'I brought her home and I held her in my arms - she existed': Irish mum on the pain of late miscarriage
Like chef Gordon Ramsay and his wife Tanya, Dubliner Michelle Dunne lost a baby at five months. The pain never goes away, she tells our reporter
Michelle Dunne loves when people talk about her daughter and use her name. It's a beautiful name, Fiadh, which she and her husband chose because they loved its Irish meaning, 'little deer'. It was a perfect fit with the names of their three boys, Oscar, Naoise and Senan, a daughter to complete their family of boys.
But Fiadh isn't here. Michelle was 21 weeks pregnant when she lost her baby daughter.
"I know some people feel that because she's not here, it's like she never happened," she says. "But she was my baby, I have memories, I have photographs, I brought her home and I held her in my arms - she existed."
The Dublin emergency nurse doesn't need an excuse to remind her of her daughter who isn't here, but the sad news this week that Gordon Ramsay's wife, Tana, had lost a child at the same stage of pregnancy, triggered a wave of emotion for her.
"I feel I do know a bit about what she's going through," says Michelle (40). "Straight away when I heard the news I found myself wondering was the baby as big as Fiadh? Did they weigh the same? I feel I can almost picture their son because I know what it's like to hold a 21-week-old baby in your arms."
Like the Ramsays, Michelle and David, a firefighter, already had children. Initially they'd been told they would have difficulties conceiving, but after using NaPro fertility treatment (an alternative to IVF that tracks the natural fertility cycle) they went on to have three healthy boys.
Fiadh was a surprise, conceived naturally when Senan was just four-and-a half months.
"We were shocked but overjoyed," says Michelle, smiling at the memory. "We'd always said we'd love four children so there was just overwhelming happiness."
The pregnancy was normal and all scans had been fine, but when the couple went for a routine check-up at 21 weeks, they were told there was no heartbeat.
"There was no warning and we never thought we'd hear those words," she recalls. "It seems so naïve now but, going in, our biggest concern was should we find out the baby's gender because it was to be our last.
"I'd had three other pregnancies and I honestly thought, get over the 12 weeks and you're more or less fine, and once you got over the 20 weeks you were home free."
A late miscarriage, like that suffered by Tana Ramsay, occurs when the baby dies between 14 and 24 weeks of pregnancy and occurs in just 1 or 2pc of pregnancies.
Potential causes include health problems with the baby, infections and anatomical issues with the mother's womb or cervix.
Or, like in Fiadh's case, the reason might never be known. After an induced 11-hour labour on September 11 last year, Michelle delivered her stillborn baby naturally.
"She was tiny, just eight-and-a-half inches long, but she was perfect," says Michelle. "Everything in your body is telling you to hold on to her, but you know you have to let her go."
Upsettingly, different jurisdictions class second trimester loss in different ways. According to the Miscarriage Association of Ireland, any pregnancy that ends after the 20th week, where the baby does not survive, is classed as a still-birth, but cruelly the family were denied a stillbirth certificate on the grounds of Fiadh's weight.
"If we'd lived in Australia, New Zealand or America, a stillbirth is 20 weeks and I would have got a stillbirth certificate, but because Fiadh didn't weight 500g, I don't have one and that is very hard," explains Michelle.
"In years to come, if anyone goes to do a family tree, there's no legal record of her. The only document I have is her certificate of cremation."
Adding to their sense of loss was people's reluctance to address what they'd been through. While some friends and family were incredible in their support - from the emotional side of just letting the couple grieve to physical things like showing up with shopping or looking after the boys - others were telling her to 'move on with life' after just two weeks, that they could try again, or that they should focus on the children they have, now aged five, three-and-a-half and 19 months.
"Of course I was absolutely grateful that I had children and felt blessed, but in those early days all I wanted was someone to take them away so I could be on my own, go upstairs, hold Fiadh's blanket and grieve the child that wasn't there," says Michelle.
"My husband and I didn't feel we could grieve until after 7.30pm when the boys were in bed asleep, we didn't want them to see us crying."
The silence surrounding foetal loss is isolating and something she thinks needs to change.
She believes it stems from other people's fears and discomfort. As an emergency nurse she has experience of dealing with bereaved families.
"I think people don't know what to say and it's easier to just say 'let's move on and talk about something else'. Or they say things like 'you have an angel now', when all you want is your baby. If you don't know what to say, say that - say I'm sorry and I'm here beside you.
"We have people around us who won't even speak Fiadh's name, and that hurts."
Their children know to count their sister in their family. It was a conscious decision made by David and Michelle that they wouldn't shy away from acknowledging their daughter's death to their sons, who had been expecting to have a baby in their house after Christmas.
Recently the family were out and about when someone commented on her "three children". Her eldest was quick to correct them. "There's four of us," he said. "One of us lives in heaven".
Both Michelle and David found huge support going to meetings through Feileacain, the stillbirth and neonatal death association of Ireland. There can be a tendency among people who haven't been through loss to try and grade grief, saying at least it wasn't an older child, or it would be worse if you'd met them.
"But nobody at Feileacain sits saying 'my baby was older that your baby so I feel this pain worse'," says Michelle.
"You just get it that they've lost their child. It doesn't matter what age, it's your baby. As soon as I saw that blue line I had hopes and dreams. You make plans for your children and then they're taken away in the blink of an eye."
Shortly after what would have been Fiadh's due date the couple conceived again through fertility treatment and Michelle is currently 21 weeks pregnant, the same stage she was at when she lost Fiadh.
"It is terrifying," she admits. "But I had an overwhelming desire to be pregnant again. It wasn't to replace Fiadh - nothing could - but we wanted to complete our family on our terms. It's hard to explain but we wanted our children to have the memory of a live baby rather than the baby they didn't see."
But it's hard to relax. "It's definitely stressful," she adds. "You can't even let yourself believe that it's going to be a happy outcome and we'll hold our live baby in our arms, all we can do is go forward with hope."
After Fiadh died, Michelle felt 'phantom movements', believing she could feel the baby kicking in her empty womb. When she started to feel the child moving in this pregnancy it brought back those painful memories. Every two weeks she goes for a scan and there are tears of relief each time she hears the heartbeat.
"You question yourself more," she adds. "I'm more aware of kicks now and I question myself over Fiadh's pregnancy, 'did I not listen? Did I not feel? Was there anything I could have done?' It's the eternal question forever unanswered."
Around her daughter's due date, it was hard to see a pink blanket in a pram or little girls' clothes in the shops. "People would say that 'when the due date passes you'll start to feel better', but it's not a milestone to reach, it just makes it more real because that was when we were all expecting her to be here," says Michelle simply.
"It's the same now that I'm pregnant. The perception from other people is 'this one will help you get over the last one' but I'm afraid it doesn't work that way.
"Fiadh can't be replaced, she'll always be our fourth child. I have five children, but one of them isn't with me."