My Mum, Christine, went to hospital four times to give birth. She only came home with a baby twice.
So, I am one of four brothers. There’s my brother Paul, ten years older than me. There’s my brother Douglas, who lived a very short time after birth. But it was long enough for him to be named. And then there’s another brother, stillborn, who – in keeping with the standards and norms at the time – wasn’t even allowed to be named.
Even Douglas, who breathed for a very short time, was taken from my Mum without the chance for her to say goodbye. She wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral (in fact, of course there wasn’t a funeral. He was simply buried without ceremony in a mass grave).
On both occasions, Mum wasn’t allowed to grieve. She overheard a doctor say to a nurse “Why is that woman so upset? Yes, she was meant to give birth, but she didn’t”. And the nurses, only slightly more sympathetic, told her not to worry, because she could have another baby. “I don’t want another Baby”, she would say, “I want this Baby.”
The grief of this loss was with my family all the time as I grew up. My Mum is 83, and she still feels it now. We all do. For her living sons, we are also angry our Mum was treated this way. She would have felt ongoing grief regardless of how she was treated. But the refusal to recognise that her loss was real meant that her grief was compounded.
Thirty years after Douglas’ death, a detective effort was undertaken by Mum and a friend to find his grave. Eventually, it was found. The cemetery authorities, after some initial resistance, agreed to a small plaque to mark his burial place. There was no such chance to remember my other brother.
I told Mum’s story for the first-time last year. I asked her if it was OK to do so. She didn’t hesitate. “If it helps someone else, then of course,” she said.
We told Mum’s story to make sure that families suffering the grief of stillbirth know that there are people in Canberra who understand that stillbirth grief is real grief. Other politicians like Kristina Keneally and Catryna Bilyk have bravely told their stories. I know of other MPs who have also experienced stillbirth who aren’t yet ready to talk about it. And that’s OK too. The grief of stillbirth impacts on mothers, fathers, grandparents and siblings in different ways.
The one thing that surprised me when I told Mum’s story is that some people told me that the same thing had happened to them. And not decades ago, not in another country, but in recent memory, here in Australia.
So, we have to get the stillbirth rate down. As we know, it’s been stuck for twenty years. We know it is higher than the road toll. Good work is being done and I’m confident we can reduce stillbirth in Australia. The essential starting point of that effort must be a recognition that if we don’t make progress, too many babies will die and too much grief will be with us for decades.
Chris Bowen – Brother to Douglas, born still