How can I help my mother? Almost 40 years ago, she had a baby girl who died a couple of days after she was born. She has only recently started talking about it, which may have been prompted by the birth of my second child five months ago. We lived far away when I had my first son; this time we are in the same town and she is much more involved.
I knew she had a child that died but little about the details. Mum was surprised to see the details of my medical notes about my birth and talked about whether she might be able to see her notes on the baby’s death. She is going to apply to see them.
I was shocked to discover that she really knows nothing about the circumstances. It was a healthy full-term pregnancy and she recalls going into hospital but nothing about the labour, though it was apparently normal. She has a hazy memory of getting off the bed, losing the placenta on the floor and being pushed back into bed screaming.
Mum is not sure how much of this is real or if she was sedated.
The funeral was arranged and took place while she was still in hospital. She knows nothing about it. Her own mother saw the baby, and described her, but that was the only conversation she had on the subject with her family. I have just found out that she didn’t even ask my dad about it and they didn’t talk about it at all.
I was born three years later and my sister four years after me. Mum and Dad divorced acrimoniously 20 years ago. She has asked me to ask Dad for any details he may remember. I am happy to do so but am also aware that Mum has been through a trauma and never been able to grieve for her baby.
I hate to think of her carrying around this sadness all these years. She has been a wonderfully kind, warm and patient mum; even more so with my boys. She has never been comfortable talking about her feelings so I am not sure how to help.
Anon, via email
Your poor mum. I think you are right that the birth of your second child has prompted a lot of these memories to surface. Also with any traumatic event, if people bury their emotions, they often only start to explore them when they feel they are in a safe (or safer) place. You are doing all the right things and I hope I can guide you in helping your mother further.
But don’t forget yourself – you have not long had a baby and are supporting your mother emotionally. Also, this is a baby who would have been your sister and your children’s aunt.
First, the notes. Maternity records must be kept for 25 years after the birth of the last child in the family. But don’t lose hope: her notes may still be there. Your mother needs to write to the administrator of the maternity hospital, giving as much information as she can. The notes may not be very detailed, as you suggest, and even if they are, might not provide answers to her questions. She could also ask for a midwife at the hospital where she had the baby to go through the notes with her if anything needs to be explained.
You say your mother doesn’t like to talk much about her feelings, but do try to persuade her to contact Sands, which offers support to anyone affected by the death of a baby (uk-sands.org, tel: 020-7436 5881). The website is full of information and the helpline is staffed by bereaved parents who are trained to offer support. There is also a forum where your mother could talk online (if that is better for her). Some areas have local groups where people can meet up.
I spoke to someone at Sands who said it’s not at all unusual to be contacted by women in their 60s, 70s and beyond who are just starting to explore their grief that originates many decades before. (You can ring Sands too if you feel you need support.) If your mother wanted to, she could also try to trace her daughter’s grave. I’ll put details of how to do this in the online comments. I’d also like to suggest sayinggoodbye.org, which runs remembrance services at cathedrals up and down the country for parents to say goodbye to their babies, at whatever stage they died, however long ago.
First published in Guardian Family on 15 September 2012.