With stillbirth more common than cot death in this country, Caron Kemp speaks to one mother who turned to a Jewish support group to help her through the tragedy
“Overnight, I became a childless parent – the hardest, most unbearable position to be in on earth.”
Thirty years ago, Jill (whose real name has been changed) found herself facing her worst nightmare when, following a complicated pregnancy, she delivered a stillborn daughter just weeks before her due date.
Her grief was compounded by the subsequent loss of her son, who died from a brain tumour aged just 23.
Struggling to come to terms with the death, Jill was overcome by the feelings she had stifled about the loss of her baby all those years ago.
A stillbirth is classified as a baby born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. It is more common than many people think.
There are more than 3,600 such events every year in the UK, and one in every 200 births ends in this tragedy for the parents.
Eleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, making it 15 times more common than cot death.
At the time of losing her daughter, Jill found herself struggling to talk openly about stillbirth – a subject too horrific to broach with others who had not experienced the same tragedy – and instead hid her emotions by putting all her energy into raising her two-year-old son.
But his death 10 years ago brought those feelings to the surface once more.
“When my daughter was stillborn, as hard as it was, I had my son to fight for, but losing him left me grieving for two children. What that does to a mother is pure carnage.”
Jill was sadly not a stranger to bereavement, having lost a brother before she was born and both her parents at a young age but, as she explains, the loss of a child is like nothing else.
“When you go to visit a relative at the cemetery, you pay your respects and leave them there, but when you visit your child in a grave, you take them with you. I call it an invisible umbilical cord. “It is the wrong order of life. No parent should bury their own child.”
Today, life as Jill knew it is virtually unrecognisable and she has moved to a new community because of the “painful” memories.
She adds: “I’ve separated from my husband, who is struggling himself to come to terms with everything that’s happened, and moved away from where I lived and all my friends because it was too painful. I did it for my survival, because this is literally all about surviving. I am fighting, but I’ve lost my past and I’ve lost my future, so all I can do is live for today.
“It is not normal. I don’t fit in with people who have no children, nor do I fit in with those that have children. It’s a very isolating, horrendous journey.” But Jill has managed to find solace – and a place to share her feelings – thanks to long-term counselling services.
One resource that she has found particularly helpful is the United Synagogue Chesed Stillborn Support Group (SSG), which offers help and support to men and women who have suffered a stillborn birth, either recently or in the past.
Having been assigned a volunteer, Jill has been leaning on their relationship over recent years and has found it beneficial.
“I suppose it’s like having a one-to-one bereavement friend. Someone you can trust and talk to who will listen and who helps me to find a way forward,” she explains.
“I have found it invaluable being able to talk about how I feel to a stranger, because I tend not to talk to my friends about it – I dislike immensely feeling like the victim over and again.
“Having this service, free of charge, and with no time restriction, has been a source of enormous comfort.”
Michelle Minsky, head of US Chesed, the umbrella organisation under which the SSG sits, is clear about the group’s value.
“The support group was established because there was nothing else like it in our community and, sadly, stillbirth affects us too,” she explains.
“It is run entirely by volunteers who are not counsellors but are trained to provide a befriending service and an anonymous listening ear over the telephone, which can help people to open up and express themselves.
“It’s an opportunity to share quite dark thoughts and feelings without feeling the need to censor yourself or apologise for how you feel.”
For Jill, such a service has been invaluable in helping her through her experiences. “Losing a child is extremely difficult and it can often be so painful; we feel we can’t talk about it, when actually it could really help and bottling it up becomes a toxin,” she concludes.
“The journey is unbearably tough to walk and very often I have to wear a mask to face the world, but with support you can learn to live in a different way and find a new normal.”
• To speak to a member of the SSG, call 0208 3435651