“I’m so sorry, there’s no heartbeat…” six words that changed my life forever.

At 23+3 weeks pregnant on Monday 27th May 2019, I woke up as usual at around 6.30am, but there was something unusual about this particular morning, I couldn’t feel my baby moving. At first I didn’t worry too much, I innocently assumed that after a hot cup of tea and some breakfast, I’d soon feel the familiar kicks, but as my day unfolded, this did not happen.

It was a gloriously sunny day on this perfect May bank holiday; I had my hair half up in a clip, wearing a khaki green jump suit that proudly displayed my growing bump.  We had a lovely day planned meeting family for brunch in the gardens of a beautiful pub, and I was so looking forward to catching up with them all and making the most of the extended weekend. When we arrived there was a band playing and people face painting for the children, I became lost in the happiness of my day.  We ate, we drank, and we laughed until our bellies hurt. My eldest son Virráe ran around being doted on by everyone, and as I glanced at my watch, thinking it must only be about midday, I was shocked to see that it was already 3.00pm. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach when I realised that I had still not felt any movement. I remember feeling scared, I could feel my heart racing and my skin getting hot, I had that sick panic stricken feeling that you only get when something is completely out of your control; what was so wrong that my baby had not moved at all?

I discreetly managed to let my husband, Nik, know that something wasn’t right, and I recall him saying “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I couldn’t answer him, I couldn’t even think, the only thing I could feel was fear. Our family lovingly pleaded with us to stay longer, completely unaware of what was really going on, but somehow we managed to paint a smile on, make our excuses and leave.  The journey to hospital was silent and still, I couldn’t hear a sound. It seemed even the birds had stopped tweeting, perhaps they knew too. I stared out the window clutching my stomach, I knew in my heart that something was very wrong with our baby, and I suspect that Nik did too.

I spent what felt like hours pacing the hospital waiting room; it was as though the clock was just not moving. My name was finally called, and we were ushered into a room. The midwives chattered away, telling me that my baby was just causing mischief, I couldn’t even utter a word in response, I just let my head fall back, I shut my eyes and I prayed. After multiple nurses failed to find my babies heartbeat, I was struggling to control my emotions, but with Virráe in the room I had no choice but to remain calm. I paced up and down, clenching my fists as the hot tears raced down my cheeks. The voice inside my head was screaming loudly that my baby had died, and I wanted to scream back and make this whole nightmare go away. After an agonising wait, the on duty consultant came in and confirmed the devastating reality that was to change our family forever, the voice inside my head was right, my baby had died.

My body gave way and I fell to the floor, two midwives caught me, and as they did, an unrecognisable scream left my mouth. Tears poured from my eyes, and as I looked at them, my face pleaded with them to fix this, they looked back, tears streaming down their cheeks, and I knew then as we spoke with our eyes, that this could never be fixed, and nor could I. Unable to walk, I was wheeled into another room for one final scan, I recall the midwives telling me not to worry about Virráe, and asking whether or not he was allowed biscuits. Whilst so much of what happened is a haze, my brain has the most insignificant moments of that day etched in precise detail. Little did I realise it at the time, but trauma was already leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

I was unsure of how to process the mass of information that I had nodded my way through with the senior midwife. There is not even one word I remember of what she said, only that was she was kind, and when I was with her, I felt safe. As we left the hospital, once again in silence, everything was starting to feel like an out of body experience, was this really happening to me, or was I about to wake up from a bad dream? I remember watching my son run ahead of us in the empty car park with face paint smeared down his cheeks. When the midwives had kindly taken care of him, they gave him some gloves and a plastic apron to take home and he still had these on, he looked ridiculous, but I remember thinking that if anyone could see us now, they would never know the reality of just how dark our world had become. I remember saying I needed to call my mum, and I remember Nik telling me he would take Virráe to pay for the ticket to give me some privacy. This was quite possibly the hardest phone call I have ever made in my life, how do you explain that your baby has died, but that you are still carrying them in your tummy, and that you still have to give birth, to plan a funeral? How do you explain something that simply doesn’t happen to you? Somehow I did, and so my devastating journey of loss and of life afterwards began.

Three days after learning my baby had died, I gave birth to a perfect little girl. The labour was painful and intense, but it was beautiful. Our daughter silently entered into this world, and when she was placed in my arms, her beauty took my breath away. How could a child so utterly perfect be lifeless? Her face was heart shaped like mine, I traced her soft skin with the tips of my fingers, and if I close my eyes, I can still feel her now. She had lips that were as red a rose bud, a nose that was so perfectly shaped, and eyes big enough to get lost in. We named her Aurelia, meaning ‘The Golden One’. I looked at her, and then I looked to the sky, and I willed us to defy science, I willed her chest to start moving, and I willed for life and not death, but sadly my prayers were not answered this time.

We spent the next few hours with her; I dressed her, held her and kissed her. I read her a bedtime story and just lay watching her and taking lots of photos that I will cherish forever. She somehow gave me the strength to enjoy this time, I felt so proud like any new mum, and it felt lovely to potter about our hospital bedroom just knowing she was there. We invited the grandparents to come and meet her, and their eyes were brimming with pain, but also with pride. I think they drew strength from seeing Nik and I so united, and of course from their beautiful granddaughter. We decided that we wanted to let her go before the day was over, I somehow didn’t feel able to go through the night with her, I didn’t want to give myself false hope into thinking she would by some miracle wake up and that I would be able to take her home. Just before midnight, I read Aurelia ‘Guess How Much I Love You’, to the moon and back of course, and I kissed her goodnight for the first and last time, and then she was gone.  Nik and I climbed into bed in the bereavement suite, and for a while we just held one another in complete silence, but eventually we turned to be on our own, and for the first time in days, we just slept.

The grief was overwhelming, and it took over every part of my mind, body and soul. It was there, around every corner and behind every door, I couldn’t escape it. It felt like a tennis ball in a jam-jar, all consuming with no space for anything else to move around. I couldn’t make sense of life, I only knew that the old me had died with my daughter, and that I had no idea who the new me was. The only thing that kept me going was planning Aurelia’s funeral, it kept my mind busy, so busy that I worried what I would do with myself afterwards. It was the last thing I would ever be able to do for our daughter, so I had to put everything into it.

If I’m being honest, I had worried that there would be pressure from family to do things a certain way, or invite certain people, and in my mind I had already become anxious about this. Whilst I was raised within a South Asian family, and also lived with my grandparents, my parents had always been extremely liberal, they had taught me to how to be respectful, yet encouraged me to challenge them when I thought differently, to ask why, and to be independent.  All the girls that married into our family were treated like daughters and accepted for being them, and so I grew up thinking that this was what married life was like. When I happened to fall in love with an Indian boy, also from a South Asian family, I naively thought nothing much would change, and that I would simply slot it to this new family, but in reality, life became very different. I faced some particularly difficult situations in the earlier years of my marriage; my confidence was slowly and painfully torn apart until it had completely diminished, and far from being accepted, I was instead expected to understand my place as a daughter in law, and in this role there was a very clear sense of control over what I should and should not do. Decisions were made based on what others would think, or what would look right to the outside world, and it was deemed disrespectful to challenge this. The line between respect and control were so blurred, it was almost impossible to tell the difference. In the end I had a nervous breakdown, but after seeking help, I regained my strength and began to stand up to the control, to call it out, and to start doing what was right by me again. Perhaps this journey was needed, so that I would have the strength to face other battles that life had waiting for me, and perhaps it even paved the way for some much needed change.

Within the Hindu culture, it is said that if a child passes before the age of five, then their bodies should be buried and not cremated, but I simply could not bear the thought of Aurelia’s little body just laying underground, Nik felt the same, and we instinctively knew that we wanted to have her cremated. We had full support from everyone on both sides of the family, and more so, were encouraged to do what felt right for us with everything. This was so refreshing, and almost a shock to the system, as it was the first time we were being treated like adults and that our decisions were being respected without interference. After battling in our own minds with who to invite to the funeral, we decided that we only wanted a handful of our closest friends and family there, and that absolutely no one on the guest list should be there because of their status, it had to be because of personal relationships with us. With this in mind, there were individuals who we consciously chose not to invite, and I was surprised that this was not questioned. I felt such inner peace that the focus was truly about supporting us in our time of need, and not what others would think of our choices. It seemed that there was no longer an expectation for us to make decisions based on what ‘looked good’, or what would please our elders, in fact, I would go as far as saying that there was no expectation at all.

On the day of the funeral I woke up with my stomach in knots, and my eyes were heavy from the days of crying I had done. I was starting to feel very defeated, or perhaps I was defeated, I didn’t know, I didn’t know anything anymore. I tried to put some make up on, but nothing could mask the grief and so I wiped it all off again, one less thing to worry about I thought. Time seemed to have stood still as the rain poured from the sky, even nature was mourning for my little girl. The funeral car arrived, and there inside was the tiny little coffin that held my baby, I closed my eyes and pictured Aurelia just as I had dressed her the day before, adorned in pink and tucked up tight with a few special things next to her. Nik and I sat either side of her, and I couldn’t help but think that this was not how the first car journey with our daughter was meant to be. We both placed our hands on top of her coffin, and I think in a way, we just wanted to make the most of having her by our side. We arrived at the crematorium, and I could see the last of our family and friends making their way in, it all suddenly felt so real, too real. I got out of the car and as I composed myself, Nik placed his arm around my waist, and when I looked up, the funeral director was holding my daughter in her arms. Tears once again began to fill my eyes and as she placed her coffin in my arms, with Nik by my side, I carried her for very last time.

The weeks that followed Aurelia’s funeral were a bit of a blur, they came and they went, I went back to work and suddenly it was the end of the year. How had I survived 7 months? 2019 was the year that I came to know a type of love that I had only ever dreamt of, for it was meant to be the year that I completed my family. When Mother Nature put me on a different path, I came instead to know a harrowing pain that I didn’t know could co-exist so beautifully with such profound love.

I lost my faith in life and its plans for me, and I learnt firsthand just how ignorant the human race could be, and when I was forced to look a little closer to home, I was saddened to experience how deep rooted the stigma of stillbirth and baby loss remains in the South Asian community. It is why so many feel the need to keep quiet, to grieve alone and to suffer in silence, people are made to feel this way because others find it uncomfortable. This is exactly why I will keep talking, in fact I will shout as loud as my voice will carry, for me, for Aurelia and for every single person that feels they can’t. Although she took not one breath, Aurelia opened up the eyes of those around us, specifically some of our elder family members. She made them see that the opinions of others do not matter, but that the well-being of loved ones does. She helped them realise the need to recognise and validate feelings and emotions, of talking and being open but also of showing emotion themselves. She broke down the walls and brought us all closer together. She helped me to become accepted and to be confidently and unapologetically me. If losing Aurelia has taught me anything, it’s that love, kindness and honesty can change the world. Her short but powerful life has reminded me that there is beauty in everything, always something to be grateful for and that anything is possible.

Kajal Pankhania

Find Kajal on Instagram- @Aurelias_Wish