As happy mums nursed their newborns in the maternity ward of the Ulster Hospital, just along the corridor Anne Marie Smyth was spending the only three days she would ever have with her baby son Colin, who had died in her womb.
The carry cot beside her bed was packed with ice instead of blankets and even though she had lost her beautiful baby, Anne Marie got to spend three very special days changing and holding him close.
“I think I was in a bubble during those three days in hospital, “ she said. “It wasn’t until I left there and had to bring my baby home and wake him and bury him that it really hit me.”
Colin was born in September 2010, and it wasn’t until six months later that Anne-Marie (35), a civil servant, found some strength to carry on after going along to support meetings held by the charity Sands (Still Birth and Neo Natal Society).
The support she received through meeting other parents who went through the same heartache spurred her to set up a branch of Sands in Downpatrick, near her home in Killough.
Sands also allowed Anne-Marie to get back to a place where she was able
to consider having another child and although it was an anxious pregnancy, she was elated to give birth in December 2012 to Sam, now aged 15 months.
Anne-Marie says she will never forget the loneliness and pain of the loss of her first son and having never even contemplated that her baby could be stillborn, she now wants to raise awareness as well as offer support through the new branch of Sands.
She said: “I was nine days overdue and it was the day before they were due to take me in and induce me that I felt I was going into labour.
“After a scan at Downpatrick Midwifery Unit I was sent to the Ulster Hospital where a consultant did another scan and told me they could not detect my baby’s heartbeat.
“I was utterly devastated. It just broke my heart. All my hopes, dreams and expectations were shattered.
“I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Even now I can’t believe it happened. Colin was stillborn the next day and as soon as I held him I fell in love with him and had him beside me for three days in the hospital which gave me good memories of our precious time together — holding him, dressing him, taking photos, letting our families and friends meet him.
“Reality hit when I had to leave the hospital with empty arms and my heart broke into a million pieces. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world.”
Coming home was particularly horrendous.
She added: “We had gone overboard because it was our first baby and had bought all the gadgets and had picked up his pram just that week.
“I had always pictured the house full of people after Colin was born and it was full but not because they were coming to see the baby but because of his wake and that was surreal. He was beautiful, just gorgeous and so like his dad. He was 7lbs and had a full head of dark hair. When we buried him it hit me that I was never going to see him again.”
Anne-Marie says she hid herself away for the next few months as she tried to come to terms with her terrible loss.
After six months she decided to go along to a Sands support group in Belfast and it was here for the first time that she found some peace and the strength to rebuild her life.
Anne-Marie hopes to bring the same support and comfort to parents through the new Sands support group which she is launching with the help of another mum Donna White whose baby boy was born asleep in January of last year.
She said: “Looking back I could not have survived this time in my life without Sands. I attended a support group made up of other bereaved parents; these were people who truly understood, people who had the time to listen, and people who had survived a similar experience.
“When friends, family and work-mates had forgotten my dead baby, my friends at Sands still listened and allowed me to remember the precious missing member of my family.
“A wee bit of normality started to creep back into my life. For those first months all I wanted was to have my baby back and my arms ached from not having my baby to hold and look after. The support group helped me to deal with that and I also started to fundraise as a way of trying to keep Colin’s memory alive.”
It was a huge decision to have another child and while her pregnancy was closely monitored it was a difficult nine months for Anne-Marie and partner Collie Briggs.
She says: “I just thought if I felt so strongly for my stillborn son what it would be like if I gave birth and the baby could look up at me. Sam’s a joy and he gives me a reason for living, but we’ll never forget Colin.”
Meetings of the Sands group will be held on the first Thursday of every month in Downe Hospital, Downpatrick, starting on May 2, 7.30pm
Offering support for bereaved parents
- The number of stillbirths and deaths shortly after birth remains stubbornly high, claiming 17 babies every day on average in the UK
- Here in Northern Ireland, four babies a week are stillborn or die in the first week of life
- Every year in the UK nearly 4,000 babies are stillborn and another 2,500 die within four weeks
- The stillbirth rate has not changed for a decade
- Sands has around 100 support groups throughout the UK
- Groups are run by bereaved parents for bereaved parents
- Many find the groups very beneficial as they provide support, comfort, reassurance and understanding of the ordeal they have been through
- Sands also provides training for health professionals and funding for research that could help to reduce the loss of babies’ lives