I wish to share the story of the infant loss my family experienced when I was 6 years old, my brothers were two and four, when my mother lost her fourth child at birth, my little sister Susan. To this day, just touching into the emotions around this time makes me well up with tears. The impact of her loss has been the seminal experience of my life, and is why my acupuncture practice, my teaching, my writing, plus the work I do as a doula and as an antenatal teacher is entirely based in helping people to have healthy children.
When Susan died it was 1968. She was taken from my parents at birth, in a time when fathers were still not allowed into the labour room, and neither my mother nor my father ever saw her. My mother came home from the hospital a mere three days later, and she then fell into a place of utter desolation and absolute isolation. At the time, the hospital chaplain, her doctors, our parish priest all believed this death was best dealt with by pretending as if nothing had happened.
There was no funeral.
How I wish with all my heart that this had been different. We belonged to a church community of over 400 families. A funeral would have meant that the entire congregation would have had permission to call on my family, to cook for us, to bring my mother tea and sympathy, a kind word, a comforting touch, someone to vigil with her as she came to terms with her loss, giving her an opportunity to be in sympathetic company to express and share her grief.
Instead she was stranded into a no-man’s land of utterly alone, in despair, and she did indeed fall into a profound post natal depression coupled with an unprocessed grief of astronomical proportions. Being the 60’s the answer was ‘Mothers Little Helper’, and she was put on to 4 years of Valium. So not only did we lose my sister, we also lost our mother as she disappeared into a stoned haze of barely coping, and on top of that we also lost our father. In his isolation he became a workaholic of the long hours barely there variety, and the schism between my parents never recovered from the dividing they experienced at Susan’s death. My father tumbled further into an ever increasing alcoholism, numbing his pain of unresolved grief, and my mother has never to this day ever truly resolved or dealt with the grief that not only meant the loss of her daughter, but was also the beginning of the end of her marriage.
My brothers were so little at the time, they only ever knew the unspoken tensions of our home, yet never truly knew why. My youngest brother made the choice to not have children, and though he will not talk about it, I believe that all the taboo around Susan’s death has potentially influenced his choice to not have children. My middle brother had also felt that way, until he met the right woman, and in their 40’s they have been so very fortunate to have two healthy daughters, though with all the heartache of 4 miscarriages in between.
I am telling this story because I wish to communicate how the impact of loss is something that will never go away. I have learned, through the loss of the little sister that I never knew, that in stepping into one’s grief and in fully embracing the loss, and in opening our hearts to allow our community to support us, it is possible to resonate the grief into the normal boundaries that it should have. Ignoring grief will amplify it into such a high pitched resonance it can become an all consuming hindrance to moving forward in our lives.
I also wish to communicate that in the 40 something years since Susan died there has been a seed change of profound proportions, and that what we experienced as a family in the 1960’s is highly unlikely to ever occur in today’s society and in today’s healthcare provision.
Today, when a baby dies, both the mother and father are given as much time as they might need with their baby, to hold and grieve and to begin the long process of letting go. The support network within the hospitals is there to provide parents with as much counselling and chaplaincy as they might ask for, and the awareness to support families through the grief process is well understood throughout NHS care.
Parents now are given as many mementos as is possible, ink prints of feet, hospital bracelets, a lock of hair – the keepsakes that help us to know that this person was here, that this person glimpsed in and out of our lives, but that they were fully loved and wanted and needed. Parents are encouraged to hold their baby and love their baby and to take absolutely as much time as required to be able to say a proper goodbye to their baby.
My mother never said goodbye, and one of the saddest moments of my life was when she told me that this was THE greatest regret of her lifetime.
The unpacking of these immense emotions is so very important. As I write this the tears are now streaming down my face as the fullness of unexpressed grief yet again rears its head within my heart and I am overwhelmed by the feelings of loss that came with Susan leaving us. When I am working with anyone who has lost a child, at whatever stage that may be, I always encourage that it is so important to create a ritual, a ‘funeral’ ceremony. However that may be meaningful to those parents.
One of the most poignant I knew was a couple who lost a baby at 20 weeks, an American couple. They bought 20 red roses and sat vigil for their loss for 20 days. They then placed the now dried rose petals into a beautiful box and walked down onto the Millennium Bridge, and then looking up the Thames, in the dusk, the iconic lights of the city sparkling on the river, they handful by handful scattered the petals onto the water below, saying goodbye to their London baby under the watching spires of St Pauls and Big Ben and Westminster Palace.
The day I realised that there had never been a funeral for Susan, I was 32 years old. It was a shocking realisation and I suddenly became aware of this unspoken story within our family, and how, after all these years, still NO ONE talked about it. I began to call on my family, one at a time, and through careful detective work began to unwind the story, bringing together the collage of experiences to find the whole picture. This was my healing, this was how I came to accept and deal with all those hidden angsts that were the foundation of our childhood.
And so I decided to make a funeral. On a sunny afternoon in early spring, on Susan’s birthday, in nature’s church, a beautiful Cotswold’s forest, I made a hole in the ground that I dug with my bare hands. In absence of any Susan mementos I buried my own christening mug and my favourite stuffed bunny, and a bonnet my auntie had knit for me when I was born. And just as I smoothed the earth over this little grave of heartfelt cherished pieces of childhood, a group of 4 children ran by, shouting and laughing and chasing each other through the trees. Bringing up the rear was the littlest girl, two plaits bouncing down her back – and had any of them turned and shouted out ‘Susan’ I would not have been the slightest bit surprised. My perfect farewell to my little sister - we said our long lost goodbye in the joyful song of children laughing and playing.
There is no way through loss except to go through it. If you are suffering a pregnancy or infant loss, please know that you are not alone and that in reaching out you will find so much love and support and understanding. Hard as it is, there is a way through it. Hold hands and bravely step into the grief. Know that your love of your little one will never go away, and though you will not know them, they will always know you love them.
As well as your own family and community of friends, here in the UK you can always turn to your GP, midwife and health visitor for support. The hospitals all have chaplains there to support you, and we have many excellent child bereavement charities and support groups.