This Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Awareness month, writer Alice Olins describes how she and her family have learned to live with loss after her son, Bear, was stillborn
June marks Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Awareness month – an entire 30 days dedicated to raising awareness about baby loss. Neonatal deaths and stillbirths are more common than you’d think, with one in every 250 pregnancies ending in a stillbirth in the UK. That’s 8 babies every day.
Such a loss is almost unfathomable. Here, one writer Alice Olins shares her story – of grief, heartbreak, and hope.
“Ten years ago my first child, our son Bear, died inside my womb on his due date. If you want the details, he was a good sized baby, nearly 8lb, with broad, square shoulders and a head of hair that licked his brow in dark brown curls. He was perfect. His eyes were closed.
Before that day, I was a plucky, fearless fashion journo. I lived the clichéd urban dream with my husband in a bijoux west London apartment: we’d renovated, enjoyed a romantic countryside wedding and had a big bun in the oven. Life was full of excited expectation.
And then, on a cold day in November 2010, for a reason no doctor has been able to explain, our little boy passed away.
My body, our placenta, failed us both. It failed us all. Because that’s the thing about such a shocking and unexpected death – its grim reverberations cloud everything: friendships, family ties and even encounters with strangers.
We didn’t realise the extent of our personal trauma in those first few days; we just stared into space and did as we were told. The doctors have a protocol when a couple suffer such a late stillbirth: a tablet to bring on labour, an induction a couple of days later, the use of one of their private delivery rooms and then a swift ejection from the system.
After a relatively quick and unbelievably painful natural labour, I delivered our boy as big snowflakes fell outside the window.
When we held him and explored his perfect little body, we felt like normal parents. And then he was taken away – our boy, our flesh, our future imagined, wheeled out somewhere different. Alone.
Who knew that you could enter a place of such love and pain at exactly the same moment? Life became a damaged and altered place after Bear was born. It still is in a sense. How can you experience that pain and then slot neatly back into your old life? You can’t.
Your friends are there for you, at least the majority of ours really were. Cards, so many cards arrived at our home. In the weeks after we left hospital, the postman delivered daily doses of kindness, and I became obsessed with that flap, flap of the letterbox. My brother had our photographs of Bear digitally enhanced so that we could display them proudly at home – our boy, the child we had cremated three weeks after he arrived into this world.
And then as predicted, time passed and some friends stopped calling. Worse still, they all decided to get pregnant. I couldn’t blame them, of course, but I hated them dearly. I hated their normalcy and their swollen tummies. And I hated that I hated them so much – my cherished friends who I’d laughed with in Thailand and travelled across Bali with.
How was I living in this parallel hell while they went to work and did the weekly food shop? But the ones who stuck around are forever our heroes. Because life does move forward, however much I didn’t want it to. I wanted it to be 2010 forever. But with every new year, Bear was getting further and further away.
So how does it feel now? I am living the future that I longed for: two healthy girls running around my feet, one growing business, time at home to write and a marriage that survived such darkness. But all still without him. To be honest, it feels pretty normal.
I am generally happy, and yet the shift in me has never healed.
I’m a harder, less tolerant version of my old self. But I am happy. My girls are joyous. But would they be here if it wasn’t for Bear? They would not. So what does that say about his life? I don’t think I’ll ever have the answers.
What I can do is make sure that his memory shines brightly.
And, unexpectedly, my daughters Pearl, five, and Tallulah, three, are better than me at keeping his name alive. We signed a birthday card last week, and it was Pearl who wrote Bear’s name in there, too. It was Pearl who, when asked by an auntie who her best friend was, said immediately, ‘Bear, my brother who lives in the stars.’
I don’t understand how their little minds work but children are amazing, innocent, good-natured beings who are driven by love. And love is what keeps Bear deep within the heart and soul of our family. After he died, my husband said something simple and profound: ‘Bear made us special.’
And I think he’s done the same for his sisters, too.”