Leona O'Neill: Easing the pain of stillbirth
Leona O'Neill visits the new bereavement suite at Altnagelvin Hospital, where the parents of stillborn children now have a special place to spend precious time with their child and to say goodbye
LAST week, I found myself in the maternity wing of Altnagelvin Hospital for an official event. As I walked its warren of corridors, I had flashbacks to my three previous visits.
There was the work of art I stopped at on the way to the labour ward to tell my husband that I couldn't go on, that I wanted a Caesarean right now or I was going to divorce him.
There was the view across the countryside I'd gazed upon as my restless newborn son fought sleep on my shoulder, and there was the long corridor that my husband carried our daughter down on the way home.
But this time, I wasn't there to celebrate a birth. I was there for the opening of the new bereavement suite at Altnagelvin Hospital, a place that parents who have been given the devastating news that their baby has died will now have a place to spend precious time and say goodbye.
Truth be told I didn't really want to go. I knew it would be emotional. I knew I would have to listen to stories of parents facing their worst nightmare imaginable. I knew it was something as a mother I just did not want to think about – that none of us really want to think about.
Sadly, 76 babies were stillborn in Northern Ireland in 2015. A further 102 babies died neonatally, which includes 93 early neonatal deaths, within the first seven days of life.
Funded and opened by stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands, the Lavender Bereavement Suite is the first of its kind in the north. It will help parents navigate the darkest hours of their lives in some small, comforting way.
I truly didn't know what to expect to see in the Lavender Suite, but what I found was a beautiful peaceful and airy room with a hospital bed, a beautiful Moses basket, a comfy sofa, flowers, a candle and a little memory box with a gorgeous knitted cardigan and cute teddies and a book to record precious details about the baby who has died.
The room was designed to allow the parents time and space the grieve their loss, to sit on the sofa with their baby and spend time gazing upon their features, to hold their little hand, to hold them close and to build precious memories.
Everything in the room is designed to honour the lost child and comfort the parents, to allow them time to say goodbye.
Suzi Gourley, a bereaved mother from Bangor, spoke from the heart at the unveiling about how a similar suite at the Ulster Hospital helped her create memories to cherish.
"Hearing the new Lavender Bereavement Suite has opened in Altnagelvin Hospital brings tears to my eyes," she said.
"Yet it is also proof that times are changing. This suite is needed for memory making as our babies matter. As a family we have benefited from the bereavement suite in the Ulster Hospital.
"Our little boy Eli was born sleeping on July 28, 2016. Just like when a baby is born alive he got held with love, showered with kisses and sang to.
"As sad as it is, family members got to say hello and goodbye, something that in the past wouldn't have been thought of. Eli's big brothers gathered round him and sang happy birthday and will forever cherish their photos holding their baby brother.
"We had somewhere special and private to create our very own memories with the help and support of staff. My husband was able to stay so I never had to be on my own. Everything we needed was supplied and nobody was rushing us out the doors. We will be forever grateful to all that we had the use of a hospital bereavement suite."
It may be something that none of us want to think about, but suites like these should be available in every hospital across Northern Ireland, because although most of us will be lucky enough to bring our babies home, there will always be parents whose dreams are shattered in a heartbeat and who will have to go home alone.
We owe it to them to make the hardest of journeys a little bit easier.
Sands support groups meet on a monthly basis across Northern Ireland. The groups are run by bereaved parents to help support other bereaved parents.
For further information call Steven Guy, Sands' Northern Ireland network co-ordinator on 02838 392509 or email firstname.lastname@example.org