BBC News

Garden of stones: Bereaved parents find place of solace after baby loss

By Erinn Kerr
BBC News NI

Published
image copyrightStephen Guy
image captionThe Baby Garden is part of Kernan Cemetry in Portadown

On Thursday, MPs in the House of Commons were moved to tears by some members who chose to share their stories as part of Baby Loss Awareness Week.

One member said the grief "never, ever goes away".

But what does grief look like if you were never given the opportunity to get to know your loved one?

In Portadown, County Armagh, there is a special place, known as the Baby Garden.

image copyrightSands
image captionThere are about 60 stones in the garden, of all shapes and sizes, each bearing a name

Within Kernan Cemetery, it allows bereaved mums and dads a place to go to pay tribute to their babies, some of whom have no graves.

There are about 60 stones in the garden, of all shapes and sizes, each bearing the name of a son or daughter who died before, or shortly after, being born.

Stephen Guy is a co-ordinator for the stillborn and neo-natal death charity, Sands in Northern Ireland. He and his wife experienced the loss of a baby almost 23 years ago, when their daughter Danielle was stillborn.

He said: "The garden helps parents to feel that their child is not alone, their stone is surrounded by lots of other little stones belonging to other babies.

"It's a place where parents can go any time they want to feel close to their child - and the garden has a remarkable effect on people.

"Sometimes I feel as though it may have lost its impact on me and then I hear the stories of parents who have laid stones and I remember how important it is."

Two sons

Jeanette's first son, Scott, was stillborn, and his brother Adam, died at just three days old. There is a stone in the garden for each of them.

"I fell pregnant with Adam fairly quickly after losing Scott, and when he passed away I couldn't believe it was happening again.

"I felt a huge sense of guilt, loss and heartbreak.

image copyrightJeanette Tumilty
image captionBaby Adam died three days after his birth (seen here while receiving treatment before his death). His big brother Scott was stillborn

"That was almost 16 years ago - yet it is still difficult to talk about.

"It is coming up to the anniversaries and Christmas time is always hard.

"I have a 14-year-old daughter called Jessica and I always feel sad that she has missed out on growing up without her two brothers.

"Sands were a great help to us and although Scott and Adam both have graves that I can visit, I like the idea that their stones are surrounded by lots of other little babies just like them and they aren't alone."

The boys' stones are small and flat and bear their names and dates of birth.

Key statistics on stillbirth and neonatal deaths

  • In 2014, 81 stillbirths were registered in Northern Ireland
  • 118 infant deaths (deaths in the first year of life) were recorded - a slight increase on 2013
  • More than two thirds of those deaths occurred in the first week of life
  • Contrary to common perception, major birth defects account for fewer than 10% of stillbirths in the UK
  • In around one in three stillbirths in the UK the exact reason for the baby's death is unclear and the death is described as 'unexplained'
  • If you need support after the loss of a baby, you call call the Stillbirth & Neonatal Death charity on 020 7436 5881 or email helpline@uk-sands.org

'Empty arms'

Suzi is yet to lay a stone for her son Eli, who was stillborn in July.

She visited the garden on Sunday and said she felt "at home" when she walked through the gates.

image copyrightSuzi Gourley
image captionEli's mother Suzi says she is still coming to terms with the loss of her son
image copyrightSuzi Gourley
image captionSuzi had imprints made of Eli

"We found out at 21 weeks that Eli was sick, he was stillborn at 31 weeks.

"I felt, and still do feel numb, I have come home from the hospital with empty arms and don't know what to do with myself.

"I couldn't face burying Eli, so we had him cremated, but now that I've visited the baby garden I know that's where I want to remember him."

Suzi is having a stone made for Eli, with his name, date of birth and weight.

'Excruciating'

One of the mothers who has found comfort in the Baby Garden is Sarah. She lost her baby, Grace, 14 weeks into her pregnancy in February 2015.

"I had already bought a comforter to bring her home from the hospital and was so excited to have her," Sarah said.

"After I lost her I was not thinking straight - I remember thinking that if I didn't say it out loud, it wouldn't be real.

image copyrightSands
image captionGrace's stone came from a beach that meant a lot to her mum

"I wished I had been able to protect her and convinced myself I could have done more.

"When I eventually did make contact with Sands, it was like opening the flood gates - the pain of grief was excruciating."

Grace's stone came from a beach that meant a lot to her mum - it has her name and some painted flowers.

"I go to the Baby Garden as often as I can - it is the only place where there is any physical sign that Grace ever existed and it is incredibly important to me."

Related Topics

  • Stillbirth
  • Bereavement
  • Miscarriage
  • Babies & toddlers
  • NI Health

More on this story

  • MPs' baby loss accounts move Commons