Over the past month, quite by accident (if one believes in this sort of ‘accident’ rather than understanding synchronicity) I’ve read three recent novels with neonatal loss at their hearts, all by Australian women*. The books, and a recent tragic family experience, have deeply touched me and caused me to evaluate one of my own experiences of death of a child.
Just before midnight, fifty years ago today, my third child was born following an induced labour at thirty-seven weeks, necessary because of the maternal preeclampsia which threatened to overwhelm both of us.
If I had not insisted on holding my baby, the midwife would have taken him immediately to the ward nursery and left me ‘to rest’. But I did hold him, and I put him to my breast, to the consternation of the midwife who said she’d never heard of such a thing. He sucked enthusiastically while I admired his lovely face, so like the faces of his older sister and brother, and yet so unique. I stroked him, held his tiny hands and touched each of his fingers, cradled his feet in my hand. In those few minutes while we were alone, I fell in love with the tiny boy.
Tragically, that was the last time I saw my baby. Sometime early the next morning, he was taken from the ward to the special care nursery, where he died with only staff members present.
No one told his father or me that he was ill and likely to die, or even that he’d been taken to the special nursery.
I woke in the morning and lay between the crisp sheets in my single room in a highly-regarded, private, maternity hospital, listening as the ward came alive. Babies screamed lustily. They’d spent the night in the ward nursery, where they were segregated from their mothers according to the custom of the time. Midwives trundled steel-wheeled, baby-laden trolleys along the linoleum corridor to breast-sore mothers, ready to feed their infants after an eight-hour separation.
When the ward returned to a silence broken only by the scurrying of nurses’ feet and the thud of closing doors, I rang my bell.
‘Where is my baby?’ I asked the midwife who appeared at the door. ‘Can you get him for me, please?’
‘Oh, just a minute,’ she answered, and turned on her heel.
I was not yet worried. My other babies had also been separated from me at birth. Perhaps I dozed. I don’t remember. Soon, someone placed a breakfast tray on the table by the bed.
‘Thanks, but I’m not ready to eat,’ I said. ‘I haven’t fed my baby yet.’
My next visitor was a tall, pleasant-looking nun with a stamp of authority in her bearing. She did not smile when she came into the room, and I do not recall whether I asked about my baby before she began to speak.
‘Dr P, your obstetrician, will be here any minute,’ she said. ‘He wants to talk to you.’ She paused, her gaze attracted momentarily by something in the garden outside the window. ‘We did everything we could, in the nursery… The paediatrician…’ she murmured vaguely.
I did not understand. Did not take in what she was saying.
‘We asked the priest to come and baptise him; we knew you’d want that…’ her voice trailed off.
At last I began to comprehend.
‘We named him “Paul” because he died on the feast-day of St Paul,’ the good sister said. ‘We didn’t know what name you and his father had chosen.’
I was angry that no one had told either of his parents that their precious baby was dying, almost as if we were of no consequence. Angry, too that our child had been given a name not of our choosing. These were basic parental rights that had been usurped. But I was young and unassertive, so I said nothing.
After all, that was the era when a baby could be removed from a woman if the authorities thought she was not fit to raise a baby (e.g. if she was unmarried). Removals were often without consent and forcible.
There was no suggestion that I could see my baby’s body. Perhaps in those days people thought it was not appropriate for a woman to see her baby who had died. Maybe it was simply an idea whose time had not yet come.
The following morning, I was sent home, shocked and grieving, to my two other babies, both less than two-and-a- half years old. The injunction that I should resume my normal life as soon as possible – as if it were that easy – went with me. I wept over the bassinet I had so lovingly prepared and bundled the tiny waiting clothes into a bag for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Because Paul’s death occurred within twenty-four hours of birth, it was counted as a stillbirth. There was no funeral. No ceremony marked his birth or his death. He was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly with others.
Few people understood our grief that our baby had died. ‘Pull yourself together, get over it,’ was a frequent remark; and so was, ‘It is not as if you knew him. It’s not like losing an older child.’ ‘You are still young. You can have another child quickly,’ others said, as if that would take away the ache in my heart and arms.
Of course, some innately kind people, as well as those who had experienced similar tragedies, supported me with love, care and kindness as I mourned the death of my baby. Somehow, I survived. But it was at a cost to myself, my children and my marriage.
These days, hyaline membrane disease which killed my baby is better understood. Now it is more commonly known as respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) – a condition in which gas exchange in the lungs of a newborn baby is difficult, sometimes impossible. The risk of RDS can be assessed while the baby is in utero. Treatment administered to the mother before birth can reduce the risk or decrease the severity of the syndrome. With adequate support of the newborn’s breathing and ventilation, the RDS resolves within four or five days.
I am glad the grieving process of parents whose baby has died during pregnancy or after birth is also much better understood. Such deaths are regarded as a tragic loss and every effort is made to help parents through the grief. Hopefully, parents will be supported by health professionals, pastors and dedicated organisations at every stage of the grieving process.
Fifty years is a long, long time. I occasionally remember the overwhelming disbelief and sadness that surrounded Paul’s death. Each new grief I experience reminds me. At the same time I am pleased that so many things have changed for the better.
The novels which prompted this blog are:
What is Left Over, After, by Natasha Lester. Fremantle Press: 2010.
The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Random Press: 2012.
Fractured, by Dawn Barker. Hachette Australia: 2013.
If you or someone you care about has suffered the loss of a baby and would like additional support, talk to a social worker, your pastor or contact SIDS and KIDS, or another similar organisation.
I would welcome comments on my blog about the loss of a baby.