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Stillbirth: Learning to live with trauma

Learning to live with trauma

Photo taken by Jamie Cowen, in his Mother-in-Law’s garden where he and his wife stayed for a while after the loss of their son

Hi. I’m Jamie. At the time of writing this, I’m 43 years old, living in north London with Kath, my wife, and our two kids Jacob, nearly 12, and Ella, 8. I work in book publishing, enjoy reading, playing music, a good game of footie and a natter down the pub. So far, so unremarkable.

Another unremarkable thing, given that it’s so frighteningly common (one baby in every 200–250 births, depending on who you ask), is that our first son, Sam, was stillborn at 7 months.

The cause of his death was primarily a defective heart, but we also discovered via an autopsy that he had Down Syndrome — the two were possibly linked, but either way, he was just too poorly to make it.

Discovering that Sam had died was, by a distance, the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to me. I remember bits of that first hospital visit: the nurse trying for what felt like an eternity to find a heartbeat, the consultant called in to confirm and then deliver the bad news, but it’s really all a blur.

I think that blurriness is intentional on the part of my subconscious (about which I have passively learned a great deal since Sam’s death): the way I see it is that my mind was, and still is, protecting me against re-living that experience, and the appalling shock that accompanied it, over and over in my memory.

Conversely, I’ve found that memories of that time have tended to come back to me more clearly when I’m feeling stronger and happier; my reading of this is that my subconscious is judging me somehow as being in a good place to process some of those memories and feelings.

I have no idea if this guesswork has any basis in fact, but I do find it comforting to feel like my brain is at least partly on my side.

The immediate aftermath of Sam’s death was all procedural and medical, and was — rightly — completely focussed on Kath. She was induced and went into labour a couple of days after we were told that he had died. This collection of hours was, in many ways, worse than the shock of the discovery — an awful, inevitable and horribly slow march towards our dead son’s birth. More trauma, in other words, but of a more insidious kind.

What followed Sam’s birth was the process of attempting to restart our lives after this roundly horrific experience.

“One of the best things I ever did was come out and speak about it, because with communication you can get over any hurdle. But keeping it all to yourself and not communicating with others, you’re a bottle of champagne being shaken and shaken, waiting for the top to explode.”

I read this quote, by the heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury, in an interview about his well-publicised struggle with mental well-being in the paper this morning (at time of writing). It’s not every day that someone who has made a career out of being punched in the head sums up your entire life of mental health in the most succinct, articulate manner possible, but apparently, today is that day.

This quote is particularly relevant to me, and my own mental health, because I quickly realised after Sam’s death that my previous method of coping with difficult times in my life (namely bottling everything up and hoping for the best) was absolutely not going to work here. The grief I was going through was so enormous that there was no way I could keep it in.

So, I chose to talk about it. Any time someone asked me how I was, I would tell them. Not in a gushing, oversharing kind of way, but as honestly as I could. OK, OK, I see that raised eyebrow. I probably did gush, and I probably did overshare. But I viewed that inevitable collateral damage as being frankly worth it, in the grand scheme of things.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

What I discovered was that, in the majority of cases, people would respond with love, care and — to my surprise — stories of their own. Many of these stories would be about their own experiences of stillbirth, miscarriage or similarly traumatic experiences, and this process of mutual sharing did something extraordinary for me: it helped take away the feeling that we were somehow out on our own as statistical weirdos and medical freaks.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that I wasn’t, at any stage, offered any professional help to deal with the psychological impact of Sam’s death. I don’t begrudge this of the NHS whose staff were — almost without exception — utterly astonishing in the care that they showed to Kath and I. It is also true that I could have sought this help myself privately or otherwise, but not having had any prior experience of therapy or counselling I wasn’t really aware of how to go about this, or even whether I really needed or deserved it.

Photo taken by Jamie Cowen, in his Mother-in-Law’s garden where he and his wife stayed for a while after the loss of their son

The truth is that I have learned to live with the trauma of Sam’s death (one metaphor I have found helpful to visualise is a tree’s roots growing around a rock), and the realisation that I had to talk about it was hugely beneficial to me then and has continued to help me in my life since.

But I came to that realisation largely on my own, with the help and love of family, friends and colleagues.

Inevitably, there will be many more people attempting to live with similar trauma who don’t come to this realisation for themselves, or maybe find that this approach doesn’t help them as it did me. And for those people, professional help is crucial.

So yes, I was, and continue to be, very lucky. I’m in a job I love, with a wonderful wife and family, and two fantastic, healthy kids. My mental health is… well, not too bad really. But saying I’ve been lucky is really just another way of saying I rolled a metaphorical dice and it came up a six.

I don’t like to think about what would have happened if it had been a one.


Editor’s note:

If you have enjoyed this blog, do not miss the full 10-part series that will explore aspects of modern-day fatherhood, men’s mental health, and the science behind it — running through to the 19th of November — which is also International Men’s Day UK.

As part of this series, please find our already published blogs including:

  • Our blog written by our Editor in Chief, Professor Carmine Pariante, where he interviews Elliott Rae, the founder of Music.Football.Fatherhood (MFF) and publisher of the book DAD.

  • A blog written by Arran Williams where he discusses the emotional impact his partner’s two traumatic birth experiences had on him.

  • A blog written by Clinical Psychologist, Dr Jane Iles, in response to Arran’s blog, where Jane explores the impact traumatic births can have on fathers’ mental health from a clinical point of view.

  • The blog written by Joseph Straker, mentioned throughout this piece, where he discusses his own personal experiences of postnatal depression.

  • The blog written by Dr Vaheshta Sethna, a lecturer in Psychiatry & Mental Health Education at King’s College London, where she explores the research looking at postnatal depression in men in response to Joseph’s blog.

Every Wednesday we will publish a lived-experience piece from one of the fathers who have contributed to the recently published book DAD or the Music. Football. Fatherhood. (MFF) online platform, an online community of Fathers. This will be followed on the Thursday by a scientific piece from one of our contributing scientists exploring the associated mental health aspects.

We hope you enjoy this ITM special series as we shine a spotlight on men’s mental health and fatherhood.


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