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'People search for answers and sometimes there just aren't any' - Grandfather on the loss of five of his children's babies

Father of seven and grandfather of 22, Mark Luttrell was deeply affected by the loss of five of his children's babies, writes Kathy Donaghy. Now he's raising awareness of stillbirth and miscarriage


Mark Luttrell is raising funds for Féileacáin by doing a charity jump. Photo:  Damien Eagers

Mark Luttrell is raising funds for Féileacáin by doing a charity jump. Photo: Damien Eagers

Mark Luttrell is raising funds for Féileacáin by doing a charity jump. Photo: Damien Eagers

Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet is something Mark Luttrell never thought he'd be doing. The father and grandfather is afraid of heights, but he's not going to let a small thing like that stop him in his bid to raise money for Féileacáin - the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland.

While taking a sky dive might be more suited to adrenaline junkies than a hard-working lorry driver, Mark says it's his role as a grandfather that prompted his brave endeavour. The father of seven and grandfather of 22, he was so deeply affected by the loss of five of his children's babies that he was galvanised into action to raise awareness of miscarriage and stillbirth and to raise money for Féileacáin, which he says provided the most wonderful care to his family when it was needed.

Mark decided to speak to Health&Living about his experience of two of these losses from the perspective of a grandparent, because he believes grandparents are often are at sea when faced with their own child's huge grief.

Three years ago on May 31st 2014, Mark was celebrating his 50th birthday and awaiting the arrival of a grandchild. His son David and David's wife Carol had gone into hospital in Portlaoise - where they were living - to have their first child. One moment Mark was enjoying his birthday celebrations with his family and friends all around him; the next his family was plunged into despair - David and Carol's baby daughter had died.

"I remember the candles on the cake and I came into the room. I could see my wife Ellen was on her knees on the floor. I thought she had collapsed. My eldest son just said 'Holly's gone - she's passed away'. There was just total devastation. The music was playing, it was all surreal. You could see people's faces wondering what was going on. I was trying to get the music turned off. I had to take a microphone and tell everyone the bad news. I just said 'my granddaughter has just died,' " says Mark, recalling all the details of what should have been a special night.

David and Carol had learned that during a scan no heartbeat could be found. Three days later, on June 3, Carol delivered baby Holly and the family gathered around to support one another. "I remember thinking this should never have happened to them. David asked me to take some photos of Holly and at that point the heartbreak didn't really come into it. This was my little granddaughter. I wanted to do this for them with love and care. It wasn't until after the funeral that it hit me," says Mark.

"As a parent and as a grandparent it's hard because you're watching your own child go through this. You have to try and be strong for them but I honestly didn't know how I would get over the heartache after Holly. I broke down with my wife and I just felt I wasn't strong enough for this," he says.

Mark says he doesn't know how they would have made it through that time without the support of Féileacáin. He says they provided a cuddle cot for Holly and helped them through what were the darkest of days.

"I'd love to see things change for people who have experienced a loss like this. Hospitals should have private areas for people who have lost a baby. What they are dealing with is hard enough without having to bump into people with their babies and hearing babies crying in the next room," he says.

Mark and his wife Ellen had experienced their own losses earlier in their lives. Baby Patrick was stillborn at 38 weeks some 33 years ago and they suffered a miscarriage 25 years ago. They grieved and immersed themselves in their family. But the loss of Holly plunged them into a deep grief that Mark didn't think he'd be able to get out of.

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Two years ago, when Mark found out his youngest daughter Melissa was pregnant at the age of 19 he was, by his own admission, a little bit thrown by the news. He describes Melissa as his and Ellen's miracle baby. Ellen had to undergo surgery for cervical cancer when she was in the early stages of pregnancy. The doctors told her there was a 50/50 chance Melissa wouldn't survive it. But survive she did, and here she was expecting her own baby.

However she suffered a miscarriage at 13 weeks. A scan showed the little heartbeat had stopped. Mark believes Melissa's suffering was compounded by the fact that some people were insensitive to her loss. "I know doctors see this every day but they've got to remember people don't go through this every day. People who are miscarrying don't see it every day. Melissa was very clear that from the minute she was pregnant, she was a mother to her baby. The miscarriage changed her totally. She was so outgoing but after the miscarriage she went totally into herself," says Mark.

He felt the only way to cope with his grief was to do something to remember the losses, not just those close to him but for others who might find themselves in a similar situation. After Melissa lost her baby, the family released a Chinese lantern in the night sky and took pictures as it floated away. The seeds for what would become Light up the Sky were sown.

Light up the Sky is now in its third year. It's a simple releasing of lanterns and balloons for anyone who has lost a baby through miscarriage. This year's ceremony will be held on August 26 at 7pm beside Tallaght's leisure centre.

"We kept asking ourselves what else we could do and we came up with the Tree of Angels. It's really just a Christmas tree and we put up angels on the tree to remember all the babies who have been lost. It's spread from Tallaght to Carlow and we'd love to see more people take it on," says Mark, who would love to see communities around the country have their own tree of angels at Christmas time.

Mark's next endeavour is his skydive. His tandem jump will take place on July 15, in Edenderry and he hopes to raise €5,000 for Féileacáin in the process. His daughter Melissa, who gave birth to baby Mia over a year ago, has come on board and decided to jump as well. His son David, who welcomed baby son Riley to the world nearly two years ago, has also decided he will join them too.

Mark says Féileacáin will always be close to his heart because of the fantastic support they give to people who have lost babies. As for the jump Mark says he'll be closing his eyes and counting to 10 but it will be worth it to be able to give just a little bit back to help Féileacáin.

"I know my way of coping is to do things. Sometimes it's hard to see light at the end of the tunnel. What I do helps me to cope with my grief. But there are times when it really comes up against you," he says.

"There are no answers. People search for them and sometimes there just aren't any. I still don't know why these things happened but I would say to people to reach out and connect with other people who've been there. Contact Féileacáin, join groups like Light up the Sky, reach out and talk to people who know what you are going through," says Mark.

"I know it's hard for grandparents. You don't have to say anything - just be there for your son or daughter. Let them know they have your support. People have to talk about their children whether they are here or not. Let your child talk and just listen to them," he says.

* To connect with Mark, you can visit his Facebook page: Light up the sky/tree of angels. You can donate to his fundraising skydive by going to justgiving.com/Mark's jumpfortheangels.

* INM has a dedicated section independent.ie/babyloss where parents 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 yhogan@independent.ie

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