An honest and raw insight into baby loss

Rebecca White and Helen Wilson visit what is described as ‘the first exhibition of its kind, creating a platform to share personal stories open conversations and break the wall of silence that continues to surround baby loss’

Still Parents is the first exhibition of its kind. The project began in 2019 with a series of workshops which brought together professional artists and people who had experienced baby loss either during pregnancy or shortly after birth. The works on display are artworks curated by the group from the Whitworth’s collection, as well as loaned personal items and pieces produced as part of the project. 

For two women with experience of miscarriage, the prospect of visiting the Still Parents exhibition was daunting, especially as it would be our first meeting after connecting online. We arrived separately, steeling ourselves as we approached the red brick exterior of the gallery which houses this important but potentially painful exhibition. Reflecting later we drew a parallel between the building, exhibition within and the often-unseen grief of pregnancy loss; by entering the exhibition space we were stepping into a part of ourselves that is often hidden and not outwardly visible. 

Inside the space was calm and quiet, with the collection spread across two rooms. Works include pottery, photography, poetry, sculpture and paintings. There are a series of memory boxes, one from each member of the participatory group. The boxes contain keepsakes from pregnancies that didn’t end as hoped or imagined – a printout from a heart rate monitor, a babygrow with the tags still on, a cast of a tiny foot and perhaps most poignantly, one had simply been left empty. Around the bottom of the room names are written. These are the names of babies, submitted by parents who never got to take their child home. On the Whitworth’s website it says that the intention is to add names periodically throughout the exhibition. The fact that they are around the bottom of the room perhaps speaks to the experience of pushing down and trying to supress traumatic memories and feelings of grief. 

Miscarriage and baby loss is often not spoken about – one of the reasons this exhibition is so significant. Whilst the organisers are clear the project is not art therapy, one of the aims of the Still Parents project was to provide an artistic outlet for the stories and experiences of the participant group, something they say is lacking. Indeed, there is much work to be done in terms of improving the provision of care for people who have experienced miscarriage or baby loss. In her article for The Psychologist in 2020, Dr Petra Boynton highlighted the inequalities that affect baby loss. We would add to this that there is a lack research regarding the causes of miscarriage and baby loss, as well as a lack of trauma-informed care in this area. 

The Miscarriage Association estimates there are 250,000 miscarriages every year in the UK, with 1 in 100 women experiencing three or more consecutive miscarriages – referred to as recurrent miscarriage (Duckitt & Qureshi, 2011). Worryingly, these figures could be substantially higher, as many miscarriages are not accurately recorded. Research has demonstrated that symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more common in women and their partners who experience early pregnancy loss, compared to those who experience healthy pregnancies. A follow-up study (Farren et al., 2020) expanded upon these findings, highlighting significant psychological challenges associated with early pregnancy loss, particularly within the first month; 1 in 10 women experienced moderate to severe depression, 1 in 6 experienced long-term PTSD, whilst 1 in 4 experienced moderate anxiety. This research is crucial, as chronic health conditions such as PTSD have long-term implications on well-being and relationships. The recent Lancet series Miscarriage Matters discusses how common miscarriage is, the associated risk factors and consequences of miscarriage. 

Despite the significant step forward in research regarding miscarriage, care gaps still exist regarding psychological support and a specific trauma-informed approach. Currently women are not eligible for support, tests, or treatment for miscarriage from the NHS until they have experienced three consecutive miscarriages. Given the impact of miscarriage it makes sense that a trauma-informed approach is adopted to help manage miscarriage and to provide appropriate care for subsequent pregnancies.

Overall, the Still Parents exhibition makes a valuable and much needed contribution to the conversation about miscarriage and baby loss. The collection is honest and powerful. For those with lived experience, a visit is likely to be emotional. For those without, it will provide an honest and raw insight into the experience of baby loss. We identified with the artwork and words on display. However, we recognise our position as white women and that the participant group for the exhibition was also comprised almost entirely of white women. There is still a need to increase diversity when it comes to the conversation about miscarriage and baby loss – something that future projects and research should consider. 

- Still Parents is a free exhibition running until 4 September at The Whitworth, Manchester. Open Tue–Sun, 10–5.

@WhitworthArt #StillParents

Reviewed by Rebecca White, Associate Lecturer, University of Manchester @BeccyBeccyWhite; [email protected] and Helen Wilson, Trial Manager, Greater Manchester Mental Health. [email protected].

‘I am preparing a PhD application with support from Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust and researchers at the University of Manchester, to investigate trauma-informed care for recurrent miscarriage. My interest was borne out of personal experience of recurrent miscarriage spanning a decade. I noticed a shift in care provision for the management of miscarriage (i.e., from inpatient to outpatient) and a change in terms of how miscarriage is discussed – it doesn’t seem as “hush hush” anymore, the voices are getting louder, and women are openly talking about this “taboo” subject that so many are privy to. I am passionate about women’s health, perinatal health and want to see improvements in the care provided for women, couples and families experiencing miscarriage.’

Support for miscarriage and baby loss:

www.tommys.org; www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk; www.theworstgirlgangever.co.uk

Photo credit: Michael Pollard

References 

Farren, J., Jalmbrant, M., Falconieri, N., et al. (2020). Posttraumatic stress, anxiety and depression following miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy. American Jnl of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 222(4), 367-e1.

Duckitt, K. & Qureshi, A. (2011). Recurrent miscarriage. BMJ clinical evidence.

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