"Over time, grief takes its toll – on your family, your friendships...even your finances. Although we have a happy life now, it continues to be a hard weight for us to bear”- Lea.
In Lea and Chris's household, birthdays are a celebratory affair for the whole family, especially for their three young daughters, Tully (11), Mila (10), and littlest sister, Florence (6).
Once a year, however, this celebration of birth takes on a much more somber tone.
Each 9th of June, Lea, Chris and the girls head to their local beach to honour the day their baby son and daughter entered the world.
Stanley, their firstborn, at 40 weeks in 2004.
Stephanie, Tully’s twin sister, at just 19 weeks and 3 days in November 2006.
Both longed-for babies never took a breath.
“Winter is hard,” says dad, Chris. “We always go to the beach to spend the day together, to release flowers, but it is a sad time.”
At the beach the family write Stanley and Stephanie’s names in the sand - to make visible, if just for a moment, the impact that both their lives have had, and continue to have, on their mum, dad and siblings.
“Stanley and Stephanie are still very much part of our family. The girls tell everybody about their brother and sister. They always say there’s 5 kids in our family but two are in heaven,” said Lea. “But in fact, we are missing more babies than even that.”
Lea also experienced three miscarriages before Stanley was born. Then two more before she fell pregnant with Tully and Stephanie.
“The majority of our thirties were taken up by the stress of grief and the anxiety of contemplating or attempting pregnancy after loss,” Lea said.
“Like most expectant parents, at the beginning of our journey toward parenthood we were blissfully unaware of the road ahead and how things can go wrong and keep going wrong.”
“After losing three pregnancies in a row I was really in a place of thinking that I would never have a baby.”
But then came Stanley.
“When I fell pregnant again with Stanley I was so anxious and worried. But when we reached the ‘magic’ 12-week mark we honestly thought we’d gotten through the danger zone. We really thought everything was going to be alright.” she said.
Lea’s pregnancy progressed normally – expectantly – as she and Chris prepared to finally bring their long-awaited baby home. But in the leadup to her due date Lea felt the baby’s movements had decreased. She sought medical advice on many occasions over the next three weeks and was always reassured that everything was OK. When she went to the obstetrician on her due date, however, it was tragically too late. An ultrasound showed Lea and Chris’s baby no longer had a heartbeat.
A day after his due date – “that magical day I’d looked forward to” - Lea gave birth to the beautiful baby she and Chris had dreamed of.
“Stanley was a beautiful little boy, who was just perfect in every way,” Lea said. “I had a wonderful birth. I remember saying to Chris ‘this would have been a great birth experience – if only the baby were alive’”.
Stephanie’s loss two years later would be a further devastating blow on Lea and Chris’s path to parenthood. While Stephanie’s heart stopped beating in utero her twin sister continued to grow and thrive. Lea and Chris were forced to find a way to mourn one daughter while maintaining hope that her sister would survive the pregnancy.
“Losing a twin puts another completely different spin on things,” Lea said. “I am the mother of twins, but no one will ever see me like that. Tully, too, is a twin-less twin and the loss for her, too, is quite significant.”
Pregnancy and infant loss can be an isolating experience. Going through multiple losses, over a long period of time, is even more so. Coping with their babies’ deaths was all consuming for a long time, leaving Lea and Chris feeling isolated and adrift from many of their peers.
“We had a lot of friends that had young kids at a similar time, but we were in our own headspace,” said Lea. “We couldn’t even be around other babies. It really did distance those relationships and some never recovered.”
The strain on friendships, the financial burden, the loss of being able to hope for or imagine the future – these are just a few of the subsequent losses that continue to affect bereaved parents long after the death of their baby.
For Chris, getting back to any sense of a ‘normal’ life after Stanley’s death felt impossible.
“I fell in a heap for six months,” he said. “I had my own business. I tried to go back, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to work – I had no motivation to work. It was a horrible place to be in. I ended up losing my business. We had to start again. And keep starting again,” he said.
“It took a long time to recover – years to recover,” added Lea.
Finding a community of fellow bereaved mums online who Lea could finally relate to was a turning point in her journey.
“I connected with a mum who had a website about her stillborn son and it was the first time I’d encountered someone else who’d had a loss like that,” she explained.
“This mum talked to me as often as I needed. She was amazing and without her I don’t know how I would have really got through. Sometimes we spoke every day.”
This life-changing experience of peer support eventually led Lea to become involved with Sands as a volunteer parent supporter on the national support line and as the facilitator of a local face-to-face support group in Rivervale, Western Australia.
“I know what peer support did for me and I think it’s an amazing service that’s there for bereaved parents,” Lea said. “I’m proud to be part of it.”
“I get so much out of being a volunteer. There are some stories that resonate with me so much – that remind me of my own story. And there are some people that you just connect with.”
“If, at the end of a support group session I can see on someone’s face that they’ve listened to someone else’s story and it’s normalised some of the feelings they’ve had, that means it’s been worthwhile.”