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'All she experienced was love, in my belly... She had a wonderful nine months with us'

This week is international Baby Loss Awareness week. Sarah Tobin talks to Liadan Hynes about how she learned to cope following the death of her daughter Alice five days after her birth

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Sarah Tobin is a trained tapping practitioner. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Sarah Tobin is a trained tapping practitioner. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Sarah Tobin is a trained tapping practitioner. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A week before we meet, Sarah Tobin received some bad news which sent her into emotional turmoil. About to board a train, she took herself off to the bathrooms of the station, where she cried her heart out.

How was she going to manage to get on the train and get home to her family? Except Sarah knows exactly how to manage this kind of thing. She has the tools to help, and she has used them to help her cope in an even worse situation.

Sarah is a trained tapping practitioner, something she came to after the death of her first child, daughter Alice. As well as teaching EFT (emotional freedom technique), as it's also called, she practises daily herself. Last week, she used it to cope with her news, to bring herself back to a state of relative calm, to get home to her husband and their two sons.

Sarah and Dave were married almost two years before they decided to start trying for their first child. When they did, it took 18 months for Sarah to get pregnant, something she puts down to the endometriosis she had suffered from since her early teens.

"The pregnancy was great," Sarah says now. The couple, who met in a hostel in Chile in 2006 when they were travelling, now live in Shoreham-by-Sea outside Brighton. Sarah, digital marketing manager for Bupa Global, grew up in Tallaght, the elder of two girls. She had planned a pool birth, but some time after they arrived at the hospital, her midwife noticed there were some decelerations in the baby's heart rate. Sarah was moved to a ward, and a trace was applied.

"It took two or three traces. The first machine didn't work, the second machine didn't work; it was all very complicated. In hindsight we know a few things that were missed at that time." It meant, Sarah explains, that the fact their baby was in distress for a period of time went unidentified.

"It was all panic stations," Sarah recalls, of when the hospital staff realised her baby's heart rate had dropped. "A nurse came in, gave me an emergency episiotomy - one or two pushes later and she was out. But she was born not able to breathe."

Her daughter was taken from the room, brought momentarily first to Sarah. "I remember just putting my hand over - I don't even know if I got to touch her - and saying 'I love you', and then they took her upstairs to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). She was put on to cooling straight away."

Cooling, Sarah explains, is a cooled pad, a method of attempting to reverse brain damage in babies who have been deprived of oxygen at birth."I didn't really realise what was going on. After she was born, Dave looked like he was going to pass out. He was in shock. And I was in a bubble of 'she's going to be okay'. In my head, I was like 'please angels, God, everyone, just look after her'. I was talking to her in my head, saying 'you're going to be fine', using my hypnobirthing techniques."

The couple had known they were going to have a girl, and Sarah had chosen the name Alice even before she was pregnant. Next Sarah was brought to theatre to get stitches needed after her episiotomy. "Coming out of theatre was horrendous. Because I was on my own… obviously I didn't know what was happening, and you're just lying there with your thoughts. You're lying in a bed of blood that you've been in for hours while waiting for the theatre… I hadn't seen my baby, and I just remember bawling."

She was brought back to the recovery area, essentially a curtained-off space in a room with another family. Dave met her here. He had been up with Alice, and explained to Sarah the severity of their daughter's situation. "We just cried," Sarah recalls.

Unable to walk due to the epidural, she was wheeled up in a bed to see her daughter. "That's when we named her. I was like, 'she's Alice'. I don't think Dave had any choice," Sarah smiles.

For five days the couple stayed at the hospital, eventually getting a double room off the ward. "I was there trying to express colostrum into little tubes. When you think of it now… if she was only to get something from me; you'd do it, wouldn't you? And I think they actually gave some to her on a cotton bud; they put it in her mouth." Over the five days, the couple got to hold their baby, dress her, change her nappy, have her christened. Alice had hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), where brain cells are damaged having been deprived of oxygen. An MRI scan showed there was no brain activity. Although it wasn't physically visible, a trace revealed that Alice was having seizures.

"That gave us, in a good way, the decision to withdraw life support," Sarah says. Their families went to the pub down the road while the couple retreated with their daughter to the family room.

"She had no wires or anything, and for the first time we got to see her properly, and just wait for her to pass, which was, you know, pretty horrible. Not something you'd wish on your worst enemy. The whole experience…" Sarah says quietly, in tears now.

They left the hospital the next day. Planning the funeral was helpful, she recalls; being productive was comforting. Instead of flowers, they started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for the NICU.

Afterwards, Sarah and Dave went abroad. "We said we're going to use some of the maternity money we saved and just go find some sunshine, lie on a beach, and just process this. I would totally recommend it after a big loss. It was just the two of us. We didn't have to put on a pretend show, or a smile. To say 'yeah I'm fine, I'm grand'. You could just be. And we learnt to smile again. At the time you think I'm never going to smile again, because how could I? But we did."

Sarah began to write on the holiday; later she would start a blog to document her experiences, all of which helped her process what had happened. "I was able to find a place for where Alice is. I've always been very spiritual, and I've taken a very spiritual view of her life, and where she is now. And that it was possibly always her path, and always her choice. And that all she experienced was love, in my belly. She had had a wonderful nine months with us.

"And that's kind of where I see her now - having learnt what she needed to learn from that experience, and either using it in heaven or she will use it in her next life. And that's made me feel better about it."

On holiday, Sarah and Dave became friendly with a couple from Norway and for a few days said nothing about what had happened. "We were just chatting to them like normal people about normal things. It was just lovely; like a break from reality. We were on this other planet, living another life. It was an odd experience, but a very healing one."

The couple arrived home just before Christmas; Christmas Day was one month exactly since Alice had passed. "I wish I'd just stayed in bed with a bottle of vodka," Sarah says wryly. "Dave wanted to host Christmas in our house. So we had his family over. He wanted to play games, bless him, and I was like 'can I just go to bed now please?' It was like putting a tiny plaster on a massive wound."

What helped get her through, she recalls, was to keep thinking "'It's just one day, it's just one day'. That is what I used for her first birthday, the first of everything. First Mother's Day. Her first anniversary. It's just one day, just get through this day. Because the next day it's like 'okay then, that's over'. You can move on from that. I found that useful."

At first, days were spent just trying to keep busy. A photographer, Sarah set up a website. She cooked endlessly: soups, slow roasts.

"Every day was basically waiting to get to the end of the day so I could open a bottle of wine, for the first three months," she says, adding: "And then after three months I was like 'I need to go back to work. I need to find my new normal. This is something I have to live with, I can't change the situation'."

People talk about heartbreak, Sarah says, but she didn't realise that it was actually a physical pain.

"I felt like literally I'd been stabbed through my heart and that the knife was still in there. And it was three months or more of that very, very physical pain."

She began looking for help to, as she describes it, release that pain. Having tried counselling, without finding it that helpful, she had an online healing session, which made a difference. "That was definitely a big lift for me. I would wake up every day and the pain would be a little bit less. That was definitely a turning point for me."

Going back to work was, of course, challenging. Sarah found it hard to talk about what had happened in person - it was easier to write about it on her blog, and on her Instagram account, @sarah_tobin.

"Everything was so raw I didn't know whether I was going to break down, and I didn't want that burden on other people. I didn't want to upset anybody in work. I didn't want to have a breakdown in work. I wanted to go to work almost to forget about it. So I did internalise a lot. And even Dave and I didn't really speak in huge detail about it every day. At the beginning we did; we'd go to bed and look at videos and pictures of her. That wasn't going to help either. It was necessary at the time, but I had to let that go too. For me it was writing."

After four months, she was pregnant again. "Obviously there was a lot of relief, but a lot of fear and trauma resurfacing. At the time I was suffering from severe PTSD." She didn't realise this at the time, only being diagnosed several years later.

"I wasn't finding joy, I wasn't looking forward to things. I had flashbacks. The moment of her birth in particular. I was finding it difficult to sleep, I was taking sleeping tablets at the beginning, and I suppose maybe turning to the alcohol was a way of trying to numb, and get some sleep. My mind was racing."

As her pregnancy progressed, Sarah began to feel increasingly anxious. "I felt that the baby would be okay inside of me; I could grow a baby okay. But I didn't have the confidence in the birth. I decided very early I was going to have a C-section, because I wanted control. I was like 'there is no way I am strong enough to do a labour'."

Her sister suggested EFT, a method she had used in the aftermath of a car crash. "My first session lasted almost two hours; I cried probably from start to finish," Sarah recalls. "The relief I felt was life-changing, but it wasn't the normal relief of just tears. It was like a weight had been lifted. Something big and heavy had been shifted."

She rang Dave and told him she felt like a different person. "That was a life-changing moment for me." Sarah describes tapping's effect for her as clearing stored traumatic memories.

"Often people describe it as acupuncture without the needles. It's using acupuncture and acupressure key points." With your finger, you tap certain points on the head, face, chest and hands, at the same time repeating a script. The calming effects should be instant.

"It won't take away the fact that something has happened. But it will take away the raw anger, or grief," Sarah explains. "It brings you back down. Takes away that negative emotion, and allows the brain to process it, or file it away. You need to clear the negative, and then you can put in the positive."

Sarah is now a practitioner; she runs Tapping For Mums. Tapping got her through her pregnancy, and helped when they brought home their son Casper, who turns four next month. "I was triggered massively coming home, and I hadn't prepared for that. Bringing Casper home was really difficult, because we never brought Alice home. That was heartbreaking, and I didn't know what to do with that."

Later, tapping gave her the confidence to have what is know as a V-back birth - a vaginal birth after C-section - with her third baby, Josh.

Most importantly, tapping has helped Sarah achieve an inspiring level of acceptance around what happened with her daughter Alice. "I'm very accepting. I'd rather not live in an unaccepting state. So that's a conscious decision to accept what has happened. I can't change it. I can't go back and change it. I have reconciled it in my head as being part of her journey. Part of my soul's evolution."

Now trained in tapping and matrix re-imprinting, Sarah feels she has found her purpose.

"We wouldn't change what happened, because of everything that has happened since," Sarah explains. "Our two boys. And I still believe that it was her choice for her to be where she is now. That doesn't mean that I don't get upset that I don't have a girl. It's accepting a lot of different things in my life now. And some days it's harder than others. But most of the time it's like this is it, and I'm happy, and we are happy, and I love it."

For how to videos and more information on tapping including Sarah's next Dublin workshop, see tappingformums.com or @sarah_tobin. To hear more from Sarah, her podcast interview on Everymum The Podcast goes live tomorrow

Sarah also shares her story in The Day That Changed My Life, by journalist Caitlin McBride, on shelves from October 17, Black and White Publishing

Sunday Independent