Loss of a baby

Limoges - off to the shop - Copy

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
What is left over after

 What is Left Over, After, by Natasha Lester. Fremantle Press: 2010.       

the light betwen the oceans
the light betwen the oceans

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 Red Nose, or another similar organisation.


I would welcome comments on my blog about the loss of a baby.

29 replies on “Loss of a baby”

  1. Oh dear Maureen what a tragedy for you and the family. I certainly hope the death of a baby is dealt with more sympathetically now. In my own family there are stories similar to yours. My mother told me of how she had to literally beg to see one of my sisters who had died at three days, the midwife did bring Madeline to her with poor grace and was not sympathetic at all. I have this image before me of Mum relating the story now,and her pain which was never really assuaged.
    I’d love to read the books you suggest, alas my eyes are still imperfect.with double vision!
    Take care and God Bless Roseixx

    1. Rosie, I remember at KEMH when you so lovingly made a beautiful bassinet so that bereaved parents could view their babies in dignity after death, how you carefully counselled distraught parents and taught other nurses and midwives about the tragedy of neonatal death. You and your mother, Margaret Gallagher, were very much in my mind when I wrote my blog. How sad you still cannot read those good books.

  2. Oh Maureen – What a tragic memorial for you.

    I honour the memory of your son so cruelly taken from you, whose 50th birthday you should have been celebrating. Thank you for sharing your story of your short time of mothering him in life. You had excellent instincts for his welfare and I am so glad you got to feed him at least once. I know he has always been missed in your family, along with his little brother Patrick.

    As a mother and later as a midwife I have always been very conscious of the fragility of new life, and that there were families with missing children. It is a particular area of practice I embrace, and I know that by hearing the stories of those whose babies are no longer with them, midwives and others can change practice into a more compassionate one for all.

    (((hugs))) my dear

    1. Thank you for your kindness and understanding, Laura. I love it that you see my need to put Paul to the breast as my instinct for his welfare. What a lovely reframe, thank you! Midwives and others are far more compassionate now than they were, and I’m glad they are supported in their difficult task by people like yourself.

  3. Maureen this is such a sad time for you. I hope Heartfelt love and Sympathy can
    ease your sorrow.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. My memories of Paul’s death are old, old ones. But I know other people experiencing dreadful tragedies as I write, and my heart goes out to them.

  4. Maureen, I have a scene in my novel that is almost identical to the one you’ve described here. Mine is based on my grandmother’s experience. She learned that her third baby had died when she overheard the nurse talking to the doctor on the telephone. She had three stillbirths (the third, like yours, lived a short time) before the doctors told her she needed a caesarian in order to give birth to a live baby. She went on to have my uncle and my father by caesarian, in the days when they cut you right across the middle!

    I remember my grandmother talking about it very matter-of-factly, and because I was a child, I didn’t understand how hard it must have been. Now I’m a mother myself, I can only imagine the grief.

    How awful and how cruel to not be with your sick and then dying child, and to not be able to name your own child! Unimaginable now …

    I don’t know if my grandmother knew where her babies were buried, but I remember my father once looking for and finding one of his brother’s graves in the baby section of the cemetery in Launceston. I searched for it in the cemetery records and found it—he was buried on 22 March 1937 and I put a photo of the record on my website in the Gallery section. They named my grandmother ‘Mrs L. D. Allan’—my grandfather’s initials, not even her own!

    1. Louise, I’m sure my story is one of hundreds and thousands across Australia in the 1960s, a whole generation after your grandmother’s sad experience. That is one of the very sad aspects about medicalised childbirth – that the deaths of babies occurred in hospitals rather than in the homes where mothers and fathers were supported by midwives who knew them, their families and friends. Hospitals (or more properly the people who staffed them in those days) probably didn’t know how to support a bereaved mother, and assumed some bureaucratic mantle because they did not know how to show they cared. When I trained as a nurse and midwife, in the late 1950s, we were actually taught not to become ‘involved’ with our patients; not to talk to them unless we had to; and certainly not to touch them in any way other than in the cause of treatment.

      So many indignities for women, even to losing their own names!

      1. Maureen, I just wanted to say that your story has stayed with me ever since I read it. So sad, but oh so beautifully written. It’s a very powerful story—it says so much about your strength and the strength of all women who lived through times like this.

        1. You once challenged me to write about the death of a baby – thank you! I don’t think women in the olden days had much option, but to get on with our lives!

  5. Lots of love to you today, Maureen Helen. How hard it is to lose a child. There is a secret company of bereaved parents who understand how deep and hollow is that Well of Loss, and the need to keep that child alive within us. Take care, and honour Paul, or whoever he should have been.

    1. Oh, Anne. Thank you. I know you understand the death of a child. We do, indeed create a secret company of bereaved parents and we do need to keep that child alive. Thank you again.

  6. So sad Maureen. Unbelievable that this was the way new mothers were treated just 50 years ago – thank goodness times have changed for the better. Lots of love.

    1. Yes, it was incredibly sad – and for some women I’m not sure all that much has changed. But I hope by sharing stories, we will increase people’s understanding about the tragedy of the loss of an infant and whatever stage, either during pregnancy or after birth. Love M

    1. Hello, Amanda. I’m glad the post touched you. Thank you for your kindness.

  7. What a difficult grief to deal with when it is not acknowledged. You are so lucky you had that time with Paul after birth as you have one lovely memory to hold on to. Thankfully this is the way of the past and I doubt that it happens to young mothers today. Very sad it happened to you and my heart goes out to you.
    I read Light Between Oceans some time ago and then we did it in book club. I was fascinated by the different responses that it ellicited from the group. Where there sympathies lay very much depended on whether they had children or not. I thought it was a great read.

    1. Hello, Irene. Nice to hear from you. Yes, unacknowledged grief is very hard to deal with. I have heard many people say that it is the unacknowledged grief that surrounds marriage separation and divorce which makes them so much more difficult to bear than a bereavement. There is also the secret fear that something one has done or left undone may have contributed to the death of a baby in utero or afterwards.
      The Light between Oceans was provocative in my book club, too, although we are all grandmothers, and three of us great-grandmothers.

  8. Such a beautifully written but sad, sad post, Maureen. I’m so glad things have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. I know my own grandmother lost a baby even longer ago than that but she never spoke about it. After she died we found an exquisite crocheted bonnet and pair of booties she’d kept for fifty-five years in memory of her lost baby.

    1. Thank you for taking time to comment on my post, Pinky, and for your kind words. I’m sure your grandmother found comfort in the bonnet and booties she’d kept for so long. Thank you for sharing that lovely story. Like me, I’m sure she would also have been pleased that women (and men!) whose babies die are treated with much more respect and understanding these days.

      1. Pinky, I forgot to say I feel as if I know you because of your comments on Louise’s blog!

  9. Dear Maureen, What a beautifully written tribute to your son. Thankfully parents are allowed to spend time with their baby and encouraged to honour and acknowledge them. I work as a counsellor at SIDs and Kids in Melbourne and our volunteers make beautiful outfits to bury/cremate the baies and to keep as a mementoe. We train parents to be a supporter for others newly bereaved. Our resources are written in collaboration with other bereaved parents. You mention that your marriage didn’t survive – as mine didn’t. We have just published a new resource called “When Relationhsip Hurt, Too: The impact of grief on parents’ relationships after the sudden death of their child” because so many parents fear that this will happen to them. This booklet desribes how grief can impact on relationships and gives parents strategies (and hope) to strengthen these relationships. Of course not all relationships survive but we beleive that with the right support, relationships are not more likely to break down than in non- bereaved families. It includes 5 case studies. We hope this resource helps parents develop resiliency and encourage personal growth – as you have done! It can be downloaded or ordered through our web site. I wish you all the best as you remember your baby- ‘continuing bonds’.

    1. Hello, Petra. Thank you for your comments about my last post. Thank goodness society now recognises babies who die, and acknowledges the terrible grief of their parents. Thank goodness, also, for organisations like Sids and Kids. The work you do supports parents and assists them grieve in healthy ways and later to help others in similar situations. I managed the SIDS Foundation WA (as it was called then) in the 1990s. I felt attracted to the role because twenty years previously one of my twin boys had also died, this time from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. However, I found the role of manager somewhat frustrating. I had previously worked as a relationships counsellor for Anglicare, and saw the need for solid counselling. The focus of the organisation at that time was funding through Red Nose Day and enabling research. Counselling was somewhat restricted. Your work is to be highly commended.
      By the way, please feel free to use my blog in any way you or others might find helpful.

  10. This is such a sad story, Maureen. The treatment you and your baby received in the highly regarded private hospital was not much better than farm animals would receive. It is quite shocking to think how uncaring the staff were, how inept, how unaware of the deep and powerful feelings of parents. How far we have come since then. The overwhelming response to your post shows how many such stories there are, and how moving your post is.

    1. Thanks, Christina. The way the death of a baby, even one that is not yet viable outside the womb, is now treated much more compassionately. Parents are treated respectfully, gently and with compassion. Society has come a long way in fifty years. Thank you for your kindness.

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