‘I’m Not As Strong As I Pretend To Be’ – How Are You Today, Hayley Holt… On The Uncertainty Of Baby Loss & How The Language of Recovery Helps With Grief

On April 25 last year, TVNZ presenter Hayley Holt and her partner Josh Tito lost their son, Frankie Tai, when Hayley was six months pregnant. For this year’s Baby Loss Awareness Week, Hayley talks to Capsule about the triggering nature of this year’s level four, how her loved ones supported her after Frankie died and trying to get pregnant again during a pandemic.

Hi Hayley, how are you today?
I’m actually really good today! I’m not overjoyed and I’m not depressed, I’m very sane and in the middle. Which is a nice space to be in.

That seems like a good aim. I reckon lockdown takes a toll even on people who haven’t had to think about their mental health before, so it can be quite full-on for people who have previously had hard times. How have you found it?
It’s funny – we were going to have this conversation at the start of lockdown and it is a really good example of how it doesn’t matter how much therapy you have had, your feelings immediately go into their old routine. And mine was like ‘Yes, I’ll do it, it’s fine; lockdown’s not going to affect me, ‘keep calm and carry on’ type thing. And then I just realised that I’m not as strong as I pretend to be.

Frankie died in the first lockdown and I had thought, ‘I’m in a different house, I’m in a different environment, different environment at work, it should all be totally fine,’ and it was when I was driving to work, into town, along those really quiet roads – the same roads we would take when we had to go to the hospital last time – and I was like ‘Okay, this is hard. I’m getting triggered.’ There were flashbacks to that time. But luckily the learnings from doing therapy are that I could ring you and say, ‘I’m not ready to do it, yet.’ We always jump to our first feelings and then therapy helps you think through ‘okay, what’s actually right for me.’

You’ve said that these past couple of months have been quite intense – how have you been looking after your mental, physical and emotional health in this time? Is it something that – like the rest of us – you’re better at in theory than in practice?
[Laughs] Oh 100%. I can give out all the advice but following it is really hard. It’s always the way that when you need it the most, it’s hardest to do. I think meditation is probably the thing that helps the most but it’s also the thing that’s the hardest to do when your mind is racing or when you’re feeling like you just want to eat and watch telly. It’s kind of a shame that the things that help the most are hard to do when you need them the most.

I mean, it’s really unfair.
[Laughs] It is really unfair. The hard thing for me at the moment is that I’m trying to get pregnant again. So that has been pretty hard, in the pandemic. I just feel like I’m surrounded by uncertainty, because we have the uncertainty of the world at the moment and now I have the uncertainty of ‘am I going to get pregnant and is that what I want?’ and then the deeper you go, the uncertainty of ‘do I want that?’ so it is a struggle to stay calm and not think the worst.

I did actually have a miscarriage at the start of the year, and that was hard. It triggered a lot of those feelings about Frankie but, in a weird way, it also got me past that stage of grief that I was stuck in. It gave me another experience that was separate from Frankie; it made me realise that things do continue, they do go on. It gave me a slight separation from that experience with Frankie. It kick-started some more healing. But it was very hard at the time. Every month that goes by, I’m thinking, ‘is this going to happen?’ It really is a daily struggle to be sane and what I’m really thankful for is family and friends. And spirituality. The way I see it, I don’t care if it’s real. Because it makes me feel good.

When we first talked about doing this story, you mentioned that in your previous public conversations about your experience, you had kept your story as upbeat as possible. Did you feel like there was a way that you had to frame this experience?
I didn’t feel any pressure to frame it a certain way but it was where I was at, at the time. I was really trying to keep on the positive side of what had happened. Trying to be grateful for what I’ve got, trying to be thankful for what the experience has given me and shown me. Also… I was thinking about everyone else who had gone through the same thing and I didn’t want to feel like I was complaining. Because a lot of people have shared their experience and I didn’t want to make it all ‘woe is me.’

But it was only about four weeks ago where I hit a point where I hadn’t owned it. And that I was allowed to feel sad, and that I was allowed to feel hard done by, and that I was allowed to feel that I had had something happen to me that was terrible. That actually helped me a lot; you hear this all the time, that if you go into the feelings, into the grief, that’s when you can come out the other side. It helped me give myself a break.

You don’t always have to be strong; you don’t always have to look for the positive angle. You can actually just sit in it and feel like shit, if you want to. You have to allow yourself to feel all of it. After it first happened, for the first year really, I felt like I had PTSD. I felt like I’d lost brain cells, like I couldn’t remember words; sometimes I couldn’t string sentences together. I felt like I was going crazy. So, if there are people out there now who are feeling like that, like they’ve actually damaged their brain, like they’re going crazy… it does get better.

I also really struggled with guilt. It was the first and most important thing I had to confront. From what I’ve heard it affects ALL mothers, even those with healthy babies, so when things go wrong it can consume you. When I was pregnant, I was my usual gung-ho self, so of course I analysed everything I did that could have been the ‘cause.’ I’m sure anyone else going through baby loss will feel the same; how did I cause this? The only way through that for me was confronting it, talking to my therapist about it, and asking what sometimes felt like the dumb questions.

I also really struggled with guilt. It was the first and most important thing I had to confront. From what I’ve heard it affects ALL mothers, even those with healthy babies, so when things go wrong it can consume you. 

For example, when I had the miscarriage at the beginning of this year, I had hurt my back doing yoga at about the same time as it was found baby had died. So, of course in my mind it was my fault, I pushed it too hard, I should be more careful, I CAUSED IT. My advice to anyone feeling those terrible feelings of guilt is to find someone who you trust to run through your fears with; don’t ignore them as they will fester and become toxic. It didn’t matter what those who loved me said or what I read in any spiritual text.

I couldn’t get away from the feeling of guilt, so I asked my obstetrician. They told me, point blank, that it’s nearly impossible to do anything externally that can harm your baby in those early weeks, the miscarriage was just one of those things that are very common and my sore back could have been caused BY it rather than the other way around.

You’ve spoken about how many people reached out to you following Frankie’s death and I wanted to know, what were some of the helpful things that people said to you, and what were some of the unhelpful things?
There was nothing really unhelpful… it’s such a hard thing to navigate. There are awkward times where people will start to say something and then stop themselves, because they’re like ‘Ah! I can’t talk about babies, or pregnancy, around Hayley.’ That is quite awkward, because I am able to talk about it. It’s not something you forget. It’s not as if I’m like ‘Oh, yes, that’s right?!’ You can’t remind me of this, because it’s not like I’ve forgotten. But I haven’t found too much difficult apart from that.

It made me realise that it is worth sending a text or a message, because it can feel like it doesn’t, that it’s flippant, but when you’re in that place, you can feel that love. It feels like it gives you a big spiritual cuddle.

What helped was the sharing. It was people saying you’re not alone, and we love you, and we are sharing this with you. I was lucky, because I had so many close friends but also so many people I didn’t know, who were giving that to me. And I could feel it – I could feel the energy, in a way. And it was so beautiful, I felt so close to humanity. You can’t say anything that will fix anything, you can’t say anything that will make it better. Just knowing that you care, and that you’re there, it means a lot. It made me realise that it is worth sending a text or a message, because it can feel like it doesn’t help, that it’s flippant, but when you’re in that place, you can feel that love. It feels like it gives you a big spiritual cuddle.

Did you have any idea how common baby loss was before you went through it? Because I feel like, it’s only when it happens to someone you know that you realise just how many people are walking around, suffering in silence.
Absolutely. There were friends of my mum’s… there were people from that generation above us who came out and said ‘I’ve never spoken out about the miscarriage that I had.’ But at that time, you didn’t speak about it! It was ‘oh, it’s a bit of a long period, don’t talk about it, it happens all the time.’ But for these women, it was coming up like 40 years later, because they were being reminded by my experience. So, it validated what they went through but how sad that a whole generation had to carry that in silence.

When it comes to stillbirth, as well, that generation didn’t get to see their babies. There wasn’t a process where parents got to spend time with their child.
Isn’t that amazing, how far we’ve come? You can see what they may have been thinking, that it might traumatise the mum more but, in my experience, it was not traumatising. It was beautiful to be able to hold Frankie and be with him in his body. I’d had his spirit inside of me, so to be able to hold him… I can remember that. And I can think back on that, and it’s a really nice place to go for me sometimes, when I’m feeling sad. It makes me feel a bit sad now.

For people who are reading this, who have loved ones going through this, what would your advice be for how to helpful?
Just to reach out, but don’t expect a response straightaway – everybody is going to deal with their grief differently; for me, I had to get away. Don’t feel uncomfortable about it, just ask ‘how can I help?’ and if they just want to be left alone, that’s cool too. Practically, drop food round. That helps; food is always good.

You don’t have to say anything to make it right – don’t try and fix it. Just say, ‘this is terrible. Isn’t this shit.’

My friend sent me a beautiful blanket and so I wrapped myself up in that. My friends have been amazing – because I did pull away, I didn’t want to really be seen… but they would remind me ‘we’re still here for you, we still love you.’ You don’t have to say anything to make it right – don’t try and fix it. Just say, ‘this is terrible. Isn’t this shit.’

You’ve talked openly in the past about stopping drinking and I wondered how much the ‘one day at a time’ language of recovery is helpful at keeping yourself healthy in a situation like this?
I would say 100%. Going through alcoholism and then getting out of it, through the organisation that I went to, it was a spiritual programme and it was my first initiation into actually practising something spiritual. When I first got to the programme, I was like ‘I don’t believe in anything outside of myself, like God.’ So, I sort of just did it with lip service. Like ‘they said to pray in the mornings so I’m just going to get down on my knees and pray and this feels stupid but I’ll do it.’

And then things would start happening. You would practically get what you pray for. It felt like magic. Like the first thing you pray for is for God to take the desire to drink away from you. And when that happened, it was like ‘what?’ In 20 years of my drinking career, I’d never once not wanted a drink. I don’t have any explanation for it, and it could just be in my head but whether it’s energies you put out there and you get back what you put out, whether it’s God, whether it’s the power of the mind… it kind of works. So, I’ll go with it.

I would imagine that being able to have that wider perspective – with total acknowledgement about how totally shit the hard stuff is – do you think it makes it that bit more helpful, to see the full picture?
Yes. Going back to the programme, sitting around and listening to people talk about their bad behaviours and the way they think and how selfish they are, you sit there and you think ‘Wow, I feel the same.’ You see all the similarities about all the things people are thinking – and they’re not great, but then you have a laugh about it and you forgive the other person, and you forgive yourself. Naming the things that are stressing you out – naming your grief, naming your sadness, it takes its power away. You say it out loud and it’s not as strong inside of you anymore. And when you go into yourself and feel sorry for yourself, and be kind to yourself, it grows your capacity of love for other people.

I would rub my tummy and I would say ‘thank you for carrying Frankie, thank you for being so strong.’ And even if I didn’t believe it – as I was looking at my wobbly bits – every day I did that. I rubbed my tummy and I said ‘thank you, thank you.’

But it can be hard to give yourself a break. I had to say this, because it sounds so vain, but after I had Frankie, I didn’t like my body. But now, one thing that soothes me is that I’m addicted to oils. I’ll put them on my skin and I’ll give myself a massage. So, I wanted to use them and practise loving myself. I would rub them on my tummy and I would say ‘thank you for carrying Frankie, thank you for being so strong.’ And even if I didn’t believe it – as I was looking at my wobbly bits – every day I did that. I rubbed my tummy and I said ‘thank you, thank you.’ And then I started to believe it. You have to fake it till you make it.

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