“After the miscarriage, the hospital asked, ‘Would you like his body back or should we just look after that for you?’ Nothing could have prepared me for that question. I wanted to scream and say, ‘What I want is for my son to be healthy and well, and for me not to be here, about to have his body removed from my womb.’ Instead, I quietly asked, ‘What do most people do?’”
When Zoe Clark-Coates and husband Andy decided to start a family, it was the beginning of a life-altering journey. Although they now have two daughters – Esme and Bronte – the couple had four more pregnancies. Cobi, Darcy, Bailey, Samuel and Isabella (Bronte’s twin sister) died before they reached 24 weeks in the womb. In Clark-Coates’s medical records, these pregnancies are recorded as ending in miscarriage – three before Esme’s birth and two further losses before Bronte was born. Yet, for the grieving parents, each loss was so much more than that. They marked the start of a complex process of grieving for their children that has resulted in a personal transformation and activism to fight for better support for families like theirs.
After the news that her second baby had no heartbeat, Clark-Coates waited for over a week for a miscarriage to start naturally. “I cried so much I would run out of tears. And then it would start again, an endless cycle of weeping and screaming and then sitting there, empty and desolate.” Each time she became pregnant, the couple hoped and prayed that this time would be different. But, with each new miscarriage, the couple clung together through what they describe as “a rollercoaster of grief, hopelessness, anger, numbness, helplessness, physical and mental pain”.
One in four pregnancies in the UK ends in miscarriage yet, as the couple found, getting support as parents grieving the loss of a baby who dies early in pregnancy is particularly difficult. “There was a clear divide in support, depending on when you lost your baby,” asserts Clark-Coates. “We were made to feel that the babies we lost were less significant than those who were lost later in pregnancy. But we felt that they were all loved and deserved to be acknowledged.”
Six months after Bronte’s birth, having decided that their family was complete, the couple felt motivated to take what they had learnt and do something constructive with it. “We were looking for a way to turn our pain into something positive. It hit me that there needed to be remembrance services where parents could honour their children and formally say goodbye to them.”
Losing a baby changes you and the more you go looking for the person you once were, the harder it becomes
Their first service, aimed at anyone affected by baby loss however long ago, took place in September 2012 in Exeter Cathedral. It was attended by men, women, children, grandparents, parents and people who had lost their babies decades ago, but had never had any way to acknowledge their baby publicly. “Someone flew in from Holland, another from America, and Woman’s Hour came to cover the service. We knew that this was the beginning of something important that people really needed.”
The Saying Goodbye Services are now part of a bigger charity run by the couple – the Mariposa Trust – working to support parents through grief, while campaigning for better care and recognition of families at this vulnerable time. The trust is non-religious but, as the ceremonies are aimed at people of any or no faith, they incorporate secular and non-secular elements, songs, poetry and personal acts of remembrance, such as the ringing of a bell. The couple and their team now support over 50,000 people each week. Clark-Coates’s book, Saying Goodbye, which tells their story and guides the reader through 90 days of practical and emotional support after baby loss, has already gone to reprint less than a week after publication.
Busy working on a new bill (announced in the House of Lords in July) on a national certificate for any baby lost before 24 weeks, Clark-Coates and her team are now committed to doing more. “Loss has shown me that people who have been through heartbreak are often the most kind people, as they have known such depths of pain they embrace life and appreciate the little things. It has made me appreciate life, embrace joy and never take good things for granted.”
Clark-Coates’s support tips for life after baby loss:
- Grieve at your own pace – there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
- Keep talking – the brain comes to terms with trauma by talking about it, so the more you tell your story, the more your brain can finally accept what has happened and move forwards.
- Don’t try to get back to the person you were before your loss. Losing a baby changes you and the more you go looking for the person you once were, the harder it becomes. Instead, focus on the new person you are and move forwards from this place.
How you can help someone who has lost a baby:
- When people are in a state of grief, they often struggle to reach out for support, so it’s important to be direct. Don’t just say, “Call me if you need anything.” Offer to bring a cooked meal for the next week instead.
- Be willing to listen to the same story over and over again. When people are grieving, their brain finds it hard to come to terms with the loss and trauma. Recovery starts with talking, so be a great friend and sit and listen. And avoiding making any unhelpful comments such as, “At least you can have another baby.” Listen – just listen!
- Don’t be scared to ask how they are doing. So many people fear raising the subject of baby loss in case it triggers upset, but what it actually does is make people feel loved.