'Instead of my baby crying, I was crying': How sewing helped mend a mother's heart after stillbirth
SINGAPORE: After more than 30 hours of labour, Ms Christy Liew held her daughter in her arms, but the newborn was silent.
Just two days before, her baby had died in the womb, two months before she was due to come into the world. To avoid complications, Ms Liew and her husband decided to induce the birth of their now-dead child.
While other mothers were welcoming their babies at the KK Women's and Children’s Hospital’s delivery ward, Ms Liew was struggling with pain and guilt.
"Instead of my baby crying, I was the one crying," the 35-year-old financial adviser said, tears welling as she recalled what she went through on Apr 7.
"You have planned so many things, then all of a sudden, you can only hold someone who is dying in front of you."
She was wracked with grief and physically exhausted from the labour, but there were many decisions to make which she and her husband had never planned for - and in a very short time, she would never see her firstborn, Amanda, ever again.
Some parents choose not to see their deceased child, but Ms Liew said it helped to spend some time with her baby and take photos with her before she reluctantly sent the infant off.
Then the nurses dressed Amanda in a tiny pink gown, put a bonnet on her head and even gave her a little teddy bear to hug before taking her away.
A charm in the shape of an angel was stitched on the gown, and a matching charm now sits on Ms Liew’s wrist.
She keeps a photo album, a lock of Amanda’s hair and a set of her footprints and handprints in a gold cardboard "memory box", provided by the hospital.
"Next time, if you think of her, you can still look at those photos," she said. "It's like she existed in the world."
Unknown to Ms Liew then, the gown that her baby wore was sewn by an Angel Hearts volunteer.
The organisation, formerly known as Angel Gowns, was started in 2016 to dress "angel babies" such as Amanda "with dignity", and is based on similar groups in the United States and Australia.
Not everyone is comfortable with discussing the loss of an infant, mothers that CNA spoke to said. Many people advise them to move on and “have another one”, with their best interests at heart, they said.
But it’s not so easy for the mums, for whom each baby lost is etched in their hearts.
In 2018, there were 89 stillbirths and 39,039 live births recorded in the Report on Registration of Births and Deaths. The infant mortality rate was 2.1 per 1,000 live births.
And about 25 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to Health Xchange.
Angel Hearts co-founder Felicia Tan, 41, said that she joined the organisation after miscarrying three children in 2011 and 2012.
Back then, before Angel Hearts had started, her babies were wrapped in white muslin cloth, which became stained with their blood, before they were taken to a mortuary, she told CNA.
The organisation now liaises with all the public hospitals in Singapore as well as some private hospitals to provide them with the gowns.
KKH said that it has received 204 gowns from Angel Hearts so far, and they complement the hospital’s collection of baby clothing offered to parents or caregivers of deceased babies.
The non-profit has grown from an initial group of five women to more than 100 volunteers currently - including Ms Liew.
"It was a comfort to see her in a nice dress, with a teddy bear," she told CNA. "I find that it's really something very meaningful."
Like other volunteers, Ms Liew helps to stitch angel gowns in sizes from small and tiny to minuscule for the babies lost.
They also sew wraps scarcely larger than an adult palm - for foetuses miscarried while they are barely formed, all from the scraps of donated wedding gowns. Each gown comes with a set of charms - one for the child and one for the mother to remember her baby by.
After stripping down the donated wedding dresses, volunteers will take the fabric home to turn them into angel gowns. There are classes for those with no sewing experience and once a month, they meet up to exchange pointers.
It can be an emotional process for the mothers - some find it therapeutic, some become distressed.
"Sometimes it can be too traumatising for them to sew, so they find other ways to help," said Ms Tan.
From gowns, the group now also makes bonnets, beanies and booties, as well as condolence cards for bereaved parents.
Besides hospitals, they also send gowns to funeral homes, if they request for them.
Not all miscarriages or stillbirths happen at hospitals, and they've had to personally deliver or courier gowns to grieving parents within hours - once during Christmas, said Ms Tan.
WHY DIDN’T I SAVE HER?
Sewing gowns and keeping busy has helped Ms Liew, but it has taken her a few months to battle depression and slowly rejoin society, despite an outgoing personality and the help she received.
“Why didn't I save her?” she had thought, in the first few weeks after losing Amanda.
But speaking to other bereaved parents, and realising that her dark thoughts were “normal” helped her gain some perspective.
According to Ms Majella Irudayam, the co-chairperson of KKH’s Bereavement Support Committee, shock, confusion and feelings of extreme pain and suffering are common for parents who have lost a child.
"Many of these feelings can be frightening … (and) overwhelming. Hence parents need to be gentle and patient with themselves," she said.
"It’s helpful for them to have ”meaningful reminders of their child’s existence”, such as photographs, handprints and footprints, she added.
But she also said that the pain of the loss will never disappear: "With time, they will find ways to cope with the pain."
For Ms Liew, giving her daughter a proper send-off was part of the healing process.
While she agreed at first to a mass cremation arranged by the hospital, she later changed her mind and claimed Amanda’s body for a private funeral, but had no idea where to get help.
A mother she got to know at a support group for bereaved parents told her to contact Ms Alverna Cher, funeral director of City Funeral Singapore.
In less than a day, Ms Cher arranged for a cremation at Mandai Crematorium, a small coffin, and Christian as well as Buddhist rites - in consideration of the religions of their families.
When contacted by CNA, Ms Cher, 37, said that she handles five to 10 cases of baby cremations a year and the funeral home provides these services pro bono for babies and children as well as for the needy elderly.
“As a mother myself, I understand the pain, worry and self-blame they are going through,” she said. “The most I can do is give the baby a dignified send-off.”
The hardest part for Ms Liew was letting go of her daughter. She recounted how, as Amanda’s body was pushed into the cremation chamber, she decided that she could not “hold her back”.
Speaking in Mandarin, she told her: “I really love you, but we’re fated to be with each other for only 30 weeks … I really want to be your mother but I have no choice, I need to send you away.”
Amanda’s ashes were later scattered at sea.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Angel Hearts conducts sewing workshops for bereaved mothers to “work through their loss”. They have a donation drive for wedding gowns from Sep 26 to Oct 6, as well as a gown deconstruction event on Oct 11 and Oct 12 at 91 Lorong Chencharu. The fabric from the wedding gowns will be used to sew angel gowns.
KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital has a Bereavement Support Committee to help patients who have lost their loved ones. They advise bereaved parents on their options, help them create memories of their loved ones and provide counselling, among other services.
Child Bereavement Support (Singapore) is an informal network of bereaved parents who support each other through their grief. They hold monthly support meetings and provides resources and information for the parents through their website.