Yvonne Maher’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls the agonising day 40 years ago when her much longed-for first child was stillborn just before his due date. ‘Why didn’t I hold him?’ she sobs. ‘I was petrified. I was only 21. But why didn’t I cuddle him?’
‘I wish I could turn back the clock. If it were now you’d have to fight me to take him away, I wouldn’t let you have him.’
Yvonne’s story of maternal grief and trauma was all too common in those days. Until the mid-1980s, medical staff quickly took a baby away if it was stillborn.
Immediately after labour, Yvonne, now 61, was given the chance to hold her son. But filled with panic, she declined. By the time she changed her mind, it was too late. The impact on her of this missed opportunity has been considerable.
Yvonne Maher, 61, from Plumstead, South London, was able to find where her first child was buried thanks to Paula Jackson, of Brief Lives — Remembered. Pictured: Yvonne Maher at her son’s grave
‘I’ve always, all my life, felt like I slung him away,’ she says. ‘They took him away. Then I had to stay in hospital overnight with all the other babies crying around me.’
Nowadays, families in this situation are taken to a separate room to grieve and spend time with their child. Memory boxes are provided which include photos and handprints.
Yvonne, however, was told to get on with things and not ‘make a fuss’ — advice doled out to many mothers until surprisingly recently.
To make matters worse, stillborn babies were buried or cremated in an undisclosed location. Yvonne was simply told by a hospital priest that everything would be taken care of, nothing more. ‘I always longed to know where my baby was,’ she says quietly. ‘I wanted somewhere to go to talk to him.’
This is where Paula Jackson, of Brief Lives — Remembered, comes in. The former nanny has dedicated her life to tracing the final resting places of babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.
Paula was first inspired to help in 2003 when she successfully tracked down a friend’s twin sister, who’d died at only nine hours old in 1960. More than 15 years later, she has found almost 800 babies who died between 1935 and 1990.
Yvonne’s daughter Stacey got in touch with Paula after reading about her on social media — and she dedicated four months to tracking down little Baby Maher. Yvonne was stunned to learn he was buried in the same cemetery as her parents, a place she regularly visited.
‘What Paula does is amazing,’ says Yvonne. ‘I was beside myself when she told me she’d found my son.
Yvonne who had a stillbirth 40 years ago, revealed the pain lasts a lifestyle. Pictured: Yvonne and Paula
‘People think, “Oh, it happened all that time ago…” But the pain lasts a lifetime. When you’ve carried a baby so far, you’re never going to forget them. And it was all the harder not knowing where he was… At least now I’ve got somewhere to visit.’
And thanks to Paula’s tireless work, a cross-party group of MPs has now recognised the trauma experienced by these mothers who’ve suffered in silence for so long. In February, it was agreed they should be told where their babies’ remains are.
‘We owe these mums an apology,’ said Labour MP Carolyn Harris, whose mother gave birth to a stillborn girl in 1958.
I’ve looked for my little girl’s grave for 48 years
‘The place to start is with the Government — the system was wrong and we now have an opportunity to make sure we make amends for the damage we caused.’
Paula’s work has a renewed sense of urgency in light of the recent scandal at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust. Potentially exposing the worst failings in the history of the NHS, a review of maternity wards last month suggested dozens of babies died needlessly there over 40 years.
Will there be other mothers, just like Yvonne, longing to know where their own infants were laid to rest?
Yvonne, from Plumstead, South London, had been married to John, a scaffolder, for four years when she became pregnant. Throughout the pregnancy, she complained to midwives she couldn’t feel her baby.
Joyce High, 72, (pictured right) from Darlington, County Durham, had been looking for her little girl’s grave for 48 years before she met Paula
‘They kept saying that because it was my first child I didn’t know what to expect,’ she recalls. ‘But I felt sure you must feel a kick or something; I never did.
‘I had two weeks to go when, the day before a routine scan, I felt a sudden lurch in my stomach as if the baby had fallen. I believe that’s when he died. At the scan, the doctor told me there was no heartbeat. I just screamed and screamed. I was devastated.’
The midwives induced labour and Yvonne was given gas and pethidine — a drug similar to morphine — as pain relief. She says: ‘I held on to this tiny grain of hope my baby would be born alive.
‘But he came out feet first and there was silence — no crying, nothing. Then I could hear my husband sobbing, “No! No!” I couldn’t even look at my baby. My husband held him briefly and then they rushed him off into the other room.’
A post-mortem revealed a hole in the heart had caused the baby’s death.
In those days, fathers were told to go home and remove all signs of the baby before the mother came home.
‘My mother-in-law had bought me a Silver Cross pram, he had his own bedroom and every bit of clothing you could imagine.
‘I came home and it was all gone. I went mad, shouting: “Where is everything? Who’s done this?” ’
Yvonne who has had three more children since her stillbirth, said she still speaks of her firstborn and remembers his birthday. Pictured: Yvonne and Paula
Over the coming weeks, Yvonne ‘cried and cried’ and started struggling to breathe. She was diagnosed with ‘nervous asthma’ as a result of the tragedy.
Thankfully, she went on to have three more children, Sacha, now 37, Stacey, 36, and Sean, 34. But she never forgot her eldest son.
‘I always speak of him and remember his birthday,’ says Yvonne. ‘We would have called him Sean because John is Irish.’
When looking for a baby, Paula begins her search with a stillbirth certificate, and the first port of call is the hospital where it took place. Some have kept records; others have none at all, which determines how complicated the search will be.
Paula starts with the births and deaths register and records at cemeteries. There have been cases where she feels she knows where the baby is buried, and yet there is no official record in the cemetery so she cannot categorically state the baby has been found. Breaking the news that a baby remains missing is, she says, without doubt the most difficult part of her work.
Paula’s quest to find Yvonne’s baby did not go smoothly: at first the hospital could find no record of him, then they had a false alarm. Finally, Paula’s painstaking research paid off.
‘I was out food shopping one weekend when I got the call to say, “Good news, we’ve found your baby.” There I was standing in the supermarket, sobbing.’
Paula’s (pictured) first case was for a friend who discovered he was a twin and his sister Zoe, had died nine hours after their birth
Unusually, Paula went with Yvonne on her first visit to the grave in Brenchley Gardens in South London: ‘All those years I’ve been going there to visit my parents at birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day. To discover he’s there too was a comfort.
‘He had been buried with an elderly lady of 93. We are not allowed to put a stone there because it’s a shared grave, but I took an ornament instead.
‘I do worry that they didn’t dress him before they buried him. I would have covered him, given him blankets and a toy. It haunts me that I never did anything like that.’
According to Paula, such tortured feelings are not uncommon. Paula has never lost a child herself — nor had children of her own — but she is highly sensitive to the plight of such mothers.
Her first case was that of a friend, Clive Gentle, who discovered he was a twin and that his sister, Zoe, had died nine hours after their birth. Bemused and upset, he wanted to find where his sister had been buried. They had been born in Aldershot, Hampshire, but he now lived in Australia, so Paula agreed to look into it.
‘After months and months of scouring records and coming up with nothing, a local priest in Aldershot suggested I try the military cemetery. Like most people, I’d assumed it was for the war dead — but within half an hour we’d found Zoe.’
She adds: ‘It wasn’t just doing a favour for a friend, it was about that little girl who didn’t get a chance to live.
‘I was shocked to find there wasn’t a headstone, just a number. How dare anyone class her as a number? I was devastated.
Paula (pictured, with Yvonne) set up Brief Lives — Remembered in July 2004 in honour of Zoe
‘Now, though, I know that’s more than most got. Many were buried in common graves.’
Paula set up Brief Lives — Remembered in July 2004 in honour of Zoe. After local press coverage, mothers started to come forward, asking Paula to find their lost babies. And so began an enduring quest.
She says: ‘One of my main roles is to listen. For many mums it’s the first time they’ve properly spoken about their grief. They weren’t encouraged to talk at the time.
‘A midwife told me they were under strict instructions not to make a fuss — but there are mothers I’ve spoken to who were forced to breastfeed other women’s babies after their own had died. Why would anyone think that’s a good idea? It’s barbaric.’
Paula works with charities including the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity and is, as far as she knows, the only person who offers this help — all free of charge. Despite the change of attitude, lost records and an overworked health service mean that without her efforts, many women would have no chance of locating their babies.
Joyce High, 72, from Darlington, County Durham, is another bereaved mother whose baby was discovered by Paula.
She says: ‘I’d been looking for my little girl’s grave for 48 years — no one knew where I should start, not even doctors. I found Paula through an online search. She phoned me at 8pm and then again at 9.30am the next morning to say she’d found her through the regiser office. I couldn’t believe it.’
This was two years ago, and in time for Joyce to commemorate what would have been her daughter’s 50th birthday.
Joyce who was just 21 when her daughter Joanna, was stillborn in 1968, said she’s thankful to Paula. Pictured: Joyce and her daughter Sherrie as a child
Joyce was just 21 when her two-week-overdue daughter, Joanna, was stillborn on May 29, 1968.
She recalls being in labour for 36 hours, during which she was given pethidine, which completely knocked her out. She came to on a trolley in a lift with the matron and her late husband by her side.
She recalls: ‘The matron said, “Do you want me to tell her or will you?” By this point she’d already been taken away.
When she asked why her baby died, she was merely told ‘these things happen from time to time’.
When she got home, all of the baby-related items were gone.
‘Looking back, if there had been some sign that I’d been having a baby it might have been easier…’ Without Joyce’s knowledge, her husband paid for a coffin — the receipt for which she still has.
‘I later found out that all the hospital had said was that they would ask another person, possibly a lady, if they would mind their loved one having this baby buried with them. So I thought I had no chance of ever finding her.’
Joyce went on to have a daughter, Sherrie, who she describes as ‘so precious’. They visited the grave for the first time together.
Joyce says: ‘I’ve set out a line of plain white stones, with a named vase. I’m so thankful to Paula. It means so much to have found Joanna after so long.’
For more information visit brieflives-remembered.co.uk. Paula accepts requests from the parents of the deceased baby or siblings if their mother is still alive. A stillbirth certificate is required.