‘There was blood. A dash to the hospital. No heartbeat’ – how I survived the stillbirth of my son | Family

On 4 September last year, our son, Rayan, was stillborn. My wife, Sara had been 38 weeks pregnant, and with a couple of weeks to go we had just finished buying all the things we would need for our first child: the clothes, the cot, the nappy disposal system.

It was a Sunday morning, and it started in the way we thought it would: contraction-like pain, waters breaking with a sitcom gush (this was a bad sign, we found out later). But instead of coming in waves, the pain didn’t stop. There was blood, a dash to the hospital. No heartbeat.

Stillbirth – the death of a baby in the womb beyond 24 weeks’ gestation – affects about one in 250 pregnancies in the UK, more if you’re from a minority background like us. Losing a child in this way is a horrifying experience, and for women there are online support groups, podcasts, books and baby loss influencers. For men: next to nothing.

Partly that’s because the medical attention is rightly focused on the mother in the immediate aftermath, and partly I think because men often aren’t great at talking about their feelings. And look, part of me still feels this isn’t really my story to tell: I’m not the one who carried him, not the one who endured the physical pain, and I’m not the one who lost four and a half litres of blood and spent days in intensive care. But I can’t stop writing it: in my head on long walks, on the Notes app on my phone on the way to work, in 100 untitled Google Docs.

It’s such an awful thing that the people on the edges of your life simply don’t know how to engage with it – instead of the conversations you thought you’d be having about names and night feeds and birth weights (6lbs 13oz) there is just a bleak and horrible silence.

I had been obsessed with finding the right name. We interrogated the options like used-car buyers, looking for something solid and functional: a name that would nod to his ethnic background, but still let him move through the world with the easy grace I lacked. But of course that was going to change too. I had all these notions about what sort of dad I was going to be – emotionally available, physically present – and about how the act of parenting would make me a better person, give my life purpose, transform me overnight into a functioning adult.

Maybe we tried to plan too much. I’d read all the books, gone to the antenatal classes, made friends with other parents-to-be in our local area. (Now we dread running into them in the street.) We’d written a birth plan centred around cultivating an atmosphere of calm. There had been no baby shower (tempting fate), no monogrammed onesies or Instagram bump photos, but we had carefully redesigned our lives with this new arrival in mind: moving to the suburbs to be nearer to family, buying a sensible car, painting the nursery an appropriately neutral shade of green. It was all for him.

The day itself is a blur, but some things are seared into my brain. I remember the moment they told us – the wide-eyed horror on my wife’s face, looking down to find myself completely drenched in sweat. Alarms going off and a rising sense of dread.

Things got worse from there, somehow. One of the many, many horrible things you learn when your child is stillborn is that the woman is still expected to deliver the baby vaginally. I understand the logic behind this – protect future fertility, avoid unnecessary surgery – but it seems unfathomably cruel. So I sat there, feeling helpless, useless, pathetic, as Sara writhed in pain in a bed on the maternity ward, midwives and doctors and anaesthetists coming in and out to run tests.

Placental abruption. Rayan died because the organ that had been keeping him alive for nine months suddenly separated from the wall of the uterus. Abruptions are always an emergency, but they can be small and manageable, or instant and catastrophic. Ours was the latter, and as the hours ticked by with labour failing to progress and the pain refusing to subside even after an epidural, it became clear that Sara’s abruption had been much more severe than the doctors had realised. She was still bleeding internally, and had been for hours.

At around 2pm on that first, endless day, they wheeled her into the operating theatre for an emergency caesarean: deliver the baby, stop the bleeding. I spent the next six hours pacing back and forth in an anxious daze, jumping at every alarm, wound tight like a spring. I didn’t sleep that night: Rayan in a “cold cot” at the morgue, Sara in intensive care with a tube down her throat and another in her side to drain the blood, machines doing the work of her lungs and kidneys. Heavily sedated. Her eyelids fluttered when I kissed her on the forehead. I couldn’t bear to go back to an empty home, past the brand new pram folded up in the hallway. So I lay in the spare room at my mum’s house, with the rain hammering down and lightning flashing in the distance.

It’s a strange kind of grief, because you have nothing to anchor it: no memories made together, just plans unravelled, clothes never worn. And yet, when I held him in the hospital for the first and last time, I loved him – instantly and irrevocably. He had dark hair and chubby cheeks, and his face was crinkled into a slight frown. He looked peaceful. His eyes were closed. Meeting him was both joyous and terrible: love and grief and sorrow all mashed into some vast and primal thing. He was perfect and beautiful. He was ice-cold.

It was the second day. Sara was still in ICU, and our bereavement midwife, Jen, arranged for a volunteer photographer from Sands, the stillborn and neonatal death charity, to come and take pictures of Rayan for us to have as a memento. He’s still the only man I’ve spoken to this whole time who’s been through the same thing as me, and I clung to him like a lifeboat in a storm. How did you cope? How do you live?

Amit Katwala standing in a park
Amit Katwala: ‘It was my job to protect him and I couldn’t even keep him alive for a day.’ Photograph: Cian Oba-Smith/The Guardian

Answers were hard to find. No one could tell us why it happened. About half of stillbirths are never explained. Everyone assured us that it wasn’t our fault, but it’s hard not to think back to that Sunday morning and wonder whether we did something wrong – whether I did something wrong. I’ve learned to hold two contradictory beliefs in my head: this was a freak occurrence and there’s nothing we could have done to stop it; and I wasn’t forceful or prepared or helpful enough and this is all my fault. All those notions I had about fatherhood seem so ridiculous now, my concerns so trivial. It was my job to protect him and I couldn’t even keep him alive for a day.

I’ve been over everything so many times trying to establish cause and effect. I’ve been down every placental abruption rabbit hole on Google, looked at research papers and meta-analyses. One put the chances of losing a baby at 38 weeks at about 5,000-1. Another, published recently, revealed that Asian babies are about 60% more likely to be stillborn than white children. The idea that Rayan died because of what I am haunts me so much that I can’t even begin to interrogate it.

All I can come up with, in the end, is some accumulation of small effects – a small probability plus a small probability plus a small probability. “Nature is cruel,” is how Jen would always put it. A butterfly flaps its wings in the South Pacific and your whole world collapses around you.

It was the week the queen died, which lent everything an even more surreal texture. I watched the news break from the room in the maternity wing where they had moved Sara once she was out of immediate danger. When we went home the following Sunday – trying hard not to look at the happy new families leaving the ward – it was to a different country, as different people.

Those first few weeks felt like years, slumped on the sofa in front of daytime television while our mums buzzed around us, breaking only for sad walks around the village and horrible admin. We had to go to the town hall to register Rayan’s birth and death – a grotesque mirror image of what we should have been doing. There were medical investigations, decisions to make about postmortems. Flowers and food packages arrived almost hourly, until the house began to resemble a garden centre with a particularly well-stocked farm shop.

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Grief affects us all differently. Sara crocheted him a blanket, which we keep in a box in his room with his handprints and plaster casts of his feet. I became weirdly obsessed with quizshows, and applied to go on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. For a while I spent my evenings frantically memorising kings and queens. Everyone was a little worried about me. I think I wanted to see whether a piece of cosmic bad luck would be evened out by something good, if the scales of the universe would balance.

It messes with your sense of probability. I’d always thought of myself as quite a lucky person – I had even said something to this effect to Sara the night before it happened (idiot). I don’t think that any more. I could feel tectonic plates shifting around in my head in those months as I re-evaluated my relationship with the world. I’ve never been a particularly spiritual person, and I’m still not (what kind of God?), but I have to believe Rayan is out there somewhere: in the bright-eyed stare of a robin on a tree branch, in columns of light breaking through the clouds.

In those early days, everything was triggering. I’d well up at sitcoms, sci-fi movies, TV adverts (a John Lewis campaign featuring a dad’s journey from birth to the first day of school). Social media was a minefield, but I couldn’t tear myself away. The real world was worse: prams and pushchairs everywhere, dads swinging their boys up on to their shoulders, playing football with them in the park – needles in the heart.

We had a funeral, with family and friends, on a crisp November morning. The hospital arranged the logistics, but we chose songs and readings, bought flowers for the ceremony and pastries for the wake. It was the only thing we’d ever get to do for him, and we wanted to do it justice. (Another horrible thing I learned: the size and weight of a baby’s coffin.) We brought his ashes home in a cardboard tube with a cartoon bear on it. I sat on the floor of the empty nursery and cried until my eyes hurt, feeling empty, guilty, broken, numb.

It’s natural to flinch away from pain. We ran. Because of the C-section, we would have a year to wait before we could try again – acres of unwanted time. We resolved pretty early on – Sara still had the IV bruises on her arms – to try to spend the year doing something, anything to take our minds off the milestones we were missing, the stolen future.

So two months after it happened I was on a black sand beach in Iceland, staring out at the cruel Atlantic and hoping the wind might scour me clean. A week there, two in South Africa, a reporting trip to Taiwan, a month working from San Francisco – north, south, east, west – burning through our savings like two people who had lost the only thing they were saving for, trying to outrun something you can’t outrun. I saw the northern lights dancing in the skies over Reykjavik, watched a cheetah stalking its prey in the savannah. I would trade it all to know the colour of his eyes.

I’ve learned a lot of horrible things in the last year, but mostly I’ve learned to think in a different tense: the future lost. If this hadn’t happened, then we’d be doing that; if this happens for us eventually, then we’ll do this. The pain has morphed from something sharp and physical into a kind of ache: grief turned into sorrow. It feels like part of me now, an extra limb. I want to scream at people: can’t you see it?

Some days, I feel as if I’m on the edge of a deep abyss, staring down at the void where the life I had planned was supposed to be. Shunted into a different timeline that I’ve come to think of as the ghost life: the curtains we hung in his room, the empty space where his cot should have been. Heart-stopping reminders all around, every moment tinged with a sense of unreality. I shouldn’t be here. This is all wrong. I was planning to do three months of shared parental leave: right now, I should be off work, walking around the village with Rayan strapped to my chest.

Amit Katwala in a park
Photograph: Cian Oba-Smith/The Guardian

Instead: Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day without him. A year of unwanted firsts. If we had struggled to conceive it would have been hard in a different way, but it’s the suddenness of this that feels particularly harsh – we had it all and it was snatched away. The unfairness of it drives wedges between you and the people you care about, poisons moments that should be pure. Before, I’d been – not ambivalent about having kids, but I could see us being happy either way. Now that I’ve met him – felt that chemical, neurological, evolutionary love – all I want is to have that feeling back.

So we trudge on, moving through the world like shadows, bouncing between despair at what we’ve lost and moments of optimism for what we might, maybe, still have in the future. More superstitious, more anxious, more damaged, but also stronger and more resilient than I could ever have imagined. Eyes open.

Nothing can bring Rayan back, but on my better days I like to think that maybe parts of the life we thought we’d have right now might still be out there for us, that maybe among the sorrow there might still be room for joy. Sometimes I even dare to dream about names again. I like Arun, for a boy, meaning “dawn”. Asha, for a girl. It means “hope”.

Amit Katwala is a writer and editor based in London. He has donated his fee for this article to Sands, the charity which provides support to families dealing with pregnancy loss or the death of a baby, and advice for their loved ones. Find out more at sands.org.uk

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