Emma Hansen was 39 weeks pregnant when the unthinkable happened and her baby boy’s heart stopped beating. This is her heart-wrenching account of how she had to give birth to her longed-for first child – then immediately say goodbye.
I never know when I’ll sense Reid’s presence. It isn’t in a toothbrush left behind or a frequently worn item of clothing. It’s in the absences that I feel him most. It’s everywhere that I had imagined he’d one day be.
It is the last Tuesday of my pregnancy. March is rounding the corner of April 2015. I am having lunch with my mother after a walk by the ocean. ‘Are you nervous?’ she asks.
‘What, about the birth?’ I think about it for a moment. Actually, no. I’m really not all that nervous. ‘We don’t have much of a birth plan. I’m pretty open to whatever is needed.’
She nods, ‘That’s a good way to go into it.’ Then she muses, ‘I wonder if he’ll come this weekend? Near his due date?’
‘Wouldn’t that be something?’ Imagining it then, I smile. Later, at home, I wrap my arms around my husband Aaron as we gaze into the nursery together. I think back to nine months ago, and my anxious tears when those two pink lines first appeared on the pregnancy test. We hadn’t been trying to avoid pregnancy, but at 24 and 26, it wasn’t exactly part of our plan to have kids this young. But Aaron was all in for this too.
‘We can do this,’ he reassured me after I’d given him the big news. ‘I’m excited.’
That evening, Aaron and I head to our midwife appointment. Each time, the baby is always lively, his heartbeat is strong, his growth on track. I listen to the sound of his heartbeat today. Like a galloping horse. The rhythmic melody circles around the room. But a tiny voice speaks up from the back of my mind through the noise. Is it a bit slower than usual? I shush it. Everything is fine.
We are fine. Nothing bad can happen at this point. We are nearly there, almost home. The voice goes away, and I return to listening to the beating of his heart. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
I hear that tiny voice again the next morning. It has spoken only a few times during my pregnancy: when I noticed a speckle of blood at five weeks; at our anatomy ultrasound when it showed something unexpected; and earlier that week at our appointment when the heartbeat seemed a little slower than usual. Now I hear it again, bellowing at me: He hasn’t kicked yet!
My stomach churns, then prickles nervously the way it does in moments of heightened anxiety. I reach for my Doppler [a device that picks up the baby’s heartbeat] from my bedside table drawer and turn it on, squeeze jelly on to the wand and press it to my belly. I wait for the familiar whoosh, whoosh, whoosh but there is nothing, just static. I move it around. Still nothing. ‘Maybe it’s broken?’ Aaron asks, hopefully. I know it isn’t.
At the hospital, a nurse runs a Doppler over my stomach. It’s the longest minute of our lives. I watch her face the entire time and in those 60 seconds her expression goes from fresh and confident to very panicked. I know then that something is terribly wrong. Hooked up to a monitor I will his heart to start beating again. Just beat, one more time. Then the doctor speaks the worst words I’ll ever hear: ‘I have the ultrasound focused on his heart now. Do you see that?’ She points to a spot in the middle of the screen. ‘It’s not moving. And there’s no red and blue to signify blood flow. I’m so sorry, but your baby is dead.’
It’s as if I’m removed from everything, a bystander on the outskirts of someone else’s trauma. I see us collapse into each other’s arms, breathless and sobbing. I see Aaron drape himself over my belly, hear him beg for a kick. All I can feel is my heart, how it threatens to escape my chest, and my throat, which houses foreign cries. Everything else seems to have fallen away.
Then the thought hits me that we’ll have to tell our families. Aaron takes my phone. I gather my hands in front of my face and whimper as he dials my mother’s number. ‘We’re at the hospital. I think you should come. They can’t find Reid’s heartbeat.’ He uses our favourite of the names we chose. I hear the muffled panic of my mother’s raised voice.
‘No. No,’ he chokes. ‘They can’t find it. He’s gone.’
He makes more calls, each one breaking my heart into a million more pieces, each one constructing a new level of shock. I don’t think I can face the pain on our families’ faces, though I know I will need their support more than anything.
I sit there and stare at my quiet belly and repeat the words to myself slowly, trying to understand. Our baby is dead. Beneath my skin is the body of our child, and somehow that body has to come out. I am sure they will put me under and cut him from me. But a new obstetrician comes to review our options. All of them involve me having to deliver our dead baby, something I am completely unprepared to hear. The idea of labour, which I was so calm about before, terrifies me now.
It is an inexplicable feeling to carry death inside you when the very concept of pregnancy is so explicitly connected to life. To be in a room surrounded by family mourning a soul that has departed when the body has not. He is still here. He is with us. And he has to come out. You can’t bury a body in utero; can’t cremate remains that exist in the in-between. Instead, you have to do the impossible. Somehow, it must be done.
Less than an hour after we get home, the contractions start. Soon, I can’t make it through them without clutching Aaron’s hand, fighting back against the force of them. ‘I can’t do this without pain relief any more,’ I moan.
Our midwife Susie arrives around midnight. She exhales audibly as she steps into the room.
‘Susie has lost a son too,’ our doula Jill says.
‘Really?’ I gaze at her desperately, and she nods. I can almost sense her ache. I feel instantly heartbroken and grateful at the same time. Somehow, she is surviving. Maybe I will too.
My waters break in a dramatic gush shortly after the epidural. Susie quietly says that it’s time to start pushing, if I’m ready. I look to Aaron and have to blink away the tears. This is it. We are about to bring our son into the world then, too quickly, say goodbye. I look at the clock – it’s 2am on our due date – and grip Aaron’s hand as I nod.
As Reid is born, I take him from Susie’s hands and pull him up on to my chest. Aaron cuts the umbilical cord. At 2:24am on 4 April 2015 our beautiful son is born, still.
We pore over every flawless inch of his strong body. He is the perfect mixture of us both. I see Aaron’s nose, head shape, long fingers and toes. But he has my eyes, dimpled chin
and shock of black hair. I don’t believe it’s bias when I think that he’s a striking baby. These moments are both the happiest and the most painful I’ve ever known.
Then Susie says the words we never thought we’d hear: ‘We know what happened. There’s a tight true knot in his umbilical cord.’ This knot is what killed him. Jill shows me a photo. The cord is dark and rich with life-sustaining fluids on one side of the knot, and on the other side, the one closest to his body, it is pale. Nothing was getting through. He was starved of all that was created to provide for him.
True knots are rare, happening in less than two per cent of all pregnancies. And even more rarely are they fatal, because usually the knot doesn’t tighten so severely. We are told he must have done a few somersaults and tied it when he was very small. Then when he dropped in preparation for his birth, it would have tightened – slowly or quickly, we’ll never know.
On one hand, it’s a small relief to know it wasn’t something we did or didn’t do. But that same knowledge brings tremendous grief; his passing happened completely out of our control. We couldn’t have protected him from this.
I lie with Reid in my arms. When I close my eyes, I can so easily pretend that he is just sleeping too, that any second he’ll wiggle the way he did in my belly, or cry out to be fed. I memorise the weight of his body in my arms, imprint the image of his face in my mind.
Until sunrise, Reid is heavy in my arms and perfect in his body. With family surrounding us, and without the reality of the light, I can almost imagine everything is as we’ve dreamed it would be. When the sun comes up, the clock will start ticking. We are on borrowed time; Reid has already started to change. But for this moment, in the magic of the night, he is safe in my arms, protected from the harshness of light and time. Reid is simply my baby who has just been born.
We put him in the newborn outfit I’d packed long ago to bring him home in. A white and grey outfit with mittens and a hat and a tiny sweater to match. It feels strange to be able to do these things: weigh and bathe and dress him. As he lies on my lap, it occurs to me that he was a part of me for his entire life and now here he is, suddenly separate. I want to repair our bond, to somehow absorb him. I want to find our way back to the time and place where he was alive. I want to be together again.
I watch Aaron hold our son, pain and pride written on his face, a father’s love for his child bursting into the room. I don’t ever want to forget this moment. My own heart throbs to see how Reid can’t meet his gaze, to grasp that he will never get the opportunity.
I only close my eyes again for a minute, but now everyone else is gone and a woman I don’t recognise is at my bedside. He is right here, in my arms, and this woman is talking about all of these terrible things we’ll have to do when he is ‘gone’. Gone. I continue to stare at my beautiful boy as she talks.
‘…you won’t get a birth certificate,’ I hear her say. ‘So, here’s the form for the certificate of remembrance that you can get.’
My eyes jump up to meet hers. ‘We don’t get a birth certificate?’ This woman can’t be serious. ‘But he was born five hours ago. Look at him.’
‘I know. I’m so sorry. So sorry. But he didn’t take a breath. So…’ she trails off and gives me a pitiful half-smile as she looks at my son. ‘He’s perfect.’ I wrestle with many things immediately following Reid’s death, but none more than this: what happens when the order of birth and death are disrupted? Stillbirth goes against the way most people think about life and death, and the timeline in which they occur. When death takes a life before birth, is it a life? I don’t know. I don’t think there will ever be an answer that feels certain, or one that is right for everyone. But right here, right now, I wonder, is it really just a single breath of air that creates a life? And the absence of it that makes a death?
After 14 hours and six minutes with Reid, we know as well as we will ever know that we are ready to leave his body. As much as I don’t want to say goodbye, I also desperately need to.
Aaron bends down and kisses the smooth skin of Reid’s forehead. I reach my hands underneath the cotton of his clothing and draw him up to my chest. Slowly, I press him into me and take a deep breath, soaking up as much of him as I can. I give Reid one last kiss. My fingers linger on his chest, where his arms are delicately crossed. I turn to leave, but my arm refuses to follow. His hand, soft and limp in my grasp, slides gently toward the floor. His hat has fallen a little off his head, and his black hair is visible at the edge. His lips are a deep blood red. I glance at the clock above the hospital bed. 4.45pm. Then I turn my back and walk away. I don’t – I can’t – look back.
In the first days after, my mind is at war with itself. I want to remember it all. In photos, diaries, and old texts from when I was pregnant. I also want the days to fade into oblivion, to wipe the pain from my memory. But I can’t figure out how to keep Reid alive in my heart without the ache. Will it always be like this? I have to believe it will get better. But then, do I want it to? Because when it gets better, what will be lost in the process?
Really, I just miss him. That’s it. That’s the whole problem. I miss him every single second. My body cries for him. In tears, blood and milk it wails deep into the burden of the night. And there is nothing that can soothe me dry.
On the second Sunday after his death, our family comes over to our apartment for the celebration of Reid’s life. Our home seems like the only appropriate place to have it. It is where his soul entered this world, and where it left it. These walls framed the span of his existence.
At the end of the day, Aaron speaks.
‘It feels like an injustice that we should learn so much about him, but never truly get the chance to meet him, to look into his eyes. What questions we had about our future together have been replaced with darker ones; our joy has turned to pain. We are grateful for the time that we were able to spend with him, but we wish we had more. More time to love him, more time to know him, like…’ he falters now, struggling to make it through.
‘What colour were his eyes? What would his voice sound like? Would he be tall? What would he love to do? Was he shy or outgoing?
‘These questions are tough ones to ask, but they are important. For though we will never find the answers, they will help us to remember him. Remembering will keep him alive in our hearts.’
A cry escapes my 90-year-old grandfather Reid, our baby’s namesake. I’ve never seen him cry before, and seeing his tears – well, I think it says everything I cannot.
In 2016, Emma became pregnant again and had Everett (now three years old); Atticus (five months) followed last year. Reid is very much part of their lives: his footprints hang on the walls alongside those of his brothers. ‘It feels like something is missing,’ says Emma. ‘We know we have three boys, but only two of them are here. But then part of me thinks we have a really beautiful family and though Reid isn’t physically present, we find a way to have him with us now. The grief is there, but the happiness and love is there, too.’
This is an edited extract from Still: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Motherhood by Emma Hansen (Greystone Books, £14.99).
If you have been affected by the death of a baby, visit sands.org.uk; 0808 164 3332.