Essex

The bereavement midwife: Is this the saddest job in England?

Sue Armstrong
Image caption Sue Armstrong is one of a growing band of bereavement midwives whose role is to support parents whose babies have died

Each day about 10 babies are stillborn in England and Wales. A growing number of parents will get specialist support from a new breed of midwife. But what is it like being a midwife who specialises in baby deaths?

Discreetly nestled away on the first floor of Colchester hospital is a bedroom with a full-width forest mural on the wall, a double-bed with purple floral duvet and a rocking chair in the corner.

It is a room where parents spend time with their dead baby.

"When a couple are expecting a baby their plans and dreams are all about preparing for that baby and then child," says Sue Armstrong, a midwife with more than 30 years' experience.

"So to suddenly be told that you have lost your baby, that you're going to have to deliver your baby, you're not going to be taking your baby home, that you're going to need to make decisions about post-mortem examinations, funeral services, and they may never have had contact with a funeral director before, well that is incredibly daunting."

Image copyright Laurence Cawley

Mrs Armstrong, who is a trained counsellor as well as a nurse and midwife, is a bereavement midwife.

The role, she says, is a new one at Colchester Hospital, and marks a growing awareness nationally of the particular trauma and challenges of baby loss.

"I'm the only bereavement midwife at Colchester Hospital. But there are bereavement midwives in most of the hospitals in England now."

Much of her work is deeply practical.

Image caption The teddy bear in the cot awaits the next deceased baby to be brought into the Rosemary Suite. The bears are donated by other parents who have lost their babies

"I act as a co-ordinator for the bereavement services that we offer at the hospital," says Mrs Armstrong. "I ensure that, with the team of obstetricians and midwives, we as a service meet all of their (parents') physical and psychological needs after experiencing the loss of their baby.

"The maternity service get involved with losses after 13 weeks of pregnancy right up until term when, unfortunately, parents might suffer a stillbirth.

"If a couple come to the hospital and they have experienced the loss of their baby - perhaps there is no foetal heartbeat - it is an extremely shocking time for them."

Her role is also to protect the parents.

Image copyright Laurence Cawley
Image caption Most hospital visitors pass the Rosemary Suite without realising it is even there

The Rosemary Suite, where mothers can deliver their deceased babies or simply spend time with them, is far away from the main delivery suite, to protect mothers from the sounds and cries of newborns.

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Media captionColchester Hospital midwife cares for mothers who lose their babies

This protective seclusion from the general hustle and bustle of a hospital, says Mrs Armstrong, is important, not least because of the types of immensely painful decisions parents have to make.

"They can spend as much time with their baby after delivery as they feel is appropriate.

"They are in an environment where they can make unhurried decisions regarding possible post-mortem examination, the type of funeral service they might like, whether they want the chaplain to come and bless their baby and other really difficult decisions.

"I aim to meet a couple who have experienced a loss as soon as possible to ensure we are meeting all of their needs and that they are aware of all of their choices regarding their care, the processes that they go through and maintain that support when they go home, through telephone or text contact or home visits as appropriate for as long as is reasonably needed."

Image caption Sue Armstrong with one of the "memory boxes" offered to parents. It contains a candle, teddy bear, memory cards for cameras and other items which might be of use to a grieving parent

Does she feel her job is one of the saddest imaginable?

No.

"A lot of us midwives actually regard it as a privilege to actually look after a couple at such a devastating time," she says.

"The staff do need support at times but there is extreme job satisfaction in looking after a couple at such a difficult and tragic time in their lives.

"At this time in my life and with the experience I have I feel I have something to offer these couples at this most difficult time.

"They always have my contact telephone number."

And sometimes, immense happiness can arise from the depths of despair.

"Only yesterday," she says, "I had a phone call from a couple who had lost their baby earlier this year.

"They wanted me to be one of the first to know they were having another baby.

"That is one of the most pleasing parts of the job."

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