Silent loss only bereaved mums can understand

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020 00:00 |
Beatrice Kamuyu, who had a stillbirth holds on to the memories of the nine months she had her son in the womb. Photo/COURTESY

When a woman loses a baby during pregnancy or after birth, she is expected to grieve fast, quickly get pregnant again, or “get over it” and move on. 

Besides, few healthcare providers that interact with mothers, during or in the wake of their loss, fully address mental health effects of pregnancy and infant loss. This can compound pain and increase stigma.

“There are a few built-in societal support networks for grieving mothers, few places for mothers to turn for guidance and support as they move through the grieving process,” says Vivian Gaiko, founder of Empower Mama Foundation who doubles up as a perinatal loss counsellor.

Empower Mama Foundation is an organisation breaking the silence on child loss and advocating for effective bereavement support to bereaved parents.

Gaiko notes the care bereaved parents and their families receive at hospital set up can have long-lasting effects.

According to her, good and compassionate care can’t remove parents’ pain and grief, but it can help parents through the devastating time.

In contrast, poor care can significantly add to their distress. 

Violet Kerubo understands this too well. She lost her baby in 2017, a few minutes after birth.

Some visitors made her feel as if grieving is a problem and didn’t want to see her crying. Others wanted her to treat it as a miscarriage and not death.

“They kept telling me umelia sana wachia Mungu  (You have cried too much, leave it to God). Little did they know that was my way of speaking to God since I couldn’t pray,” she says.

She was affected physically and mentally and spent her whole maternity leave mourning.

She stayed indoors for four months until one of her colleagues reached out to her, encouraging her to make her first step by resuming duty to keep her mind occupied.

According to Gaiko, the silence and stigma surrounding perinatal loss  (miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, stillbirths, loss of a newborn or an infant whether due to illness, accident, or unknown causes) in most communities makes many bereaved parents grieve in isolation and without support.

 “I resumed work and became extra busy, not because there was a lot of work to be done; but because I didn’t want to take any more questions from my children as to the whereabouts of their sister,” says Kerubo.

Though she is still mourning, she has accepted fate, and God has continued to give her and her family grace.

Because of this, she is now ready to gift someone all clothes she had bought for her daughter.

“I have finally opened the suitcase where I had packed the baby’s clothes. I’ve washed and ironed them and I’m now waiting to gift them, “adds Kerubo.

Baby strangled by cord

 The case was different for Beatrice Kamuyu. She received a lot of love and compassion after losing her son two days before delivery. 

“On March 13, 2017, I had what we call full-term stillbirth. I carried my pregnancy to term, but two days to delivery, he strangled himself with the umbilical cord.

The only thing I remember about that fateful night is that he kicked for so long, but I assumed he was just playing.

I had had an ultrasound, that showed it was a boy­—so when he kicked a lot that day, I thought boys will always be boys,” says Kamuyu.

It took a while for her to accept her son was no more. In disbelief, she started rubbing her belly and talking to him and pleaded with him to wake up.

However, despite all this, nothing changed and after an operation, her son was delivered ‘asleep’ weighing 5.5 kilogrammes.

As for the memories, she only holds on to the nine months she had him in the womb. She cherishes the photos she took during pregnancy.

“My water broke during my baby shower, so I never got to see gifts  brought for me, apart from the few that I had bought.

My family organised to have them removed before I was discharged and I am grateful for that because I believe it would have broken me further,” recalls Kamuyu.

The recovery journey was a painful one. Kamuyu sought the help of a counsellor. But still the loss was too much for her. The whole experience also drove her on a dark path of suicide. 

“I attempted suicide four times. After the failed attempts, I decided to share my pain and experience on social media.

I thank God because there are people who took it upon themselves to support me,” says Kamuyu.

According to Peter Mwangi, a midwife, though pregnancy or infant loss is often painful and traumatic, it’s possible to find healthy ways to cope. Use of the right therapist can help parents find ways to mourn and honour their child. 

“Therapy is not about forgetting the child or the loss. The goal is to work through the pain of infant loss, move forward, and find ways to seek support from loved ones,” says Mwangi.

According to him, pregnancy loss may occur for many reasons, and sometimes the cause remains unknown even after additional tests are completed.

In many cases, miscarriages result from a problem with the chromosomes. The number of chromosomes the foetus has can be too many or too few and this can affect survival.

Other causes include; abnormal embryo development, hormone problems in the mother, high blood pressure, or diabetes in the mother, problems in the uterus, incompetent cervix among others.

Child loss may also occur for many reasons, but the most common causes include; prematurity, low birth weight, birth asphyxia, and neonatal sepsis, birth injury, congenital malformation, neonatal pneumonia, postnatal aspiration, respiratory distress syndrome, among others.

For Ausebia Karimi Kariuki, it has been a double tragedy. She lost her son on August 19, 2019 when he was 19 days old to jaundice and this year, she had a miscarriage.

Unerasable picture

Seeing her son breathe his last in her own hands is a picture, she says, that is hard to erase in her mind.

The incident continues to affect her to date. It has been hard to accept that her son is no more. 

“I haven’t healed yet and I think it will take time to heal because of the two incidents of losing an infant and a pregnancy.

All through, I haven’t gotten any counselling and I believe I still don’t need it.

I am not into any support group because I feel like I was born a cursed woman,” sobs Karimi.

She has kept everything she had bought for him and is not willing to give them away. Looking at the baby’s items makes her feel as if her son is still around.

Karimi reveals she experienced stigma from friends and family. Her mother still mentions it to her every time she makes a mistake and it hurts her more than when she saw her son die. 

“I did not like how society treated me after the first loss. No one talked to me nor allowed me to hold their children. I felt like a failure and a curse,” she adds.

October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, set aside to honor and remember babies who die during pregnancy or as newborns.

The day also calls attention to the needs of grieving parents and creates awareness of pregnancy and infant loss.

According to Gaiko, there is a need to change societal perceptions about pregnancy and infant loss and raise awareness on matters of postpartum depression and other perinatal mental illnesses, the impact of child losses on families, and the need for effective bereavement support, and suicide prevention.

“This day is not only for grieving parents to remember their babies since this is their everyday reality. It is a day for everyone.

It is a day to drive positive change for bereaved parents to receive care and support from hospitals, families, and workplaces and to consequently break down high walls of silence and stigma.

The more we talk about it, the better placed we are to finding solutions. It’s an opportunity to find solutions to ending preventable perinatal deaths,” says Gaiko.

She adds that though people do not know what to say to a grieving parent, being there for them  shows you acknowledges their pain. 

“Sitting silently beside a friend who’s hurting may be the best gift you can give. You don’t have to say anything, just show up,” reveals Gaiko.

She warns people to be careful while comforting such a parent. Words like, ‘At least, you know you can conceive,’ ‘they died when young and you hadn’t invested as much’, ‘you have other children’ should not be used because they tend to belittle their loss.

“It’s not a little loss, it’s a little life that was lost. And every life once conceived matters,” says Gaiko in conclusion.

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