‘My baby’s ashes arrived by courier along with a shopping delivery for my neighbour’
Tracey Smith is still angry over her ordeal before and after her daughter’s stillbirth
Chloe, Cian, Tracey, Jamie, Kieran and Callum Smith: “There was no help available to us and while the boys were too young to understand, it was hard on Chloe,” says Tracey
When Tracey Smith gave birth to her fourth child, she thought her heart would break in two.
Instead of rejoicing the arrival of her second daughter, the Mayo woman and her husband, Kieran, were in a delivery room in Liverpool as their stillborn baby made a silent entrance into the world.
Tracey, who welcomed their fifth child two years ago, says the whole experience was “unnecessary and unspeakably cruel”.
“When I was pregnant with Grace everything was perfect until the 22-week scan,” she says. “At this point we had no idea that anything was wrong, but then a consultant told us that her bones were measuring short and so was her chest cavity, which wouldn’t allow her organs to grow properly.
“My initial thought was that she might have a form of dwarfism or Down syndrome and if so, this was something that we could manage fine with. But then she said something about her being incompatible with life and I couldn’t quite understand what I was being told – it seemed impossible that she was saying that my baby was not going to live.”
After further tests, Tracey and Kieran were told that their unborn daughter had a condition called thanatophoric dysplasia and would never get the chance to meet her parents or siblings.
“We were totally shocked to hear that our baby was going to die and would not even live to her due date,” says Tracey, who is also mum to Chloe (15), twins Cian and Jamie (6) and Callum (2). “I already had a bump at this stage and people were stopping me in the street asking when it was due, which was unbearable, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell them the truth. So we decided the best course of action would be induction, as there was no way I could go through another couple of months knowing that my baby was dying inside me.
“I said to the consultant that I would like to be induced, but was told that I should go home for six weeks and then they would check if she was still alive. I couldn’t believe what I was being told – surely they weren’t going to leave me like this? I was informed that I couldn’t be induced in Ireland as it wasn’t allowed, so my best option would be go to the UK and have the procedure done there – this was my first-ever experience of the Eighth Amendment [which recognises the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child].
“I was very confused by everything as not only was my baby’s impending death a massive thing to take in, but now I was told that I would have to go to England if I wanted to put an end to the ordeal,” she says.
“I didn’t want to go, but as people continued to ask about my pregnancy, I knew I just had to bring forward the inevitable. Kieran was completely lost as he just didn’t know what to do to help, but we both knew that our baby was dying and we had to do what was best for her and the rest of the family.
“I started to ring around places in the UK and initially had no luck at all. Liverpool women’s hospital was recommended to me, but they said they had too many Irish couples booked in at that time so couldn’t take any more as they needed to look after their own local patients as well.
“I also rang a place in London and was told they could give me medicine to bring on the labour, but then I would have to go home to give birth – this of course was also not possible as I couldn’t do it on my own – so I rang another place, this time in Birmingham, but they were so cold on the phone that I didn’t even bother asking them and just hung up.
“I tried to banish everything from my mind except finding a way to induce my poor baby. Planning helped to take me away from reality so I spoke to the IFPA [Irish Family Planning Association] and, although they couldn’t help me, they did offer counselling which was actually very beneficial and I also spoke to a midwife in the maternity hospital.
“Then as a last resort, I rang Liverpool again and I don’t know if someone had intervened on my behalf, but they told me that they could book me in for St Patrick’s Day 2014. We borrowed money from family as it was very expensive and flew out from Knock airport on March 16th for the appointment the following day.
“The plane was full of people in festive mood and when we arrived in our hotel, the receptionist asked if we were over to celebrate St Patrick’s Day – we couldn’t even respond.
“That night in the hotel, I stayed awake all night as I didn’t want to waste one second with my baby,” she recalls. “I couldn’t feel anything, but I just wanted to be with her for as long as possible and the following morning when we took a taxi to the hospital, both Kieran and I said that we felt incredibly lost, lonely and isolated from the rest of the world. We had no idea what was about to happen and with people out celebrating St Patrick’s Day, our situation felt so unreal and just desperately sad.
“I still had a glimmer of hope as I knew the doctors would do their own tests before the induction, but I was devastated when they told us that they couldn’t find my baby’s lungs on the scan – this meant she had already died and that’s when the realisation of what was happening finally hit home. I was heartbroken.”
Tracey was induced and, after a 36-hour labour, gave birth to a tiny baby girl – Grace.
“I was given a pill to induce me and told to go for a walk around the city as things could take a long time – that was very surreal,” she says. “When we went back to the hospital we were put into a room on a ward with other women who were also giving birth. They tried to isolate us as much as possible, but I could hear new babies crying and it was very distressing.
“By contrast, the silence when Grace was born was indescribable. I cannot even begin to explain how awful both Kieran and I felt. The midwives were amazing and did all they could – they washed her and dressed her in the clothes I had brought with me and then a priest came to bless her – it was an extremely upsetting time.”
Little Grace would be cremated but the procedure meant it would take a couple of weeks and, as Tracey and Kieran had to get back to their other children and could not afford to return, their daughter’s funeral would take place without them.
“Having to say goodbye to Grace was unbearable,” says Tracey. “We couldn’t make it back for her funeral so the priest went through all the hymns which would be sung and we placed some teddies in her crib from home – then we had to leave her.
“We returned back to Ireland and, three weeks later, her ashes arrived by courier along with an Asos delivery for my neighbour – that was just awful. I know her death was inevitable, but how it happened was so cruel – in this day and age it is just incredible that anyone should have to go through an ordeal like that.”
The family tried their best to make sense of what happened – on the day of Grace’s funeral, they went to the beach and released balloons in her memory and now her ashes take pride of place in the house – and go everywhere with the family.
“We don’t ever want her to be alone, so she comes with us wherever we go,” says Tracey. “It was so hard to try and get our lives back on track afterwards. There was no help available to us and while the boys were too young to understand, it was hard on Chloe.
“I don’t really remember how I coped in the weeks after Grace’s death but on her third anniversary I wrote a blog about what had happened. I hadn’t intended to write it, but just blurted it out on my phone one day and I think being publicly angry was very beneficial for me.
“For ages, I had kept it to myself, but I realised that I had nothing to be ashamed of and keeping it in was only making things worse. So I think that sharing my feelings with others really helped and a huge amount of women contacted me to say that they had similar experiences – I was astounded but it was good to have other people to relate to.”
Over three years after the death of her daughter, Tracey still feels very sad and angry that she had to go through such an ordeal.
She says it’s important for women to be open about their feelings and know that whatever decision they make will be the right one for their family.
“I don’t think you ever really get over something like this but my advice to anyone else who is in a similar situation would be to firstly think about the prognosis and ask for advice from a group such as TFMR (Terminate for Medical Reasons),” she says.
“But mostly I would like to say that we haven’t done anything wrong and we should never beat ourselves up about whatever decision we have to make.
"Every parent wants the best for their baby and although we may have to make some very hard choices, ultimately we do what we have to do because we know it is the right choice.”