The following is a personal account of losing a daughter through stillbirth, with the aim of breaking the silence and stigma surrounding it, and encouraging those concerned in any way about their pregnancy to seek immediate medical advice. It is upsetting so please don’t read if you are pregnant and vulnerable or of a sensitive nature – just please always trust your instincts regarding your precious baby.
There are some times in all of our lives when everything we hold dear and sacred is turned on its head. For us, that day was Thursday June 17th, 2010, when we were one of the 17 families who that day lost a baby. This is our story.
The day began well; my Mum was down to stay with us for a few days while my Dad was away on business – so I had my favourite partner in crime with me and my 2 ½ year old, Abigail, who dearly loved her Gran, was delighted. I was 25 weeks and 5 days pregnant, with what we knew was a much wanted second baby daughter. I hadn’t slept well, and commented to my Mum at breakfast that I’d had a really strange, lucid dream about being under real pressure to decide quickly on a name for the baby. She laughed and assured me I still had plenty of time.
The three of us had a gorgeous day out in the sunshine at Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s former home and now a National Trust property. At lunch, my Mum told me I looked pale. I told her I was probably just tired….but I didn’t feel….right.
Being June 2010, the World Cup was in full swing in South Africa, and that evening my husband Arthur and Mum sat down to watch the France v Mexico game. (I am not in any way a football fan, but that game is forever etched in my memory.) I told them that I hadn’t really felt the baby move, all day. Thinking I had probably just been too busy, I went to lie down and stir her into action. I lay there for about 10 minutes. In the end, I was rocking side to side, prodding my belly, and crying. I knew something was wrong. We decided to call the hospital, who advised me to drink some icy fruit juice and lie still to stir her into action. I did. There was still no answer from her. After a call back to the hospital, they told me to come in for reassurance. My Mum and Arthur were encouraging me, thinking we would get just that – I knew otherwise.
A junior registrar took us into a room and brought in a portable ultrasound machine. And there she was! Our baby was there on the screen, with her perfect button nose profile, for all to see. I had been worrying for nothing! After a moment, the registrar said “There is a heartbeat there, but it’s very feeble. I’m going to get the consultant.” And left us for what felt like an eternity.
The consultant came in, very business-like, and resumed the scan without really looking at us. Turning to the registrar, she said; “No. Look. That’s not the fetal heartbeat, that’s the maternal heartbeat. There is no fetal heartbeat.”
And with those words, the bottom fell out of our world.
I don’t know exactly what happened next. Everything stopped. Everything went dark. Sounds became muffled. I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. I couldn’t feel anything. Arthur asked exactly what she was saying, but we knew. She was gone.
They left us alone, where through an open door we heard a baby boy being born. He weighed 9lbs 4oz. I didn’t feel I could cry for fear of spoiling that moment for that mother. It was such an awful moment, the agony of everything was exquisite. I cried silent tears, holding onto Arthur and wondering how, why, this can’t be real. It can’t be happening, not to us. Not to my baby. How will we tell Abigail? What happens now? I. Cannot. Do. This. No. No. No. No. No. Please come back.
We were told to come back the next day for a formal ultrasound and to see the lead consultant. And with that, we were sent home. It was a gorgeous, cloudless, starry night. We walked in silence through the garden, looking at the stars, knowing that though she was still in my womb, somehow my daughter’s soul was already there, looking down on us. We walked back into a home that so recently was filled with excitement and hope, and brought devastation with us in its place, and fell into my Mum’s arms.
The next morning after no sleep, we put on a brave face for Abigail – and Arthur and I left for the hospital, leaving my even braver Mum to keep up the pretence, for now, that everything was OK, as we didn’t know what happened next and wanted to protect Abigail for as long as we could. I was holding out the ridiculous hope that somehow they had made a mistake, and that our little girl would be OK. But she wasn’t. She had become very curled up. She was really gone, and everyone in the room confirmed so and signed their paperwork.
We were taken into another room with tear-streaked faces, and told that I would be given some tablets to prepare my body for labour, and that if I didn’t go spontaneously into labour I would be induced on Sunday. Though I didn’t know how I could possibly go through labour, I just wanted to know what had happened to my baby; why has she gone? How has this happened? What did I do wrong?
They told me that their best guess was placental blockages, and intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR).
I had never been happy, in truth, from the beginning of the pregnancy when they changed my due date by 10 days as she wasn’t to size for the dates I was so sure of. She hadn’t been very active on scans, and I hadn’t grown much – though I was just told she maybe wouldn’t be as big as her 8lbs 15oz older sister and I should be glad. My usually on the low side blood pressure had been 130/80 on booking, and had risen dramatically in the days leading up to June 17th, but a check at hospital had sent me back on my way. I had also had a high downs risk for her – 1 in 250 – which at 31 was incredibly high. It had been heavily skewed by an incredibly low PaPP-A blood marker (which is a placental growth hormone) which was 0.03 where the ideal is 1.0. All of these things were, as I learnt classic markers for IUGR and I became – and remain all this time on – very angry that it wasn’t pieced together by those caring for us. I don’t know if there was anything they could have done to save our baby but it would have lessened the shock for us and her sister at her loss.
We were given some information about Sands – the stillbirth and neonatal death charity – and we asked for advice on how to tell our daughter. They told us be honest, but simplistic. “Children are very black and white about these things”, they said, but they didn’t know Abigail like we did.
We made a phone call to tell Arthur’s parents, who were also completely devastated. Losses affect the wider family too. My sister-in-law was physically sick; our nephews confused and my sisters just destroyed with me. My Mum still berates herself for not having the answers for me, because she hadn’t been where we were going. She told me afterwards that she felt her Mummy-magic that made her able to make things better when we were little had finally run out. Though her just being there helped us more than she can ever know.
We spent the next few days in a horrible fugue. My Dad arrived back, I’ve never been so glad for him to hold me; but he didn’t know what to do, or say. Just having him there felt good, and meant the world –and to my Mum too who had been so amazingly propping us all up on her own. We went out and bought blankets for our baby to be wrapped in when she was born. I slept with the stuffed dog toy – Stanley – we’d bought when we found out she was a girl at her 20 week scan. My ever positive, optimistic and sunny husband was just floored. But. Somehow, hearts full of love for both our girls, we survived those few days.
We went back into hospital on the morning of Sunday June 20th for my induction. I had been induced with a two weeks overdue Abigail and knew what lay ahead. And I knew, that while I had a lifetime to do my best for Abigail, this was the one thing, one first and final act of love I could do for my baby and by God I would do it well for her. Our midwife, Penny, was amazing. Another midwife who I had spoken to in tears over the phone the day before, asking her what to expect and what we could do, came in to see us, with tears in her eyes, and squeezed my hand. Halfway through the labour there was a big noise as a single magpie landed on the window sill. I had kept seeing them all through the pregnancy and wondered what they were foretelling. Now I knew. And this one had come to taunt me.
Jessica Elizabeth was born at 19.16 on June 20th 2010, weighing 440 ounces. Tiny even for her age. She had really struggled. And other than a ‘feeling’, I hadn’t known. She was beautiful, just like her sister. She had her right hand tucked under her chin, as if she was just dreaming, and had the most perfect, ruby red rosebud pouty lips. If I close my eyes I can still smell her. Noone will ever smell the same. I will be grateful my whole life for that precious time we had to hold her, and kiss her, and tell her how much we loved her. To try and pack a lifetime of love into what really were a few short hours.
Her Daddy held her up to the window and let the evening light fall onto her skin, the only sunlight that would ever bathe her perfect little form. I loved him for thinking of that, and for so many other things besides. We had a photograph of Abigail with us, and we sat with it and with Jessica so that we were all together. We didn’t want Abigail to come and see her sister – for right or wrong that was a decision we made.
A priest came in and blessed her at our request – we had such a short time and we wanted to do everything right for her. I didn’t want to let her go. Ever. When they finally took her away in her crib it was like losing her all over again.
One of the most comforting things anyone said to me was that she had died in my womb, surrounded by me, feeling safe in the only place she had ever known, and not in a strange, cold room. And it’s true. She would have just grown weaker and eventually, fallen asleep. I’m sure that she died the night of June 16th, when I had that dream. She had done well to fight for so long – and my blood pressure was a sign that my body was trying to do the same. But why had no one noticed? Maybe they could have helped her. Saved her.
Telling Abigail the next day was a moment I wish I could forget. As we had suspected, her response wasn’t as straight forward as we had been told to expect. She was devastated: I think she felt that we had lied to her about her having a baby sister on the way, and was very angry. “You promised me I could push her in her pram”, she sobbed. No words can explain how painful that moment was. One in a series of very bad ones. Now we had damaged her too.
For the next ten days, we poured every bit of love and energy into spending as much time with Abigail as we could and also preparing a beautiful service for Jessica, to say goodbye properly. We figured this was one of the few things we would ever be able to do for her – to honour her and acknowledge her. It was utterly heart-breaking, but kept us busy: choosing her a casket instead of a Moses basket; registering her death instead of her birth. We chose a beautifully scented posy of freesias to go on her tiny casket. We chose poems to read, we wrote letters to her that would be kept sealed and sent with her on a journey that we could not help her along. Abigail drew her a picture. Her toy dog Stanley was also for her- I had so feverishly clung to it that it would smell of me, and so a part of me would be with her. How could I send my own dear child into the unknown without something to give her comfort?
I was in agony. Agony because my milk supply had come in and Jessica wasn’t there to have it; which was both an emotional and physical agony. I was bleeding. I was sore. Though, in a way, I eventually mourned the loss of those physical reminders because they were a last link to my baby. They proved that she had been real. That she had been here. But I also had a pain in my chest because no matter how many tears I shed didn’t seem enough. It didn’t make the pain less. I realised in the end that what was hurting so badly was love. I had a heart full of love for a daughter I couldn’t give it to. It didn’t belong to anyone else. I couldn’t lavish more on Abigail, or Arthur, it was for Jessica, and her alone. And it hurt like hell. I wanted my baby girl. And she was gone.
Our families joined us on June 30th, 2010, and we all said a final goodbye in a private chapel. We went in first and I sang Morningtown Ride to her, a song my Mum had always sung to us at bedtime and which I sang to Abigail. It was so important to me to do that, to say goodnight to her. Arthur stood during the service and read a copy of his letter to her. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.
Jessica was cremated, and we lit a candle for her in church at the exact time of her cremation and we both honestly felt her spirit fly away. That she was free. It was a peaceful feeling at the end of a very hard and painful day.
Abigail then kept us going. Day by day, just by being the wonderful force of nature she is, we put one foot in front of the other and rebuilt our life together. One day, when she is old enough to understand, I will tell her just how special she is to us. She made us laugh again, and gave us a reason to get up and smile every day. She saved us.
We made some enquiries and attended our local Sands group and met other parents who had also lost their precious babies. I found it very comforting to know we weren’t alone – that we hadn’t been victimised – but of course everyone had their own tragic story. I realised just how many things could go wrong, and how relatively ‘lucky’ we had been. It is, frankly, an utterly terrifying can of worms to open; but it doesn’t make it any less real, or relevant, or devastating.
We were invited back to the hospital later in the summer to discuss all my blood tests and the histology report from the placenta. They all showed nothing. IUGR can be triggered by some infections, or risk factors, but none of these were present for Jessica. She had just been unlucky. The placenta hadn’t implanted properly for reasons no-one will ever be able to tell us – of course I blamed myself. I must have done something wrong, somehow. It was my body. I should have kept her safe. This shouldn’t have happened – that should have been the one place in the world she was OK. It seemed such a bitter pill to swallow.
I did however run a little before I could walk – getting straight back into playgroups, and being surrounded by babies was pretty unavoidable for me being Abigail’s Mummy but I did suffer a backlash and developed a pretty bad case of OCD.
I was convinced that every small thing would spell disaster for Abigail and became obsessive, and if truth be told, difficult to live with for Arthur. If something could happen to my baby safe in my womb, what on earth could happen to Abigail, or so my thinking went. My crisis point came three months after losing Jessica when another child kicked puddle water into Abigail’s mouth when we were at a deer park. I called the doctor. And mid conversation, I realised that this wasn’t a normal reaction.
I sought help and slowly got myself back on track – realising that I needed to be kinder and more patient with myself, and stop these obsessions taking over and spoiling Abigail’s early life. It took a while – old friends I met up with even a year later found some of my behaviours a little extreme; but anyone who visits our home now would, I think, not suspect me of OCD tendencies!
My wonderful little sister ran the Edinburgh Marathon in memory of Jessica and raised money for Sands. When she hit ‘the wall’, and was running into cold, biting wind (that the next day became gale force!) she thought of Jessica and the sun came through the clouds – she felt Jessica gave her the strength to continue, and to do what Jessica would never be able to do.
Six months after losing Jessica we found the courage to try again, and 14 months after Jessica died I gave birth to another daughter, our special rainbow baby. I didn’t find the pregnancy easy – I worried a lot and we were very cautious about telling Abigail, but I was well looked after and 2011 brought us a happy ending. Another beautiful daughter followed in 2015 and at the time of writing we are expecting another baby in March next year. So far, so good, though of course I am cautious and very on top of my ante natal care – I am probably a very difficult patient.
Jessica will always be a part of our family. Abigail, of course, however much we tried to carry on as normal remembers some of that summer, and her sister who isn’t here. On Jessica’s birthday in June we go to the tree where, two years later when we felt ready, we scattered her ashes at a lovely local National Trust property. It is a laburnum tree, which always flowers around her birthday, and we are allowed to go out of hours and have the run of the whole grounds to ourselves. We picnic by her tree, and we know that as much as we ever can be, we are all together. Of course, we visit a lot throughout the year but, to us, on her birthday it seems a fitting and happy way to mark her birthday as a family and remember her.
We have also found that as Abigail has grown, her understanding of what happened has changed and her grief last year when Isabelle was due became more grown up. She had lots of questions about what had happened, and we talked a lot to help her understand without giving too much information that would frighten her. It’s a fine line to tread.
The Moral of The Story
I hope that in sharing our story we will maybe bring somebody some comfort in knowing they aren’t alone. Maybe it will help somebody help a friend who has lost a baby and they don’t know how to reach out to them. Speaking personally, I am always happy to talk about our baby – to hear her name spoken aloud and to have her acknowledged.
So much has changed in the few short years since we lost Jessica – there is more openness about talking about these tragedies which I think is a great thing and a step towards reducing the UK’s 1 in 200, 17 a day stillbirth and neonatal death rate. Sands has become increasingly vocal, and Kicks Count also do a tremendous job of raising awareness of some of these issues. I think, for me, feeling more able to talk openly about how I felt at the time would have helped me enormously and possibly headed off some of the delayed shock that I experienced.
I would urge anybody who is concerned in any way about their baby’s movements slowing down or changing – or like me, who just has a ‘feeling’ something is wrong, despite what reassurance they are given, to follow it up. Mothers really do know best and midwives are there to help us –a trip to the day unit, a quick CTG or scan could save the life of that which you hold most precious.
I do absolutely know how very fortunate we are and I count my blessings in so many ways. We were able to go on to have more healthy and happy children, and I know this isn’t possible for everyone who suffers an infant bereavement. I know we were lucky to have already had Abigail, and to fall pregnant easily.
Nothing will ever bring Jessica back to us – but I wouldn’t for the world undo the experience of having carried her and known her little soul. She taught us so much about love and made me realise that my relationship with Arthur is tough enough to weather any storm, and just how deep the love I have can be and what it can help you achieve.
In our letters to her we promised that we would always try and see the world through her eyes – to marvel in the small things, for her, and to see the sun rise and set with the wonder that she would have. That we would be better people. We are like everyone, not always perfect people; but I do hope that wherever she is now, that she sometimes looks down on us, and that we make her laugh with our funny ways, and that sometimes we make her proud.
For support or advice please visit:
Sands, Stillbirth and neonatal death charity