Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin : Trinity study looking at the experiences of baby loss invites public participation

In 1950s Ireland, 4,000 families were affected by the loss of a baby through stillbirth, miscarriage or new-born death every year.  Though today in Ireland that figure is closer to 350 affected families, this means cumulatively there are hundreds of thousands of parents alive today who carry with them an emotional legacy of loss. Most carry this legacy silently.

This legacy is what interests The Spaces Between Us project team at Trinity’s School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Project Lead Ciara Henderson explains:

We know that many families were deeply affected by baby loss and yet nationally and internationally there are very few studies that look at the long-term impact of this phenomenon at all.

Though medicalisation of childbirth has made birth safer for mother and baby, the emotional impact of baby loss, received scant attention historically. The project aims to understand more about what happened when a baby died, how parents got to meet and say goodbye to their baby and how they remember their baby.

Prior to the 1980s mothers did not typically see, hold, or care for their baby when their baby died at birth; their partners were not present in the delivery suite and often, if the hospital arranged burial, parents did not know where their child was buried.  There was a strong reticence to discuss or even acknowledge the loss of these infants both within the hospital environment, and then again at home, in the family and the community.

Whilst historical records of mothers are few, father’s stories are ‘like hen’s teeth’ according to Henderson:

All stories have value but one that is consistently missing is fathers and they are also such an important part of the story.  We know from current research that there are differences in the way men and women experience baby loss but we have virtually no insights into the past when society wasn’t so open, and men were expected to show no emotion, so it’s important we also get to hear from dads.

Invitation to participate

The project team invite parents directly affected by baby loss, over 20 years ago, to take part in the study.  Adult children of parents whose baby died between 1900 and 2000 are also invited to take part.

Ciara Henderson said:

We know adult children will sometimes be witness to loss and other times only find out about it much later in life which can be shocking to them and they can be left with questions.  So, no matter how old you are, if you are a parent or a sibling of a baby that died between 1900 and 2000, we wanted to offer a chance to those affected to put their story into their own words, as well as offering a survey option to those who don’t.

This is a complex area of research and one that can be very difficult for parents and families to talk about.  This is one of the reasons why we have kept the study completely anonymous and offered people a few different ways to take part.  There is a tendency in Irish people to dismiss or diminish our experiences as unimportant but every contribution to the study, no matter how small, helps us to build a more complete understanding of our cultural and historical heritage as well as the emotional legacy of baby loss.

In the eight years Henderson has been researching this topic and gathering insights, one thing remains very clear to her:

No matter how briefly these babies were part of the world they have forever changed it, their stories leave an imprint that is reflected in the generational quests their families undertake to find out more and the tenderness expressed for babies that they have sometimes never met – this tells me that far from being invisible, these babies leave a legacy of love that carries over time.

The study led by doctoral researcher Ciara Henderson and supervised by Professor Joan Lalor, Professor in Midwifery and Dr Georgina Laragy, Glasnevin Trust Assistant Professor in Public History and Cultural Heritage is accepting submissions until 10 June 2021.

The Spaces Between Us: Exploring Family Experiences of Baby Loss 1900 – 2000, the School of Nursing & Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin, D’Olier St, Dublin 1

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