A father's baby loss story: 'I coped all right until I found a pair of yellow baby shoes – and then I broke down'
Joe Connolly, a 74-year-old grandfather who lives in The Stewarts, Bishop's Stortford, was moved to write about his own experience of baby loss after reading our coverage of Baby Loss Awareness Week, which ends on Tuesday (Oct 15)...
I was heartened to see prominence given to baby loss in this week’s Bishop’s Stortford Independent. It is one of those dreadful issues that is too often ignored. I noticed, though, that all of the faces of baby loss on the front page were of women, so I am writing this to share my experience as a man whose first baby died at birth.
I remember the day in 1977 when I learned that I was to be a dad for the first time. My wife looked at me from across the GP’s waiting room and l could tell that the test the doctor had taken was positive. It felt like the sun had come out.
Days before Christmas, as the birth date drew near, we sat watching an old film on TV, blissfully happy and safe in our home. Then all that changed.
My wife started bleeding. I helped her to bed but things got worse. I will spare the details, but they were frightening.
An ambulance took her to Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, where she was admitted to a ward; the wrong ward, a ward for bewildered elderly people. Eventually she was reassigned to the maternity department and a consultant was called.
The bleeding could not be stopped and my wife’s life was ebbing away.
I looked at the heart monitor for mother and baby and noticed that there was no pulse for the baby. I asked the consultant if the baby had died. He said: “No, it’s just that the machine has broken.” It didn’t fool me.
I spent the night beside my wife as the team fought to keep her alive. Throughout that time, a wonderful nurse, Sister Dixon, a short, plump Trinidadian, refused to leave my wife’s side. At 3am a colleague approached her, “Dixie, what are you doing here?” she said. “You should have gone home at nine.”
Dixie had no intention of going home – she was going to stay with my wife come what may. I was sent home at 6am.
I learned later that my wife had ‘technically died’ after having gone through the process of being delivered of our stillborn baby girl. But her life was saved.
Later she told me that dying seemed a pleasant experience, like being drawn to a beautiful light. She said: “I wasn’t going to die, though. I thought of you and I thought 'I can’t die, he makes me laugh too much'."
Times were different then. We never got to see our baby and I was told by a senior nurse that the hospital had taken care of funeral arrangements.
She said I would have to register the death. Registering the death was awful. There was no privacy, and a room full of people heard me answer the question: “How old was the deceased?”
I was asked for the name of “the deceased”, too. I had the foresight not to give ‘Alice’, the family name we had chosen should the baby be a girl. That meant we could still use it if ever we had a girl.
I have so many more awful memories: dismantling the nursery before my wife came home, for example. My brother-in-law helped me and I coped all right until I found a pair of yellow baby shoes – and then I broke down.
I hadn’t cried since I was a boy and I was so ashamed of myself for crying in front of my brother-in-law. In my generation then, men never cried. But he was a bigger man than that; he held me and said it was all right to cry.
I remember too waiting by the birth unit and queuing with other dads to use the phone. I heard them giving happy news to their families – and they heard me tell my dad that our baby had died.
My wife came home a few days after Christmas but the pain didn’t end there. Every time we saw a newborn in a pram or heard that a friend had got pregnant, it hurt. I had my own grieving to do, but I had to support my wife too.
Our second pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but we eventually got our Alice – and Alice has a brother.
So remember that fathers suffer from the loss of a baby – in a different way to mothers perhaps, but deeply too.
And think, too, of all those people who never manage to have a successful birth or those who try so hard to conceive but cannot. Men as well as women suffer that equally.
* EastEnder Joe, who was born and raised in Poplar, and his late wife Pam brought up their children in Bishop's Stortford after moving from Harlow in February 1983. Pam taught at The Bishop's Stortford High School and at Manor Fields Primary School. Joe is about to become a grandfather for the fourth time as his daughter Alice is expecting her second child.