Thursday 23 November 2017

'My stillborn baby didn't breathe air, but she still lived and grew'

Nollaig McSweeney: Mindfulness helped her through her grief. Photo: Claire Keogh.
Nollaig McSweeney: Mindfulness helped her through her grief. Photo: Claire Keogh.

Nollaig McSweeney

After her daughter was stillborn, Nollaig McSweeney navigated her way through her grief using mindfulness - and by penning a book which aims to help others deal with the loss of a child

Isabelle Maria McSweeney was born on July 13, 2010. There was no big celebration around Isabelle's birth; there was, in its place, immense pain and devastation.

Isabelle was born still; my precious but lifeless little girl entered the world still and silent. Isabelle lived for 40 weeks within my body and with my love.

On her due date, I went to the hospital thinking she was quiet, putting it down to her having little room to move. I thought I was going to the hospital 'for reassurance'. The midwife put the monitor on me and there wasn't a sound. I thought 'that machine obviously isn't working'. When they called the doctor to scan me, I knew something was very wrong.

I saw on the screen where Isabelle's heart should have been beating and there was nothing. My whole world fell apart.

While there was intense grief around Isabelle's entry into the world, there was also love: I loved my child from the second I found out she was there and once I got past the 12 and 20-week mark, I became more certain she was here to stay…

For many, the death of a baby is just too awful to think or talk about. There are countless bereaved parents out there whose grief is largely unexpressed, and therefore unacknowledged. Sometimes that is because they cannot find words to express the pain. Often it is because when they do, they have been met with unpleasant responses, or no response at all.

The death of a child around the time of birth evokes all sorts of odd comments from people. I was utterly bowled over by comments like "don't worry, you will have another one" or "weren't you lucky you didn't get to know her."

Nollaig McSweeney: Mindfulness helped her through her grief. Photo: Claire Keogh.
Nollaig McSweeney: Mindfulness helped her through her grief. Photo: Claire Keogh.

My daughter died before she was born, so, for many, she didn't really live.

Isabelle's lifespan was short, just 40 weeks. Even though she did not breathe air, she still lived, she grew, she moved, she was meant to arrive screaming the place down. When birth and death collide, the result is a state of profound disorientation. It took me a long while to put myself back together.

Reading helped a lot.

Wonderful, patient, supportive family and friends, and the amazing mothers I met through an online forum run by A Little Lifetime Foundation (formerly Irish Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society ISANDS) got me through.

A Little Lifetime Foundation has been providing support to bereaved families for over 30 years. It is through the tireless campaigning of the charity that we have a Stillbirth Register and that changes to archaic and compassionless practices in hospitals around stillbirth have come about.

It was not that long ago that parents were not allowed to look at or acknowledge a stillborn child and told to go home and try to conceive again. The Church and the healthcare system gave a very clear message to bereaved parents to "forget about it and move on". As if a child who is loved and wanted could be "forgotten" about!

For bereaved parents of old, it must have been beyond awful.

Families now have the right to see and hold their baby, create tangible memories, have some kind of ceremony or blessing if they wish and the right to have their child buried in a grave.

Grief is both personal and universal. Wherever there is loss, there is grief. It cannot be quantified or compared. In grief, the bereaved often forget the love that is at the heart of grief and that is to be expected when the pain is fierce and unrelenting.

In the early weeks of my grief, I was sure I was losing my mind. I was paralysed by the devastating reality. I was lucky to find A Little Lifetime Foundation; I quickly learned that I was not alone. That in itself brings incredible healing.

Finding connection when you have been cut adrift into a sea of sorrow is essential.

I found great comfort and healing in attending workshops run by A Little Lifetime Foundation. I discovered a creativity in me I never knew I had!

A year-and-a-half after Isabelle died, I started to write a book.

Ron Smith-Murphy is the chairperson of A Little Lifetime Foundation. Her connection with the charity began following the short life of her daughter, Ruth, 21 years ago. Ron is also a spectacular artist. She encouraged me to write about my daughter's short life and my life without her. We decided to combine my words and Ron's artistic talent to produce a publication that might assist the bereaved.

A book called Meeting Grief with Mindfulness and Compassion is the result of our efforts.

The book is written by me, and designed by Ron. There is nothing like it on the market. It is beautifully designed and has breathtaking images of landscape and gorgeous little additions. Someone commented to me that the book is "tactile and interactive".

It is the type of book that we hope will appeal even to those who do not consider themselves 'readers'. There are images, quotes and poems to ponder over. It is intended as a soothing balm for the bereaved. The connection between grief and love is easy to forget when the pain is raw and unrelenting.

Read more: Heartbroken mother Natalie Morgan writes tribute to stillborn daughter

Meeting Grief with Mindfulness and Compassion seeks to bring the reader's attention to the connection between grief and love. We grieve because we love.

Mindfulness is a simple concept that is hard to grasp because our minds are so busy jumping wildly into the past and the future, generating fear and worry.

We rarely sit with what is actually going on within and around us. Grief is full of pain and it is also full of love. It is mindfulness that can help to bring that into our field of awareness.

Mindfulness means noticing, without judgement, what is happening within and around, in the here and now. It is a valuable skill at any time - it helped me to navigate my way through grief.

It has not been a smooth road. I can still have moments of intense devastation, despite the passage of time. Today, I learned that the book is ready for delivery and I was truly delighted. Then a wave of devastation hit.

I wished with all my heart that the thing I was looking forward to was a five-year-old Isabelle heading off to big school. My heart broke and I sobbed in a way that is no different from the sobbing in the initial days after she died. What is different now is my speedy recovery from those moments of devastation.

I don't get to do things with Isabelle but there is a lot I find myself doing because of her. That breaks my heart and makes it soar at the same time.

* 'Meeting Grief with Mindfulness and Compassion' can be purchased online at The book has been produced entirely through fundraising. Cost is €20. All profits benefit A Little Lifetime Foundation. For information on stockists, see the Facebook page, 'Meeting Grief with Mindfulness and Compassion.'

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