Today’s guest post comes from Caroline Morgan who blogs at After Anabelle. In our ongoing series of guest posts from bloggers answering the question, What Makes a Parent, Caz shares her experience of giving birth to a baby born sleeping.
When I emailed Katie enquiring about taking part in her parents guest blog feature I didn’t expect to find this post quite so hard to write. As it is, it has taken me many weeks to complete and emotionally exhausted me. A topic so huge that even in my living in the depths of it, it is difficult to do the message justice. But despite it having been difficult to write I have persevered because raising awareness is so important.
Parents come from all walks of life with all sorts of experiences. Even those with similar experiences have their own path, no two families are exactly the same. It dawns on me often how special that really is; my little family is a unique fingerprint in this world, carved by who we are and who our children are.
So what kind of parents are we?
Our first experience of parenthood was bereavement. The short story goes a little like this.
In June 2010 I was heavily pregnant with our first child, a little girl who we had already named Anabelle. We had been married less than a year and were naturally excited about becoming parents, busy preparing our home for the little person who had already taken over it. It was all going so smoothly until early June when I was admitted to hospital threatening early labour at 31 weeks. Anabelle wasn’t coping all that well, with each of the tightening’s her little heart was dipping; slowing down. At this point I was given steroids to mature her lungs, drugs to stop the onset of labour and kept on constant monitoring and told if she didn’t stabilise soon I would be taken for an emergency c-section.
She did stabilise. At the time we were overwhelmingly relieved. She was too little to be born and we thought inside me was the safest place for her. In hindsight I think we were wrong. We’re told what happened next was just the most awful co-incidence, unrelated, but to us that threatened prem-labour and our little girls fluctuating heart rate was a warning sign. How I wish now she had been delivered then, maybe they would have had a chance to save her.
Seven days after being discharged from hospital I knew something was terribly wrong. Anabelle had gone quiet and at the hospital we were told her heart had stopped beating. Our daughter had died on the 16th June 2010, only 32 weeks grown. In the days that followed after a horrifically long attempt to induce labour she was born, asleep at 00:08 on 21st June 2010.
Anabelle was one of 17 babies to die before or shortly after birth in the UK on the 21st June 2010. That was seventeen heartbroken families in just one day, like every single day. It is a little known statistic that there are 6500 sets of bereaved parents in the UK from stillbirth and neonatal death alone every single year.
So what does it mean to be a bereaved parent?
The first thing you notice as a bereaved parent is the guilt. The constant living of the ‘what if’s’. In our case it was the ‘what if’ she’d been born last week? What if we’d gone to the hospital last night when we were first concerned about her movements instead of waiting until the morning? I felt, and still do sometimes, like I had killed her. My role was to keep her safe until she was ready to be born and I had failed her. I know rationally that isn’t true, but being a bereaved mother isn’t rational. In the natural order of things Anabelle would have far outlived me.
After the guilt you quickly realise everything has changed, you as people, your outlook on life, values and dreams, priorities change, attitudes change, beliefs change, relationships change and nothing can go back to the way it was. The very foundations of who you once were are taken from beneath you and leave you lost.
Every relationship you know is tested in the worst of circumstances. The relationship we once had with our parents, friends, even each other all came under strain. Some relationships failed, some grew stronger; many lessons were learned about who really loved us, who really cared and who couldn’t cope with our grief. Our family and friendship group now is very different to two years ago.
I may come across as harsh but lots of people struggle to acknowledge child death. We are a nation of ‘brushing it under the carpet’ because to acknowledge properly would be to plant the seed that there is always the potential for your children to die too. That is something nobody wants to think about or expects to happen. So instead platitudes are offered but conversation often so quickly steered on. An expectation for you to be fine one day.
There is this perception that babies and children only die in the third world, not something faced by so many parents in the ‘wealthier’ side of society. So readily we’ll watch programmes such as sport relief that implore us to donate money to save the children but find it so difficult to accept that the grieving parents depicted in the appeals are not so far removed from grieving parents on our own doorsteps.
Grief is lonely. People say the most insensitive things. I realise for the most part it is because they simply do not know what to say, but sometimes the blatant disregard for my daughter has been astounding.
Anabelle was unknown by everyone by my husband and I, but that didn’t make her any less real. She had lived, inside me for 32 weeks. I had laboured and given birth as any other mother, she looked like any other newborn baby, apart from she wasn’t breathing. Imagine for a moment, if you will, labouring and delivering a baby, only to hear no cry at the end and be deafened by silence. That was our reality. Anabelle wasn’t just a failed attempt at becoming a family, we were still a family, I was still her mother, my husband still her father. She was still a person and our firstborn. All these things are still true today.
We are different to two years ago. We’re older. In two years we have aged considerably. I don’t recognise the fresh faced 25 year old in my photos of the first half of 2010. Now we’re more rugged around the edges, more lines around our eyes, a part of us broken. Some days I feel middle-aged already, not a ‘young’ woman still in my twenties.
This kind of grief takes its toll, you begin to notice that it is forever. I know, it sounds silly, of course it is forever; but for a while, for me at least I was in a shock bubble. It felt almost like I was on the outside looking in at this crazy life that was apparently my own. Three months after Anabelle died that bubble burst and the sickening reality set it. So often I find myself overwhelmed with the forever. That she will always be dead. My baby. Still my baby.
That is the thing see; all a bereaved parent can do in the beginning is survive. Get through the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months. Then the months become years and sometimes you realise that you are still only surviving. The raw pain isn’t daily anymore, but every so often is bites you hard on the bum. An anniversary, the month of June, a memory, an advert, a song, something in the news, having to buy other little girl’s presents, going to the supermarket, baby mail through the door you asked to stop– the smallest of triggers can put you right back there at the beginning. The hurting doesn’t stop. There is always something to catch you unawares.
The ‘Foreverness’ is something I struggle with often.
I sometimes find myself in shock again, unable to believe I actually have a child who died. That instead of planning birthday parties and fulfilling all the hopes and dreams we had for her, we buried her. Our baby. Even as I write this now I realise there are no words that can really convey the enormity of losing a child. It is something that is impossible to fully comprehend or understand unless you are a fellow bereaved parent.
I think the biggest thing to remember from the outside looking in is that a bereaved parent never stops being a bereaved parent.
They do not just mourn the loss of life, but the loss of everything they dreamed. We mourn all Anabelle’s birthday’s she never got the chance to have, her absence at Christmas, mother’s day, father’s day. We mourn each should’ve been stage; her first step, first word, first day at school that was taken away from us. We mourn the ballet lessons we dreamed of but cannot take her to, we mourn her wedding that will never be. When a baby or child dies there is this massive gulf of future ripped to shreds. A bereaved parent does not just mourn a death, but an entire life.
So often people see fit to judge other’s grief, as something they should be over by now. But the truth is a bereaved parent is never going to get over their dead child, and to expect them too is crass and insensitive.
Annabelle’s death has had a ripple effect on our entire lives. It profoundly affects decisions and reactions on an almost daily basis; namely and predominantly how we are raising our son.
Alexander was born 16 months after Anabelle. Needless to say his pregnancy, although planned, was terrifying and the utter relief when he was born alive was immense. Another long induction and labour which ended with an emergency c-section this time and our first words to eachother on hearing him cry in theatre was ‘he is alive’ and bursting into tears.
Our precious boy had lived and come home, but now a whole new set of fears started. He survived pregnancy, which is more than his sister did, but each day I still fear he will die. Death colours our lives in all its forms. Now I know many parents have this anxiety, it isn’t exclusive to being a bereaved parent but it is a very real and magnified fear for us. It isn’t something ‘I cannot imagine’ like most parents will tell you, because I can. I can imagine the coffin and funeral and burial. I can imagine because I know that pain so well.
I need to make the point that our lives are not all morose as it may be coming across; not at all. The cliché ‘time heals’ has some element of truth. The loss does not diminish over time but the engulfing pain of the beginning has begun to subside to the background, we live alongside it now. We’ve learnt ‘how’ to live with it there; so easily bought to the surface but time has made it different. Different but not better.
There is happy now. There is still sad too. Now we have two conflicting experiences going on; amazing joy for our little boy and broken despair for our girl. These almost parallel lives collide often because they are so delicately intertwined. We are still grieving parents, but we are also new parents again too. There are many fragile moments because in all our happy there is pain.
It makes for raising him complicated. We are acutely aware that we need to get this balancing act right. Alexander needs to know he is loved because of who he is, not because of who his sister is. It must be so hard growing up as the subsequent child after loss. I know I need to make him feel secure and loved and appropriately introduce him to his sister. How do I begin to appropriately broach what death means and how it has affected our family? There is so much potential for me to mess him up.
I don’t bereavement to be what defines our parenthood indefinitely. There is more to us now than that, but Anabelle’s death influences everything. The ripple affect reaches far and wide. We enjoy Alexander all the more because of her, she taught us so much about what really matters about being parents. We are utterly in love with him, we gush we goo, we make the effort not to waste a moment because we know it could’ve all been so different, still could all be so different. There is an element of me that wants to wrap him up in cotton wool. I’m an over protective parent now, in the long run that may not be good for Alexander, but the sickening fear another of my children may die dominates my thoughts. I do often wonder if I’ll ‘calm down’ with more time or if this is part of the new forever normal as well.
I guess that point I’m making is that Alexander has not stopped us being bereaved. It is foul to suggest a new baby makes the loss better, it doesn’t. It adds colour and hope back into your life, it allows for happier times, but Anabelle continues to be our child too, still loved, still missed, still everything to us. She is very much a part of this family even in her absence and her brother misses out on a ‘normal’ sibling relationship. Instead he will ‘know’ her through far more cemetery visits than a child should ever go to.
So what is the point of telling you all this? Why did I want to blog?
Because raising awareness is so important to me. I’ve never been a brush it under the carpet kind of girl. Next month my daughter turns two, I can scarcely believe it had been that long, when in so many other ways it feels like it happened only yesterday. The passage of time is warped now.
I hope my jumbled up thoughts have helped you to understand a little of what being a bereaved parents is; in a nutshell, it is daily and forever. Do you know a bereaved parent? Reach out to them. Acknowledge their child; if you met their child share a memory of them, if you didn’t ask what their child was like. You’ve no idea how precious it will be to them to have their child mentioned by name.
But overall, be patient with us. We’re so often feeling fragile.