I lay on the ultrasound couch, numb. My unborn son had died. Somehow, work crept into my mind. My world had ended, so how could I just return to normality? Leo was stillborn on 30 October 2012. The bereavement midwife explained that I would be entitled to maternity leave because Leo was over 24 weeks — an incredible relief.
In April 2013, my husband returned to work. I considered my own plans in returning to work as a hospital pharmacist and read my trust’s maternity policy. I hadn’t worked since a month before Leo’s death; I had pre-eclampsia and was admitted at 21 weeks. My salary would reduce to zero after July and my husband would carry everything. It would be the right time to phase work in again slowly and would bring me to the one-year anniversary. I could do ten keeping in touch (KIT) days, paid, with my maternity rights unaffected.
I kept in touch with my manager (who was my preregistration mentor years ago). We had a special rapport and she attended Leo’s funeral. In May 2013, we met in the hospital cafÃ©, but I didn’t feel like the pharmacist from before — 37.5 hours a week, plus on-call? Would I ever return to that? We agreed to some KIT days in August, and she suggested I see my GP and an occupational health nurse, who advised that I meet colleagues outside of work first, make informal visits and read some professional material in preparation — resensitise.
A colleague sent a message. I asked if she and some others could meet for lunch the next day, surprising myself with my spontaneity.
In the canteen, I felt vulnerable. I was used to the protective bubble of home, but now I was open to attack. When I saw my colleagues, my instinct was to hide but I gathered the strength to stay. We hugged and chatted. They had heard about my proposed return. There was no ‘‘I’m sorry to hear what happened’’ — I realised that few people will mention my loss without my permission.
I was confident and happy after those 45 minutes. We talked and looked at Leo’s album. It gave an them an insight into ‘my world’.
On my next visit, I brought in some homemade cake for my department. The administration staff welcomed me. I was pregnant the last time I was there. So much had happened, my world had changed, yet everything there was the same. I was invited into a meeting. I sat. I said hello. But I didn’t belong. I wasn’t interested in their discussion; I wanted to escape. I should have been carrying my baby, not cake, and not feeling so scared. I hear them thinking: “Why is she on leave? There’s no baby.” But their warmth restored some faith. I felt increasingly positive.
At my manager’s suggestion, I made a KIT schedule — a flexible guide, rather than rigid dates and activities. My manager appreciated this and I appreciated the opportunity to show what I needed to resume my role and confidence.
It felt strange getting ready for my first KIT day. It was just a morning and I could go home and recover if it was terrible. Several colleagues welcomed me. It felt more ‘normal’ each time. The clinical part came naturally; I was the ‘old’ me, enjoying interaction with clinicians. Shadowing on a ward was like being back where I’d left off. It was surreal carrying my hidden trauma while overcoming many ‘firsts’. I was strong and capable. Despite being a bereaved mother, I was still a pharmacist, with my angel right behind me.
If you’re going through a similar experience, I hope reading about mine has helped you. Take the time you need. Your health and wellbeing are your priority. Work will always be there. You will be a changed person, with a different perspective on life, with newfound strength you didn’t know you had. Armed with this, and support from your family and your colleagues and employers, you can achieve your new normal.
Lisa Raveendran, pharmacist, Walsall, West Midlands
This year marks 40 years since Sands — the charity for stillbirth and neonatal death — was founded. Sands supports people affected by the death of a baby, works to improve bereavement care and promotes research to reduce the loss of babies’ lives. For information on donating, visit: https://www.sands.org.uk/get-involved/donate-sands