Baby Loss Awareness Week: Hannah draws comfort from Alfie's innocence about the little brother he'll never know
Hannah Neale’s five-year-old son Alfie believes his little brother is in a playground in the sky, having fun.
The Manor Fields pupil draws pictures and blows bubbles to the heavens for the sibling he never got the chance to meet. His innocent pleasure is a huge source of comfort to his mum, shining a bright light into the darkness of her grief.
The 25-year-old said: “That has been one of the biggest things that has helped me. I get to talk about Leo in such a happy way and he is part of our everyday life.”
Hannah, a support worker at Northgate Primary School, learned she was expecting a second child in September last year. While the pregnancy was not planned, she was looking forward to adding to her family with her new partner.
The early weeks and months were tricky. As with Alfie, who was safely delivered on February 18, 2014, she suffered from anaemia and chronic heartburn, but at her 16-week scan she was thrilled to learn she was having a second son.
The good news was tempered with concern from her midwife – her baby was measuring two weeks ahead. By her next check-up, at 20 weeks, the baby had grown rapidly again and was the size of a 24-week-old foetus.
Hannah said: “They started to get a bit worried about how quickly he was growing.”
She was monitored more regularly at the Rosie maternity hospital in Cambridge, but otherwise she was optimistic: “He was moving and everything was normal.”
The next blow was a warning that while the little boy was still growing rapidly, his heart was not.
At the check-up which followed, when Hannah was 23 weeks and five days into her pregnancy, the medical team could not find a heartbeat.
“You're aware that it’s happening, but you cannot really process anything. It was sort of happening around me. I could hear them talking to me, but I wasn’t really listening."
Hannah then faced a harrowing decision: to continue with the pregnancy until labour began, even though her baby was dead, and endure the agony of stillbirth, or to allow the doctors to carry out a surgical procedure.
The NHS terms a stillbirth as when a baby is born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy – around one in every 200 births in England. She said: “You're backed into a corner and there's no good answer.”
In the end, she opted for the surgical intervention under general anaesthetic on March 8 this year. “I don't remember falling asleep or waking up,” she said.
Hannah named her son Leo for strength and picked the middle name Philomena – more usually given to girls – because she is the patron saint of infants.
Since then, she has had to face the pain of June 29 passing – the day Leo should have been born – and the realisation that close friends are giving birth to healthy babies.
Katherine Kannegieter, whose firstborn Finley was stillborn at 41 weeks, has been a rock. The women became friends through sons Alfie and Reuben, who are classmates.
Hannah hid away as grief enveloped her in the months after losing Leo. “When I went back and did my first school pick-up, one of the other mums came in with a newborn. Katherine saw me and immediately took me outside.”
The comfort of talking to another woman who has experienced baby loss is profound: “It’s like talking to yourself in a way, but with someone who has better answers."
Hannah likened the taboo around stillbirth and neo-natal death to previous decades when cancer was too terrible to talk about.
“It’s the sort of subject that takes words away," she said. "It’s one of the most awful things, but the more you realise other people are going through it too, the easier it becomes to talk about.”
More by this authorSinead Corr