By Sarah, whose son Joel was stillborn at 40 weeks
Sarah has written a book called "Life After Stillbirth: Your new 'normal'", which captures the journey of grief through the eyes of parents. [This link brings you to Amazon where the book can be purchased]
The article below was first published on Sarah's blog and is reproduced here by kind permission.
October 2nd 2014.
My due date.
I slept in that morning. Peter had gone to work and I’d slept till around 10am. It was the first time in ages since I had last slept in.
Later I realised it was because his movements had not woken me as usual.
My mum had been working and was coming over to go food shopping. We’d got to 40 weeks! My due date! I was so incredibly happy and excited. She got there and I bounced on my ball and was telling her I thought he had dropped. Eeek!! Not long! Mum casually said, “You’re still feeling him though?” and I said yeah...then I suddenly realised...had I?
When was the last time?
I poked his usual favourite spot and nothing. My heart sunk. I rushed into the kitchen and got a glass of milk and a Mars bar. I tried to act normal in front of mum so she didn’t get panicked. I remembered a part in my maternity notes that instructed mums to laying on their left to get the baby moving. I went upstairs and laid down, swallowed my ice cold milk like it was a shot and ate the Mars bar in lightening time. I was poking him and poking him while manically googling ‘reduced movements at 40 weeks’. I shot down stairs to get my maternity notes and read the section in there that tells you what to do.
I’d had the milk.
I’d had the chocolate bar.
I’d not waited two hours.
Because I knew.
I knew in my heart and soul that he wasn’t there anymore. From the first time I felt him move I found his favourite poking spot. He always responded in some way to me pressing there. I’d imagine him smiling at being tickled there or annoyed at me for waking him. But he’d never stay still.
Still. Such a cruel word and yet I also, now, find it calming. He was still.
I rang the ward and they told me to come in. I started crying on the phone and I felt like such a fool. Part of me (hope?) thought I had finally turned in to one of those worrying pregnant ladies that I swore I’d never become...always thinking something is wrong. Crying on the phone just made me feel daft for ringing. I hung up and walked into the bathroom and cried my heart out so intensely I thought it would forever be dry. It was a very short cry but it was my body accepting that my whole world had just imploded. My mum came up and hugged me, dried my tears and got me in the car.
I remember the drive to the hospital being surreal. I saw single magpies everywhere. Mum told me it was the time of year; it was common to only see single magpies. But me and my body knew why they were there. I’ll never forget them. And now, 10 weeks later, I still think that is a very good analogy of my current place. There are a lot of single magpies around.
We got to the hospital and dad parked. After going to the wrong place, mum and I finally made it to where we needed to be. The nurse was dismissive. I knew I was being bloody stupid. She sat us in a waiting room and there was another pregnant girl and her friend there. And it sunk in. This was where my heart accepted this as happening. I wasn’t in her club anymore. We weren’t the same. I knew I was different from her now. We sat, they lost my notes, we rolled our eyes, they found my notes and took me in. She asked when I had last felt him. I didn’t know. How could I not know? I was a bad mum. My mind warped and convinced me I’d not felt him in weeks. Oh god. But I knew I had. I knew I showered every single day and danced with him and sang to him. I’d tell him the plan of the day. Daddy would be home and he’d always kick when his daddy had his hand on my tummy. Somehow he knew daddy’s hands were different. Poppet loved those hands. So I knew I had felt him the night before.
She strapped me up to the heartbeat monitor.
She rang someone and a Sister came and took us to the birthing suite. Mum shot outside knowing it was serious and told my dad to ring Peter and get him from work. Somehow in the confusion she passed dad both of our mobile phones. Dad went to get Peter.
They put me on, what I assume, was a better heart monitor.
They took me to the scanning rooms. It was the same room where we first met him on our 12 week scan. It was the same room we found out our little poppet was a boy. It was the same lady who laughed with us when we saw him wriggling about and told us poppet would become Joel.
But she didn’t do any of those things this time. She didn’t say a thing.
Except “I’m so sorry......”
And all I did was wail “Why”. And I didn’t say anything else. Because there was nothing to say or do. I’m not able to explain how I felt at the moment. I felt dead, but painfully alive. Numb but every nerve in my body on alert. I felt sick and hungry and faint and heavy. I felt heavy. I suddenly felt detached. I was carrying a dead baby.
The put us into the family room. We later found out it was their SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity) room. We could ring people. Mum tried ringing my nannan and sister. I didn’t know Peter’s number from memory. I needed Peter. I needed to tell him. The nurses rang Peters work but couldn’t get in touch with him.
I desperately wanted to put it on Facebook. I needed everyone to know that the world had stopped turning. It was my due date and I had so many messages that day about it and asking about it...I needed to tell everyone. Because no one knew. It wasn’t real until everyone knew. I needed them to know that the world had ended. To stop doing what they were doing...because everything had changed. They needed to know.
I spoke to my dad. I spoke to my nannan. I spoke to my sister. I spoke to Peter. My darling Peter. How could I do this to him? How could I tell him? How could I tell him over the phone?
“I’m so sorry Peter...I’ve lost our boy. I’m so sorry....I’m sorry...I’m so sorry.....”
I sat and listened to his heart break in to a million pieces and I knew, I’d forever love a new, damaged heart.
At the time, and looking back, it took Peter four weeks to get to me. It was more like an hour. The consultant was coming to talk to us but was holding off until the dad got there. The dad. Poppet’s dad. Peter.
He got to me...we hugged. We cried. We hugged. We stared into space. I’m pretty sure I laughed at one point at the sheer unbelievableness of it all. As if!
We went outside to get some air. I needed air. I knew I was going to have to give birth and I didn’t know how long it would be until I would get any air again. Peter’s parents came and we hugged. I remember everyone trying to tell me to go inside. I should be sat down. Why? My baby is dead. What harm is standing going to do. I needed to mentally prepare for this. These were the last moments I had with poppet. The next time I would come outside he wouldn’t be with me. For the first time in his whole small existence. We'd be apart. That was huge. I needed air and I needed space and I wasn’t allowed it because people thought I should be sat down inside.
The consultant was ready to talk to us. Peter and I sat in the room and I felt dizzy. And blind.
“What the hell?! How am I gonna have this conversation if I can’t see her for stars?!” I said to Peter.
She came in and I had to tell her I couldn’t see her! It sounded like a joke! But I was seeing stars so much that I just couldn’t see anything. They hooked me up to the machine.
Pre eclampsia. What a bitch.
The birth of my stillborn baby
I was to be on the birthing suite. They would induce me. I would have him.
5 o clock came and they induced me. I didn’t really understand what they did when they induced you. I knew it was a pessary or a drip but I didn’t think about the actual process of being induced. It wasn’t pleasant.
My sister, Caley, had managed to get to us after working in Leeds. I just wanted her. As soon as I found out I needed to tell her. Needed her validation of the whole situation. I needed her there. Physically, emotionally, mentally. I needed every inch of her being to keep me strong.
I remember Peter crying. I told him I needed him to be strong. I couldn’t carry us both through this. I needed him to be there for me wholly while I faced giving birth.
I know this is hard on you. I know you’ve lost your boy. I know you have to watch me go through this.
But it’s worse for me.
I have to give birth to our boy that my body didn’t look after properly. I did this. And I’ve got to give birth. And I can’t do it while looking after you. I need you to be his dad. And from that moment on, Peter has been the strongest, most caring and proud dad I could have ever wished he’d become. To this day he amazes me.
The next bit kind of goes into a blur. I remember everyone being in the room. We’re a good family and we merge well with Peter’s family. We get on and we’re all of a similar ilk. I will forever be thankful of our families. We are all so lucky we get on. Unity. I remember us crying and hugging. I remember us laughing. I remember waiting for dad to go and get my hospital bag so I could get changed. I remember Peter’s face. Drained and cold and hurt. I remember having to hold on going for a wee for an hour until the pessary had had its time. I remember finally being able to have a wee and some alone time. Just me. Trying to psych myself up for what was about to happen. I remember being cold. Shivering. Thinking how bad it was that it was so cold. Then feeling that my shivers were turning into shakes.
Something was wrong. I was too cold. The nurses took my temperature and it was 38.5°C. They gave me paracetamol. I carried on shaking in bed. They took my temperature again.
They hooked me up to antibiotics. Tried three times to get a cannula in. Took more blood from me. An SHO took some blood cultures. He made me take my cardigan off. I hated him. I was cold and I felt poorly and I had to give birth and my baby had died! I just wanted my cardigan! My temperature rose to around 39.3°C. Then I realised that if I became too ill to give birth they’d give me a c section. I was hoping I’d get worse. Praying it wasn’t a simple infection that the IV would sort out. Please god! You’ve taken him! Why make me become a part of us losing him?!
My temperature dropped. Bastard.
Around 9 o clock and I’d started. I remember everyone telling me it would last for hours, sometimes days. The nurse going off duty was due back at 6 am and she thought I might have just started at that time. I told them I had period pains. No they weren’t coming in waves. Here I was overreacting again. I sat and just took the pain quietly thinking it was just the pessary kicking in and my body preparing.
Mine and Peter’s dads both went home and left me, Peter, our mums and my sister. I’d met the midwife who would go on to deliver him. Jennie. She seemed nice enough. Quiet and reserved but nice.
I said to Caley that I thought I'd started and maybe we should start timing them. I thought I was counting them wrong because I thought a contraction would come, be there, and disappear for a around 5-10 minutes at this stage. But they were coming, staying, getting worse and peaking before weakening slightly then coming again. About every minute. I had an adrenalin rush. The thought of poppet passing had gone and I focused on my birth. It was my birth now. He wasn’t going to be helping; his cry wouldn’t be my inspiration. I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want him to leave. These thoughts were too big to think about while having to face this. So I didn’t. I concentrated on my birth. I stood up and rocked to help. Peter rubbed my back exactly as we had learned in our NCT classes. We tried to put everything in to practise. They cost us over £150! We were going to get our bloody money’s worth!
I was on gas and air. I remember laughing and saying “I’m off my head”. I remember it hurting my throat to breathe it in while I had a contraction. I remember trying to hold my whole body weight up with my hands every contraction as they made me feel so heavy. I remember laughing at Peter sat on the world’s smallest birthing ball trying to be serious. I remember the mums and Caley laughing about the lovely feeling of taking off your bra off at the end of a day...and Peter’s face! I remember thinking how lovely it was to have all these women with me who had been through this. Knowing, from a birthing point of view, what I was going through. Generations in one room together about to journey into the world’s oldest rite of passage. My rite of passage. I’d waited my whole life for this moment. All I ever wanted was to be a mum. I was never bothered about money or a career. I just wanted a family, a semi detached house and a garden for the kids to play in. My dream.
I remember them telling me they would come and examine me at 11pm. It seemed forever away. Yet the next second, Jennie, the midwife was there. I remember having to work on hand signals by this point. I never said a word through my birth (except “Anne! This end!” when Peter’s mum was stood at the bottom of the bed!). I remember waiting for the contraction to end and giving her a thumbs up so she could...well...effectively do the same.
8 cm! Already! Oh my goodness I was doing it.
I was doing it well!
He was going to be here soon!
He was going to be here soon.
It was nearly over.
My time with him was nearly over. He was leaving me. Really leaving me this time. I waited for a contraction to end
“Gas and air isn’t cutting it anymore.”
At nearly 9cm they gave me diamorphine. They’d never normally give me such strong drugs at such a late stage. But there was no harm to be done. My baby wouldn’t be drowsy. He would be still. So they doped me up on drugs. The real hard part hadn’t started yet. I think they tried to numb my shock as much as possible.
I pushed. Not where I thought I would push. But I learned. I could feel where to push. I felt the pain of him. The pain that transformed me into a mother. The pain that bonded his body with mine forever. At that moment I was so excited. I’d done it. No epidural. No drugs until the end. I’d done it for me and I had done it for him. My final gift to his body. I gave him my all.
The rest I don’t remember except the mums leaving the room. My sister in one hand and Peter in another. I pushed. He crowned. That lasted a lifetime. He was born. He was here. And he’d already gone.
Joel David Nelson born on the 3rd October at 3.20am weighing 8lb3. Perfectly formed. 54cm long.
Spending time with Joel
Jennie cleaned him up and passed him to me. His beautiful dark brunette head of hair. So long! His beautiful long fingers. His huge feet. His daddy’s nose. His daddy’s eyes. His daddy’s cheeks. His little chest. I remember knowing the feeling of his elbows. I knew when I felt them that that’s what had been kicking me all these months. Not his knees. Although perfect, they were new to me. His elbows I knew. I loved. I missed them. I have a perfect photo of this moment with me and Joel.
I realised they were struggling to get my placenta out. Peter took Joel while the doctors worked on me. I lost a lot of blood. They were talking about transfusions. The placenta still wouldn’t come out. How long had it been now? 30 minutes? 45 minutes? A consultant came in. They started talking about surgery. But in the end the consultant managed to get it out by hand. After giving birth I can safely say it was not as painful as trying to get my placenta out.
They took blood from it, they took Joel’s blood and they took mine again.
Jennie bathed him. She took photos; she took a lock of his hair. She took his footprints and hand prints and my mum helped. She dressed him and put his hat on. I drifted in and out of consciousness at this point. I’d been violently sick after having him and with the drugs kicking in I couldn’t stay awake for long moments. My sister took photos of us all with him. They brought a cold cot in which meant we could have him next to us while we slept like every other parent.
We made memories knowing they had to last a life time. How could we replace his first smile, first steps and words? First day of school and first nativity. First school dance and first date. His wedding... His children. His life. How could we do this?
Jennie was our life line. She talked to me. She talked to our family. She worked through practicalities. She was there for us. She is a beautiful human being and the world would flourish with more people like her. The whole staff took us under their wings. This isn’t ‘uncommon’ for them. They’ve seen women go through this before...many times probably. But they made us feel like it was the first time for them too. They were shocked and horrified. They cried. They cooed over him and told me how beautiful he was. They hugged us. They gave us moments to cherish with him. They provided us with memories of him. They talked about him. They helped us. Physically, medically, emotionally. They were everything we could have asked for and more. We owe a lot to them.
Family came. They met him. We stayed another 2 days.
Going home and coping with grief
We left without him.
A lot has happened since then. A lot has changed. I will be forever changed. My family will be forever changed. if you are reading this and you know someone directly involved in this then they will have changed.
Some people don’t understand that.
My Christmases are forever changed. I have to see my son’s grave every single Christmas. I can’t ever move away from Sheffield. I need to be near to him. I will never be complete. How ever many children me and Peter will go on to have, we will always be missing Joel.
We will never be a complete family.
We will never get over this.
We have changed ourselves and our world to accommodate this for the rest of our lives. We don’t go back. There’s a ‘before Joel’ and an ‘after Joel’ mentality now. That moment our world changed.
I’m a lot more forgiving. A lot more caring. I want to be a mum he’s proud of. I don’t get as angry anymore. Somehow this has made me less angry. But it has also made me less tolerant. I’ve been through too much to waste time on people who probably don’t deserve it. There have been new friendships made out of this. So many people have come to me. Opened up to me. Been there for me. Messaged me. Donated to our cause. It’s been so lovely to see people like this, and the people that aren’t like it...they’re not bad people. I don’t think they’re bad people. They can’t handle it maybe? Or don’t care? I don’t know but I do know that it takes my all to get up in a morning. It takes every inch of my gumption to do things in the day. Grieving is so physically and emotionally tiring. I want to sleep for days. So I don’t have the energy to think for other people. If they don’t want to be reminded of what’s happened then they don’t have to be around me. I’m most defiantly better off alone if they are my choices.
My boys brought my family closer than ever and for that I’ll be eternally grateful to him. My mum, my best friend...we’ve been through more these last three months than most mothers and daughters go through in a lifetime. My mum and my dad...wonderful people. I love them more now than I thought possible. They are my security blanket. They make things be ok. This they can’t fix, but they help make it ok.
I generally feel ok these days. Intense moments of hurt and anger and pain and claustrophobia. But mostly, I’m happy to think of him and smile. I see him in the trees and clouds. Every white feather he sends (thank you my angel x) and every ray of sunshine. I’ve never been this person. I love and appreciate nature but I always thought it was beautiful enough. But now I see something far more beautiful, my boy. I’m trying to be the person I should be for him. And when I feel I have made him proud it makes me smile inside.
We are by no means close to this being over. Every day we face a new thing to try and find our place in. And find Joel’s place. We try and bring him into many things we do. Start family traditions in his honour. Think of things we can do, forever more, for him. We bought him a Christmas present. I don’t know what I’ll buy for the next 60 Christmases. And that breaks my heart.
But I know he’s with us and I know he would be proud of his mummy and daddy. We’ve strived to do this dignified. Sometimes we’ve slipped but I think we’ve done ourselves proud for Joel. It’s all for him. We just want him to be happy, where ever he is. And he’s brought me and peter to a new place. A solid place. I love that man and all he has given to me. I couldn’t imagine going through this with anyone else. He is my world, my rock. My baby daddy!
I rarely get caught up in the ”whys” and “what ifs”. I KNOW there isn’t a good enough reason. I believe I will never, on this earth, find the reason why. Because no reason will make this ok and be worth it. But I am confident that one day I will know. When I’m no longer on this earth and I can think in ways not restricted by the human mind...I will know.
He will tell me.
And it won’t matter, because we will finally be together.