So the sun did come up on Friday 2nd May, 2014. It hadn’t felt like it was going to – and it wouldn’t be the last time we’d have that feeling. I don’t remember what the weather was like, but it was beautiful weather the couple of days before and after (or after Sunday at least, we didn’t see the outside world for a couple of days), so I assume it was a gorgeous early summer’s day.
As I described in ‘In limbo…’, we’d been in a holding pattern from Wednesday afternoon until Friday morning. We’d just sort of muddled through the Wednesday night and the Thursday – little did we know that ‘muddling through’ would become fairly standard practice for the foreseeable future (it often still is).
So what did the Friday have in store for us? Well, a lot of waiting around initially. We went into the hospital for 0900 as planned, our minds already completely shot.
We were shown into the Ferndale Suite, where we had met people on the Wednesday afternoon after I got home to discuss the next steps. Blessedly, it is one of the first rooms you come to when you go onto the delivery unit at Harrogate Hospital. That’s one of the key points for many bereavement suites, ensuing that bereaved parents don’t have to go back and forth past ‘normal’ delivery rooms, so they don’t have to listen to women giving birth, babies crying, families getting their happily-ever-after. You can pretty much get onto the unit and straight into the room, which massively reduces the possibility of those sorts of awkward and distressing experiences. The Ferndale Suite – like bereavement suites everywhere – therefore offers an oasis for bereaved parents, a sanctuary of calm in the eye of the storm.
It’s not the sort of room you find on hospital wards – well, not if your situation is even vaguely normal at least, there’s something inherently ‘bad news’ about the NHS providing a big double bed, a couple of sofas, a sideboard, tea and coffee making facilities, a fridge, and an en-suite shower. Imagine a hotel room you wouldn’t pay a fortune to stay in, but if you checked-in utterly exhausted at the end of a hard journey, you’d be so so grateful for. We checked in after being on an unrelenting rollercoaster for nearly 48 hours. What we’d find out as time went on was that we hadn’t checked in at the end of a hard journey, we’d checked in right at the beginning. For those of us of a certain age, the baby loss journey is like a room at the Hotel California:
So there we were. The early part of the day passed in a bit of a blur with lots happening, but nothing much happening. Briony had another scan – I’d missed the fateful Wednesday scan of course – and even right up to that point a small part of me had been fighting what we knew, clinging to the hope that there’d been some sort of mistake, that it was all a bad dream, that we’d get some last minute reprieve. Then this tiny hope crashes on the rocks of reality, and for the first time you experience the ‘I’m sorry head tilt’ that all bereaved parents become familiar with. My friend David says that when you look at that scan, you really understand the meaning of the word ‘stillbirth’, because everything is just STILL.
So no miracle then. Right, let’s get this show on the road. Tablets, pessaries, other stuff that most blokes (me included) don’t really understand, and then it’s a waiting game. The first midwife we had caring for us was very pleasant but almost too nice, if that makes sense? We felt sort of smothered and fussed over, when actually what we wanted (and every couple is different, it must be said) was to be treated normally. We knew that nothing about what we were going through was normal, but when you’ve had all sense of normality stripped from you, you’ll grab hold of anything you can get.
It’s hugely challenging for midwives I think, to evaluate and implement a way of treating each couple that will work for them. To a certain extent, I think it’s trial and error – every couple and family deal with this journey in their own unique way. As the shifts went on, they adapted brilliantly and seamlessly to a way that worked for us – and when the same midwife came back on shift a couple of days later, her style had evolved perfectly to something that worked for us. They were superb.
So, a waiting game. Family members were starting to assemble from all over the country – my parents travelled from Surrey, Briony’s sister from Hertfordshire. The day seemed to go on for ever – time flies when you’re having fun, they say, and this was the opposite. Every now and again the midwives came to check on Bri’s progress – or lack of it. The first shift change brought the excellent Sue on to care for us. She’s Harrogate’s bereavement support midwife now (there wasn’t one back then), and she’s fantastic. We were really lucky to have her supporting us in our time of need and the bereaved parents of Harrogate are really fortunate to have her overseeing their care now.
Still, nothing much was happening. At 7pm, Bri was still only 4cm dilated. Looked like we were in for a long old wait. Handover started and Sue was replaced by Amanda. During this period, things started to move really quickly. Bri became really ill and was transferred to a normal delivery room. She started fitting, vomiting and passing out. Pre-eclampsia came onto our agenda, alongside everything else that was already going on. Her blood pressure was skyrocketing (hypertension for the medically inclined amongst you – Uncle Robin) – I forget exactly but it was definitely two hundred and something over one hundred and something.
Anyway, in summary, I was pretty sure she was going to die. Now THAT prospect focuses the mind, I can assure you, the potential of losing your child and your partner at the same stroke. Talk about feeling like you’re in a situation completely beyond your control. One of the few parts of the evening I remember vividly was taking the consultant gynaecologist, the wonderful Dr. Johnson, to one side and saying to her “you don’t have to save my son. You just have to keep Briony alive.”
Briony was repeatedly asking for a c-section. They kept saying no. It didn’t dissuade her, she kept asking. They kept pushing back on it. She’s allergic to opiates, so no gas & air for this one!
8:30pm – handover complete, let’s see how she’s getting on: BAM, fully dilated. Epidural requested, anaesthetist paged.
8:55pm – anaesthetist arrives. I remember this like it was yesterday – a little Asian guy, he walked in, took one look at the situation, shook his head recognising that there was no way he’d have time to do this epidural, turned around, and walked straight back out again.
9:05pm – on nothing more than a couple of paracetamol for his mum, Henry arrived, weighing 4lb 13.5 oz. He was small, but absolutely perfect.
And right there and then in that single experience, the most devastating minute of your life and yet the most perfect moment. Pure, unadulterated love.
What struck me the most in that moment? The silence.
That final irrational reprieve, that last hope that you clung to, hoping that everything and everyone had been wrong up to that point, gone.
You’re waiting in that moment for your baby to cry out like normal babies do, like it happens in films, like it happens to everyone else (this doesn’t happen any more right, in the 21st century? We’d soon discover just how common it is) in normal life, Henry sticking it to the man by proving them all wrong and being alive.
But it didn’t happen like that of course. Henry arrived, and the room was just silent apart from the various monitors and machines beeping away. No cry, no scream, nothing. And now, there’s no miraculous comeback. It’s real. He’s never going to cry out. He’s never going to open his eyes. This is how it’s going to be now…for ever.
I just want to go off on a tangent for a moment to talk about Amanda, the incredible midwife who delivered Henry, the first person to see him when he came into the world, the first person to hold our son. Her care for us and for our son was absolutely amazing.
My good friend David Monteith, whose daughter Grace was stillborn just a few hours after Henry at the opposite end of the country, spoke alongside me at a conference in February 2017, and he said something that resonated so much with me – midwives live on in the hearts of bereaved parents for one of two reasons; because they were brilliant, or because they weren’t. There’s no ‘okay’ in this sort of care. You’re either outstanding, or you’re not. No parent will ever look back and say “do you remember that midwife [insert generic name here], she was alright but nothing special”?
Amanda was brilliant. She took his handprints and footprints, she weighed him and wrapped him in a blanket. Amanda couldn’t make our pain go away – but she did absolutely everything in her power to make our experience just that little bit easier. When the time came, she even came to Henry’s funeral. It meant the absolute world to us to know she took her responsibility for caring for Henry as seriously as she would have done for any live baby. We’re proud to call her a friend now, but we can never hope to repay what she did for us.
It’s such an important thing, having great midwifery support in this situation. Midwives can’t take your pain away, but the way they care for you can set you off on your journey on the right foot. This is the most difficult situation that midwives and/or student midwives face – they select the career they select for the joy of bringing living children into the world, so having to be able to flip from supporting families experiencing the best moment of their lives to supporting families going through the worst thing that will ever happen to them, sometimes in the same shift (SOMETIMES in the same labour) is hugely challenging. One thing I’ve learnt over the last three years is that it’s vitally important for midwives to have firstly the right training and secondly the right support structures in place for their own care following this sort of tragic situation. It’s become a real focus of the work we try to do in Henry’s name.
So right there in that moment, just the four of us in the room, Briony, Henry and I with Amanda, I understood what pure unconditional love truly is. How can you love a person you never met? How can you love a child whose eye colour you don’t even know? Right there in that delivery room, as I held my son in my arms, I got it. Henry was absolutely perfect.
Both mine and Briony’s parents, and Briony’s sister Claire, were all waiting in the Ferndale Suite. I went and got them, and everyone came and met their grandson/nephew.
So what then? Everyone stayed a while, everyone had a cuddle, everyone had a cry. And then everyone went home, and we were back to three (four – Amanda kept coming in and out through the night) again, and the calm was restored. Briony was understandably exhausted and slept most of the night. I spent most of the night just sat, cuddling Henry. I knew we had but a short window of time where we’d all be together as a family.
I’ll talk about the next couple of days before we went home in my next blog post but I’ll just sum this blog post up by talking about that time, sat holding my son with Briony asleep in the bed next to me. With this tempest of emotions and experiences raging around us, right there everything was completely calm. We truly were in the eye of the storm. I had everyone that mattered unconditionally in my world right there with me, and no matter what would happen as time went on, no-one would ever have the right to say that I wasn’t a father.
It’s a real issue for parents whose children are not with them – this perception that it “doesn’t count” or that they can “get over” or “move on from” their child not being here. So I’ll say this to those of you reading this who are on this journey – your child existed, they matter, they are loved, and you will always be a parent. And I’ll say this to those of you who aren’t on this journey – please think before you try and put a positive spin on your friend or family member’s situation with “at least…” or “be thankful for…”. I know it’s meant well but all it actually does is invalidate their grief and undermine their confidence in the fact that their child existed and will always be remembered.
I sat and talked to him and held him all night. He was (and still is) the most precious thing in the world to me.
Henry may have been stillborn, but he was STILL born.