Wednesday 22 January 2020

'We had to say goodbye to our baby before he'd even said hello' - Mum shares heartbreaking story of losing her son

Linnea Dunne shares her heartbreaking story of the loss of her first baby and her hopes that the conversation surrounding the subject continues to grow

Linnea Dunne shares her story. Photo: Steve Humphries
Linnea Dunne shares her story. Photo: Steve Humphries

The first of the five stages of grief is denial. It is said to help us survive the loss, and we go numb. I never went through that first stage, but then walking around with a bump one day and waking up the next day without isn't exactly conducive to denial.

The first thing I was told when walking into my GP's office after proudly delivering a sample producing a positive pregnancy test was that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. No congratulations - just a word on 'nature's way'. But after a dating scan around 12-weeks, we were reassured that everything looked good and the risk of anything going wrong were minimal. Then I started showing, and eventually he started kicking; everybody knows that's a good sign.

I'd never heard about the term 'fatal foetal abnormality' back then, nor was it the term they used. 'Incompatible with life' was the first diagnosis during our 20-week anomaly scan, but I think we knew before that; no acting or hope can undo the crystal-clear communication of a screen being turned away, the transducer put down and a big sigh as the sonographer's shoulders drop to the floor.

Don't get me wrong - they were explicit with us too, spelling it out to us beyond doubt, in as much as it is possible to do so while maintaining a certain level of diplomacy and empathy. We were told our baby was never meant for this world, that it was a wonder the pregnancy had even lasted this long and would take little short of a miracle for the two of us to survive to term. The heart wasn't working, the lungs weren't working, the brain was barely there, much like the spine was incomplete. Nature's way wasn't all that reliable, it turned out.

It didn't strike me then that, someplace else, there would be people with ugly signs trying to destroy our memories and dirty our loss. It never occurred to me that anyone could feel anything but sadness and sympathy for us. Such was the privilege of the UK's National Health Service and our liberal London cocoon - the word abortion never even crossed my mind.

Of course, it was an abortion. I would never have called it that; the word termination alone, whenever I overheard the health care professionals use it, sent shivers down my spine. This wasn't my choice - it was the last thing I wanted. But we did have choice, crucially, and we chose to fly over grandparents from Sweden and Ireland to welcome Oliver into the world in the strangest of circumstances, saying goodbye before he even said hello.

I was terrified that morning. I couldn't stop crying. With hindsight, I can't say I'm sure it was worse to give birth to a dead baby completely unprepared, going through everything that labour entails but without the prize at the end, than it would have been to do it knowing how life-affirming and reinvigorating birthing can be like, experiencing it in contrast to birthing memories with happy endings. But it's not the overwhelming fear I remember most when I think back to that day, because the moment we got settled into a room on the labour ward and a sympathetic German midwife walked in, everything changed.

Starting the process of giving birth became a turning point for me - from here on in, I would be allowed to start grieving. It sounds wrong to describe it as beautiful, but it wasn't far off. Absolutely dignified, at the very least.

We had no baby room to cry over, no painting to undo. What my mind was occupied with trying to undo was other people's memory of me pregnant. I had a constant feeling of being watched. Would the man in the corner shop notice? Would the other pregnant woman at my morning bus stop still smile at me? What would people in the office think when I turned up suddenly all unpregnant, back to my old caffeine consumption habits and passing their desks on my way to the coffee machine, my body crying out with a lack of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG)?

If pregnancy makes you obsess over your body, the sudden loss of the same is hard to explain, a painfully heightened version of said obsession. To walk around in a body no longer aching from extremely early pelvic girdle pain so intense it had made getting up off the couch an ordeal and on occasion made me unable to put on socks myself - the physical sense of that freedom was so utterly incompatible with the grief. It took weeks before I was able to look myself in the mirror without bursting into tears. People say that grief sometimes feels like losing a limb. I had lost a part of myself - not figuratively, but very literally. Gone, just like that.

I managed quite well with the sadness of it all, but what I couldn't quite cope with was friends getting pregnant. While I was deeply happy for them and endlessly grateful that they told me to my face, despite everything, I resented them for even trying in the first place. Suddenly every friend of mine in a relationship became a potential threat and, slowly but surely, I convinced myself that something had gone terribly wrong during the birth of our firstborn that had rendered me infertile.I just knew it: we would never be parents.

As anyone who's wanted very desperately to get pregnant will tell you, the language of the body in its communication around cycles and hormones is not all to the point and conclusive, and trying to decipher it is about as easy as those first few weeks of getting to know a newborn's cues and murmurs. It's extremely easy to get it wrong; mixed messages are part and parcel of the lingua franca. Every month, that two-week wait is the same, characterised by an oversensitivity to every twitch and endless googling of early pregnancy symptoms. To my despair, it quickly turned out that Google was useless in the search for post-partum complications after a birth at 21-weeks. It wasn't just our firstborn's chromosomal make-up that was anomalous - the entire experience was, and Google had no information to share about our particular kind of odd.

Our now oldest son was born on the day a year after Oliver's original due date. It was a pregnancy of anxiety and a refusal to take anything for granted, to the extent where ultrasound scans were always preceded by sleepless nights - and we had quite a few - and we didn't buy a pram until a few weeks before the due date. I often think that we never allowed ourselves to prepare for becoming parents, that we put all our efforts into preparing for what we hoped would be a remarkably different birth, but never thought much about what would follow. With the loss of our son, we were robbed of the innocence of a first blissful pregnancy as well as the chance of preparing for parenthood, because we never quite allowed ourselves to believe that it would happen for us.

I often think about that London GP and the values that underpin our need to put our guard up. There's an unwritten 12-week rule, a more or less accepted notion of the right time to announce a pregnancy - and it comes with a warning not to enjoy the early days too much, because you never know when it might end. It's a funny view of grief, that - as if preempting it would somehow make it easier to bear, as if hoping for something and enjoying it fully makes a fool out of us the day it all falls apart.

In a society so obsessed with human interest stories and so steadfast in its cherishing of rituals surrounding birth and death, I find the silence surrounding miscarriage and infant loss perplexing. It's almost suspicious how desperately we try to sweep it under the rug, considering how keen we are to highlight to women the difficulty of conceiving after a certain age, and how quickly their fertility is slumping. My GP was right - it happens all the time. So why is it that we can't talk about it?

But more than the silence itself, I found the 12-week rule infuriating - this arbitrary cut-off point that feeds the silence, declaring that jinxing it is foolish, informing us that loss should be seen as a private event and grief is for no one but ourselves. It felt like, in my situation,

I was doomed to disappoint: I couldn't hide what had happened, yet the reality of it talking about it made people want to sink through the floor.

So I've decided to try to cut through the silence. It's not for everyone, but there is meaning in sharing an experience that is after all so very common, in opening up about the raw pain and paranoia and seemingly stupid fears. There is healing in the chance to feel less alone.

What advice would I give other women in my situation? That a society that asks probing questions about a couple's intentions to procreate and drops insensitive hints about the timing of number two, yet isn't willing or able to deal with the pain and grief when things go wrong, isn't one worth caring much about. I don't have a lot of advice, but I have a vision. Here's hoping that this platform for sharing can be a start.

* INM is putting together a dedicated section on ( 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

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