Miscarriage in Ireland: "I am so sorry, but your baby has no heartbeat"

You know someone who has had a miscarriage. In fact, you probably know more than one person

by 

Ciara McDonnell, Helen O’Callaghan, Jennifer Stevens

 

SENSITIVE CONTENT

The following article is about Irish women’s experience of miscarriage.
If you are grieving the loss of a baby, you may find this content upsetting.

You can listen to the audio version of this article here.  

Afriend who has been uploading pictures on Instagram daily since the pandemic started has suddenly gone quiet, because she had one. A colleague you usually share an office with may have cried in the bathroom by the lifts as she realised she was losing her baby. Your mother may have had one and never told you.

In Ireland, 14,000 women experience miscarriage each year. That’s between 20 and 25% of all pregnancies . But still, even with an experience that so many women share, there is a silence surrounding it.

There are different reasons for not talking about it. For some it’s just too hard, too sad. Others are afraid to let their managers or colleagues know that they’re trying, for fear of being sidelined or overlooked. 

It can be hard to bring it up in a society that tells you not to mention a pregnancy until 12 weeks – who decided that? The first three months is the time when women need the most support - yet it’s the time when we are expected to keep mum. And so, many women grieve alone, in silence and never speak about a beloved baby to anyone but their partner.

Last week fashion and beauty entrepreneur Pippa O’Connor Ormond announced that she is expecting a baby later this year with husband Brian. She followed her announcement with a series of Instagram stories the next day where she detailed her experience of miscarriage the year before.

Visibly emotional as she spoke to the camera, she described her experience and why she thought it was important to share it.

“I still think it's unsaid and to be honest, I don't even know when or if I'd have said it if I wasn't lucky enough to be pregnant again now. I suppose we don't want to show vulnerability and I personally don't want to feel sad. But I know how I thought at the time and how I wanted to hear someone else say ‘that happened to me’. 
 
That same week, Síle Seoige, who recently presented a documentary about miscarriage for TG4, announced that she’s pregnant and expecting a baby girl. Seoige and her partner experienced two miscarriages last year and she ended the programme saying that she was still trying.
 
Two days after Síle revealed her good news, Lidl Ireland announced that they were providing paid leave for employees who have experienced or have been directly impacted by early pregnancy loss. The German retailer will offer three days at full pay to all employees, regardless of gender.

It seemed like, for the first time, the entire country was talking about miscarriage.
 
One of the hardest parts about going through it, say women who have experienced miscarriage, is the loneliness, the hours spent searching Google for experiences like your own. For somebody, somewhere to have felt like you’re feeling in those heartbreaking moments.

And so, we asked you to tell us your stories, so that we can share them and provide a place for women like you to find some comfort, to honour the babies that were lost, to share in the grief that so many have and to be the glimmer of hope that someone so desperately needs right now.

These are their stories. These are our stories. This is miscarriage in Ireland.

 
 

"I almost know what to expect now when I see those shoulders slump, those eyebrows tense and that staggered, sorrowful sentence about to come from the mouth of the woman holding a machine with my world at her fingertips.”

Kate Delaney has experienced five miscarriages. She has endured loss while at weddings and at work and has been poked and prodded and tested for every possible outcome in order to give her the ultimate prize. A baby. 

“My fifth and final pregnancy hit me the hardest,” she says. “I used to think to myself [as I sat in the doctor’s waiting room], ‘please God give me that. Give me my head stuck in a toilet, my face turned green with nausea. Give me sleepless, uncomfortable nights, backache, constipation, waddling to work, kicks to the ribcage, on the loo non-stop’.”

Experiencing multiple loss does not make you an expert, says Kate, but it does make you understand how the grief that comes with miscarriage can change you. 

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Once you see those two blue lines, the baby’s name almost pops into your head immediately. You’ve plans for this baby. To have it ripped away is a very intense loss.

“It changes the woman, the man, the laughter, the marriage, family life, extended family life, life with friends, fitness, diet, work. It changes EVERYTHING. Milestones, due dates, birthdays, anniversaries… it's almost impossible to wonder what life would have been like. And the killing thing – there’s no one in the world to tell you how lasting these thoughts and feelings will be.

“You can never be a little bit pregnant,” says Deirdre Pierce-McDonnell, chairperson of the Miscarriage Association of Ireland. “Once you see those two blue lines, the baby’s name almost pops into your head immediately. You’ve plans for this baby. To have it ripped away is a very intense loss.”

 
 
 

orla O’Connell, clinical midwife specialist in bereavement at CUMH, says some women who experience miscarriage see it as loss of a developing pregnancy, rather than loss of a baby. 

“It may be their way of coping with the loss. For many other women, it’s a baby boy or girl from the moment they see the positive pregnancy test. They’re imagining next Christmas, the first day at school.”

O’Connell sees miscarriage as several losses. “They’ve lost a baby. They’ve also lost a chance to become a mother. Their whole psyche was set up to receive this baby into the world, to nourish and mother it.”

Niamh Laffan has experienced four miscarriages, and it has taken a toll on her mental health. “The worst part is the silent grief,” she explains. “You seem fine to everyone, no obvious evidence that you were ever even pregnant.”

In 2020, she miscarried at eight weeks, and four days later her father passed away. “Looking back now, I don't actually know how I got through that time. I had this one, very obvious, public loss, with sympathy cards and condolences and support and understanding. And then there was this silent grief. Two very different losses, both equally devastating.”

Acknowledging the psychological and emotional impacts of miscarriage, in 2016 the HSE launched National Standards for Bereavement Care for Pregnancy Loss and Perinatal Death. All 19 maternity hospitals nationwide have appointed a bereavement clinical midwife specialist.

The fact that pregnancy and miscarriage happen in women’s bodies, some women – on top of their grief – blame themselves, says O’Connell. “Yet, miscarriage is something she couldn’t have controlled. But there’s a sense of failure: as a woman, mother and partner – a feeling you’ve let your partner down. So it becomes a loss of identity, as well as grief.”

Alice says she blamed herself when she miscarried, even though she knew it wasn’t her fault. “Everywhere I looked online said 'it just happens '. And there's no real explanation,” she says “I blamed myself in so many ways thinking what I had done wrong and it’s heartbreaking. Having this happen adds so much more anxiety for future pregnancies. You're afraid to get happy and excited in case it happens all over again. I hope to never experience that pain and upset again for me and my partner.”

 
 

one reader says that the lonely and isolated grief she felt in the aftermath of her experience was life changing. Patricia* says, “It took me over three months to feel somewhat back to myself, but the miscarriage is something I still think of every day, multiple times a day.”

The emotions that many women feel following a miscarriage are hard to quantify, and harder to explain, she maintains. “You're left with a strange mix of sadness, jealousy at other pregnant friends and colleagues, desperation to become pregnant again before the first due date, and terror that it will happen again.”

Pregnant once more, Patricia says that her experiences will not allow her to be hopeful. “My husband and I know better than to be optimistic. Our innocence is gone, and every twinge in my body makes me feel like I will lose the baby again. It’s easier to assume it won’t work out.”

 
 

 Kate O'Dwyer. Photo Moya Nolan

 
 

Nora* says that the culture of silence around miscarriage “allows the HSE and the Government to ignore a gaping hole in the health system for support for women and their partners who suffer miscarriages”. 

She suggests, “it really feels that women should be eternally grateful for getting or being pregnant, that only the baby matters and women are discarded once no longer pregnant. I'm not even sure that women are treated as separate to their baby while pregnant and find this also very disappointing. Women are more than incubators and deserve respect and support and both are gravely lacking in this country.”

 
 



Last year – investigating psychological impact of early-stage pregnancy loss – scientists at Imperial College London and KU Leuven, Belgium, found one in six women experience long-term post-traumatic stress following miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy.

Celine’s daughter was stillborn at 33 weeks in December 2020. “It was the most traumatic experience of our lives,” she says. “I don't think we will ever recover from it.” 

The study found that one month following pregnancy loss, almost one-third of women suffered post-traumatic stress, one in four had moderate-to-severe anxiety, and one in ten had moderate-to-severe depression. Nine months later, almost one in five women had post-traumatic stress, a similar number had moderate-to-severe anxiety, while six percent had moderate-to-severe depression. 

Michelle had just emigrated to Dublin with her Irish husband when she had a miscarriage in 2016. “I was navigating life as a newlywed in a new country without a job, away from my family and friends,” she says. “I only knew my husband, my in-laws and some of his friends. I went through a miscarriage without my usual support network.”

During the first lockdown, Michelle says she “broke”. “I thought the depression and anxiety [I was feeling] was brought about by the lockdown but it brought to the surface all the trauma from my previous loss.”

O’Connell says the big tragedy is women feel huge loss and emptiness – but without any consoling memories. “They never met or did things with this little person. There’s no tangible evidence they ever came into the world – sometimes there’s not even a scan.”

Laura* feels she can’t express the depth of her grief, because it might not be socially acceptable. “All I want to do is scream and shout and cry for my little baby but I feel like no one will even understand that because I was only ten weeks gone.”

Niamh Howard-Jones, bereavement support midwife at CUMH, says women can find comfort in acknowledging the reality of their baby, of its short life. “They’re consoled by marking that life somehow – planting something in their garden, even doing some little thing around it with their partner.”

Deirdre Pierce-McDonnell has seen women attend services of remembrance 20-30 years post-miscarriage. “Within the last year someone wrote, wanting to remember her son on his 21st birthday by making an entry in our book of remembrance.”

some women yearn to become pregnant quite quickly after miscarriage, almost to find some resolution to the grief, says O’Connell. But very often they’ve lost trust in a healthy pregnancy outcome. “They now know pregnancy doesn’t necessarily mean a baby. They don’t go into it light-heartedly. They’re scared – they’ve lost confidence.”

Maire* is 19 weeks pregnant following three miscarriages - two in the last 12 months. “I'm holding my breath every single day,” she says. “Having to go to all my scans alone to date has been nerve-wracking to say the least. I've struggled to look at the screen and only release my breath when I hear ‘there's the heartbeat’.”

Yet one miscarriage doesn’t increase the risk of another. Risk rises slightly after two, and climbs substantially after three consecutive miscarriages. “Ultimately most women go on to have a healthy pregnancy outcome – even after three miscarriages – we see it all the time,” says O’Connell.

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After four miscarriages and several rounds of IVF, Sarah had given up hope.

At present a Health Research Board funded study led by Prof Keelin O'Donoghue, who also leads the UCC/CUMH Pregnancy Loss Research Group (PLRG), is examining recurrent miscarriage service provision and patient experience in Ireland. Further research work is underway with the PLRG on recurrent miscarriage following infertility.

After four miscarriages and several rounds of IVF, Sarah* had given up hope. “I felt my body was done, I wasn't able to do my bit, I was a failure. I just wanted it all to stop.”

In October 2020, she fell pregnant naturally and almost immediately began bleeding. “At six weeks it was confirmed the sac was empty, another loss,” she says.

“But there was something else on the scan. I was directed to another doctor and a better machine to identify it - at this point I had decided I must have cancer. The screen popped up, the sound came on... and there was a heartbeat... the empty sac had another sac behind it, it had been a twin.”

After months of worry and hoping, Sarah will be welcoming her baby in the coming weeks. “It was a rocky 12 weeks but he hung on and he is due next week! It's been the toughest time of my life.”

so many of our respondents spoke of experiencing miscarriage during a pandemic. Loneliness and isolation were palpable as readers shared their stories. 

Claire’s* third miscarriage occurred during the first lockdown in March 2020. “My husband minded our toddler while I went into hospital. It was the loneliest two nights and one day I have ever known.”

Many women shared the impact that Covid restrictions have had on their own experience. Rebecca had a miscarriage last March, on Mother’s Day. 

“We were stopped at a Covid checkpoint while I tried to breathe and wondered why it felt like being in labour. At the front door of the hospital we were told my husband was not allowed in with me and a stranger wheeled me to A&E. I was so scared and so alone.”

More still, spoke of the inhumanity of losing a baby while surrounded by mothers and their newborns. Susan* lost twins at ten weeks. 

“I will never forget being wheeled down for a D&C, the sound of newborn babies ringing in my ears from the ward which was right beside me as I waited for hours. Or the (rightly) ecstatic new parents walking out with a baby carrier and a shiny pink baby girl balloon. They turned right for the lift to go home as I was wheeled left for the theatre, it still brings tears to my eyes.”

 
 

When it comes to where Ireland is now – in terms of the historical culture that minimised miscarriage – CUMH bereavement and loss midwives say their clients report a wide range of experiences. 

“Many have had it said to them: ‘at least it was very early on – you’ll have more’, with no acknowledgement of the loss. People can sometimes be dismissive – like they don’t add as much value to early pregnancy loss as they would to later loss,” says Howard-Jones.

But O’Connell recalls what happened when a woman – returning to work in a large institution following a second miscarriage – decided not to say she’d had flu, as she’d planned, but to open up about her loss. “It was powerful. People came up to her at break – one man said ‘I’m sorry. My wife had a miscarriage’. A woman said she’d had a miscarriage 20 years earlier.

“Being open reduced the stigma and she felt she wasn’t denying her baby. Her approach really challenged that old shame around not talking about ‘women’s problems’.”

O’Connell believes counselling isn’t always the answer following miscarriage – grief after all is part of life, something we need to go through. “What women need is someone to listen, to say ‘this matters’. The management of miscarriage is kindness, compassion and understanding – from hospitals, families and workplaces.”

Kate Delaney says that women who experience miscarriage need one thing: validation. “We don’t need to be fixed, we just need you to understand that our grief, hurt, anger, frustration, fear and disappointment are acceptable.”

*Names have been changed 

 

Was it my fault?

Sadly it’s still unclear why every miscarriage happens. This can be very hard to come to terms with and sometimes means that women and their partners unnecessarily blame themselves. It is vital that you know that miscarriages very rarely happen because of something you did or didn’t do. The most common cause of early miscarriage, which is the most common type of miscarriage, is caused by chromosomal abnormalities in the baby and these happen by chance.

Pregnancy after miscarriage

Every woman is different and will have a different way of moving forward after a miscarriage. While some women and couples will want to try to become pregnant again as soon as possible, others will need more time to process their experience before they try again. For some, miscarriage may mean that they decide that they don’t want to try again. There is no right or wrong way to approach pregnancy after loss but it is important to make sure that your body has had time to heal and that you are ready physically and emotionally to try again. You can check with your GP or hospital team for advice.

Coping with grief

Every experience of miscarriage is different, and you and your partner will have a lot of different feelings and emotions. You may not have been able to meet and hold your baby but that doesn’t mean that your grief is any less real. You are entitled to all your feelings, it does not matter when you lost your baby. The Early Pregnancy Unit in your hospital will have details of support services if you need them and the Miscarriage Association of Ireland hosts support groups and meetings.

Relationships after miscarriage

While a woman physically experiences miscarriage, their partner has also lost a child. Some couples find the pain and grief of miscarriage is tough on their relationship. Speaking to friends, family and seeking out professional supports can help. It is important to give each other time to heal.

WHERE TO FIND SUPPORT

The Miscarriage Association of Ireland is run by people with first-hand experience of miscarriage. They run a phone support helpline, an email service and have monthly meetings in Dublin and Cork and every second month in Galway which are currently being run over Zoom. The association also runs an annual service of remembrance for those who have lost babies. www.miscarriage.ie
Tommy’s is a UK based charity that provide’s baby loss support and has a lot of useful information around miscarriage on their website. www.tommys.org

To read more first person accounts of
Miscarriage in Ireland, click here

Irish Examiner Longread

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