Stillbirth breaks fathers” hearts too
A mother never recovers from losing a baby. But as one man”s agonisingly poignant testimony reveals father suffer just as much
Grieving: Simon Buckley will never forget losing his daughter
His question was so shocking that it floored me. It was the last thing I”d expected after politely fobbing off a “chugger” from a children”s charity who”d approached me on the street, asking me to sign up as a donor.
I was no more than a few steps past him when he spitefully shouted: “Have you ever had a child die” No doubt he thought he”d shamed me, but instead he”d knifed me in the heart. I turned towards him, stung into rage, and shouted back: “Yes! Yes, I have.” I didn”t wait to see his reaction.
Instead, I ran off, my legs shaking and close to tears. His thoughtless question had brought back the most agonising memories. I sought sanctuary in a cafe, but not even cup after cup of sweet, hot tea could raise my spirits.
His words might as well have been laced with poison. I”d spent more than 15 years trying to block out the appalling memories of Friday, January 26, 1996. The day I lost my daughter.
At the time, I was a photographer working for a magazine and the night before I”d travelled to London from my home in Manchester, ready to catch the early Eurostar to Paris for work. My wife Shu Ying was expecting our fourth child, but there was no need to worry. There were still at least three weeks to go before the baby was due and all her other pregnancies had been straightforward.
So, as I trudged through heavy snow the next morning to Waterloo in the days before mobile phones had taken off, I had no idea that back at home my wife of ten years was fighting for her life.
Earlier that morning, when she was in the bath, Shu Ying had felt a sharp pain on one side of her stomach and thought her contractions had started. She”d called my mum who, worried that it didn”t sound like a normal contraction, insisted she call an ambulance. In doing so she saved my wife”s life – the ambulance took her to the local A&E rather than the maternity unit 15 miles away.
Shu Ying was haemorrhaging internally and wouldn”t have survived the journey. Doctors at Salford Royal Hospital diagnosed a dangerous pre-natal condition called placenta previa in which the womb obstructs the cervix, causing bleeding. Sadly, in our case, it suffocated our little girl.
I didn”t find out until later that day when I returned to my hotel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. At first, I thought my stepfather was calling to tell me the baby had come early; a few seconds later I learned our child was dead.
“I leaned over the cot and ached for itto be like a fairy tale, for my tears to fall on my daughter”s colourless face and bring her back to life”
During that call, and afterwards, I was completely calm. I couldn”t speak to my wife at the hospital because she was recovering from a blood transfusion, so I made plans to travel home.
Finding a flight wasn”t easy. My French is fine, but I was so disorientated I couldn”t remember the words. I went down to ask the receptionist for help, but she refused. It felt like some cruel game show. The plane journey home was delayed for hours because of the weather.
For the first time since I”d been told the terrible news, I had the time to sit and think. I just stared into the inky black sky, numb from shock. I was also scared. I”d lost only one relative – my grandfather when I was nine – and it was too cruel to think that the first time I was to see a deceased member of my family, it would be my daughter.
I finally walked into Shu Ying”s hospital room at 1am, nearly 13 hours after the stillbirth. I hadn”t been able to even speak to her until then. When I finally got to her side, her grey, crumpled face was turned to her right. I followed her gaze and there, in the corner of the room, was the cot containing our daughter”s lifeless body.
We”d decided to call her Fifi – my wife”s ancestors were from Shanghai and it was a traditional name. On seeing my little girl tucked up in her cot, all my fear melted away. She was unmarked, her skin as smooth as any new- born child”s. The only clue were her blackened lips. I thought her expression looked slightly cross.
Shu Ying was shattered. I sat by her bedside and we hardly spoke. She alternated between sobbing and silence. Eventually, exhausted, I went home, but sleep was impossible.
Relationship under strain: Many couples who have a stillborn baby end up separating (posed by models)
The next morning, I left for the hospital before my three other daughters, then aged six, five and two, were awake. They were being cared for by my mother, but I couldn”t face telling them what had happened, knowing that I would then be away all day. I thought it would just be too upsetting for them.
Shu Ying and I were allowed to spend the day with Fifi – the hospital staff believed it was better to spend time with our child, rather than simply remove the body. This was intended to help us grieve, but they were also aware that parents can begin to bond with their baby, as if it were living, and not want to part from it.
So, they told us they would gently take the child away at the end of the day. It was astonishing how quickly I became used to being near Fifi. The staff were right – by afternoon, I was struggling to accept she was dead.
When it was time for her to be taken away, my wife left the room with my mother to go home, giving me a few moments alone before I went with them. All the emotion of the past 24 hours burst from me and I cried – huge, gutteral, animal sobs rising from my chest. I leaned over the cot and ached for it to be like a fairy tale, for my tears to fall on my daughter”s colourless face and bring her back to life.
“The coffin was too small for a hearse so I drove to the graveyard with it on my knee. It was the most surreal and dreadful journey of my life”
The week that followed was awful. I hid my sadness while my wife spent her days in our bedroom, wailing and beating her fists on the bed. I didn”t dare give in to my feelings of loss because there seemed to be too much to do.
The day of the funeral was bleak. We”d had to choose which outfit to bury Fifi in and settled on a flowered red dress. It was the most macabre decision I”ve ever had to make. The coffin was too small for a hearse and so I”d travelled to the graveyard with it on my knee, my two eldest daughters sitting either side of me like some horrible, surreal family day out.
My wife, paralysed with sorrow, couldn”t even bear to attend. So there were only family and a few close friends at the graveside. Snow blew at us horizontally, clinging to our faces as the small, white box was lowered into the plot. There was barely any daylight – nothing alleviated my deep gloom.
That night I stayed awake until the early hours, thoughts and memories racing through my head. My marriage had not been an easy one – we had married too young, there were enormous cultural and emotional differences, and I”d often thought of leaving, but had stayed because I adored our children.
But now the demons started to crawl through my mind in the dead of night and a strong feeling of guilt overtook me. Irrationally, in my grief, I felt that I was somehow responsible for Fifi”s death. If only I hadn”t been abroad when it happened; if only I”d been a better husband. I tortured myself with crazy, unfounded accusations.
Unimaginable loss: A parent may never recover from losing a child (posed by model)
When I returned to work and told people what had happened, I was staggered to discover how many others had suffered stillbirths and just didn”t talk about it. It brought a strange kind of comfort.
Back home, my wife hardly went out. She withdrew from the family even further, leaving me to look after our daughters. I”d take them on jobs with me to get them away from the tense, miserable environment as much as possible.
After a couple of months, Shu Ying started a new business running a restaurant with a friend. She was still seemingly unable to talk about what had happened, but this was a way of escaping for her. With her working long hours, I became like a single parent.
In the following months, my wife and I grew further apart than ever. It had always been a volatile marriage and the death of our child had glaringly exposed the lack of communication between us. I longed to talk about what had happened, but she couldn”t, or wouldn”t, engage with me.
The tragedy had split open the fault lines in the relationship. The more she worked, the more I felt relieved to be free to put my own life back together and look after the children. As long as I was around, they seemed fine.
Our relationship limped on until the spring, when more bad luck struck and we had a house fire, which was caused by an electrical fault in an old portable TV.
No one was hurt, but the top half of the house was gutted and it meant that the whole family had to live in a hotel room for two months. The pressures on us just became too much. Bottling everything up and taking responsibility for so much had left me close to a breakdown.
So, in June 1997, I left and moved into my mother”s house with the children, who by then were used to spending most of their time with me.
In a last, desperate bid to save our marriage Shu Ying and I went for counselling – but, even then, there wasa lack of emotional honesty between us. It was too late. Our marriage was over.
Seventeen babies are stillborn, or die shortly after birth, every day in Britain
One of the counsellors at the hospital wasn”t surprised – she said that after a stillbirth a lot of couples separated 18 months later. She didn”t know why it was always a year-and-a-half, but it was.
Fifi”s death had been a catalyst that changed the lives of my entire family.
In the years that followed, we managed to share custody of the children.
My eldest daughter grew up living with me, while the younger two stayed with their mother. Though they visited several times a week, we were never the tight unit that we were when I”d lived at home. But while I did have pangs of guilt about leaving, I think if I”d stayed, unable to deal with all the rage and unquenchable despair inside me, I would have had a complete nervous breakdown and become an inadequate parent.
Nearly 16 years on, I”ve remarried and my three children are grown up. But there are times when I realise I”m far from free of the sadness Fifi”s death caused. It comes up and hits me again and again, even when I least expect it.
Two years ago, I unexpectedly found myself in Paris on the anniversary of her death, growing increasingly more morose and snappy as the afternoon wore on, weighed down with memories.
I rarely go to Fifi”s grave, as I struggle to cope with the memories of that bleak January day we buried her.
On the odd occasion I do, the slightest thing makes me break down in tears; recently, I mistakenly thought her grave had been disturbed and burst into tears. Even now, I dream about Fifi regularly. Sometimes she”s lying next to me – a tiny, lifeless baby with black lips.
Other times I see her as the teenager she would have been now, dressed in school uniform, bursting with life.
They say a mother never truly recovers from losing a child, but the same is true of fathers, too. Our grief may be less apparent, but don”t be fooled. It”s just as real.