My sister Máire Bríd was stillborn. My mother says that, two days before her due date, her little baby stopped moving and that she almost ran to the hospital, hoping against all hope, but knowing that something was terribly wrong.
At the hospital they couldn’t find a heartbeat. Two days later she was born: perfect and beautiful, but without life. There was no sound, no cry, no hope that she might have even a brief time with her heartbroken parents.
The nurses wanted to take her away. “Give her to me,” my mother said through her tears, and she held her baby to her as if she could will the life force back into her. But she was gone, born sleeping as we say now, one of God’s angels.
My mother said she would have given anything, anything at all, to have had her baby live even for one short moment after birth, to have touched her warm face and stroke her tiny hand, to pour a lifetime of love into that fleeting minute. But it wasn’t to be. The loss of that time haunted her. It broke her heart.
In those days there were no grief counsellors, no dedicated support to help you through the shock. You were just expected to get over it.
She had my Dad, of course, who is the kindest and gentlest man imaginable, and her loving, tight-knit family. But such unexpected and traumatic loss needs a support structure for grieving, and it requires recognition too, both of the little life that slipped away, and of the fact that such a terrible loss had been suffered. Parents weren’t encouraged back then to hold their babies, or to make memories of their too-short lives. It made everything harder.
It was important to my parents that their baby girl was remembered. She was our sister, and part of our family; she was acknowledged and loved. But I did wonder what it had been like for Mam and Dad when she died, how they managed, how they felt.
Mam didn’t talk much about that, about how Máire’s death had affected her. Even when we occasionally broached the subject, it was as if the grief still choked her, even though one, then two, and then three decades had passed.
I realise now that it was simply too hard. The shock of losing her child was so overwhelming and so profound, that it was almost unbearable, and the longer it was left unexpressed the more it became impossible to articulate without spasms of grief. It was a sorrow that mothers of her time carried deep inside, and did not share.
I always felt that this wasn’t right, especially since my mother is one of life’s comforters: someone whose home and heart were always open to those in need of help. There have been a great many losses healed by her kindness, and sorrows comforted by her unfailing generosity.
Yet, I did not know how to comfort her. I was afraid, like a great many people in this situation, of upsetting her, of seeing my mother who I love so much in so much pain.
Then last month we went to a Remembrance Day as part of a wonderful project called Every Life Counts.
It’s a dedicated forum which gives parents space to talk about their babies who suffered from conditions such as anencephaly or Trisomy 18 – conditions which can mean that life is all too short- and for parents who have suffered the loss of their child. We listened as parents shared their stories, and brought home to us that every child is precious and has a right to life, and that every life has meaning.
It was beautiful. Poignant and moving, and sometimes heartbreakingly sad, but so beautiful. These children, Andrew and Lillie and Myla and Lilly Joy and Clodagh and all the others, were remembered and loved and celebrated. We learned how to make sure that parents have the gift of time, and why every child is special and should be protected.
My mother sat with Fiona, who had lost her little boy, Andrew, to anencephaly, and they talked about their babies who they had loved so much for that brief time, and for ever after. And then they took each other’s sorrow and released it a little from the deepest fissures of their hearts.
So I was reminded that love is stronger than pain and loss, and that, if we try, we can help each other through the very worst of times.
One day, please God, all parents who have loved and lost will meet their children again, and they will be truly comforted. But for now, they are speaking out to say that every life counts. Their voices should be heard.