Dear Orla – life after loss: Orla’s birth story

Surviving stillbirth - Dear Orla -

At 37 weeks pregnant, Michelle Tolfrey tragically lost her baby daughter Orla. As a psychologist, she felt it was important to be open about her feelings so she started a blog: Dear Orla. It aims to raise awareness of stillbirth. Here, she shares Orla’s birth story…

Dear Orla -

It seems surreal to be sitting here writing this post, exactly a month after she was born, as this was in no way how I had anticipated her first month birthday to be. I had already written a lot of our story in the days following losing Orla for our justgiving fundraising page. These words were written in a fugue like state with tears streaming down my face onto the laptop. I have read our story over and over again and it continues to bring a mixed sense of disbelief, pride and overwhelming sadness.

There is so much more I could write about those days; how we found out; how we told our family and friends; my thoughts throughout those 48 hours. But I’m not sure I am quite strong enough to go there yet. For now, I will tweak what I feel able to share and hope that this is a helpful start to the next part of my journey….

On Sunday 1st May 2016, the unthinkable happened to us; on the day that our baby had reached full term, we were told that their little heart had stopped beating – no explanation, no apparent cause and nothing that could be done. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for the shock and pain of this. We had experienced a wonderful and smooth pregnancy with absolutely no indications of any problems and were just days away from meeting our much loved and wanted baby. And in moments, this was cruelly taken away from us.

You seek comfort and safety in your home, but the emptiness and silence is devastating

What followed was a flurry of words about next steps. Induction. Natural birth. Pain relief. In our shocked and distraught state, it was almost impossible to believe that we were now expected to go through labour and bring our child into the world knowing that they had already gone. Statements such as ‘its best for you’ and ‘if you want to have other children…’ were made, but in that moment how could we possibly think about that? What we wanted was the child that I had been carrying for the past nine months and for this not to be happening to us. How could they be giving us medical advice now when just days ago they had said that our scan had indicated that everything was okay and our baby was progressing well? We were told that ‘sadly these things happen’, that ‘it’s not your fault’ and to be prepared that a cause would likely not be found. A further punch in the gut when all you want to know is ‘why?’

We went home, packed a bag and came back to the labour ward where we could hear the sounds of other people welcoming their healthy babies into the world. We were put in a side room, which was to become our haven for the next two days, medication was administered and the waiting began. The following hours were a blur of tears, pain and ‘why us’? We were scared of how it would be meeting our baby for the first time knowing that she would arrive asleep – how would we feel?  How would we react? We didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl – would this news still be as exciting to hear as we had hoped all these months? I have never before felt so out of control of my thoughts.

Being told that we had lost our baby and the passage to meeting her was undoubtedly the most difficult and painful experience of our lives. Our beautiful baby girl arrived asleep on Tuesday 3rd May at 7.30am, peacefully and quietly.  You know that you won’t hear the cries and screams that the other parents on the ward will get to hear, but there is a tiny flicker of hope that maybe, just maybe, they had got it wrong and she would be okay. As our daughter was handed to us to hold, the physical and emotional exhaustion of the previous 36 hours gave way to a sense of peace and serenity that we hadn’t quite anticipated. I will never forget the moment that we were told that we had a baby girl and how beautiful and special it was able to hold her hands, stroke her feet and explore who she looked like. She had her daddy’s little folded over ears and her mummy’s crooked little fingers, a head of black hair and a little button nose.  She was perfect in every way and looked so beautiful and peaceful that it was hard to believe that she wasn’t just sleeping.

Making the decision about when to leave felt impossible – you know that you have to go at some point, but leaving felt like we were abandoning Orla

We spent the whole of that day with our daughter, holding her, smelling her, taking photos and savouring the limited time that we knew we would have with our special girl.  We named her Orla, which seemed so easy despite us having struggled to agree on any girl’s names for the last nine months!  We had her dressed in clothes and wrapped in a blanket that had been lovingly chosen for her just weeks before.  We took a cutting of her soft black hair and prints of her hands and feet and the staff at the hospital made us hospital wristbands with Orla’s name.  It was bittersweet being able to do many of the things that we would have done if Orla hadn’t been born asleep. The feelings of joy and love alongside unbearable pain were overwhelming.

Time seemed to occupy a different space and the day passed by so quickly. Making the decision about when to leave felt impossible – you know that you have to go at some point, but leaving felt like we were abandoning Orla. It felt too unbearable to leave the room with her there, so we had to ask for one of the midwives to take her away, which was only marginally more tolerable.

That was when the tears came hot and heavy and the gravity of there being a life ‘before’ and a life ‘after’ this immense trauma and loss became a sudden and intense reality.

Seeing your baby being carried away, packing your bag and leaving hospital without them in your arms must be one of the most painful things that a parent could ever experience. You move quickly through the corridors, down the lift and onto the street, desperately trying not to make eye contact with anyone. You seek comfort and safety in your home, but the emptiness and silence is devastating. The heaviness in your heart is overbearing and you spend the following days in a haze of tears, thoughts and broken sleep, whilst trying to make sense of what has happened when there is no sense.

And this is where our journey ‘after’ began.

Next Monday, we’ll hear from Michelle Tolfrey about the language and labels (or lack of) surrounding loss…

Follow Dear Orla on Instagram: dear_orla

The Early Hour is donating to Michelle’s Just Giving page – raising funds for SANDS (the stillbirth and neonatal death charity) – as payment for her articles. If you’d like to donate too, please click here.

Orla’s Birth Story was originally published on Dear Orla on 3 June 2016. It has been republished with permission.