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The Comedy of Errors

One in Four: Nottingham's Experiences with Baby Loss

8 April 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Charlotte Clarke

Despite occurring in a quarter of pregnancies, the subject of baby loss remains one of society’s great taboos. Friends and family can feel awkward and uncomfortable around grieving parents, who in turn are forced to bottle up their grief in order to avoid being ostracised, and antenatal classes and books all too often avoid the subject altogether. We speak to Nottingham residents Charlotte Kingsbury, who experienced eleven losses in eight pregnancies, and Carly Williams and Martin Sommerville, whose son Zephyr was stillborn in 2013, to ask why Britain is so poorly prepared to deal with baby loss...

“It’s become easier to be open about fighting cancer, or COVID, but admitting that babies or children die is still too much”

The most comprehensive contemporary statistics tell us that in 2018, 523 babies were miscarried or stillborn every day, compared to the 2,060 that were born alive. That’s one out of every four pregnancies ending in baby loss. Anyone fortunate enough to have not experienced baby loss themselves might be surprised by that number, particularly in this modern, medically-advanced country where high infant mortality rates seem more at home on the pages of a Dickens novel than a modern maternity ward. But behind each of those statistics is a story that’s infinitely more than a number tally. They’re stories of mental and physical trauma, stories of isolation and ostracism. They’re stories of pain. But they’re also stories of hope, resilience and strength in the face of a society that is not adequately addressing the problem. For an issue as devastating as it is common, the UK simply does not do enough about baby loss. 

“For me, it was baby or death,” Charlotte Kingsbury tells me. “There were times when I said that I will not do another Christmas without a baby.” Having gone through years of fertility treatment, Charlotte experienced eleven losses during eight pregnancies before giving birth to her son Ansel last year. “I can’t really overstate the significance of the impact that it had on me,” she continues. “Because our losses were all first trimester, initially you’re convincing yourself that it isn’t that bad… I think I underestimated how much it was affecting me until I completely fell apart.” The impact of Charlotte’s experiences was immeasurable, and affected all aspects of her life, from her physical and mental health to her career and personal relationships. 

“One in four is a massive number, and it’s terrifying to think about. But not thinking about it doesn’t stop it from happening,” Carly Williams explains. “It can feel terrifying for people to confront as a subject, when throughout human history it’s been the norm,” Carly’s partner Martin Sommerville continues. “But somehow or another we’ve come to believe as a culture that we shouldn’t talk about death. It’s become easier to be open about fighting cancer, or COVID, but admitting that babies or children die is still too much.”

Carly and Martin’s story began in 2013 when their son Zephyr was stillborn at Nottingham City Hospital. Despite experiencing support from the compassionate team of midwives and doctors, they found the lack of dedicated care space only exacerbated their pain. At that point, parents of babies who had not survived were treated in the same maternity wards as the families of living babies. “In the lead up to Zephyr’s birth we’d seen people crying in the maternity ward, and naturally wondered what had happened to them,” Martin says. “Then we were the people weeping uncontrollably while everyone around you is happy and laughing.”

Somewhat cruelly, it was to that same maternity ward that Martin and Carly had to return for their follow-up treatment too, forcing them to relive the pain of losing their son. “When you’re grieving someone, you don’t need to be in a clinical space, hearing the beeping of machines and the smell of antiseptic around you… and in those incredibly traumatic moments you focus on really specific details like the Robin Hood curtains that are on every bed,” Martin explains. “I was looking at these curtains when the doctor looked into my eyes and said ‘I’m really sorry, your baby has died’,” Carly recalls. “To have to return to that same place again was too much.” 

“I had to plan my life around avoiding the likelihood of meeting pregnant people or babies”

The psychological impact of Charlotte’s experiences culminated in a diagnosis of PTSD in 2017. “I couldn’t see anyone that had babies or children. I didn’t go to my own sister’s children’s birthday parties because I knew I would have panic attacks,” she explains. “I basically spent five years not going out in the day time, because cafes, parks, restaurants and cinemas would all have kids in them and I couldn’t bear it. I had to plan my life around avoiding the likelihood of meeting pregnant people or babies.” 

As well as her personal and social life, the mental health implications Charlotte was suffering due to recurrent miscarriage and long-term infertility had an enormous impact on her professional life too. “I had an important job that I cared about in HR, a profession which tends to attract women, so it seemed that somebody at work was always expecting,” she says. “One of my largest projects was on gender equality and motherhood in the workplace, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn't cope with anyone talking to me about pregnancy or maternity. And then a very close colleague fell pregnant, and I just had to leave.”

“On the good days, I felt like our son gave us this amazing awareness of how precious life was and what a gift it is,” Carly says of her own struggles following the loss of Zephyr. “And on the bad days I wanted to go and dig his grave out and get in myself because I didn’t want to live. Our son is dead, so why would I still be alive?”

“Some people just disappeared out of our lives because they couldn’t handle talking to us about it”

It’s during these times when having a strong support network becomes more important than ever, but Charlotte found herself increasingly ostracized from her friends. “I lost a lot of friendships over it,” she describes. “It wasn’t something that I expected would happen.” 

It was a situation Martin and Carly also found themselves in: “Some of the people who I thought would be there for us just didn’t know how. Maybe it was too hard for them,” Carly explains. “It definitely sorted the wheat from the chaff,” Martin continues. “Some people just disappeared out of our lives because they couldn’t handle talking to us about it. We couldn’t handle not talking about it.” 

Any death carries with it an element of taboo, particularly in a country as emotionally repressed as Britain. But an experience of a grandparent dying, though still tragic within its own context, has a comprehensible sense of logic to it. The process of seeing an elderly relative die can even help us come to terms with our own mortality, as a rational and natural end to the narrative of life. But the loss of a baby acts against what we’re taught to believe about the natural process – babies represent hope, innocence, happiness and new life, and we’re generally ill-equipped to deal with anything that challenges that. “People will literally cross the road to avoid you when your baby has died just to avoid a difficult conversation,” Carly sadly explains. 

“One thing I’d love to change is to help people know what they can do to support anyone who has lost a baby,” Charlotte comments. “British people seem to have this relentless urge to console people by helping them see the bright side, or telling them it’s not that bad, and it just doesn’t help. If anything, it perpetuates the stigma that I can’t be honest about my feelings.” Comments like, ‘At least you were only so far along’, ‘You’ve got another child’ or ‘You can try again’ are common responses that, although probably well-intentioned, can have a hugely detrimental effect on grieving parents. “There’s a lot of well meaning pushing aside,” Martin agrees. “But it negates the reality of what happened, which is that our baby died.” 

Charlotte explains that what she needed most wasn’t anything complicated, but just to be listened to, and to be allowed to be sad, scared, angry, envious and traumatised without people trying to cheer her up or explain what she should be doing, how she should be acting or having to pretend that her difficult emotions weren’t there. “Just holding someone’s hand and saying ‘I’m here for you, and I’m so sorry this is happening’ means the world,” she explains, “As does asking someone about the babies they lost, including their names on Christmas cards or letting them know discreetly - perhaps via text or through another friend - about new pregnancies being announced, so that they can process the information safely.” Finding new pregnancy announcements difficult is common for grieving parents, but it isn’t personal, and doesn’t mean that they aren’t happy for those making the announcements. It’s just painful for them, so it can be helpful to give a gentle heads-up if you suspect they might be exposed to traumatic memories due to personal news or triggering TV storylines. 

Problematic remarks can also come in the form of commenting that, because a parent now has a living child, that their story has a happy ending, or that their loss has somehow been lessened. “I love my son more than I can say, but he’s not a remedy for my pain. He’s not a prize that I get for keeping going, or the meaning I was looking for all along. He doesn’t just make everything okay,” Charlotte explains. “Some people will want to believe that having a living child just takes all the pain away, but I’m still triggered by pregnancies.”

“We became a Mum and Dad when Zephyr was born,” Carly says. “It was excruciatingly sad, but we were also really proud that we were parents.” Martin and Carly are also parents to five-year-old Sol, and Zephyr remains an important part of their family unit. “We’ve always told Sol about his brother,” Martin adds. “It’s the same way that we might relate to each other if one of us died.”

“Who else’s fault is it if it’s not mine?”

The inability or unwillingness to effectively discuss baby loss with grieving parents has roots that stretch far deeper than simple social awkwardness. “We have a long history of equating fertility issues with witchcraft or seeing women as being cursed,” Charlotte speculates. “If someone was barren, miscarried or had an unwell or stillborn child it was considered an act of god. I think we’ve retained a bit of that, as it still seems to be a trope, or people think that it might somehow be ‘catching’.”

“There’s still a squeamishness about anything to do with women’s bodies, especially on TV,” Charlotte continues. “Whether it’s a period, miscarriage or difficult childbirth, it’s all very unemotional and hushed-up. Unless it’s a sex scene, we don’t tend to cover it very well at all.”

The dual issues of having inaccurate or non-existent representation of baby loss in the media, and having no stable support network inevitably leads to those negative emotions like guilt and shame being turned inwards. Without an appropriate platform to share their own stories, and hear the stories of others, the initial stages of grief can be exacerbated for bereaved parents. “We kept thinking ‘Why has the fact that babies die all the time never been brought up in the books or antenatal classes before?’” Martin asks. “The textbooks are all about what not to drink and eat, and make sure you do this and that,” Carly continues. “To have gone through what felt like a really healthy pregnancy with no problems only to have our baby die at the time, I just felt like well, who else’s fault is it if it’s not mine? He was in me. He died in me.”

“You start to imagine what could be different to make this easier”

Artist Martin, who runs By Our Hands We Make Our Way in Sneinton Market, explains how it was the lack of clear support that helped inspire the couple’s next steps, “It’s simple and it sounds crazy, and you can’t ask the world to change around you, but you start to imagine what could be different to make this easier?” Their answer was a unique centre providing nurturing care for bereaved families following the loss of a pregnancy, baby or child in the grounds of Nottingham City Hospital. Opened in April 2017, and named after their son, Zephyr’s offers bespoke support to over 1,000 parents and families every year, giving respite from the clinical areas that force them to relive their trauma. While at the centre – which is part of the Nottingham Hospitals Charity, and funded entirely by supporter donations – grieving parents can be supported through counselling, chatting with others who are bereaved, or meet hospital staff.

Far more than just a physical space, the ethos of Zephyr’s is very much focusing on creating a community of mutual support. “When you imagine a space that supports bereaved families, you might imagine a lot of people sobbing into tissues,” Carly says. “And that does happen, but I feel that what we’ve created with Zephyr’s is a coming together of a community of people for whom that place becomes part of their child’s life story. You might sit and sob and drink some tea, but there are also people there who love to smile, laugh and share their children’s lives as much as their deaths.”

Helping to normalize the extreme emotions grieving parents can feel is one of the many positives to emerge from organisations like Zephyr’s. While each story of loss is unique in its challenges, there are experiences that, when shared and seen replicated in others, can help parents feel less isolated. “Someone might say ‘this might sound really weird, but I’ve been reading stories to my baby’s ashes,’” Carly explains. “And at least one person will say, ‘I’ve done that too’ or ‘I wish I’d done it too.’ Suddenly, you see these little parts of people recognising that what they’re doing is normal.”

“It’s important to find people who get it,” Charlotte agrees. “Because if your friends and family don’t, it can be really shit. For me, it was a case of trying not to think about things most of the time, while still having somewhere to go and say ‘Oh my god, I’m losing my mind,’ and have someone who understands tell me, ‘Of course you are! And it’s okay. Just remember to breathe.’ And that’s how I did it, with one breath at a time.”

“Our ultimate aspiration is that Zephyr’s wouldn’t be needed,” Carly explains. “But that’s not where we are in society at the moment. But we have this space that gives people permission to be understood and feel normal while in that wild sea of grief.”

While society isn’t there at the moment, organisations like Zephyr’s are helping to move things in the right direction. As the subject of baby loss becomes less of a stigma, the statistic of one in four might become just that little bit less terrifying. Instead of being afraid to say the wrong thing, we can feel comfortable showing compassion, patience and support to grieving parents, providing them with the platform to express their grief and feel less ostracized in the process. Societal changes are always piecemeal and, by sharing their stories, Charlotte, Carly and Martin are helping to bring that ideal into reality. 

If you or anyone you know has been affected by pregnancy loss or the death of a baby or child, contact Zephyr’s via their website

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