Birth and Death
Updated: May 21
My friend was in her 39th week of pregnancy when she called me. "Carla, I'm at the hospital, they can't find my baby's heartbeat." She was sobbing. It had been eight years since the less-than-ideal birth of her first child - her planned home birth became a traumatic ventouse delivery in the hospital.
This baby was her chance at a healing birth experience, and a much longed for brother and son. And now she was telling me that, "They're taking me for a scan to confirm my baby's passed, then they're going to put me into labour." What do you say to a friend who's devastated beyond imagination, what can you possibly say that could be of any help? Having heard of Emily's stillbirth experience with her daughter, Maia (see photos below), and knowing what was most important to her at that time, I did the following. I told my friend that she still has choices, and suggested that she take time to think about how she wanted to proceed from here. Her initial response to this was, "I can't. I just need to get this done and over with now." Half an hour later, though, she called me to say she and her man were on their way home to think about how they wanted to birth their precious baby. Four days later, little Leo was lovingly birthed at home in the water. Yes, his passing was a tragedy, and the healing has been hard and slow, but at least the grief wasn't compounded by a traumatic birth experience.
Having just read this, my friend has asked me to add the following: "...how extremely grateful I am for those words, Carla. I was in such shock and distress, and to hear your beautiful voice reminding me I still had choices - what a wonderful blessing - you helped me to get out of that hospital and go home! I will be forever grateful to you for that (what also helped me was when one of the nurses said that they would give me an epidural - no consultation or consideration of what I might want just that they would - give me an epidural), but mostly it was hearing you say that I still had choices - thank you my friend. It was the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me but being able to go home and take time to do what we needed to do and to gather loved ones around us, and to birth our beautiful boy at home helped us to cope."
I knew it was going to be an important chapter in the book, a necessary one, a deserving one. What I didn’t expect was for so many readers to appreciate it so much. When I decided to include stories of baby loss in my book, Where the Heart Is: Stories of Home Birth in New Zealand, I thought some may feel confused by the apparent juxtaposition of placing such tragic stories alongside the others. After all, the stories in the book were all meant to epitomise positivity and empowerment through giving birth. Surely stories which entailed the death of a newborn were far from positive, far from empowering, and simply not the sort of stories a mother-to-be would appreciate being exposed to during her pregnancy. This is what I thought might be the sentiment of some, perhaps many (and possibly it is), however, what I am repeatedly hearing from readers is that the Birth and Death chapter was the one they most appreciated and were most touched by.
As tragic as it is, death will always be a part of birth for an unfortunate few. While parents are powerless to stop this reality, how that experience plays out, and the lasting impact it has on their lives is, to some extent, influenced by their birth choices, and by the birth workers who support them. We don't talk about death much in our society. We definitely don't talk much during pregnancy about the possibility of our babies dying, and about what we'd want for ourselves and our babies should that occur. Perhaps we're superstitious that contemplating the possibility of loss may somehow encourage the likelihood of it happening. Or maybe we simply can't fathom that anything could be done to dampen the grief and pain at such a time, so it's viewed as a futile exercise to examine the possibilities. Which is, in part, why I felt it important to include stories of baby loss in a book of positive birth stories.
What the stories of Maia's and Regan's births and deaths teach us, is that contemplating the possibilities is an important part of coping, and of healing after the grief. The parents of these babies were able to experience the births and deaths of their babies their way, and their grieving processes were respected by their caregivers. Ultimately, they were left with no regrets about how they birthed their babies, and about how they chose to honour their lives and their passing. What I hope for those reading the Birth and Death chapter of my book, is that they internalise that birth does not necessarily become a negative and traumatic experience when the loss of a baby is a part of that journey. Perhaps, an empowering birth experience where the woman and her family are treated with the utmost sensitivity and respect, becomes more important than ever when baby loss is involved (an important reminder for birth workers who read these stories, too).
Also, those families and their babies deserved to have their stories told, for the parents to share the swell of pride at the beautiful babies they created, and to acknowledge the short lives of their beloved children. Through providing this forum for their stories to be shared, acknowledgement is paid to the mothers, families, and caregivers, who sought to respectfully welcome these babies from the womb to the world, and to lovingly say goodbye.
Thank you Emily and Brent, and Libby and Wayne for sharing your stories with us all.