Alison and Adam Wightwick sit side by side on their sofa, looking into the eyes of each other as they speak about their last moments with their son, Aaron. Adam spoke softly, “you’re on the maternity ward … there is a lot of happiness around, and babies crying, and our baby’s not crying.”
Aaron Wightwick is one baby of six in Australia to be stillborn each day, the main cause of death under the age of one. According to the 2018 Senate Inquiry into stillbirth, Australia’s stillbirth rate is higher than the national road toll, and over 30 times more common than Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Despite modern advancements in medical practise, Australia’s stillbirth rates have not changed in the last 20 years, receiving less recognition than other childhood deaths. The lack of conversation is a national crisis, affecting the mental health of bereaved parents, families and health practitioners.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) defines stillbirth as “a foetal death occurring at 20 or more completed weeks of gestation or 400 grams or more birth weight”. For Ali and Adam Wightwick, 2019 marks the 12th anniversary of Aaron’s death at just 19 weeks and six days. “The hardest thing is all of the firsts,” Adam says. “He was due on our wedding anniversary. That date for quite a few years was not a happy day when it should’ve been a happy day.”
On June 12, 2007, Ali Wightwick went from back pain one day, to Aaron having no heartbeat the next. The Wightwick’s specialist only weeks earlier said the pregnancy was strong. “It was tough to hand him over. This is the end, and this is it, we aren’t going to see him again,” Ali says.
“He was a little human,” Adam adds. “All the features were there; little hands, fingers and toes.” The couple will never forget picking up Aaron from his hospital bassinet and holding him one last time.
Following Aarons death, the Drysdale couple went through two more IVF miscarriages within three years, triggering anxiety, depression and feeling withdrawn from society. “I didn’t want to leave the house,” Ali says to her husband, to which he responds: “it was hard to lift your spirits when you didn’t want your spirits lifted. We did a lot of counselling.”
The Wightwicks share a memory box filled with trinkets and a teddy bear with Aaron’s urn inside to cuddle. It was these small things and support groups that brought them peace. Happily, the couple now have two healthy boys, Zane and Xavier, and believe seeking support changed their course.
“If we didn’t get any of that, our story could be totally different,” Adam says.
“Reach out and take the support, even if you don’t think you need it because that’s what makes the difference.”
According to the University of Queensland’s Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth, the often hidden tragedy of bereavement affects over 2000 families each year, with the sorrow of empty arms causing a ripple effect with social and emotional impacts. Furthermore, up to 50% of Australia’s and New Zealand’s bereaved parents believe they are unable to communicate freely about their stillborn baby because of the discomfort in others.
Geelong’s Westfield My Local Hero Finalist, and Angel Gowns volunteer, Sarah Tuohey, crochets clothing and blankets for “angel babies” and premature babies. The Westfield program offers community recognition and grants for nominated locals efforts to support an organisation of their choice. Angel Gowns for Australian Angel Babies provides angel packs with gowns and other keepsakes for families with babies up to 18 months who have died.
While cradling little white booties in the palm of her hand, Sarah softly says, “these beautiful little beanies and booties show that those little people are not forgotten, rather than just remembered as a miscarriage or something that went wrong.”
Sarah’s premature son, Noah, survived her complicated pregnancy, after being diagnosed with a potentially deadly condition called Placenta Percreta, where the placenta can attach to the uterus and nearby organs. Sarah encountered mothers who lost their children and needed small clothing, prompting her to volunteer for Angel Gowns. For Sarah, giving families clothing signified these babies had a life, giving parents the chance to celebrate the short time they had.
Sarah reflects on a conversation she once had with a bereaved mum. Dressing her baby in a gown was the only thing she could do, “putting the baby to rest in a beautiful way, knowing the baby was loved”. “She couldn’t save the child, but she could at least give the baby a farewell that they deserved.”
Angel Gowns is just one of many organisations in Australia trying to provide bereaved parents with the support they need. Furthermore, with over 54 million
Angel Gowns is just one of many organisations in Australia trying to provide bereaved parents with the support they need. Organisations like Red Nose, SANDS, Stillbirth Foundation and Still Aware are continually campaigning for education, awareness and action in stillbirth research and preventatives.
These organisations, as well as over 269 submissions from around the nation, contributed to the Senate Enquiry Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education Report in December 2018. The report inquires the future of stillbirth with sixteen recommendations made by the committee. The Australian Government published their response in July 2019.
The Australian Government agreed to meet all sixteen recommendations made by the committee, including a total $52.4 million investment in research, education programs and mental health support.
The Stillbirth CRE Safer Baby Bundle campaign rolls out this October in NSW, VIC and QLD, addressing the evidence gaps in maternity services on stillbirth prevention. The program aims to reduce stillbirth rates by 20 %, hoping to model the success rates of the ‘Saving Babies Lives Bundle’ in the UK.
A prominent theme runs through these experiences, a need for communication, education and research to synchronise. Conversation is key to supporting families, not only in reducing stillbirth occurrence but also in the bereavement process.
The courage of Alison, Adam and Sarah to bravely push through the barriers of existing conversational taboo and allow us to share the space of these moments is something we hold dearly. Life brings so much to us, we are deeply grateful to ponder with them.