As EastEnders’ Shabnam Masood, Rakhee Thakrar played a mum who gave birth to a stillborn son, Zaair. It opened her eyes to how, as a community and individuals, we should try harder to talk to bereaved parents.
Everything I’m about to share comes from what I’ve learned through working on a stillbirth storyline for EastEnders. Stillbirth: when your baby dies inside you and you must give birth, to your baby, who’s dead.
In 2014, 5,558 babies died just before, during or soon after birth. That’s more than 100 babies every week, but few will talk about this.
Somehow we’ve come to the understanding that if we bring up their babies in conversation, we are causing more upset to bereaved parents. That they were OK, and that we upset them by reminding them of such a devastating time in their lives.
Before working on this storyline, I thought the same. This is the misconception that’s holding us back. I say the following with just one hope. That we can, together, smash the shit out of this taboo.
These words from Erica Stewart, Bereavement Support Services Manager at Sands, are like a thump to the head: “The death of a baby is a major bereavement. It’s a tragedy that can happen to anyone, at any time, and it’s devastating. The grief that bereaved parents experience is often compounded by a reluctance from people around them to talk about what happened, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.”
“I spoke to a bereaved mother who said, ‘My friend was scared to say my son’s name in case it reminded me of what’s happened, as if I’d forgotten I have a baby who died.'”
None of us like to be told we are making someone feel uncomfortable, but the truth is we are. For a long time the pressure to make things ‘comfortable’ has balanced heavily on the shoulders of bereaved mums and dads. They often won’t tell us, “He’d be one today” because they anticipate our fear. They tell us they have two children, when they’re aching to say three, and they smile and tell us they’re ‘fine’ to protect us from their pain.
We’ve all been there; no one knows what to say in the face of loss. But when we’re talking dead babies, NO ONE knows what to say. Nothing seems to be good enough. “I’m so sorry” seems puny and insufficient when you’re talking to someone who’s just buried their beautiful boy or girl. So, often, we say nothing at all.
But as Erica tells me, “One bereaved mum said: ‘Since my baby daughter died no one ever talks about her, I never hear her name spoken, it feels like everyone has forgotten about her.’”
During my research, I spoke to a bereaved mother who said, “My friend was scared to say my son’s name in case it reminded me of what’s happened, as if I’d forgotten I have a baby who died.” And there it is…
We aren’t reminding them of their pain – because that wound is always there. Parents never get over it. They are always thinking about their children, all the time: I wonder what he’d look like now. He’d be 18 today. I wonder who he would have married. Would he have voted leave or remain? What would his Mother’s Day cards look like? It goes on and on. It never ends.
All this is not talked about. We sometimes offer comfort with ‘at leasts’. “At least you’ve got your other children” or “At least you can have another”. As if to imply the baby is replaceable. Of course, this is not what we intend to mean at all, but unfortunately, this is the effect those words have.
If you’ve had loss in your life, like many of us, the person that died will have been known by others in your circle. My Granddad was the first big loss in my life. Every now and then my cousins and I get to reminisce about the times we played poker with him or how he loved choc ices.
It’s understandable that we are unable to talk about such moments with bereaved parents in the same way. There aren’t as many memories to share. However, instead of asking questions or acknowledging the little person, many of us stay quiet out of fear of causing upset.
Erica offers a little advice: “Most parents welcome the chance to talk about their baby. Often just by saying the name of their baby and asking how they are coping, family, friends and colleagues can help parents through the difficult grieving process that follows when a baby dies.”
This is the truth. When we don’t do this, it can lead to haunting thoughts: will my baby be forgotten? Does my baby even matter to anyone? Did my baby not exist? It’s not our fault parents have been robbed of moments – but we are to blame that there is a silence.
I’m being harsh I know, but enough is enough. We must suck it up, be brave and reach out our hands and hearts to those whose lives have been shattered.
We are the ones who should ask: “How have you been coping since Baby Shane died?”
We are the ones who should pop round with cakes to say: “I know Priya’s birthday would’ve been tomorrow, so I wanted to remember her.”
We are the ones who should not shy away if told: “I don’t want to talk about it,” but instead light a candle for little Jacob to remember him and let your friend know, “That’s OK, I’m here if you want to.”
Notice I don’t say him, her, his, she, he… It may be painful some days but most parents I met loved to hear their baby’s name said out loud. So say it: celebrate these beautiful little people who didn’t make it to see tomorrow.
After all, they are the reason some amazing things in this world have happened. Bereaved parents and families have gone on to raise thousands for charities and research to help another family possibly avoid this heartbreak. These babies are remarkable and should not be forgotten.
Go on, it’ll be uncomfortable but that’s OK; pick up the phone, ring them, say their name.
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Rakhee is an actor living with her cat Whiskoz. She likes cigars and whiskey but can only afford biscuits. She tries her best to be a good citizen of the world and believes in kindness.