Ten years ago next February, my friends Tim and Laura had their first daughter, Charlotte. They had three daughters after her, Emily, Isabelle and Florence, who never knew their big sister, as she died at 41 weeks of gestation. I will never forget Charlotte's funeral: the roses on the coffin, the rows of old friends holding each other tightly by the hands. It seemed unimaginable that this could have happened to our two lovely friends, and shocking to find, all these years later, how common an experience stillbirth still is.
Ten babies are stillborn every day in Britain; in 2014, the last year for which there are Office of National Statistics figures, this amounted to 3,563 deaths. Just as shockingly, Britain ranks 21st out of 35 of the world’s wealthy nations in terms of its stillbirth rates, and there is a stark variation in those rates across the country (it differs from 4.1 to 7.1 out of 1,000 births, with Black and Asian women being more at risk, as well as women living in poverty). The reasons babies die are frustratingly hard to pin down. Placental problems in late pregnancy is one issue, which is not currently checked in routine antenatal monitoring. A third of stillbirths remain “unexplained”, with more investment to find out why being desperately needed.
Nevertheless, the subject of stillbirth, and wider issues surrounding neonatal injury and safety, are starting to be discussed in much more prominent places. Next week, they are being debated in parliament for the first time during Baby Loss Awareness Week, thanks in part to two MPs: Antoinette Sandbach, whose 5-day-old son, Sam, died in 2009, and Will Quince, whose second child, Robert, was stillborn in 2014.
Baby loss is also being explored on the big screen in director Debbie Howard’s new documentary, Still Loved, which takes us through three years in the lives of seven families who lost children before or shortly after birth. It is an important, bracing film, and refreshingly gives lots of screen-time to the fathers as well as mothers who are grieving. This is vital: it reminds the world that stillbirth is not an experience to be suffered quietly by the person who carried the baby. Stillbirth is an experience shared, and indeed it should be shared.
Howard knew she had to make Still Loved after making a short film drama about the subject in 2013: this was Peekaboo, starring BAFTA-award-winning actor Lesley Sharp. “I’d spoken to so many people around their experiences while making [Peekaboo], I knew I’d barely scratched the surface of the subject,” she explains. “The stigma and silence I found around losing babies was incredible – so many people felt like they couldn’t talk about what they’d gone through, because it made other people uncomfortable. This just meant their grief got internalised. That didn’t help.”
They told me about their trip to hospital together, with Laura in labour, not knowing that a heartbeat wouldn’t be found
Howard’s film shows us how many different people have had these experiences too. There’s the couple who lost their twins before 24 weeks, the single mother whose partner’s mother blamed the stillbirth on evil spirits, and the fathers who felt pressure to be strong and silent while feeling anything but. We meet the amazing Michelle and Nicky, who have set up the brilliant Campaign for Safer Births, after negligence in medical care ended the lives of their babies. We hear of couples whose friends no longer ring them, or are told unhelpful things like “you can always have another”. I remember feeling the hopelessness of saying anything as a friend of Tim and Laura; with hindsight, I know that simply offering your love as a friend is so much better than saying nothing.
When I was asked to mark Baby Loss Awareness Week by writing this piece, I emailed Tim and Laura to ask them what they would want me to say. I realise now how nervous I was about getting things wrong. Their responses made me so amazed and proud of both of them – and I’ve realised here is where the message of this film lives.
They both told me the story of Charlotte in detail, and about how they wanted to share it, to remember her short time in the world. They told me about their trip to hospital together, with Laura in labour, not knowing that a heartbeat wouldn’t be found. They told me how lucky they were with their medical team, who arranged Charlotte’s funeral, and came to see them in hospital when Emily was born; the NHS rising to the occasion as it can so often, brilliantly, do.
They also told me of the cruel things that stuck in their minds, hoping others won’t have to face them again. For Tim, there was the “helpful” leaflet that told him to “think of the grandparents that feel helpless as they see the devastation their children are going through”; this instruction only devastated him further. For Laura, it was hearing people say things like “it’s not as like you knew them”. She knew her. “The best thing to do is talk to people who know how you’re feeling,” Laura concluded.
Baby Loss Awareness Week and Still Loved will keep this message soaring this month, giving voices to those people who need them most – and reminding those of us who haven’t suffered, like our friends have, to use our voices too. “We are proud of who we are because of Charlotte,” Tim he told me, “and that she was in our life.” She was in their lives, and she is, and will always be.
Still Loved is now in cinemas and will be available on digital from 1 November (@StillLovedDoc). If you or anyone you know wishes to know more or seek support about stillbirths, please contact Tommy’s or Sands.