Why Is Stillbirth & Miscarriage Still A Taboo Subject?
There have been a few celebrities in the news recently who have been open and exposed in their grief about losing their baby and going through stillbirth or miscarriage. An everyday occurrence but still a subject quite taboo, with many women holding onto a lifetime of pain.
A magazine article last week touched on women pre 1990 who never knew what had happened to their stillborn baby. Only now are they finding out where they have been buried. They had been whisked away after birth and parents had not been able to say goodbye or bury them. Today it is fortunately much different. Parents are able to spend a few hours and even days with their lost baby, and then arrange a little burial service with family or close friends. By doing this it makes the distressing event more real and also gives proper closure, even though painful.
In the Uk, if a baby dies before 24 weeks (as early as 6 weeks) of pregnancy it is termed as a miscarriage. After this, the baby is born dead and known as a stillbirth. It happens in around 1 in every 200 births in England. Sometimes it can be linked to complications with the placenta, a birth defect, the mother’s health, or no cause is found. If the baby is found to have died the mother has to wait for labour to start naturally or it may be induced. I sometimes get a little upset when the two terms are categorized together. Although both distressing, in my experience they are not the same.
It was early 1990 that I realised I had fallen pregnant. My big family wedding had been booked for 1st September that year with my dress being specially made. What started out as a slimline number turned out to have to be a full-skirted voluminous dress to hide my growing bump! It was still frowned upon to be pregnant outside of marriage and my father had even suggested an abortion!
Only a few family members knew as I walked up the aisle 6 mths pregnant with my very large bouquet. My lovely Gran had been very sick with cancer but managed to turn up on the big day, much to my happiness.
My pregnancy was generally good. I wasn’t a drinker or smoker and no underlying health problems so I just assumed everything would go to plan. Being my first baby I didn’t really know what to expect but I attended my routine antenatal classes and checkups with the doctor.
Sadly my Gran died on the 11th of November. At her funeral, I remember being so overcome with grief. She had been one of my favourite people in the world. I had a very strange dream after her passing as I remember seeing her sitting on the end of my bed. It felt so real. What I didn’t know at that moment was that a few weeks later I would be stricken with grief again.
At 36 weeks I’d gone for my routine visit to my doctor when he was concerned he couldn’t pick up the baby’s heartbeat. I suddenly wondered if with all that had been going on I had not realised my normally very active bump had not been so active. It was one of those moments driving to the hospital to be checked out further that you say to yourself it can’t be happening. Please God let everything be ok! Although deep down I knew something wasn’t right. I had been very restless during the latter part of my pregnancy, not being able to sleep at night.
After several scans at the hospital, they confirmed there was no heartbeat and my baby had died. I needed to be admitted and induced for the baby to be born. I think I was in a part daze as I took the drugs to start the induction. It took several days for full onset labour. Cesareans are not offered and I was told it helps with a woman’s grieving process to have to go through natural labour. It was a long and painful labour and I remember, having been quite calm up until then, that my screams must have been heard throughout the maternity ward. Not only screams of pain but of fear, built-up tension and terror of what was happening. In effect the screams of a primal woman who had lost control of her situation and for me the unknown of what I was giving birth to.
Katrina was tiny but perfectly formed when she was stillborn on the 28th November ’90, weighing just under 5lb. She looked as if she was just asleep and I half expected her to wake up. She was wrapped in a blanket and taken away whilst I needed some stitches, then placed in a cot next to my bed. It’s strange really as no one actually put her in my arms or asked if I wanted to hold her. I had just turned 26 years of age and didn’t know what was expected. It is one regret that has stayed with me all my life that she was so close yet so untouchable.
We were provided with an instant camera black and white photo of her (no mobiles in those days) and advised about funeral arrangements. We were told a post-mortem would be carried out to see if there was any reason for her death. I remember walking out of the hospital a few days later without my baby bump, just a postpartum tummy, and my milk starting to come in. I remember walking past the other pregnant mums being admitted and feeling a great emptiness inside.
Rightly or wrongly I was advised by my parents not to go to her funeral (another regret but something the young and naive Suzanne accepted). My parents went alone and my father had arranged a little plot in the nearby cemetery. (I still visit yearly with some pink roses). We were not offered any form of counselling in those days. My midwife told me to put cabbage leaves on my boobs to help alleviate my breast milk and eat dark chocolate to build up my iron levels!
After a six-week wait, we had our appointment with the Consultant. He advised the cause of her death was unknown apart from having the cord wrapped around her neck twice. And that I was ok to try for another baby after my period’s had returned to normal. At such an early stage in our marriage, I think it was the start and the end of our relationship. Despite being married for 20+ years we never talked about Katrina or spoke about our emotions. I did my Scorpio thing of internalizing. My then-husband turned to hang out with his brothers and allude to all responsibility.
A Year Later
Fortunately, I fell very quickly with my second pregnancy and gave birth to my son the following October. I had been closely monitored and spent the last four weeks in hospital before being induced at 39 weeks. Strangely and tragically another mother had a stillbirth on the night Ben was born. The midwives asked if I would comfort her but in the end, she wasn’t up to it.
The memories still stay with me. Not just the loss but the whole rollercoaster of emotions at the time. Returning to work with all my pregnant colleagues was tough and I had to put on a brave front. It’s been 30 years now, yet still seems like yesterday. In today’s modern maternity units stillbirths are still happening and many more mothers face the same tragic consequences.
Unless mothers are able to voice their grief they can become consumed with self-guilt, anger, and depression. And we will carry on asking ‘Why Is Stillbirth & Miscarriage Still A Taboo Subject?’
Stillbirth & Neonatel Death Charity
How To Trace A Baby’s Grave
For anyone wanting to trace where their Stillborn baby was burried Paula Jackson from the charity Brief Lives-Remembered recommends asking at the nearest council-run cemetery to where the baby died.