Living through the pain of two stillbirth deaths

The Irish are ‘good at death’ but we can be lacking when it comes to the loss of a baby. What’s needed is more research and education, Olivia Kelleher reports

Susan Ní Churnain and her children, Rebecca, JJ, and Samuel.

It is hard to imagine the pain of having to tell your child that his new brother or sister is coming home from hospital in a tiny coffin, instead of a car seat.

Susan Ní Churnain, from Dingle, Co Kerry, has had that heartbreaking talk with her son, JJ, not once, but twice, having lost two children, Reuben and Norah, at birth.

One in 200 deliveries in Ireland are stillbirths. That’s ten times more than cot deaths.

However, Susan says no pregnancy book tells you what it is like to deliver a dead child or to lose a child minutes after birth.

“Oh, it’s not in ‘What to expect when you are expecting’. When I had Norah, in June, 2013, my son, JJ, was three. He was aware he was having a brother or sister.

"I had to tell him that Holy God wanted his sister. Then, when I became pregnant with my son, Reuben, JJ was all excited again.

"Then, when I delivered him, I had to go to JJ, who was about five, and say ‘Holy God wanted Reuben, too’.

"He asked me how we were going to bring him home and I said that Reuben would be in a little box, but he could go home in the seat of the car. I don’t know how I had those conversations."

Susan says nothing can prepare a couple for delivering a baby stillborn or for losing their beloved child moments after delivery.

She didn’t have a postmortem, following the loss of Norah, because it wasn’t suggested to her in hospital, in her native Kerry.

But when she subsequently had a stillbirth with Reuben, doctors at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) asked if she wanted a postmortem.

“I had been told in Kerry that there was no chance of something like this happening to me again. Which was, of course, wrong, as it did happen to me, when I was 23 weeks.

“I had been transferred to Cork for the birth and they were amazing. I remember a nurse saying to me, when Reuben was going down for his postmortem, that ‘I wasn’t to worry.

"Another woman down the corridor had lost her baby and the two babies would go down together’. She just gave me such consolation that Reuben would have company on his way to the postmortem.”

To compound her trauma, Susan developed sepsis, after Reuben’s delivery, and her life was in the balance in the days that followed his traumatic birth.

The funerals of her babies are a blur. She says she would never have gotten through the pain without the support of her husband and their respective families.

The postmortem results for Reuben provided no serious clues as to why tragedy had visited her life again. Staff at CUMH reassured Susan that she would be supported, if she embarked on a subsequent preganancy.

However, it was the furthest thing from her mind, until she got the “shock of her life” the week before Christmas, 2015, and realised she was pregnant again.

Dr Keelin O'Donoghue

Dr Keelin O’Donoghue, and the staff at the INFANT unit at CUMH, went “above and beyond” the call of duty for Susan and monitored her every step of the pregnancy.

The pregnancy went past her previous danger area, of five months, without a difficulty. Samuel was born in July, 2016.

“I have a daughter, Rebecca, whom I had when I was 21 and she is great. And JJ is the greatest big brother ever. He is seven now and just loves Samuel. It was an experience for him to bring home his little brother.

"It was just such a relief, because, before Reuben and Norah, I had had early miscarriages. When I look back now, on the funerals, I don’t know how we got through it.

“I remember bringing Norah home, cos we kept her in the house overnight, before the burial. It was lovely to have her at home. And then, to go through that with Reuben. And then, finally, to bring Samuel home. There are no words.

“I look at our wedding photograph, sometimes, and I think if only we knew what was ahead of us. But we are lucky. I don’t know what we would have done without the support of the staff at INFANT.”

Meanwhile, Dr O’Donoghue, of the INFANT project at CUMH, says there is a need for increased provision of public health information about the causes of pregnancy loss and how preventable deaths can be reduced, where possible.

She cites the cot death campaigns of the 1980s and says women need to be told about risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, certain sleeping positions, or advanced age in pregnancy.

She says, as a culture, we are good at death, but that our skill set can be lacking when it comes to the loss of a baby.

“You will still have people who have been told to ‘get over it’ and not to dwell on the loss. There is a stigma still attached to it.

"If people get good bereavement care, it helps them hugely in subsequent pregnancies. We had one woman, recently, who had had a stillbirth and the same thing had happened to her mother. And you have the responses of different generations.

“There is a big change in how baby loss has been recognised and talked about in the last ten to fifteen years, but we have a long way to go. We can always do more to research and to educate.”

Further information about INFANT can be obtained at infantcentre.ie.


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