Tuesday 24 April 2018

The silent pain that comes after the shocking loss of stillbirth

Bundle of joy: Jacqui Dunne with her son Ceolán, whom she gave birth to in June. Her first child Sariel was stillborn last July. Photo: Garry O'Neill
Bundle of joy: Jacqui Dunne with her son Ceolán, whom she gave birth to in June. Her first child Sariel was stillborn last July. Photo: Garry O'Neill

Chrissie Russell

Every day in Ireland, a heartbroken parent registers a stillbirth. But silence and stigma make the ordeal even harder to cope with.

Jacqui Dunne doesn't like using the word 'should' when she talks about her daughter Sariel. "We should be preparing for her first birthday and second Christmas," she says. "She should be crawling, saying 'Mama', taking her first steps and dropping her favourite foods on the floor for our dog, Rocky, but she never will."

Jacqui, 32, a mum-of-one from Bray and her husband Simon, 35, should be parents of two, but their baby daughter, Sariel, was born sleeping in July last year.

Around 360 stillbirths are registered in Ireland every year with the HSE reporting that some one in 200 births will be a stillbirth. The figures show the tragic scenario is more common than we might think, and yet because of stigma and fear, many grieving mums and dads feel unable to talk about their loss.

Partly because society doesn't want to listen. "People think that if they don't talk about it then it won't happen to them or it'll just go away," says Mairie Cregan, one of the founding members of Féileacáin (Féileacáin.ie) a not-for-profit organisation to help those who have lost a child. "But instead it just makes those dealing with loss feel alone."

Today marks International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day, an awareness raising initiative that started in America in the late 1980s. Nearly 30 years on, Mairie says is remains a vital date in the calendar, because there's still so much silence, shame and stigma around stillbirth in Ireland. "Awareness days are vital for starting the discussion and helping people feel they're not alone."

Bundle of joy: Jacqui Dunne with her son Ceolán, whom she gave birth to in June. Her first child Sariel was stillborn last July. Photo: Garry O'Neill
Bundle of joy: Jacqui Dunne with her son Ceolán, whom she gave birth to in June. Her first child Sariel was stillborn last July. Photo: Garry O'Neill

And grief can be a very lonely place. There's a word for orphans, widows and widowers, but no label acknowledges the loss of a stillborn child.

When she was five months pregnant with her first child, Jacqui noticed some spotting of blood and went for a scan where she was told there was no heartbeat. It felt, she says, like the world ended.

Three days later she went into hospital to have labour induced and Sariel was delivered at 5.30 on July 2, 2014.

Neither she nor her husband got to see or hold their tiny daughter. "It's our biggest regret," says Jacqui quietly. "I wasn't ready to see her. I thought we'd come back in the morning because I had to get out of the hospital. I couldn't be around the sound of crying babies and pregnant women.

"But the next day the post- mortem was done and she was all wrapped up. I was told she had a large growth on her neck and it would have been very distressing to her see. But not seeing her..." she trails off. "Nothing could be worse than the image in my head. And no matter what she looked like, she was our little girl."

The post mortem revealed baby Sariel had Turner Syndrome, a genetic disorder in females. "She would have been very sick," says Jacqui. "Had she lived, she would have needed operations and still could have died… but we would have given anything to have seen her alive even just for an hour."

One of the things Féileacáin tries to do is provide parents with a memory box, of footprint kits, a camera, blankets and teddies, something small but tangible to remember their babies by.

"We had nothing," says Mairie, whose own daughter was born sleeping nine years ago. She knows people don't expect her to still grieve a child she never knew. "My mother is dead 30 years but no one thinks there's anything wrong with me saying I miss her. If I say I wonder who my child would have been, I'm told I'm better letting go of that. We need to reframe the way we think of grief."

She wanted Féileacáin to be a place where people could 'take the mask off'. The organisation now has nearly 8,000 'likes' on Facebook and gets three new emails and 'at least' 10 calls daily.

Jacqui joined a Féileacáin support group. She also went to counselling. The couple returned the un-used buggy they'd bought and she went back to work teaching and dealing with the innocent questions of the senior infants she taught, who wanted to know what happened to the baby in her tummy.

Then, she fell pregnant again and on June 17 this year, gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy, Ceolán, weighing 8lbs 5oz.

Jacqui is determined to see positives in her experience. She was able to use the same gentlebirth plan in the delivery room that she'd been following with Sariel and delivered Ceolán naturally. "Her name means 'angel of guidance' and I feel in her short life she taught us so much about life, death, love, childbirth, each other and ourselves," she explains. "I wasn't afraid when I was having Ceolán because I knew I could do it.

"Losing Sariel was the most difficult, heartbreaking experience of our lives and it has coloured it in a way we wouldn't wish on anyone. But it has made us stronger and closer and determined to be amazing parents to her and Ceolán." The earlier description of her is wrong, she makes clear, she is a mum of two. "I remember once when I was pregnant with Ceolán, someone asked me 'is this your first?' and because I didn't want to get into it with them, I just said 'yes', and then felt so, so guilty," she says. "I knew then I would never deny her again. Now I say, no I had a stillborn baby girl in July.

"She was alive. She's one of only two people who have heard my heartbeat from the inside."

A yearly awareness day might make society remember these babies once a year, but their parents remember them daily.

"Everyone's biggest fear is that the baby will be forgotten," says Jacqui. "I just want to be able to acknowledge Sariel as much as I can." Her brother wrote a beautiful song about her. Jacqui and Simon go to her grave on her birthday and due date. Ceolán will know he had a big sister.

"People want to think you're fixed, but another baby is not a replacement. They say stupid things - 'at least you're young', 'you can always have more'- but saying nothing is worse. I think the more people talk about it, then the less taboo it will become. It's a terrible thing to go through, but the silence makes it worse."

Irish Independent

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