Baby Loss Awareness Week 2021: 'Losing a baby during a pandemic was the biggest crisis ever'

Elaine Phillips, 37, from Edinburgh, lost her baby boy Matthew in April. A complication in her pregnancy meant he had to be delivered early, but he was too premature to survive.

She recalled the look in the nurse's eyes when she was told he had died. Elaine was alone, and all she could think about was telling her husband Duncan.

"I see black when I think back to that period,” Elaine said.

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"Just a couple of days before I had been listening to his little heartbeat and feeling his kicks.

This week was Baby Loss Awareness Week, an opportunity for bereaved parents to share stories and seek support.

"A lot of people can’t understand why I want to share Matthew with the world, but child loss is such a taboo subject, people get so uncomfortable when they have to hear about it and that isn’t right,” Elaine added.

"I have a four-year-old girl, Annabel, and when I brought her home everyone was checking in on us, sending flowers and things, but when I left the hospital earlier this year empty handed, the silence was crushing.

“Since nobody knows what to do they do nothing, and you’re all alone.”

Elaine Phillips and her daughter Annabel, and Alistair and Jo Douglas.

The taboo Elaine refers to, on how some parts of society handles child loss, has made her grief even more complex.

She continued: “Finding ways to support bereaved parents is often too much for people to handle, rather than responding with empathy, care and compassion, inadvertently – and I genuinely don’t think it’s meant in a bad way – they will say things that dismiss or diminish your loss.

"Things like, ‘you can always try again’ or ‘at least you didn’t carry to term’.

"I often have to pretend that I only have one child to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable, but my love for Matthew is just as strong as my love for Annabel, people just can’t understand that.”

Alistair and Jo Douglas before running the London Marathon this year to raise money for Held in Our Hearts and SiMBA.

It was not just society’s response that upset Elaine, after she was discharged from hospital she felt “forgotten about”.

Nobody even told her what to do with the milk her body was producing – a stark contrast from the months of check-ups she was offered when she returned home with her first born.

On top of their grief, Elaine and Duncan also found themselves having to navigate child loss in a global pandemic, when lockdowns dictated lives.

“I was alone from the moment I was told I was dilated and needed an operation, to the moment I lost my son,” she said.

Flowers for baby Hope.

"I’m not sure I can fully describe how awful it all was. People and love are what gets you through any difficult period of your life, but we didn’t have that, we were just all alone.”

She added: “I can honestly say hand on heart, unless anything happens to my husband or daughter, this is the worst thing that will ever happen to me, yet I’m expected to stay silent, pretend all is okay and just get on with it.”

In Scotland, four babies a week are stillborn.

Accurate statistics on the true number of babies lost are not available because ‘stillborn’ only refers to a child who died after the 24-week mark, either in pregnancy or during birth.

Babies who die before then are not always included in the data, this includes cases such as Elaine’s, or instances of early miscarriage.

Held in Our Hearts

Alistair and Jo Douglas are sharing their heartbreaking story to raise awareness of the risks of an overdue pregnancy.

Nicola Welsh, chief executive of child bereavement charity, Held in Our Hearts, described Baby Loss Awareness Week as a time for wider society to acknowledge child loss.

“This week has been about learning how to have those difficult conversations,” she said.

“Having courage and being brave, saying ‘I remember with you’. Everybody talks about being wary of bringing up a loss in case it reminds parents of what happened, but you can’t remind someone about something they haven’t stopped thinking about, bereaved parents feel the pain everyday.

"What helps is others remembering with them.”

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Elaine and Duncan are one couple who turned to the charity in their darkest days and said it was a lifeline which gave them a safe space to talk about Matthew without fear of judgement, with people who really understood what it meant to lose a baby.

The Lothians based charity has 12 staff and did not furlough any during the pandemic. It saw a 54 per cent increase in the number of people seeking its services and carried out 1,050 online counselling sessions in 2020.

Nicola said: “We felt losing a baby during a pandemic was the biggest crisis ever and the right thing to do was continue working, to be there for the families who needed us.

"We were never going to stop."

Held in Our Hearts ran a Pink and Blue For You campaign this week in honour of Baby Loss Awareness Week which you can support online at justgiving.com/campaign/pinkandblueforyou.

Hope Douglas

Another two parents who found comfort in the arms of Nicola and her team are Alistair and Jo Douglas.

The couple, also from Edinburgh, began trying for a baby shortly after getting married in 2015, but with no success they had IVF treatment.

What was deemed a “healthy pregnancy” ended in tragedy when their baby boy, Hope, was stillborn on September 5, 2020.

Alistair, 40, has chosen to share their story to raise awareness of the risks of an overdue pregnancy, particularly in IVF cases.

"There was nothing wrong with our baby, it would almost be easier to cope with the loss if there was,” he said.

"There was confusion over our due date, with the IVF programme giving one date, and the dating scan giving another, five days earlier.

“But we reached the forty-first week and one night my wife was concerned about the movement, so we went into the hospital and they couldn’t find a heartbeat.

“We were obviously distraught but we couldn’t really cry, we were in shock.

"They suggested my wife have a natural birth, but we decided against that given that there wasn’t going to be anything on the other side.

"We agreed to have a caesarean section and at 3.04pm on September 5, Hope was born asleep.”

Alistair shared the same empty feeling Elaine described.

"It’s something that you can only really understand if you’ve been through it, it is just utterly heartbreaking, you don’t know what to do with yourself.”

While Covid restrictions prevented Alistair from joining his wife at her scans, he actually believes that the pandemic was a form of blessing during this painful period.

He continued: "We didn’t want to be going out and seeing lots of people, there would have parties and birthdays every other weekend, Covid meant we didn’t have to deal with any of it.

“After the funeral we went away for ten days just to try to process some of what we were feeling but our families were always reachable and a huge support.”

In the year since Hope’s passing, the pain of their loss hasn’t eased, but Alistair spoke of a focused passion to ensure he didn’t die for nothing.

Their efforts include raising almost £80,000 for Held in Our Hearts and SiMBA – Simpson’s Memory Box Appeal – another valued charity many bereaved parents hold dear.

“We are cautious of causing too much concern, pregnancy is an incredible time, but we just want people to be aware of the risks of going overdue.

“We’re not saying everyone should have a c-section at 39-weeks but they should certainly know the facts and consider the induction process earlier than 41 weeks, particularly in IVF pregnancies, why take the risk?” he said.

He added: “We don’t want our wee man to have died in vain. We want to raise awareness, we want to talk about him, we want to help other couples if we can.

"That’s why we’re doing all of this, for Hope.”

To seek support on child loss or to find out more about services offered by Held in Our Hearts visit www.heldinourhearts.org.uk or email [email protected]

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Elaine Phillips with her four-year-old daughter, Annabel.
Baby Hope was born sleeping on September, 5, 2020.
Elaine Phillips with her four-year-old daughter Annabel. She lost a baby back in April this year.