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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Bereaved Mother’s Day: Heartbreaking tales of loss and courage 

'There is a stigma linked to pregnancy and infant loss. We want to raise awareness so people realise that this does happen to people,' says group leader Alexandra Sullivan

Alexandra Sullivan, founder of Little Angels, a support group for parents who have lost infants at birth. Reem Mohammed / The National
Alexandra Sullivan, founder of Little Angels, a support group for parents who have lost infants at birth. Reem Mohammed / The National

The silence of an ultrasound and slow realisation of an expectant parent that their nursery that will remain empty can be a lonely and traumatic experience.

Finding a space to share stories of loss and to grieve with others can help parents feel less alone, says the founder of a miscarriage, neonatal death and stillbirth support group in Dubai.

“It is not something people are comfortable talking about and this makes parents feel more alone. There is a stigma linked to pregnancy and infant loss. We want to raise awareness so people realise that this does happen to people,” said Alexandra Sullivan, founder of non-profit support group Little Angels - Love Through Loss.

The group will gather together and observe the Bereaved Mother’s Day on Sunday.

“Mothers first need to understand that it is not their fault. Losing a child is the worst thing an adult goes through. Even if we can’t show our babies to people, it is important to talk about it because you are still a mum and dad, you are still a parent.”

Ms Sullivan lost identical twin boys at 26 weeks into her pregnancy when no heartbeat was detected for both infants in 2011 in Sweden. The care in her home country helped her navigate the cloud of sorrow that engulfed her and when the couple moved to Dubai later that year, it became her mission to create a similar support group here.

“I wanted to create a space to take care of families when they come home from hospitals, so they are not left more upset when they come home to an empty nursery. It’s my life mission to help families through the traumatic time when they come home. That is where Little Angels comes in, we want families to contact us and be part of our family.”

She said family, friends and co-workers do not know what to say to the bereaved parents and knowledge will bring better understanding.

“They don’t know how to approach us, they may be afraid. The silence starts from there and we end up feeling more alone. People should talk openly about it,” said Ms Sullivan.

Although the numbers are high, with the World Health Organisation estimating an annual 2.6 million stillbirths every year worldwide, it is not a subject widely discussed.

There are a few organisations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to support families dealing with infant loss, creating more networks will help spread information.

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Attending meetings since last month has been therapeutic for Sinead Ryan. She lost her child due to pregnancy related hypertension when she was 37 weeks pregnant and visiting family in Ireland in December last year.

When she returned to Dubai after spending time with family back home, it became vital for Ms Ryan to join a support group here.

“The support group is a safe place to express grief, anger, say what you need to and still, everything will be normal. Losing a baby brings such a depth of pain. It helps to realise there are others also going through these emotions," she said.

“It is fantastic to be able to send them a message if you are having a bad day and the others totally get it. It is good to meet them for a coffee, to discuss some crazy and irrational thoughts that go through your head,” she said.

The experience of many parents has been that if they open up about their experiences, people find it difficult to mask their shock when they hear a baby was stillborn and deal with it by saying that everything will be okay.

“People don’t want to continue the conversation, they clamp up and don’t know how to address it once you tell them that your baby has died. Instead of saying something, they say nothing at all and you feel that they don’t care.

“Some say, ‘you will be fine, you will have another baby.’ But no, I’m not fine. Because this little person was a human being and can never be replaced by another child. The death of someone’s child has to be acknowledged. There may be awkward silences but you need to keep talking,” said Ms Ryan.

She urged parents to join support group meetings that have helped her and her husband.

“Bottling up grief inside you is not healthy in long run. This was our only baby and it has been beneficial for us to talk to others. It’s almost like therapy because they totally understand you,” she said.

It was key to also include fathers in the grieving process, Ms Sullivan said.

“In general it is always harder for men to show emotion. It is so common for them to suck it up and take care of their wives and families. The pressure on them builds up too. They are going through the same loss as the mums,” she said.

The Little Angles - Love Through Loss meets once a month at Times Square. The next meeting is on May 23. The group will observe Bereaved Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 6. Details are available on the group Facebook page.