Today is the start of Baby Loss Awareness Week 2019. A week to remember babies who were lost in pregnancy, during birth or soon afterwards. I wanted to write something in honour of little Sprout whom we lost in August. Sprout was only on the brink of being – a seven-week-old embryo whose heart had barely started beating before it went still. But they were also a tiny bundle of hope and, as those first three months passed, dreams and plans.
Miscarriage is often a hidden grief. Around one in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Most of these happen in the first trimester. Many of us choose not to share until after the dating scan. But when things go wrong we suffer in private, without the support of family and friends.
There are thousands of us trying to make sense of these feelings alone when we could be helping each other through. Pregnancy loss is ignored in policy and in the workplace. Women and their partners are not given the right psychological and physical support. The Miscarriage Association and other charities involved in Baby Loss Awareness Week are trying to change this. I recently wrote a report on pregnancy loss, mental health and the NHS and new mental health resources for the Miscarriage Association. I’m currently working on new information for employers and I’m involved in a cross-government working group to improve guidance around workplace policies relating to fertility, miscarriage and baby loss.
There is no ‘right’ way to feel about miscarriage. It affects everyone in different ways. Here’s how I felt.
I’d been feeling so awful that I’d got a bit blasé. I really thought everything would be ok. And my body had given me no signs. When the sonographer asked me if I had experienced any bleeding my heart sank. Then she said ‘I’m really sorry, I can see a tiny baby but there’s no heartbeat’ and it felt so horribly final.
Everyone we spoke to that day was so kind. Staff at St Micheal’s Early Pregnancy Unit will see many miscarriages a week. But they all recognised that for us it wasn’t just a common complication of pregnancy but the loss of someone who could have been our child. They treated us with care and sensitivity throughout and it made a huge difference.
We also both felt very lucky to have our boy Oaklan already. The journey to conceive him was long and hard – and I’m not sure how I would have coped if he hadn’t made it.
I’ve been incredibly lucky not to experience a miscarriage before now. But I have done a lot of work for the Miscarriage Association – including research and development of training materials for the NHS. I helped produce a series of educational films, including one in a scan room and one talking about management of miscarriage. At every stage, I knew what was happening next. It felt odd but I think it helped.
I was also able to mention to a nurse that the Miscarriage Association information on their leaflet was out of date. Which I imagine they thought was quite weird given the circumstances.
There’s grief for the little one themselves and grief for the loss of what might have been. I carried them inside me for three months with no signs anything was wrong. I couldn’t help but start to imagine what the next months and years would look like – bedrooms, names, who I would share maternity leave with and how Oaklan would react to a baby brother or sister.
When everything changes in an instant it takes a while for those expectations to catch up. And there’s a fresh wave of grief every time you’re reminded of the new reality.
I know it’s incredibly unlikely to be anything I’ve done but I couldn’t help feeling guilty. I’ve even counted back to the exact day when Sprout’s heart stopped beating and tried to remember what I was doing.
In dark moments (when my thoughts get carried away) these are some of the ridiculous things I have felt guilty about.
- Carrying Oaklan in the baby rucksack with the strap around my waist.
- Drinking sour cherry juice.
- Cleaning the conservatory and moving furniture on a hot day.
- Still breastfeeding Oaklan.
- Eating smoked mackerel (a one-off strange craving).
- Not being careful enough about washing fruit and vegetables.
And one slightly less ridiculous one – taking 100mg Sertraline each day (double what I was taking when I was pregnant with Oaklan). This one is still hard. I need it for my mental health. I have since tried to reduce it again but insomnia and panic attacks have made it very clear this isn’t a good idea. Although it’s the safest SSRI to take in pregnancy, it’s possible it may slightly increase the risk of miscarriage.
There is very little research when it comes to medication in pregnancy and millions of women have successful pregnancies on Sertraline and all kinds of other medications. But I can’t help but think, what if that was it?
And what if it was? I have no choice but to continue taking it – for my sake and for the sake of my family. Where does that leave me? I try not to head down that wormhole but it’s hard to avoid when I’m feeling vulnerable.
I felt embarrassed and stupid that for four and a half weeks I had thought I was pregnant – and felt pregnant – when Sprout had already stopped growing.
In the first few days after surgery, I felt some old self-destructive thoughts creeping in. I had to fight the urge to diet, to stop eating, to punish myself with exercise.
The hormone changes as my body adjusted to no longer being pregnant were awful. I would suddenly feel dark, cloudy, chaotic, tearful and very very low. I have always struggled with hormones – I get very bad PMT and can’t cope with hormonal contraception. Luckily I was able to recognise my body was readjusting and trust the worst of it would pass. Without this slight sense of perspective, I could easily have got very lost.
We asked to take Sprout’s remains home to bury. Sadly a miscommunication at the hospital meant we couldn’t do this immediately but had to go back for them a week later. I wasn’t sure what to expect but we were given them in a lovely memory box from the charity SiMBA. I was really moved by their thought, care and kindness, especially as our little one was still so tiny.
I’ll always remember Sprout. I’ll keep their tiny teddy close by. I’ll hang a memorial star on our tree at Christmas and I’ll light a candle each year for the Baby Loss Awareness Wave of Light.
One day soon we’ll start to try again. I’ve taken a lot of comfort from this quotation from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Auguries of Innocence, William Blake
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine