As I sat in the hospital room and held my stillborn son in my arms I never imagined that this would be my life.
I never imagined that at 35 years old a part of me would die, creating a hole in my heart that could never be filled. Instead of celebrating the birth of my son I would be arranging his funeral. Instead of contacting loved ones and telling them he had finally arrived, I had to tell them instead that he had died. Life as I knew it had changed forever.
I was never one of those people who always wanted kids. My husband and I left Ireland in 2008. We travelled the world and ended up in Australia. We planned to stay for a year before returning home but one year turned into two, three, four and then we eventually stopped counting and started calling Australia our home. We had a great lifestyle. We could do what we wanted, when we wanted. Kids, much like returning to Ireland, kept on getting pushed out. My biological clock, however, wouldn’t allow us to do this forever. As I hit my mid-30s we decided to take the plunge and start trying for a family.
Like most people I expected to get pregnant straight away. When I didn’t, I wasn’t that worried at first. It allowed us to sneak in another childfree holiday and maintain the freedoms that came with being childless for a little bit longer. It was when the symptoms of my endometriosis came back that it started to dawn on me that this might not be as straight forward as I had first thought. A few months and a laparoscopy later I was diagnosed with severe, extensive endometriosis. IVF was now our best chance at getting pregnant. The baby-making honeymoon was over.
As we reluctantly stepped onto the emotional rollercoaster that is IVF, our heads were spinning. In the space of a year we had gone from not being sure we wanted children, to doing one of the most invasive and traumatic fertility treatments out there. Surprisingly we were successful after only three cycles. By some people’s standards we were lucky. For us, however, by the time we got the news that we were finally pregnant everything had taken its toll.
As a result it took a little while for us to get excited about the pregnancy. It had taken so much to get to this point and we were still really only at the starting line. Given that nothing felt like it had gone right to this point we were both convinced that the pregnancy would not hold in the first 12 weeks. As we approached the clinic to get our 12-week ultrasound we were both very nervous. A couple passed us who had obviously just lost their baby. She was in floods of tears, her partner completely shocked. I’ll never forget the look of devastation on that poor girl’s face. This did nothing to quell our fears. 20 minutes later and it was our turn. As the sonographer moved the machine over my tummy we got to see him properly for the first time, our baby son. With a strong heart beat and a clean bill of health we left the clinic on cloud nine. We could finally start getting excited.
The pregnancy progressed without a hitch. We were over the moon - so happy, so excited. My husband was obsessed. He was fascinated with the kicks that by now visibly protruded from my belly. Any chance he could get he would be rubbing my belly and talking away to his mini me, now nicknamed “Little Merv” after his Daddy. Everything in our lives was perfect. It was too good to be true.
By the time the Easter weekend rolled around I was 35 weeks pregnant, and we were well and truly on countdown. I had just finished work and was looking forward to a few weeks to myself before Little Merv arrived. I woke up that Sunday morning and lay in bed waiting for my husband to get home from his run. Little Merv would always wake up 30-45 minutes after me, announcing his arrival with an unceremonious kick in the ribs. This morning was different. There was no kick in the ribs, in fact there was no movement at all. I thought I was just being paranoid but when my husband got home we decided to call the hospital. They told us to come straight in.
We were both nervous on the drive there but were trying not to get worked up. After all my pregnancy had been healthy and uncomplicated. The most likely scenario was that they would check Little Merv, say everything was ok and send us home. Little did we know our world was about to come crashing down around us.
At the labour ward they took us straight into a room and hooked me up to a monitor. That familiar sound of a heartbeat started straight away. I felt a massive flood of relief but this would be short lived. “That’s your heart beat, I can’t find the baby’s yet”, the midwife said. She moved me to another machine. Same thing. No heartbeat. At this point I knew there was something seriously wrong. My body started to shake uncontrollably and I was finding it hard to speak. They phoned the on-call obstetrician to perform an ultrasound as our obstetrician was on holidays. We waited mostly in silence. The inevitability of what the ultrasound would show remained unspoken between us. It felt like forever before the obstetrician arrived at the hospital. He sat down beside us with the ultrasound machine and put the gel on my belly for what would be the last time. There was Little Merv up on the screen, still and silent. “I’m sorry, it’s not good news”, he said. They were all the words I needed to hear. I crumbled into my husband’s arms. Our gorgeous little boy had no heartbeat. Our gorgeous little boy had died. I couldn’t breathe. How could this happen after a normal and healthy pregnancy? It felt like our lives had just ended.
My husband called our parents back in Ireland to let them know. “Catherine has lost the baby”, he said. I don’t know how he got the words out. I lay numb on the hospital bed, unable to look at my big belly as they prepared me for my c-section. I had been so nervous about giving birth and now here I was about to do it, all the while knowing that my beloved baby had already died.
By 4.46pm our beautiful baby boy, Benjamin, was born sleeping. I really did not know how I was going to cope with seeing him. I had been so excited to meet him for so long and now here I was and it was so heartbreakingly different to what I had imagined. As soon as I saw him it all became so real. The midwife rolled his bassinet into our room. I started wailing crying, completely inconsolable. The midwife tried to calm me before handing him to me. I took Benjamin gently from her and as I held him in my arms all the anxiety and fear melted away. It felt so right to hold him. For the first time since this nightmare began I felt calm. It’s the hardest thing in the world to describe, holding your stillborn child. Your heart is bursting with the most incredible love and happiness yet the immense sadness and loss is unbearable.
The next few days in the hospital were a whirlwind. I would wake up each morning and for a split second would forget what had happened. The realisation that followed was like reliving his death again each morning. Just as devastating each time. There were so many decisions to make, so many memories to try and create. We would spend each day pouring over Benjamin’s every detail but we knew we would eventually have to let him go, at least until the funeral. We both held our little boy one last time and told him how much we loved him and how much we would miss him. It is the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
After saying goodbye to Benjamin I desperately wanted to go home. I had been badgering the midwives to let me go early but I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to leave. As I walked out of those hospital doors I was shocked by the feelings of emptiness. I had entered them only a few days before with a big pregnant belly and now I was leaving with no big belly and no baby, just a memory box to last me a lifetime.
It’s three months on now and some days I don’t know how I’ve survived this nightmare. People say to me that I’m so brave, that I’m so strong. They say that if it was them they wouldn’t be able to survive. For a long time I didn’t think I would be able to survive either. I don’t feel brave and I certainly don’t feel strong. I feel broken. My perfectly healthy baby has died and no cause of death has been found. I am surviving this because I have to. I am surviving this because I still have a husband who loves me and a little boy in heaven, who doesn’t want for him having left this earth to have destroyed his Mummy.
I guess what it all comes down to is that I’m choosing hope. I’m refusing to let the death of my son define me. Instead I want his life to inspire me, and to inspire others. Benjamin has taught me to love with an intensity that I never knew existed. He has taught me to be kinder and more patient. He has taught me of the amazing beauty that there is in this world, a beauty that I had been missing because I was too busy being busy. He has inspired me to help others.
I have started to write again, something that I have always loved but haven’t done in years. I am writing to create awareness for stillbirth, something that is much more common than people think. I am writing to stop the awful silence that is associated with it so that others know that they are not alone. I have started volunteering with an amazing charity, Bears of Hope, to try and improve information and support for bereaved parents. They have helped me to see that people, who have been broken just like me, can still do amazing things.
So, day by day, I am trying to feed my soul. I am trying to live life again. I am choosing hope over darkness. I have the love of Benjamin in my heart, guiding me through each day and that, for now, is all I can hope for.
Read Catherine’s blog at www.benjaminslight.com