Zoë Clark-Coates tells Philip Halcrow about starting services of remembrance to help families who have lost a baby say goodbye
THE big announcement did not happen. Zoë and her husband, Andy, had hoped to give their family the good news on Christmas Eve. She was pregnant. But before they could surprise the family, a scan showed them that their baby had died.
It was not the couple’s first loss. It would not be their last. Zoë and Andy even went on to suffer further loss at Christmastime, but also to celebrate the birth of their eldest daughter.
Zoë’s experience has given her insight into what other people may be feeling at this time of year.
‘If you lose a baby at another time of the year, there aren’t the same number of physical triggers that can cause feelings to resurface,’ she says. ‘But the sight of a Christmas tree can send someone back to the year when they went to get a tree but had just lost a child.
‘Christmas is also all about children, which can add to the pain. Then there’s the pressure to put on a happy face – it can be hard to fake it when all you want to do is cry. It’s a time when people particularly need support.’
Zoë Clark-Coates and her husband support such people in a variety of ways at all times of the year. Five years ago, they began holding services in cathedrals to allow people to remember a child they have lost during pregnancy, at birth or in infancy. Under the umbrella of their Mariposa Trust, the work has expanded to offer befriending, online and other support to people who face various difficulties in their efforts to start a family.
‘Every year in the UK 250,000 couples lose their baby,’ says Zoë. ‘It’s a huge problem. But even though I’d had a friend who had gone through a loss and I was aware that it could happen, I still didn’t actually think it would happen to me. ‘I’d also trained as a counsellor and had helped people through grief. But until going through it myself, I had no idea what losing a baby was like.’
Zoë and Andy had been married for more than a decade before they started to try to have children.
‘At first, I was fairly OK with the thought that we may not have children,’ she says. ‘I thought that if we couldn’t, then it would simply not be God’s will for us.
‘But as soon as I’d carried a child for the first time, I went from simply wanting a child to being desperate for a child. We suffered three losses before Esme was born, and then another two after her before we went on to have our next little girl, Bronte. It surprised me that after experiencing loss, our desire for a child just increased.’
Zoë recalls how, after losing their first baby, she and Andy barely talked with each other about what had happened, let alone with anyone else. ‘If we were to talk about it, we would have had to acknowledge that we were that statistic – the one in four couples who lose a baby. I wanted to conceive again quickly, which I thought would make everything OK. So we didn’t discuss it much and we didn’t tell anybody until our second loss.’
Whereas the couple’s first loss was as a result of an early miscarriage, Zoë says that their second was a ‘missed miscarriage’. She explains: ‘We were going through scans and had been watching our baby grow and everything seemed OK – then we were told that our baby’s heart had stopped beating.
‘We couldn’t be in denial about that loss. It broke me and made me realise the depth of grief that a person can reach. It was after that that we also began to deal with the grief of losing the first baby.’
Zoë recognises that some couples feel other pressures that prevent them talking about their loss.
‘There are taboos. The fact that you don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant until after your 12-week scan just in case you lose the baby reinforces the stigma of talking about baby loss.’
Zoë and Andy’s five losses opened their eyes to other realities of baby loss. ‘Even though we were surrounded by amazing family and friends, we still felt as if we were walking through our experience alone,’ says Zoë. ‘At the time, we didn’t have the words to express what we were feeling. We sensed that we needed the support of people who didn’t require us to express what we were going through because they already understood it.’
The couple decided to do something to help others.
‘I was determined that what we’d been through would be used for good,’ says Zoë. ‘I was determined that the lives of the five children I’d lost would have a purpose.’
Drawing on their professional backgrounds in PR, marketing and corporate events, Zoë and Andy began to organise Saying Goodbye services for people who had been affected by the loss of a baby.
‘We launched seven national services at cathedrals. We chose cathedrals because we wanted the services, which would not be specifically religious, to be held in places where anybody of any faith or none would feel comfortable. We thought cathedrals were also ideal venues because they were recognised as being significant buildings: baby loss has been a taboo subject, but we didn’t want the services to be hidden away; instead we needed to show that the babies who would be remembered at the services were important.’
Zoë explains what takes place at Saying Goodbye services.
‘The services contain a mixture of music and poems that show people they’re not alone in their grief.
‘People can come and relax. There’s no feeling of discomfort. People ask us if they need to be in a particular place emotionally, but the services have been designed to meet everyone where they are.
‘There are two acts of remembrance in the services. We always have candle-lighting, because it’s an act that’s familiar to many people across the generations, and it’s a way that they can take part physically.
‘Then we have created an act of remembrance around bellringing. We have a set of handbells, which get passed from row to row while the choir sing or music plays, and everyone can ring a bell for every baby they have lost.
‘People say it makes such an impact to hear all those chimes, which represent babies who often never had a voice because they were lost in the womb or through stillbirth.’
The services have been popular. One hundred have now been held in cathedrals and other notable religious buildings not only in the UK but also in North America and mainland Europe. The next is scheduled to take place at Exeter Cathedral in April.
‘People find that it’s powerful just being at a service, because when you go through loss you can feel alone. So they appreciate being able to sit alongside others whose story might be very different but who nevertheless understand the pain and who know that it’s something you will never get over.’
And the services attract a variety of people.
‘They are not only for people who lost a child recently. Many of the people who come along are in their sixties, seventies, eighties or nineties.
‘When we launched the Mariposa Trust, we knew that people who’d lost a baby years ago needed support as much as people who had lost a baby last week. Some of the people who go to a service know that they are approaching the end of life and say that they can’t die until they’ve formally said goodbye to their child – they’ve never had the chance to do it before.’
Zoë notes another possible misconception.
‘Many people expect the services to be full of women, but they’re not. About 30 per cent of the people we support are men. Often when men come to us, they’re more desperate than women, because it takes a lot more for them to ask for support.
‘At the services, without fail it’s the men who are the most moved. Afterwards, they’ll say to us that it was the first time they’ve openly grieved, because up until then they’d been focused on supporting their partner. They say that because they weren’t the one carrying the child, it fell to them to make sure that their partner was OK physically and emotionally. They had put all their feelings into a box and thought they would deal with them sometime later, but that time never arose.’
Whether on the day or years later, many people tell Zoë and Andy that a Saying Goodbye service helped them to carry on.
Zoë is glad, because it means she is achieving what she set out to do. And, although the organisation is ‘not religious’, she and Andy see their work as springing from their faith.
It was a faith that they drew on in their own difficult times.
‘Both of us became Christians when we were young,’ says Zoë. ‘We always believed that God was in control, but we were also aware that being Christians didn’t protect us from anything. We weren’t under the illusion that our faith meant that we wouldn’t have to face illness or loss; we just always knew that whatever we went through, God would walk through it with us.
‘At no point during our experience did we resent or blame God. I never thought: Why me? I thought: Why not me? Why wouldn’t it happen to me if it could happen to my next-door neighbour or my friend?
‘In my darkest days, I felt God’s presence. I relied on him more than ever. And my experience helped me understand more about the nature of God, who showed the world his love by giving his Son. He knew that pain. He’d lost a child. He was weeping with me.’
Zoë insists that the children she lost remain part of her life. They are not only mentioned in the book she has written about her experiences, Saying Goodbye, but they will also be, she tells me, ‘on every page of my life story for ever’.
Their lives are still influencing her work – work which she hopes will make a difference to people’s lives and, in turn, to a society that is still unsure about how to speak, or even sometimes whether to speak, about baby loss and its effects.
‘We want to help as many people as possible,’ she says. ‘Our work doesn’t have a Christian label, and it doesn’t need one, as long as we are fulfilling God’s calling to all Christians to help the broken-hearted.’
- Saying Goodbye is published by David C Cook. For more information on forthcoming services visit sayinggoodbye.org
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