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Why couldn’t I say goodbye to my baby son?

FOR Sarah and Gordon Brown, the death of their baby daughter must be a nightmare of astronomical proportions.

The couple cradled her in their arms as her life slowly ebbed away. During her short life, they had spent virtually every waking moment with her, sitting anxiously by her side as she battled for life.

They would have been given the chance to say their farewells. And to start to grieve.

Heartbreaking though it is, hospitals now recognise the need for grieving parents to have the chance to spend those vital moments with their child - a far cry from a few decades ago when the infant would be whisked away. It was "for the best", mothers would be told.

Maureen Reynolds says that she only found out that her still-born son, whom she named John, had been buried when she received

a brusque letter from the undertaker. It landed on her doormat a few weeks after she had left hospital. The funeral, she discovered, had taken place the day she returned home.

No-one had thought to invite her. No-one had thought to tell her where her boy was buried.

It was 1968, and Maureen was 20. Her family, together with the hospital, had made the arrangements without her.

It was supposed to be "for the best". Maureen had not been able to see her baby in the hospital, let alone hold him, kiss him or whisper goodbye.

And for the next three decades, Maureen was left to grieve without a grave.

Maureen can remember it all as if it happened yesterday.

The baby was a month late. At first, she was aware of the baby moving, but then it stopped. She went to her doctor, but he told her the baby was just "quietening down" for the birth. And so she went home to wait.

When her waters broke and she was taken to hospital, doctors discovered that there was no heartbeat. But there was little opportunity for Maureen to absorb the news. She had a 36-hour labour ahead of her.

She was given an epidural and then the doctors performed an episiotomy, an incision between the legs. All Maureen remembers is green cloths being put around her before the drugs kicked in.

She has only the vaguest memory of her son’s entry into the world on July 3, 1968. She awoke the next day with 26 stitches in her groin and had to be given morphine for the pain.

Two days later, she was discharged. But while her injuries started to heal, she felt unable to discuss her feelings.

People made it clear that she should just get on with things rather than dwelling on her loss.

"The doctor told me the best thing I could do was to have another baby. It was such a callous thing to say. You can’t replace the baby who has died. Each baby is a person in their own right," she remembers.

"It was so different in my day," she recalls, sitting in her Easter Road home. "I didn’t even know a funeral had taken place until a bill for 12 for the funeral came through the door weeks later.

"I never even saw John. It was horrendous. You’ve been talking about it for nine months and then suddenly the shutters come down. Nobody would speak to me about it.

"Your hormones and emotions are all geared up to have the baby. Then the hospital and family take the baby away from you.

"I remember being in the street and people asking if I had a boy or a girl. You have to tell them. And I had to go back to the pram shop to collect my deposit. Nobody helped."

Two years later, Maureen became pregnant again with another son, Steven, who is now 31. He was also late, but this time Maureen and her mother insisted she be taken into hospital earlier.

The baby was born by Caesarean when his heartbeat started to weaken.

But, in spite of her joy at having Steven, Maureen was still deeply affected by John’s death and has suffered from depression on and off ever since.

She didn’t know the location of her son’s grave, partly because it belonged to the family of her late husband from whom she divorced.

And she was "frightened to face it on my own", to rake over the past and bring old emotions back to the surface.

However, things changed in the mid-1980s when she saw a television programme presented by Esther Rantzen which explained how hospitals dealt with patients who had lost babies. Maureen was struck by how much times had changed - mothers were even given pictures of their dead children.

A doctor told her about an organisation called Sands - Stillbirth and Neonatal Deaths Society (Lothian). The charity, she discovered, offers support, understanding and help of a practical and emotional nature to bereaved parents who have experienced the death of a baby.

And Maureen discovered that, through them, she could find out where her son was buried.

A friend called on her behalf and discovered, with the help of staff at Mortonhall cemetery, that John was buried in Morningside cemetery.

Maureen cherished the details, but was still not ready to face visiting the grave.

"I didn’t know, until they told me, that I could get a copy of his birth certificate," she says. "It’s a piece of paper saying he existed. I had always called him John Patrick, but this gave him a name legally.

"It was a blessing being finally able to do that."

But it wasn’t until last year that she was finally reunited with her much loved lost son. On July 3 - on what would have been John’s 33rd birthday - she visited his grave for the first time, accompanied by her 79-year-old Auntie Molly.

"It was a beautiful day that day. We just sat there on the grass and didn’t talk, we just contemplated. It was a great release," she smiles. "It brought about acceptance and inner peace and strength."

Above all, she feels now that not talking about a baby’s death is a mistake.

"I think that relatives should really encourage the person to talk about it," she says. "If you carry a child for nine months, you know that child. It kicks you, it’s in your skin. You know that baby as surely as if it was sitting in front of you.

"I firmly believe that if you don’t do something about it, you’ll never get peace.

"Sands has really helped me. When I first got in touch with them, because I had kept it inside for so long, I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by an organisation. So I got in touch bit by bit. That was fine by them."

Today though, she still finds herself haunted by memories at times. Recent headlines regarding the Browns’ tragic loss brought it to the forefront of her mind again.

"My prayers for the Browns didn’t work. It must be so dreadful for them," she says.

"I think they will be comforted by the fact that they have had so much contact with their baby. It will help them come to terms with it."

Like every parent who loses a baby at Simpson’s, they will have been offered support from Sands. Support which Maureen believes can be invaluable.

Dorothy McKenzie, manager of Sands Lothian, says the Browns "will be feeling quite numb at the moment".

"Over the past few days, they will have been filled with so many emotions, from ecstatic, to having their hopes dashed. It should be such a happy time.

"There could be a small sense of relief that the baby won’t have to go through any more procedures. But they will also feel a real sense of emptiness without the baby. Your world stops. You think you will never laugh again.

"Part of their future has been snatched away from them. It’s all about what might have been.

"You learn to live with it, but every big event brings it all back to you.

"For the moment, they will be focused on the funeral. It’s the last thing they can do for Jennifer.

"It’s after that when their friends and relatives stop mentioning her that the grieving will really start."

She says the fact that times have changed, and parents are now allowed to spend time with their babies after they have passed away, does help them come to terms with their loss far more.

"Having contact with your baby once he or she dies helps the grieving process. It feels like your own baby - not the hospital’s."

 
 
 

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