A mother's story: Yvonne Hogan on the pain of losing a baby
As 'Coronation Street' tackles the heartbreak of losing a baby, Yvonne Hogan tells her own tale, and explains that while other people's stories can offer some solace, it's important to also remember that grief is individual
I didn't see Coronation Street last Wednesday. It is too soon for me to watch anything that even remotely resembles my own experience. In the popular soap, Michelle Connor, played by Kym Marsh, went into labour at 23 weeks, her waters breaking at her baby shower in true soap style. She was rushed to hospital and delivered her baby to his inevitable death, in a maternity ward surrounded by the sound of crying newborns.
By all accounts it was well handled and sensitively portrayed, unsurprising given that the actors involved have experienced late miscarriages - both Kym Marsh and Simon Gregson, who plays her husband Steve McDonald, lost babies at 21 weeks. Social media was awash with women praising the storyline and sharing their experiences and the media responded to the interest by calling on miscarriage and stillbirth support groups to advise people on how to respond to women in a similar situation. Women like me.
Last March I gave birth to a boy at 19 weeks, but his heart had stopped beating a week or so before that. Maybe I am imagining it but I believe I can pinpoint the very moment he died. It was a Tuesday evening. I was lying in a warm bath and I felt a couple of slow movements and then nothing. Experts will say that it was too early to feel anything at that stage of pregnancy, but I thought I had been feeling flutters from about 15 weeks. I started to get a horrible sense of foreboding at about 17 weeks and that night in the bath I just knew that the baby I was carrying had perished.
My husband told me I was worrying too much and reassured me somewhat. He's right, I told myself, all pregnant women worry - particularly 41-year-old pregnant women. I took comfort in remembering what the consultant had told the 12-weeks-pregnant me at my check-in visit at Holles Street: "At this stage, there is a less than 1pc chance of anything going wrong with this pregnancy." I tried to put all thoughts of doom out of my mind and went to bed.
As soon as I dropped my then three-year-old daughter to creche the next morning I rang the Merrion Fetal clinic to book a scan. I didn't have a consultant to call as I was a public patient at the midwife-led clinic at the National Maternity Hospital, as I had been with my daughter. I made an appointment for a 'reassurance' scan for the Friday and busied myself with work and mothering for the intervening couple of days.
A colleague dropped me to the hospital after a meeting. I mentioned half-jokingly that there would probably be bad news. I went in and sat in the waiting room until I was called. I lay on the bed as the midwife applied gel on my stomach and asked me if I wanted to know the sex. I just want to see if the baby is alive, I told her. She went quiet.
As she moved the transducer over my stomach we could see the baby curled up. There was a bit of movement and for a tiny moment I started to hope. But it was just my pulse. The silence was deafening. That horrible, empty silence that is every pregnant woman's worst nightmare. It sucked the oxygen out of the room and I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Even though I had been expecting bad news, the silence shocked me. I forced myself to stay calm. "It's dead, isn't it?" I said. "I knew it would be dead."
I can't remember exactly what she said after that but she was so very nice to me. And I felt sorry for her having to share in this horrific moment. I felt sorry for the other women in the waiting room who had to see my face as she led me in to the special room they have for people whose babies will never take a breath. I felt sorry for my devastated husband when he came to get me after I broke the news and I felt most sorry for my three-year-old daughter who would be so disappointed that she was never going to meet her much anticipated brother or sister.
I chose to spend the weekend at home before I went in to the hospital to begin the process of delivering the baby and I will always be grateful that I had that precious time. To say goodbye, to try and get my head around what was happening, to give the poor little mite inside me some time with his family.
I don't let my mind go back to the rest of the story. It is still too raw and too scary. It is too precious and it is too soon to share. I will some day, because the only thing that got me through the experience was reading the stories of others who had lost babies so late. I wanted all their intimate gory details so I would know what to expect. The thought of delivering a dead baby scared me so much and reading their stories helped me. It made me feel less of an anomaly - and less alone. It gave me a context for the horror and the disappointment and the shock. It wasn't just me. This happened to other women, too, and they survived.
But the majority of experiences I read, while they did help me feel less alone, they also made me feel like an outlier. Because unlike Michelle in Coronation Street, I wasn't desperate to meet my perished baby and hold him tight for as long as I could. I was terrified. Terrified of what he would look like. Petrified of my reaction. Horrified at the idea of unleashing the tide of overwhelming grief and trauma that I am still keeping at bay.
I didn't want to do any of the things that the wonderful bereavement nurse and the incredibly kind chaplain suggested. I didn't want to name the baby, I didn't want to take pictures, I didn't want to have a funeral, I didn't want to see him, I didn't want it to be real.
But I trusted them - and the advice of my amazing friend who had herself recently lost her baby - and I did some of those things. And as it turned out, naming the baby has made it much easier for my daughter to process the event. But, unless it comes from her, I dread hearing that name. It hurts every cell in my body to hear it. It hits me at a visceral, cellular level, in the same primal place as did my daughter's newborn cries.
The advice given by some of the support groups in the wake of the Coronation Street story suggests using the baby's name when talking to bereaved parents. To me, that would be like a sucker punch. That name reminds me that maybe everything I believed about myself was a lie: that I was strong, that I was healthy, that I was lucky, that life would be good to me. It brings me to a place where I feel like damaged goods, like a faulty woman because I failed to sustain that poor little baby's life and in that I let down my husband, my parents, my daughter, our family - all the people who were excited at the thought of our new baby, the baby that would have been their son, grandson, nephew, cousin, their baby brother.
Which is why I decided to write this piece. Not to criticise that advice - because I know that it is good advice probably for the majority of women - but to add another voice to the conversation. To share a part of my still unfolding story in the hope that it might be a balm to some other woman reading this who doesn't want to talk about her baby with anyone, even her closest friends. To pay it forward for the stories that helped me.
One piece I read in particular soothed me. It was an essay by the American writer Ariel Levy. She too gave birth at 19 weeks, in a hotel bathroom on a press trip to Mongolia. Her baby lived for a few minutes and her essay is one of the most compelling, honest, irreverent pieces I have ever read. It made me laugh and cry and, for some reason, it made me feel like less of an outlier. She describes her moments with her son as "black magic" and I really like that phrase. Seeing my 19-week-old baby boy was awesome in the real sense of the word. I bore witness to a miracle arrested, putting my eyes on a being that was not of this world and was not yet mine to see. Those moments I spent with him opened a vortex that can never be closed. It was both unnatural and supernatural. Like black magic.
INM is putting together a dedicated section on independent.ie where women and men of all ages can share their stories of miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death. The section will serve as a testament to the women and men who share their stories, a memorial for the babies lost and as a resource for other people who have gone through or are going through the experience. Your stories can be anonymous or on the record and nothing will be published in any format without prior consultation with you. If you would like to be part of this and tell your story, email Yvonne Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org