Wednesday 19 June 2019

'The silence in the room was deafening' - Mother describes agony of stillbirth

Sonya Reilly lost her baby at 27 weeks. In this heartbreaking memoir, she remembers the shock she felt when she was told her unborn child's heart was no longer beating, and describes the immense, and incomparable, grief of stillbirth

Sonya Reilly pictured her home in Malahide. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sonya Reilly pictured her home in Malahide. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sonya Reilly pictured with her husband Mark and their boys, Evan (11), Adam (17), Elliot (9) and Alex (14) at their home in Malahide. Photo: Frank McGrath

Twenty-seven weeks and five days. That is exactly how long I was pregnant with my much longed-for second child when I was informed that my baby's heart had stopped beating.

Only two days earlier, on the Wednesday of that week, I had sat down with my boss to work out my maternity leave dates. I worked a five-day fortnight in a well-known insurance company and, as I headed for the Dart home that evening, I felt exhilarated about the impending new arrival and about the week at home with my two-year-old son.

On Thursday, I headed off to Blanchardstown Shopping Centre with my little boy, Adam, to buy some maternity clothes. I remember that day so well as it was the last day I felt so happy before everything changed. My husband had a new well-paid job, I was now working part-time, which suited family life so much better. We had another baby on the way and we were about to move back to Malahide, the area we had both grown up in and loved so much.

When I got into bed that night, I mentioned to Mark that the baby wasn't kicking as it usually did in the evening, but I wasn't unduly worried and I slept soundly.

Even when I woke the next morning, and didn't feel the familiar kicks, I wasn't panicked. I assured Mark that I would wait a few hours and drink some cold drinks. I had a pile of ironing to do so I would be at home anyway and, if I was concerned later, I would phone the doctor.

It was noon when I made the call. My parents were away in Portugal for the weekend so my mother wasn't around to accompany me. I had reassured Mark that I would be fine going alone and would phone him afterwards. I later found out that he bumped into his mam at the bank that morning and he was very upset, so he must have had a sense of impending doom.

I have known my GP for many years and he wasn't his usual cheery self when I arrived at the surgery. He set me up with a tracer belt to monitor the baby's heartbeat and, after adjusting it several times, he advised me to go to Holles Street to be sure because he wasn't getting a proper trace and they had more sophisticated machines. To this day I can recall the look on his face as he said those words - he wasn't reassuring me even though I wanted to believe that's what he was doing.

I can't remember if the doctor had given me a letter to present on arrival or if he phoned ahead to advise Foetal Assessment that I was coming in. All I know is that we waited for an inordinately long time to be seen.

Sonya Reilly pictured with her husband Mark and their boys, Evan (11), Adam (17), Elliot (9) and Alex (14) at their home in Malahide. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sonya Reilly pictured with her husband Mark and their boys, Evan (11), Adam (17), Elliot (9) and Alex (14) at their home in Malahide. Photo: Frank McGrath

Eventually the nurse placed a tracer belt around my waist. After a few minutes, she said she wasn't getting a "proper reading" so we would just go ahead and do a full scan. At that point we were joined by a female doctor. As I lay back on the bed and felt the cold gel on my belly, I couldn't help being excited about seeing the baby on screen again. Mark squeezed my hand tightly as our baby appeared on the screen and we smiled as the doctor pointed out the baby's head and limbs until she focused on the heart and uttered the words "and there's your baby's heart… and I'm afraid it's not beating".

Only then did our little world cave in. A terrible wail escaped from both of us as the enormity of what was happening finally hit us.

The doctor offered her condolences and left us in the care of the nurse who took us to a quiet room. All day I had refused to give in to the notion that anything serious was wrong so the shock and grief was overwhelming.

The nurse came back with tea to talk us through our options which, let's face it, were few. Basically, the hospital could let me go home and let nature take its course or they could schedule me to come in for an induction of labour to deliver the baby. We opted to spend the next day at home to try to process the loss of our baby and to come back on Sunday for labour to be induced.

By the time we collected Adam from Mark's parents and went home that Friday night, we were exhausted yet sleep eluded us. At 5am, I recall bringing crackers and cheese up to bed. With all of the drama we had forgotten to eat any dinner. I don't remember us talking that much, just crying and holding each other.

That Sunday, on arrival at the hospital, we were escorted to a room of our own to begin the induction of labour. However, several doses of Misoprostol failed to have any effect and, that night, the Master of the hospital visited me to explain that they couldn't administer any more of the drug for fear of rupturing my womb. He said that I could go home the next morning and, if I didn't go into labour myself during the week, we would try again the following Sunday.

I can safely say that was one of the worst weeks of my life. I lived in a kind of limbo; my body still looked healthily pregnant but I knew the baby it carried was lifeless. Each time I saw my reflection the grief hit me afresh and I had a gnawing worry about what the birth would be like.

I worried if I would be strong enough to bear the pain of labour knowing there would be no joy at the end. I worried about what my baby was going to look like after being dead for so long before its birth. I worried about needing to go anywhere that week because the goodwill and kindness of strangers towards pregnant women would cause me to breakdown if someone congratulated me or asked when my baby was due. I saw only my husband, my family and close friends. Mark and I held each other tightly every night and cried frequently, both together and separately. It was a very difficult time for my sister-in-law, Patricia, who was pregnant too. In fact, both of our babies were due to be born that May and I know that what was happening to me was very stressful for her too.

The following Sunday I was readmitted to Holles Street. Mark stayed with me constantly and we were visited by the hospital chaplain, Sr Theresa. She helped allay our fears by preparing us for what the baby's appearance might be like and by explaining that we would be able to hold our baby and keep him or her with us overnight. I was attended by a lovely nurse named Margaret who also talked to us about what to expect. She was such a support to us that I wrote to her afterwards to thank her.

This time the drugs worked and I went into labour that evening. Our son, Karl James Reilly, was born on Sunday, March 10, 2002. When he emerged only my husband and I were in the room because our midwife had popped out, perhaps to organise some pain relief for me. Mark panicked because we didn't know what to do and ran to call the midwife. I was afraid to look until she came back. The silence in the room was deafening - no whoops of joy, just stillness and sadness.

Karl was perfectly formed down to his little fingernails, despite his small size, and weighed about 3lbs. Sr Theresa had warned that his skin would be a little loose after so many days in the womb after his death and I felt anxious when Mark touched his face because I was afraid of disturbing his tiny features. Very shortly after he was born we heard the shouts of delight from the suite next door where a healthy baby had just been delivered and I thanked God that at least I had experienced that before.

We stayed that night in our hospital room; just me and Mark and our son in his crib beside us. The following morning our families came to visit and, when they saw Karl, they were as distressed as we were. The hospital presented us with a little booklet with his footprints in ink and some of his hair clippings. The chaplain helped us to make the decision about where he would be buried and we decided on the Little Angels plot in Glasnevin cemetery. Allowing us to spend this precious time with our son helped us to grieve openly. My heart bleeds for those women in the past whose grief was not acknowledged and who had to return to normal on leaving hospital after an extremely traumatic event in their lives.

We agreed that the hospital could perform an autopsy to see if any cause could be found for what had happened and we left the hospital that Monday afternoon to return home empty-handed. We had arranged with Sr Theresa that a short service would take place that Thursday in the hospital mortuary before the burial in Glasnevin.

Thankfully no cause was found for Karl's death. I say thankfully because the doctors explained it was just one of those things that happens in nature. They said that this was good news for me because it meant I didn't have any pre-existing conditions that would jeopardise future pregnancies.

We had another opportunity to be with Karl in the mortuary chapel after the autopsy, and then again on the day of the service when his little coffin was open. Sr Theresa had advised us to write our feelings about him in a letter and include the letters and some family photos in his coffin. I thought I physically had no more tears to cry until I sat down to write that letter and tell my son how much I loved him and mourned him, about the big brother who had been waiting eagerly for his arrival and, most of all, about his wonderful dad who had barely left my side throughout the whole ordeal. To this day Mark is my absolute rock and I will never forget how he supported me when he was grieving so hard himself.

The funeral service, attended by our families and our closest friends, was beautiful. We chose to remain behind afterwards to close Karl's coffin ourselves which was the most difficult part as we knew that was the last time we would see his little face.

The priest who married myself and Mark met us at the graveyard and said a few words before Mark handed our son's coffin to the gravedigger who stood in the opened grave.

And then it was time to leave. We went back to our house and later our families and closest friends gathered for lunch at a local hotel. It's a sick joke that nature plays but the day of the funeral was the day my milk started to come in and I took painkillers throughout that day for the pain of the engorgement.

Because my baby died after 24 weeks in the womb, he was considered a stillbirth and not a miscarriage. This meant that I was entitled to maternity leave, which I decided to take. I am glad that I had those months at home to grieve.

Soon afterwards, I attended the bereavement counsellor in the hospital, after receiving an invitation to do so, and all I did was cry. I couldn't believe I could feel like this about a child I hadn't met yet. I felt anxious all of the time and I wondered aloud how I could ever cope if anything happened to my husband and son. "It would be extremely difficult but you would cope because life goes on," she said. "But how will I get over this?" I railed. She explained gently that grief is a process and that we don't get over it. We have to go through it, and it takes time.

Those words make a lot of sense to me now, even if they didn't at the time. I didn't get over Karl's death, but Mark and I lived through it with the unending support of our parents and siblings. We lived through it with the support of wonderful friends who dropped in regularly. But most of all, we lived through it with each other, and the bond between us became even stronger.

The following April, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy and we named him Alex Patrick Reilly. Since then we have been blessed with two more sons: Evan, born in 2005, and Elliot, born in 2008.

All of my sons know about their brother Karl and have been to visit his grave in Glasnevin. Last year, my youngest son's teacher called me aside to tell me that when they were drawing family trees in school, Elliot had included Karl "his brother who died". This type of thing has happened with my other sons' teachers over the years and I love that Karl is not a dark secret but a shared memory.

My sister-in-law Trish bought me a beautiful keepsake box. I keep the photos and mementoes of Karl in it as well as all of the lovely cards and letters we received at the time.

I don't feel the need to look in the box very often now but it is there to honour Karl and to document his existence and I believe in the old saying that "it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all".

We loved Karl and we lost him before we could get to know him, but he has made us appreciate our lives and the lives of our beautiful healthy sons all the more. We will always carry him with us in our hearts.

INM has a dedicated section 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

Irish Independent

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