A parent’s perspective: My journey since my son’s stillbirth in 2008

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Polly Bridge, who works in our Taunton office, has very kindly shared her and her family’s story with Nicola Rawlinson-Weller for Baby Loss Awareness Week 2022.

Please tell me a bit about your pregnancy with Albert and his birth.

I found out I was pregnant in May 2007. I felt well throughout and was both excited and anxious about what life would be like with a new baby.  Everything was going well. I went to a routine midwife appointment at 38 weeks, where they did the usual checks. I arrived as usual only this time the midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat. We tried some different positions with the doppler but still nothing, so she sent me to Musgrove Park Hospital. As reassuring as they were that not being able to find the heartbeat could be due to a number of different reasons, I think it was at that point I knew he had died.

My mum-in-law took me to the hospital as I was told I wasn’t allowed to drive myself.  When I arrived, I was taken swiftly into a room to be scanned, passing all the expectant, excited parents waiting for a glimpse of their baby. Again, lots of reassurances were given but then we heard those three little words; “I’m so sorry”. It was at that point that my whole world fell apart.

I was taken back to the labour ward and put in the first room at the start of the long corridor. One of my first questions was ‘what happens now? How, what do I do?’. I couldn’t bring myself to say it, but I was pointing at my bump. It then dawned on me that I was actually going to have to deliver my baby. My mum and my husband arrived not long after and I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face. The midwife and consultant talked us through what would happen and a natural delivery was recommended over any other intervention as it would be better for me physically.

I questioned where would I deliver? Surely not on a ward where live babies are being born, where I could hear newborn babies crying? The hospital did have a room just off the ward, the Rowan Suite, but it wasn’t set up for delivery, so they moved us between there and the ward.

Ashley (my husband) went home with his mum to pick up my hospital bag. He took out everything for the baby, except one babygro and hat. I’d only just finished work on the Friday before, so he put my cards and anything baby related in the nursery and shut the door.

I was induced at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then it was just a waiting game.

We are not really religious but they asked if we wanted a visit from the Chaplain. We did and she was just what we needed at that time.

It wasn’t until the early hours when things started to gather a bit of pace. I was in the Rowan Suite and I was given an epidural as I just couldn’t cope with the pain. I needed to be focused on what was going on in my head and the only way to do that was to block out the physical pain. I didn’t want gas and air or anything else as I wanted my head to be clear. I had the epidural and was then put on a hormone drip to try and move things along a bit more.

Finally at 10.29am our beautiful baby was born. No cries, no screams, just silence and that silence will haunt me forever.

We never found out the sex during my pregnancy.  When we were ready, the midwife wrapped him up and gave him to me and we found out together that we had had a little boy. I didn’t want any photos of me with him but Ashley took them anyway.  He said that I should have some, not for now but for later, and I’m so glad he did.

We went back to the Rowan Suite and Ashley went with the midwife to bath and dress our son. Our mums were with us, so they had the opportunity to meet and hold him too.

Another thing I didn’t realise before giving birth was that my body thought “I’ve just had a baby”. My body didn’t know that my baby had died.  So one midwife talked to me about how I would still produce milk and that there would be something I could take to stop this process. The midwife who delivered Albert however, talked me out of it, saying I should let my body go through that process. Yes, it would be painful but it’s doing what it should be doing and it will help me heal.  In hindsight, this was the right choice for me.

We spent the rest of the day in the Rowan Suite. Albert was with us and again, although not religious, we had him anointed. It just felt right to do so.

We left the hospital at around 7.40pm with an envelope containing a couple of photos, hand and footprint and a lock of Albert’s hair. Our midwife showed us out through the side door so we didn’t have to see or hear anything on our way out.

Did you find out why Albert had died?

We chose to have a post mortem because we wanted to know if Albert’s cause of death was something that could happen again in future pregnancies. I knew we would have the opportunity to see and spend time with him after, so we made it clear that we didn’t want to know what they had done and to ensure he was dressed in a way that we couldn’t see what they had done during the process. All this was passed to the funeral director and when we saw Albert again, we’d never have known.

The time between Albert dying and not knowing why felt like a lifetime. We were desperate for a baby but didn’t want to try again until we knew for sure what caused his death.

We had the results about eight weeks later and we met with the consultant who explained to us that there had been an over coiling of the umbilical cord. His growth was therefore restricted towards the end of the pregnancy. The consultant took the time to explain, in a lot of detail to us, what this meant and that it was nothing we did and there was no reason why it would happen again.

What was life like for you and your family in the first year after he died? What support did you receive and was it helpful?

We’re approaching 15 years now and there just wasn’t the same amount of awareness about stillbirths then. People just didn’t talk about it. I think now, as people are more aware, there are more charities available offering all kinds of support.

I had a call from a baby loss Support Group locally but I wasn’t in the right place for it. Support group to me, at the time, screamed all sitting in a room together and talking, which wasn’t what I wanted to do. My colleague, Claire Stoneman (of Enable Law), sent me the details for Sands. They ran an online forum and that’s where I went. Only then I think I realised just how many people this happens to. So many parents were there, seeking comfort and support, sharing their stories and I felt this was somewhere I could go.  I could be me and talk openly and honestly about my feelings. I shared my story and probably dipped in and out of there for a couple of years. Then some of us became friends on Facebook.

It was a very isolating time and I think to have the forum online meant I had access to support whenever I needed it rather than at a set time. Ashley had gone back to work so I would find myself on my own for most of the day and having that instant access support was so valuable.

I went back to work after the post-mortem results, which I think was about 8 weeks later. At that point we did recognise that I needed talk to someone as I got to a point where I was shutting everyone out, including Ashley and he felt helpless. Work were so supportive but support from friends, family and colleagues just wasn’t enough.

However, I didn’t want to be in room with someone to sit there and tell me it would all be ok because at that point, it was never going to be ok.  I met with a counsellor who my stepdad knew and she was a game changer. I didn’t have many sessions with her but during one she did some colour healing and that really helped me. I can still remember it now. She also taught me lots of techniques to protect myself in situations in the future if I needed too. This helped me massively and I started to feel in control again.

I then became pregnant with my second son Louie in the July. I think the counselling helped me to be ready to become pregnant again.

How did you feel during your rainbow pregnancies with Louie and Harry and what was your care like?

When I found out I was pregnant with Louie it was such a mix of emotions. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but the support we had from the midwife and hospital was amazing. I had my Sands sticker on my notes so anyone who picked them up would know that we had had a stillbirth. Small things like that, so you don’t have to explain yourself at each appointment make such a difference. I had regular midwife appointments and regular growth scans later in the pregnancy for reassurance.

The plan for Louie was to be induced at 38 weeks as I didn’t think I’d be able to go past the same point when Albert died. It didn’t go to plan! At 34 weeks, at a routine midwife appointment, it sounded like his heartbeat had an extra beat. I was reassured it was nothing but, to be sure, they suggested we go to the antenatal ward for a CTG trace just to be check. We did and all was fine.  However, due to our history, they said I could go back for regular CTG traces and they would monitor me from then on.

Two weeks later we were having a trace but the machine couldn’t pick up his heartbeat. We knew he was ok as I could feel (and see) him moving. The midwife used a pinard and she could hear his heartbeat no problem. It was just the machine that wouldn’t play ball. The midwife went off to speak to my consultant and came back a little while later. They knew I had an induction booked but they were aware that, if for any reason a heartbeat couldn’t be detected during labour, it would have a huge impact on us, so they booked me in for a caesarean the next day!

At 10.04 the next morning Louie was born. He spent 5 days in special care but only as a precaution. All the staff were amazing from the minute we arrived (ensuring that we weren’t put in the same room as before) and talked us through everything.

My third pregnancy with Harry was still an anxious time but I felt more in control. We were offered and received, the same level of care and again I was booked to be induced at 38 weeks. I arrived on the day but he wasn’t showing any signs of being ready. The consultant on duty came in to see us and said if I really wanted to deliver that day then there was a caesarean booked and I could go to theatre. This time though I wanted to do it myself. I don’t know why, part of my healing process maybe but I was adamant I wanted to deliver naturally, or at least try to. He took the time to understand why I was feeling the way I was. He looked at me and just said “you need to come back then when you’re in labour”. I thought he was being pretty harsh at first but looking back, I’m so glad he did. He offered me regular checks and said if anything changed, they would book me in for a caesarean. Knowing that level of care was there and having more knowledge gave me the courage to wait and I ended up going 10 days past my due date! I delivered Harry my way and felt completely in control of what was going on. I think because I’d blocked out the physical pain when I delivered Albert, I almost felt I had to feel it this time. Again, it was all part of the healing process for me.

The care I received when I was pregnant with Louie and Harry was exceptional. Each person we met took the time to understand our fears and let us make the decisions. We always knew though that things don’t always go to plan. If I could do it our way then I would but if I couldn’t and we needed intervention then that was ok too.

What is life like now and how do you honour Albert?

Louie (13) and Harry (8) know they have a brother and he is part of our everyday life. My brother in law and his wife named a star after him, so stars are a big deal in our house. There are lots of subtle nods around the house too and on us that keep his memory alive. A candle is lit most nights and he’s just always there with us.

Milestones are tricky as they are constant reminders of what should have been. However, the rest of the world didn’t stop on that day just because ours did.

His birthday is always a celebration, spent together, just like we would do with Louie and Harry on their birthdays. The build up to the day I find harder. All the looking back on each day, remembering each bit like it was yesterday but I embrace it now. Albert made me a mummy, made me the person I am today and as sad a day as it is, I want to remember him with a smile. I look at Louie and Harry all the time and wonder what Albert would have looked like, a perfect blend of the two of them, I think.

We planted a tree in our garden and then the day came where we decided to move.  It was such a wrench to leave it behind but I did manage to take a bit with me. Someone recommended someone locally who could freeze the leaves and make a bead for me, so I have a bracelet dedicated to the Bridge Boys with something from all of them on it.

Also, every year, my sister in law and her family give us a Christmas tree bauble dedicated to Albert. Again, something so simple but they take pride of place on our tree.

What things have you found helpful over the past 15 years with your grief, and what has been unhelpful?

One of the simplest things I think is friends and family acknowledging that we have 3 boys and I honestly think talking about him and keeping his memory alive is what helps. Albert was our first born and will always be and he is a part of our family.

It’s still a subject that some find difficult to talk about but sadly it happens all too often and I need to talk about him. I haven’t stopped talking about my dad after he passed away, or my grandparents, so to me what’s the difference? I can talk freely to people who know me and knew me at the time, however when I’m in a new situation I sometimes worry about how people might respond.  It’s an uncomfortable subject for some but it’s a harsh reality of life for others and something we, as bereaved parents, shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable to talk about. Some may not know what to say but saying nothing is ok, just listening is sometimes all that’s needed.

Please add anything else you would like to share or you think it would be important for other parents to know.

Albert would have been 15 in January next year and I think we are still navigating our way through. He’s the missing piece in our family and not a day goes by where he’s not in our minds.

At the time there was such a focus on me, I think there should be more support for the other parent. Just because they didn’t carry their baby or give birth to their baby it doesn’t mean their feeling of loss is any less. In a way, I think for us, Ashley kind of not only lost his baby but also his wife as I’m not the same person I was before. It does change you, both of you, and it can put a massive strain on a relationship and that is something I wasn’t prepared for.

Be selfish too if you need to. As much as you want the world to stop with you, sadly it doesn’t and life still goes on around you. It’s ok to say no and for no reason. Do whatever you need to do. It’s your pain, your grief and no one can tell you how you should and shouldn’t feel.

The final thing I want to say is, take your time when making any decisions afterwards. There are a couple of things that I wish we’d taken a bit more time over to decide. I don’t regret any decisions we made, I just wish we’d given ourselves a bit more time.

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