One of the things new mothers often comment on is how lonely motherhood is: the exhaustion, the postnatal delirium, the fact that you’re unable to get out and about like you used to. And there’s a camaraderie among women in this boat, especially online.
But when you give birth and your baby dies, you enter another club. And, because it’s a subject that no one really wants to talk about, it feels like you’re the only one in it.
When my son, Willem, was stillborn back in 2014, I didn’t know a single person who had experienced a stillbirth.
Marina Fogle (right) said that Elle Wright (left) was the first person she met who was in the same boat as her
Awash with emotion, hormonal and grieving, I had no one I could speak to.
Then two years later, I happened to meet a tall, glamorous blonde at a friend’s house. She confided in me that she very nearly didn’t come, as she wasn’t used to going out much since her son died.
Elle Wright was the first person I met who was in my club.
Her story is the kind of nightmare you dread happening to anyone you love.
After a straightforward pregnancy, Elle gave birth to a healthy boy she named Teddy.
Initially all seemed fine, but during his first night Elle awoke to a nurse clutching her newborn son, telling her that he had stopped breathing. Teddy was transferred to a specialist hospital where Elle and her husband Nico were told that there was nothing they could do.
Two days later, as Elle read him the children’s story Guess How Much I Love You, Teddy died peacefully surrounded by his family.
In the year that followed, Elle learnt to navigate her life as a mother with no child, and started writing a blog, the heartbreakingly titled Feathering The Empty Nest.
She has a unique way with words, able to articulate the gut-wrenching sadness she was experiencing, but also the sunlight as it slowly crept back into her life.
Her book, which was published last month, is something I wish had existed when we lost Willem because, perhaps, I would have felt less alone. Ask Me His Name is not a misery memoir, but rather Elle’s guide to ‘a motherhood I never expected’.
It’s rare to meet someone who has held their dead child in their arms – but it happens. One in every 225 pregnancies ends in a stillbirth – that’s nine babies, every day.
Elle’s willingness to talk about the ordeal makes it just a little bit easier for those who find themselves in this dark place.
Here are just a few of the lessons she learned…
You will laugh again
Elle’s wit shines through the book, giving it warmth and injecting a humour rather than being macabre. Revealing her innate positivity, she describes how ‘picking the right outfit for my baby’s funeral is probably a fashion low point’.
She explains how she and her partner Nico realised that among their peers, they have become a benchmark for awful – so people recounting sad stories always caveat them with, ‘but of course it’s nothing like you’ve experienced’. She tells me with a wry smile: ‘You have to find things that make you inwardly chuckle. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.’
I distinctly remember feeling guilty the first time I had a proper belly laugh, uncomfortable that for a moment I could lose myself.
The physical process of laughing is the best antidote to stress and anxiety, which is what you need at this stage. Laughing doesn’t mean you forget, but it does allow your body and mind to recover.
Your year of first’s
Anyone grieving is told that the first year will be the hardest, and while it’s reassuring that it will get easier, a year is a long time. For all of us in the dead babies club, it’s a year in which the world seems to turn especially slowly.
Those firsts that you experience – that first Christmas without your baby, the first mother’s day, their first birthday – are all days I dreaded. Elle describes how getting through that year felt like running a marathon and when it was over she ‘wanted to set off a confetti cannon of relief, and yet also it felt like nothing had changed.’
The way she got through it was by realising that the anticipation was always worse than the actual event.
There’s something cathartic about pushing yourself to experience things that you know are going to hurt – such as holding someone else’s baby or going to a first birthday. Elle describes going to her godson’s christening a few months after Teddy’s death. ‘It all felt so unfair, knowing that this would never be happening for Teddy.
‘His one occasion in front of his family at the front of the church was both his first and last – his funeral service.’
But that day ended with Elle a little stronger, a little more resilient having attacked one of those fearsome firsts head on.
Embrace the tears
The weapon in our armouries is tears, plenty of them. One of the most helpful lessons I learned in the aftermath of Willem’s death is that there is no shame in crying.
Worried about the amount of tears I was shedding in front of my children back in 2014, I asked my grief counsellor whether it might be having a detrimental effect on my children.
I was told: ‘Marina, children learn from you. If you never cry in front of your children, you are teaching them that it is not OK to cry. And crying is a very important physiological process.’
Many tears are shed in our interview. Elle’s tears are disarming, reminding me that in spite of how she looks, her ever increasing fan club, how beautifully she has dealt with Teddy’s death, she is still raw and vulnerable. She explains how she used to worry about crying in front of people, of what they might think, but that now she has no inhibitions when it comes to having a good old cry. ‘It probably worries people or makes them think I am not dealing with losing Teddy, but for me I think it shows that I am not scared of those emotions, and I don’t mind who sees me crying.’
Talk about your child
As the name of the book suggests, Elle has found talking about Teddy one of the most important things in the aftermath of his death. She says she longs for friends to use his name, instead of ‘not talking about it’ as if he didn’t exist.
I agree with her. I found just saying out loud the words ‘my baby died’ impossible initially. I would choke on the words and dissolve into yet more tears. But I kept on trying and soon it became easier.
Talking about the boy whose head I could no longer kiss, was the single most important thing I did.
Elle and I agree that when your child dies, you consciously know what’s happened but it takes a while for your subconscious to catch up.
While friends felt that maybe they couldn’t mention Teddy’s name for fear of upsetting Elle, she persisted. ‘I found myself saying, “When Teddy died” or “When I was pregnant with Teddy” as if I was trying to hammer it home to my subconscious the truly painful reality that our son had died.’
You will survive this
The most disarming trait of Elle’s – one of the reason she has nearly 100,000 followers – is her relentless positivity. You can feel when talking to her, that behind the gentle, smiling, beautiful facade lies a steely commitment to it. Once, when someone asked how on earth she got by after such loss, she replied: ‘I had no bloody choice.’
And she writes: ‘I remember the moment when I decided that I wouldn’t be defeated by the universe and just curl into a ball. I am so proud that I didn’t let the feeling win, that I chose to live life again and start to let the light back in.’
When grief cascades into your life and you do manage to put one foot in front of the other, endure painful anniversaries and that deep, dark trench of loss, there’s something empowering about having survived that gives you the energy and resolve to continue surviving.
…and emerge stronger
I have to admit that I couldn’t finish Elle’s book in one go. The final chapter is a letter to Teddy that I couldn’t read through my tears. I had to wait a day before I tackled it. It’s not a letter of woe, of sadness, of what ifs or a soliloquy about the unfairness of life.
It’s a thank you letter.
‘You have made me realise that love is the most powerful emotion,’ she writes, ‘because it is my love for you that wipes the floor with the rest of those feelings, that crashes through any barrier that life might put in its way, and that allows me to fill the hole that you have left in our lives.
‘It is love that is in the forefront of my mind when I write about you, talk about you or refuse to be silenced when it comes to telling the world about you. Thank you for helping me to feel that love more than I feel your loss.’
With this Elle demonstrates the most important lesson anyone who has lost a baby will learn: that one day the light will start to come back into your life and, when it happens, you will emerge stronger, braver and wiser thanks to the legacy of the little one who was lost.
- l Ask Me His Name: Learning To Live And Laugh Again After The Loss Of My Baby, by Elle Wright, is published by Blink Publishing, priced £14.99. Offer price £11.99 (20 per cent discount) until November 18. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, P&p free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get free premium delivery.
WHAT IS A STILLBIRTH?
A stillbirth occurs when a baby is born dead after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
If a baby dies before 24 weeks of pregnancy, it is known as a miscarriage.
Not all stillbirths can be prevented, however, not smoking or drinking, as well as not sleeping on your back and attending all antenatal appointments can reduce the risk.
What are the signs?
Signs may include the baby not moving as much as normal.
Pregnant women should contact their doctor immediately if they notice a difference to their baby’s movement.
What are the causes?
Stillbirths do not always have an obvious cause but may occur due to complications with the placenta or a birth defect.
They are also more likely to occur if women suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes or an infection that affects the baby, such as flu.
Stillbirths are more likely to occur if women are having twins or multiple pregnancies, are overweight, smoke, are over 35 or have a pre-existing condition, such as epilepsy.
What happens after a stillbirth?
If a baby has died, women may wait for their labour to start naturally or they may be induced if their health is at risk.
Bereavement support groups are available to parents who have suffered stillbirths.
Some find it helpful to name their baby or take pictures with them.
Source: NHS Choices