Her son died after one day, but her love is for life

The death of a baby is treated far differently now than in times past when mums were often kept away from the burial, says Helen O’Callaghan

BRIAN and Mary Sexton’s seventh child, also Brian, was born and died on the same day — March 6, 2010. “He was born prematurely, at eight months. Within an hour, he died. My waters broke the day previous. I was in hospital all that day. The doctors had picked up, at that stage, that he could live a few months or he could die within a month. They said to make the most of the minutes, the hours, the days — what we got,” says Mary, from West Cork.

“He was tiny — I couldn’t get over that a baby could be so small. All my others were fine, big children. He didn’t cry. He was just limp. You’d lift his hand and it would fall down. Brian and I both held him, back and forth between us. It was devastating — we knew what was ahead of us.

“He had red hair, like two of our girls. There was nothing to go on — to say what his future could have held. I didn’t realise he had passed away, until the doctor told us. We had our own private ward, upstairs in the hospital — it’s a special unit for when things go wrong. Everything up there is behind closed doors. There’s a silence — it’s nice. When [my daughter] Kate was born, there was a girl in the ward who’d lost her baby — she had no privacy, just a curtain around the bed.

“He was laid out in a little prayer room. I was able to go down and sit with him. The other children came — he’d already passed away. They were all holding him and taking pictures with him. They were talking about who’d held him a minute longer than the others and who’d be next in the photo with him. We brought him home on the Sunday. We put him in his pram. The children all had pictures drawn and gave him little keepsakes. He was buried on Tuesday.

“All summer I was black. I’d have given anything to get him back — sick or anything, I’d have coped. People said ‘if you need anything, just ask’, but it’s a journey you do on your own. Many days, I crossed the road to avoid people, because I was afraid — if they said something to me, I’d crack.

“Once the children returned to school, in September, I had to pull myself together. Life was passing by — I was living in this different world. Time is a great healer and I have my faith. I have a yellow cardigan I’d finished for him before he was born. It was for the baby I’d been expecting — a seven- or eight-pounds baby. It’s sitting in a press in the kitchen — in with the children’s pyjamas. It’s my memory of him — something to hold onto. I look at it on a daily basis, sometimes. Older women in the locality, who lost a baby years ago, say I’m lucky — I got to see my baby, hold him, go to the funeral. Whereas, long ago, they didn’t get to see their child — it was buried at night. They were told ‘go home, get pregnant again’. At least, we got to say our goodbyes.

Many women who had similar experiences in the the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s never got to say goodbye, says Marie Hunt, a bereavement counselling midwife at UL Maternity Hospital. “They never saw their babies — the baby might be sick and they wouldn’t be told. The mother was kept in hospital until the baby was buried. Babies were often buried by their fathers, often close to a cemetery, sometimes in a farmyard.”

Hunt says we’re more open about pregnancy and infant-loss today. We’re also more humane towards bereaved parents, of whom there are many: 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage and 360 stillbirths are registered here each year. “Seeing the baby, making memories and acknowledging the baby’s existence, are vital in the grieving process,” says Hunt.

The Amulet Exhibition, which explores infant loss, is running in Cork until January, and then will move to Dublin. It’s a collaboration between artist Marie Brett, bereaved parents, and three hospitals — Cork University Maternity Hospital, University Maternity Hospital Limerick, and Waterford Regional Hospital.

Bereaved parents worked with the artist to choose an object (‘amulet’) they own which commemorates the loss of their baby. The yellow cardigan made by Mary Sexton is one such amulet. CUMH ‘bereavement and loss’ midwife, Anna Maria Verling, says art is therapeutic. “I suspect there will be much unspoken therapy for many in connecting with this exhibition,” she says.

The Amulet Exhibition is at Cork City Hall until November 28, and at Cork Public Museum, Fitzgerald Park, until January 3.



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