27 Jul 2020

The heartbreak of losing a baby

11:25 am on 27 July 2020

By Kate Gudsell*

First Person - I had to ask the doctor to stop the dishwasher moments before he told me my child was not going to live.

No caption

Kate Gudsell and husband Sam Arcus Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

I knew what was coming. I could tell by the way he asked to speak to my husband, Sam, and I, the way we were led away from our baby's incubator, that we had kept watch over for six days. Those six days still feel longer than the three years which have now passed.

He took us into a room designed for the bereft. It was sterile, the way hospitals are. Its walls a blank canvas ready to absorb the emotion, with practical surfaces that can be wiped clean, ready for the next person's sorrow.

I could see from the gentle way he closed the door so it did not make a sound and sat down pulling his chair toward us without scratching the ground - slow, considered movements. He had probably rehearsed what he was going to say to us a number of times in his head. I would have.

Someone who had been in that room before us had put the dishwasher on, and I could not get its churning out of my head, the monotony of it getting on with its task. I could not stand the idea that within one of its washing cycles I would learn my first born was not going to survive. The ordinariness of it was suffocating.

"I'm very worried about Wren." That was all the doctor needed to say.

Wren, my little bird, was born during the worst thunderstorm of that winter. At some point during the delivery her cord was compressed and I was rushed by ambulance from our local birthing unit in Porirua to Wellington Hospital, where she was born.

My husband drove our car to the hospital, arriving before me, such was the magnitude of his panic. To this day I cannot see a responding ambulance without my breath shortening.

Initially we were told she would live and there was an 80 percent chance of her making a full recovery. Those were good odds, we reassured ourselves, but they diminished by the hour.

We would stand over Wren's incubator in the neo natal ward and see her eyes moving under her closed lids, like any newborn's, falling into REM sleep. But the equipment she was hooked up to told a different story, the peaks and troughs on the screen charting her brain seizures.

No caption

Sam with Wren Photo: Supplied

Listen to more:

The Unthinkable: a podcast series on the loss of a baby

Kate Gudsell and Sam Arcus speak to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon

We were given a room on the maternity ward where we would huddle together on the bed at night, against hospital rules. I would weep into Sam's chest as we listened to the cries of the healthy babies next door. I could always tell when a new one arrived.

I was told to bring my milk in because she would need it. I would roll the pump next to her incubator and watch her while I produced the milk, before storing it in the freezer. The stockpile of 'liquid gold' with Wren's name on it would give me brief moments of pleasure, one of the few acts of motherhood I could participate in.

Eventually I would have to express the milk out in the shower by hand, my tears indistinguishable from the water as I emptied my breasts. The elixir was a burden then, its presence a reminder of what was no longer here. She never got one sip.

The first time we got to hold her was just before we turned off her life support machine. She was in my arms when she took her last aided breath. The nurse said this was not supposed to happen these days.

No caption

Wren Sarah Thunderstorm Arcus Photo: Supplied

We only got to see her eyes open once, on the evening she was born. At that stage I did not anticipate it would be the last time. The doctor opened them for us after she died. She had my husband's eyes, which has come to be both a blessing and a curse.

For reasons I cannot fathom now, I went back to work after six weeks. I did not know what else to do.

I called Inland Revenue to sort out paid parental leave. After explaining I was a childless mother, the man on the phone asked me if I wanted to register for phone identification.

On some nights in the early days of my grief, my subconscious would trick me into believing that things had gone differently and I would dream she was still alive. In those waking moments, before my mind would rouse itself, I would feel happy. Just a fleeting feeling until reality set in and I would feel numb except for a clog in my throat that would overwhelm me.

I do not have those dreams anymore, but I still get that feeling, when I least expect it and usually at inappropriate times. I have to choke back tears, try to pretend I am not crying. In dark moments it feels like another betrayal by the body that failed to deliver my baby safely.

Relationships can be fragile after a loss, and I understand why some do not survive. It still scares me to think how easily I could have turned myself off to the outside world, like a little stateless being, and become a citizen of my own mind, struggling with the ineffability of my grief.

My husband and I went to see a therapist, we ticked boxes to determine whether we were depressed or not. It came back affirmative on account of us both having entertained suicide.

I got through by searching out famous people who had gone through similar experiences. I would spend hours on Google looking for comfort. I cannot really explain it, but I could give you a long list of household names that have lost a baby in some way, and you would never know.

When I was young, I lived in a very old house opposite a church in a tiny village in Wales. The graveyard was full of tombs and headstones which dated back to the 14th century or earlier. Most of it was well kept by the council, except around the back of the church, which is where I would occassionally go in my teens to smoke roll-ups and drink.

I would hide under my favourite tree and look out over the overgrown and unkempt part of the grounds full of little crosses. Most of these were for the babies that had died in the parish over the centuries, hidden away at the back where no one went, away from the grandeur of the stones which marked fuller lives. Never could I have imagined that I would too possess one of those little crosses.

I have two children now - a son and daughter, with a miscarriage in between the two. During my pregnancies people would ask if it was my first, and I would say no, which would lead to the inevitable question of how old my other children were. I would feel bad when they would register I had a dead baby. I did not like making them uncomfortable, but I would feel even worse when I pretended Wren had not existed.

My mother's hands stopped working two months after I was born, the lupus killed her just after I turned two. I have had a mother and a daughter I have never known, like an incomplete Matryoshka doll, missing some of her shells.

Because of this, at least once a week, I make myself remember what it felt like to hold Wren for the first and last time. I could not bear to forget it.

No caption

Kate, Sam and their children Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

*Kate Gudsell is an RNZ journalist. She has shared her story in a five-part RNZ podcast, The Unthinkable, presented by Morning Report co-host Susie Ferguson, which opens the door on a issue that affects hundreds of families each year.

If you need to talk, free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

For other support: