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Jess & Steven

Jess Duke Jess Duke 2

“Has this really happened? Is this a nightmare and I’m going to wake up?” – Steven.

There’s a common misconception that pregnancy loss is just an unfortunate ‘blip’ on the radar – a sad detour on the way to a successful pregnancy. For many parents, however, the death of a much-wanted baby is a life-altering tragedy, negating any hope of a happier ending.

For Jess and Steven, life after the death of their baby boy, Lincoln, feels fractured. “Every day we feel so fortunate to have our two living children, but there’s always someone missing.”

Pregnancy loss has been a repeated trauma that has cost this couple the life of their otherwise healthy newborn son as well as three subsequent first trimester pregnancies.

Jess’s first pregnancy was as ordinary and uneventful as any expectant mum could hope for.

“We went for our 20-week ultrasound and found out we were having a healthy baby boy. We were thrilled!” said Jess.

Then at 22 weeks Jess began experiencing pain. “I thought it was Braxton Hicks contractions,” she explained. “I was uncomfortable but I thought this was all part of the pregnancy package.”

But the pain didn’t settle.

Her local hospital and, later, a GP would diagnose her with a suspected urinary tract infection, taking tests and advising her to return the next day for a course of antibiotics to clear it up.

Tragically, Jess never made it back for her follow-up appointment. During the course of that evening her waters broke and she learned she was in labour at only 22 weeks’ gestation.

“I didn’t realise how bad it was or what this meant at all,” remembers Steven. “I thought ‘the baby’s here, we’re not ready!’ but I was thinking in terms of we haven’t got the baby’s room set up or anything yet.”

“I called my parents half excited and half panicked and told them ‘you’re about to be grandparents!’ I didn’t know that babies born at 22 weeks can’t survive. I thought we were safe. I thought that he would be alright.”

When Lincoln was born he looked just like his dad.

“He was perfect. He had Steven’s long fingers and long toes,” said Jess.

Lincoln lived for one hour.

“Afterwards, I think we were in shock,” Jess said. “Nothing made any sense. The midwives were asking us if we wanted to see Lincoln and spend time with him after he was born. My first reaction was definitely no. I thought ‘why they would ask me if I want my dead baby in my room?’ Why would I want that constant reminder?”

The fear of the unknown – of what their baby might look like or feel like – is a common response for parents in the midst of this unimaginable chaos and trauma.

But today Jess and Steven treasure the few memories they were able to make with Lincoln.

“I’ve got photos of me holding Lincoln while he was still alive which I am so grateful for because as hard as I try, I just can’t remember it,” said Jess.

Saying goodbye to their baby was hard. But going home was too.

“We were the first to get pregnant in all of our circles back then and we felt that no one really knew what we’d lost – that Lincoln was so much more than just a blob on an ultrasound screen,” said Jess.

Determined to try for another baby, Jess and Steven would tread the anxious path of pregnancy after loss another three times – each ending in miscarriage – before they would bring a living baby home with them.

“It was so hard getting pregnant again because every day you wake up thinking ‘is something going to happen today?’” said Steven. “Every time Jess would send me a text message my heart would drop, thinking ‘I’m going to be told again there’s no heartbeat.’”

But that heartbeat remained strong. Audrey, now 5, was born early, but safe. Less than a year later Eli, now 4, would follow.

For Audrey and Eli, it’s ‘situation normal’ to have a brother who died. “We talk about Lincoln all the time,” said Jess. “Whenever we meet anyone new Audrey will tell them that there’s another brother. Both kids carry around Lincoln’s teddy bear. They know where he is buried.”

“Every time we drive past the cemetery they call out ‘hi Lincoln!’ and ‘Bye Lincoln!’” added Steven. “We try to answer their questions honestly but it’s tricky. Some of the questions we get are very complicated to answer.”

Another question Jess and Steven find tricky to answer is ‘how many children do you have?’ “That doesn’t get any easier to answer,” said Steven. “Sometimes I tell people about Lincoln, sometimes I don’t, it depends on the situation – who I’m talking to and how I’m feeling,” said Steven.

When asked what helps them cope with Lincoln’s death, Jess doesn’t hesitate: “when someone mentions his name. It’s hard because it brings up difficult memories but it brings a smile to my face too.”

Volunteering on Sands national support phone line and facilitating a face-to-face support group in South Australia also helps Jess stay connected to Lincoln.

“I know what I’m doing is worthwhile every time I hear a caller take a breath for the first time since their loss,” Jess said. “I know that feeling of relief of finally being able to talk to someone who really understands what you’ve been through and I feel honoured I can help other bereaved parents feel that too.”