If you haven’t heard of Sands, you’re not alone – they’re a busy organisation who do a huge job, but it’s all for a subject that we so rarely hear about. Sands is there to support families who join the incredibly devastating club no one wants to join: the club of parents who have suffered the loss of a baby during pregnancy, after birth or as an infant.
Judith Moorhead has been involved with Sands Taranaki for around 12 years and is currently their Chairperson. Her journey to joining Sands came shortly after she lost her own little baby girl, Georgia.
It’s a journey, she’ll never forget, and one that has now introduced her to other mums with whom she shares a bond that is so special and so unique. Although her work introduces her with families during the darkest times of their lives, she says that it is also truly inspirational.
Her own devastation still feels like it was much more recent than 14 years ago.
“But while time does not (in my opinion) heal, it does give you the ability to learn how to cope with this ‘new normal’ that has been thrust upon you,” she says. “A very wise person once told me that the hole in your heart never goes away but your life does begin to build around it.”
“The early days, weeks, months were tough. We had a diagnosis during our pregnancy with Georgia that she had a problem with her kidneys, so from about 24 weeks gestation on we had a lot of scans and hospital visits until she was born in Wellington (we live in New Plymouth) at full term.
“She lived for two days and we then had to make the decision to let her go. Unfortunately, as her kidneys had so little function, there was no medical intervention options. Whilst we knew this was a likely outcome while she was safely in my tummy we had held onto the positive thoughts that she would defy the odds. So, when she did pass the grief was overwhelming. Leaving the hospital to drive home with our girl in a Moses basket, not in a baby capsule, was wrong in every possible way.”
Judith says she was incredibly fortunate to have a very supportive family, who brought them meals, checked in on them and continue to this day to include Georgia in their everyday lives.
She also feels very lucky to have time at the beginning to really lean into their grief and not shy away from their new reality. Her husband Grant is self-employed and her workplace “was amazing” so they were able to stay home together and just grieve for about a month.
“We slept, we read books and we just cried,” says Judith. “Looking back I know now we worked really hard at grieving. We traveled away for Grant to work about a month after Georgia was born and it gave me a bit of freedom to walk about and not worry about bumping into someone who might ask, ‘Had I had my baby?’ but in truth I felt invisible, I was a mum!
“I had birthed my beautiful girl a month earlier but had nothing. No getting up in the night, no nappies to change, no walks with a pram pushing my newborn. I felt like I wanted a tattoo on my forehead saying, ‘I am a mum’. I felt like I was never ever going to be truly happy again.”
The fact that in NZ we so rarely speak about this topic only added to Judith’s despair and made her feel more alone. She says it felt overwhelming to think she would feel like that for the rest of her life – and that thought in itself brought more grief.
“Not only were we grieving Georgia but we were grieving for all the other losses we were now enduring (which I now know to be secondary losses), the loss of the joy of future pregnancies (due to Georgia’s condition being genetic we were given a risk of recurrence of one in four), the loss of hopes and dreams, the loss of plans for work and so on.”
“Nearly 14 years ago, there weren’t online support forums as there are today. I was using dial up internet to try and find other babies with similar conditions and getting what very few books the library might have on baby loss. A friend sent me a book called For The Rest Of Our Lives and while at first that title seemed intimidating, the book had so many validating words that I felt so much more ‘normal’ in all I was feeling.”
And as Judith discovered, grief is certainly not linear – it took on her on a wild ride, even to this day.
“If you can imagine the biggest scribbly drawing that is definitely how I see my ongoing grief journey,” she shares. “The first year of ‘firsts’ was so tough, the first Mother’s day, Father’s Day, Christmas, birthday, anniversary. Then the second year, you know what you’re in for so then it’s the anticipation of all those events (which was often worse than the actual event!).
“This year Georgia would have been 13, a teenager and off to high school. It was a tough one. Milestones can be so tough, they are often the times you really think back about your experiences in depth and it can bring out feelings that you don’t deal with all the time, it can catch you off guard and put you right back in those feelings you had in the early days.
“We were blessed with a beautiful boy Jackson 19 months after Georgia was born, followed by our precious girl Olivia 2 1/2 years later. Our subsequent pregnancies were a rollercoaster of emotions, the sadness for all we missed with Georgia was even more clear bringing our healthy babies home.”
Now, as part of her role with Sands, Judith supports families during their darkest times, to help them create precious memories of their children who have passed away.
Those days after the baby has died are so incredibly important for the healing journey and being able to actively parent your baby can make a big difference.
“This precious baby is your baby, you are Mum and Dad and even though this is never the way we think we are going to parent our baby, this is our opportunity to do so,” says Judith. “To make tangible memories that can sustain you through the years ahead is so helpful in the grieving process. It helps create new memories too, as often the memory making is shared with others.
“For example, Taranaki Base Hospital (with a family’s permission) would call Sands Taranaki to the hospital to support a bereaved family at the time of a loss. As part of that support, if it was possible, we would offer hand and foot castings, as well as a free professional photographer to provide photos, and inkless hand and footprints would be done.
“In the days and weeks that follow, families would receive back a USB of photos and the prepared casts of baby’s hands and feet. The happiness that follows when families can hold and see these memory items is amazing.
“We also have a resource book of what families can do with their memory items in the days/weeks/years following a loss – milk or hair beads, tattoos of footprints or memorial jewellery to name just a few. All these add to the baby’s memories and become part of the grieving and healing process.”
Sands also donates memory boxes that are provided to families through Taranaki Base Hospital. The packs have Sands information regarding the early days of a loss plus memory items such as teddy bears (one for baby and one for parents to keep), a handmade quilt, a ceramic heart, a handmade candle, jewellery charms, tissues, hand cream, a journal and pen.
This week, Judith has one wish for what she hopes will come out of Baby Loss Awareness Week.
“I would love to simply raise the awareness of how to respond and offer support to someone who has lost a baby – whether it be recent or long ago,” she says.
“Don’t let baby loss be the elephant in the room. Bereaved parents and families need support, love, time, they need to know their baby is remembered and not forgotten, let’s talk about our babies and remember them with love. While nothing will ‘fix’ the loss of a baby, knowing you have people around you who acknowledge your baby and remember them with you without using worn out cliches makes a real difference. Knowing you are not alone on this journey of baby loss is a huge comfort.”
Judith’s tips for remembering your baby:
“There are many ways to continue to acknowledge your child after they have passed away and this can change a lot as the years go by. For some it may be visible reminders like tattoos or special jewellery. It may be birthday celebrations or new Christmas decorations each year. It could be writing their name on a memorial Christmas tree, or buying a gift for a child the same age theirs would be. Maybe a special spot that your family gathers at, a tree planted or a seat in a park with their name on it.
“It could be a continual small thing or one thing each year, a random act of kindness in their memory or volunteering time for a cause you hold close to your heart. We always buy plants for Georgia’s birthday and there is something special about buying a plant and watching it grow.”
Judith’s advice for supporting a close family member/friend who has experienced a loss:
“Simply by being there, and continuing to be there without expecting anything in return, and not waiting for them to contact you for help (as they more than likely won’t). By dropping a meal or groceries at the door. Sending a message and whether you get a reply or not, check in again, and again in the days/weeks that follow.
Continuing to make new memories and enjoying the memories that were made. If you met baby, tell the parents things you remember too. Ask how the Dad is doing, don’t just ask mum. Remember birthdays, and anniversaries and let the family know you remembered; a big fear of parents is their baby will be forgotten.”
Plus, click here to read the things that people said/did that made a difference to 27 bereaved mums who shared their experiences with Capsule.