Ode to Amy-Leigh De Jager

Amy-Leigh is a little 6-year old girl that was abducted by four men in front of her school, right next to her mother, in front of her horrified brother of 5. She was bundled into a Toyota Fortuner, and taken to an unknown location. She spent an agonizing 18 hours with these vile men. Thankfully she was dropped off close to the Police Station and was taken there by a couple who heard her frantic screams. I cannot even begin to imagine what these parents went through. I wrote this piece when Amy-Leigh was still missing, but what happened to her is a very real threat to every single little girl in South Africa, so I feel it is still relevant:

ODE TO AMY-LEIGH DE JAGER (Nicci Coertze)

“Little six-year old girls should be hopping and skipping to a parent’s car after a day filled with loving and learning at school.
Little six-year old girls should leave sticky fingerprints on the family car’s window.
Little six-year old girls should be fighting with their brothers and pretending they are Princess Sofia on the carpet in front of the TV.
Little six-year old girls should be blowing bubbles in a soapy bath tonight.
Little six-year old girls should try to feed their peas to their trusty dog, hiding underneath the table at dinnertime.
Little six-year old girls should give their dads hugs and butterfly kisses and badly drawn pictures of a happy stick family.
Little six-year old girls should be snuggling in their mother’s laps for one last story before bedtime.
Little six-year old girls should fight to stay up a bit later and ask for water a hundred times before their tired eyelids force their eyes to close.
Little six-year old girls should be safe in a warm, comfy bed in a house filled with love and giggles.
Little six-year old girls should clutch their teddies and fall asleep to lullabies and love and soft light…
They shouldn’t be scared and hurt and lonely and terrified of the dark night and quiver in fear in front of cruel strangers with dark thoughts and even darker hearts.
They shouldn’t be ripped from their mother’s arms whilst their brother watches helplessly in silent horror at the nightmare unfolding right in front of his eyes.
They shouldn’t be wondering if they will ever see their mommy and daddy and brother again.
They shouldn’t be prayed for and cried over on a continent that has become a war zone.
They shouldn’t be the reason that other six-year old girls are scared to leave their own rooms, let alone go to school tomorrow.
They shouldn’t be petrified and hungry and tired and lost.
They shouldn’t be the innocent, helpless victims of violent abductions in a country crippled with crime.
Little six-year old girls should be safe and be free to be… Little six-year old girls.”

May God help us in South Africa.

Where Angels Fear To Tread

I am a Perinatal Bereavement Doula. Yes, unfortunately working with dead babies is part of my job. I dry broken parents’ tears. I take photos of angels, help their parents make memories of their children and assist them “where the rubber meets the road” to use my husband’s ineloquent words. I help nurses and other medical personnel find words when they don’t have any. I hold little broken bodies one last time before they go to the funeral home. I answer a text at 2 am from an anxious mom who has lost her baby and who can’t sleep. I listen to dads rage at the unfairness of losing their child. But let’s just get this unequivocally out of the way: I am no “angel” – even if people call me that all the time. But there, the truth is out now.  God is not going to bless me specifically because I work with dead babies and broken parents, I am NOT going to get a special crown in heaven, I don’t have a halo and I am most definitely do not walk on water. There is nothing special about me and I am NOT an angel just because I do this work (ask my exes and a few other people, they will most definitely agree.)  

There are millions of people worldwide who do much more than I do daily, who works with much more horrific, unspeakable things and who never ever get any glory for it.  I do not want glory. I want parents to feel supported and informed when they are at their weakest. And I want to empower others with knowledge about my industry. Yes, I think with my heart. Yes, I do things many people will feel they will never be able to do, but that doesn’t make me an angel. It makes me a bereavement doula.

Please don’t misunderstand, this does not mean that I do not appreciate the support and love I get from people when they hear what I do.  It also doesn’t mean that I don’t feel thankful when parents tell me I helped them get over an obstacle they thought they would never be able to get over. I do. I appreciate it more than words can ever say. My biggest dream is to equip as many people as possible to do what I am doing through my NCOT online bereavement courses. And the 30+ perinatal bereavement workers / doulas  and 10 loss mothers I have trained so far are all very special people in my eyes because they are willing to step up to the plate and do this tough job.

Perinatal bereavement is obviously nothing new. But people have never talked about it the way they are starting to talk about it today.  The time is absolutely NOW. Parents need our support. They need our expertise. Medical personnel need the know-how we bring. Everyone needs the comfort and the calm presence that a bereavement specialist brings.

But bereavement workers are not angels. They only go where angels fear to tread….

Click here for more information on Perinatal Bereavement Training

THE BABY LOSS CLUB

The loneliest club in the world…

The Baby Loss Club is not for the fainthearted. It is a club with non-negotiable terms and lifelong membership and no benefits. A club that nobody wants to join. Ever. It is a million ‘what ifs’ in one thought. It is forever searching in a crowd for a child that you know you will never find. It is an emptiness that you can’t explain and a dull ache in your heart – even when there’s a smile on your lips. It’s remembering dates when no one else does. It’s saying your child’s name (or children’s names) softly to yourself because you dare not speak it out loud. It is daydreams and night terrors. It’s infinite sadness and indescribable thankfulness for the fleeting moments of the promise of a child. It’s the hope that there is a ‘someday’ and the utter dread that there isn’t. It’s the smiling and laughing and never-ending nodding to friends and family when they gurgle about their children. It’s heart-wrenching sobs in the deep of the night, silenced by the pillow you use to try and suffocate the horrible sounds escaping from your soul. It’s turning around in shopping aisles and walking in a different direction when your feet takes you to the ‘all things baby’ aisle for the umpteenth time. It’s trying to explain to strangers that yes, you have a child, but no, you don’t have pictures of how they look now. It is the ever-present dull ache of what could have been. It’s the all-consuming anger and relentless exasperation at people who can’t or won’t understand – and the forgiveness of those who do, but who still hurts your heart without realizing it. It’s trying not to think about know-it-all people with thoughtless and empty words minimizing your unremitting pain. It’s birthdays, and mother’s day and holidays and Easter and every celebratory day in between that you don’t feel like celebrating at all. It’s looking for a child that looks like you, that you know isn’t there. It’s driving in your car and sometimes skipping a traffic light or taking the wrong turn because your thoughts have been captured by someone who isn’t on this earth. It’s dreams made of feathers and butterflies and snowflakes and bubbles and dead babies. Overwhelming dreams that you cannot share with another living soul. It is lonely. Desperate, soul-aching, desolate loneliness that slowly carves away at your soul while you are surrounded by people. It’s the never knowing, the always wondering, the regret, the anguish, the tears, the sadness, the emptiness, the darkness, the cruelty, the jealousy, the madness, the pain, the not-understanding, the questions, the regret, the soul-searching… It is the all-consuming, never-ending conundrum that is child loss. My beautiful pain that I will carry with me until I die.

Nicci Coertze




Supporting Parents during Baby Loss

It was cold in the doctor’s consulting room. Carry* was laying on her back, waiting to hear their baby’s heartbeat.  But then she realised it was quiet – too quiet. Seemingly from afar, her doctor said in a soft voice, “I am so sorry Mr. & Mrs. Jones, but there’s no heartbeat.” Their precious baby girl, that she has been carrying for 38 weeks, was dead…

While many people still believe there are 5 stages to grief, the fact of the matter is that grief is an individual process that does not fit into any formula.   Dr. Christina Gregory, PhD, explains:  “Grief has certain common characteristics, but no straight-forward pattern or behaviour.”

The following are some common characteristics of grief according to Dr. Gregory:

  • fatigue/ extreme tiredness
  • anger (often irrational)
  • uncontrollable weeping
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • changes in appetite (either loss of, or gorging) with the resultant changes in weight
  • changes in activity levels (hyperactive or under active)
  • anxiety
  • guilt
  • fear
  • needing to be alone/ withdrawing from community
  • needing to be with people
  • needing to talk and tell your story
  • forgetfulness
  • nightmares and/or dreaming about your baby
  • as sense of loss of meaning and purpose

“All these are natural and there is nothing ‘wrong’ with bereaved parents if they are experiencing any of these characteristics,” says Dr. Gregory, “Parents may experience all of them, or only some. They may experience them for weeks and months at a time, then never again, or they may find they experience them in a cycle – sadness, then anger, then numbness, followed by sadness again, etc.”

It is obvious that there is no right or wrong and parents should not be made to feel guilty about any of them. However, if there are prolonged incidences of the above, it is always safer to approach a health professional.

Carry says one of the hardest things to deal with is that amid a parent’s grief, there are practical considerations that need to be dealt with, “To me it was incomprehensible, but life carried on after Savannah’s death. I still had to think about shopping, cooking and general life issues.”

Hopefully there will be people supporting parents through their grief. For the mother particularly, eating healthily and sensibly is vital at this stage, even though it is often the last thing they want to think about or have energy for.  Family and friends can support bereaved parents in many ways.

Practical ways to assist parents who have lost a baby:

  • Meals:  Contrary to popular belief, taking meals to grieving people is not an outdated practice but a very much needed one! Be practical and make them home-cooked meals that they can freeze.  Lisa* is a bereaved mother whose son Connor was stillborn three years ago.   She says, “It was such a relief to know that there was something to eat on those days that I could barely make it out of bed.”
  • Administration:  File and respond to messages of condolences the parents have received after they have read them.  “My friend Elly sent text messages to thank people for their support on our behalf. It really helped to know that people knew we were grateful for their support, yet I didn’t have to sit down and figure out what to say,” explains Lisa.
  • Shopping:  Shopping for the family is another great way you can help.  Make sure that you make a list of what they need and make sure practical things like payment for the groceries have been taken care of.
  • Household chores:  There are quite a few things one can do for bereaved parents in and around the house. Washing dishes, doing the laundry and even gardening if they don’t have someone to do it, can take a huge burden off the bereaved parents’ shoulders.  Something practical like making sure their dustbin is outside on garbage day makes a small, yet important difference
  • Other children:  Another loss mom, Sam*, says that people offering to look after their other children when they needed a break helped a lot, “I knew the kids were safe and I could cry without them being upset.”
  • Doctor’s visits:  It is often forgotten that even though her baby was stillborn, the mother still goes through all the aftereffects of having had a baby and as such, she still needs to keep her doctor’s appointments! You can volunteer to drive her there if her partner cannot, and you can even accompany her to the appointment if she is comfortable with that.

However great their support systems are, there will come a time when parents must face life alone. Carry explains, “Nobody can lean on other people forever. There comes a time where you must face reality, and the world, without someone there to hold your hand.”

These parents are members of a dreadful club that nobody wants to belong to and they must deal with the emotions that it entails.  Supporting them in practical ways can go a long way to help them cope.

The ‘do’s’ after a stillbirth or pregnancy loss

The Oxford dictionary offers two explanations for the word miscarriage: 

“Miscarriage:  The spontaneous or unplanned expulsion of a fetus from the womb before it can survive independently; and:  An unsuccessful outcome of something planned.” 

The latter is not only applicable to miscarriage, but to stillbirth and all child loss situations. Lisa says, “Losing a child that was very much wanted and loved was devastatingly painful for us. We needed all the love and support we could get.”

Although there are no hard and fast rules about handling perinatal grief and bereavement as a family member or friend, being mindful of a few important things can make the difference whether a bereaved couple feel lost, lonely and unacknowledged, or understood, loved and validated.

Here are some “do’s” that may help you to support bereaved parents:

DO:

… say their baby’s name, especially when talking about him or her. Sam explains, “Parents will not burst into tears when hearing their baby’s name but will more likely appreciate the fact that you acknowledge their child.  We will never forget Ella, so nobody else needs to.”

… ask if the parents are ok.  Carry’s experience was that she wasn’t always honest, but she very much appreciated the fact that her friends had asked, “Friends must also be prepared for the emotions that may follow the question. It happens but no one can predict when.” 

… make sure that you are led by the needs of bereaved parents.  Let them feel comfortable to say, “We are not coping,” or “Please give me some space.” Make them feel at ease to be honest about their emotions. 

… remember their stillborn child.  Lisa says, “Even though Connor was born still, he was still born. I need people to remember and acknowledge the fact that he existed even though he has never breathed the air we breathe.” 

… understand that losing their child changed them forever and they may do or say things you don’t understand or that’s even upsetting to you. That’s ok.  Do not take anything personally as it is not meant to hurt you. The bereaved parents are trying to survive the unimaginable and, in this process, they may hurt your feelings. Do not take it to heart.

… talk to their other children about their sibling.  Even to smaller children that you think do not understand.  Sam says, “My sister told my children they have an angel in the sky that looks out for them. She even held a little ceremony for them to send pictures and messages to Ella to help them deal with their loss.  This really helped so much to console them.” It’s ok if you are not religious or a ‘believer’ – children are.   Let them lead you. 

A note on religion and stillbirth:   Most belief-systems in the world agree on the fact that children are innocent and will immediately be in better hands and receive better care than any earthly parent can give them when they die. It is imperative that you adhere to a bereaved parent’s religious views and beliefs when it comes to the death of their baby – even if you don’t agree at all. This is not time to impose your religious beliefs on others. Respect them and respect whatever they belief about where their baby is.

Bereavement language – think twice, speak once

It is extremely important to be mindful of what we say to bereaved parents.   Know they may be overly sensitive about their child and even the most innocent remark about their child may be misconstrued.

Carry explains, “The loss of Savannah caused untold heartbreak and despair and what made those days even darker were some well-meaning friends who said things that were tactless or hurtful.  You are in such a dark space that you are overly sensitive of the things they say but it would have helped a great deal if they were a bit more mindful of their words.”

Here are a few things to remember when talking about stillbirth or pregnancy loss to bereaved parents:

The Top 10 things NOT to say to a bereaved parent:

“At least you know you can get pregnant.”“This is God’s plan”“Just be glad you didn’t get to know her. This way you won’t have to suffer the grief.” “Luckily men get over it much faster.”  “You can have others.”“It just wasn’t meant to be.”“Be grateful for what you have.”“Everything happens for a reason.”“It could have been worse – the baby could have been born with a severe defect.”“Was it something you did?”

Positive bereavement language: Top 10 things you can say to a bereaved parent:

“My heartfelt condolences with your loss. Nothing I can say can make it better.”“You didn’t do anything to deserve this loss, it wasn’t your fault.” “I love you and you can talk about your baby to me anytime, I will listen.”“It’s ok to be angry or sad or bitter – ANY emotion you feel is ok.”“Grief knows no timeline, take all the time you need.”“Be gentle with yourself through it all.”“I imagine you must be in pain right now. I may say the ‘wrong’ thing sometimes, but I am always here for you.”“How do you feel?”“What can I do for you right now?”“It’s really bad and it’s going to hurt for a long time, but at some point, it will get different and I will journey with you until it does.”  

Every parent grieves differently. Carry says, “I felt guilty because I was experiencing deep grief over Savannah’s death. Statements made by well-meaning friends caused me to question the validity of my deep feelings of sorrow.  It is so important that people realize that things they say to a bereaved parent have an impact on them.” 

Supporting bereaved parents is not about what you are saying or doing, it is about the fact that you honestly do not judge or pretend to understand the situation they are in. Sam says, “It is about unconditional support when it matters most – where the rubber meets the road so to speak.”

No one can ever be fully prepared to lose a child and no other person can take away a bereaved parent’s pain. What we can do is to help them in practical ways, use sensitive bereavement language and keep space for them in this painful and devastating situation.

Losing a child makes your heart break in places that you never knew existed   Unknown

*Not their real names


By:  Nicci Coertze

Nicci is an experienced SBD Birth, Bereavement & Adoption Doula®, Curriculum Developer and Trainer, and Remembrance Photographer. Nicci has developed an online course for grieving parents to help them cope with pregnancy and infant loss and she has also developed SA’s first online perinatal bereavement training program.  She has written an E-book called ALMOST PREGNANT (under the pseudonym Hannah Amos) about her infertility and adoption journey that is available on iTunes. For more information, please visit:  www.ncot.co.za  or email ncot2017@gmail.com

This article was originally written and published in 2018 by Nicci Coertze for the Baby Yum Yum website:
https://babyyumyum.co.za/

Did I take up the cause, or did it take up me?

Supporting women during a TOP

It’s amazing what happens when I begin to identify myself as a doula to women (it happened again this afternoon): Women light up and lean over to talk behind their hands about infertility, miscarriage, abortion, breastfeeding, positive births, traumatic births – you name it. Not once has it ever crossed my mind to judge another woman / mother because of her choices, it is so easy to say that one doesn’t. But then I started my work as Bereavement Doula – a very naïve one at that – never thinking that I would be faced with the difficult choice to support a mother having a ‘TOP’ (termination of pregnancy – basically a fancy word for an abortion).

And then I was called to hospital to assist a mother who received the devastating news of a fatal diagnosis of her unborn baby girl, that would most definitely result in her baby dying during or straight after birth – maybe even before that. She decided to have a termination of pregnancy because of this diagnosis and she insisted on a natural labour. I was absolutely and immediately torn between my inherent desire to help a woman birth a baby (especially one having to face this trauma) and my very strict upbringing – especially with regards to abortion (the same sentiments some of you shared here.) I may be accused of having an ostrich mentality, but until that day in that fancy private hospital in Pretoria East, I have never been confronted with being Pro Life or Pro Choice. Most of the time people assume you are Pro Life when you are a doula. After all you are a DOULA – you support women in labour having a baby so how can supporting abortion even cross your mind right? Wrong. It is not that easy. And most definitely NOT black and white. I learned that lesson. And sometimes the universe teaches you when you least want to be taught.

That evening I held a mom’s hand during the throes of childbirth, drying her tears which I knew was not from the physical pain of bearing a child, but the immense heartache of birthing a dead one – by her own choice. Seeing how she struggled to get her body to expel her baby, like the womb was unwilling to let her go, and watching how her husband sobbed so much that I thought he was going to choke on his own tears. Swiping my own sweat and tears from my face, just concentrating on somehow making it just a little bit more bearable for them. I saw with my own two eyes the torment the choice of abortion causes people. I saw for myself how parents thinking they were doing the right, humane thing for their baby, were tortured by the very choice of trying to spare their child pain. I saw the disdain and disgust on other people’s faces who couldn’t or didn’t want to understand. I saw a grandmother angrily slamming a hospital door on a nurse that said the most awful things, tears streaming down her face as she pounded her shocked husband’s chest. I saw all this. And right then and there I made a choice: I will never, ever, EVER (again?) judge anyone who is faced with this gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, life-changing decision. Never again will I be opinionated and outspoken about something that I know absolutely NOTHING about.

We are all different after we give birth. Definitely different than before and often not for the better. But nothing and I mean NOTHING can prepare any women for the consequences of her choice to let her baby sleep forever. And no one EVER has the right – no matter HOW justified they think they are – to judge someone for making this choice. As I drove home that night I asked myself: Did I take up the cause, or did it take up me? I still don’t have the answer. But one thing I can tell you with all the conviction in the world: Don’t judge. Just don’t. Do NOT.

Written by: Nicci Coertze. All rights reserved.

There is nothing ordinary about death

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Just an ordinary Saturday morning.
In an ordinary mall.
In an ordinary clothing store stall.
Trying on quite an ordinary (albeit darn expensive!) pair of jeans.
And then a phone rings in the stall next to mine.

A lady’s voice answers curtly:
“I’m really busy fitting clothes for the party next week, I can’t talk right now.”
A few seconds silence.
“Are you crazy? I am NOT coming to mom and dad’s right now I am BUSY.”
It was clear that the recipient of the untimely phone call was not impressed with whoever it was on the other side.

More silence.

“What do you mean you can’t tell me? Are you f**** kidding me? You better tell me what’s going on RIGHT NOW or I am ending this call. I. Am. Busy.” Her voice was high-pitched and it was obvious that she was very irritated.

I was done fitting the jeans and fully dressed and ready to go but I stood still, not opening the door but instead listening to the conversation. I couldn’t help myself, it was very clear that my neighbour was about to tell off the other person (I suspected it was either her sister or brother) in the next few seconds.

And then that sound. That heart wrenching, stomach churning, horrific, whaling sound that I have heard too many times these past few years. That sound.

The lady starts screaming, whaling, begging all at once: “Dead? What do you mean dead? Mom is dead? Mom is DEAD? Mom? DEAD? No, no, no, no!!!!” 

I heard a thud and before I could help myself I yanked open my stall door and tried to open the one next to mine. But it was locked and the lady inside was quite obviously busy losing it. For a few panicky seconds I didn’t know what to do but then I start banging on the stall door: “Open this door, please open the door!” I was yelling at the top of my voice but the whaling was so loud I wasn’t sure if she heard me, so I just kept on banging.

By this time the racket has attracted a few bystanders, but everyone just stood there, staring. No one did anything. So I just kept on pounding on the door whilst the whaling continued.  All of a sudden, the door opened and as I pushed myself inside the woman in front of me literally crumbled to the ground.

I tried to catch her but I was too late. The stall was so small that my handbag caught on the handle and unceremoniously yanked me back. The next moment I was on my knees, next to her, trying to help her up. She was beautiful – a pretty redhead in her early thirties. She wasn’t whaling anymore. She was just sitting in the corner of the clothing stall, slumped against a pretty mirror crying and breathing very, very fast in between sobs. Too fast. I tried to take the cellphone from her but it was clenched in her hand and she wouldn’t let go. I could see the person who called was still on the line and I gently tried to prey the phone from her hands again. But she wouldn’t let go.

So I did what I do best, I just took her in my arms and held her, making soothing noises, trying to will her to breathe slower by talking slowly and softly. Her body was shaking and the raw, throaty sounds coming from deep within her soul shocked me to my core, like it always does. One never gets used to this. Never.

The next moment she breaks free from my arms, grabs her handbag and sunglasses and phone still in hand, runs out of the store like a wounded animal. Without thinking twice I run after her. She is running so fast that I am battling to keep up but at least I could see her a few metres in front of me. I then realize that she is not going to be able to just drive out of the parking mall. She would have to find her ticket, pay for it, find her car and then only manage to get out. So I ran as fast as I could until I was almost next to her and shouted to her that she must get in her car I will pay my ticket and give it to her. I wasn’t sure if she was going to understand what I was trying to do but the next moment she shouted . “Just hurry, please just hurry. I have to go. My mom. My mom. My MOM!!!”

I ran down the escalator with her, yanked my parking ticket from my handbag, paid the ticket and ran to the exit boom as fast as I could. She was already waiting there, hitting the steering wheel with her fists and crying and crying and crying, the mascara and tears streaming down her face. I asked her if I could please get in and drive her but she shouted, “Just open the boom, just open the god-damn boom!” So I put the paid ticket in the machine, the boom opened and the next moment she was gone, her little Yaris nearly taking out a pedestrian, tyres screeching as it disappeared around the corner.

I turned around, half expecting an audience but there was no one. I slowly walked back to the escalators. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to jump out of my chest. As I stepped off the escalator I asked a friendly cleaning lady nearby where the parking office was (of course it was halfway around the world!) and proceeded to walk there in stunned silence. I was nauseous, sad, upset and shaking but I kept my composure, explaining to the attendant that I lost my ticket, paid a penalty and got another ticket. It would just have been too much to try to explain to someone what happened. I left the shopping centre immediately, driving home in a haze.

To the pretty red-haired lady who lost her mom, I am so very sorry for your loss. I don’t know your name and I don’t know your story but I do know that you woke up this morning like all of us did, not thinking or expecting that your day would turn out to be one of total and utter devastation. You didn’t wake up knowing that the rest of your life will never be the same. You didn’t know. None of us ever knows. My heart aches for you. 

No matter how ordinary life is, there is nothing ordinary about death… 

Written by: Nicci Coertze. All rights reserved.

On being a Bereavement Doula in South Africa

But what do you DO Nicci?”

I am an internationally qualified perinatal Birth & Bereavement Doula a seemingly complicated and/or unknown term that has people asking me over and over again: “So what is it you DO Nicci?” The simple answer is nothing, yet everything. Because in medical terms I do not ‘do’ much – although I have been the only one present in more births than I care to think about and pretty much did everything – from delivering the baby to cutting the umbilical cord and delivering the placenta! But as a rule of thumb I am not supposed to ‘do’. I am supposed to ‘be’. And that I try to do to the very best of my ability.

As a bereavement doula (I really don’t care for the term ‘death doula’) I provide support in situations of fatal perinatal outcomes and I comfort parents when a baby passes away. It is not a glamorous job. I clean vomit, blood, amniotic fluid and spilled apple juice. I make a client’s bed over and over again and fluff pillows and offer ice cubes, lip balm and hugs. I kick vending machines on behalf of a father who is desperately looking for a can of soda at 2 am in the morning and I beg gynecologists to give permission for more pain meds for a mom that is writhing in pain. I beg unit managers to allow a heartbroken father to ‘sleepover’ to be with his wife who is in labour (with their dead baby,) when it is against hospital policy and sleep is the very last thing I know he is going to do. I see raw pain and I hear the most agonizing, haunting cries you will ever hear in your life. And sometimes I hold a little body and that baby’s heart beats for the last time in my hands. It is not an easy calling, but I do it with great pride and love for my clients going through the unimaginable.

If I have to make a list of everything I do, it becomes quite an impressive list. But you see, I don’t like to do that. Make lists. Or write job descriptions or limit myself to a certain number of things I can/will/want to do. Because the reason I am a Bereavement Doula, the very reason I absorb so much of my clients’ pain and heartache, is very simple: I want to comfort as much as I can. I want to console broken parents and try to make the journey of the birth of their child bearable by being there, acting as a buffer between them and the cold medical world and cruel strangers who are so wrapped up in their own little worlds they do not think twice before inflicting pain on helpless, grieving parents. I wish I could say this does not happen often. I cannot…

Not one birth or miscarriage is the same. On that note, I really do not like the word ‘miscarriage’. Because nothing is ‘missed’ – whether you are 20 or 40 weeks pregnant, you go through the same labour pains – and everything is carried: Guilt, shame, grief, anger, fear… The Oxford dictionary offers two explanations for the word miscarriage: The spontaneous or unplanned expulsion of a fetus from the womb before it is able to survive independently; and unsuccessful outcome of something planned. I prefer the second definition. Because whether it is because of a baby dying in utero, a medical termination or a stillbirth, this encompasses pretty much what it is: An unsuccessful outcome for something that was very much planned, wanted and looked forward to. I don’t like the first definition because I don’t care for the word ‘fetus’. Let me explain why:

As ex-Director of a non-profit company called ‘the Voice of the Unborn Baby’ I fought for parents’ rights to choose whether they want to say goodbye to their child by having a funeral or cremation for them. Because of an archaic law on the South African law books, “fetuses” who are born before 26 weeks of gestation have to be treated as medical waste and are incinerated with needles, syringes, amputated limbs and other medical waste products. And the only way to get around this horrific law is for parents to make an affidavit to state that they need the ‘medical tissue’ or ‘placenta’ to bury for religious and/or cultural purposes. They also have to fill out a mountain of forms required by the hospitals to enable them to have the child removed from the hospital’s premises.

I have had to do too many of these affidavits and I cannot explain to you in words how much it aggrieves me to put my clients through this horrific conundrum of paperwork to enable them to give dignity and respect to their dead child. Yes, child. Because not once have I ever heard a parent speak about their ‘fetus’. No, they speak with much love and affection about their child, their baby, their angel – never ever, their fetus.

Being a Bereavement Doula in South Africa is not easy. Very few people know about this profession and time and time again I have to explain to a nurse or a doctor or a hospital manager what it is that I do. I obtained my International Accreditation as Birth & Bereavement Doula from Stillbirthday (SBD) University and I am hoping that this qualification will give people some peace of mind as to the level of professionalism and skill I have. But at the end of the day no one piece of paper can equip you to deal with raw, unadulterated pain and grief of a mother losing her child – of a dad losing his dream of being a father. No qualification can prepare you to hold a little body in your hands and feel life slipping away without you being able to do anything about it. No university can help you deal with your tears in the night after the fact, when you cry for a little life lost and for the pain of parents who will never ever forget. Nothing can prepare you fully for this job.

I wish you could be there. I wish you could see how I hold a mom’s hand whilst she is in the throes of childbirth. How I try to console an inconsolable father who does not have the know-how or strength to carry his own grief, let alone the mother of his child’s. I wish you could see how I comfort sobbing grandparents. How I clamp the cord, gently clean and wrap a precious little baby and take photos for families to keep as a reminder that their baby was born. Born still, but still born. The reason I wish you were there isn’t to hurt or harm you but I know if you could see what I do you would be beyond motivated to get the word out there that a job like mine exists! That parents do not have to face the daunting task of the birth of their stillborn or miscarried child alone. That they do have a voice. That someone cares!

It is my dream that my profession will be formally recognized and acknowledged in South Africa and that doulas’ services, like midwives, will be covered by all medical aids.

And because I have such a passion for this awesome career, I have developed South Africa’s very first Online Bereavement Training Program!! Click here to see more:

https://ncot4u.wordpress.com/ncot-online-training/

(For a doula in your area, visit www.dosa.co.za)

 

Perinatal Bereavement Workers

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My name is Nicci and I am a Bereavement Doula from Pretoria (South Africa), assisting parents with miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss. I have been a ‘death doula’ since 2015.I have held many angels in my hands and I know all of their names.


Death humbles you. It leaves many wounded and scared (and scarred!) but also just as many people are awakened to the miracle and the fragility that is life. It opens your eyes to the absolute gift it is to breathe (and have those you love breathe) every single day.


I deal with indescribable pain and heartache. My job is not an easy one, in fact, it’s probably one of the most emotionally challenging professions out there. But it is made bearable by knowing that I could help a mommy or daddy carry the load, even if it’s only for a little while. 


There is something unique about child loss. Because you don’t only lose a child you love, you lose the promise of that child’s life. You lose the ‘could have beens’. You miss their first day of school. You miss their 16th and 21st and 30th birthdays. You miss out on every little thing that would have made that child ‘yours’.


Like the character in the book ‘The Shack,’ I carry The Great Sadness with me every single day of my life.  Sometimes The Great Sadness is quite satisfied to sit in the corner of a room or on the roof of my car and just leave me alone – sometimes even for a day or two. Other days, The Great Sadness would just not let go of me. It will cling to me whilst I brush my teeth, when I feed the dogs, when I pray, when I speak to a telesales agent and decline a cellphone contract for the umpteenth time. It will rear its sad head when I walk in a shopping centre and see something or someone that triggers a memory.  Sometimes when I walk pass a baby store The Great Sadness would hug me so tight that I struggle to breath. But the Great Sadness and I have come to an agreement: Whenever I am with a client, it will not show up for a while. But sometimes The Great Sadness breaks it word and all that I can do is be sad with them.


The parents I assist and I usually have a lot of time talk and cry and yes, even laugh. Sometimes it’s much easier to talk about your pain to a stranger – somebody that you don’t feel guilty over because you are ‘burdening’ them with your pain. Someone that won’t judge, just listen – who may shed a tear or two with you but who will not fall apart.


As a bereavement doula I am learning more and more about life, death, loss and everything in between every day. I have seen that parents feel guilty because they are experiencing deep grief over the death of their child. Statements made by well-meaning friends may cause you to question the validity of their deep feelings of sorrow – statements like the following: “Just be glad you didn’t get to know her. This way you won’t have to suffer the grief.” Or  “The woman down the street lost all her children in a fire, you are lucky compared to her”


The fact is that grief cannot be compared – not even between parents.  Grief will not lessen just because the grief of another person is perceived to be greater. Also, they may have given birth to another child. But this will be another child, not a substitute for the one who has died. I always say babies aren’t puppies who can fulfill a general need. And to be honest, not even a dog can be replaced, how on earth can people expect parents to ‘replace’ their baby who has passed on with another!


Although primarily my focus, I don’t just assist with baby loss, but also with other losses. I assisted a mother who gave birth via c-section to healthy, beautiful little baby boy a while back. The reason she needed me though, was because her husband was brutally shot and killed in front of her and her little girl on the 1st of October 2016. This woman was shattered and tears jumped in my eyes when I looked into hers. It was almost unbearable to look at her. But she needed a calm, collected and professional person to assist her during the birth. In hindsight, I was none of the above. I may have appeared calm and collected, and yes, even professional to the untrained eye. But I was falling apart on the inside. The moment the gynecologist lifted that precious little boy from his mommy’s tummy I had a such a huge lump in my throat I couldn’t breathe.


Because there is such a huge need for bereavement birth workers in South Africa, I have written an Online Bereavement Training Program to enable as many people as possible in South Africa with a heart for bereavement, to assist parents going through loss.  Students are equipped with the right information, tools and coping skills to guide families in South Africa going through the unimaginable. You are more than welcome to contact me at nicci.doula@gmail.com.


My ‘job’ is not a job, but a calling and I treasure it as such. 


Yours in bereavement


Nicci

Saying Goodbye to Baby R

I wrote this in Afrikaans originally but I have translated it for this website:

Babies should smell like baby powder and Elizabeth Anne’s shampoo – not like formalin and death. ‘n Baby has to have a pink little mouth that is open-mouthed and loudly looking for his next sip of milk, not purple, lifeless lips.  Babies should have little hands and feet that practice kicks in his mother’s womb so that he can do so vigorously in real life – not lifeless little limbs that are still breathtakingly perfect. A baby should have a warm, snugly little body that one can hug ever so often to feel and smell their ‘babyness’. Not an ice-cold, lifeless little body in a lonely carrycot.


He is carried into the room in a navy-blue carry cot by the owner of the funeral services and she placed him on the boardroom table – the only place I could take proper photographs of him. She had asked me to take photos of him, as his mommy has passed on with him, so it’s the only photos the family will have. She looks at me and nods, and silently closes the door behind her when she leaves. My heart catches in my throat when I slowly peek into the carrycot:  The most beautiful, perfectly formed little baby boy is lying on a pretty baby-blue blanket.  It looks like he is in a deep sleep.  Oh, how I wish he was only sleeping! How I wish that he would just open his little eyes and give me that newborn stare! But it’s not going to happen. He is dead. This perfectly formed little body is dead.


He is not going home with his nervous first-time parents that are going to check over and over again that he is properly tucked in his safety chair.  They are not going to check up on him a million times in the night, after he fell asleep hours before.  Grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews aren’t going to wait at the front door for the long awaited little prince to come home, with excitement they can hardly contain. His mom is not going to oh so carefully lift him from his safety chair, wrap him in a warm cocoon and over-cautiously lay him down in his brand-new cot.


His newborn little body is not going to be washed for the first time by clumsy, inexperienced parents.  Nobody is going to walk around on their toes in the house because the baby is sleeping. No one is going to wake up every two hours because he is hungry and keep his parents on their feet the whole night and sleep like a trooper during day time. Nobody is going to argue if he has his grandpa or his uncle’s ears and if his hands look just like his dad’s or not.  No photos are going to be taken of his baptism, first birthday, first day of school, matric farewell, 21st birthday, his wedding…


Because he is dead.  This beautifully and fearfully made little boy with his dark hair framing his perfect little face is dead and his potential as human being on this earth is dead. His parents’ dreams for him are dead. His mother is dead. Dead, dead, dead…


But then in my mind’s eye, I see a dark-haired little boy hopping and skipping in heaven. With indescribably joy shining from his face, and big brown eyes that sparkle because he has just met his Maker.  He does not know pain, or sorrow – he only knows unspeakable joy and a peace that has never yet been told. That peace which transcends all understanding. That peace that everyone on earth is yearning for. He has that. He has peace.
And that is what I am praying for after I packed away my camera and drove home in the pitch-dark, windy night. Be still my heart. And give me peace oh Lord. Silence my questions. Quieten my rebellion about this little boy’s death. I beg for peace…

The Two Rooms

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Except for different room numbers, the two doors looked identical. If you could have peeked inside, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the stories apart. Except for their age difference and the gestational age of their pregnancies, they were just two mommies-to-be waiting to give birth. And they did give birth, almost simultaneously. Yet contrary to what the naked eye could see, the stories behind those two doors are so far apart it’s mind boggling.


You see, the one gave birth to life and the other to death. Behind Labour Room 1 in an upmarket suburban private hospital, a young woman was unsuccessfully trying to take deep breaths to ease the pain that threatened to overcome her young body. She was very obviously experiencing severe discomfort with each contraction and as I held her hand I could almost feel her pain. Annah* looked at me and asked “Is this going to get worse?” I had to be honest because this is the one thing I promise my clients from the second we meet: Honesty.

I looked at her and told her that yes; unfortunately it was going to get worse. Her big brown eyes followed me as I walked around the bed and straightened her IV line. I saw earlier that her brown eyes had little specs of flashing green in them and I thought to myself that she was such a beautiful young woman. She asked again in a strong, clear voice, “How much worse Nicci?” I took her hand and assured her that it was going to be painful but it doesn’t last forever and she will forget the pain. Her mom Lisa* just looked away. I couldn’t tell Annah that the pain of the memories never leaves you. It would have been cruel and something she couldn’t prevent anyway. So I just squeezed her hand.


Annah was a young woman from a happy home with a great family and awesome siblings. At the end of the previous year, she just finished university and she was celebrating the New Year and the beginning of new things with her friends. Unfortunately, as it often happens, she drank too much alcohol. What happened is still a blur to her, but she fell pregnant right when she was supposed to start her new life. To her it was devastating news. But the news was not as devastating as the terrible news they got from Annah’s gynaecologist when she was around 20 weeks along. The pills Annah was taking for a chronic condition causes severe birth defects, deformities, paralysis and even brain damage. A medical termination had to be done as the doctor explained to Lisa that the viability of the pregnancy is virtually zero. According to the doctor it was a lot beter to terminate at 22 weeks than to lose a baby at 38 weeks. So a medical termination was booked.

I spoke to Lisa over the phone for the first time. “Lisa, it’s Nicci, I function as a bereavement doula and I was told that you want to make use of my services?” It is with relief in her voice that she confirmed that they needed my services. She also told me straight away that she suffered three miscarriages – all three between 20 and 24 weeks of gestation. Her first miscarriage was at 24 weeks, but they didn’t show her the baby or allowed her to hold the baby and she later learned that the baby was incinerated as medical waste – something that devastated her and still haunts her up to this day. I could hear the pain in her voice. I made it very clear that this will most definitely not happen if it is her daughter’s wish to see her child and to bury her child.

After I explained to her how the process worked, she asked me to please come immediately, they were about to break Annah’s water. I ran to get my camera and then I rushed to hospital. As fate would have it I couldn’t find parking anywhere and I ended up parking a block away from the hospital! At long last I reported at the nurse’s station and I was taken to the Labour Rooms. It was when I came around the corner that I saw the two identical doors…

Lisa is a beautiful woman in her early fifties and she looks much too young to be a grandmother. The first thing I noticed when I saw her was the utter sadness in her eyes. It was very obvious that not only was she in pain for her daughter’s sake but this medical termination scratched open old wounds. But after we talked a while I realized that although she was sad I could also see the shimmer of a tenacious woman with hope for the future. When I was first introduced to Annah she seemed a bit hostile but within five minutes we were chatting like we knew each other for ages. After a while she told me that she was pregnant with a little boy she was going to name *Zach. I was so relieved that we clicked. It is extremely difficult to assist someone who doesn’t want you there! In fact, it’s virtually impossible. It is also very important to always put your client’s needs before everyone else’s – in this case even her own mother’s.

Annah starting talking about Zach’s funeral – she said she wanted a particular casket and elaborated on exactly what she wants. The moment I saw that Lisa was about to say something (that I knew was going to be perceived as negative) I motioned to her to keep quiet. We both listened as Annah told us about Zach’s name, his casket and a few other details about saying goodbye to him. She seemed content that we were just nodding and agreeing with her but I could see that it was very difficult for Lisa not to say something…

Annah was complaining about her contractions again and I demonstrated to her how to breathe to make things a little bit easier for her. But I could see that the contractions were becoming very uncomfortable. I left the room to give Lisa and Annah a moment alone and as I was waiting in the corridor I couldn’t help to hear the familiar sound of a baby’s heartbeat in the womb over the ultrasound machine’s system from the other room. The nurse was telling the mom in Afrikaans ‘Dit is nou amper tyd’ (It is almost time now) and I could hear them laugh and make jokes about the impending birth of the woman’s baby. There was a lot of laughter indeed. The contrast to Annah’s situation was so stark it made me catch my breath for a second and I had to concentrate very hard to not let the sadness overcome me.

After a while Lisa came out and we went around the corner to have a quick private conversation regarding the situation but after five minutes she received a frantic phone call: Annah was in full-blown labour! I was astonished that this poor child went from 3cm dilation to full dilation within a matter of not even 20 minutes. We both ran to the room. We were there just in time. The doctor arrived as we got there and the next moment Annah’s agonizing screams could be heard echoing down the labour ward’s corridors. Between her pauses to take a gulp of air, I could hear a mini commotion next door as well. Unbelievably both women were giving birth at the same time. Oh the irony! The next moment Annah was screaming so loud my ears were ringing and with a soft popping sound little Zach was born. But contrary to the celebrations and exuberant exclamations next door of a healthy baby boy that had just been born, the tears were streaming down Annah’s face and Lisa was barely coping herself. If pain was a picture, I saw it in that delivery room.

The nurse delivered the placenta after the doctor cut the umbilical cord (and subsequently left straight away) and was gently busy cleaning Annah up. Lisa was standing with little Zach wrapped in a soft white towel blanket that was embroided with a pretty white silk bow that I gave to her shortly after the birth. I moved close to her trying to cover the baby up whilst the nurse was busy with Annah when I almost jolted in shock. The baby moved! This tiny little creature was still moving for some reason. I tried to stay calm but I was in so much shock I nearly fainted. Without thinking twice I closed the curtain with one quick pull and motioned to the nurse to come to us. Lisa was in an absolute state – she was crying and shaking, muttering under her breath “He’s moving Nicci, he is still moving. He is alive! Oh God help us!” The nurse rushed over and patiently explained to me and Lisa in a hushed voice that unfortunately this happens sometimes.

Apparently some babies moved for over an hour since they were born, struggling to take their first gulp of air that was sadly never going to happen – even at only 22 weeks of gestation! I was so traumatized and upset; I cannot even fathom how poor Lisa must have felt. Even the nurse was as white as a sheet! My heart went out to both of them. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was not the reason for the gynaecologist’s hasty exit? Did she realize that this baby was fighting to stay alive and couldn’t deal with the fact? Or was she just in the routine of popping in during a medical termination, do the delivery and pop out again? Whatever her reasons, it just didn’t seem right to me…

We decided to keep Zach with us behind the curtain until he stopped moving – we knew it would terribly upset Annah. If we were so distressed I can’t even imagine what Annah would do! But after a while Annah was demanding to hold her baby and we couldn’t postpone the moment any longer. Lisa took the baby boy to his young mommy and I quickly grabbed my camera to snap a few photos. I managed to hide it from them, but I was shaking so much I could hardly take a photo. That baby moving underneath my fingers is something I will never ever forget for as long as I live.

Lisa gently handed the little boy over to his mom and I could see a thousand thoughts running through Annah’s head as she took him from his grandma. “He’s beautiful. He’s so tiny. Look at his perfect little nose. He is so, so beautiful,” Annah softly murmured. I could feel the pesky lump in my throat returning to torture me again and I swallowed very hard to keep my composure. Not long after that, Lisa took the baby from her daughter – obviously fearing that he was going to move again. Unfortunately it seemed that her worst nightmare was going to come true…

Annah insisted to hold him again and almost snatched Zach from her mother’s arms. The next moment she became deathly pale. “Mom, I’m sure I felt the baby move?” Annah looked at Lisa with questions in her eyes and had a horrified expression on her face. I looked at Lisa and saw that she was speechless, and before she could say anything that could upset Annah and possibly haunt her for the rest of her life; I gently took the baby from her and explained that it was only his little muscles still contracting after death and not because he is ‘alive’. She seemed satisfied with my explanation and stroked her baby’s head with her forefinger, without saying anything. I sighed an inaudible sigh of relief. Thank God for small mercies!

I then told Annah that it was time for me to photography her little boy. I took a few photos of especially his tiny little hands and feet at the bottom of the hospital bed on a white towel. It was when I gently took his miniature, perfectly formed foot in mine that I felt a tremor from his leg again. It was so upsetting I felt like vomiting and I could feel the blood drain from my face. Lisa saw something was wrong and distracted Annah by giving her a sip of water. I knew I just had to keep my composure and without blinking an eye, I kept on pressing the shutter without even focusing on what I was doing. When I was finished taking photos (I deliberately took quite a while to do this, hoping the baby will finally stop moving, which he did,) I wrapped the baby and gave him to his grandma. Lisa took little Zach from me and gently rocked him. It was heartbreaking to watch…

The nurse motioned me outside and when I closed the door behind me she asked me when I was going to go to the police station to have the affidavit completed. We have to complete an affidavit, basically stating that we are taking a placenta out of hospital – you just fail to mention that the baby is part of the parcel! I told her that the commissioner of oaths was actually coming to the hospital herself – there was no need for anyone to go to a police station. She looked unsure of herself and then she asked me where the ‘casket’ was. I told her it was in my car but if she wanted to see it I will go and fetch it. She indicated that this was indeed what she wanted so I quickly ran to my car to get it. Our caskets are beautiful little woven baskets that look like a Moses basket and not like a casket at all, so luckily I didn’t upset anyone with it.

My interaction with the nurse just made me realize again that the healthcare professionals in this country were ‘flying blind’ so to speak when it came to these situations. How on earth can one expect a nurse to know the laws and to handle the situation if a specialist doesn’t even have a clue? It also made me think of how terrible it must be for these nurses to put a perfectly formed little body in a red plastic bag labelled as ‘medical waste’. What does that do to one’s psyche? How you do you cope as a human being with ‘throwing away’ another human being? It must be so absolutely devastating and difficult for nursing personnel to deal with the situation! I had an epiphany right there and then: We weren’t only fighting the good fight for parents and for unborn babies. We were also fighting for this nurse who has to live with her own conscience and memories after disposing of a body like it’s an amputated limb or used needles that one need to get rid of! Interestingly enough both the doctor and the hospital flatly refused to issue a death certificate…

When I got back Annah was sleeping and the nurse had taken the baby to the cooling facilities in the meantime. Lisa’s eyes were red from crying but she was calm and asked me a few questions which I patiently answered. Luckily Sonja Smith (a funeral director and also the commissioner of oaths) showed up and we finalized the paperwork and chatted a bit about Zach’s funeral. Annah has woken up in the meantime and knew exactly what she wanted for the funeral – I was impressed with how composed she was. I had to fill out a report for the hospital stating that I take full responsibility for the ‘remains’, I will dispose of it lawfully and the necessary paperwork (affidavit) had been done. Whilst I was doing this, Sonja went with the nurse to fetch little Zach. The nurse asked the grandmother to stay with me. Sonja was shocked to see where they kept little Zach: A small little ‘box fridge’ standing next to a cleaning mop and bucket used to clean the hospital floors! No dignity at all. It was obvious why the nurse didn’t want Lisa to accompany her to fetch the baby!

After finalizing the paperwork, we put little Zach in a carry cot and after saying goodbye to Lisa and Annah, we left. Neither one of them wanted to see the baby again, they both confirmed that they had said their goodbyes and that they didn’t want to see him again. In these situations we are absolutely led by what our clients want and we respect and carry out their wishes as far as humanly possible. Little Zach was snugly tucked into a comfy carrycot, covered with his embroided towel-blanket. He looked so peaceful at last.

When we got to Sonja’s car, she carefully placed the carrycot on her car’s seat and fastened the seatbelt. Just before she closed the door I asked her to give me a moment to say goodbye. I gently touched Zach’s little forehead and whispered goodbye. This is always the toughest part of my job: Saying goodbye to a tiny little human being. I was thinking that those two rooms were going to haunt me for a long time – and I so wished that both rooms had the same outcome: A beautiful, lively little newborn baby boy. But we don’t always get what we wish for and that is precisely why I do what I do.
Because the outcome can be so sad, someone needs to comfort the people going through this excruciating pain. Someone needs to answer questions, hold hands and utter soothing words to aching souls. Someone has to hide the fact that a medically terminated fetus was fighting to live from an already traumatized young mother. Someone just needs to be there…

I am honoured to say that that day, I was that someone.

*Not their real names

(Please note that the above is a true event that happened to me, Nicci Coertze, personally. Except for Annah and her mom, it is not someone else’s story to tell.)