Kathriona Devereux: Sharing the pain - reaching out to people after pregnancy loss

Traditionally Cork University Maternity Hospital hosts a service in the Sacred Heart Church on Western Road to mark International Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day. This Friday, October 15 a very special service will be aired online instead, writes Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: Sharing the pain - reaching out to people after pregnancy loss

TIME TO GRIEVE: There are support services available to help people deal with pregnancy loss. Picture: iStock, posed by model

A VERY special event happened a few weekends ago in UCC’s Honan Chapel and Cork University Maternity Hospital that I had the privilege of being part of and which, this week, the wider community will be able to experience too.

October 15 is International Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day and, to mark the occasion, CUMH usually hold a service of remembrance for families in the Sacred Heart Church on Western Road.

It is a moving annual ritual with the recently bereaved and the long- term bereaved coming together with CUMH staff and support organisations to acknowledge the deep pain of losing a baby.

As with many activities this year, this important event in the CUMH calendar could not proceed as normal. But grief continues regardless of a pandemic so the hospital decided filming a service and sharing it through a dedicated website and broadcasting it through RTÉ’s religious programming would offer some solace and support to grieving families.

As a producer, I have been filming aspects of life in CUMH for almost nine years. I produced an RTÉ series called From Here To Maternity which extensively revealed life in an Irish maternity hospital and charted the different birth journeys of families. It was an eye-opening experience for me; to witness the birth of a baby but also to fully understand that life can, sometimes, be unbearably cruel.

Sometimes babies die. It’s a hard fact to think or talk about. But many people live with the reality every day.

In making educational films for CUMH over the years, I have interviewed many mothers, fathers and families who had the rug pulled from under them when their much-loved and wanted baby didn’t survive.

Each year, around the world, about 2.6 million babies are stillborn. Around 300-320 babies die by stillbirth in Ireland every year, yet we don’t really talk about it, do we?

We talk about road traffic accidents which were responsible for 148 deaths last year, but we don’t talk about the tragedy of losing a baby.

Is it because we accept it as an unlucky inevitability that will befall a small number of people, because it’s so sad a topic it is uncomfortable to talk about, or simply because we don’t prioritise women’s health?

According to HSE.ie, possible causes for stillbirth include infection, complications from pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes, restricted fetal growth, problems with the umbilical cord or separation of the placenta from the womb to early. In rare situations, babies may die during labour, and in about one third of cases it is not possible to explain why a baby has died.

The UK-based charity ‘Tommy’s’ funds research to investigate why one in four women loses a baby during pregnancy or birth. In 2016, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists launched the ‘Every Baby Counts’ initiative and worldwide there is increasing focus on reducing preventable stillbirth.

Research suggests that by identifying stillbirth risk factors, which include smoking, advanced maternal age, hypertension, high BMI, recurrent pregnancy loss and restricted fetal growth, empowering women with information about reduced fetal movement and getting her to trust her maternal intuition, along with timely medical intervention, can save babies.

Many families I interviewed over the years understandably questioned why this happened to them and many had never heard of someone having a stillbirth or a neonatal death before their own experience. They were naïve to the potential pain of pregnancy. Which is why they were sharing their stories. To help others.

It is so important to talk about pregnancy loss. When people share their stories, they not only give voice to their baby’s story and its time in this world, but they also educate those who are oblivious to the possibility of things going wrong. They help protect future families from hearing “It’s just one of those things”, “It’s nature’s way”, “you can go again”, or other comments that are of little comfort.

By sharing their experiences, parents also improve the bereavement care of families who will unfortunately follow in their footsteps in the future.

The National Bereavement Standards were informed by the input of bereaved parents, family members and healthcare professional in bereavement care, and were created to ensure the care and support for bereaved families is the same throughout the country’s 19 maternity units.

CUMH’s Dr Keelin O’Donoghue. Ríona Cotter and colleagues from the Pregnancy Loss Research Group drove the implementation of the Standards. Now all 19 maternity hospitals have a Bereavement Clinical Midwife Specialist and staff have undertaken specialist education in bereavement care. A service of remembrance is part of the important work of the Bereavement team.

Which is why a dedicated crew of CUMH staff, support organisations and talented choirs came together on a sunny October weekend to put together a service of remembrance filmed in a distanced and safe manner.

It includes many of the familiar parts of the traditional Sacred Heart Church remembrance ceremony and it is CUMH’s gift to these families at this time, because now, more than ever, we recognise the importance of rituals.

I hope that anyone who logs on to the www.cumhremembers.ie website to watch the service or sees it on RTÉ will feel the depth of empathy and caring that went in to making it.

As always, it was a privilege for me to play a small part in realising this alternative ritual. Even though CUMH staff can’t physically be there on October 15 to support families, they are thinking of them and their babies on that day. And all the other days of the year too.

Tomorrow in WOW!, a Cork mun shares her story of pregnancy loss to mark International Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day

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