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….
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.
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…
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…
This was my first official experience as Bereavement Doula and one that I will always keep very close to my heart. I wrote about this in 2015 but have been requested to post it as a Blog Post again, so here goes:
I walked into the room. He was in kidney bowl. Completely naked, not covered at all. I rushed to his side, blanket in hand and took him from his mommy. She didn’t protest. She just looked at me with big blue eyes, brimming with tears. I gently took his perfect little body and covered it in a soft baby blanket. When I gave him back to his mommy I could see that she was thankful beyond words. The little angel’s daddy whispered a hoarse ‘thank you’ and put his arm around his wife and child – as if to protect them from an invisible enemy.
And in a way he was. He was protecting them against a cruel Act in the South African Law books that stated that this perfectly formed, beautiful little boy was medical waste or ‘human tissue’ as they so delicately try to hide the ugly truth in their ridiculous forms. This because he was born before 26 weeks of gestation… Natalie looked at Seth helplessly when I started to talk about all the legalities. Seth immediately got up and I could see fire in his eyes. “If they give you any hassles I will sue them from here ‘till kingdom come Nicci!” he hissed with a face contorted with sadness. I assured him that everything was going to be ok, and inside I was praying very hard that this would be the case.
Natalie’s doctor signed a death certificate for little Daniel. This should exempt his parents from filling in endless forms and looking for a commissioner of oaths to certify the documents. However, the hospital as an entity insisted on the affidavit wherein it is stated that little Daniel is ‘human tissue’ and that his placenta is taken out of the hospital for religious reasons. Seth was livid about this and I tried to talk sense into him. At long last he calmed down and I spoke to the nurse in charge, begging her to allow Seth to take the forms to be certified without her being present, as this will be a huge obstacle to overcome – commissioners of oath aren’t kicked out behind every bush! At first the nurse was a bit stubborn, but when she saw that there was no way I was going to back off, she agreed. Seth went to do the paperwork and I stayed with Natalie, as per his instructions.
Natalie was vomiting in a bucket when I walked back in the room, little Daniel was lying in his blanket right next to her. I gently pulled her long blonde hair back and whispered soothing words to calm her down. We cleaned her up, and I put Daniel back in her arms again. She gently touched him all over his little body. His feet, his legs, his arm, his tiny little feet… I was eerily calm, but I also realized that I was in survival mode and that I had to be strong for this amazing couple.
I told Natalie that I was going to leave the room to allow her to have some alone time with Daniel. She didn’t take her eyes off of Daniel, and just nodded silently. After asking the nurses to please not go into the room, I went downstairs to the coffee shop and waited for Seth to return. He was back in no time, but I could see that he was still terribly upset. I took him aside and told him that he must please relax and that everything was going to be ok. He just said “Nicci, I want to grant my boy the dignity of being treated as a human being. That’s all I’m asking. He is not human tissue or medical waste! He is my son!” Seth was sobbing out the last sentence. I gently took him by his arm and reassured him that his son will get the dignity he so desperately wanted for him. We then went back to Natalie.
I slowly opened the door to Natalie’s room. She was just sitting there in bed, Daniel in her lap, staring blankly in front of her. I nudged Seth towards her, he gently picked up Daniel and I closed the curtains to give them some privacy. The paperwork was given to the matron and she was doing only heavens know what with it. I found out soon enough. The next moment the nurse in charge was in the room with a red plastic bag in her hands, looking around and asking me in a loud voice where the ‘fetus’ was. I told her that the BABY was still with his parents and that they wanted more time with him. Before she could say anything I pulled open the curtains and gently took the baby from Natalie. I told her that I would be right back. I asked Seth to tend to her, as she started vomiting again. They both just stared at me. Baby in hand, I helped the nurse out of the room – I could see she knew I was boiling inside.
Once we were alone just outside the ‘waste’ room, the nurse took Daniel from me. I tried to stay civil. It was hard, but I had to. I asked her what exactly she was planning to do with the red plastic bag in her hand. “I am going to tag the fetus, put it in the bag and send it to the Maternity ward” she said, looking quite surprised by the question. I hissed at her in an ominous voice, “Over my dead body will you put that child in that horrid bag. You will not put him in ANY bag! He will stay in that blanket, as God is my witness.” She looked at me in genuine surprise. “But it’s hospital policy, we always do it this way?” It was crystal clear that these people didn’t know what the heck they were doing and that they did not know the law at all. I was livid, but I stayed calm. I knew that if it was Seth that spoke to this nurse he would totally lose it. What was I to do?
What I did next came automatically, without me planning or thinking ahead. It was pure instinct. I pulled the nurse into the ‘waste’ room and closed the door. I talked in very slow sentences in a barely audible voice. “The documents that were supplied to you effectively make me the owner of that baby in your hands, do you agree?” She looked at me and nodded slowly. I said “We agree then. Wonderful. Now, listen to me very carefully because I am only going to say this once: This is MY baby, I am legally responsible for it and thus I will choose what can and cannot be done with it. Please go and fill out the thousands of forms that you still have to do and give me my baby back.” I was speaking and taking the baby from her at the same time. Her mouth literally hung open. She handed me the baby in a haze. She started speaking, but abruptly stopped, turned around and walked back to the nurse’s station, shaking her head.
I gently closed Daniel’s little head, and I walked back to Natalie’s room. Seth almost ran to me. “My boy! You brought my boy back. Oh thank you Nicci, thank you!” Seth was obviously in quite a state – he clearly thought the nurse was going to dispose of their baby. I carefully handed Daniel to him and walked to Natalie’s bedside. She was deathly pale and stared in front of her. I touched her arm and she grabbed my hand. We didn’t talk. I just stood there. Seth was cuddling Daniel in his arms, mumbling incoherent words to the small little body in his arms. He then turned back to Natalie and handed their son to her. She stared at him. Dry-eyed she was still white as a sheet. I motioned to Seth to take the baby from her, which he did. He turned around and stared out of the window with Daniel in his arms. Within seconds Natalie was vomiting in the bucket again. Her body was reacting to the utter shock she was in and I realized that it wasn’t going to get any better. I had to make a call. I cleared my throat and said with as much gentleness as I could, “Guys, I’m going to go downstairs to the coffee shop. Please say goodbye to your little angel? Seth, please call me when you are ready so that I can prepare baby to travel with me.” Nobody reacted to my words. Seth was still staring out of the window as I closed the door behind me…
After a while my phone rang and Seth told me that they were ready for me to fetch Daniel. I have watched countless programs on TV where the earie undertaker fetches a body from wherever. It had grossed me out, as it does a lot of people. And now I was that undertaker! It never dawned on me. I was looking at myself as being Seth and Natalie’s support system, not a cruel person that will grab the baby out of his parents’ arms and disappear into the night with him! I shook off the horrible thought and hastened to Natalie’s room.
I walked into the room and immediately prepared the pretty box I bought to put Daniel in to transport him to our facilities. It was already lined with a soft little blanket and I added the extra blanked and soft toy that Natalie gave to me. I then asked Seth to please fetch Daniel from Natalie. I could hear a little sob behind the curtains and the next moment Seth stood next to me with Daniel in his arms. He wouldn’t give me the little body. I then asked him to please put the baby inside his little nest. He said to me, “I want to carry out my boy please?” I had never been in this situation before and therefore I had to go with my gut again: “You’re welcome to do so Seth. We just need to close the box until we get to my car ok? We don’t want to shock anyone.” Seth was upset again. “Are you going to take him to your facilities closed up in a box? No, that’s just not right Nicci!” I gently explained to him that as soon as we get to my car, Daniel would be placed in a beautiful woven little coffin and will travel right next to me. (Thank heavens I happened to have one in my car!) That seemed to calm him down. I couldn’t look at Natalie when I walked out. She shouted after me, “Good bye my boy, good bye. I love you! I will come to see you again, I promise!” It was absolutely heartbreaking. Seth carried his baby with what I can only call pride, walking next to me with his head held high – almost daring anyone to say something. The nursing personnel did not say one word. All five of them stood still and watched silently as we walked by. I was relieved beyond words.
Outside, the hospital was basked in the last glorious sunlight of the day, tainted a pretty pink. The contrast between the beauty of the sunset and Seth’s almost palpable pain were stark. When we got to the car it looked like he was going to have a total breakdown. I was terribly worried about him. I took the box from him, got into my car, lifted the lid and carefully eased the tiny little body into the casket. Daniel was still covered with a lovely blanket. I took another blanket that Natalie gave me and put it on him. I then got out and told Seth that he can say a final goodbye inside the car, but then I had to go. He asked me if he could put the lid on the casket. I agreed. Seth got into my car and put a bunny soft toy in the casket with Daniel. He then gently closed the lid, tears on his face. I gave him a hug and whispered “I am so sorry you have to go through this. Please hang in there.” He just nodded and then he walked off – by now it was almost dark.
I fastened the little woven basket in the front seat and left for the office. My work was done. I made a difference. I made someone’s excruciating pain a tiny bit better. I was there. I was Nicci. I was a witness to Daniel’s existence and his parents’ love for him.I was a witness to beautiful pain…
(This is a true story of my, Nicci Coertz personal experience as Bereavement Doula, written in 2015)