Surviving Baby Loss

Surviving Baby Loss

It’s the last day of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Uncannily, my baby son, Cody, died on the 1st day of the month, albeit way back in 1995. It therefore seems fitting to book-end the month with a video interview about going on living after his death. I wrote previously about grieving when there’s someone to blame – this time, I’m talking about surviving baby loss.

I was privileged to be interviewed by Cait Wotherspoon, a bereavement counsellor based in Sydney, working with people ready to move beyond grief and loss, and rediscover joy. I grew up in Sydney myself before jumping ship to Melbourne, and we are both grief counsellors, so we have a lot in common and could have talked for hours! Sadly, we also share another commonality: the experience of surviving neonatal baby loss. One of Cait’s twins died one week after birth, and my son Cody died 9 hours after birth.

In this video, we discuss issues such as the disenfranchisement of paternal grief, grieving after negligence, and couple grief after baby loss. We also address the nuances of that pesky question that is so difficult to answer: “How many children do you have?” Ultimately, we reflected together on surviving baby loss over the years and how grief stays with us, transforms us, and changes over time.

I hope you enjoy watching my conversation with Cait.

I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me if you’d prefer to connect privately.

About the author: Karen

About the author: Karen

Counsellor and Coach

I’m a Registered Clinical Counsellor based in Melbourne, Australia. I came to counselling through my own experiences of loss, and my desire to come alongside people struggling to come to terms with loss and grief. It’s a privilege to companion someone in their darkest days and help them find the light inside themselves again. I am based in Melbourne, providing online counselling throughout Australia and coaching internationally.

Baby Loss: Grieving When There’s Someone to Blame

Baby Loss: Grieving When There’s Someone to Blame

Last Saturday was the first day of Pregnancy Infant Loss Awareness Month. It also happened to be the 27-year anniversary of the day my baby died. As a grief therapist, I spend much of my week sitting compassionately with those who are grieving the death of a loved one or the ending of a relationship. As a mother and a human, I, too, am well acquainted with the shadowlands of grief. It’s my losses that called me to this work, and it’s my work that creates meaning from my losses. 

Neonatal loss is a lot less common than it once was. I remember reading a friend’s genealogy book and noticing one particular family who kept calling their children by the same name until one finally stayed alive! These days, it’s less common to know someone whose baby has died, particularly in the 3rd trimester or the early days after birth. 

In Australia:

  • Six babies are stillborn every day
  • Two babies die during the neonatal period (the first 28 days after birth) 

When a baby is stillborn, the cause is often unknown, and parents need to live with the ongoing mystery of unanswered questions. When a baby dies in the neonatal period (the first 28 days of life), it’s often due to premature birth, complications during delivery, or a medical condition. Sometimes, neonatal loss is due to negligence and should not have occurred. In these cases, parents need to live with the knowledge that someone was to blame. This isn’t an easy reality to come to terms with and can leave parents struggling with prolonged grief complications. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

My baby’s death falls into the latter category: medical negligence.

I invite you to settle in while I tell you about Cody’s birth, death, and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. It’s a story of negligence, regrets, lessons, and finding peace. It may be triggering for some readers, so please decide whether this is right for you or not. I believe it’s time for negligent neonatal loss to be talked about, and yet I’ve grappled with how much to share. I write from a healed-yet-grieving place – to honour Cody’s short life – but mostly for you. I want you to know that whatever type of loss you’ve experienced, you can find peace and even grow in ways that may not have been possible without this tragedy.

Whether you’ve experienced the death of a baby due to unknown or natural causes, negligence, or a medical condition, I hope my story helps you come to terms with your loss and find a way forward through your grief and pain. There is no hierarchy in grief: your story is yours to make meaning from, whether the loss seems to others to be big or small. I write to show that you can move forward with your grief, even when there’s someone to blame. Grief may be your lifelong companion in some form, but you can grow through your grief, and you can find peace. 

Negligence and Regrets

Labour

I was determined to have a natural labour. My first labour had been one of those “labour from hell” experiences that lasted about 1,000 hours (I may be exaggerating), and this birth was going to be a completely different experience if I had anything to do with it. Well, that’s what my “birth plan” said, but birth plans don’t always work out the way we want them to. Realistically, my labour did go according to plan. It’s the post-birth stuff that went badly. Very badly. 

I was 13 days past my due date when I finally went into labour about 10 hours before a planned induction. I was so resistant to being induced that I resorted to about three doses of castor oil to get things going. It certainly did the trick, but I can’t say I’d recommend it! The thought of it still makes me shudder with disgust to the point I could vomit. 

I was looking forward to delivering in the Birth Centre, knowing that the labour ward and theatres were just upstairs if needed. We waited until midnight, when we knew our favourite midwife was starting her shift. I felt so safe with her and was delighted that she would be the one to bring our much-wanted son into the world!

  • Regret: Castor oil! Not just because it was so disgusting but because if I’d given birth in the labour ward, Cody would most likely be my 27-year-old son rather than my dead baby.
  • Regret: Waiting for this particular midwife’s shift to begin. She was eventually found guilty of 12 counts of medical negligence by the Health Care Complaints Commission (and then promoted to the position of Nurse Unit Manager at the Birth Centre where Cody had died, which has never made any sense).

My labour was relatively smooth sailing, and we were ticking all the birth plan boxes. (It ended up being the shortest and easiest out of my five deliveries!) I couldn’t be happier and was ecstatic that we’d soon be meeting our new, much-wanted baby!

As Cody was delivered, however, there was an unexpected sound – a “thud.” 

It was the sound of his ruptured umbilical cord dropping to the floor from my standing position. Houston, we have a problem! A big, big problem. 

Birth

Cody was born alive, thankfully! I only have one photo of him before he was placed on life support equipment, and I’ve never shared it publicly before. In its unedited state, there’s a bit of blood, but I was incredibly blessed last year to be gifted with an edited version by Heartfelt. (One day, I want to find just the right artist to create a watercolour painting – or perhaps black-and-white charcoal drawing – of this image.)

Newborn baby

Although Cody was born breathing, he needed some extra oxygen to help him along. The midwife urgently instructed my then-husband how to access and use the oxygen equipment for Cody while she attended to me, thinking I was haemorrhaging.  My husband held the oxygen above Cody’s face, but the midwife yelled at him to press it down over his mouth and nose to force the air into his lungs. 

  • Problem. The midwife failed to get help by pressing the giant red button on the wall or the pager on her belt. Instead, she expected the baby’s father to undertake a (hopefully) life-saving medical procedure.
  • Problem. The midwife failed to suction the meconium from Cody’s lungs before the oxygen was forced into them. This was ultimately the cause of his death. 

About thirty minutes later, the midwife did the “Apgar” test, which should have been done at 1 and 5 minutes post-delivery. She also showed us signs of his respiratory distress: flaring nostrils, chest recession, and a “grunting” sound as he tried to breathe. Nothing was written in his clinical notes at this time, although one long entry was written up about 2 hours later, in which she falsely stated that his Apgar score was done at 1 and 5 minutes, with scores of 1 out of 2, and then 2 out of 2, for breathing.

  • Problem. The midwife was clearly aware of Cody’s respiratory distress but failed to access help from the labour ward upstairs. 

Cody weighed in at a massive 5kg (11 pounds 5 ounces), and the midwife was impressed that we’d had a natural delivery of such a giant baby! When she should have been attending to his care or getting help, she was gloating about our successful delivery of such a large baby! She told us that babies larger than 10 pounds are often taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery (NICU) for observation and asked us whether we’d like to have more time with him first. We were on a post-delivery high and deferred to her, saying, “You’re the midwife. What do you think?” I’ve never forgotten her response: It’s just a silly hospital rule, don’t worry about it.

She wanted to give us bonding time. I’d rather have a lifetime with my living son.

  • Problem. It was the midwife’s responsibility to follow protocol. She had the medical knowledge to inform her decision. I personally believe she had a significant bias against medical intervention, which interfered with her clinical judgment. 
  • Regret. We trusted the midwife and followed her advice rather than bravely making a decision for ourselves. Disclaimer: Someone told me once that “they would have taken their baby straight to the NICU” (which is a pretty rude thing to say to someone grieving the death of their baby.) It’s easy to say that in hindsight, when you haven’t just given birth to a massive baby, and you don’t have hormones surging through your exhausted body. I wasn’t in a position to make a logical, informed decision. I had a great relationship with the midwife I’d been seeing throughout the pregnancy and trusted her judgment as a health professional. 

Early hours

Once Cody and I were stabilised, the midwife draped a blanket around us to “warm him up a bit” and made me a cup of tea (that fixes everything, right?). I was instructed not to breastfeed him as he “might have to go to the nursery a bit later on.” 

For the next hour and a half, the midwife occasionally popped her head into the room to ask me how he was. One comment I specifically recall saying was, “He makes a sort of moaning sound when I lift his legs up” (his legs were heavy and flopping down). This is alarming, on reflection. She seemed to think nothing of it.

  • Problem: I wasn’t listened to
  • Problem: I was given the responsibility of determining Cody’s state
  • Regret: I wish I’d insisted she listen to me. I didn’t know what was normal for a newborn, as I’d fallen asleep after my first baby was delivered. (Part way through delivery, actually, but we’ll leave that tale for another day!)
  • Problem: The midwife failed to provide accurate monitoring or assessment of a macrosomic (extra large) baby, even though she later stated in an investigation that she was experienced and aware of the additional risk factors of macrosomic newborns

Eventually, it was time for a much-needed shower. The midwife said Cody was still a bit cold, so she would attend to that while I got cleaned up. After my shower, my husband went out to get some things from the car and was surprised to find the midwife sitting outside, smoking and writing up the clinical notes (finally). 

“Where is Cody?”
“Oh, he’s in the utility room on a warming trolley.”

Subtext: He was ALONE! (It was later discovered that this was the “last straw”, after which he was basically unsavable due to loss of oxygen while alone in the utility room.)

  • Problem: Cody was unwell enough to need medical intervention, yet he was left alone and unsupervised.

Finally Getting Help

It was decided that Cody would be taken up to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). First, my husband brought Cody to me so I could see him (I was barely able to walk). I noticed that he wasn’t a good colour, his mouth was wide open, and he wasn’t breathing normally. Something clearly wasn’t right. During the fateful walk to the NICU, my husband said to the midwife, “It’s like he’s gasping for air.” Her response was, again, alarming: “You’d be stressed, too, if you’d just been delivered and were such a large baby.” 

Upon arrival at the nursery, the midwife laid Cody down on the bench, opened the blankets, and said the words I’ve never forgotten (and that came back to haunt me for many years):

“Oh my God, he’s not breathing.” 

The NICU staff went into hyperdrive in their efforts to try to save Cody’s life. A paediatrician was called in urgently, blood tests were taken, and resuscitation equipment was attached to Cody’s not-so-little body. 

Newborn baby on life support

When the blood tests came back, the paediatrician yelled out in alarm: “Who the hell did these Apgars??” 

  • Problem. The midwife lied in the notes about the timing and results of the Apgar scores, stating that at 5 minutes post-delivery, his breathing was perfect, yet in reality, he was having oxygen forced into his lungs at that time.

The paediatrician said the blood tests indicated severe acidosis that was incompatible with life but that they’d do all they could to save him anyway. (And they certainly did!) He also said that Cody must have been without oxygen for some length of time for the results to be so bad. (Remember his time alone in the utility room?) 

Things weren’t looking good, but I was in denial that he would die. 

We knew a midwife at our small country hospital and asked if she was working. She came straight in to see us – RELIEF! Her familiar, loving face was so reassuring. I still cry when I think of how supportive she was on that fateful morning. When we mentioned the ruptured umbilical cord, she was shocked, as it wasn’t written in the notes and hadn’t been sent away for testing.

  • Problem: The midwife had falsified information in the clinical notes about what had happened after delivery. (When we later accessed the notes under the Freedom of Information Act, it was clear that the information about the cord had been added afterwards.)

The umbilical cord was retrieved from the bin, the efforts to save Cody continued, and I sat in my wheelchair in disbelief and despair. We began calling friends and family. When the paediatrician asked if we wanted to have Cody baptised, I was shocked and resistant – he was suggesting that our son would die! I couldn’t make space for the thought that this might happen.

Getting Even More Help

An incredible team of specialists from the Neonatal Emergency Transport Service came to take Cody by helicopter to the Children’s Hospital in Sydney. It took them hours to stabilise him before being able to airlift him by helicopter. (And it took me at least 10 years before I could look at a helicopter without crying. One day, I will ride in a helicopter in honour of Cody.) 

We were faced with a difficult decision: there was only room for one of us in the helicopter. From memory, my husband thought we should stay together rather than just one of us being left behind. It may have been a mutual decision? I guess I agreed. I don’t remember thinking coherently, but one thing I know is this:

  • Regret: I wish – without a doubt – that I’d gone in the helicopter with my son. It’s been immensely painful to know that I opted out of being by his side as he fought for his life. I should have been with him.

We waited at the hospital with close family and friends for news. My husband took the call in a different room and was told the awful news that Cody had suffered 7 cardiac arrests during the 12-minute helicopter flight. I discovered later that he’d been asked if we wanted them to keep trying to save Cody or turn off life support and let nature take its course. My then-husband made the choice – without consulting me – to turn off Cody’s life support. He returned to the room and said that Cody hadn’t made it, and life as I knew it was forever changed.

The only way I’ve been able to make sense of the fact that I had no choice in the decision to turn off Cody’s life support is that my then-husband was trying to protect me from having to make such an awful decision. If I’m honest, it’s been deeply painful to know that I was excluded from the decision. The choice was made for me. Perhaps I would have resisted? We’ll never know now.

  • Regret: I wish I had a voice in the life-or-death decision about my baby, and I wish I’d been with him as he breathed his final breath.
  • Regret: Ultimately, I wish he hadn’t died! 

Grief When There’s Someone to Blame

And so began the journey no one wants to take: trying to make sense of and adapt to the unexpected death of a much-wanted baby. I checked myself out of the hospital as I couldn’t bear to stay with all the mothers and babies, and we made the hour-long trek to the big city hospital. We were reunited with the nurse who’d held Cody while he died. Her name was Karen, too, and she’d worked overtime to wait for our arrival. Our parents supported us and grieved with us, and we introduced our 21-month-old son to his baby brother. 

Neonatal loss

I found it difficult to touch Cody at first, even though they’d kept him warm in a beautiful bassinet, but soon I couldn’t get enough of him. I didn’t want to let him go and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him behind. As his body started to go cold and stiff, my husband wanted to go. It’s a personal decision, and I went along with this but really didn’t want to. I didn’t voice a different preference at the time but I realised afterwards that I wish I’d stayed, and stayed, and stayed. It was incredibly difficult to leave. 

  • Regret: I wish with all my heart that I’d spent more time with Cody.

The next few days were a blur. Our house was filled with friends and family who came to visit. We were swept along on a sea of support, and I’m forever thankful. 

My husband didn’t want to see Cody’s body before the funeral – it was just too painful – and I went along with this decision. I wasn’t strong enough at the time to speak up, let alone know what I really wanted. And so I live with this regret. 

  • Regret: I deeply regret not going to the funeral home to see my son one more time

Not just sadness – anger, too

I remember the day we received a phone call from the paediatrician, who was on holiday. He said, “I don’t want to start a witch hunt, but it seems there is something really wrong here. Either Cody had a condition we don’t yet know about that caused his health to deteriorate rapidly, or something very wrong has happened.” He strongly suggested that we have an autopsy. 

I clearly remember saying to my husband, “It’s hard enough to be sad; I don’t want to be angry as well.” 

Our trust in the midwife had been strong – it was difficult to comprehend that she could have been negligent in Cody’s death. We even invited her to the funeral and spoke about her glowingly. (Another regret! Shock can do strange things to a person.) Slowly, we started asking questions of health professionals, including friends who were nurses: 

  • “Is it normal to have a parent try to resuscitate their baby?”
  • “What’s the normal process when an umbilical cord ruptures?”
  • “Is it normal to withhold breastmilk from a macrosomic baby?”
  • “Is it normal to throw away an umbilical cord and not write about it in the notes?”
  • “Is it normal to give an Apgar score of 100% for breathing while oxygen is being given?”

The answers started coming one after the other after the other: No, that’s absolutely not normal. No, that shouldn’t have happened. No, no, no.

We began to realise that our “favourite midwife” had made some significant blunders. Not just one or two accidental oversights or split-second decisions but many decisions over the space of two hours resulting in a scenario in which our baby lay dying on a metal trolley… alone. While I showered and the midwife “had a smoke”, my baby was barely breathing.

The Health Care Complaints Commission found the midwife guilty of gross negligence, stating that had she provided even basic nursing care, he most likely would have lived. Our legal team advised that we had cause to sue for criminal negligence, but we didn’t want to go down that path.

And the anger set in. 

It took time to work through this… I knew I couldn’t live with rage forever, but it also begged to be felt. It begged to be released. It felt unbearably unfair. This shouldn’t have happened. Our baby shouldn’t have died. 

I’ll write more another time about the process of working through the anger, but for now, I can say that I did find freedom from the anger that I thought might never go away.

Releasing Regret

Some things that happened were within my control, and I made some choices that I now regret. At the time, however, I did what I thought was right. 

We don’t get do-overs. There is so much about loss that we simply must accept or live with the ongoing anguish of non-acceptance. The process isn’t necessarily simple, easy, or brief, but it is essential if we’re to find peace.

I knew I had to forgive myself. I knew I had to set myself free of the regret, or it would eat me up inside. I had to accept that choices were made in good faith and with the best knowledge and capacity that I had at the time. Would I change some things if a do-over was possible? Oh yes, absolutely! But that sort of change is outside of my control because it’s in the past. 

The process of learning to live with regret and let me off the hook was a long one. Sometimes, I need to apply the lesson again. And again. Self-compassion, I’ve realised, is a gift that makes this possible. And a healthy dose of therapy!

Finding peace beyond blame

Early in my grief journey, I remember reading about “the five stages of grief” (which I later realised is an outdated view of grief). For a while, I railed against the apparent “final stage” of acceptance (hint: there is no final stage). How could I ever accept what had happened, I thought? If I accepted it, did that mean that what the midwife did (and didn’t do) was ok?

With time, therapy, and a lot of work on me, I finally reached a place of accepting that this was now part of my life story. Perhaps, realistically, it’s more resignation than acceptance. I found ways of integrating Cody’s short life and his loss into my life in a way I can somehow live with. I can’t stay stuck in a place of rage and bitterness. I need to move on with the grief. 

Do I still grieve? Of course. I love and miss the one I could only hold for a short time. Sometimes, when his memory is at the forefront of my mind, I weep. Other times, it recedes more into the background – Cody’s life and death are part of the tapestry of life now. When I remember, I feel angry about what happened, but it doesn’t take hold of me quite the same way it used to. I can feel the wave of anger until it recedes again. 

Grief for a child has been likened to carrying a stone in your pocket. Sometimes, you get poked by the sharp edges, and sometimes, you barely notice its presence. At other times, you want to hold it for a while. When the stone was put there because of someone else’s wrongdoing, you may hate the stone for a while and try to throw it away, but you eventually realise it’s part of the fabric of your life now and a reminder of the love you have for the one who is physically gone. 

Was there someone to blame for Cody’s death? Yes! A court of law and the Health Care Complaints Commission determined it was a case of negligence. My barrister said we had a strong case for criminal negligence. But what would be achieved by me staying fused to blame and rage? Cody deserved better. And I do, too.

I’ve sometimes found comfort in this old hymn, which was written by a father after all four of his children died at sea.

Through my loss, I’ve learned and grown so much. I value life more. I value my living children even more than I think I may have if this hadn’t happened. I’ve witnessed the empathy my children have in their hearts through growing up in a family acquainted with unexpected, untimely loss. I’ve learned not to take life for granted.

At one of the first SANDS support group meetings I went to after Cody died, I saw a brochure with a quote printed on the front cover, saying something like, “Life and death are part of the same mystery.” Cody has taught me that death is as certain as life, and we don’t know when it will come. This thought helps me embrace life more fully (most of the time!) and appreciate my loved ones more deeply. 

I’m thankful for my living children. I’m thankful for those who walked the path of grief with us in the early days, many of whom still remember and reach out every year. I’m thankful for the therapy I’ve had over the years, which helped me work through the pain and find hope again. I think this is particularly helpful when we are grieving a loss where there’s someone to blame. 

How about you? What lessons have you learned from your grief and loss journey? Have you grown through your grief, or are you feeling stuck? Would you like to share something about your experience in the comments below?

If you feel the need for support to help you with your grief, you may find some of these organisations helpful.

SANDS – Miscarriage, Stillbirth & Newborn Death Support

Red Nose – Grief & Loss Support

Bears of Hope – Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support

Pink Elephants – Miscarriage & Early Pregnancy Loss

Griefline – Free Grief Support

If you’d like to talk to someone who understands something of what it’s like to walk through the shadowlands of grief, please get in touch. You’re welcome to book a complimentary 20-minute enquiry call to help you decide if you’d like to have online counselling with me. I’m based in Melbourne, Australia, but am currently only working online. I’d love to hear from you!

Australia Day: When Mourning & Celebrating Collide

Reflections on Australia Day 2022

Yesterday was that day of the year when mourning and celebration collide. As a nation, we can’t even decide what to call it or when to celebrate it. For now, the date remains set to January 26, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet.

  • Is it Australia Day? A day of celebrating this wonderful, beautiful country of ours?
  • Is it Invasion Day? A day to focus on the suffering our Indigenous brothers and sisters endured?
  • Is it Survival Day? A day to acknowledge the resilience of one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures!

Some people will try to straddle all the options: celebrating our nation and its people, while also acknowledging the sadness and grief of this day and the resilience of the survivors. It can get pretty tricky… and stretchy!

Where do you sit on the issue?

I used to do the straddle, but these days I feel uneasy about celebrating this beautiful, amazing country and its people on the same day that white people took the land as their own – land that had been inhabited and respected by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for up to 74,000 years. If you’re not convinced, this article might help.

I have been reflecting on the grief and despair that must have been experienced by the original inhabitants when strangers turned up on their shores with guns.

The lack of recognition, repair and reconciliation leaves Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders disenfranchised, grieving for their losses yet being told it was “such a long time ago” or “modern Australians can’t be held accountable for what their forefathers did”. They deserve to have their grief acknowledged.

I definitely stand with those who want to “find a different date to celebrate”!

We need to build bridges, not barriers
We need to build connection, not division
We need restorative reconciliation, not just remorse

And is ‘reconciliation’ enough?

If we’re going to continue choosing January 26 as Australia Day, let us also acknowledge what happened, how it impacted the original inhabitants of this land and the ways in which it continues. to do so. Let us also acknowledge their incredible survival and resilience.

Many events these days begin with an “Acknowledgement of Country”, but this needs to be more than words. Personally, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge some of the ways I have not acknowledged Country.

Getting it Wrong

  • I acknowledge that I don’t know what it was like to have my land taken or to be taken from my family
  • I acknowledge that I don’t know what it was like to be brought to this land unwillingly, simply because I stole a loaf of bread
  • I acknowledge that I cannot understand the mindset of an explorer or “free settler” who would willingly take over and dominate other humans beings
  • I acknowledge that while living “Out the back of Bourke” in Australia, I failed to take the time to sit with First Nations people and listen to their stories; I failed to take the time to get to know them and build relationships.
  • I acknowledge that my stories about “living on a cotton farm” at Bourke have not been accompanied by the awareness that it was originally home to the Ngemba peoples of the Wongaibon Aboriginal language group. I was not even aware that Bourke was located in Gurnu–Baakandji Country.
  • I acknowledge that I delighted in the natural wonders of places like Gundabooka, Mt Oxley, and the 40,000-year-old Brewarrina fish traps, without also appreciating the wonders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples living in harmony with such incredible landscapes
  • I acknowledge that my discovery of the Bank’s foreclosure of the cotton farm had me thinking only of the white families who lived there. I failed to acknowledge that the red, dusty plains of the farm were originally First People lands and they, too, had experienced the loss of their home.
  • I acknowledge that the Christmas gift from my children of a beautiful, authentic Indigenous painting deeply touched me, but I failed to take the time to read the story of the artist and reflect on the painting’s significance.

Before I go on, let me introduce you to Anna Tilmouth Pengarte, pictured below with the artwork that now sits in my home office. Anna’s works can be purchased directly from Mbantua Fine Art Gallery and Cultural Museum in Alice Springs, NT.

Anna Tilmouth Pengarte

Anna Tilmouth Pengarte

Artist

Language group: Anmatyerre

Country: Mulga Bore/Bushy Park

Anna is the daughter of June Bird and Johnny Tilmouth and the granddaughter of well known Utopia artist, Ada Bird Petyarre (deceased). Having grown up with a strong tradition of painting, Anna is developing her own painting style, often experimenting with new designs.

Doing Better

I was blessed to be able to see all but one of my living children for brunch this morning. Although I don’t personally “celebrate Australia Day” on 26 January, I wanted to approach the gathering in a culturally sensitive way, even though it was just 5 very white people sitting inside my little home. I got my Google on and found some ideas for honouring the suffering and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Here’s what we did. It’s but a drop in the ocean but it’s still a drop.

  • I created a little table display as a nod to the richness of the culture of First Nations people. Naturally, the centrepiece was the beautiful Indigenous piece of art I had been gifted. As I carried it from my home office to the living area, the above photograph of the artist holding my painting fell from its hiding position on the back of the canvas! I feel so privileged to have this. In fact, it is as special to me as the artwork itself. (How GORGEOUS is this painting!)
Australia Day Mourning and Celebration Display
  • We listened to the National Indigenous Music Awards Finalists playlist on Apple Music and discovered some awesome new tracks from artists such as Budjerah, who my daughter was privileged to meet once. Every time a song is streamed, the artist benefits, so this is a tiny way of giving something back.
  • We almost had an Indigenous-themed brunch! I recently discovered The Australian Super Food Co, a Melbourne-based supplier of native fruit, herbs and seeds sourced primarily from Indigenous Australians. My last-minute grand intention to create a brunch feast with ethically-sourced Indigenous ingredients was thwarted by Covid shipping delays. I’ll definitely place an order for another day, though!
  • And I am here writing to you, so that together,  individually, and as a society, we can do better.

Doing More

You may be thinking that ‘token efforts’ like this don’t make a difference, or that we should just ‘move on’ because it happened such a long time ago. The reality is, this country WAS invaded and the original inhabitants have survived, but not without much suffering. There is still much to be done and it starts with each of us.

Living standards and healthcare access continue to be a problem for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, yet they are just a symptom, really. There is a significant gap between how things should be and how they are. It’s appropriate to grieve the gap, acknowledge what was taken, and the impact this has had. It is also appropriate – and necessary – to turn feelings into action.

We must take action to help improve the health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who typically have a 10-year shorter lifespan and twice the rate of neonatal deaths.

As the mother of a baby who died due to medical negligence, I stand with my Indigenous sisters whose babies die preventable deaths due to limited access to healthcare.

You can sign up here for updates about this year’s National Close the Gap Day on 17 March 2022. This is just one example, but it is a start.

Going Deeper

The reduced health outcomes in First Nations people are unsurprising, given that intergenerational trauma is typically passed down from generation to generation. But it can be changed. It must be changed.

Intergenerational Trauma

Unhealed trauma can have detrimental outcomes for subsequent generations. When a child feels unsafe in the world, and even their home, it becomes difficult to connect securely with others, and the ongoing distress and disconnection tends to have a flow-on effect to subsequent children. The Stolen Generations particularly find it difficult to experience and provide nurture and closeness. This trauma cycle passes down the generations to those who have not been directly impacted by the initial trauma.

We should also remember that trauma and its impacts are defined by the one experiencing it.

“Thriving is our birthright. Healing individual and collective trauma is one of deepest reminders of this birthright.” — Dr. Scott Lyons

A wonderful resource for learning about intergenerational trauma is HealingFoundation. They have also produced this wonderfully informative video animation.

Is reconciliation enough?

If reconciliation is transactional and only treats the symptoms of the underlying intergenerational cultural trauma, it can never be enough. It is merely a step toward what is needed.

Reconciliation needs to be restorative and its effectiveness cannot be determined by those of us not harmed by colonisation. Deep healing of the underlying collective trauma is needed, practical strategies that bring about tangible improvements are essential, political and social change is imperative, and entirely new ways of living together respectfully and harmoniously must be imagined and implemented.

For those of us in the privileged position of not having experienced the ongoing impacts of invasion and colonisation, we have a responsibility to:

  • Open our eyes and truly see that which is so easy for us to overlook
  • Take time to understand the ongoing impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Engage in deep listening and empathy – we do not get to determine if the ongoing impacts are valid or not
  • Address any unconscious bias or prejudice
  • Treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with dignity and respect

Change is needed and it is possible. It is worth pushing towards, even if it feels out of reach. What are the options if we don’t?

We share this beautiful land with beautiful people who are worthy of respect, empathy, compassion and dignity. There is so much they can teach us about being wise custodians of the land.

We can and must validate Indigenous grief and trauma and stand with those who want to change the date of Australia Day, out of respect and consideration for the descendants of those who suffered and lost their lives.

Here are some ideas of what we can do and how we can learn.

What will you do differently?

 

Australia Day acknowledgement of country

Acknowledgement of Country

I acknowledge the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional custodians of the lands and waterways where I live and work, and I pay respect to their Elders past, present, and emerging. I acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on this land.

What Grief is Teaching Me About The Pandemic

What Grief is Teaching Me About The Pandemic

Today is my son’s 26th birthday but unfortunately, he only lived for 9 hours. And so today, my grief takes centre stage. Not that it’s ever far from my mind.

My grief has brought with it an important life lesson today that is affecting the way I am seeing the difficult life situation we are all finding ourselves in: the global pandemic brought to us by the infamous COVID-19.

The lessons only make sense if I start with the story.

The locket with Cody’s photo in it sits on my desk within arm’s reach. I no longer wear it, as it’s a little out of fashion after 26 years. The two little boxes of mementos of his too-short life are stored in the garage these days, but they always come out to play on his birthday. Birthdays are meant to be fun, aren’t they?

Sadly, Cody never got to have a fun birthday. Even the actual day of his birth was spent fighting for life.

I was encouraged to hold him in my arms for most of the first two hours of his life, oblivious to the fact that each passing moment took him further from the possibility that medical intervention would have a hope of saving him. I would trade those moments in a heartbeat for the chance to be with him today.

Four of my five live births were medically induced labours and only this one was the “birth of my dreams”: a successful natural birth with no intervention other than a little nitrous oxide, which is saying something given his 11-pound 6-ounce (5+kg) size! I would give up the natural birth a hundred times over if it would give me even one more day with my son.

It’s uncanny that we often hold so tightly to our birth plan, as though the day of birth means anything much at all in the grand scheme of things. I was so determined not to have a medically induced labour. I desperately wanted to bring my son into the world in the Birth Centre at our local hospital, with one of the midwives who had been through the pregnancy with me.

My first birth had been one of those hellish labour stories that can frighten the uninitiated away from the idea of parenthood altogether, but those long, long hours of labour pale into insignificance in comparison to the years we’ve spent together since then. I am thankful every day for the gift of four living, breathing humans who call me Mum, and I still grieve for the one who never got to utter a word.

Cody was born breathing, but with a severed umbilical cord. He spent 2 hours with us in the Birth Centre. Those two hours should have been spent in the neonatal intensive care ward (NICU), because of the ruptured umbilical cord, his size, and my bleeding. There was a hospital policy in place to ensure that babies over 10 pounds are taken to the nursery, but our midwife described it to us as a “silly hospital rule”. She was very proud of having delivered an “11 and a half pound baby” naturally and seemed more excited at the number on the scale than on her duty of care.

I believe that our midwife had a bias against intervention, which clouded her judgment and led to the death of our baby. 

  • Instead of pressing the big red button on the wall, or the pager on her belt, bringing immediate help from the hospital upstairs, the midwife tried needlessly to independently manage my care and the needs of a macroscopic baby in respiratory distress
  • Instead of whisking Cody away to the neonatal intensive care ward as soon as he was born, the midwife gave him to his father to resuscitate while she dealt with my apparent haemorrhaging.
  • Instead of getting additional, appropriate medical assistance, the midwife shouted instructions across the room to an untrained father about how to force much-needed oxygen into his baby’s lungs.
  • Instead of suctioning the meconium from Cody’s lungs (because she was busy with me), she expected my then-husband to undertake a medical procedure he was not trained in, that ended up leading to his own baby’s death.
  • Instead of doing the APGAR tests at 1 and 5 minutes, when he was being “bagged with oxygen”, the midwife did them about 30 minutes later and lied about the timing in her notes.
  • Instead of writing an accurate APGAR score, she gave him a score of 2 out of 2 for respiration, while he was literally being given oxygen to help him breathe. Can you make sense of that?
  • Instead of providing appropriate medical interventions after pointing out to us his signs of respiratory distress, she relied on skin-to-skin contact, a warm blanket and a cup of hot tea.
  • Instead of undertaking any appropriate examinations apart from the APGARs at 30 minutes, she relied on my observations but gave no heed to my comments such as, “He seems floppy,” “His legs are heavy,” and “He whimpers when I move him.”
  • Instead of taking Cody to the NICU when I eventually had a shower, she left Cody alone in a room while she sat outside smoking and writing up a long stream of inaccurate notes.

There is more, but I am sure you’ve heard enough.

I still carry some guilt and shame about the time I held Cody in my arms, trusting the midwife’s judgment and the very low key “interventions” mentioned above. I would give up those 2 hours of contact in an instant if I had even just an inkling of the medical knowledge our experienced midwife had. I know it’s not really my guilt to bear, as it was the midwife’s failure to act that failed to prevent his death. An investigation by the Health Care Complaints Commission found her guilty of 12 counts of gross negligence. (Her failings were so bad that we had a legal case for criminal negligence, our barrister told us, but that was not a path we wanted to pursue.)

I have just one photo of Cody, living and breathing on his own, cradled in my arms. Just one photo of him before he got strapped too late into the machine that would help him in his tenacious fight to hold on to life. In this photo, he is in my arms, flesh against flesh, my dearly beloved newborn baby. This photo is so precious to me, as it is the only one where he is alive and not on life-support. I have always kept the original photo to myself as it is a little… messy, taken very very soon after birth. (Births are messy!) Until now.

Things have changed a lot since 1995 when Cody was born. Back then, medical staff typically used Polaroid cameras to take photos when it was apparent to them that a good outcome may not be likely. The photos were typically neither good quality nor long-lasting. A few years ago, when I was facilitating a Sands group for bereaved parents, people often spoke of the amazingly beautiful photographs taken by Heartfelt after their baby’s death. Heartfelt is a generous charity, with professional photographers who generously give their time and skill to create photographic memories for bereaved parents to treasure forever. I wondered if it might be possible for them to somehow edit the photo I had of Cody, so I tentatively reached out to them.

They generously and kindly offered to do what they could with my old photo but they couldn’t make any grand promises about what was possible, I was so pleased! Eventually, I received a beautiful package with the edited photo and a gift-quality thumb drive so I could make more copies. The photo is still not great quality, but it is deeply meaningful and precious to me and I’m happy to share it now.

Neonatal Loss

When Cody was finally taken to the NICU, the midwife declared, “Oh my God, he’s not breathing!” He spent the next 7 hours on “life support” which is an odd name for it really, as it feels more like a life battle: the machines versus the looming death, ever threatening to win the fight. The level of care he was given by NICU staff and the helicopter crew cannot be faulted.

Another precious photo I have shows Cody on life-support just prior to him being airlifted to Sydney Children’s Hospital. It is the only photo I have of him where his eyes are slightly open. I can clearly recall the moment, as we said our final goodbyes before he was taken to the helicopter by the Newborn Emergency Transport Team. I could barely stand (did I mention he was over 11 pounds?) but I wanted so desperately to etch the moment in my mind, in case the unimaginable happened. I longed for him with every fibre of my exhausted, aching body. His eyes were only open for a short while, but they pierced my soul and I feel connected to him, still.

I am so glad that I soaked up what I could at that moment, as it was to be the last time I would see him alive.

Neonatal Intensive Care

One day, I hope to find just the right artist who can create a painting of Cody, blending the above two photographs.

Initially, we couldn’t fathom that our favourite midwife could have somehow been complicit in the outcome that had ripped the fabric of our lives apart. We even invited her to the funeral! But something was amiss.

The attending paediatrician later called us from his holiday to say something didn’t add up. Concerned about the mismatch between what was written in Cody’s notes and the blood tests that were taken when he arrived in the NICU ward, he strongly advised an autopsy to try to uncover what had happened.

The thought of an autopsy was horrendous, but it had become clear that questions needed to be asked, and answered. I remember saying, “I don’t want to be angry at someone. It is hard enough to feel such immense sadness.” The more we asked our medical friends about standard processes in terms of Cody’s treatment, the more alarmed we became about how far from “standard medical practice” the midwife’s actions and non-actions were. Needless to say, the anger I had hoped to avoid showed up, as it become increasingly evident that Cody’s care had been far from optimal and had, in fact, contributed to his death. One thing I remember reading from the investigation report is that he almost certainly would not have died if even basic nursing care had been provided.

I have been able to reach a place of forgiveness, although that doesn’t make what happened okay. Basically, what began as a ruptured umbilical cord at the time of Cody’s birth, could have and should have had a very different outcome. It was not a split second error, but two hours of serious misjudgement and failure to act, by a very experienced midwife.

I have written about Cody’s story on a previous blog which is no longer online and also in posts here and here. Today, my grief has a different urgency to it.

Life Lessons

A song that I used to listen to in the early days of grief contained a line that said, “Perhaps someday we’ll understand the reason why you came.” I don’t really believe there is always a singular reason, and I don’t believe that he died “to teach us something” but I do know this: I have learned and grown so much through my loss and would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for having known, loved and lost my not-so-little baby. Cody’s life – and death – have transformed me and continue to do so as I reflect on the impact of his loss today.

  • I no longer assume that our days will be numbered in the sum of years. Some of us won’t even get a full day. Knowing that life is limited, and death is certain, can have a profound impact on the value we place on life.
  • Sometimes the order of things is turned upside down, and parents end up burying their children.
  • Putting too much faith in one medical person is not a great idea.
  • It’s important to have a circle of support around you. We are not meant to live like islands. My friends and family literally got me through.
  • Listen to your gut instinct. If you have an inkling about a thing, lean into that, find out more, speak up, take action.
  • Ideally, labour is just one day (well, hopefully only one day!) of many. Don’t treat it like the main thing.
  • You can grow through your grief, but you do have to go through it.
  • There is no shortcut to post-traumatic growth.
  • You will survive this.
  • If you don’t think you want to survive this, reach out to someone who does.
  • In addition to external supports, don’t forget to look within. You are stronger than you know.
  • You don’t have to be strong. You only have to be strong enough to take the next step. Micro steps are still steps.
  • Sometimes a “step” is just another breath.
  • Since you’re breathing, you might as well make the breaths count. Take a moment to notice – really notice – your next life-giving in-breath. And as you exhale, notice the release of… whatever you want to release.
  • This too shall pass, but the pathway through won’t necessarily be smooth sailing.
  • Along the journey, you will be climbing over boulders and clambering across obstacles. In the process, you will grow invisible muscles you didn’t know you had, that you’ve never needed before.
  • There is no timeline for grief.
  • There is no hierarchy in grief.
  • If you’re a person of faith, your faith may sustain you. Or you may find yourself questioning everything you thought you believed in.
  • If you’re not a person of faith, never say never. Grief can open up all sorts of existential and spiritual questions.
  • Grief exists in the wild and unpredictable shadows of life. It is a normal response to loss, but it will often feel all sorts of abnormal.
  • You will wonder if the grief ever ends, and then you may hope that it doesn’t, in case it means you forget them.
  • Your friends and loved ones may get sick of you talking about your grief.
  • You may assume your friends and loved ones are sick of you talking about your grief.
  • Some of your friends and loved ones will not get sick of you talking about your grief.
  • You may wonder how to bring up your struggles today, thinking they are sick of you talking about your grief.
  • They may wonder how to bring up the issue today, thinking perhaps you’ve forgotten about your grief today.
  • You won’t forget about your grief but sometimes it will fade into the background for a while… and then smack you in the face when you least expect it.
  • The days you think will be the hardest are often not as hard as the days you spend thinking about the days you think will be the hardest.
  • Sometimes nothing much will seem to make sense. Like the last sentence, perhaps.
  • Sometimes you will relentlessly try to make sense of things.
  • Sometimes you will wish you didn’t know, you will put your head in the sand, and do anything but attend to your grief.
  • If you’re putting your head in the sand, you might as well build a sandcastle and have some fun, because play and laughter can be as much a part of grief as sadness and misery.
  • When you feel strong, people may think you’ve forgotten, or it’s not that bad.
  • When you seem strong, you may be feeling anything but that.
  • When it feels like the pain will never end, you may surprise yourself by waking up one day and noticing the fog has cleared a little.
  • When everything seems meaningless, you will find a way to make meaning again.
  • You will never be the same, yet the you that you are becoming has been there all along.
  • Sometimes it will help to talk about your grief with someone who is somewhat removed from it all.
  • Grief is a natural part of life, but if life is feeling unmanageable, it is okay to reach out for help.

COVID Lessons

It may seem strange for me to be mentioning COVID-19 in a post about the death of my baby. In a nutshell, he taught me the most valuable lesson possible: life is precious. If we can do something to protect it, that is a good thing. Sometimes, our philosophy is given a more privileged position than action that we could take to protect our health. Let me explain.

Reflecting back on how torn I felt between possible medical interventions and my preferred birth plan, I have a different perspective on the situation. Hindsight can be a difficult thing to live with. At the time, I was passionately convinced of all the reasons why a natural birth was of great importance and a dream worth holding onto. I had “done all the reading”, I had listened to all the stories, and I was convinced.

My fears around childbirth, second-time round, were based primarily on my first experience. I had also read stories about how inductions are much more difficult and painful than natural labours and this was definitely a factor in my decision to do what I could to hold off an induction if at all possible. There was no way I was getting that needle inserted into my veins unless all other avenues had been explored!

And trust me, I explored all those avenues! I even resorted to consuming castor oil, more than once, in an effort to bring on labour. The thought of it almost makes me heave. Even now after all these years, I can almost taste it on my gag reflex.

My determination to avoid medical intervention persisted, in spite of being told that the risk of neonatal death increased significantly each day after 14 days past the due date. I was shown the graph depicting those numbers and was alarmed, but remained confident that I would be fine. Besides, I had been declared a “low-risk pregnancy” and a “perfect Birth Centre candidate” only the week before. I would be fine.

I wasn’t.

I did manage to avoid an induction!
I did manage to get my preferred birth story.
I just didn’t get a living baby at the end of it all.

I am not suggesting that all home births, or Birth Centre births, are bad. But I have a painful life experience that demonstrates just how quickly something can go wrong, even when we’re so sure it wouldn’t happen to us.

It can be very difficult to let go of philosophies and ideals that we are very passionate about. The medical establishment was taking the low road and I felt sure that mine was the better path. As I got closer to the “2 weeks overdue” mark, I felt trapped by the seeming inevitability that I would simply have to comply with an induction. It seems so silly now, to have held on so tightly to my resistance. I felt that I had no choice, and I was resentful.

A doctor I know lived and worked for many years in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He told me after Cody died that he could not understand why, in Australia, we have medical intervention available for childbirth that is resisted by people who want a more natural birth experience. He recounted stories of women walking for days to try to reach the hospital, only to end delivering on the side of the road and the baby and/or mother dying. When I think about this, I realise how privileged my position was, that I had so much choice and so many options, yet I resented the fact that my option of a non-medical birth was disappearing from my grasp.

I haven’t spoken to that doctor for many years, but I am guessing that he would have similar views about Covid and vaccines. With the vaccination rate in much of Africa being as low as 4%, I imagine he would find it incredulous that people in Australia are rejecting the offer of a potential medical intervention as part of a public health initiative.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe, based on the evidence, that my midwife’s ideals about non-intervention and a non-medical birth clouded her judgment and led her to make decisions that had a direct impact on the disastrous outcome. Help was at hand, but it was not used. There was a team of highly skilled health professionals upstairs ready to jump into action as soon as the red button or pager were pushed, but they were not utilised.

At the end of the day, medical interventions which could have saved my baby’s life were withheld. During our court case which was settled out of court, our barrister subpoenaed the files of the other side and discovered that there were literally no health professionals willing to give evidence to support the actions and non-actions of the midwife. In contrast, we had an abundance and needless to say, the hospital was very keen to settle without facing a public court case! I mention this simply to point out that there is comfort in the evidence, and in the bulk of highly trained professionals agreeing in general on the best way out of this pandemic. There will always be some who disagree, but when the evidence stacks up clearly on one side, that is usually quite telling.

It is heartbreaking and frustrating to watch something similar happen with Covid. When medical interventions are available, but not taken up due to philosophical ideals and beliefs, it may seem like freedom of choice, but the health outcomes can be disastrous. If we can do something for the greater good and choose not to, we need to live with the consequences of that choice. In my experience, living with the consequences and the regret can be very difficult.

We can value our personal freedom and our right to choose
We can feel resentful and angry about government public health orders
AND we can make a choice to protect our health and the health of others

When You Don’t Want to Get the Vax

You are likely feeling trapped, resentful and angry. It is becoming inevitable that you may have to have the vaccination if you want to participate fully in society, and this is causing you all sorts of angst.

As a Registered Counsellor, I sometimes use a therapeutic tool called a “Choice Point”. It is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in general, and the work of Dr Russ Harris in particular.

It’s probably best if I let him explain it with this fun little video:

 

So, with vaccine resistance, it might look something like this: Identifying the difficult thoughts and feelings that you’re experiencing, and working on identifying your values to help you take steps towards the life you want to live. There are skills that help with “unhooking” from the thoughts and feelings that tend to want to dominate our life when we are feeling stuck or trapped. It is too much to explain here, but the basic idea is that we don’t have to pretend that we are not feeling frustrated or fearful or angry. We can work towards mindful acceptance of those feelings, and still turn towards the life we want and the person we want to be.

You may also find Dr Harris’ book, The Reality Slap, helpful. In this book, he talks about how it can sometimes seem like life holds “endless setbacks and challenges; like reality is continually slapping you in the face and causing pain that you aren’t equipped to handle.” I’m fairly certain many of us can relate to this feeling at the moment! Dr Harris gives some helpful strategies for rebuilding life after setbacks.

If Cody’s short life has taught me one thing, it is to value the days and to know that even when life isn’t working out quite as we’d hoped, we can get through, we can be real about our feelings and our struggles, and we can learn lots of valuable lessons along the way

Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn commissions from qualifying purchases on amazon.com.au 

 

Meditation, Music & Nature: A Healing Trilogy

Meditation, Music & Nature: A Healing Trilogy

Meditation, music and nature are a healing trilogy for hurting hearts; a perfect antidote to stress and anxiety.

Here in Melbourne, Australia, we are facing yet another lockdown due to increasing cases of Coronavirus. Having been through Australia’s most extensive, significant lockdown in 2020, many people are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, fear and dread.

It is at times like this that we need to nurture our souls, bring healing balm to our stress and anxiety, and regulate our distress. One of the ways we can do this is by treating our senses to the sounds of music, the sights of nature, and the experience of stillness.

We may have lost the privilege of going to our preferred places for solace and comfort, but we can still reap some benefits from a virtual experience.

Michael Johnson, the resident harpist and composer at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, often using music as a tool for mindfulness and meditation. He has recorded a beautiful piece that has been overlaid with a calming meditation, along with video footage from the beautiful gardens many of us can not currently visit.

I encourage you to watch the video on fullscreen mode with headphones on and notifications turned off, to fully (virtually!) immerse yourself in the experience. Perhaps if you haven’t yet used up your quota of outdoor exercise time, you could watch the video while sitting in a favourite nature spot within your allowable 5km travel zone.

Wherever you are in the world, whether in lockdown or not, I hope you enjoy this little moment of meditation, music and nature; that it enriches your day and soothes your soul.

Where are your favourite nature locations that soothe your soul? I’d love to hear from you in the comments about places you love to go to restore your sense of groundedness and wellbeing. Or perhaps you might want to share a favourite piece of music that transports you to a place beyond your physical location.

Life may not be “normal” or easy right now, but we can take steps to lift our spirits. I hope this video does that for you.

Coping with Covid – Again

Coping with Covid – Again

Here in Melbourne, Australia, we find ourselves facing the grief and trauma of Covid in a way we haven’t had to face since the big lockdown of 2020. With at least 15,000 known contacts and over 120 exposure sites, many of which are of significant concern, people are understandably worried. Many are feeling triggered and anxious, after the extensive lockdown of 2020.

There is a heaviness in the air hanging over the city. A stillness. A quietness. A sense of foreboding… We’ve been here before, which possibly contributes to the looming sense of doom. We’ve beaten it before, but at a significant cost. What will it cost to beat it again? 

Covid has a way of creeping up on you, stealthily sneaking its tendrils throughout your city until it suddenly knocks you off your feet and sends everything crumbling down around you.

So here we are. Lockdown 4.0 in Melbourne, Australia: a city known for its vibrant nightlife, its culture, its laneways filled with art, culture, food, and coffee. But today the clubs and bars are closed, the laneways are deserted, the streets are eerily empty, and…. did I say coffee?

Now we have to brew our own. 

Cafe Closed for Covid Quarantine

And so we grieve. 

We grieve the loss of freedom.
We grieve the loss of autonomy.
We grieve the loss of cultural norms.
Is anyone going to the footy this weekend?

We grieve the loss of normality, predictability, safety, and good coffee.

There are some who say it’s “not such a big deal”, but for those who have experienced significant loss, or who fear that fate, the grief is real. And the experience, however it is felt, is validated by the one who experiences it. 

COVID and Grief

A person doesn’t have to die for someone to grieve. Grief can be experienced after losses of any kind, including non-death losses such as divorce, redundancy, retirement, estrangement, companionship, or financial security. One of the losses many people in Melbourne have already experienced is the loss of a business, which has rippling effects extending far beyond the closing of the cash register for the final time. There are so many empty shops now. “Businesses gone bust.” Even JobKeeper couldn’t save them. 

Grief is multi-faceted and can be experienced in a multitude of ways. More than just unrelenting sadness, grief can also be anger, rage, disappointment, regret, dread, pining, ruminating, jealousy, busyness, denial, and despair. And it doesn’t end there. 

In the case of ‘COVID Grief,’ there can also be secondary losses such as: 

  • Feeling trapped in a house with a partner you were planning to leave
  • The isolation of living alone and not having someone you can call on to be in your ‘COVID Bubble’
  • Financial security: savings or superannuation are withdrawn to make it through
  • With reduced numbers permitted at funerals, many are denied the opportunity to participate in mourning rituals
  • Celebration rituals – with the cancellation of weddings
  • Inability to travel to see loved ones, some of whom may never be seen again, such as ageing relatives
  • A sense of mate-ship and teamwork. State is pitted against State, the vaccinated against the unvaccinated, and mask-wearers against nose-exposers
  • Fear of strangers AND loved ones – could we ever have predicted the day that every single other person is seemingly a threat to our health and safety?

COVID and Trauma

When faced with danger, it is natural for our nervous system to automatically respond with either fight, flight, freeze or fawn. 

Fight! People who are typically demure and quietly spoken have been known to erupt in a fit of rage at people not wearing masks. The fight response has them behaving in ways that may normally be quite foreign but in the face of danger, the compulsion to protect and fight back is strong. Rage at those who break the rules – rage at those who make the rules.

Flight! There are others who cannot get away quickly enough. They may cross the street if they see an unmasked person or change grocery store checkouts; they may dash across the border before the chance of escape is slammed shut in their face. Everyone is a threat, everything is dangerous, and it’s too scary or dangerous to fight. So they run. Either physically, mentally or relationally.

Freeze! There are some who feel claustrophobic during a lockdown, and others who may, in a way, thrive. Sort of. The challenge for the freeze types is returning to society and social situations afterwards. It may feel easier to stay hidden. During the Lockdown, this type of response may lead to shutting out the news, denying that Covid exists, turning off notifications, refraining from answering the phone, cocooning inside the walls until the danger hopefully passes by. If this state persists, the danger can be increasing isolation and significant hesitancy to embrace ways of connecting in spite of the lockdown. Life gets smaller and smaller until the only thing left to face is themselves. 

Fawn! Fawning is less often talked about as a trauma response. This occurs who someone must appease, conform, comply… They are compelled to make sure everyone else is complying and that everyone is okay. This is the one who may exhaust themselves trying to help and fix anyone and everyone else. Except, perhaps, themselves. 

All of these can be very normal responses to traumatic experiences. The most important thing is to move through this response and have the capacity to shift back to a state of calm, rather than staying stuck. Dr Stephen Porges speaks about another nervous system state: the social engagement system, where we feel safe enough to use play, face-to-face contact and the voice to regulate our emotional states. This can be more challenging when wearing masks, but there are still ways to connect with our eyes and voice and utilise other elements that help us feel safe enough to connect with one another and settle our nervous system response to trauma.

If you are feeling traumatised by anything to do with the Coronavirus pandemic, please reach out for professional mental health support.

How to Help Yourself

Unless you are living under a rock, you will be hearing, reading and seeing relentless news coverage about the Coronavirus pandemic and the Lockdown. Whilst it is important to be well-informed, there is definitely a balance between information and overwhelm. It may be helpful to limit the number of times you search for information, and practice the art of scrolling by or turning off when you are feeling inundated. Preferably beforehand!

Give yourself compassion breaks. Treating yourself kindly in the middle of a crisis is a non-negotiable, really. Now is a great time to lower your expectations and do what is right for you, regardless of the pressure to create a masterpiece or take up a new hobby. What helps you decompress will often be quite different to what helps someone else. If you find cake baking and decorating to be relaxing and calming, go for it! If you would prefer to curl up with a good book or settle in for a Netflix binge, go for it!

If you find yourself spending disproportionate amounts of time in one activity, or hiding from life, it could be an important time to reach out for help.

No one needs to go through this alone. There are ways to connect with support systems and find resources to help. Here are some ideas:

  • Griefline is a good place to start if you are needing compassionate, non-judgmental counselling support from trained volunteers.
  • Lifeline is the go-to for a crisis. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, please, reach out for help.
  • 1800RESPECT is a helpful phone support service for anyone struggling with violence and abuse.
  • Counselling by a registered, trained professional is a great way to help you cope with challenging thoughts, feelings and situations. Counsellors often have no waitlist, they do not require a GP referral, they may offer health fund rebates, and you can receive unlimited sessions with an approach that is tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you would like to book a free inquiry call with me, you can do so here.

There is no shame in reaching out for help.

Unfortunately, we cannot avoid this global pandemic. Trying to push away the reality of the situation does not make it go away. Ultimately, we need to face COVID. Dr Russ Harris has created a video and eBook that outlines some steps to face the challenges that COVID is presenting us with.

Focus on what’s in your control

Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings with curiosity

Come back into your body through grounding and the breath

Engage fully in what you’re doing, focusing your attention on the activity at hand

Committed action guided by your core values

Open up space for difficult thoughts and feelings, with kindness and compassion

Values – what do you want to stand for? What sort of person do you want to be?

Identify resources for help, assistance, support and advice

Disinfect and distance for the greater good of the community

5 Ways to Help Others

  1. Check in on your loved ones and those you think may be struggling. Your phone call might be the one thing that makes a difference and helps them know they are not alone.
  2. Validate, validate, validate. There is no hierarchy in grief. All grief experiences are worthy of being acknowledged by others. Disenfranchised grief that is pushed into the shadows tends to worsen, not lessen. Telling someone to “get over it” or that it’s “not that bad” may lead them to hold more firmly to their grief response. Knowing that their experience is acknowledged by another makes it easier to bear, somehow. Feeling supported and knowing that others ‘have your back,’ reduces the sense of isolation.
  3. Kindness, not Rivalry. Enough with the State wars. We are in this together. Star Wars is a great movie; State Wars not so much. The online disinhibition that is so often seen in social media comments can actually cause significant harm to other readers. Now, more than ever, we need an extra dose of common human decency.
  4. Be a listening ear, not a talking mouth. When someone needs to talk, they need to be heard, not told. The art of empathic listening is well worth practising. This might look like reflecting back key words or phrases that the person has shared, not in a parroting fashion, but in a way that shows you have really heard them in their distress.
  5. Ask, don’t assume. Check to see what they might find helpful, rather than assuming. Some people find video calls invasive and others prefer them to a phone call. Some people don’t like receiving phone calls uninvited and may prefer a text message first to see if it is a good time. When someone opens up to you about their distress or struggles, it can be helpful to ask if they are wanting supportive listening, or practical ideas and solutions.

Practical help during Covid

Coronavirus is apparently not going away anytime soon, but neither are we, so we might as well get through it together.

From a distance, if you’re in Melbourne!

A Helpful Podcast

Jodie Gale’s Podcast, Finding Meaning and Purpose in Difficult Times, is both uplifting and down-to-earth. The podcast includes helpful ideas including journal prompts and a book list by inspirational authors who have found meaning in spite of incredibly adverse situations. Addressing the issue of toxic positivity, Jodie reminds us that we need to stay grounded in realism without denying our suffering, while also holding onto hope and the possibility of being transformed by the challenges we face. This podcast and many others on Jodie’s site are highly recommended.

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