Love and loss: the tragedy of stillbirth

Ten little fingers, ten little toes, chubby cheeks and rosebud lips; Sophie Mules was perfect in every way.

But, at 40 weeks and six days, sweet Sophie was born still.

Stillborn babes are sometimes referred to as ‘born sleeping’, but do these words make the reality harder to bear? Is it a softer, fragile phrase that contradicts the desperation parents must feel when willing with every fibre of their being for there to have been a terrible mistake?

One can only imagine the physical ache that must exist while wishing for baby blue eyes to open, breaths to be taken, or a cry to be heard. For a ‘sleeping’ baby to wake.

For Sophie’s parents Heidi, 38, and Ned, 36, there was no mistake. Despite her heart strongly beating on the obstetrician’s monitor at 40 weeks and 5 days, Sophie died as labour started the following day.

The reason? An accidental placenta abruption – a rare complication whereby the placenta comes away from the uterine wall prematurely and may cut off a baby’s life supply. In some instances, there are known risk factors. In Heidi and Ned’s case, there were none.

On Wednesday 7 December 2011 at 6.44pm, Sophie was born after a textbook pregnancy and labour – and a mere four hours after her parents learned she had died.

Earlier that morning, Heidi had period-like pain that gradually intensified. The contractions were irregular and not unbearable and, considering second labours are often faster than the first, Heidi called the hospital three times to check when to be admitted, and the midwives asked if she’d felt the baby moving.

“…I hadn’t, but wasn’t alarmed as it was normal for me not to feel much movement in the mornings,” Heidi said. “After the third phone call, they suggested I come in for an assessment given I’d called several times; not because there was any great concern.

“Ned came home from work and we went straight to the hospital and into an assessment room. The midwife couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat. My own heart did skip a beat, but in the way it does when you think you’ve lost your phone or wallet, and then it’s found a few minutes later and all’s well.”

However, that soon changed when a doctor carried out an ultrasound and failed to find a heartbeat. Two words – “I’m sorry” – told Heidi and Ned all they needed to know.

Having decided not to find out their baby’s gender, it was a bittersweet surprise as they held their second daughter after she was born, weighing 3.6kg and 53cm long.

“She looked exactly like her big sister Amelie [then 17 months old],” Heidi said. “We have newborn photos of the two of them and the resemblance is uncanny – they could have been identical twins. And, like most stillborn babies, she looked perfectly normal and healthy, just as if she were sleeping.”

Ned and Heidi spent the next 24 hours in hospital with Sophie, keeping the small patchwork quilt she lay on during the day and night. Combined with a hospital-donated teddy bear, photographs, and casts of her hands and feet, these are the only mementos of their second daughter.

Sophie Mules

It was a nightmare Heidi couldn’t wake from.

Her body continued as per Mother Nature intended, and her engorged breasts and post-partum bleeding and pain rubbed salt into the wound of leaving hospital with empty arms.

“As a physio, I think I was well-informed medically but stillbirth is something you never think will happen to you,” Heidi said. “I suppose I was naïve thinking it would be smooth sailing and I’d have a live baby in my arms in nine months’ time.

“In the hospital, I kept saying to people ‘this IS a bad dream, isn’t it?’ and remember asking the obstetrician when we could try to fall pregnant again. I so desperately wanted to be pregnant but didn’t want to replace Sophie. It’s a hard feeling to describe.”

Those early days, weeks and months were the hardest.

“About a month after Sophie was born, I went to a one-year-old’s birthday party and there was a new baby there,” Heidi said. “The parents were friends of Ned’s, and I was blatantly rude to them – no eye contact and would turn my back if I ended up in the same circle of people. I’m sure they thought I was so rude – but there was no other way I could have acted.”

Others’ reactions and questions would often prove frustrating, despite being well-intentioned. The most hurtful was continually being asked if and when they would try to fall pregnant and have a ‘second child’.

“Sophie was not a throw-away person; she cannot be replaced with another child,” Heidi said. “She was a real person, she was my daughter, and she lived inside me. Even though she is not with me in person, Sophie will always be my second child.”

Although Ned and Heidi grieved in different ways, they continued to communicate openly. Together, they also visited a counsellor who pointed out men tend to grieve through ‘doing’ while women talk it out.

“For Ned, returning to work ten days after Sophie’s birth was his way of coping and having a sense of normality amid the grief,” Heidi said. “For me, I cried every day for almost a year. Now, while I still cry whenever I deeply think about Sophie, I can talk to people without breaking down. Our friends were, and are, wonderful listeners, but it was important for me to learn how to compartmentalise the grief in order to get on with life and find the positives.”

And there have been positives. From watching now three-year-old Amelie grow up and spending quality time with family and friends, Heidi and Ned believe their relationship is even closer. They are also expecting their third child in August.

Heidi and Ned with Amelie

Heidi and Ned with Amelie

“It took 12 months to fall pregnant and to say this has been an emotional pregnancy is an understatement,” Heidi said. “It’s constantly on my mind and I’m aware of – and questioning – everything I do and don’t do for the health of my baby. Am I exercising enough or too much? Should I eat or not eat that? Did I feel the baby move? I want to have another vaginal birth, but should I have a C-section?

“Well-meaning people have said to me that I shouldn’t expect to have another stillborn baby, but how do they know? I can’t relax and I certainly can’t think about labour. I’m scared about the moment it starts because by that stage in Sophie’s birth, she had already died. I just want a healthy baby in my arms.”

The undetermined reason for Sophie’s death continues to trouble Heidi and Ned, and they feel strongly about research into the ‘unknown whys’ of stillbirth being developed by the Australian and New Zealand Stillbirth Alliance (ANZSA).

According to ANZSA, approximately seven babies in Australia and New Zealand are stillborn every day, and a cause is not found for around one third of stillbirths. Like Heidi’s story, they often occur unexpectedly and in a healthy mother and baby.

On Sunday 7 July 2013, the pair will participate in the Gold Coast Marathon Festival to raise money for ANZSA: Ned will run 10kms, while Heidi (at almost eight months’ pregnant) will slowly walk the 5.7km event.

“It is our hope that, with further funding and research, associations like ANZSA will be one step closer to finding the ‘why’ that constantly haunts us, and ways to prevent this happening to others,” Heidi said.

In a twist of fate, the date will also be the 19-month anniversary of Sophie’s birth.

For a little girl who never took her first breath, there is no doubt Sophie Mules was loved. She was wanted. And, furthermore…she was here.

If you would like to support ANZSA’s stillbirth research through Heidi and Ned’s efforts, please donate at the Sophie Mules Memorial Fundraising Page here.

Heidi and Ned

Heidi and Ned

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23 thoughts on “Love and loss: the tragedy of stillbirth

  1. Thank you Sarah for this heartfelt post. As a friend of Heidi and Ned this opportunity to raise awareness will most certainly allow the memory of lovely Sophie to live on in everyone’s heart.

  2. Sarah, this is a terrible story told with sensitivity and compassion. My heart goes out to Heidi and Ned, and to all the parents who have experienced this unimaginable pain. Sarah, are you submitting this story somewhere? It deserves a wide readership. And it’s such a timely piece. Let me know…

    • Hi Michaela,
      It is a sad story and the stats are too high for my liking – seven babies stillborn in Oz a day! Would love to have the message and Sophie’s story spread far and wide, so have emailed you.

  3. Beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing. My daughter was still born in march at 25 weeks. No medical explanation could be found. When it happened my husband and I were shocked to discover how relatively common stillbirth still is, we had no idea and certainly had never even contemplated that it would happen to us.

    Did you know there has been an independent film made starring Minnie driver and Paul Adelstein called Return to Zero? It is the first feature film with stillbirth as its central theme. There is currently a big push on across social media to raise awareness about the film and for people to pledge that they will go and see it at the cinemas if it gets released…the pledges are a way the producers are gathering support to show the Hollywood distributors there is a market for this film and that still birth has been a taboo subject for way too long.

    You can find the Facebook page by searching for return to zero or check out if you are interested.

    Thanks again for this post. It really resonated with me. If you are interested I helping all us ‘angel mums’ spread the word about this film we would be most appreciative.


    • Hi Cath,
      What happened is dreadful, and I’m sorry you had to go through it. I can only imagine what the roller coaster of thoughts and emotions must be like. I’m pleased Heidi and Ned’s story resonated with you, and I’m sure they will be glad, too.

      Thank you also for letting me know about the film. I’ll check out the details and post it on the POW Facebook page when the release is close.

      Best wishes,

  4. This is the saddest thing I can imagine. It happened to one of my dear friends in February – a long-awaited, darling little boy called Christopher. Completely heart-breaking. Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Lani, how terrible. From what Heidi said, ANZSA do have support networks in place if your friend hasn’t already reached out to them or similar organisations. Thank you for telling us about little Christopher.

  5. A beautiful, touching post. I only know the pain of infertility and miscarriage. I cant begin to imagine the pain of carrying a baby for nine months only to not be able to take them home.
    My heart aches for Heidi and Ned and I think them for being so honest and open in sharing their story

    • Hi Wendy,
      Infertility and miscarriage seems an all too-common tale, doesn’t it? I hope it’s because, as a society, we’re much more open in talking about our experiences and sharing burdens with others. Perhaps it lessens the pain, ie. one can’t feel as alone if they know others have, or are, experiencing similar journeys. Thank you for reading Heidi and Ned’s story, and all the best.

    • It is hard to make sense of, and surely it’s the not knowing that – over time – becomes the most frustrating part. The whys, if you will. In addition to Heidi, I’ve known another lady whose child was stillborn, and have realised how important it is to say their child’s name and remember that, as you said, they were here and left their mark. As long as someone’s remembered, they can’t be forgotten.

  6. I was in tears reading this story. I am currently 8 months pregnant after a long battle with infertility and stillbirth is one of my biggest fears. Two of my friends have lost their babies while I have been pregnant. Both were born alive but died soon after. I can not even imagine the heartache of having everything set up at home and spending 9 months preparing to meet a new little person and then going home with nothing.

    • I know, Toni. It would be a wretched position to be in, and one can only imagine what it must be like. All the best for your final month of pregnancy – I hope you’re getting lots of rest and relaxation in, and make sure you talk to friends/family about your worries. Sometimes a problem shared is a problem halved. Best wishes, Sarah.

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