There were early signs something was wrong. But as Nicola and Dave rushed their baby to hospital when he was three months old, they never imagined he wouldn’t return home with them.
Nicola had given birth to their tiny but perfect boy, Alexander, in January, and they were instantly besotted. At six weeks old, they noticed his noisy breathing. Their paediatrician twice told them it was nothing to worry about, but at 12 weeks another doctor told them he should see a specialist.
The very next day, Alexander went pale and limp. He recovered on the way to hospital – but once there, Nicola and Dave learned their son had a serious rare heart and airway abnormality that affects only one or two Australian children each year.
“I couldn’t believe our unbelievably happy, bubbly and seemingly perfect baby could be so ill,” Nicola says. He was treated at three hospitals before being transferred interstate to the only surgeon in Australia who could help him. At first, they were told the surgery was a success and they could expect to fly home in a couple of weeks. “We were ecstatic, things were finally looking up,” Nicola says.
But two days after his operation, Alexander developed life-threatening complications and underwent another two surgeries. “Unfortunately, the numerous attempts to save him did not work and we said goodbye to the love of our lives,” Nicola says. “Needless to say it was a nightmare and the hardest thing we will ever go through – we’ll never be the same again.”
Nicola says one of the only things that has helped her through the agonising loss was believing she and Dave would have another child one day. “Nothing and no one could ever replace our precious boy but being a family again is so important to us,” she says.
Now, the couple’s wish has come true – Nicola is pregnant with their second baby. But if pregnancy is an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times, the highs and lows can be severe when it comes after the death of a previous child. “It’s really lonely and you feel really isolated,” she says.
Sydney clinical psychiatrist Vera Auerbach says parents who have experienced a previous loss – before or after birth – can find subsequent pregnancies “traumatic”. “Any pregnancy has a whole lot of anxieties about whether the baby and birth will be all right, and that’s normal. And when you have experienced actual loss, that is going to heighten anxiety,” she says. “Some people don’t attach emotionally until it’s, in their mind, a viable baby – until they get past whatever the age the baby was when he or she died.”
Ms Auerbach, of Gymea Lily Psychotherapy Centre, says it’s vital for parents to give themselves time to grieve, and for family, friends and workplaces to give parents as long as they need. “It’s also important to give that baby some space in your family – there is a photo up, a candle gets lit on the baby’s birthday, certain rituals the parents can do that keep the baby in mind and part of the family,” she says.
Nicola says it hasn’t been easy knowing she and Dave will have a baby other than Alexander in their lives. “In fact at times it’s been terrifying,” she says. “But I believe that for us, it wouldn’t have mattered how much time passed between our loss and falling pregnant again, whether it be months or years, we would have always have felt the same bittersweet rollercoaster of emotions.”
The couple saw a geneticist who reassured them that Alexander’s illness wasn’t hereditary. “But it still plays on your mind,” she says. “Every time I go for a scan or something happens I’m always thinking the worst. No matter how much my head tells me it will all be OK, my heart is led by our previous experience. I don’t know when I will feel at ease.”
She says while she and Dave will never get over losing Alexander, having another baby “is a massive positive in our lives”. “I have learned that my heart is big enough to grieve for our son, and to be happy to have another precious baby coming into our lives. I don’t have to pick one feeling over another, or one child over another. I have the capacity for both. Our son will always be a huge part of our family. We want our future children to know about their big brother and how much he meant to us,” she says.
Editor’s note: We were so touched by Nicola’s story that we wanted to help in some way. Nicola told us she found it difficult to imagine using Alexander’s pram, cot and nursery items again. So we have teamed up with some of our very generous sponsors, who have kindly donated some wonderful gifts to the family.
They include: a Silver Cross Wayfarer pram; a Grow With Me Classic 6-in-1 cot and Breathe Eze orthopaedic innerspring mattress with zip-off cover from Babyhood; a Kompressor Caprice car seat from Infasecure; a Baby Carrier One from Scanbrands and Baby Bjorn; a Classique Wrap/Throw, jumpsuit with detachable hood, two-pack of singlets and hooded towel and bathing mitts from Eeni Meeni Miini Moh’s Pure Newborn range; and a wooden play gym from Mocka.
We’d like to send a huge and heartfelt thank you to all our sponsors for their special donations, and to Nicola and Dave for sharing their story with us. We wish them all the best for the future. Their names have been changed in this post to protect their privacy.