what could have been and so very nearly was… our other favourite girl who will be an important part of our family forever.
The other two are Phil and Jessie – showing me there is a life to get on with, and a future for us all.
And each time we get a hug from someone, each time someone phones or sends flowers or a card, each time someone tells us they love us, or we can laugh at something or Jessie smiles or sings or just is, there’s another light in the darkness…
And in time it won’t be so black anymore because we have a lot of love around us and a lot of good reasons to go on… while there will always be patches of darkness, it will mostly be lit by happiness and love.
Madeline will always be our beautiful girl… while she trod only lightly on this earth, she will always be deep in our hearts.
This section has been republished here with full permission.
It is hard to put this type of grief into words and I am deeply in awe of Lyndal’s ability to do that. Since my own miscarriage, I have struggled with how to remember and honour the baby I lost. It feels like some kind of ritual is important and I’ve tried different things over the years….
Oddly enough, being a writer and all, I never thought about writing something like Lyndal did until I wrote my book. The chapters in that where I wrote about it helped enormously. Perhaps I wasn’t ready before…..
If you need to talk to someone about your experience of still-birth or neo-natal death, can I suggest you contact SANDS AUSTRALIA (Sudden And Neo-Natal Death Support) in your state. There is a full list of contact numbers on their website here.