Meet the Londonderry midwife who helps parents cope with their newborn baby's death
Midwife Melissa Crockett, from Londonderry, works with parents who face the darkest times of their lives — when their baby doesn’t survive. She talks with Leona O’Neill about her harrowing role
She's the gentle hand guiding grief-stricken parents through the darkest of times after their baby dies. She dries tears, gently guides, supports and makes memories that have to last a lifetime of little ones not long for this earth.
Londonderry woman Melissa Crockett is the Western Trust's childbirth and pregnancy loss specialist midwife. The 36-year-old, who is single, is a light in the darkness for parents facing the worst news imaginable. Many of those parents - who describe her as "an earth angel" and a "special gift from God" - nominated her as Midwife of the Year in the prestigious Butterfly Awards, a special event celebrating the survivors and champions of baby loss. At the awards ceremony, which was held last weekend, Melissa wasn't named as the overall winner but she derives strength from the knowledge that she was recommended by parents she'd worked with.
Reflecting on the heartbreaking yet rewarding job she is 'honoured' to do, Melissa says: "For me this role is not a job - it is simply my life and my passion.
"I see it as a privilege and an honour to have met some of the most beautiful, precious babies that the rest of the world did not get to meet.
"For 10 years I have worked as a midwife within both the hospital and community setting and more recently for the past two years I have been working as the childbirth and pregnancy loss specialist midwife within the Western Health and Social Care Trust.
"I look after women over 20 weeks pregnant who have lost a baby in pregnancy or just after pregnancy. I try and provide them with extra support and information to help them make decisions.
"After you lose a baby there is just a magnitude of decisions to be made, such as am I going to choose to get a post-mortem done? Do I bring the baby home first? When do I bury the baby? These decisions can be overwhelming so I just try in any way to help the parents navigate their way through those days and weeks ahead.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"I help the parents bathe and dress their little baby and spend time together.
"We are very lucky in the north west that we have two photographers who come in and take photographs of the family and of the baby free of charge. They do little things like have the parents' wedding rings in the babies hand, or daddy's watch set to the date and time that the baby was born. It's just little things that will spark memories with the parents as the days, months and years go on."
She continues: "I keep in contact with them over the weeks and months afterwards until they have all their investigations completed. I also try to extend the role into the next pregnancy for these ladies also. I am extremely fortunate to have met what we call the rainbow babies - babies born after a loss. I understand that that time is a very anxious one, and I try to be a support mechanism for them then. Because we have built up a relationship, I am often one of the first people they tell when they are pregnant, which is beautiful."
Melissa was inspired to go into what she says can be a sad but very rewarding role after being inspired by the parents of a little girl who sadly died.
"I actually met the first baby who led me on this journey when I was a student midwife," she says. "And from meeting her and her parents I knew that improving bereavement care for each future family was going to be my ultimate goal professionally.
"Coincidently, I recently met that family again in a subsequent pregnancy and to have the mum recognise me from all those years ago was remarkable. To be able to tell her that her daughter started me on this journey and that I am in this role because of her was just perfect.
"Over these past two years I have lived and breathed improving bereavement care, from helping open the first bereavement suite fully funded by Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support (Sands), to taking a more active role in the yearly remembrance service, to simply being there for parents who may have lost babies years ago.
"This role is not a job to me - it has seeped into every aspect of my life and meeting each of the babies I have cared for has moulded me into the person I am today. Each baby has left an imprint on my heart and I am thankful to the families for allowing me to be there for them in some of their darkest moments. I can still list all of their names because over the years I have kept all of them in a little book so they will never be forgotten."
Melissa makes sure that fathers are not forgotten in these sad circumstances. She has set up Sands United Maiden City FC in the north west, for dads who have lost babies to come together, support one another and seek solace in sport.
"I recognised and noticed that women are supported more following a pregnancy loss and that, unintentionally, men seemed to be a second thought to most people," she explains. "The support groups available are widely attended by women but not men, meaning they can feel lost or isolated.
"So after seeing a Sands United Football Club on The One Show on BBC1 I thought that is what I wanted for the men here. I was able to approach two dads, whom I knew personally and who both unfortunately had lost babies within the past year, and the three of us set about starting Sands United Maiden City FC.
"This team is for all men who have experienced the loss of a baby or child, not just for the dads but for the uncles, the brothers and the grandads, too. Anyone who has been touched by the loss can come and take part.
"To see this team develop and flourish has been eye-opening, to see how the men have gelled together as a group and created their own support network is amazing.
"A team which began with nine men has gone from strength to strength and at the last count has now almost 30 members. The commitment the players give each week is outstanding and to see them wear jerseys displaying their babies' names makes me so very proud of each and every one of them.
"These men are pioneers within Northern Ireland because this team has encouraged other men to step forward and seek support and solace in the form of sport. To date there are now at least six other Sands football teams in development within Northern Ireland itself."
Melissa says her job is heartbreaking, but guiding parents through the darkness of baby loss means the world to her.
"I will admit I have the most heartbreaking job but to hear a parent say that I was able to make them smile whilst in the depths of sorrow or that my presence made the worst experience anyone will ever go through just that little bit more bearable is worth its weight in gold to me," she says.
"I am just me when I walk into that room, and to me their little baby is just a baby - I don't see them as being stillborn, I see them the same way I see all other babies as a precious gift to be loved. Therefore, as a midwife, as we do with all babies, I help the parents dress and bathe them and if I am lucky enough to be able to, I steal cuddles. Ultimately I want to help parents create memories that will last them a lifetime. They have to last a lifetime. These babies are only with us for a short time that we want to make it that their lives are memorable and remembered.
"I am honoured to meet some of these babies that the rest of the world doesn't get to meet. I am honoured that these parents, in their darkest hour, allow me into their lives."
Melissa says she is overwhelmed by her nomination for Midwife of the Year and reads the words from parents when her courage falters in what is an enormously challenging role.
"It started off with a mum nominating me for this award back at the start of the year," she says. "And since then I have had a multitude of nominations in there for it. I can't believe it. To be nominated once is amazing. I don't think I am anything special. I just come into work and try to do the best I can for the parents that I look after. And although I didn't win, it is amazing to have been named as a contender.
"What most parents want is to be able to turn back time, the one thing I can't do. But what I can do is take their experience and pass that on to the next parent, so that there are lessons learnt from every baby loss. Be that encouraging mums and dads to take their babies home, to bathe their babies and dress their babies. That is coming from other mums and dads' experiences, saying I wish I had done this.
"I don't think I'm anything special at all. When the founder contacted me to tell me of the nomination she said that she was going to send me what parents had written when they made their nominations because she thought I needed to read them.
"And I did read them. I have days where I don't think I'm doing a great job. There are days when I think the job is too much for me. Because my job is sad, day in and day out, there are days when I struggle, and there are days when I think if I'm the right person for the job. Those are the days when I do pick up that file and I do read those nominations and what people have written about me. And I think, maybe I'm doing okay, maybe I can do another day at this.
"I just want to be a little bit of light in the dark times, to be kind, compassionate and caring towards each of these parents and try to be the support they each need at that time. I will continue to see it as an honour and privilege to be able to care for the babies that are with us for the briefest time."