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The unspoken tragedy of stillbirth; a male perspective

It was around 9:30am and I was walking on air, down the hill from the Whittington hospital in London, sunshine and snow flakes falling like confetti – a bright day – snow flakes should have been improbable but this morning was pure magic.  A small photograph in my bag of a baby (a girl unknown to me at the time).  The image measured her at around 3cm, in truth she was hardly recognisable as a baby, but I had been shown where to look on the image. I had absolute joy in my heart at the creation of this being.  I went to work that day straight from the appointment, I still had the scan photo in my bag and could not resist sharing it with my colleagues, beaming and smiling.

Weeks quickly passed and all rather uneventfully.  We were busy caring for each other. I was probably a somewhat doting father to be, ensuring the expectant mother’s fatigue levels were managed, attending to craving needs, learning about the right foods to eat, what to do and what not to do, attending all the appointments and visits; I was very involved. We had the pregnancy books that described what was happening week by week and we kind of had a schedule to read together each week.  It was a lovely time.

As the weeks passed we named our child Serena, we knew it was a girl from a follow-up scan and wanted to be able to prepare for her.  She was growing nicely. At some point, I can’t recall exactly when, the first flutter of butterfly wings were felt in my partner’s belly.  I could feel them too, “Simon” my partner would say, “come and touch them she is fluttering.”  She would guide my hand onto the right spot, I would wait very still, all concentration focused on the feelings in my fingers, waiting, for something, then, the flutter, a movement, wonderful!

As she grew butterfly flutters turned to somersaults and massive contortions of flesh as elbows and knees protruded and moved. Serena would respond to sounds, voices, even my voice!  I had a song I would sing, I would press my head onto the belly and sing:

If you go down in the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise
If you go down in the woods today you’d better go in disguise
For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain
Because today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic

Every Teddy Bear who’s been good is sure of a treat today
There’s lots of marvellous things to eat and wonderful games to play
Beneath the trees where nobody sees they’ll hide and seek as long as they please
That’s the way the Teddy Bears have their picnic
Picnic time for Teddy Bears
The little Teddy Bears are having a lovely time today
Watch them, catch them unawares and see them picnic on their holiday
See them gaily gad about
They love to play and shout
They never have any cares

At six o’clock their Mummies and Daddies will take them home to bed
‘Cause they’re tired little Teddy Bears
If you go down in the woods today you better not go alone
It’s lovely down in the woods today but saver to stay at home
For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain
Because today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic

Henry Hall

I did not know the lyrics, I learnt them for her, for my baby girl.

The second trimester passed, and we were into the third.  We had moved house and began to setup home for Serena.  We had been to various baby swap events, had a nice cot, some clothes, and other items.  We had moved into a lovely little apartment overlooking the docklands of London, it had a river view, big floor to ceiling windows that caught the evening sunset over the water, fantastic.

I think there was a really hot Sunday and we spent the day preparing, I painted up the baby cot with some new varnish. The next day my brother came to visit for dinner. He lived far but was in London for business on the Monday.  My wife had told me that Serena’s normal morning exercise routine – summersault, kicks  and elbow gouges – was absent that day. We ate curry, I cooked it, I like cooking and spent hours making the curry, freshly ground spices and slow cooked.  After dinner Serena was still strangely quiet.  My heart felt assurances turned to some slight anxiety.   We decided to go to the hospital to have things checked.

We attended the royal London hospital this time, I had a friend who was a midwife there. However, it’s choice was just governed by location really and my friend was not working that day.  A kindly midwife lay my partner down on a bed, wheeled in a heart rate monitor machine.  It had chords leading to big suckers that fitted onto my partners big belly.  The midwife was young, short bobbed hair, slightly blonde ginger and freckled, jolly and very nice.

She connected the machine up and played with some of the buttons and dials on the machine, I held my wife’s hand and squeezed, looked at her and smiled for reassurances, telling myself and her that this was all fine.  We all just waited for the thud, thud ,thud of the heartbeat.   Hear it comes, I thought.  The mid-wife began to adjust the suckers, took them off, reapplied.  I squeezed my partners hand again, my partner said, “Simon, its all okay isn’t it?”  I nodded, “It will be fine”.  Inside I was beginning to panic. Seconds dragged out like minutes. The midwife began to move the suckers again, she looked more desperate. Her face began to redden, I will never forget the redness of her face and the flustered movements – she knew. Everything was now running in slow motion.

After seconds, maybe a minute, who knows, she said, “I’ll get another machine this one is not working.”  She hurried off.  We waited as she wheeled in another machine. I can’t recall if at this point she was joined by a colleague, but the atmosphere was changing.  She hooked up a fresh machine, and nothing.  They exchanged glances, I knew too, we knew.  A doctor appeared, a little Indian, maybe she had been there a while, I don’t know. Time just hung.  My partner was just calling out, “Simon, its  all right? Isn’t it, Simon, Simon…Simon”.   I felt helpless, I could do nothing.  They had drawn the curtain, around the bed, the doctor said that they needed to check fully but they could not find a heart beat and the baby was likely dead.

-x-

This has been something I have wanted to write for a while, it’s been over 10 years since this happened. Attending a funeral yesterday strengthened my resolve to finally write this. It brought back memories of that little coffin in an empty chapel, just me, my partner, her sister, a christian monk and a little plain wooden coffin.   I hope that writing it down and putting it out to the world gives another kind of closure, the pain is still there, I can still cry about this and that’s fine, it’s human. Getting over something does not mean that the painful memories turn to rainbows and sunshine, but it does mean that I accept and understand the nature of life and events, that I understand and feel a communion with humanity. I feel humbled by events, like a stone washed up in the sea that has lost its hardness, it’s all part of being alive.

Still birth is quite common – 3,600 deaths per year in the UK, one for every 200 pregnancy.  Its not something discussed or considered until is happened.  It’s an utter tragedy. Apart from the trauma of the death itself, there is the carrying of the dead baby for a few days while the labour is induced, then the giving birth of a dead baby that follows. In the UK we have the issue of organising both a birth and death certificate, then a funeral with a coffin that is painfully tiny.  What follows is a looking for answers,’ what did we do wrong?’

For anyone that has been through this or is going through this – you are not alone.  Be strong, its hard.  Time can heal this. We don’t know the full journey of our lives, we don’t know how things will be in future, so have hope as things can improve (Living free; shedding the good and bad labels).

For us, in true Hollywood style we got a happy ending.   Two years later we had Lara – our little lion as she was always so big and strong – and three years after that we had Jay – our peaceful zen master.  The tragedy was all part of our journey into parenthood.   Tragedy can happen.  I don’t for a second assume that the story of life is complete.  Life can change in a heartbeat, so I just try to savour the moments that I have, enjoy the company of those I love and give out love.  The truth is that everything passes and all things have an end. That’s the life we live.  I take from all of this a greater intensity within the transient moments of life (Freud’s requiem and the joy of transience) and my children have the absolute adoration and love of their father.

Everything flows and nothing stays.
Everything flows and nothing abides.
Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.
Everything flows; nothing remains.
All is flux, nothing is stationary.
All is flux, nothing stays still.
All flows, nothing stays.

Various versions of a quote from Heraclitus of Ephesus, 500 bc

Love and peace.

And this, for me, is forever Serena’s song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZANKFxrcKU

114 Comments »

  1. Tears started streaming when I saw the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” song.
    My father is a man of few words and does not sing.
    But he sang three songs to me. One was a very old toothpaste commercial.
    The other was the “Rubber Duckie” song.
    The third was the teddy bear song.
    I had plans to end my own life today. And when I saw the lyrics to that song, I imagined the sorrow in my father’s heart and changed my tune completely.
    I guess some things happen for a reason.

    Like

    • Aww, just survive Marlies, time is a slow but wonderful healer. Everything changes, sometimes, speaking from my own experience surviving is enough to achieve while time slowly and often imperceptibly does its thing. Wishing you well ❤ have you reached out to a counsellor or support ?

      Like

  2. Tears started streaming when I saw the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” song.
    My father is a man of few words and does not sing.
    But he sang three songs to me. One was a very old toothpaste commercial.
    The other was the “Rubber Duckie” song.
    The third was the teddy bear song.
    I had plans to end my own life today. And when I saw the lyrics to that song, I imagined the sorrow in my father’s heart and changed my tune completely.
    I guess some things happen for a reason.

    Like

    • Aww, just survive Marlies, time is a slow but wonderful healer. Everything changes, sometimes, speaking from my own experience surviving is enough to achieve while time slowly and often imperceptibly does its thing. Wishing you well ❤ have you reached out to a counsellor or support ?

      Like

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