The mum-of-three from Johnstonebridge is the new chairwoman of the Dumfries and Galloway branch of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity, better known as Sands. And as they launch their national awareness month, she is keen to let people know more about what they do in this region – and especially reach out to grieving dads, grandfathers, brothers and uncles.
Throughout June Sands will be targeting men who have been affected by a baby loss and Alison said: “They grieve too and support group meetings are not always something they like to come to. “Very rarely do we get men coming along to talk, so we are going to do something a bit different to try and encourage them, or give them the space to talk and be with other men who have been through the same thing.” As such, the charity is holding a series of male orientated events, starting with a cycle run next week, on June 6, as well as a golf night on June 13 and forest walk on June 20. Awareness month will round off with a family picnic and walk at Lochmaben on June 30, open to all. Alison added: “Men can find it really difficult to express their emotions, they do not want to be seen to get upset in front of other people.
“Society in general feels men have to be the strong one, the one who puts their arm around their partner, but it’s tough for them. “We want to acknowledge we know it’s tough and it’s ok to share.” She hopes the activity programme will alleviate any pressure men might feel in a traditional support group and explained: “We took inspiration from the Sands football team and that thinking that men like to be busy, to be active and do not want to be forced to talk.”
She knows firsthand how men can act when tragedy strikes, having witnessed husband Kenny’s grief after their unexpected and devastating loss in December 2013. Up until she went into labour, Alison, then 28, had enjoyed a troublefree pregnancy and they were both looking forward to meeting their first child. She said: “It had been a happy, normal pregnancy, there was nothing of concern. Everything was fine. We were all organised and ready to welcome baby home.” She finally went into labour at 41 weeks and initially it all went to plan, but then: “My temperature went through the roof, heart rate too,” she remembers. “I just felt like I was on another planet and not in control as I had been. “I had a feeling something was not right, I felt like the energy and life had been sucked out of me. Everything was going wrong.”
Hospital staff decided to perform an emergency caesarian section for the safety of the baby. But when Bethany was born under an hour later, she was sadly not breathing. There was concern too for Alison, who was very ill with what turned out to be sepsis. Doctors later told her that her body had gone into shock during the labour, which meant the placenta failed and it led to Bethany’s untimely death.
A range of emotions hit her over the following weeks and months, from grief to guilt. She explained: “In the early days it was easy for me to think I had caused it, my body failed me.”
Christmas loomed and the couple shut themselves away to avoid the celebrations of the season. However, come the new year, Kenny took her to meet the team at Dumfries Sands. Alison said: “I had never heard about Sands, I had never heard the word stillbirth before. I didn’t know anyone it had happened to. The whole way through my pregnancy, it had never occurred to me.” Although she was initially reluctant as the loss of Bethany was still so raw and painful, she “instantly felt relief” at being able to talk about her baby and her feelings, saying: “It’s important to feel not alone when something like that happens Friends are scared to say anything in case they upset you, when actually what more can they say that’s worst than what you’ve been through?
“Being able to share experiences and stories with someone who has walked in the same shoes as you is great. And when you see people much further down the line, you see life can go on and it gives a little bit of hope.”
She started regularly attending the support group then joined the committee and became a befriender – and in April she accepted the role of chair, taking over from group founder Alison Hall, above left, who she has thanked massively for all her support.
In the meantime, Alison has had two successful pregnancies and births and is now also mum to Fraser and Eilidh. But there’s still a Bethany shaped hole in the family’s life and the little girl’s memory is kept alive by them all. In fact, it’s her firstborn that inspires Alison in her work with Sands and she said: “She’s always going to be a part of everything we do. That’s probably what drives me to do some of the things with Sands: that’s my way of doing some things for her. I cannot do day-to-day mum things for her, but I can do something to help others.
“Everything changes, your whole outlook on life and how you view the world changes – there’s just this hole and emptiness. I am a mum of three but my arms only hold two.” In her new role, she wants to raise awareness among the region’s GPs and health professionals and hopes to reach out to younger parents who are experiencing stillbirths and neonatal deaths but may not be accessing support. She said: “My message would be to anyone, please get in touch with us. It will never replace the hurt that you feel, but it might just help you carry on with life.
“It’s a group you never want to be part of but I would not change it, I have been so grateful for the support.”
SANDS DUMFRIES: 07864 709228