‘I felt the emptiness in my bones’
Michelle Tolfrey, 37, lives in London with her husband Andy and their daughter Esme, 20 months. Their first child, Orla, was stillborn
Orla was born at 7.30am on a Tuesday, and I was due in work at 9am. It meant one of the first people I had to tell that my baby had died was my manager. I said I couldn’t make it to work because something had happened. I couldn’t use the word stillbirth – it sounded so clinical. I’ve saved that message – I don’t ever want to forget how it felt to write it. As a clinical psychologist working in the NHS, I’ve spent years dealing with grief. I knew the stages that most people go through, but I didn’t know it hurt physically, like an ache in your bones. Waking up the morning after Orla died, with the crib beside me, I felt an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. It was as if someone had scooped out my soul and left my body behind. The world outside the front door became a scary place. My husband Andy and I developed safety behaviours to get through
‘I wrote my first letter to Orla the morning after she died’
each day; ways of avoiding people with babies. We went for walks around the block at night-time, when we knew the new mums who I’d earmarked as future friends would be in their homes. I didn’t leave the house without sunglasses in case I needed to cry. When I became pregnant again three months later, it was as if someone had pressed pause on my grief. The emptiness lifted, but my anxiety skyrocketed. It’s difficult to articulate the trauma of pregnancy after you’ve lost a baby, but for me, it was like living on a cliff edge; knowing what could happen, and that, if it did happen, it might just finish you off. I didn’t let myself accept that we would bring this baby home. It meant that when Esme was born, and we left the hospital as a three a day later, I was completely unprepared. I spent the first few months of her life in a state of shock. To the outside world, we’d been given our happy ending, but it isn’t as simple as that. Grief isn’t finite, and one child can’t be replaced by another. I felt guilty for feeling happy that I had a healthy child, and heartbroken that I would watch Esme grow up when Orla never would. It was as if I desperately needed Orla to know that she was my firstborn; that she wouldn’t be forgotten, and that I was a mother of two. I knew I needed help, but I felt ashamed to ask for it – as a psychologist, I thought I should be able to fix myself. Then I began thinking more about the people I’d worked with over the years, and the brutal conversations I’d had with them. If they had the bravery to open up to me, I owed it to them to start talking, too. Six months after Esme was born, I made an appointment with my GP, who referred me to the perinatal mental health team. I was diagnosed with postnatal depression and referred for therapy. I use letters with my patients as a tool to help them access their emotions. I wrote my first letter to Orla the morning after she died. And for the first year of what would have been her life, Andy and I wrote to her every day. Reading his letters was often more painful than writing my own, but it helped us to understand each other. Reading about a picture he took of the Thames one lunch break because it reminded him in some small way of Orla showed me that she consumed his thoughts, just as she consumed mine. Those letters evolved into a blog, which became a gateway to a community of people who have been there. I use it to make sense of my new identity as a psychologist who has sat in the other chair; a mother to a child who is here, and a mother to a child who isn’t. More than anything, it’s a space for me to talk about my daughter. I’m scared that if I don’t, she’ll become a figment of my imagination.