In spite of medical advances, 17 babies die every day in the UK. They are stillborn or live just a few hours or days and mostly the reason why remains a mystery. Claire Jackson, whose baby died four months ago, tells her heart-rending story...
“This is Charlotte,” says the young woman, proudly showing me a photograph of her baby.
It’s a picture of a perfect little girl. This, and two pastel prints of tiny hands and feet, are all that Claire Jackson has left of her daughter.
And they are so precious.
“The thought of them getting damaged, or lost, or stolen, is something I can’t even contemplate,” she says as tears brim in her eyes.
To avoid any eventuality that might rob them of these precious little testaments of proof that their child existed, she and husband Steve have copied them a myriad of times and given them to friends and family for safekeeping,
“I look at the originals every day; they’re priceless,” says Claire, a woman whose sweet face and bright smile belie an all-consuming pain. “I talk to her constantly. When I’m at home, I talk aloud. When I’m at work, I talk to her in my head,” she tells me. She know it sounds a little bit crazy, but she doesn’t care. What could be more crazier than being robbed of your baby?
Claire returned to her job as a HR officer at Sheffield Newspapers 14 weeks after giving birth to Charlotte. She is trying to pull herself back into the world, but she can’t. The aching emptiness sucks her back into a void of despair time and again.
“I know coming back to work was a good thing; a step towards normality,” she says. “But it’s scary because I’m not the same person any more. I don’t think I ever will be.”
Every time she sits at her desk, she’s battling against a wave of guilt that, by moving on, she’s leaving her baby behind. And being there reminds her of where she should have been right now; on maternity leave, fighting the exhaustion of night feeds and learning how to be a mother.
Charlotte was born eight weeks premature, without warning, and died within minutes. As yet, no one knows why.
The pregnancy had been much longed-for. The couple, who met when Claire was a 17-year-old A level student and graduate Steve was 21, had always planned to have children. After marrying five years ago, they immediately started trying for a family. “Only, we didn’t get pregnant,” says Claire. Tests revealed an infertility problem: IVF was the only way forward. Two attempts failed but the third, carried out at Sheffield’s private fertility clinic Care, was a success.
“We were elated. After four years, we were going to be parents,” remembers the 29-year-old. “Two fertilised eggs had been implanted, but at the nine-week scan, one had disappeared. When we saw Charlotte on the screen we thought she must be a little survivor. After that, at every scan, every appointment, I was healthy and so was she.”
She remembers feeling utmost compassion for actress Amanda Holden, whose baby boy, due the same time as Charlotte, was stillborn in early February, little knowing a week later, she would suffer the same devastating loss. On the day Claire’s pregnancy went tragically wrong, she had been at work as normal. She was 32 weeks pregnant and blooming.
But that night in bed, her waters broke. “I felt this rush of concern for Charlotte. Steve drove me straight to hospital and the midwife and nurses were so calm and reassuring, we relaxed and believed everything was going to be alright.”
Doctors planned to slow down labour for 24 hours before delivering her by Caesarean section.
But at 3am, powerful contractions started and after a terrifyingly fast, 43-minute labour, Charlotte was born.
“They put her onto my tummy so I could see her. She was kicking her legs. She was tiny, but seemed fine,” Claire recalls. “I was too traumatised to really take in how marvellous she was. My biggest regret is that I didn’t absorb every scrap of those few moments when she was alive. I wish I’d touched her.
“Because then they cut the umbilical cord and everything changed. She couldn’t breathe. They took her from me to try to resuscitate her. There must have been 16 people in that room, trying to help her and tending to me. I remember just praying, and fear. I think I knew she wasn’t going to live.
“I remember saying to the midwife: She’s just been born; she can’t die...”
“Steve was trying to stay calm and reassuring, but after 40 minutes the midwife called him to Charlotte. I saw her put her hand on his back, him shaking his head; and I knew.
“I didn’t cry; I was too numb. And then they wrapped my baby in a little blanket and placed her in my arms. She took my breath away,” says Claire, a distant look in her eyes now streaming with tears. “She was beautiful, She was perfect.”
Claire was wheeled back to her room with Charlotte in her arms. “We had to call my parents; they didn’t even know I’d gone to hospital. And there I was, ringing my mum to tell her: I’ve had a baby girl. And she has died.”
Nurses dressed Charlotte in a little pink dress and rested a teddy bear in her arms. “They asked if we wanted to take pictures and hand and foot-prints and a lock of her hair. We were so glad they did; we were too traumatised to have even thought of it.
“At 10am we handed her back to the midwife and that was the last we saw of her. We left the hospital at 4.30pm. For months, we’d imagined a happy journey home with Charlotte. But there was us and emptiness in that car.”
Charlotte died on February 10. “The time that has passed has been filled with disbelief, then pure pain,” says Claire. “You wake up in the morning and feel like someone has kicked you in the stomach. I became like a child again, needing someone with me constantly. I lost all my confidence and felt like a failure because I hadn’t been able to do the one thing I’d been made for.
“This happens to so many women, all the time. I look at Amanda Holden smiling on TV because she has to, and know that inside, she must be feeling just like me.
“She’s trying to get on with her life and I am too,” she says. “Right now, even considering a second baby is too frightening. But Steve and I know we have to build a future. It will be very different to the one we’d planned. We are taking it day by day.”
Charity offers parents support
Sands, a national charity launched in 1978, supports anyone affected by the death of a baby - whether recently or in the past - and promotes research to reduce the loss of babies’ lives.
It was founded by bereaved parents devastated by the death of their babies and what they felt was a lack of understanding of their loss.
The charity has triggered significant changes in the way parents of stillborn and neo-natal death babies are treated by hospitals and GPs.
“No-one can take away the pain parents feel when their baby dies. But sensitive, supportive care in hospital can help to ease the process of grieving,” says a Sands spokesperson.
Sands’ Why17? campaign asks why, in spite of medical advances, do 17 babies die every day in the UK?
There are almost 6,500 deaths a year, the equivalent of 16 jumbo jets crashing every year with no survivors. The stillbirth rate has remained almost unchanged for the past 10 years.
“In one in four stillbirths the cause remains unexplained,” says Sands. “These babies are born perfectly formed, with no clear reason why they died. We need to understand what is causing these deaths.”
Says Claire Jackson: “The three words my family has spoken the most often in the last four months are cruel and unfair - and why.
“We need an answer. I have questioned everything I’d done during the pregnancy; Steve and I are waiting for a coroner’s report and hoping it may shed some light. ,” she says.
“The Sands Why 17? campaign for further research is so important. I stumbled across Sands in the early days after Charlotte’s death and it became an invaluable support. Through its forum I’ve become close to parents going through the same thing. Now I want to help people understand how often babies die and how much understanding their families need.”
Sands National Helpline: 020 7436 5881/ email email@example.com
Call 020 7436 7940 for details of Sands Support Groups run by and for bereaved parents and to request information packs.
Online forum : www.forum.sandsforum.org
Films focus on nightmare
Sheffield film-maker Debbie Howard, pictured, has been so touched by the suffering parents of stillborn and neo-natal babies carry, she is creating two powerful films on the subject.
Peekaboo, a short fiction film looking at stillbirth, has been two years in the making. Funding has come from many bereaved parents and local businesses. Shot in Sheffield with the help of city film-makers, it stars BAFTA nominated actress Lesley Sharp. Debbie is now working with Sands to make a documentary, Empty Arms, looking at stillbirth and telling people’s real stories. Shooting starts in a few weeks’ time.
For information about Peekaboo, for which Debbie needs to raise a further £5,000, or Empty Arms, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org