The loss of a baby, however it occurs, is just a horrible thing to experience, as I can, unfortunately, personally attest. Last year my baby boy, who was diagnosed with a heart condition in utero, was “born sleeping” (I’m not a fan of the term “stillborn”) at around six months into my pregnancy, and I feel like I’ve been on a particularly perilous roller coaster ride ever since. There have been highs (yes, really) and, of course, extreme lows and just a little bit of cruising in the middle to catch my breath. Now that the cruising moments are becoming more frequent, I’ve had time to reflect on the particular challenges of dealing with this situation as an expat “far” from home. (I put “far” in quotation marks, as I realise that a one-hour Easyjet flight possibly doesn’t qualify as “far” in the literal sense of the word; yet there have been moments when I’ve felt I may as well have been on the other side of the world.)
Venturing out into the world again following the loss of my baby, I found myself having to acquire a new and unexpected vocabulary set in order to explain to the locals where my bump had gone. My way of dealing with the situation was to be honest and talk about it, but on reflection and given that I hadn’t even got past “Bonjour” and on to “Pop round for a coffee” (the locals are a hard nut to crack), maybe I should have held back a bit and considered that the cultural rules in this kind of situation can vary widely. It certainly made for some awkward silences when I attempted to explain what had happened in my bumbling slightly self-deprecating British manner… and in broken French to boot.
Talking of which, I must admit I had never before needed to know the French for “fatal heart condition”… I don’t think they cover it in the B2 curriculum. This was particularly hard for my husband, whose French level is quite basic. I really felt for him at the many appointments we attended; although the medical staff often spoke English, this certainly wasn’t always the case and there were bewildering breakdowns in communication. That said, many people of the medical staff we met with had a go at speaking English when they certainly didn’t have to, and this was hugely appreciated.
While we’re on the subject of the staff who looked after us, I really cannot praise the care I received enough. The only thing that I found lacking was emotional support in English. We left hospital with a clutch of leaflets for Francophone support groups, but I quickly realised that I needed to talk to someone in my native language. Cue some amazing British-based associations (links below) and an incredible Anglophone therapist (who, it must be said, I found after quite a bit of trial and error). There is also a private Facebook group (in English) for expats in Switzerland who have experienced pregnancy loss or the loss of a child, and babycentre.co.uk have their own grief and loss forum you can subscribe to no matter where in the world you are.
And then there’s what happens when it all calms down, and you start to feel ready to socialise again. I found that quite suddenly “bump yoga” and “bump dinners” were not options; in fact, it was only at this point that I started to realise just how much of my social life had revolved around the “expat bump” world. Although incredibly supportive and amazing at times, it can become a little too intense when…well…when your bump is gone. It started to dawn on me that many of my friendships had really been based on a mutual status as “expat bumps,” and I found I often didn’t have the energy to put on a brave face and continue meeting these lovely, well-meaning ladies with whom I no longer had anything in common. I instead learned to focus on a small group of solid friends with whom I really could let it all out when I needed to.
So we’ve looked at professional support and support from expat friends, but what about that other incredibly important source of support: family? We all know how hard it is to parent away from home, full stop. But dealing with the loss of a baby with no family to just “pop round” – well, that’s a whole new level of hard. There’s no quick solution and different things work for different people. There are those who might choose to take an extended break back home. This didn’t feel like an option for me; in fact, I felt incredibly strongly that I wanted to stay put, where I had given birth to and buried my baby. For others, a family member coming to stay for an extended period could help, but again – as much as I missed my parents, I desperately needed my own space. My personal solution was to simply become much better at booking my family on last-minute and (crucially) short trips (and I admit this was easy for me, as my family are only a short-haul flight away). It’s not ideal, and I still regularly have moments when I crave a quick coffee and chat with my mum or dad, but that’s not happening, and that’s just a part of expat life that I have to accept.
There is so much more to say on this subject, not least how am I dealing with the highs and lows of my new, ever-expanding “rainbow” bump. I suppose my main hope in writing this is to reach out to anyone else who may find themselves in a similar situation and let them know that there is support out there, wherever you are. It just might take a little extra effort to find.
Here are some websites that I found helpful:
ARC (Antenatal Results and Choices). ARC helps parents and professionals through antenatal screening. I used their helpline several times and was given some amazing advice and even put in contact with a lady who had been through an almost identical situation to me. I will never forget her kindness and how much time she took to speak to me and guide me through such a hard time.
SANDS (Stillborn and Neonatal Death Charity). This organisation also has a helpline and support forums as well as lovely ways to remember your baby.
Tommy’s. This organisation conducts vital research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. They have a pregnancy information service and online support and telephone advice provided by in-house midwives.
www.babycentre.co.uk (Grief and Loss forums; Termination for Medical Reasons –TFMR – forum.)
By Liz McEwan
Liz is a Geneva-based teacher and writer. Originally from the UK, she moved to Switzerland eight years ago. She lives with her Scottish husband, sparky three-year-old daughter, and big, stripy tomcat. Read more of her articles on expat life, pregnancy and loss at www.abumpabroad.wordpress.com
If you have been personally affected by any of the issues covered in this article and would like to connect with Liz, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Albina Nogueira
Albina Nogueira has been a primary school teacher since 1992, and a writer and illustrator since 2006. She currently lives in Switzerland, but her homeland is Portugal. She is also the author of Letters to Grandparents and Hairdresser. To find out more, like her on Facebook or see her books in Amazon.