(STILL) Birth Story - Kat and baby Luke
***TRIGGER WARNING*** This is the positive birth story of baby Luke who was still born at full term. It is a beautiful but heartbreaking read and may not be suitable for all. I have decided to share this story for a number of reasons. Firstly because Luke was born calmly, gently and with love and the birth experience was a positive and empowering one for Kat, despite the tragic circumstances surrounding it. Secondly Kat wanted to share her story and hopes by doing so that she will help others and thirdly because I believe baby Luke and his incredible Mama deserve to be honoured and celebrated just as everybody else is. Thank you Kat for sharing your story.
The Positive Birth of Luke David
“I’m picking up maternal heartbeat” the midwife said quietly, her eyes suddenly wide; her cheerful disposition slipped just for a second. I tried not to panic. She tried not to panic me. She buzzed a colleague and they together tried to locate my baby’s heartbeat, isolating mine with a fingertip monitor. I’m not sure exactly when it dawned on me quite how serious it was, but by the time the sonographer had made her clicks on the screen, and I had made my silent prayers to any god listening, I knew for sure that he had gone.
My darling baby boy’s heart had stopped beating sometime between monitoring late Monday and Wednesday lunchtime. There would be a thousand times in the days to come I would worry and wonder and twist myself in knots about whether I could have saved him. Ultimately I know, and I have to know, that I did everything in my power to protect and love him. Someone very clever later told me: “If you could have known, you would have known”. This has helped to bring me some peace.
In a whirlwind of emotions, of finding the words to tell my husband that he needed to come as soon as possible, of half-listening to an awkward consultant talk about minuscule odds and relative bright sides (we have a living daughter so the chances this was a fluke were high), it suddenly dawned on me that I still needed to give birth to my son. In the first dark few hours I remember thinking – and saying – that giving birth just felt like an added punishment. My husband and I had to deal with the knowledge that our darling, so-loved boy had gone, and yet for me there was the added anguish of the physical act to come. How unnatural could it be, to birth a dead baby? How could an act so pure and natural be suddenly so cruel and horrifying to me?
I allowed myself to wallow a while – let the fear and horror wash over me. It felt right to experience the magnitude of feeling that this life-changing moment evoked. But once I had honoured that feeling, I felt ready to think more clearly, and the feeling that started as a small buzz but then got stronger and stronger until it was clanging in my ears like a siren call was the feeling that I needed to give Luke the most beautiful birth I could. I had birthed my daughter using hypnobirthing techniques and had the most wonderful experience. And for the past months some of my most treasured memories with Luke inside me were snuggled up together watching videos from the Positive Birth Company (I joked to Neil that baby – he was as yet unnamed – had taken quite a shine to the instructor, Siobhan, as he often kicked away once she started talking in her lovely calm, positive voice) or listening to affirmations or hypnobirthing tracks while drifting off to sleep.
And so it became my mission, my gift to him, to make his entry to the world as peaceful and positive as I could. Before I left the hospital on Wednesday afternoon, I’d been given a tablet to prepare my cervix for induction. Unless anything happened naturally I would return to the hospital on Friday morning for my first pessary and we would take the induction step by step. This gave me 36 hours to prepare for the birth mentally and practically and with my amazing husband’s help, we gently worked through how we could give Luke our ultimate gift. We hoped in time we would do many positive things in his name, but this was the only thing we could give his physical form and that became our driving force.
In the time we had before the induction, we cherished moments with our daughter, we watched two incredible sunrises and felt his presence as we drank in the beauty through our tears. We each struggled independently but buoyed each other, and we somehow found the strength to put aside our biggest fears and heartache to focus on the task ahead of us. By Thursday evening we had collected all the things we felt would help us with our goal: electric candles and a lovely room spray to make the room cosy and homely, blankets and cuddly toys for me to snuggle and cradle and then to give to Luke, my hypnobirthing notes, birth plans (I had three variations - I know!!) and headphones so I could listen to music or positive hypnobirthing tracks. We also packed a slightly modified hospital bag and took lots of snacks and drinks. There were times when I felt a wave of melancholy, and others where I felt completely bonkers doing all this – but my overriding feeling was peace that I was giving Luke nothing less than a living baby would receive from me. His life was worth no less and he deserved no less.
Friday morning our gorgeous daughter woke early – around 5.30am – and I took the opportunity to snuggle her up against my bump as we watched cartoons in the living room. It was such a lovely moment, having our children cuddled up together. When my husband woke, we took pictures of the sunrise and some family pictures on our balcony – the four of us together. Our amazing friends were taking Lara to nursery and would have her for as long as we needed so my husband dropped her with them as I scrambled to make sure we had everything. I allowed myself a little cry as I thought how sad it would be returning to our home without our much-awaited, much-loved boy. But as soon as I left the flat I knew I had to focus on the task ahead.
The hospital staff were expecting us and it seemed everyone had been briefed on our situation. There are on average just two still births a year in Gibraltar – and last year there were none – so it really felt like the staff were as shocked as we were, and as such so dedicated to delivering us the best care possible. We had our own room – the Serenity Room – where we were shielded from the ‘normal’ mums and babies, and which could make our own. While the midwives did a shift changeover we prepared the room: spritzing it with a calming scent, putting up family photos, a positive quotation, and placing some of Luke’s clothing, blankets and cuddly toys around. When we met our midwife, Beate, we knew she would respect our wishes for as positive a birth as possible. She noticed our hypnobirthing notes and listened when we explained I still wanted an active labour (she fetched a birth ball and bean bag) and to try without pain relief first before considering other options. She checked my cervix which she said had softened and then I had my first pessary at 8.30am. She advised us to go for a walk or home as it could take a while, so we packed a small bag and headed back to the flat. We ate cold, left-over pizza and I bounced on my birth ball in front of a film. We kept the mood as light as possible and my husband did a bit of back massage. I started having mild contractions but they were irregular and died off as we made our way back to the hospital for the next pessary.
By the next examination I was 1cm and I had my second pessary at 11.30am. We were planning to head home again as we’d been warned it could all take a while. My daughter’s birth was amazing but very long (it took 12 hours for me to go from 1 – 4cm) so I was prepared for similar this time. However almost immediately the surges came back and seemed a little stronger and more regular so I listened to my body and we decided to stay where we were. We finished the film (god bless Netflix) and it started to feel like things were really moving. I put my headphones on and put a beautiful meditation track on. I started off walking round, pausing when surges came, and also tried out kneeling on the beanbag over the birth ball. I had loved the affirmations suggested by PBC but some of them weren’t as fitting to our unique situation so I came up with my own personal ones in the moment which I said as the surge hit and I performed my ‘up’ breathing: “Eternal baby Luke, we love you so much” and “Eternal baby Luke, we can’t wait to meet you”.
It quickly became clear to me that this birth was going to be different to my first in terms of intensity. My surges increased in power and started to come on top of each other with barely a few seconds in between. I’m not sure if it was the induction, the fact it was second time, or a mix of both plus the psychological impact of knowing he was going to be born still, but I decided quickly I would accept drugs to assist me. I started with gas and air and then later a half dose of diamorphine. While I would have preferred to labour without drugs, I recognised their use and knew they would help me focus and maintain my positivity.
Around 2pm, I suddenly had a flash of feeling like I needed to push and jumped onto the bed. This went away again but it helped me find a comfy position hugging the head of the bed and this is the position I used for the remainder of the labour. My husband read one of the beautiful passages from our hypnobirthing course, ad-libbing to change some of the wording to suit our situation. At 2.30pm I had another examination and was 6cm. I had a moment curled up in the foetal position having a little cry and then trying to regain my composure; I think still shell shocked at how quickly things were moving. I laboured for another 30 minutes until I felt I was getting close. I asked my husband to put on a playlist I had created for Luke. I had a fun, mostly upbeat playlist I had created for our daughter’s birth, and had added and listened to throughout my pregnancy. But it didn’t feel right given our situation. So I had pulled a few of the more heartfelt songs from there and added a couple very poignant to our situation and made a small playlist especially for him.
Similar to my daughter’s birth, I found the ‘pushing’ phase in many ways easier than the rest of labour. By now I had become quite vocal – already ‘mooing’ at the intense surges. I like to think it was a productive sound – and it certainly felt right to me. It felt like a tiny bit of self-pity could come out in that mournful sound and so allow the rest of me to remain positive. The midwife told me to listen to my body and push if I needed to. I managed to zone in completely to what was going on and focus on ‘breathing’ Luke down rather than pushing. I actually found myself thinking back to a lovely image from one of my hypnobirthing books where the baby’s head emerges gently, the vagina opening like a rose. At the time I thought it was a little bit ridiculous but in that moment it helped me focus on being as gentle as I could as Luke’s head emerged. I felt the most amazing sensation once his head was out – I felt no pain or discomfort, just a sense of peace. I’m sure a lot of it was hormones (and some drugs of course) but I like to think a lot of it was just the immense relief and pride that I had got to this point for my darling boy. As the opening lines of ‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran rang out, our perfect son was fully delivered. The midwives checked him over, my husband cut the cord and I was asked if I’d like to turn round and receive our son.
Being handed Luke was just the most amazing moment. I didn’t cry, I couldn’t cry. He was just so perfect and vulnerable and warm. We drank in his sweet smell and kissed his beautiful face. The midwives quickly and respectfully busied themselves with preparing for the third stage. After I was given the injection for the placenta it was a short while before I delivered that – a tiny little push. At some point either before or after, the midwives showed us the knot in Luke’s cord. It was a tight, true knot. You could see how one side was red with the other white and pale. They both seemed shocked at the sight and said while it’s impossible to say for certain, the knot was very tight and likely the cause of his death. I immediately found comfort in this – somehow seeing something tangible as the cause brought some comfort. It was double edged though as it seemed apart from the knot he was a perfect baby so it was difficult not to fill our heads with ‘What ifs’.
After he was born we spent ages just cuddling him. We looked at his body, his tiny hands and feet, his beautiful perfectly formed ears and rose-bud lips. We took so many photos, the midwives made hand and foot prints, we bathed him and dressed him in a sleep suit, taking care with his paper-thin skin. The midwife clipped some of his freshly washed hair for us to put in our memory box. We read him a story: “Guess How Much I Love You”; a book we had read countless times to our daughter, even from her earliest days. In a complete role reversal, my husband wept openly as I gazed down with just glazed eyes. I kept asking myself why I wasn’t crying – it seemed so inhuman. I later realised it must have been the intense oxytocin rush of giving birth to my much-loved boy. And a good dose of shock too. But I like to think it was the hormones, flooding in to remind me I was still his mother – and would always be his mother.
We were lucky enough to be able to use the hospital’s cold cot so we could sleep overnight with Luke. After many more cuddles, kisses and photos we snuggled him up for the night. We tucked a blue bunny my Mum had given us for him, and one of the identical teddy bears the hospital had given us as part of our memory box, in with him so we would have his scent and presence all over them. My husband cuddled up with the other bear that we would be leaving with Luke and I wrapped myself in a blanket I was planning to use for morning cuddles.
We woke early again and I couldn’t wait to cuddle Luke. He was so cold by now but still looked so beautiful. I wrapped him up in my blanket and we cuddled for ages. It was so comfy and I remember feeling like it could have been one of those gorgeous dozy newborn cuddles you have in the haze of the first few days. Just perfect.
We had arranged for our friends to bring our daughter, Lara, to the hospital around 10am so we could introduce her to Luke and then our friends would take care of her for a little while so we could sort out any final formalities and say our goodbyes. We were very conscious of what to say – and not say – to her to try to help her deal with things, but also aware just how unpredictable toddlers can be. In the end it went well. She didn’t want to touch or kiss Luke but we all read him the same story again and she sang him ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ before she left - which we managed to catch on video. In the days since, she has mentioned him a few times and also clearly knows something sad has happened. If I’m crying and explain why, she will fetch her favourite cuddly toy for me. It’s so heartwarming to see her showing such empathy and we hope we can support her to understand more as she grows and we keep Luke’s memory alive.
After Lara had seen him, we asked for assistance from the midwives to change Luke out of his babygro into another one so we could keep the original one, with his beautiful scent, with us. The new one read: ‘Little Brother’. His body looked so fragile that we were scared to hurt him but the midwives took such care: touching him so tenderly as they undressed and redressed him. We added matching mittens to his hat which both said “50% Mama, 50% Papa” and had been a gift for Lara from her Auntie before she was born. Alone again, we snipped locks of our own hair to place inside his sleep suit, on his chest, so he had part of us with him for the journey ahead.
Leaving Luke in the hospital was probably the hardest part of the hardest experience of my life. I didn’t want to stop kissing him and stroking his face. Now the tears had appeared and I worried they wouldn’t stop. Somehow, both my husband and I gave him our final kisses and walked out of the room.
Our story isn’t over – it’s barely begun. The birth was such a powerful positive force to be able to focus on and I am so very glad we managed to make such a set of treasured memories over those days. People have called me strong for what I decided to do – and I guess more generally for my initial response – but I truly believe it’s now we will need the real strength. The strength not to get caught up in what ifs, in guilt, in second-guessing every decision made not just in that final week but in those nine months. The strength not to give in to the temptation to wallow (at least not all the time), but to find a way to deal with what we have to accept was just an unspeakably shit hand someone had to be dealt by life.
Strength to me now is making sure I can look back on Luke’s birth and his very existence as a gift; his legacy must be for us to be better people, better parents than we were before. While it’s tempting to let grief consume us, that does nothing to honour our sweet boy. For us, we have to believe that Luke (whose name is often said to mean “light-giving’) was sent to us for a reason; his existence must have a meaning and a legacy that is positive. We can no longer look after our boy’s physical form but we can honour him by living each day a little better: being kinder, living more colourfully and treasuring every precious moment.
You can find Kat on Instagram, embracing grief, celebrating life and keeping a gratitude journal, here: @lovedenoughforalifetime
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