Like many parents involved in the Shrewsbury maternity scandal, I'll never know why my baby died

Referring to anyone’s precious baby as ‘it’ is barbaric. But if we can’t trust the NHS staff to find the words, how can we expect the average person on the street to know what to say confronted with a new parent's grief?

Katie Ingram
Thursday 21 November 2019 13:06
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Dozens of mother and baby deaths condemned as maternity inquiry escalates to largest in NHS history

When your baby dies a bit of you dies with them. In the early weeks, your ability to think, to rationalise, to function, leaves you – alongside all the hopes of the family you have been lovingly imagining throughout your pregnancy.

In these same hours and days, when conquering each minute is a battle that you have no choice but to fight, you also have to make some huge decisions that will shape the way you process your loss and heal from it. Will you consent to a post mortem for your baby? If so, how invasive do you want that to be? Will you allow students to be in the room while the post mortem carried out? Are you happy for any tissue samples collected to be stored for future research?

You have to actually think about your tiny creation, that you have loved and nurtured, your flesh and blood, your child who you will never get to wrap up in a car seat and carry into your family home, being taken away and examined by doctors you will never know, in a cold and sterile lab.

Needless to say that these are not easy questions to answer. They are some of the worst questions a new parent can ever have to contemplate. And yet, this week, I find myself feeling somewhat fortunate that we were never in the shocking position of the parents of the babies who died in the terrible circumstances under investigation at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust.

I remember feeling a strange sense of relief when Ottilie’s post mortem results reported that no reason could be determined for her stillbirth. Not because I didn’t want to have a reason, of course – that would have given us a way to process what happened – but because I desperately didn’t want anyone to blame.

I can’t imagine looking into the eyes of someone who could have changed things; knowing that multiple people had the opportunity to save my child; understanding that continued, systemic failures to safeguard the lives of mothers and their babies resulted in us leaving the hospital with nothing but a memory box of shattered dreams.

Some of these parents, whose shock and grief was handled so badly, were unlikely to have been handed the Sands care package of leaflets that will help them navigate these dark early days. They are unlikely to have experienced the kindness of a midwife who realised that we were struggling to understand the complexities of the post mortem procedure, and brought in an alternative doctor to help us make our decisions. They are unlikely to have had their hand held in the middle of the night by a midwife who cares about their physical and mental pain. They are unlikely to have had good care from a trained bereavement midwife, and multiple visits to their home to see how they are coping, or have offered counselling to support them.

Without this level of care, I can’t imagine that we would be as far along in our healing as we are. To have to cope with loss while also feeling anger towards those that could have prevented it – and then, on top of it all, to have to fight just to be heard – is simply horrific.

Since giving birth to Ottilie in April, I have become increasingly aware that the subject of baby loss is all but ignored. It is particular grief, a loss that disrupts the natural order of things; it clashes with our squeamishness towards the "difficult conversation", rendering us silent. Our very British fear of upsetting someone with the wrong choice of words stymies us in moments when we could offer kindness and support. I have heard many stories of people crossing the road to avoid conversations with recently bereaved parents – an act far, far crueller than simply saying “I don’t know what to say”.

The inability to deal with baby loss with care and respect, to know what to say, seems to have contributed to the disturbing behaviour of the medical professionals involved in the investigations in Shrewsbury and Telford. If we can’t trust the NHS staff to find the words, then how can we expect the average person on the street to know how to behave? There is a responsibility in the health service to not only keep our babies alive when they can, but to use language that supports the family in their darkest days. Referring to anyone’s precious, deceased baby as “it” is utterly barbaric.

The longstanding fight that these families have had to undertake to have their stories heard, and taken seriously, is indicative of the lack of focus on maternity care that charities including Tommy’s and Sands are working so hard to tackle. The UK has a higher stillbirth rate than many comparable countries in Europe – hardly surprising given our crippling inability to tackle the subject in conversation.

Recent progress was made during Baby Loss Awareness Week when a debate tabled in parliament by the Baby Loss Alliance resulted in commitments to specialist bereavement suites in new hospitals and mental health provision for bereaved parents, both steps that will go some way to improve care across the NHS.

Having shared this bleakest of starts to parenthood, I have the deepest of sympathy for the families affected by the failings in Shrewsbury and Telford. Although nothing that can be done now will bring their children back, I hope that knowing they have honoured their children by fighting for change gives them some small comfort as they continue to live a life they never expected, without their babies.

Katie Ingram shares her reflections on loss and healing after stillbirth on Instagram. Follow her @withoutottilie

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