Life after loss
Michelle Cottle’s daughter Orla died at 37 weeks in May 2016 following a straightforward and smooth pregnancy. Since losing Orla, Michelle has dedicated her time to showing that stillbirth should not be a shameful and silent secret. She has achieved so much in Orla's name, winning awards for her writing and helping countless other parents in their journeys through loss. This year she gave birth to Orla’s sister, rainbow baby Esme. Here she talks about life after loss.
I sometimes wonder how anxious a parent I would have been had Orla not died: would I even know about safe sleeping positions? Would I obsess over temperatures and what to dress Esme in? Would I insist on sleeping bags and no blankets? Would I have a bog-standard baby monitor instead of an all singing and dancing sound, vision and movement one? Who knows. But life after loss can sometimes feel like a pretty scary place. And when you know how precious life is, you never what to take any risks.
Pregnancy after loss was fraught with anxiety. The anxiety seeped from every pore and hung around my neck like a lead weight. Don’t get me wrong, I was able to function; to engage in everyday activities, to work and, to a limited extent, socialise. But everything was underpinned by fear. I worried about walking too much or pushing myself too hard at yoga, yet I also fretted about not exercising enough. I worried about what I ate: should I eat the same things as I did in my first pregnancy or should I try and change everything? I felt confronted by risks all around me: on my morning commute, I would visualise the train stopping suddenly and people falling into me; walking down the road I had intrusive thoughts of tripping and landing on my bump. I feared that the clothes I wore might be too restrictive. I worried about going to sleep at night, terrified that our baby would get into distress and I wouldn’t even know. Every aspect of daily life carried with it a potential risk and huge fear.
In fact, writing this down now, I actually question how I managed to function and even leave the house. These thoughts were pretty constant, although I was able somewhat to push them to the back of my mind. However, I knew that they were there, just waiting for the right conditions and opportunity to hit me full force. This would normally be when I was feeling tired, stressed or vulnerable – when things at work were overwhelming or when I felt even slightly reduced or changed movements just for a few minutes. It was at those times that my anxiety would rapidly escalate: the heart palpitations, the pit feeling in my stomach and the intrusive thoughts that meant I would start to unravel.
As a psychologist, there were many things that I knew I could do to manage these feelings: mindfulness, meditation, yoga, talking and building a good support network. Taking small steps, knowing my limits and asking for help when needed. Challenging unhelpful patterns of thinking and breaking down difficult tasks into manageable chunks. Yet when it comes to the safety of your baby, just dealing with your own internal responses to your worries is not enough. And sadly, I know all too well that bad things can and do happen, so the need to be informed with up to date information has become so incredibly important.
Since losing Orla, I have become aware of the work of many different charities and organisations that do just this: Tommy’s and their research to save babies lives; Sands and their support for bereaved parents and raising awareness of the prevalence of baby loss; Kicks Count and MAMA Academy for supporting women in being more informed about the importance of movements and normalising asking for help; The Lullaby Trust for their safer sleep information. I am overwhelmingly grateful for their existence and the information they provide, and I can safely say that their knowledge has helped to empower me when I have felt at my most vulnerable. Of course, I cannot help but feel a tinge of sadness, frustration or anger even, that I didn’t know about them before. Or maybe I did, but I didn’t really register or connect because I was in a bubble of blissful ignorance. However, in pregnancy and parenting after loss, having up to date and research based information has been integral to managing my anxiety and helping me to survive emotionally.
There are many pieces of information that I have found to be helpful throughout these next stages in parenthood. During Esme’s pregnancy, I was much more aware of the importance of her movements thanks to Kicks Count and the ‘Movements Matter’ campaign by Tommy’s. Tommy’s ‘Just Ask’ campaign and MAMA Academy’s wellbeing wallets then empowered me to know that asking for help would be the right thing to do – even if I needed to do so multiple times (which I did). And now that Esme is here, I am grateful for the thorough and clear advice that the Lullaby Trust provide about sleeping.
Having well known organisations tell you that it is important that you always report changes and ask for help can be the thing that helps you get the confidence to do so. I have a tendency to worry about being perceived as a nuisance, of being embarrassed for worrying and looking weak, and this lingered somewhat - even in pregnancy after loss. However, this information, alongside the support of my wonderful midwife and her team, meant that I could, and did, ask for help when I needed it. I think the biggest lesson for me is that you cannot and should not manage this incredibly difficult time alone; and although you may not always be able to put your finger on why you feel uneasy, you should always seek advice and support. Because even if there isn’t anything at all wrong, it is always better to be safe - and the reassurance may help to maintain your mental wellbeing and get you through another day, and that one step closer to bringing your baby home, safe and well.