‘Your baby’s heart has stopped’: Hell and healing after the stillbirth of my son

I was days from giving birth when I felt him slow. I didn’t know he could just stop living at full term

Katie Allen: ‘The maternity ward was quiet. It felt empty, but it probably wasn’t. I was seen immediately by a friendly but calm midwife.’ Photograph: iStock

Katie Allen: ‘The maternity ward was quiet. It felt empty, but it probably wasn’t. I was seen immediately by a friendly but calm midwife.’ Photograph: iStock

 

I woke to the barely-there contractions of early labour. It was a few days before my due date in my second pregnancy – a pregnancy seemingly without complications. The Moses basket was out and my hospital bag packed; everything was ready for our baby boy. He was kicking as normal.

As the day went on, my contractions remained mild and far apart. I kept to the plan discussed with our midwives: stay at home as long as possible, no rushing to the maternity ward. I took our two-year-old son, Alex, for a walk with a friend and we collected conkers. When I sang Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star at Alex’s bedtime, the baby kicked hard, as he had done most days, as if he recognised the song, knew our routine.

Not long afterwards a shiver went through me. Something felt wrong. The baby’s movements had slowed.

I called the number for our community midwives. Had I tried drinking something cold, eating the things that made him kick, the midwife asked. I had, but I tried again while on the phone. Nothing. She told me to go to my hospital, King’s in south London, and to explain I had hardly felt the baby move for a while.

I asked the doctors to restart his heart. It couldn’t stop beating while he was still attached, surely? I’m alive, so he must be, I said. Get him out, save him. ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ the doctor said. ‘He has died’

I took a minicab, leaving my husband at home with our sleeping son. I imagined someone would scan the baby, reassure me and send me home to try to sleep before my labour really got going. At the very worst, they would tell me the baby was in some kind of danger and he would be delivered by emergency Caesarean section. His father would miss the birth, but they would have all the years that followed.

The maternity ward was quiet. It felt empty, but it probably wasn’t. I was seen immediately by a friendly but calm midwife. She was silent as she scanned our baby, running over and over him, then stopping in one place.

I don’t know who told me. I have different versions in my mind, though only one can be true. I think the midwife went out and came back with a doctor. I do remember the words. “Your baby’s heart has stopped.”

Another doctor came in, scanned and told me the same. I refused to believe it.

I asked the doctors to restart his heart. It couldn’t stop beating while he was still attached, surely? I’m alive, so he must be, I said. Get him out, save him.

“It doesn’t work like that,” the doctor said. “He has died.”

Still I would not believe it. I told them that my brother and my father had both died so there was no way my son could die. The doctors had to tell me again: our baby was dead.

I called my husband, and, as the phone rang, I contemplated telling him to come, but not why. Maybe it could wait. But that felt wrong, so I told him: “The baby’s heart stopped.” I didn’t say the words “dead” or “died”.

Our friend, who was on standby to look after Alex, arrived at our house and my husband came to the hospital. By then it was late at night. We were taken to a delivery room where a brilliant midwife looked after us. She kept us talking, distracted us with stories, organised an epidural. When I was so distressed that I couldn’t stop wailing “sorry” and that it was all my fault, she brought in doctors to reason with me, to explain that sometimes babies just die. All through the night, the labour speeding up, I kept hoping they were wrong, that our baby would come out alive.

He was delivered on the morning of Sunday, September 26th, 2010. He had died at some point on the Saturday and was stillborn. We called him Finn.

Katie Allen: ‘The days became easier with the passing of time and with the psychotherapist’s support. We saw her again when I was pregnant for a third time.’ Photograph: Getty
Katie Allen: The days became easier with the passing of time and with the psychotherapist’s support. We saw her again when I was pregnant for a third time. Photograph: Getty

The midwife I had called the night before arrived for Finn’s birth and stayed with us afterwards. She asked if we wanted her to take photos of us holding him. I am so glad she did. We didn’t know what to do; we were still in total disbelief that our son was not alive.

In truth, I thought stillbirth was something that happened centuries ago. I knew babies could die from complications during delivery or after birth, but I had told myself it hardly ever happened, and I did not know a full-term baby could simply stop living in the womb.

Back home without Finn, I tidied, cleaned and made biscuits all exactly the same size – anything to feel in control. At night I felt for him kicking. In the mornings I woke up having forgotten about the hospital, and for a moment thinking I was still pregnant. Then I would remember.

I clung to our toddler’s routine: naps, meals, walks to collect more conkers. He loved dancing to Lady Gaga and Abba, and they were playing most of his waking hours. Alex was old enough to ask where his promised baby brother was but too young to understand the answer.

One of the hardest things in those early days was telling people what had happened. Friends were expecting happy news and baby pictures; instead we had to find the words to say our son had died just before he was born.

People were kind and supportive, but didn’t know what to say. The house filled with flowers and cards. Friends donated to our charity fundraiser, which we held in Finn’s memory. Many wrote letters and emails, dropped off cakes. Some stayed to talk.

My friend Naomi phoned every morning, asking: “Is today a good day or a bad day?”

She promised me I would get through the worst days, that they would become fewer, and, of course, she was right.

There were some more hurtful moments – but thankfully they were rare. A baby announcement arrived in the post, and its picture of a newborn floored me

Other parents invited us on trips to the park. Friends took me out in the evenings, distracting me and, at the same time, repairing my battered self-esteem. Despite my grief, and my enduring sense of guilt about Finn’s death, their invitations told me I was still good company.

We went away with another family the weekend before Finn’s funeral. My brother looked after Alex so that my husband and I could get out of the house alone. Through the Sands stillbirth and neonatal-death charity, I made new friends who had also lost babies. We talked about what had happened to us, how others had reacted, our fears about trying again.

Some friends asked what had happened, and I was grateful to be given the chance to share our birth story, as distressing as it was. My oldest friend asked if I might show her photos of Finn, and it made him feel more real to me and eased my guilt about not having the usual baby pictures to share.

We had outstanding support from the NHS right from the moment the scan confirmed Finn had died. Our community midwives and health visitor answered our questions about practical elements, such as what would happen now I wasn’t breastfeeding, how to organise Finn’s funeral, and what to expect from the postmortem – which ultimately found no cause for Finn’s sudden death. A bereavement midwife dropped around a disc with photos taken of Finn at the hospital, for us to look at when we were ready. There were prints from his hands and feet, too. We had excellent care from the hospital psychotherapist.

Some people said nothing; usually people I didn’t know well, such as those at our toddler’s music group. They had seen me with a bump. Now the bump was gone and yet I was never with a baby. They probably assumed I had left the baby with a nanny or relative. I let them believe it. But the longer that went on, the more I worried about someone asking.

Things just happen, no reason. Nature is wonderful and cruel. Alex and Ella grew, went to nursery, to school. We still talk about Finn. The photo of us holding him is on the wall in our house

With hindsight, at both that group and at Alex’s nursery, I wish I had emailed someone in charge and asked them to tell the other parents what had happened. All the guessing by them and counterguessing by me could have been avoided.

There were some more hurtful moments – but thankfully they were rare. A baby announcement arrived in the post and its picture of a newborn floored me. I would never begrudge anyone else their healthy baby, but that card left me sobbing: “Why can’t I have my baby too?”

There was a dinner just weeks after Finn’s death when no one mentioned what had happened to us. I suspect our friends wanted to give us a night off from our grief, but we wondered if the message was not to talk about our son any more.

With all these situations – unanswered emails, the nursery gate, strange dinners – I felt it would always have been better to say something rather than nothing to a grieving person. Even a simple “How’s it been going?” gives the person a chance to talk – or they can respond with a “fine” or “so-so” if they would rather not.

Then again, not all things that were said to us were helpful. One reaction to Finn’s death stood out. It was from someone I didn’t know well, but whom I had promised to let know that our baby had arrived safely. I texted that I was sorry to share sad news and that Finn had died. Then came the reply that “everything happens for a reason”.

The phrase infuriated me. With all the pain and injustice in the world, how could someone believe that? It also deepened my guilt. The reason was surely something I had done, or would have done had Finn lived – I clearly wasn’t fit to be his mother.

Things just happen, no reason. Nature is wonderful and cruel.

I like to think that, in different circumstances, I would have dismissed “everything happens for a reason”. But in shock and desperately wanting life to make sense, it consumed me. I made lists of possible reasons and asked anyone who would listen if they believed it.

The days became easier with the passing of time and with the psychotherapist’s support. We saw her again when I was pregnant for a third time, with Ella, who is now nine. I let go of “everything happens for a reason”.

Things just happen, no reason. Nature is wonderful and cruel. Alex and Ella grew, went to nursery, to school. We talked, and still talk, about Finn. The photo of us holding him is on the wall in our house.

I returned to work, covering economics at the Guardian newspaper. My job as a reporter was busy and rewarding, but something niggled at me. I wanted to write something longer, more creative. Then the character of Rachel Summers came to me, and I began writing her story. Her son is stillborn like Finn, and Rachel, too, is told that “everything happens for a reason”.

She is certain she knows the reason. The day she found out she was pregnant, she had stopped a man from jumping in front of a train. The man must have taken her baby’s place and she resolves to track him down. What started as a character became a novel that I hope brings baby loss a little further out of the shadows. Its title is that phrase that so tormented me, Everything Happens for a Reason. I still hate those words.

Yet I know it’s hard to find the right words when someone is grieving. Despite losing a son, a brother and my parents, I still struggle to write something that might be of comfort in condolence cards. Ultimately, I know that whatever I say, I can never give a bereaved person their loved one back. But I do believe that the better we become at talking about death, the less isolating grief will feel.

You can contact Féileacáin, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland, via its website; Everything Happens for a Reason, by Katie Allen, is published by Orenda Books

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