It can be helpful for bereaved parents to know they are not alone. Every year, over 106,000 Australian parents experience the death of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, and newborn death.
In recognition of Mothers' Day approaching, Sands mums Anne Altamore, Ashleigh Rousseaux and Heidi Welsh talk about some of the challenges they each face at this time of year.
Ashleigh Rousseaux, is looking forward to celebrating her fifth Mothers' Day. Her eldest daughter Juliet, now five, is just reaching the age where she is getting excited to share in her mum’s special day. Along with siblings Sophie (3) and Oliver (3 months) Ashleigh can no doubt expect a flurry of heartfelt hugs and kisses.
However, Mothers’ Day is always a particularly bittersweet day for Ashleigh.
Her second child, Dominic, was stillborn in 2014.
“Since we lost Dominic, Mothers’ Day and other days like it are really difficult to cope with because they highlight how things are supposed to be and what the day should look like if Dominic were here,” Ashleigh said.
“There’s always this awareness that you're not experiencing the traditional Mothers' Day. We try to include Dominic in as many things as we can, like writing his name in cards, but the whole day is missing moments."
For bereaved mums like Ashleigh, the growing acceptance of International Bereaved Mothers' Day is a heartening and a very welcome opportunity for bereaved mothers to have their motherhood seen and acknowledged.
It’s also an important awareness-raising day for the wider community
“International Bereaved Mothers’ Day is a day where we can be ourselves, where there’s actually a place for people like us. It gives us some much-needed space for our babies who aren’t here,” Ashleigh explains.
“Our babies who’ve died matter to us just as much as the ones who are living. They’re just as present in every aspect of our daily life, but their presence is largely unseen.”
“On International Bereaved Mothers’ Day we can honour and celebrate our babies, just like any other mum.”
For an unforgettable few weeks in 1997 Anne was a mother-to-be of twins - longed for babies conceived via IVF.
Sadly, very soon after seeing two healthy heartbeats, Anne suffered a miscarriage, claiming the lives of the two babies who would have grown to call her 'Mum'. After 12 harrowing years of IVF and another 17 failed embryo transfers, Anne never fell pregnant again.
"In all the years since I lost the twins I never considered myself a mother. I felt that because it was an early miscarriage, I didn't have the right to grieve," she said. “But to me, as soon as I saw those heartbeats, they were very real babies. I had all the same hopes and dreams of a life ahead with them as any other pregnant woman.
It wasn't until many years later when Anne first became involved with Sands that her identity as a mother was recognised.
"It was a watershed moment for me to be invited to a Sands meeting. To have others acknowledge and validate my experience. To be met with understanding instead of pity.”
“In the Sands community there is no hierarchy of grief. My miscarried babies were acknowledged as being as real as any other baby, not the clump of cells that so many said they were,” Anne said.
It meant so much for Anne to be accepted as a bereaved mother that she is now a volunteer parent supporter with Sands and will spend Mothers’ Day supporting others on Sands’ national support phone line.
“Helping others is my way of honouring the lives of my twins,” she said.
Anne will spend the quiet moments, however, in reflection of her own experience.
"It's one day of the year when I give myself permission to grieve, something any therapist will tell you is an important part of the healing and recovery process, " Anne said.
Heidi Welsh’s 8 year old daughter, Evie, takes great pleasure in choosing a Mothers’ Day gift for her mum.
On the card she writes “Dear Mum. Love from Evie and Ellie”.
Evie takes great pains to always include Ellie – who was stillborn in 2017 – in the rituals and celebrations of family life.
Ellie tragically died in utero at 38 weeks gestation – just three days before Heidi's scheduled caesarean and right before Mothers’ Day.
Heidi describes what her first Mothers’ Day as a mother of two was like last year.
“After Ellie died I tried my hardest to approach the day in a celebratory way, by focusing on my daughter, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I felt numb and flat. I wasn’t really there – I was just going through the motions,” she said.
“The death of your baby is the worst thing you can go through – it’s so multilayered.”
This year Mothers’ Day will present both challenges and blessings for Heidi and her family. They are approaching the first anniversary of Ellie’s birth and Heidi is also due to give birth to her third child.
Her identity as a mother will shift again as she learns to navigate another significant milestone without Ellie there to witness it.
“Since Ellie died everything has changed. My whole personality has changed. What you expect of yourself and others changes and what you prioritise changes too,” Heidi explains.
“We had a moment in time with Ellie and then we had to let her go, but she’ll always be my daughter and I’ll proudly remain her mother.”
Parents are welcome to submit a memorial which will be placed on the memorial page from your state. To submit a memorial please complete this form
To view memorials in your State follow these links:
Some of our Sands parents have courageously spoken about their experiences, how they grieved and where they sought support. You can view their stories here.
Miscarriage - Daniel's experience
Medically-advised termination - Ali's experience
Death of a Newborn - Nicole's experience
Joan's story of loss in the 70s
Stillbirth - a grandmother's experience
You're Not Alone - Sands Video