The Unthinkable: Babies don't die in this day and age, do they?

10:26 am on 31 July 2020

By Susie Ferguson.

Warning: This content may be distressing for some readers

Babies don't die. That was my reaction. They don't die now. Not in this day and age.

No caption

Baby Wren died at just six days old. Pictured is a sign of her name. Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

I was at home, standing in the kitchen, when my husband told me the unthinkable had happened to friends. Their daughter Emily was three months old when she died. For a moment the world stopped, a thread pulled in the fabric of time. I remember looking down at the wooden floor, and back up at him, my body held up only by the bench, seeing disbelief in his welling eyes. As I write this, that little girl would have just turned 7, the same age as our youngest.

We were torn with shock and numbness. There was standing room only at her funeral, the focus of all the grief the beautiful bundle swaddled in a basket at the front of the hall, her mum and dad at her side. How they found the strength that day to speak eloquently and honour their wee girl, I'll never know.

Emily was the beginning. Over the next five years - almost to the day - five families we knew in Wellington suffered such a loss. Two of our friends were bereaved within a month. Kate Gudsell and Sam Arcus were the fourth couple we knew to lose their child - their firstborn, Wren Sarah Thunderstorm Arcus. We were already working on The Unthinkable when the last of the five died in 2018. He was called Kererū, a boy stillborn at full term.

I still remember getting the phone call about Wren, and my legs buckling under me. It was a Friday afternoon in September, my 10th wedding anniversary. A mutual friend rang. I don't have any idea what I was doing before the call, but do remember the wretched aftermath - being asked if I could call others to help get the word out. One friend I rang was on the ferry to Waiheke Island, to celebrate a big birthday weekend away. We exchanged small talk, I told her to find a seat, taking a breath before I broke the crushing news about Kate and Sam's daughter.

My husband and I had booked a flash place for dinner to celebrate our decade. We were reeling in disbelief that yet another friend had been plunged into tragedy. We didn't know what to do, so we got dressed up and went out. It felt right, and it felt so wrong. I felt sick as I ate a meal I didn't want. We hardly spoke, sat clasping each other's hands, the silence of the courses punctuated by our sparse conversation on a constant loop, only one thing we could talk about. I've never gone back to that restaurant.

Before I had children, baby death was something I associated with long ago. Generations back, losing a child was commonplace, a fact of life. It's there in my family tree - one of my grannies had 10 siblings and two were called Christina. The first one died as a baby, years later my favourite aunt was the second girl in the family to bear the name. And two miscarriages, including one that saw me hospitalised, taught me the confronting lesson that pregnancy often fails to result in a baby. But after more and more friends experienced such devastating loss, questions crept in. Was I an outlier by knowing so many people of my generation who experienced this? Was it coincidence, or bad luck? Or was it more common than I'd thought? The answer is it's all of them.

Kate, Sam and I began doing interviews across their second pregnancy. We didn't know what the conversations would become, but it felt like their experience should at least be recorded. It was important to hear the visceral rawness. The first interview was over two hours long, as we inched towards them speaking the words about Wren's last moments. We were all exhausted when I turned the recorder off. And what could it be? Maybe the interview would only ever be for them, so they had the record of their memories from the time. But that wasn't enough. There was more to say.

No caption

Kate Gudsell with daughter Wren, who died at six days old. Photo: Supplied

Depending where you draw the statistical lines, around 600-700 babies die in New Zealand each year. That figure remains stubbornly static over a decade or more. It's twice the average yearly road toll. That was a real gut punch for me, those stark facts on the screen in black and white. 608 other babies under a month old died the same year as Wren. I knew parents of two of them. And three days of bereavement leave was all society afforded some of these parents, marooned and adrift in their grief.

In many parts of society it's still left unspoken and tucked away like a dirty secret. We still fail to give voice to the raw and enormous grief. As Kate says in The Unthinkable, "who wants to talk about dead babies? No one wants to talk about dead babies". Many of us find it easier to let a bereaved parent walk back into our lives as if all they did was press pause, rather than acknowledge it. We may recoil and squirm at the awkwardness of the conversation, but that has nothing on the isolation, shame and guilt those parents may feel. Maybe it is time to talk about dead babies.

Whatever story I'm telling, I always want to tell it right. Accuracy and details matter. It was important to craft it so people would listen, stay and not turn away. Care had to be taken not to retraumatise those who had already suffered. Some of the people I interviewed are friends, which brought another pressure to bear. It has been a huge privilege to tell of the sorrow and the joy, love without end, and the loss of what might have been, and to hold it gently. Kate's said it's too hard and she can't listen to The Unthinkable, but Sam will. Maybe it will always be to soon. But from my inbox and social media I know their story is resonating far and wide and deep.

This is for the three wee girls and two little boys - born across five years - whose short lives changed their parents forever, and opened my eyes. And this is for Debbie and Lucy and Karl and Nicola and Pania and Vicki - I am immensely grateful for your generosity in speaking to me about something you may not even talk to your whānau about. We may only have met once, but you told me perhaps the biggest thing that ever happened in your life in that short time we had together.

No caption

Sam Arcus with baby Wren. Photo: Supplied

And to Kate and Sam - thank you for your bravery and brilliance in speaking about something many people would resile from, for laying bare so many intensely private moments and emotions. Thank you for making me laugh so much, as well as cry. Thank you for agreeing to speak to me about the unthinkable, when I was fairly sure you wouldn't. You took a leap in the dark and trusted me to get it right.

I hope I have.

The Unthinkable is a new podcast series hosted by Susie Ferguson which opens the door on the topic of losing a baby - an issue that affects hundreds of families every year.

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

For other support go to:



Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs