A job title I wouldn’t have known existed a year ago. It doesn’t even make sense. A job title that is in itself an oxymoron- death and birth in one job title. Birth and death coexisting together? Happening at the same time? I long for the days I thought that only happened in a bygone era. Of course it doesn’t make sense. Babies dying. Healthy, full term babies dying makes quite literally no sense. Yet it happens.
On average 13 babies per day die shortly before, during or shortly after birth in the UK. 13 families per day experience this devastating, universe altering loss. Yet so many hospitals do not have a specialist bereavement midwife.
Bereavement midwife. A job title that shouldn’t exist but it’s so important. I imagine that the decision to train as a midwife is based on supporting families in their journey to parenthood and the joys of bringing new life into the world. So what happens when the journey ends in tragedy and trauma, not joy? What attracts midwives to this challenging, infinitely sadder and emotionally taxing role?
Lenny died on the 18th December, the Saturday before Christmas. Amazing Emily visited us at home the following week. Then I was told I would get a call from the bereavement midwife, Julie. I thought, what is the point? She can’t bring Lenny back. I missed a few calls from Julie but I will always remember when I first spoke to her. It was 31st December. I had had a GP appointment, they rang ME and booked in the appointment, you would think then that the GP would be prepared but instead I got a barrage of. ‘what not to say,’ said to me, to give you a flavour I was advised to, ‘just have another baby,’ before I sat down, followed by ‘ this just doesn’t happen in the Western world,’ – it does there are a ton of baby graves 5 mins from the surgery – more on that in another blog. Following this, we had an appointment at the funeral directors, I sat there thinking WTF people told me having a baby was hard, no one told me it was THIS hard. We left, we walked down the road, it was New Years Eve, we should have been planning a chilled evening in with Lenny, welcoming in the New Year as new parents instead we were planning his funeral. Julie called and this time I managed to answer, I could barely speak through hot, heavy wailing public tears.
I don’t remember much about what Julie said, but I remember how she made me feel. She made me feel and always makes me feel like Lenny matters, we matter and that she has a calm confidence that we will survive. We had never met Julie and Julie had never met Lenny, so when I first answered the phone I was pretty unconvinced she could help at all, by then end of the phone call, I felt a tiny tiny fraction better. I think she has a way of sending a cup of tea, a warm hug and blanket almost virtually through a phone.
I remember the second time Julie called. Again, she happened to call just after we had left the funeral directors. We went to a cafe, trying to do something ‘normal,’ and I felt sick and so so abnormal. We had been to that same cafe on the day I went into labour with Lenny after our final midwife appointment which had gone swimmingly. I had sat there thinking the next time we would be there would be with Lenny. We left. Walked down the road past every pregnant person on the planet and every newborn baby who all happened to be congregating on our high street. Our newborn baby was at the funeral directors. I nearly collapsed with the weight of grief and desperate tears. My phone rang – Julie. Poor woman! Through my choked up tears I described what had happened, I remember so clearly she described it as, ‘stark.’ I have thought of that so often every day since, our lives are starkly different to the ones we observe in public, they are starkly different from our friends and family and they are starkly different to everything we have planned, worked and hoped for.
Julie has been there with us in the immediate aftermath of Lenny’s death, at Lenny’s post-mortem, she was the first person I told when I found out I was pregnant with Bhai, she came to see us when Bhai died, she came to his post-mortem and she is here for us now – in short….. its been a lot! She knows us well.
Julie is the only person who we ever believe if she tells us we will be ok in the future – she makes us feel heard, safe and she reassures us we aren’t going mad but that something absolutely mad has happened to us and our reaction is normal and healthy. As I said, she has happened to call me at my lowest of low moments and talk me back down from the brink.
But what does she do she can’t bring Lenny and Bhai back? Well no she can’t and it is really hard to encapsulate her skills, knowledge and energy into one blog post. She listens and doesn’t judge, where appropriate she offers an alternative view, she has a wealth of medical knowledge and knows both of our losses intricately so we can ask questions when the inevitable, ‘what ifs’ happen and she also says, ‘Bless you,’ a lot. She absolutely never offers false reassurance, she never answers a question outside of her expertise (she has a wealth of expertise but she is humble) and she never minimises our grief. Julie has a long and successful career in midwifery and has been in her current role for a long time – this means she is able to reassure us we will regain some semblance of a life and can share with us in a way that makes us feel less isolated without comparing our losses to other people. In other words she has seen a lot and because of that when she tells us we will survive, she has more evidence than the average person. She has cried with us, laughed with us and been there through the lowest of lows and the little highs we had during Bhai’s pregnancy.
Julie’s skills, knowledge and experience are so valuable and can’t be fast-tracked. I really hope there are some dedicated Julies up and down the country and some Julies-in-training. I am deeply saddened to say that some families are not supported by a bereavement midwife as not all trusts have them – I cannot stress enough what a hugely valuable role it is. The average bereavement midwife only has on average 2 hours per family. It isn’t enough. All midwives should have a level of bereavement training and these specialists should be in each trust and be recognised for their expertise.
I know not every bereaved parent will have the comfort of meeting Julie – so here are some of my favourite pearls of Julie wisdom (spoiler: I don’t think it is really the same without her saying the words):
- You can’t avoid grief, if you try to, it will catch up with you down the line and be far worse;
- The first 6 months or so are so raw, deeply painful and you just need to get through as best you can;
- Its stark – starkly different from the life you anticipated and from those around you;
- On flashbacks – in the early days, weeks and months this is your brain trying to process information and file it in the right place;
- We don’t need to pathologise grief – just because those around us don’t understand the depth of our pain doesn’t mean it isn’t justified;
- Regret and guilt is part of grief and part of being a parent – you will look for things to blame yourself when most likely there is absolutely nothing you could have done differently and if there was it wouldn’t have changed the outcome;
But here is the real skill – another bereaved parent may or may not find some of this helpful or not but Julie knows us – she gets us, she knows how we think. I know that she will adjust her style and what she says depending on who she is speaking to and under what circumstances. Like I said, it can’t be fast-tracked.
A bereavement midwife meets a person at the worst moment of their life when they are plunged into a side of life and depth of sadness that they didn’t realise existed. It takes a selfless, brave and dedicated human-being to take on this role which so starkly contrasts to the main work of a midwife. 13 families a day will lose a baby shortly before, during or after birth – 13 families a day utterly devastated – we desperately need to prioritise this role which can get easily forgotten in a crisis-driven NHS. I’m convinced that impact these individuals make is far reaching.
If Lenny hadn’t died, we would have met Emily anyway, she would have looked after us after he was born. We would never have met Julie. Julie is the very best person we wish we had never met.