Updated: May 10, 2022
A story of Jessica’s loss and how I (her mum) coped with my grief, including accessing EMDR trauma therapy.
Trigger warning- this story also mentions parenting a child whilst grieving and trying/ conceiving again after loss.
After three early miscarriages, I was delighted to finally be pregnant with my second child. I had always wanted a daughter and my 20 week scan revealed that I was indeed carrying a girl. I already had a healthy three year old son. I felt wonderful and so, so lucky to be completing my family with a daughter.
On 20th October 2017, my world was turned upside down when I heard the words “I’m sorry there’s no heartbeat”. Two of my miscarriages had been missed miscarriages and so I had needed scans to confirm the end of those pregnancies. At those scans, that awful sentence was uttered too. This time I was 33 weeks pregnant though. In my mind, I had naively assumed that baby was ‘safe’ at this point in my pregnancy. How could this happen?? I had watched in awe as she smiled at me on a 4D scan just four days before she died. Everything was looking perfect and there were no complications in the pregnancy. How could she just die? At that time, I honestly believed that healthy babies in a ‘normal’, low risk pregnancy did not just die. I now know all too well that that just isn’t true though and it can happen to anyone and does happen daily. The baby loss support groups that I went to after Jessica died had lots of bereaved families telling similar stories of suddenly losing their healthy baby with no known reason for their death.
The night I found out that Jessica had died was a Friday evening. I had dashed to the hospital to check on her because I hadn’t felt her move throughout the day and I suddenly couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I actually assumed that she was just hiding behind the placenta but I knew I had to check given the lack of movements and the strong panicky feeling, which I couldn’t shake. I had an anterior placenta in her pregnancy and I had been checked for reduced movements once before. Jessica was found to be happily kicking my placenta that time. I never felt her movements as much as my son’s pregnancy in all honesty but she was growing well and everyone believed her to be healthy. So I reasoned that it was just the position that she and the placenta were in, which prevented me from feeling her move very often.
I went to the hospital alone that night, while my husband put our son to bed. Finding out alone was awful in so many ways. My husband was texting to ask if I had been seen yet and was everything ok? I couldn’t say tell him over text, especially while he was putting our son to bed. I asked him to call me when he’d done bedtime. When he called me after our son was asleep, I had to tell him over the phone that she had died. I felt so cruel. I also feared that he would blame me for not going into hospital sooner- he never has blamed me though. He too assumed she was fine and that I was being over anxious. After all, we had just seen her happily smiling at us at the 4D scan!
I then had to call my mum and tell her that my baby had died. Immediately after, I had to ask her to drive 45 minutes to my house and look after our son, so that my husband could come to the hospital. I recognise that this couldn’t have been easy for her. On the phone, my mum just kept saying “there must be a mistake, are they sure?” The thing is although I never contemplated that Jessica had died as I rushed to the hospital, as soon as I saw them scanning me and struggling to find her heartbeat I knew she had died. All of a sudden that panicky feeling I’d had that ‘something was wrong’ made sense. I had the same feeling with the early miscarriages and it prompted me to request early scans to find out. However, this time I had dismissed the feeling as me being over anxious because of the previous miscarriages and because a close friend had lost her daughter to neonatal death three months previously.
Thinking back, as I drove to the hospital to be checked, I did cry in panic and I did consider that Jessica may be poorly and/or that medical intervention might be needed. However, I didn’t consider that it would already be too late to save her. The hospital scanned me three times and various members and grades of staff had to verify that there definitely wasn’t a heartbeat. Throughout all these scans, I just stayed silent, willing the process to be over quickly, as I knew no-one would find a heartbeat. I was staring at the static screen, I’m not sure why because the screen was compounding my agony. I knew all too well that her little heart would be flickering if she were alive. It was hard to tear my eyes away from her though.
I will always wish that I had listened to my ‘anxious’ feeling and gone into hospital sooner. Perhaps going in sooner would have saved her life. Perhaps it wouldn’t too though? I’m painfully aware that I can never bring Jessica back now. So as much as I wish more than anything that I had acted on her lack of movements sooner, I have learnt not to dwell on my feelings of guilt. I am a Clinical Psychologist, so I know that ruminating on such guilt, would negatively impact my emotional wellbeing and would not actually benefit Jessica or anyone else. It took me time to get to this acceptance of my guilt though. It was definitely a process to get to where I am now. Now I tell myself that ‘I did what I could with the information that I had at the time’. If I had of known she was unwell, then I would have course have acted differently.
The hospital were wonderfully supportive that evening. The staff seemed really concerned about me having no-one with me for emotional support, both when I found out and immediately after. One of the midwives kept asking when someone would come to join me and if I wanted her to stay with me. She also keep popping back into the side room to check whether I wanted a hot drink or a cuddle. I remember thinking how British it was to be offered tea as a comfort at such an awful time. Ironically, I hate tea and coffee; but I really appreciated her compassion and the offers of things that might possibly have brought me comfort. In reality, I just wanted to be alone I spoke to some close friends over text/ whats app and I just cried. That was my way of beginning to process the news.
When my husband arrived at the hospital about an hour later, I was having swabs and sterile blood tests taken. The hospital were trying to ascertain if I had an infections or anything medically unusual occurring that might explain Jessica’s sudden death. A male consultant came and explained that I would need to be induced, he warned me that labour would be more painful than usual and advised me to utilise full pain relief to cope. He said my ‘feel good’ hormones were obviously not going to work, which in turn would slow labour and cause extra pain. Another consultant informed my husband and I, that we needed to decide if we wanted a post mortem for Jessica and if so to complete the necessary paperwork. My mind was spinning. So much was happening, which was difficult to comprehend and all the decisions and paperwork seemed to need to be done immediately. I still just wanted to be alone to process it all and cry. I did not want to think about someone potentially cutting open my baby girl, especially given that I hadn’t even birth to her yet. However, my husband and I both agreed that we had to at least attempt to find out why she had died. So we did complete the paperwork that night.
About three hours after first going into the hospital, they advised me to “go home, try to get some sleep, then pack your hospital bags in the morning and return at 10am for induction”. Of course, neither of us really slept that night. The hospital gave us a folder of bereavement leaflets to read. Included in the folder was a story to read to explain infant death to siblings. We tried to read it but neither of us couldn’t get past the first page without hysterically crying. I was so desperate to hug my son but of course he was asleep. So after checking on him, I just went to bed and tried to think more about how I would tell him. I didn’t feel I could physically say the words “baby has died” aloud without being in floods of tears yet. Our son had excitedly watched Jessica on the big TV screen at the 4D scan the week before too. He spoke about her loads. I worried about the impact of her death on him. I was also worried about going into hospital to be induced straight after. I didn’t want to leave him to think over what I had said without his parents to support him or answer his questions. We contemplated not telling him until I was back home but actually we ended up telling him because the first thing he said in the morning was “can we see Jessica on the big TV screen again today”. It was clear he needed the truth to understand why we were so sad after he said that and why we both needed to go back to the hospital. We kept details minimal at this point as we simply weren’t ready to talk about it in any depth and we didn’t know how to phrase everything mindfully. We also didn’t have answers to the many of the questions that a three year old would naturally ask yet. I promised my son that we could talk more when I got back from hospital though. I made it clear that mummy and daddy were ok and that we both loved him lots and that it was nobody’s fault. We told him that nanny was going to take him to his usual football lesson and that we hope they had a great time together and we couldn’t wait to see him again soon.
Choosing the one outfit that Jessica would ever wear was agonising. Hubbie told me just grab anything but I wanted it to be perfect for her. I didn’t consider that actually she would get blood on that outfit and so it wouldn’t be the outfit that she was buried in anyway. Instead the hospital would change her into knitted outfits that had been donated and by the time I realised she had been changed, her body had become too fragile to change her again.
The induction and labour process was incredibly lengthy. It was definitely more difficult than my son’s birth. I won’t go into detail about it here. However, in some ways it wasn’t as bad as I was warned. I was determined to have a water birth and I will be forever grateful to my bereavement midwife Shelley. She advocated for me and helped me refuse pain and induction medications that would have prevented such a birth being medically allowed. Jessica was born using gas and air in the birthing pool, which was important to me. In retrospect, I think partly because I needed to feel in control over something that was happening. We had planned a home birth previously. The hardest bit of Jessica’s birth for me was the silence that seemed to echo in the room throughout the night as I was birthing. There was no guidance on when or how to push during labour. I interpreted this at the time as a lack of emotional support because the midwife who was present didn’t need to ensure that baby arrived safely. I later learnt that actually it was the first stillbirth labour that that midwife had attended and she didn’t know what to say and felt it may be more helpful to just stay quiet. I didn’t find it helpful though and later processed that deathly silent labour using EMDR trauma therapy.
In the early hours of 23.10.2017, Jessica was finally born, she looked so perfect. She was just like a sleeping newborn. Again I couldn’t stop thinking how could this happen and why oh why did she die?!!! To say I was devastated just doesn’t even come close to portraying the heartbreak of those early days, weeks and months.
The hospital had a ‘cold cot’ which preserved Jessica’s body and enabled us to see her until we were ‘ready to say goodbye’. As if anyone can ever be ready to say goodbye to their child. Jessica was born at 4.12am on the Monday and at 10am that day my mum informed me that my son had been admitted to the local children’s hospital (an hour’s drive away). So I had to discharge myself almost immediately and rush to him, rather than spending the time I felt I needed with Jessica. He was very poorly when I arrived and I felt so guilty that I hadn’t been there to take him to hospital myself. He’d never been away from me for three consecutive nights before. I feared he would feel neglected and like we didn’t care. Luckily, he only had severe tonsillitis and with steroids his breathing finally stabilised and he was discharged home the same day. As a result needing to abrupt discharge myself from hospital to see my son, I returned to visit Jessica again once my son was asleep for the night. I cuddled Jessica. I took books with me and I read bedtime stories to her. I was amazed how natural it felt despite her being as cold as ice, due to the cold cot.
I ended up going to see Jessica at bedtime for four nights in total. My mum and a friend also came to meet Jessica on two of the nights. I would say goodbye to them, then stay longer with Jessica on my own and read her our ‘goodnight’ stories. Reading this, I realise it may seem like I was in denial that she was dead at this point. I was of course painfully aware that she was dead. But I wanted/ needed some memories with her. Despite the sadness, those nights with her were special too. On the Friday, my husband and I decided we needed to say our ‘final goodbye’ together. I literally couldn’t understand how I would ever say goodbye and not see her again. However, the hospital had told us that she needed to be sent for post mortem and that leaving it longer may affect the accuracy of the results so we had to somehow let her go. We included a family photo with a hand written message to her on it. We placed a heart in her tiny fingers and arranged her cuddling a teddy. We also included my son’s comforter in the cold cot. Saying goodbye was so devastating. But eventually we kissed her goodbye, took photos of her and forced ourselves to leave the bereavement suite without her. That was the last time my husband ever saw Jessica.
I visited Jessica again four weeks later when she returned from post mortem at the funeral directors though. I was warned that she wouldn’t look the same because so much time had passed and she hadn’t always been in a cold cot during that time. However, as her Mummy, I had a need to arrange her tiny baby coffin or ‘forever bed’ myself. I wanted it exactly the way we’d arranged the cold cot together that day. There was no doubt in my mind that I had to talk to her one last time too. I will be forever grateful for the time I spent with Jessica and for the experiences that we shared together over that week.
As a Clinical Psychologist and a mum, I wanted to protect my son from the magnitude of the devastation that I felt whilst grieving but I also knew that it was important to talk to him about what had happened at a developmentally appropriate level. I would explain that I was sad that baby Jessica died on the occasions that he noticed my tears. I would answer his questions however painful I found them. In addition, I knew that I needed to allow myself time to cry and grieve openly too. I seemed to quickly and quite unconsciously learn to let the grief flow most heavily when my son was asleep or at nursery. Shelley, my lovely bereavement midwife was often on the end of the phone to me on Fridays (his nursery day). She would listen to me howl as the week’s grief poured out. Shelley really is one of the warmest and most empathic people I know and I will forever be grateful that it was her supporting me through those early days and weeks of my grief. I will also always be grateful to Oscar’s Wish Foundation, who opened the maternity bereavement suite where we stayed for the three days that I was induced. This suite was also where I saw Jessica when I visited in the evenings. The room was so cosy and the perfect place to make precious memories with my precious baby girl.
One of the feelings that I found the hardest in those early days of grieving was the intense longing/ need to be with Jessica. This caused an unease in myself, which nothing seemed to reduce. I knew the feeling was literally my body screaming ‘there is something missing, you need to be with your baby’. As I couldn’t be with her though, I couldn’t seem to ease that feeling. I felt like part of me was missing, which of course it was and I was just incomplete without her. I saw no way that that this feeling would or could ever change. I think it was partly why the time I spent with her in the bereavement suite was so comforting. Even though she was obviously unresponsive when I laid and read to her, I felt almost at peace and whole again while I was there, because we were together. When I left the hospital I just felt that intense ‘need’ to be with her again so strongly.
It was a month after Jessica was born before we were able to hold her funeral. I spent those few weeks painstakingly trying to find the ‘perfect’ songs for the funeral, create the most loving and fitting order of service, pick the ‘perfect’ funeral car and moses basket style coffin, pick the most fitting flowers etc. My husband and I both wrote personalised letters to Jessica. We printed copies and I put them in her forever bed with her on the morning of the funeral. We also read copies out to her at the funeral. The funeral felt like the only thing I could do for her now and so in my head it had to be completely perfect. In reality, her funeral wasn’t perfect though. Three things went disastrously wrong. Firstly, we had a beautiful wicker basket style coffin for Jessica. We also had a lovely idea that we would invite any guests who would like to, to light a candle for Jessica in the service. Unfortunately, we hadn’t considered that every guest would want to do just that and that the table for Jessica’s basket and the candles for memoriam was actually quite small. So as I read out my heartfelt letter to Jessica, I saw my dad run to that table blowing at the coffin, which had caught fire! Although I was initially horrified by this, family members and friends helped me to reframe it in ways that I now look back on this almost fondly and with a smile. There was also an issue with the music. The song that will always consider to be ‘Jessica’s song’ wouldn’t play. I ended up playing it via my phone, which wasn’t ideal but I felt I needed it to be played somehow. Finally, Jessica’s coffin was lowered in the ground with the feet end in the direction that all of the headstones were. I really struggled with this and begged the funeral directors to turn her round so that she was facing the ‘right’ way. Apparently once a body is lowered into the ground, it is illegal to remove the coffin again or tamper with it in anyway though.
The funeral was of course emotionally incredibly difficult. It is true no-one should ever have to bury their baby. So many people came to support us, which was touching. I hadn’t anticipated that I wouldn’t really be able to speak to anyone at the wake though. My brain just didn’t seem to work. I couldn’t force myself to be my usual sociable self. I found it hard to even express my gratitude to the friends and family who travelled from far and wide to support me that day.
Jessica’s death was my first ever real experience of grief. I had lost a couple of family members who I wasn’t very close to but no immediate family or friends. Through my work, I knew about grief theoretically. I knew the stages of grief model, I knew grief provokes a complex range of emotions. I knew the saying the more you love someone, the harder you grieve. But I honestly don’t think I ever ‘really’ understood grief until I experienced it first-hand.
Coping with Jessica’s death whilst parenting a lively three year old was the most difficult thing that I have ever had to do. I could not stop the biological longing to be tending to my gorgeous baby girl. Instead I was going to soft play and toddler groups, which seemed to be brimming with healthy newborns. I would forcibly hold back the tears and try hard to focus instead on giving my son the normality and fun he needed. My need to be Jessica’s mum and to mourn her seemed in direct conflict to my need to be a good mum to my son. Somehow my son and I got through that time and actually made some nice memories on days out together, despite the pain I was feeling. In retrospect, ‘keeping going for my son’, really helped me too. My gratitude for him grew stronger and stronger. I also didn’t feel guilty if we had moments of laughter together, which perhaps I might have done if Jessica had been my only child and I had of laughed with someone else when the world seemed so dark to me. My son gave me a reason to get up each day. Parenting him gave me purpose.
Likewise, I did a lot of fundraising for Oscar’s Wish Foundation (OWF) in those early months. I campaigned for a maternity bereavement suite at another local hospital, where I was also working at the time. I joined the renovation team alongside OWF, Abigail’s Footsteps and the bereavement midwives and we opened that maternity bereavement suite, partly in Jessica’s memory, in June 2018. My son, the fundraising and the renovation project, alongside returning to work four months after Jessica’s died all gave me purpose and helped me ‘live’, despite feeling so hopeless and bereft. In my head, I felt like I was doing a lot of these things to help others and hopefully they did help other people but they definitely helped me to cope too.
Other things that helped me cope were: talking with family and friends; keeping a diary; visiting her grave each day and keeping it tidy and pretty; talking with other loss mums; making an Instagram account for Jessica which included her photos and memories- I only shared this account with other loss mums doing the same; spending time with another loss mum who lived locally and had a similar experience to me; making a Jessica photo album, buying little Jessica momentos for her memory box- named candles etc; writing her name in the snow or sand, paying for a beautiful Jessica sunset picture; making her first birthday special via a dove release, gardening each day (I’ve never been a gardener but I found that nurturing a memory garden for Jessica helped direct my natural urge to nurture her in a useful way) and having EMDR trauma therapy to process her birth.
Jessica’s grief has forever changed me as a person in both positive and negative ways. I don’t feel like I have the same capacity to multi-task as I did and I definitely feel like I’m more easily affected by stress and anxiety since she died. I need more self-care than I used to manage the busy demands of being a working mum. I also think I will forever carry some guilt for her death. However, Jessica’s death has probably made me a more empathic Psychologist too. I understand trauma, loss and grief whole heartedly now. At the time of Jessica’s death I was working in an NHS major trauma service. In this role, I frequently heard people say to me that as a person they felt broken following the trauma they had experienced. I remember thinking and telling a couple of people that I too felt broken in the months after Jessica’s death. In the six years that I worked in that trauma service, I frequently saw people move to a more positive place in terms of their self-identity as they processed what had happened to them and/or grieved for what they had lost though. In my own grief, I recalled many of the patients I had worked with and each of their life stories gave me hope that one day I too would no longer feel so broken.
For me it was true that the first year and all the firsts which followed, were by far the hardest emotionally. It was also true for me that grief came in waves. Initially, the waves came so hard and fast that I could hardly get a breath between each grief wave but now the sea of grief is much calmer. I can still be bowled over by a huge grief wave, where the emotion feels intense again like in the early days but usually this is in response to a direct trigger such as the anniversary of her death or her birthday. I will always love and miss Jessica. Jessica will always be missing from my life but I live with my grief and still have a full life now too.
It is important to me that Jessica’s memory will always be a driver for me to do good and help others. My husband and I vowed to each other that we want to better people because of Jessica’s tiny but incredibly important little life. I now volunteer with Oscar’s Wish Foundation. I run free monthly emotional support groups for other loss parents and for parents pregnant with or trying to conceive a baby after loss.
A pregnancy after a miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death is commonly known as a ‘rainbow pregnancy’. I have written a book to support children/ siblings in understanding and coping with rainbow pregnancies. I also help bereaved parents in my work and provide them with EMDR trauma therapy where necessary too. I have slowly managed to put the pieces of my life back together.
The birth of my incredible rainbow daughter has definitely helped bring further hope and joy to my life again too. Although, she is obviously no replacement for Jessica and I would never want her to be a replacement either. She is equally perfect as Jessica was. I would describe myself as different following Jessica’s death and my priorities have changed but I no longer feel broken.
I will never be able to thank my friends and family enough for their support as I grieved and as I anxiously awaited the safe arrival of my rainbow. My rainbow pregnancy was also incredibly difficult, due to the constant fear that it could happen again. I had four psychologist friends who were there for me day and night, whenever I needed them in the early days of my loss. Having that level of support and empathy helped me so much in surviving my grief.
I wrote this case study because I found reading similar loss stories to mine, helped me when I was grieving. So if you want to feel like someone else understands too, then I hope this helps you. I am so very sorry for your loss.