Stillbirth and grieving baby loss in a pandemic

Miranda was 39 weeks pregnant when she noticed reduced baby movements. In hospital alone to be checked out, she was told the heart-breaking news that her son George had no heartbeat – just 5 days before his due date.

On 1 June 2020, my entire world changed forever. I was 39 weeks pregnant and it was my first day of maternity leave. After a stressful final 3 months at work, I was finally ready to settle in and meet our baby - but when I woke up that Monday morning, something felt wrong.

I noticed right away that our baby wasn’t moving. Trying not to panic, I got up and moved around, had a cold drink, showered and even blow dried my hair… But after an hour, I decided to go to the hospital just to be safe, telling my husband to stay home as I thought it would be fine. 

Worried about baby moving less

When I arrived at the hospital, no one seemed alarmed; in fact, I waited nearly 30 minutes before someone saw me. When the midwife put the doppler on my belly, I waited for that familiar thump of a heartbeat. Instead, I was met with the haunting hiss of static. That’s when I started to panic. 

She told me not to worry. Another woman came in and checked me again: still nothing. They asked me to move to another bed, where a more senior midwife checked my baby. That’s when she told me the devastating news that my baby had no heartbeat. It was the worst moment of my entire life. Just 5 days before his due date, my baby was dead.

I knew before the midwife even said a word because her eyes filled with tears. 

Surrounded by 3 masked strangers, dressed in PPE due to Coronavirus, they were unable to even offer a hug or a comforting touch; I could only see their eyes. I was alone, without my husband, trying to absorb the fact that my worst nightmare had just become my real life. In shock, paralysed with disbelief and sadness, we made the difficult practical decisions we needed to make.

Preparing to have a stillborn baby

People have often said how difficult certain things would be - the funeral or clearing out George’s room - but what they don’t normally realise is that the time between being told our baby died and then giving birth to him the next day was actually the worst part. For 30 interminable hours, we were forced to simply wait and sit with the reality of the situation.

Waiting to give birth to your dead baby is an indescribable torture. The searing pain and suffering of that time continues to haunt me. 

When we went back to be induced the next day, I cried all the way to the hospital. Bags packed and bump visible, our Uber driver asked if I was in labour. At 4:38pm, I gave birth to our baby boy, who we named George Robert Markham. I was too afraid to see him at first, but the midwives were very gentle and persistent, recognising the regret I’d feel if I didn’t take that time with our baby.

2 days later, I finally met him. He was perfect in every possible way: a beautiful sleeping baby, with my nose and my husband’s hair, weighing just under 6 pounds. I held his hand and spoke to him, but I couldn’t bear to hold him – and now I feel a deep, aching regret that I’ll never have the chance; I keep reminding myself I did the best I could at the time.

Baby loss awareness

Until George died, I don’t think I’d ever even said “baby loss”. I’ve since learned that baby loss is not a rare event: 1 in 250 pregnancies ends in a stillbirth in the UK - that's 8 babies every day. I thought stillbirth was something that happened to negligent mothers or alcoholics, not people like me, with uncomplicated pregnancies… how wrong I was.

We opted for a full post-mortem and, months later, finally received an answer for why George died. It seems wrong to say we feel lucky about this, but I know many couples never get a reason for their loss, so I’m grateful for this information; it doesn’t make the loss any easier, but at least we know, and can plan for it in a subsequent pregnancy.

Some days, I’m so overwhelmed with sadness or anger that just getting out of bed feels brave and significant.  

Engaging with the “real world” often feels like climbing a mountain, even 8 months on. I’m working to piece my life back together and self-care is a full-time job. To protect my broken heart, I often shut out the world and everyone in it, so they can’t hurt me with sympathetic looks or well-intentioned but insensitive comments. 

Supporting parents after baby loss

I know people want to help, but many people don’t know what to do or say. For me, the single most impactful thing people can do is continue to check in and see how we’re doing. Good friends and family who have stayed close and connected, beyond the initial days and weeks following George’s death, have been invaluable to us. 

Grief is lonely - and it’s really lonely during a pandemic.

When someone remembers George’s monthly milestone on the 2nd of each month, it really means the world to me. We’re now trying to imagine a new future, one without George in it. Sometimes it seems scary and uncertain, like nothing will ever be right again. The only thing I am certain of is that George’s short life has changed us immeasurably.  

His death showed us more heartbreak than we ever thought possible, but he also helped us to start seeing the things that give us purpose, fulfilment, and joy with laser-focused clarity. Our priorities have shifted, and our relationships feel different.

Among the many lessons we’ve learned, George gave us the gift of perspective: his brief existence has put everything sharply into focus.

The mission-critical approach we used to take to our careers has diminished and things we often did out of obligation have been abandoned; the people we love are the only things worth caring about. We will now live and love with more passion and determination than we ever thought possible, and listen to our hearts in a way we never did before – and we have George to thank for that.