The children’s garden at Golders Green crematorium, in north London, is tucked away at the edge of a vast site but it signals its purpose the moment you walk in. If the stone toadstools – the sort you would find in a kids’ playground – and smiling teddy bears aren’t enough of a clue, the small plaques resting on the soil are the giveaway, their inscriptions as short as the lives they commemorate. The same phrase is repeated again and again: “Born sleeping”.
When I became pregnant in the autumn of 2017, I never imagined that the late spring week in which my baby girl was supposed to be born would see me not cradling her body in my arms, but rather scattering her dusty grey ashes beside a yellow rose bush in this tranquil spot. I had no inkling as the leaves fell and nights darkened that a few weeks after Christmas I would lose her at nearly six months of pregnancy and that my then two-year-old son was not, after all, to have the little sister we had started introducing into conversation. That the once-blurry visions of nursing and nurturing which I had dared to let become more fully formed after passing the 12-week mark would be replaced by having to plan my child’s funeral and a depth of grief I didn’t know it was possible to feel.
Talking about my experience of losing a baby doesn’t come easily. My job as a news editor is to play a part in the Guardian’s coverage of world events – writing about myself seems, frankly, trivial and self-indulgent in comparison. But I am far from alone and with thousands of women undergoing a similar trauma, it is deeply concerning that the subject of pregnancy loss remains something that tends to be swept under the carpet. It is widely presumed that everything will go to plan from the moment a pregnancy test comes back positive.
As a result, the devastation wreaked by an ordeal that is utterly shattering and life-changing can be underestimated, and the support required for grieving parents consequently neglected. Much has been said about challenging the 12-week rule that encourages women to keep their pregnancies secret early on, a rule that trivialises first trimester loss, as I found when my own first pregnancy ended in miscarriage at 10 weeks. But lose your baby when you are visibly swollen-bellied and starting to contemplate maternity leave, and you are faced with almost the opposite problem: like it or not, you have to tell pretty much anyone who features in your life, from family and close friends to distant acquaintances to colleagues. This is an emotionally draining task, and grief can catch you off-guard when you least expect it.
I have rarely felt more like a rabbit in the headlights than when bumping into a mother I knew some months later, who, with the best of intentions, presented her newborn daughter and asked where mine was, because surely I must have given birth by now? I still occasionally wonder if my wide-eyed smile and furious nodding as she talked was enough to disguise the waves of nausea and tears that threatened to spill out of me.
Then there was the birth itself. It was a cold January day when I went into the same London hospital where my son was delivered, this time to bear a daughter whose cries I would never hear, whose newborn squirming I would never see. It is strange to find yourself going through the rituals of birth with only a few clues to remind you of the hollowness that ultimately awaits you. The first indication for me was being told that I could not yet go to the hospital because there were no birthing rooms free – something with which the logical part of my brain sympathised (looking after those other women and their live babies should, of course, be the NHS’s priority) even as the bereaved mother in me wanted to holler in despair.
When I eventually got there, the staff (with some disappointing exceptions) did their best to help, guiding me to a room at the end of the labour ward, where the sound of babies taking their first bald cries was less likely to be heard. I almost hugged the consultant who brought the news that I could do something which would not have been possible had my baby been alive: take pain relief so strong it might make me vaguely oblivious to the horror I was about to experience. Unfortunately, it was not to be; the anaesthetist could not get to me in time, meaning I had – and still have – full recollection of the moment of birth.
Afterwards, not yet back at work, planning the cremation became a key occupation. Much of the organisation was done for us by the hospital bereavement coordinator (surely one of those jobs you hope you never have to be made aware of?), and the humanist celebrant who led the funeral service. But I almost came unstuck when confronted with the task of choosing a reading: there is no established narrative around grieving for a child that had not yet lived and, it turns out, that is reflected in literature too.
If my experience had a silver lining, it was the discovery that the best support for pregnancy loss can come from unexpected places. Cards, flowers and messages of sympathy came from all corners. Counselling – to which all bereaved parents should be entitled, but is shamefully denied to some – also played an essential part. But aside from my husband, son and parents, the pillars of strength I found I could lean on most were two university friends, neither of them parents, one of them a man. It has been heartening to have my blithe presumption that the pain of losing a child can only be understood by fellow mothers proven resoundingly wrong.
Twenty-one months on, time has not lessened the grief but it has, somehow, accommodated it. Though I wouldn’t wish the experience of being a bereaved parent on anyone, I take solace in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, who died this year, a few days before the anniversary of my daughter’s death. “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness,” she wrote. “It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”