I’d never heard of a doula until I was pregnant with Orla. At first, the idea seemed a little unusual to me – why would you want someone else with you at such a private and intimate time?! But as I immersed myself in preparing for birth, hypnobirthing and how important it is for the women to feel calm, supported and empowered, I came to realise what a wonderful thing it must be to have one.
And yet the thought didn’t enter my mind about what would happen if the plan didn’t go to plan and a baby died before birth – would a doula still attend? How would they manage this utterly tragic, but possible reality?
This letter from Beccy captures the support she has given to many women through loss. I sobbed when reading it as it captures everything I would wish for all parents going through loss: the unwavering support, the compassion and tenderness both during and after and the ability to recognise the finer details that others may forget. Be warned, this is an emotional read, so maybe not one for the commute to work, but if anyone wants to know how to support a parent through and after loss, please read this and share widely.
Beccy is a pre and post-natal massage therapist, trained doula, creator of The Mother Box and author of The Little Book of Self Care for New Mums. She can be found here on Instagram at @beccyhands and @the_mother_box.
To the mum who birthed her baby, knowing she would never be able to bring her home,
I still remember the day you called to tell me ‘the news’. I knew immediately something was wrong by the sound of your voice. I knew you’d gone in for a check as you were worried little one’s movements had lessened. I told you weren’t being silly, and that it was always better to get checked out if you were concerned. You laughed and said you were a ‘worrier’ and that you’d call back in a while to tell me all was well. I laughed too, but my tummy was knotty. Over the years I’ve sadly had the call back when things weren’t ok. Thankfully way less than the call saying ‘it’s all fine’, but too many times to not have a little niggle of worry for you.
Heartbreakingly this was one of those times. Your gorgeous little girl had died. There was no indication why just now, but at 38 weeks you had the first-hand heart-breaking experience of those 3 devastating words ‘I’m so sorry’!
I echoed those words back to you, there are no other words that make sense in that moment. I assured you that I was here for you in whatever capacity you needed me. You asked if we could talk over a cuppa tomorrow, and joked ‘bring some biscuits, I think we’ll need them’ I swallowed hard, choked at your bravery and ability to crack a joke, even now. I made a mental note to buy you the nicest bloody biscuits I could find!
The next day we sat on your sofa, drinking tea, and none of us actually able to touch the biscuits. I noted that we were all sitting in exactly the same seats 4 weeks earlier, making plans for your home water birth. You were both so happy, and full of love for your little lady, and I left that session feeling so sure you were going to have the most wonderful birth. My eyes prickle and I remind myself that I need to be strong for you both right now.
Neither of you have slept, and your eyes are puffy from the crying, but you are so strong together and you support each other so beautifully. You’ve seen the midwife this morning to talk through your birth options, and you have decided that you want to try and have as calm and peaceful a birth as possible. You explain that you need it for your own healing. I say a little prayer to whoever is listening that you get your wish, knowing how unpredictable birth can be I cross everything I can out of sight for you.
You ask me if I will still be your doula, I say ‘try stopping me’ and we all have a bit of a cry, and finally scoff the biscuits, you joke about how posh they are and cry again – I think how amazing you are to see the small stuff even now. I suggest you both go and have a nap, I go home, make a vat of lentil soup and drop it back round a couple of hours later and joke lecture you about just having a little bowl every now and then to keep your strength up for labour.
After a couple of days nature doesn’t kick in (I’ve realised over the years that nature is a cruel mistress sometimes) and you are booked in for an IOL (Induction of Labour). I pick you both up, and we check through your labour bag to make sure you have everything you need, you’ve left all of the baby stuff in you’d already packed. I tell you to leave it, I can see its too hard for you to take it out right now. You hold my hand so tightly, I want to whisk you away to another time when you hadn’t just lost your baby and you weren’t having to face birth knowing you weren’t bringing her home.
Instead I smile and say, ‘come on, lets go, you need a cuddle with that little lady’. You smile so proudly, and say ‘ I will be able to give her a cuddle wont I’? I remind you that you are her mother, and of course you get to cuddle her and for a moment, you look excited.
The induction is very intense, but you are insistent you don’t want any pain relief. I worry that you are punishing yourself, but I begin to realise that you need to feel it all, that actually the sensations of birth are helping you. I know you need this. The midwife and I talk about it, she has the same worries as me, I explain that you have expressed the need for your body to birth well, so you don’t feel like you have failed your baby – we both take a breath, so desperate for you to have your wish and yet, so aware that birth is unpredictable. She squeezes my hand, chokes back a tear and says, ‘we’ll do whatever we can’. I realise her shift is officially over, but she’s not going anywhere, and I think what an amazing woman she is too.
You have the best birth partner going, he calmly reassures you that you are ok, that you are safe and that you are amazing. I massage away and you have your playlist playing, so many of the songs have me tearing up, but I’m careful not to show it. This is not my story, and my sadness can wait. You both need a rock right now – and that is what I will be.
You birth so beautifully, and every now and then I think to myself how like any other labouring couple you look. Such a fabulous team, supportive and strong and preparing to meet your baby. I think at times even you forget that she isn’t going to be born alive, and I see the memory of it sting you time and time again. My heart breaks for you.
The induction is fairly fast and before we know it you are transitioning. Transitions are tough at the best of times, but it hits you hard, you sob uncontrollably and you are scared. Of course you are, who wouldn’t be.
I think to myself I wish there was a stop button, that I could press and just make this all go away for you. You grab my hands, look me in the eye and say ‘I can’t do it Beccy’. I know that once she’s born the reality of it all will hit harder and I know that letting her come out, means letting her go, and my chest tightens at the thought and I can only imagine the weight of grief you are bearing right now. I hold you tightly and promise you that you can, but I tell you that you do it when you are ready and not a minute before.
We do some calming massage, we talk about how she’s ready to come now, and how that means saying goodbye and you cry so hard, I can see the pain take over your body. I remind you that she can stay with you here in the room as long as you need before you truly have to say goodbye and you visibly relax. You just needed to know that you could have a bit more time with her. You get a second wind, you make up your mind that you are ready, and I feel so unbelievably proud of you.
The midwife is amazing, she guides you through birth so compassionately. You birth so calmly and with such intuition, and we tell you how brilliantly you are doing. You smile, even though I can see your heart is breaking. She’s born, and upon your request I take her away and get her ready to meet you both. She’s beautiful, and I remember thinking how much like you she looks. I think to myself, that if she were to open her eyes, I’m almost certain she’d have your cheeky twinkle.
When you are ready, you hold your daughter, and although I know your heart is breaking, all I can see is love and pride and happiness. We all raise a cuppa to your strength and we reminisce about the birth and you ask questions and for a moment, it feels like any other post birth chat with the proud parents. You talk about who she looks like and what her name will be and I have to keep busying myself so you can’t see my tears as I am reminded how unconditional a mothers love is!
I dress her for you and hand her back to you for more cuddles, and then I leave you both to spend time with your daughter and say your goodbyes. I arrange to come and pick you up later and we hug so tightly, and for such a long time, and in that hug we both say all the things we just can’t put into words, until finally I say ‘you are the most amazing mother I’ve ever met’ and I mean every word of it!
Later I come to pick you up and take you home, having supported couples through stillbirth before I know this bit can often be harder than the birth itself. I carry your stuff and you hold each other up all the way out. You do so unbelievably well, and I think what a perfect match you are together. When we go outside, we walk to the carpark and there above us is the biggest, brightest rainbow. I’m not a religious person, but if that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was. I still think of her today every time I see a rainbow.
I pop in to see you a few days after, and you look exhausted. You’ve cleaned the house, rearranged the lounge and seem to be constantly on the go and whilst I get it, keeping busy is a really great coping tactic, I feel sad that in all of the grief the fact that you are a postnatal woman, bleeding, sweating, hormonal and sore has been forgotten. Nobody is encouraging you to slow down and take rest. I guess people are worried to say the wrong thing. But I feel the need to get you to let yourself heal physically as well and grieve.
We talk through all that your body is going through right now, and how important it is to give yourself time to heal physically. I joke that I can see how sore you are by the way you are sitting. You cry. You are in so much pain, but it’s hard to say what’s what as the emotional pain is so physical too – you crack a joke about piles and we laugh and cry together. It seems that all the focus has been on organising death certificates and funerals and somehow your postnatal recovery was forgotten. You thank me for noticing and I promise to come back tomorrow armed a postnatal recovery kit.
I return the next day with a bag full of herbs and teas. First things first I run you a bath with hypericum and calendula and some Epsom salts to soothe the perineum and piles. You sigh as you slide into the bath and I see your body relax for the first time in days, you notice some milk coming from your breasts and you sob. I sit and think about how cruel nature can be all over again, and I go and make you some sage tea to help dry your milk up. You stay in the bath for ages and we talk. You thank me for making you take the time to let your body heal, you say you feel better than you have done in days, and I think to myself all women who have lost babies need to be shown how to care for their postnatal bodies. It makes me sad that they aren’t.
After the bath, I massage you with an oil blend for grief, a gorgeous blend put together by a dear friend of mine, and I release the muscles. Lots of the muscle groups are sitting in contraction, still processing the fear and pain and grief. The tears flow again, but I know the release is doing you good, and we continue to massage slowly and gently. You get into some comfy clothes and I tuck you up in bed. Your mum checks on you as I’m packing up to leave and she says you are in the deepest sleep you’ve had in ages, and I’m so pleased your body has finally gifted you a moment of peace.
I speak to you the next day and you sound lighter, and like you’ve had some good rest and we both talk about the importance of nourishing a body after birth, even more so during grief. We talk about the importance of feeling held, and tended too in your vulnerability and the lack of this kind of care in our society today, and we joke about moving to a beautiful island where villagers pull together and look after each other.
You tell me I need to use my skills to support other mothers with empty arms in the work that I do. I promise you I will. Today I do, and it’s largely down to you. x