TRIGGER WARNING: This blog deals with stillbirth and features photographs that some people may find upsetting.
My first meeting with Sarah began like any other doula meet and greet. A nice café, a cup of coffee, and a chance to meet each other to work out if we were a good match for one another. It was hard to explain why I felt this intense rush of maternal protection towards this woman I had barely met. I wanted to wrap her in my arms and comfort her. In my head, I was saying to myself; “Boundaries Tanya, remember your boundaries…”
All was not straightforward with this pregnancy. At 28 weeks pregnant, Sarah had been told by her care providers that there were some concerns about her baby. He was very small for gestational age and there were also concerns about his brain development. At this stage though, there were more questions than answers.
A few weeks later, and following a slew of tests, including amniocentesis and an MRI, Sarah and her husband received the worst possible news that anyone could ever receive. Their baby would not survive life outside the womb, and a late termination followed by an induction was being recommended. I actually don’t know how anyone can process news like that. How do you make a decision to end your baby’s life?
Sarah, now 33 weeks pregnant, went into hospital to have an injection into her uterus that would start the process of termination. She was then scheduled to return to hospital a few days later for an induction. We spoke and I said I would meet her and her husband at the hospital that morning to support them.
Someone or something in the universe had other plans, and late on Saturday night, I received a text from Sarah to say that she was having contractions and was on her way to the hospital. I got dressed and called a cab – too tired and too emotional to drive safely. I will never forget that cab ride to the hospital. We passed through Melbourne’s seedy nightclub district, the streets filled with inebriated revellers. As the cab stopped at some traffic lights, I looked out the window and saw two young girls – barely 18 – as one held the hair back of her friend as she vomited on the pavement. My stomach churned and I felt suddenly very old.
I arrived at the hospital around 2am. I headed up to birth suite and asked the midwife sitting at the front desk where Sarah’s room was. I walked down the hall and was about to enter the room when a midwife called out behind me and called out “Stop! Don’t go in there!” She caught up to me and asked me who I was. I told her and she instantly relaxed. “Oh ok, that’s fine. I just wanted to make sure who you were. That would have been the wrong room to enter by mistake.”
I didn’t know what to expect as I entered. How can anyone prepare for something like this? All the workshops, trainings and books in the world can’t adequately prepare you for this.
The room was dimly lit. Soft music was playing and the room was beautifully scented by essential oils. Sarah was in the centre of the room, rocking back and forth on her hands and knees on a mat on the floor, moaning and crying simultaneously as a strong contraction gripped her body. A midwife and obstetrician stood quietly in one corner. Sarah’s husband sat motionless on the sofa, staring into space. I looked across the room and saw my friend Lacey, a brilliant photographer who had also come to photograph the birth. I remember feeling so relieved to see a friendly, familiar face in the room.
It’s hard to truly capture the feeling of that room. The feeling that you had entered a sacred space was palpable. The air was electric and I felt like I could have literally grabbed the energy between my fingers. The atmosphere was heavy and the grief on Sarah and Tim’s faces was utterly heartbreaking.
I waited silently near the door until her contraction was over and she looked up and saw me. She stood up and I went to hug her. I then went over to her husband, who in his distraction, had barely registered that I had entered the room. I introduced myself – we had never met – and I hugged him too. I desperately hoped that he didn’t feel that my presence was invasive in any way.
At one point, the midwife asked Sarah if she wanted any pain medication. She said no, she wanted to feel everything. “It helps take my mind off things” she said. That made perfect sense to me. The midwife asked her if she was okay with having an internal check, to see how progressed her labour was. Sarah agreed and the midwife told her that she was 7cms. Minutes later, her waters released and the labour progressed very quickly from that point on. I massaged her lower back; I ran my hands over her brow and through her hair. I wanted to do more, but what else could I do except hold her and hold that space? Sarah’s baby was born still just before 3am. They named him Aksel Jude.
Tim cut his son’s umbilical cord and the midwife helped to place her son on her chest. His tiny body finally revealed to his parents. In moments like this, there are literally no words. And I learned in that moment that that’s okay. We can live with silence. We don’t have to fill it and we don’t have to offer words of comfort, because there are none. I stepped back into a corner of the room and sat quietly on the couch so Sarah and Tim could be with their son. Apart from the occasional click of Lacey’s camera and the music playing quietly in the background, there was mostly silence.
I stayed for another couple of hours, internally I was trying to work out the delicate balance of whether they still needed me or wanted me to stay, or whether it was now time for this family to be alone and private in their grief. The right window of time presented itself and I went to say my goodbyes. I had been proud of myself in that up until that moment, I felt I had held myself together surprisingly well. I remembered a good friend and mentor of mine telling me some time ago that in times like this; “It’s not about you”. “Break down by all means, but do it in your own time and in your own space”. Saying goodbye to Sarah and Tim was excruciating. My heart heaved for them and I wanted so much to be able to take their pain away.
I walked out of their room and as I left I saw a cool cot had been left outside their room. Beautifully decorated, the cot is designed to keep the baby’s body cool and to slow down the inevitable effects of nature. It was seeing that cot that finally broke me. I burst into tears and ran down the hall to the elevator. I called a cab and cried all the way home. Before I went to bed, I went into my children’s rooms. My son was lying sideways across his bed; his doona wrapped tightly around him like a cocoon, the only sound was his soft rhythmic breathing. I kissed his forehead and went next door. My daughter was also lying in an awkward position, surrounded by a multitude of soft toys, and several items of my clothing, something she has done for a while now. When I first discovered a bunch of my missing clothes in her bed, I asked her why she had taken them. She told me it was because my clothes smelled like me and it helped her sleep. Unlike her brother, my daughter is a noisy sleeper. She snores like a firetruck sometimes which never ceases to amuse me given how little she is. I kissed my little girl, careful not to wake her and then quietly walked down the hallway to my room.
My husband stirred and woke when he felt me get into bed. He didn’t say much, but he rubbed my back as I lay on my side and the tears continued to fall. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep, deep sleep.
Just a couple of days have since passed, but in this short space of time I can already see this experience with more clarity and perspective. There is no doubt that this was the hardest thing I have experienced as a birth worker. But I would not have changed it for the world. Being able to provide emotional support to Sarah and Tim was an enormous honour and I will be forever thankful that our paths crossed. This experience also served to remind me that in this work that I am so privileged to be able to do, the greatest highs and unfathomable lows simultaneously coexist, sometimes with just the tiniest thread separating them.
Aksel Jude – may your memory be a blessing. You only knew love and neither you, your darling mum or your dad will ever walk alone. Be with the angels beautiful boy.
Thank you Lacey Barratt for your extraordinary photographs. Your gift will allow this family to forever cherish their son’s life.
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