At 36 weeks gestation, Emma Bowes (@honestly.emma) was confronted with the heartbreaking realisation that her 4th baby, Elke, no longer had a heartbeat. From that moment on her life changed forever. Here, she shares her journey.
[Just a heads up: the following blog contains images and a personal account of stillbirth and baby loss. If you’re sensitive to this content or may be triggered, please tread lightly].
RoP: Can you share the story of Elke’s passing?
I was 36 weeks pregnant with our 4th child. We were so excited that our family was expanding, and the sex of the baby was a surprise. Each of my 3 prior pregnancies had been beautiful, normal pregnancies and I had experienced 3 drug-free, intervention free, natural Hypnobirths. Pregnancy for me was blissful, and birth was empowering. I was so excited that I got to do it all again.
For my 4th birth, I was planning a homebirth through the Byron Bay Midwifery program. Each birth had gotten significantly quicker, and my last birth was 1.5hrs from waking to giving birth in hospital, so I knew that being comfortable at home was probably the best option. I was so excited to take my natural birth a step further and experience birth at home!
The week beginning the 1st November, I noticed that I had felt less movements. I was away for a 2 night solo retreat, and I told myself it was nothing and not to worry, and just enjoy the time I had to myself. I had never had any reason to be concerned in all of my other pregnancies, so I think I just pushed the concern away. I woke up the next morning and again was worried I hadn’t felt any movement, but a few hours later I felt a lot of movement and thought everything was ok.
I now understand that ANY change in movement, either an decrease OR increase of movement, is reason to be concerned. But at the time I wasn’t aware of this, and so after I felt movement again, I went back to doing life and put all concern out of my mind.
However, on the morning of Thursday 7th November, I woke up and I just knew I needed to go to hospital to have the baby checked. I was concerned I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt movement.
My husband was working in Brisbane, so I dropped our kids to a friend and drove myself to the Byron hospital. The midwife used a doppler and spent a few minutes trying to locate the baby’s heartbeat. She wasn’t having any luck, and went to grab another midwife. At this stage, I was still telling myself that everything would be ok.
The second midwife also couldn’t locate a heartbeat and advised that I would need to go up to Tweed Hospital (40 mins away), to have an ultrasound to see what was going on. I would later find out, that the midwives were quite sure that my baby had died, however they are not permitted to give me that news in the absence of an Obstetrician.
So I called my husband, Leon, who was in Brisbane and he jumped straight in the car to meet me at Tweed. I called a girlfriend in Byron to drive me up to the hospital.
Once I arrived at Tweed hospital I was taken into a room and was met by an Obstetrician and a midwife. There was a bedside ultrasound machine in the room. I asked if I could wait until Leon got there, he was about 15 minutes away. The Obstetrician advised that it was best to do the scan straight away because if the baby was in distress, we would need to go to surgery straight away.
So I agreed for the scan to happen. Almost immediately I could see the heart chamber on the screen. I had been to enough scans to know what the screen was supposed to look like. A hive of activity, blood flowing in and out, valves opening and closing. But on the screen there was nothing.
An empty chamber.
I already knew what was happening before she said those words. “I’m sorry, there is no heartbeat. Your baby has died”.
No tears came. I was in shock. I looked at the doctor as she spoke to me, not believing that this was happening. Yet some part of me had known. My subconscious/intuition, whatever you want to call it, had been tuning into this for a week. But my conscious mind pushed these thoughts so deep, it didn’t allow me to entertain it.
I became aware of the midwife’s hand on my leg, and I just stared at it. Such an intimate gesture from someone I had just met. I put my hand on top of her hand, and finally the tears came. I fell into her arms and sobbed.
About 15 minutes later Leon arrived, and we were told what the next few days might look like. We were presented with all of the options, but the main recommendation being that I give birth to the baby naturally. I knew that was the case, as I had a good friend whose firstborn, Charlie, was stillborn 17 years before. I also knew that we would be encouraged to spend as much time with our baby as we needed, and that it was ok for other people to come and meet and hold our baby.
We were given the option to go home and come back the next day, but I choose to stay at hospital and be induced as soon as possible. I didn’t see any point in going home and delaying the inevitable. Before they could induce me, I had to have a formal Ultrasound with a qualified Sonographer. It was during this scan that we found out that we were having a girl. We had always kept the sex a surprise until birth, but I needed to know who our baby was, so I had the most amount of time knowing her before we had to say goodbye.
Shortly after, I was given the first lot of drugs to stimulate contractions. I was told it could take anywhere from a few hours up to a few days for the baby to be delivered. Thankfully a long labour was not my experience. 8 hours after the first dose, and only a few hours of intense contractions, our beautiful girl was silently born into the world at 11.56pm on 7th November.
Elke Pixie Bowes.
Elke was handed to me and we got to lay eyes on her for the first time. She was simply perfect. She looked exactly like her brothers and sister, the same little nose as all of them. It was hard to comprehend that she wasn’t alive. Every part of her was completely perfect, except her heart had stopped beating.
The next 20 hours were spent with Elke in hospital trying to create as many memories as we could. She didn’t leave our arms in all of that time. Our kids came up to meet their baby sister and give her cuddles, both sets of grandparents and one of my close girlfriends also came to meet Elke.
We were told that we could stay as long as we needed, but by 7pm the next day, both Leon and I were completely exhausted. We hadn’t slept for 36 hours, and with the added heaviness of acute grief, we knew we had to go home to our own bed.
Saying goodbye to Elke, and leaving her at the hospital, was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It was an impossible ask to walk away from my baby. But we knew we had to do it. We walked out of the hospital with empty arms and broken hearts, leaving our 4th child behind.
RoP: How did you get through those initial minutes, hours, days, weeks?
I am not really sure how I managed. I was a complete mess after we left the hospital, I just spent days in bed. I was incapable of doing anything. I am usually such a competent, independent person, and I could even put a load of washing on. Thank god for the support network around us. We were so lucky to have family and friends who rallied around us, and kept us functioning. Meals were cooked, kids were taken to school, so much was taken care of. I’m not sure what we would have done without that support.
Leon had planned to take 3 months off when the baby arrived, so after Elke died, he brought that forward and thankfully he was able to stay home with all of us for 4 months. Having him home and there as a constant support was so helpful.
Experiencing the loss of a child can put a big strain on some relationships, we are fortunate that it has brought us closer together. Right from the beginning we spoke about the need to communicate clearly, to tell each other how we were feeling, and to be there for each other. And we have managed to do that.
In those initial weeks and months, I made my world as small as I could. I couldn’t speak to anyone on the phone, it just seemed like such an enormous task to answer phone calls. So I limited my communication with people to text messages. That was all that I could manage. I ventured out when I felt like I could, but I spent a lot of time in the safety of our home. I did the Lighthouse walk in Byron often, that has been a huge part of my healing.
I sought out any books I could find on grief, loss and specifically baby loss. I found myself searching hashtags on Instagram, and discovered a whole new world of baby loss that I didn’t know existed. This community was actually my life line. I was able to read other women’s stories, read their heartache, and read how they continued to live after the loss of their baby. I reached out to women thanking them for sharing their stories, and formed incredible connections that helped me through those early days. Even now, every day via Instagram, I am connected with women who have lost their babies. It is such a supportive community, and a place where I feel completely understood.
RoP: What have you learned from Elke?
Elke has opened my eyes up to the fragility and the beauty of life. She has made me realise what an absolute miracle our 3 other children are. She has made me see them through a completely different lens. Things that used to worry me or I would get upset about, I now let them slide more often. Elke has taught me to relax into my parenting, and not sweat the small stuff. I realise how lucky we are to have 3 incredible and healthy children. I think she has helped me be more present as a mother, and I have more time for my children. If they want an extra back tickle at bedtime, then I will give it to them. If they eat just before dinner, or they stay up a bit later, or they want an extra book read to them at bedtime – that is ok. I don’t take any of them for granted. I try my best not to lose my temper (not always possible!), and at the moment I am just enjoying being with them.
She has also taught me that a life does not need to be long to have a big impact. I have been blown away by the number of hearts she has touched. So many people have reached out to me and let me know how Elke has impacted their life. In so many different ways, she has made people appreciate what they have. A little girl who never took her first breath, has left a huge imprint on this world.
I believe that she came to me for a reason, and she has redefined my purpose and my life work. When I held Elke in my arms, I felt so strongly that she had changed the course of my life. Of course the loss would change any parent, but I felt intuitively that she had altered my life’s mission, that somehow I would help others who have experienced the loss of their baby. So I guess I will see where that takes me.
RoP: What have been the biggest challenges of this experience?
Learning to trust what is, and learning to accept what is here. I have a science background and am used to looking for the “why” in most things. I also have a deep spiritual belief that life plays out exactly as it is supposed to, but it is really hard to accept that when your life has been shattered into a million pieces. All of my spiritual beliefs have been tested, and I have wondered many times, what the fuck is the meaning in all of this? Why did this happen? Why didn’t Elke stay? I’ve desperately searched for answers or meaning, but I’ve realised I’m not going to find any, and that has been really hard for me.
The other thing that has been a huge challenge is letting go of the guilt, that I didn’t do enough to save Elke. I knew I had felt less movements, I knew something wasn’t right, and yet I pushed it away and didn’t go in and get checked. I played those days over and over in my head, running through every “what if” scenario. What if I had gone in earlier, would she still be here?
This has been so hard to let go of, and I find these thoughts resurfacing all of the time. I have had other loss mothers tell me that this guilt never leaves you. At our core we feel that our job as mothers is to protect our children, and I feel like I didn’t do enough to protect Elke. So I am still working on this one. I thought I had come to a place of acceptance and self-compassion, but the last few days the guilt has resurfaced, so there is obviously still a bit of work to do there!
RoP: Has your perception of life changed because of Elke?
It has changed a lot. I am no longer scared of dying, because I know when my time comes, that I will be with Elke again. That brings me a lot of comfort.
I’ve also come to realise that we have no control over our life. Elke has made me realise how much I needed control in my life before. I needed to feel like I was in control all of the time. I was a habitual planner, and loved being organised. Elke has helped me see that this planning was actually thinly veiled control. And the control that I thought I had, it is all an illusion.
Elke’s death has made me realise we have no control over life at all. This realisation could make many people even more fearful, but in a strange way, it has given me a sense of comfort. I no longer need to worry. I don’t have to try to have control over everything, it doesn’t matter if everything isn’t in order, it doesn’t matter if I’m not striving for the next big thing. Because control doesn’t guarantee that everything goes to plan. I’ve learnt firsthand, that your world can be tipped upside in an instant.
RoP: What advice could you offer other parents experiencing stillbirth that you wish you’d heard?
I was extremely fortunate to have a beautiful friend, Anita, who had been through this awful journey 17 years before me. Her firstborn, Charlie, was stillborn at 36 weeks – the same gestation as Elke. Anita is like an older sister to me. I am so grateful to Anita and Charlie for being my guiding light throughout all of this. I don’t know how I could have done it without them. Their journey really helped me to know what was ahead on mine.
Because of Anita, I knew the importance of spending time with Elke once she was born to create special memories. I knew that it was ok for others to come and meet Elke and hold her. I knew it was important to take lots of photos. The only thing that I wish we had done, was a plaster cast of Elke’s hands and feet.
My advice would be to reach out to other loss parents in support groups, on Instagram or through mutual friends. Find someone who is ahead of you on their journey. It can be incredibly supportive to speak with someone who understands. Someone who knows what you are going through, and doesn’t think anything that you’re saying is crazy! It’s nice to talk to someone about your loss and feel normal.
RoP: Elke’s celebration was so incredibly moving and beautiful. How did it help your family?
Oh my gosh, it was the most amazing day! I honestly believe that it had a huge part to play in our healing journey.
My beautiful friend Anita offered to organise Elke’s farewell, and I am so glad she did because it was the last thing that Leon and I felt like doing. Through Anita, we met Susie Figgis, a beautiful celebrant and she helped us design a unique way to farewell Elke.
The day before Elke’s celebration, Elke was brought home to us at sunrise so the kids, Leon and I could say our final goodbyes. It was a beautiful and heartbreaking morning. There were so many tears shed, but it was so special that she came home and we were able to say goodbye privately in our own space. Elke was cremated that afternoon.
The next day we had Elke’s celebration at Little Wategos in Byron Bay. We decided to keep it small and only have family and a few close friends. For me, this day was a time to celebrate Elke’s short little life. All of my tears had been shed the day before, and this was a celebration of our love for her.
Susie, Yaz (from Rite of Passage Funerals) and Anita, created THE most amazing ceremony to celebrate our little girl. We were all taken on a beautiful journey of transformation by Susie. She took us to the depths of our emotions, but left us all feeling hopeful and a little better than when we arrived. So many people mentioned to us how healing the ceremony was.
Everything about the morning was simply perfect. I had very little input, other than answering a few of Anita’s questions, and honestly, it was exactly as I would have wished, had I planned the whole thing myself.
The most special moment was when I arrived and saw a flower mandala set up in front of the alter. For years I have dreamed of having an event with a flower mandala, and Elke gifted this to me. I had tears in my eyes as I told Yaz how much this meant to me that she had organised this. Yaz intuitively knew that a mandala was what we needed.
I hold beautiful memories of our farewell ceremony for Elke, and Little Wategos remains a sacred place for our family to visit and remember her.
RoP: Do you have any rituals or ceremonies in honour of Elke? Or do you plan any in the future?
I do the Lighthouse Walk in Byron at least once a week, and go and visit Little Wategos. I sit and listen to a couple of Elke’s songs and have a moment thinking about her. Sunrise and sunset are when I feel closest to her, so sitting and watching those moments in the day, help me connect in with her.
At Christmas, Leon and I each wrote a card to Elke and placed it in her memory box. We plan to do that every year, and maybe read them when she would turn 21. I think it is a beautiful way to document and capture the years.
Her 1 year anniversary will be coming up soon, I am not sure what that will involve. I’m thinking we will have a small gathering at Little Wategos and maybe let some flowers go in the ocean again. Still some time to plan that one!
GROWING THROUGH GRIEF
RoP: How have you grown through your grief journey?
It is still so early, it’s only been 9 months, so I am still finding my way. I am trying so hard to be compassionate with myself. I’ve changed. The old me no longer exists, and I’m trying to be gentle with myself as I learn who this new version is. I know there is still a lot of growth ahead of me, and growth can often feel uncomfortable. I’m leaning into it as best as I can. I came across the term post-traumatic growth, and I love this! I like to think that as I move through my grief that I will transform and grow in ways I could never have imagined.
RoP: How do you want to be remembered? What’s your legacy?
I hope that Elke’s legacy lives on through me, and together we can help remove the taboo around talking about stillbirth. That by continuing to share our story, it will save others going through this heartache. That women will know that kicks count and movements matter, and they will trust their intuition and go and get checked. My hope is that Elke will continue to guide me, and I can make a difference to women experiencing the loss of their baby.
And of course my greatest legacy would be raising my living children to be thoughtful, respectful kids who are unafraid to be themselves. If I can raise them to be happy, healthy people who love life…. then my job is done.
Image credit: Roshini McCartin. If you’d like to reach out to Emma personally you can reach her at @honestly.emma on Instagram).
EMMA’S GRIEF TOOLKIT
Writing has been a huge part of my grief journey. I started journaling about 4 days after Elke died. It felt so good to get words onto the page, and to express how I was feeling. After a few weeks I realised that I was often just writing the same thing over and over, and I didn’t feel like it was helping me. It was like I was just rehashing the same thoughts over and over and I was stuck in a holding pattern.
I had this burning desire to share Elke’s story. I felt she deserved to have her story told, but I knew that I was in the depths of grief and I didn’t want to share it publicly at such an early stage. So I asked a small group of people to bear witness to her story, and I started writing Elke’s Entries. I knew writing the Entries for myself wasn’t enough, I needed them to be witnessed.
Each entry has been about a different area of my grief, and sent in a newsletter format, with photos and quotes. Each entry takes me about 5 or 6 hours to write, edit and proof-read, so by the time I press send and it goes out to my small group of people, I feel like I have completely processed that part of my grief. It has been hugely healing for me.