Emma Tuck, Sands Hawke's Bay

Maybe it’s happened to your sister, sister-in-law, a cousin, friend, colleague or neighbour. Or maybe it happened to you. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, so statistically speaking it touches all of us. 

Miscarriage is the most common pregnancy complication, so why are we so bad at talking about it? When a grandparent dies they are mourned, publicly acknowledged and celebrated. When a baby dies they are mourned quietly, behind closed doors, and often without the support of family, friends and the wider community. 

When I started investigating baby loss in pregancy, I had no idea how easy it would be to find people who have experienced miscarriage. And how desperate they are to be heard, even years later, so they can share their stories and find healing through the pain. 

Many have horror stories of being let down by medical staff, or suffered well-intentioned but misguided comments from family and friends that cut deeply: “It wasn’t meant to be” … “You’ll get pregnant again” … “It wasn’t really a baby”. 

Sadly, losing a baby remains a taboo subject, linked to stigma and shame. Many women do not receive the respectful care and support they deserve when their baby dies, leaving them to suffer this traumatic event in silence. 

How common is it?

A miscarriage is a pregnancy that ends on its own within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, according to the NZ College of Midwives. The loss of a baby after 20 weeks is a stillbirth (an estimated 1 in every 200 pregnancies ends in a stillbirth). Most miscarriages happen in the first 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy and an estimated 7,500 to 14,500 miscarriages occur every year in New Zealand. 

There are several causes of miscarriage and the most common of these is problems with the development of the baby at or soon after conception. However, for many women the cause of their miscarriage is unknown. 

Acknowledging the lives of all babies

Baby Loss Awareness Week takes place from 9-15 October every year, ending with International Pregnancy and Infant Baby Loss Day on October 15. The week is an opportunity for parents and families from around the country to come together and remember the lives of their babies who have died. 

During Baby Loss Awareness Week last year, social media lit up with messages of loss and love for babies that are no longer here but always remembered. Celebrity chef Nadia Lim, for the first time, shared her experience of miscarriage with Instagram followers. Sending a virtual hug to those who have lost a baby, she wrote, “If that’s you, I hope you are doing OK. If that’s a friend or family member, check in with them. Sometimes silence is the hardest part. I’ve never spoken publicly about this before, but earlier this year I miscarried at 13 weeks.” She accompanied the message with a photo of her pregnant belly, taken the day after losing her baby, to acknowledge their life. 

Another well-known New Zealander, television presenter Hayley Holt, also suffered a devastating loss. Holt was seven months pregnant when she lost her son, who she named Frankie, in 2020. Following the stillbirth, Holt took time off to heal and has spoken about the role of therapy in helping her find love and peace through the tragedy. 

Support through grief 

Voluntary, nonprofit organisation, Sands NZ, supports parents and families who have experienced the death of a baby at any stage of pregnancy, birth or as a newborn. The group has branches around the country, led 

largely by parents who have lost babies and provide a much-needed service following the heartbreak. The group also provides memory boxes for parents who have lost babies at 20 or more weeks, and early loss packs. 

Emma Tuck, chairperson of Sands Hawke’s Bay, says the group offers empathy and understanding in an environment where bereaved parents can share experiences, talk and listen. “It’s someone to talk to. You can say, I know what you’re going through.” 

There are devastating stories of loss. One mother lost her triplet daughters at 20 weeks due to extreme prematurity. Others have been let down by midwives, doctors and nurses who made them feel like an inconvenience or a problem for the system during the worst time in their lives. Some never told anyone about their baby loss, carrying the deep pain around in silence. A member who recently joined, revealed she suffered a miscarriage 25 years ago and hadn’t spoken about it until now. 

Tuck lost her daughter Bayleigh at full term 10 years ago. She was the second child of Tuck and her partner Te Roa. The pregnancy was uneventful and Tuck felt well throughout. During a routine check-up on her due date however, her midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat. Tuck was rushed to hospital for a scan, but her baby girl was already gone. 

An autopsy revealed Bayleigh’s heart was back to front – a condition that wasn’t checked for in her scans at the time. Tuck carried around a lot of guilt about her daughter’s passing for a long time. “It took me about five years to accept that it wasn’t meant to be. I look back now and say there’s a reason that would have happened but that seat at the table will always be empty.”

The couple have gone on to have three more children but Bayleigh remains a big part of their lives – they talk about her often, celebrate her birthday and special memories of her are placed around the home. 

Support in New Zealand and particularly Hawke’s Bay for those who have suffered miscarriages is virtually nonexistent, says Tuck. Sands provides a much-needed service for parents. “We get people who are lost and they don’t know what to do.”

Finding hope through pain

It’s hard to comprehend what Auckland woman Sarah Numan has endured. Over 10 heartbreaking years, she lost four babies – Hope, Noah James, Willow and Ebony. Unbelievably, all four of her children suffered from Lethal Multiple Pterygium Syndrome, which affects the skin, muscles and skeleton, and affects only 200 children worldwide. The condition caused each of her children’s hearts to stop during pregnancy.

Sadly, Numan and her husband Remco didn’t get any physical memories of her babies – “It was pretty hard”. So she set out to make sure others who suffered baby loss didn’t go through the same thing. Creating charity, Baby Loss NZ, has been Numan’s way of supporting other bereaved parents and honouring her own children. “It’s their legacy to be able to do this work.” The charity’s main service is to provide care bags and create memories of babies that families can hold onto, including casts of hands and feet.

This free service provides comfort at one of the most difficult times of their lives, says Numan. “They say ‘it means so much’, through to ‘you’ve saved my 

life’. The castings of little hands and feet give them something they can hold onto forever. The youngest baby Numan has cast was eight weeks old. 

The existing terminology for baby loss doesn’t sit right with Numan. She prefers to say early loss for a baby under 12 weeks old. “I think when you hear miscarriage it can be thought of as not even a baby. We need to acknowledge every baby as a baby,” she says. 

New law supports grieving parents 

In 2021 the Government passed legislation giving mothers and their partners three days of bereavement leave following a miscarriage or stillbirth. The law applies to mothers, their partners and parents planning to have a child through adoption or surrogacy. It gives parents time to grieve their loss without having to use sick leave. 

Numan and Tuck applaud the law as a positive step towards acknowledging baby loss and providing people with the space they need to work through it. “From the moment you find out you’re pregnant, it is a baby and that’s your hopes and dreams,” says Tuck. The death of a baby is one of the hardest things a family can go through and the new law plays a role in supporting them through that, she says. “It gives you time to process it before you go back to work.”

Breaking the silence

The psychological consequences of miscarriage can be anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many women experience significant depression and anxiety during and after pregnancies for up to three years following a miscarriage. 

So why don’t we talk about miscarriage? It’s still a taboo subject that makes people uncomfortable, says Tuck. But talking is healing. “It’s healthy to talk about it … If you keep it inside, you’ll explode.” 

Losing a baby is undoubtedly one of the darkest times in people’s lives, that often leaves them feeling isolated and abandoned. The acknowledgement of miscarriages under the new bereavement leave law, and the work of volunteer groups, are helping people pick up the pieces.

However, the time has come to provide better support for those who suffer miscarriages. We can’t on one hand acknowledge that it is the most common pregnancy complication but continue to fail in the treatment of those who experience it. 

Nothing should stop anyone from grieving for their baby and the future they imagined. We need to make people who experience miscarriage feel heard, cared for and give them back their dignity. Most importantly, we need to start talking about it.

Photo: Florence Charvin 

Royston Hospital is pleased to sponsor robust examination of health issues in Hawke’s Bay. This reporting is prepared by BayBuzz. Any editorial views expressed are those of the BayBuzz team.

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