Saturday 25 March 2017

True Life: Having another child enabled us to move on from our grief

As Samantha Cameron announces her fourth pregnancy, Katie Duff reflects on the mixed emotions that came with giving birth after the death of her first child

Our first son, Thomas, was stillborn. The pregnancy was straightforward -- textbook -- until I went into labour at 41 weeks and during the initial check-up in hospital they found no heartbeat. So we knew as soon as we got there that he had died unexpectedly. Like a lot of first-time mums I had spent my pregnancy worrying about the labour.

We had to go through that as well, and it was incredibly traumatic for my husband James and for me. Leaving the hospital with an empty car seat was horrific. That was seven years ago, in September 2002.

We always knew that we couldn't replace Thomas. He was our firstborn and still is. We were very fortunate that within four months of him dying I was pregnant with our second son, Matthew. I realised that this was the only way I could move on.

You're not trying to replace the child you have lost -- Thomas was always Matthew's big brother. Matthew was born just after what would have been Thomas's first birthday. That was difficult. There was very little joy in that second pregnancy.

The apprehension levels were enormous: every time you go for a scan you are praying that you'll see that heartbeat. On the last scan I saw of Thomas there was just this black hole with no life and it was the worst thing I've ever seen on a screen.

Obviously, my experience is very different from that of Samantha Cameron, but it was a slow nine months as we ticked off every week, all the normal worries compounded with remembering the previous pregnancy. You almost don't want to imagine the grief because it is so awful. It was dreadful for my husband -- "Can you feel the baby? How are you feeling?" -- and for our extended family.

When my parents and parents-in-law heard that Matthew had arrived safely my mum went to bed for 24 hours. She was emotionally exhausted. It was as though everyone had been holding their breath for nine months and we could start breathing again. There was an element of collapse at that point.

It took us three years even to think about having a third child because the second pregnancy had been so traumatic. Our daughter Phoebe was born in 2007. That pregnancy was almost worse because Matthew was so gorgeous and he was 3 by then, so we knew how much more we had to lose if anything happened to her.

Both Matthew and Phoebe were 38-week elective Caesarians because I couldn't cope with going through labour again. With Matthew and Phoebe we knew the date; we were prepared.

They were positive experiences but both times tinged with grief. As I went into theatre, I said: "Please, all I want to come out with is a live baby."

As soon as Matthew came out I started crying, and it was the same with Phoebe. I kept asking if the baby was breathing. I was sobbing for about half an hour. There were a lot of people crying in the delivery room -- they were very sweet.

With Matthew I didn't start to feel the joy of being a mum for about six months. I was almost in a state of shock that he was there, worried that something would happen to him. It wasn't until he started to sit up and gurgle and interact that I was able to relax a bit with him and think "this is my little boy, let's enjoy him and have fun with him".

With Phoebe I had the distraction of a four-year-old to look after but, again, I spent an inordinate number of nights with her next to me, thinking "she's very quiet -- is she still breathing?"

Thomas is very much part of their family, we talk about him and Matthew is aware that he has an older brother.

The loss of him never goes away. Thomas's birthday is 10 days before Matthew's, and the lead-up to Matthew's birthday is hard because of the mixed emotions. You're celebrating your second child's birthday but there is this awful period beforehand when you're grieving for the first one. You're always drawn back to that time.

I'm always thinking "I wonder what Thomas would be doing now". When I took Matthew to school for the first time, I came back crying because Thomas should have been in the year above and I had been denied that first day of school with my eldest.

Matthew and Phoebe are very much their own people. In my family they are children numbers two and three. Number one sadly isn't here to be with them.

The other legacy that Thomas has given me is that I gave up a high-powered media job, went freelance and started volunteering for a charity that supports people affected by the death of a baby.

When Thomas died, a bereavement midwife asked if we would like to hold him, to have handprints done, to have photographs. We did. We found it immensely helpful. It is not the norm to be presented with a dead baby.

The chaplain saw us and and we had Thomas baptised. For James and me that was important -- it's not that I'm religious but it matters that Thomas was recognised and that we named him. I had carried him for nine months, he weighed more than 7lb.

He was perfect, he just wasn't breathing and we were given an opportunity to meet our son. You have just had a long labour, you are so racked with grief that rational is not a word you can use for how you're thinking.

To have someone to guide you, to give you options, hold your hand and talk you through it, was immeasurably helpful. It has brought the most enormous amount of comfort.

Interview by Penny Wark

Irish Independent

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