It’s hard to imagine anything more unbearable to deal with than the loss of a child ?
But what happens when the worst happens, and somehow, things keep getting worse? How do you cope? And where do you find hope?
Phillisdsa (real name Philippa), one of our forum mums, knows the answers to those questions. In early 2016, she lost her firstborn son, Huw, to stillbirth. 10 weeks later, her husband Jonty suffered a major stroke.
Cue a new role as a carer, a continental move back to her native Australia, becoming the sole income for her family, a drawn-out legal battle with the hospital that delivered Huw – and the decision to try for another baby.
Recently, Phillisdsa got in touch with fellow MFMers to share a joyous update on her story. So, we asked if we could share her very personal experience with all of you – in her own words.
We hope it helps to show that any darkness the world throws at you can fall to a ray of light. Even the darkest dark…
Philippa’s 1st pregnancy
“My husband, Jonty and I were living in London. My husband was working as a Crime Scene examiner for the Metropolitan Police. I’m an Occupational Therapist, and was working as a Case Manager for people with Brain Injuries, at the time.
“We were living a typical London life of two 30-somethings. I was a keen scuba diver and was an active member of my local dive club. We attended lots of social events, music festivals and had a lovely group of friends that we spent a lot of time with. We also had Jonty’s family, who lived just around the corner from us.
“My husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for some time. I think you could say that we had almost given up that it was going to happen.
“We had applied for a visa for my husband to come and live in Australia (my home country) as we planned to bring up our family there. We weren’t 100% sure he would get as you need to meet certain health criteria to get partner visa for Australia.
“As my husband had a long-term health condition (Crohn’s Disease), there was a slight doubt about his ability to be successful. After 12 months of waiting my husband received his grant letter on 17 August which happened to also be his birthday and we conceived Huw just a few days afterwards.
“It was mid-September 2015 when I found out I was pregnant. We had planned to move to Australia around February 2016. After after finding out we were expecting Huw, we decided to delay this move to later in 2016 after Huw was born.
“We were part-stunned and part-excited to find out I was pregnant. I did about 10 pregnancy tests to try and get it to sink in. After finding out about Jonty’s visa and my pregnancy, it really felt like things were falling into place for us.
“Like some first-time mums, I didn’t get any terrible morning sickness and I think I was still in disbelief that it was all happening, even up until I was 16 weeks pregnant.
“I guess at that gestation, you can’t feel movements, you feel quite well and you really don’t look too pregnant so it’s still a concept you need to get your head around.
“My husband and I decided to give ourselves an early Christmas present and we booked to have a private gender scan on 22 December 2015 to find out if we were having a girl or a boy, as our NHS 20-week scan wasn’t until early January 2016.
“The day of the gender scan, and finding out we were having a boy, was such a wonderful and happy experience.
“We had a boy’s name already picked, so that day I feel like I transitioned from just being pregnant to carrying my baby boy, Huw. It all felt so much more real and I started buying clothes for our little one.
“I remember buying these tiny newborn socks with little dinosaurs on them and crying such happy tears, thinking about the tiny little foot that was going to wear them.”
Philippa’s anxiety during pregnancy
“I only felt really anxious twice, the 2nd time 2 weeks prior to losing Huw. It’s a moment in my mind that I can’t totally rule out as being part of a chain of events, that would lead to the horrible outcome on 13 February 2016.
“I was doing the weekly grocery shop, and I was wheeling a shopping trolley back through the carpark of the supermarket, when the wheel got caught on a lip.
“The trolley stopped suddenly, and my belly rammed into the handle of the shopping trolley, quite hard, winding me and causing me to sit down on the ground.
“I was in quite a lot of discomfort and I was very concerned about my baby. I remember sitting there, as people walked past (not helping, mind you), thinking that I wanted this baby more than anything in this world. I was terrified that in one silly moment I had potentially lost everything.
“Eventually, I was well enough to drive back home, and my husband drove me to the hospital to get checked out.
“I was checked over by a midwife and a doctor and reassured that my baby was well, and that the body is very good at protecting baby in these kinds of situations.
“Reassured, my husband and I left, and didn’t think much more about it.”
Philippa’s stillbirth – and losing Huw
“It was a Friday, the day things started to go wrong. I had a busy day at work and had visited a few clients in Berkshire and come home tired after a long day travelling around.
“When I got home, my husband was all excited, as our buggy had just been delivered and he had unpacked it and put it together, ready to surprise me when I got home.
“We ended up going to bed early that night as I was tired, and my husband was working an early shift the next day. I remembered waking up around 11pm, with tummy pain. I thought it must be Braxton Hicks. I took some paracetamol and went back to sleep.
“I woke up again about an hour later in a lot more discomfort. I was more concerned, so I woke my husband up and we called the birth unit.
“Because I was 27 weeks pregnant, they wanted me to get checked but were very reassuring that it was probably nothing too serious.
“On arrival at the hospital, we had to wait a bit. The doctor was concerned that the baby’s head was engaged and that I might be at risk of preterm labor.
“He recommended that I be admitted overnight for observation and that I should be given some medications to help develop my baby’s lungs, just in case he did come early.
“Everyone was very reassuring. At this point, I sent my husband home, as I felt that nothing was going to happen and there was no point in both of us losing sleep.
“Around 2am, a consultant came in to briefly chat with me. She asked me a few questions and said that she didn’t think that I was in preterm labor, that she didn’t think I needed any of the medications to help develop my baby’s lungs. I was in some discomfort but felt reassured and agreed with this plan. I texted Jonty to let him know, and tried to rest for the night.
“I really struggled to get to sleep, I kept feeling like I needed to go to the toilet but when I got there nothing happened. The cramping pains got worse and I was told that there wasn’t any more pain relief I could have.
“I lay there in increasing discomfort until about 6am, when I went to find a midwife and beg for more pain relief. By this time, I was on all fours, because I was in so much pain. The midwife decided to put me on foetal monitoring and said she’d ask the doctors to see me. I called Jonty and asked him to come in, and he arrived a little later.
“Around 7am, I was in a substantial amount of pain, very upset that I hadn’t been reviewed by the doctors yet, when my waters broke. I instantly became very distressed, because I knew that this baby was on its way.
“I pressed my buzzer and no one came. I tried to get all the wet clothing off me and in the process the foetal monitoring equipment fell off me. I was very distressed and anxious, and no one had come to help.
“My husband went out into the corridor and called for help, but as it was nursing handover time, there wasn’t anyone about. Eventually, a midwife came in.
“Then, everything happened pretty quickly. The doctors came in, and gave me a steroid injection to help develop bubs’ lungs and wheeled me to a delivery room. I was told not to push. They needed to give me medication to help prevent my baby having brain damage.
“There were a lot of people in the room: the NICU team, the midwives and a few doctors. I was told not to push until the medication had gone through. I also didn’t want to push as I wanted to give the steroid medication time to work, to help Huw’s lungs develop more.
“I held on another hour before I was unable to overcome the urge to push – but Huw didn’t want to come out. After about 90 minutes, it was agreed for me to stop pushing, as my contractions had slowed down. It was agreed that I would be given medication to help start my contractions again.
“45 minutes after starting this medication, they struggled to find Huw’s heartbeat on the monitoring system. They called the doctors but they were busy.
“After another 5 min of not being able to find the heartbeat, they called a doctor again, who came in and did an ultrasound. I saw on the ultrasound that Huw heart was beating very slowly, had almost stopped.
“They pressed the emergency buzzer and the room filled with a lot of people again. I had an emergency forceps delivery. At the last minute, they didn’t have the right forceps so had to go to another room and get some.
“They managed to deliver Huw and they started trying to resuscitate him.
“After about 15 minutes, I asked them to stop. I knew he was gone. If he did manage to survive, his brain had been deprived of oxygen for so long, that he would have been severely brain damaged.”
Life after loss – and coping with grief
“The weeks after the loss of Huw were horrible. I spent most of the first week in bed, partly because I had lost so much blood during the delivery, and partly because I was broken.
“I cried, more than I ever cried before. It was a really bleak time, a time when I thought the pain of losing Huw was going to take over my life forever. I really didn’t see how I was ever going to be able to live life properly again.
“I had a horrible emptiness, like I had lost this amazing friend that only I had known. That no one could know what I had lost because they didn’t know Huw.
“It was hard too because, for a week, I had uterine contractions that felt almost like baby kicks. They happened when I was half asleep, and I would think it had all been a terrible nightmare and that I was pregnant still, only to wake and find that it was a reality.
“Honestly, I went through a period of feeling like I was so stupid to think that things would ever end any other way, like I didn’t deserve to be happy.
“I also blamed myself, because I felt being a health professional, I should have stood up for myself more and stopped this terrible event from happening.
“I ended up, a week after being discharged, flying home to Australia to be with my family. I have no idea how I did that flight, as I could barely walk.
“My husband was amazing and supported my decision to go home and was there every step of the way.
“But he didn’t really deal with his grief at all in the beginning. Working as a crime scene examiner, he had learnt lots of coping strategies to compartmentalise his life. So, he put this experience in a box and tried to shut it away.
“It made things very difficult between us, because I was crying a lot and wanting to talk about it, and my hubby just wanted to try and forget about the whole thing.
“He cried the day we lost Huw and the day after, but after that shut down completely. He was very moody and angry, which was completely out of character for him.
“It put a huge strain on our relationship, and we ended up going to see a relationship counsellor, which helped immensely.”
The unimaginable happens – a stroke
“6 weeks after I lost Huw, I went back to work, pretty much because I needed a distraction from my misery. I was just sitting around at home all day, crying a lot of the time. I needed something else to focus on.
“In hindsight, I could have given it a few more weeks, because I was a mess emotionally. It was awkward as people don’t know what to say to you. Here you were, pregnant one week, and the next time they see you, you’re not.
“It’s really up to you to speak about the elephant in the room. Some days I had the strength to do this, others I didn’t. People are so scared of saying the wrong thing, that sometimes they say nothing.
“The few days leading up to my husband’s stroke were fairly ordinary. My husband had done 2 or 3 shifts at work, and was enjoying it.
“The night before his stroke was ordinary, too, and there was no indication of what was about to happen.
“It was a Saturday morning. My husband got up early for work at 7.30am. What we know happened was that he got up, got dressed, sent a text to a colleague, and collapsed in the bathroom while cleaning his teeth. I was asleep during all of this.
“I was woken by unintelligible shouting. I thought there was someone outside my flat, so I got up – to find my husband lying on the floor. I knew instantly he had had a stroke.
“He was unable to talk; just make a noise and he was unable to move the whole right side of his body.
“I called an ambulance straight away. Luckily, they were only minutes from our house. I didn’t even have time to get dressed properly before they arrived. We were blue lighted to St Georges Hospital, which is the major stroke centre.
“It’s also the hospital where I lost Huw.
“Thankfully, the stroke services at St Georges were a well-oiled machine and they made all the arrangements and did everything they could to prevent long-term problems.
“Because we were sure the stroke had happened within a few hours, they were able to do a procedure that in 70% of the cases, resolves the stroke with little long-term effects. Unfortunately, my husband was one of the 30% of patients that they were unable to treat successfully.
“I knew all too well the longer-term effects of strokes, having working with stroke patients professionally, and I was devastated. I remember walking around, thinking, ‘this can’t possibly be happening?’
“Hubby’s parents lived just up the road from us. They got to the hospital within half an hour of me calling them. I can’t imagine how I would have coped without their support.
“I called my mum up and told her what had happened. They lived in Australia, my home country, but were due to come to the UK for a holiday in a few weeks’ time, anyway. They’d wanted to meet their first grandchild.
“After Huw’s stillbirth, we decided that since they had flights booked, they should still come for a visit. When I called her, my mum changed her flight and arrived in London, 4 days later. It was a huge blessing to have her there.
“This time in my life was really brutal. I had just started to come to terms with losing Huw, starting to think positively about my life, being grateful for what I did have, particularly my husband.
“It was an exceptionally cruel twist of fate to have him taken away from me in that moment. I really did lose all faith in life that day.
“I think it was even more painful, because the rehabilitation ward he was transferred to after the initial few days, was a floor or 2 about the delivery ward.
“I had to go up in the same lifts, every day I visited Jonty, that I had to take when I left the delivery suite empty handed.
“The lifts always stopped on the same floor and every day I had to see the doors open to the delivery room. It was rubbing salt into my wounds.”
The aftermath of a stroke – getting by
“After Jonty’s stroke, I was devoid of hope. I felt I could cope better with the worst-case scenario, then I wouldn’t have to hope and have my hopes crushed.
“Pretty much all my husband was able to manage was his basic activities of daily living – showering, dressing, eating and his home-based rehabilitation programme.
“Thankfully by the time he left hospital he was able to walk short distances and get himself up, so I didn’t need to do any (physical) heavy lifting. But he wasn’t talking still.
“I’d help Jonty to have a shower, supervise him while he got dressed, supervise his medications and prompt him to go to the toilet etc, plus doing all the usual cooking/cleaning/dog walking etc.
“I had to be there case anything happened, as Jonty wasn’t able to leave the house or contact help. It was also doing the little things such as opening drink bottles, anything you need to do with 2 hands – as initially he couldn’t use his right arm.
“After a couple of weeks, I went back to work. I worked a lot from home prior to Jonty’s stroke so it was fairly easy for me to continue to do little bits and pieces, especially when Jonty was working with his therapists during their sessions.
“My work was contract-based so I was pretty motivated to continue working to ensure that we had an ongoing income, as I wasn’t sure if Jonty would ever be able to work again.
“Most of the time, I didn’t plan or hope for anything better than what was in front of me and just ploughed on. Then, as things progressed and he got better bit by bit, I was pleasantly surprised.”
Moving forward – and welcoming baby Ollie
The couple decided to make their planned move to Australia. It was in Australia that the couple decided they would like to try for a baby – despite all the difficulties they were still facing.
“We were living in Melbourne. Jonty was still not fully recovered from his stroke, he wasn’t able to work and was going to college in order to give him more opportunities to practice his speaking and writing skills.
“He was very depressed, moody, and slept a lot because of his fatigue. He wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. I never blamed him for that, it was just the horrible situation he/we were placed in.
“I never thought about leaving him, and felt that it was something that I had to deal with.
“But my family felt I had enough on my plate, given Jonty’s situation. They felt I was not in the right place, in terms of a supportive relationship, to have a baby. In hindsight, they were probably right.
“However, my thinking was that I had lost everything: my baby, my partnership with my husband and my happiness.
“I thought, probably very selfishly, that I had nothing else to lose and that it was perhaps my last chance of happiness.
“I think from my husband’s point of view, he felt that he had little to live for and he also wanted to get back what we had lost, in the only way that we could, by having another child.
“It could have turned out to be a make or break situation, and was a bit of a roll of the dice.
“My positive pregnancy test came on the morning of my husband’s birthday. I have no idea why I took the test that day, I just had a feeling that I was pregnant, low and behold, I was.
“It was a very exciting day for both of us, but it was also mixed with a lot of worries. I guess for me, it was: are we really doing the right thing? Will things turn out the same as they did with Huw?
“Jonty continued to progress in his recovery, and I think in some ways my pregnancy motivated him to dig down a little deeper.
“Things were still challenging at times, the new pregnancy brought to the surface a lot of feelings and emotions, that neither of us had really dealt with properly after losing Huw.
“We both had to spend a bit of time working through those things as a couple. In the end, the pregnancy really bonded us together more, which was a very positive outcome.
“When my son Ollie was born, bittersweet is a great description of how we all felt. I had an amazing, quick and pretty straightforward delivery with a room of really supportive and experienced professionals.
“It was totally the opposite of my previous experience.”
The future – and finding happiness again
“Through all of this: I really didn’t have a lot left for me, as I was looking after Jonty, running a household, moving countries, finding a new job etc. Gosh, it was tough.
“The main things that I did early on that were protective, was I saw a counsellor and I also joined my locals SANDS group.
“It helped being with people who had been through similar things and who were on different parts of their journeys. SANDS is a fantastic support for those who have lost a baby and the best thing about it is that its free, so is accessible to anyone, no matter your circumstances.
“I also made a conscious decision also to forgive those who had been involved in Huw’s delivery.
“I have seen, in my professional work, how people who still held onto their anger about what had happened, were never able to move on and never seemed to be happy.
“I didn’t want that for myself, to become bitter and angry at life, so I made a conscious effort to forgive. That helped a lot really, not holding onto that anger.”
Flash-forward to 2019, and it seems the couple – despite ongoing challenges – have found happiness again, in each other, and in little Ollie.
“Jonty and I are the happiest we have been in a long time. There are still difficulties that we face, that other families don’t face, and there are still days where its really tough.
“But we are overwhelmingly grateful that we have Ollie and each other. Ollie brings us such joy, the smiles, the cheeky personality, the baby cuddles.
“It’s really made us stop and realise what is important in life – love and family.
“Now, my biggest hope for our family in the long term, is that we aren’t defined by what has happened to us… and that we have no more major life crises.
“The best advice I can give people, is that life does get better, you just have to give it time.
“It’s so cliché, but time really does heal all wounds. Yes, you will have moments here and there where you feel sadness…
“But you learn to live with it. You will feel happiness again.” ❤️
Images: courtesy of Phillisdsa