THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT!
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.
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 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.
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
- changes in appetite (either loss of, or gorging) with the resultant changes in weight
- changes in activity levels (hyperactive or under active)
- needing to be alone/ withdrawing from community
- needing to be with people
- needing to talk and tell your story
- 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.”
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.”
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:
… 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.”
are a few things to remember when talking about stillbirth or pregnancy loss to
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 email@example.com
This article was originally written and published in 2018 by Nicci Coertze for the Baby Yum Yum website:
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.
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.
“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.
I look at your perfect little ears and I hear the songs of angels in the sky
I look at your mouth and hear unspoken words about babies that die
I look at your closed eyes and think about a world that is blind
I look at your little nose and I smell sweet baby smells in my mind
I turn, take a deep breath and gently touch your beautiful face
And know deep within my heart of hearts, by God’s amazing grace
That you are already hopping and skipping and singing up above
And every second of your beautiful existence is filled with God’s pure love
Fly away little angel, fly away and laugh and sing
Fly away from all the tears and heartache that earth and gravity bring
Fly away precious angel don’t you ever look back
Fly away sweet child, in nothing will you ever lack
I turn slowly, swallow my tears and walk out of the door
And know to the depth of my being, to my very core
That with little skill, astounding grace and lots of love
Lives are changed and touched by giving all I have
– by: Nicci Coertze-Kruger
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:
(For a doula in your area, visit www.dosa.co.za)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
My ‘job’ is not a job, but a calling and I treasure it as such.
Yours in bereavement