Letter to my first born child

To my dear first-born child,

It’s more than two decades since you came into the world, and I still find myself wondering what you were wearing for your first day in church. I start off picturing a traditional white gown, long and flowing organza, with the most amazing hand embroidery. But then all I see is a pale pink bodysuit, clashing badly with your discoloured skin. The truth is, I have no idea at all what you were wearing for your first day in church. We had the chapel, the flowers and the minister. But we didn’t have a congregation, a font and a baptism. Instead, we had each other, your tiny white casket and a funeral.

The minister was the only other person at the service. Dad and I didn’t want anyone else. Not just because the loss was such a personal thing, but also because we couldn’t imagine sharing this experience with any of our family or friends. Just after your stillbirth, everyone expressed the socially acceptable level of shock and sympathy. And they delivered the usual quota of chicken casseroles and lasagne. But as time went by it became very clear that, in most cases, this wasn’t something people felt comfortable talking about. This was something they wanted to ‘sweep under the carpet’, as was the norm at that time.

After only a few weeks, even the GP wanted to know if I was ‘over all that’. I had thought about getting some counselling, but then started to feel, rightly or wrongly, that this was the soft option. So in no time at all, it was back to the office and business as usual.

What frustrated me most was that people didn’t think of your stillbirth as the death of a living human being. They thought of it, quite literally, as the birth of a still body that never even started to live. I guess that’s because your 34 weeks of ‘living’ went on inside my womb, hidden from public view, where no-one got to feel things first-hand, except me. That early morning kick in the side. That late night fist in the gut. And every now and then, a series of little rhythmic, staccato movements, which turned out to be your hiccups. I did my best to explain these weird and wonderful happenings to your father. The regular ultrasounds gave him the chance to see some of it for himself. And if we got the timing right, he too could feel – and sometimes even see – the tail-end effect of a punch or a kick, as my skin visibly stretched and vibrated to accommodate your tiny hand or foot.

Perhaps if you had lived outside the womb for just a few hours or days, and other people had seen you kick, or punch or hiccup – or just seen you, full stop – then they too might have viewed your death as a loss of life, and not just a lost opportunity for life. If they too had held you in their arms, and seen that you were 43cm long, with brown hair and blue eyes, then maybe they too could understand that you were a real little person, and not just a failed attempt at reproduction.

I wondered at the time if we had disrespected your memory by deciding to keep your ‘in utero’ nickname, instead of coming up with a new, ‘normal’ name, like Sarah, Emily or Olivia. How could we expect people to take your stillbirth seriously when we had named you after a male character from a musical comedy? Clearly we were consumed by grief and caught off guard by your premature birth, and this was the first name that sprang to mind. But sadly, it made me – and still makes me – a bit embarrassed to mention you by name, for fear of somehow trivialising your stillbirth.

After several months, I started to doubt that I had even given birth. It was then that I reached for the floral-covered memory book, where the midwives had carefully recorded every detail of your birth, complete with black ink footprints, handprints and two Polaroid photos. These were the ‘old days’, before digital photography took off. And then, one by one, fragmented memories would pop into my head: the high-waisted navy blue maternity dress that I wore to hospital; the red rope lanyard around the midwife’s neck; my waters breaking under the shower; someone talking about a crossword in the delivery suite; contractions; a needle in the back; a student doctor popping in, popping out; the obstetrician whistling nervously; more contractions; your dead weight in my arms; an injection in the stomach; crying babies down the hall; rain drops on the window; an empty capsule; an empty heart; and empty arms.

After a few years, the memories became less real. I felt the need for more tangible evidence, more acknowledgement, that you had simultaneously been born, and officially died, at 2.24pm on that rainy Thursday afternoon in December 1994. While other people might have forgotten all about you, I found myself constantly looking for ways to remind them, and myself, that my first-born child was not just a figment of my imagination. First it was a pillar and a plaque under the family tree memorial, officially marking the spot where your ashes had been placed, inside a crude, white plastic box, alongside my father. Next it was an official birth certificate, stamped and signed by the registrar of births, deaths and marriages. Then it was a piece of jewellery – a diamante-studded initial ‘S’ pendant – worn in the hope of sparking conversation about you, but instead mistaken for an expression of love for your father, who shares the same initial.

I then found myself rummaging through a chest of drawers, searching for a roll of unprocessed film that had been given to me by the hospital. After finding the courage to post off my ‘baby photos’ for processing, I had mixed feelings about what came back: three blurry prints, not much different from the Polaroids I already had. But on the upside, the colouring was a lot more flattering than the Polaroids. Your skin looked smooth and pink, instead of rough and purple.

Somewhere in between all this, a friend encouraged me to do some training that would enable me to support other parents who had also experienced the loss of a baby. It felt good to be able to talk about you, acknowledge you, in front of the other trainees. It felt even better, learning how to look beyond my own grief so that I could try to help others work through theirs.

The final act of recognition came only a few years ago, from a completely unexpected source. My aunt, who was helping a cousin gather information for a family history book, rang to ask me for your date of birth, so that an extra branch could be added to the family tree, officially recording the fact that I had given birth to three children, not two. I’m not sure if the book was ever published; but that’s not what matters. What matters is that 20 years after the event, this incredibly kind and compassionate woman had let me know in a very special way that she had not forgotten about you, or about how your stillbirth had affected me.

Sadly, my aunt recently passed away, a year or so after my dear mother. As I grieve these and other losses, I’m reminded more and more of your own death; and I worry that I’m running out of ways to keep your memory alive. We visit the crematorium each anniversary and lay flowers under the memorial tree. (Your brother and sister always choose bright, happy flowers, like rainbow gerberas.) I occasionally sift through the folder of paperwork: the maternity pre-admissions booking form; the ultrasound films and reports; the bill from the funeral director; the bills from the hospital; the floral-covered memory book; the photos; the birth certificate; the letters from the crematorium. And still, after all this time, I’m looking for ways to weave you into conversation – to remind other people that your death is not something I will ever ‘get over’; it’s something I’ve just learned to live with.

Every time your siblings experience a big life event – or even a small one – I wonder what it would have been like for you. That first day of school, first sporting team, first swimming lesson, graduation from high school, driving lessons, first date, first job, twenty-first birthday. And then I just wonder about you. Your appearance; your personality; your likes and dislikes; your strengths and weaknesses; your passion in life.

Your death completely defied the expected order of life events and exposed me to a grief like none other. You were taken from me before we even started to create any happy, lasting memories. Before I had the chance to discover who you were. The grief has softened with the passing of time, but my feelings of love, longing and emptiness will stay with me forever. And I will never stop wondering what you were wearing for your first day in church.

All my love,

Mum xxx