Once a month I introduce myself to a group of people. This is what I say: “Hi, my name is Laetitia and my partner and I lost a baby boy in March 2015.” Every first Thursday of the month I attend our local Sands meeting. Sands is the UK’s leading stillbirth and neonatal death charity, giving invaluable support to those unfortunate enough to have lost a baby during the 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy, or shortly after the birth of their baby. Sands organises monthly meetings for bereaved parents to exchange their experiences and find support in one another.
The introductory round never leaves anyone unmoved. There are those who lost a baby in the 2nd trimester of pregnancy, like myself, those who carried their babies to full-term when suddenly their baby’s heart stopped beating in utero, those who found out about their baby’s lung, bladder or heart condition at some point during pregnancy and who were faced with impossible decisions over their baby’s life and death, and those who actually got to meet their babies and were with them in NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), sometimes for months, only to have to say goodbye at the end of their baby’s long losing battle to live. There are even those who haven’t lost one, but several babies.
It is heart breaking. Every single time. I see some familiar faces and hear familiar stories, but there are always new faces and new stories, stories of those whose pain is still so very raw. Sometimes I literally have to stop myself from getting off my chair and giving a total stranger a hug and tell her (or him!) that they’re not alone. Of course this wouldn’t make things much easier on them, but because of Sands, bereaved parents at least don’t have to make their journey of grief on their own, they can share their pain with those who come closest to understanding what they’re going through.
There are a few recurring themes that are discussed in our meetings. Firstly there are the issues with the – sometimes problematic – care given by the NHS (at times leading to clinical negligence cases). Then there are the big questions: ‘Why? Why us? Why our baby?’, followed by the issue of trying to pick up your life again after the loss of your baby (a phrase very aptly coined by Sands as ‘the new normal’).
And then there is the issue of dealing with other people. This is what so many of us have struggled or still struggle with the most. It’s the awkwardness with which some people around you deal with your loss. The general consensus in our Sands group: saying something is always better than saying nothing and pretending it hasn’t happened for fear of hurting someone. Even if it is a ‘I really don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking about you’, that’s so much better than being ignored.
Now don’t get me wrong, everyone in our group has received a similar range of thoughtful reactions from family, friends and colleagues. From wonderful heartfelt handwritten letters, to lovely daily text messages to check how we are, to many genuine hugs, to gifts of flowers, food and cards. But unfortunately we have also all experienced that some people just couldn’t face us (making us feel awkward as if we’d done something wrong!), those who told us ‘better luck next time’ or ‘at least you already have a healthy child’, those who said they couldn’t handle hearing our story as it would be too upsetting for them, and probably the worst, those who’d forgotten all about it and asked when the baby was due.
It means a lot when people aren’t afraid to ask after your loss, because in my experience the vast majority of bereaved parents want to tell. Those parents who got to meet their baby are often desperate to show pictures and talk about what their baby looked like. They are after all still new parents, albeit in an unusual way. Losing a child at any stage is probably one of the hardest things some parents unfortunately have to go through. To have their hurt and loss acknowledged by people around them is a vital step in their long and arduous healing process.