How I coped with my grief as a grandmother while also being a bereavement support practitioner

by Kristin O'Neill, Child Bereavement UK's Bereavement Support Lead, Glasgow Children's Hospital Service

My eldest daughter Erin was pregnant with her second child and everything seemed fine. But when she went along for the routine twenty-week scan, no heartbeat could be found. Her husband Gavin called me, asking me to come to the hospital and to take their older wee boy. Because I’d worked as a midwife, I knew what had happened right away. Had I not been a midwife and not worked at the unit I might not have known, but I knew even before I got to the hospital.

Because Harper died at Glasgow Children’s Hospital, Erin was referred to Child Bereavement UK’s service at the hospital. So I was wearing multiple hats: the midwife side was thinking about what might have gone wrong, my bereavement support side was thinking about what Erin and Gavin would need now, and I was also being a mother and grandmother.

I tried really hard to compartmentalise and tell myself that, in this moment, I need to be in this role or that role, but inevitably the roles overlap as emotions are involved. Just because I understood the emotions you go through when you’re bereaved, it didn’t make them any easier.

It's not like a knee that’s been skinned that you can put a plaster on and all is well. You can't fix it like that when a baby dies.  

Not being able to make it OK for my wee girl was really tough because as a parent you want to make everything OK and there's nothing you can do to make it better. It's not like a knee that’s been skinned that you can put a plaster on and all is well. You can't fix it like that when a baby dies.

My experience has been something of a perverse privilege in that it's given me a particular insight. Losing Harper has cemented my approach to working with bereaved families; it’s made me very attuned to what it must be like for the parents I work with. When a baby dies in hospital, parents have so little time with their baby. Hospitals are very busy environments and there's a lot of procedure, but we need to think about what we can do to make that time more precious for them.

When I returned to work the first time, going back to the room that Harper was born in was really strange. It helped me to have to look out for my team - I still had a team and a job to do. Harper was not the only baby in the world that was going to die, and I needed to do what I’d done for my family, for everyone. That was my self-care really.

It is lovely having that professional family around you. My bereavement has made us more open as a work team and I'd like to think that if we've learned one thing from Harper's story, it's that we need to talk it out and look after ourselves as well, because it can be a hard job. I don't know if it’s just working within bereavement or whether it would just be the case generally, but it does make you realise that you've got to be sensible about your limitations or you would just burn out completely.

It doesn't matter what you know and what training you’ve had as a professional, there will be sad and dark moments and some triggers. You’re just human and there’s a wee person that should be in your life and who isn’t.

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