'I Had Just Had My Own Baby, When My Sister Experienced a Stillbirth'
“Having known what it is like to bring a child into this world and care for them and love them so profoundly, I could vividly imagine the horror of losing them.”
Pregnancy loss is a devastating experience for a mother and father alike. Yet this remarkably common occurrence (around one in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage) is one that is often cloaked in silence. As most couples follow the advice not to disclose news of their pregnancy before the 12-week mark, many parents are left to grieve privately.
When a late-term miscarriage occurs, however, there is no hiding the grief, and while this means couples will receive the support needed to help them through this difficult time, many well-meaning friends and family are left unsure about how best to actually show that support.
Until the 20-week mark, my sister Natalie had experienced a fairly routine pregnancy – first trimester morning sickness, tiredness, a bout of insomnia – but otherwise, the pregnancy had been progressing well.
A week before her 20-week scan she’d come down with what appeared to be a mild case of the flu, but otherwise, she was in good health. However, at that midway scan, Natalie received the incomprehensible news that her baby’s heartbeat had stopped. Her beautiful girl had slipped away sometime in the proceeding week and she would have to deliver knowing her child would never draw a breath.
An autopsy would later reveal Natalie had contracted toxoplasmosis, which had been passed onto the baby. Toxoplasmosis is a relatively rare infection that can be transmitted by eating or coming into contact with raw or undercooked meat, contaminated raw produce, or being exposed to cat faeces (for example when changing kitty litter). Some of the symptoms of toxoplasmosis can be easily missed.
Symptoms of toxoplasmosis: ‘The news hit me hard ‘
As a mother myself (at that stage my own son was six-months-old), I believe the news hit me more profoundly than it would have if I’d been childless. Having known what it is to bring a baby into this world and care for them and love them so profoundly, I could vividly imagine the horror of losing them. (Of course, imagination is a paltry thing when faced with the actual real-life experience of losing a child.)
I knew the coming months would be unbearably difficult for my sister and I wanted to help her as best I could. However, having no prior experience of pregnancy loss I was initially unsure of how best to support her. I was nervous about saying the wrong thing and potentially upsetting her more. I also wanted her to know that I felt the pain of having lost my niece, and that she wasn’t alone in her grief.
Ultimately, at times guided by Natalie, at others by reading about other women’s accounts of pregnancy loss and what helped them, I identified three key ways to help my sister through her loss.
A mother first and foremost
Heartbreakingly, after she lost her baby Natalie struggled with whether she could rightly call herself a “mother”. If you’re supporting someone through miscarriage, assuring them that they are a mother – even though their child is no longer with them – is crucial. Australian charity, the Stillbirth Foundation reminds parents that, “Your child is, and always will be, a real part of your life. You are still a parent to that baby.”
Ups and downs
Understandably, my sister experienced a rollercoaster of emotions in those first few months. Amidst profound grief, she did have moments where she would almost momentarily forget what had happened and she’d be back to her happy-go-lucky self. She would then feel enormously guilty for this.
Says the Stillbirth Foundation: “You are allowed to take breaks from grieving and you are allowed to wake up some mornings and forget for a few moments that your baby has died. You’re not forgetting; you’re healing.”
The importance of a name
Parents of stillborn babies report the need for their child to be acknowledged. While you may never have gotten to meet them, to bereaved parents, that child is very much a part of their lives, so showing the respect of referring to them by name is paramount.
In fact, this year a national day of recognition known as ‘Say Their Name Day’ (25 March) was launched by charity Sands, to raise awareness about how helpful it can be for grieving parents to be able to talk openly about their loss and say their child’s name. I will often refer to my niece by name – especially around family celebrations – so that my sister knows her daughter is never far from our minds.
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“Speaking their child’s name is an immeasurable gift: a reminder that others too, remember and hold their child in their thoughts” – Ashleigh. One of the most common things bereaved parents tell Sands is how much the opportunity to say their baby’s name, and to hear it from others, means to them. On behalf of those parents we’ve claimed March 25 as ‘Say Their Name Day’ to honour each of those babies. This heart represents just a fraction of the hundreds of babies’ names that have been shared with Sands over the last few months from within our community. We know there are thousands more yet to be shared. Today is a day for everyone – parents, families and friends – to speak the names of those babies who were loved and lost. We invite you to name those babies below and we will #saytheirname with you. For families whose babies were not named, you can include your baby’s family name, a nickname used during pregnancy, a significant date, or meaningful symbol to represent them 💜
A child’s gift
A year after she lost her first daughter, Natalie discovered she was pregnant again, this time with twin girls. As was to be expected, she was anxious throughout a lot of the pregnancy – especially so in those first 20 weeks and even more so in the days leading up to the 20-week scan.
That milestone brought up so many overwhelming emotions – fear, grief, guilt, – facing it was a tough day, but one she got through with the support of her family.
By week 30 of the pregnancy, she was finally able to relax into it and by her due date, she was beyond ready to welcome her daughters into the world. The birth was a tough one, and again, brought up so many emotions given all she’d gone through the year before.
Recently, she admitted to me that while the grief never leaves, she knows that if she hadn’t lost her first daughter, then the two daughters she has now would not be here. That is the gift that her firstborn gave to her.
Symptoms of toxoplasmosis: Where to find help for difficulties with stillborn pregnancies
There are roughly 80 to 120 stillborns in Singapore each year, or 2 to 3 cases out of every 1,000 pregnancies.
It is heartbreaking if it happens to you or someone you know. If you have experienced this or know someone who is struggling with the grief from losing a baby, please use these contacts for further assistance.
- Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): Provides emotional support to those who are in despair or distressed – 1800-221-4444
- Pregnancy Crisis Service 6339 9770
- Sanctuary House 9817 0588
- Marymount Centre 6256 4440 / 6352 0181
- Family Life Society 6488 0278
This mother shares how her sister didn’t realise some of the symptoms of toxoplasmosis and how it affected her pregnancy. Thankfully, she has gone on to have twins a year later. Despite the tragic stillborn experience, may this teach us why it’s still important to say your baby’s name even if he/she isn’t with us anymore, as part of your healing process.
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