AN inspirational Cobh woman, whose daughter was stillborn, is giving hope to women at Cork University Maternity Hospital struggling with infant loss.
Carmel O’Shea, from the charity Féileacáin, volunteers to take the imprints of the hands and feet of stillborn babies as a keepsake for their parents.
“Each baby I see means as much to me as a living baby,” said Carmel.
The mother-of-four also prepares memory boxes, with everything from remembrance candles to specially handmade garments. Her role forms part of her work with the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland, which was formed in 2009 and registered as a charity in 2010.
Carmel said that while the pain of losing her own baby was unbearable, she derives comfort from helping other bereaved parents.
“My own little girl, Maddie-Lou, was stillborn in June of 2013,” she said. “At the 20-week scan, I was informed there was an issue with her heart.
“I lived in hope that she would be the miracle baby, but Maddie-Lou’s heart was weakening all the time.
“At 32 weeks, I felt the movement start to decrease.”
The secondary-school teacher said she put her pain aside to make her time with Maddie-Lou as special as possible.
“Maddie-Lou was only three pounds, but she was absolutely perfect,” she said.
“Féileacáin helped me through a lot. While Maddie-Lou was with us, she was like any other newborn. I wanted to get a picture of her, but wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to do. When I looked in the Féileacáin memory box, I saw a camera and realised that it must be okay.”
Carmel displayed incredible strength throughout the ordeal.
“Trauma took a back seat, because I knew I only had a short time with Maddie-Lou.”
She described the pain of infant loss: “You should be elated and thinking about future plans, but instead you’re trying to organise a white coffin. I didn’t think I’d be able to function for the year after it happened.”
She spoke about the healing quality of her role with Féileacáin.
“I know it won’t bring Maddie-Lou back.
“However, it’s really nice to be able to be there for parents during such a painful time in their lives,” she said.
“It’s helpful for parents to know you have experienced what they are going through and can identify with their pain.
“Every time I hand over a memory box, it’s like I’m handing them a million euro. It’s during difficult times like this that little gestures mean so much.”
She had some valuable advice for parents of stillborn babies.
“They may not have taken a breath, but they are still your child and that’s all that matters,” she said.
“I always advise parents to photograph everything about their baby, photograph their eyes, photograph their lips... Even if it’s too painful to look back on photos now, in the years that follow, you will want to remember every single detail about your baby.”
One of Carmel’s favourite items from her own baby’s memory box was a teddy bear.
“The memory box contains two identical teddy bears,” she explained. “The idea is that you and the baby can swap them before saying goodbye. It means that both parent and baby always have something that belongs to one other.”
Carmel and her daughter Kaileigh now both sport tattoos in memory of Maddie-Lou.
“Kaileigh was brilliant through it all,” Carmel said. “I promised we would get tattoos when she turned 16, but I never thought that day would come around so fast.
“I have the imprints of Maddie-Lou’s footprints on my hips. I decided on that area in particular because the hip is where you carry your baby. Kaileigh spent a lot of time designing her tattoo, which includes a beautiful quotation and a butterfly.”
Féileacáin (the Irish word for butterfly) was formed by a group of bereaved parents to offer support to anyone affected by the death of a baby around the time of birth, and the organisation is now the national charity supporting families affected by perinatal loss. Féileacáin is a volunteer-led organisation. It receives no funding from central government, relying instead on the support of its community and the families who avail of its services.
For information on how to donate visit https://feileacain.ie/about-feileacain/#