(This article contains a real-life story and related emotions regarding infant loss, as experienced by a mother. Please be advised that this content could be upsetting to some.)
By Valentina Attanasio, BT Associate Editor
“I was walking barefoot in the grass, restless. She would never do the same, my little Bianca, and my eyes started filling with tears…” shared my friend Giulia.
And without realizing it, my eyes did too…
I would like to start from there to tell you about the wonderful and emotional chat I had a few mornings ago with one of the bravest and most genuine people I have ever met, a woman I can proudly call my friend. Between a few tears and laughs, me sitting in my kitchen and Giulia trying to get her family’s hens out into the yard, this story took shape.
Being a mother, a lifelong dream
Since she was little, Giulia knew what she wanted; she would be a mom! And so she did, with the birth of Matilde and then Margherita. La Leche League soon came into her life, because despite all the certainties you may have, you are never completely ready to face the challenges that life presents to you. When she found herself stuck in bed with a massive oversupply — and soon afterwards with sore nipples and nipple shields — her sister sent her The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. She consumed its pages, reading them over and over again. “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding should fall down from above the moment a pregnancy test shows a positive, so that no mom can be in the same condition I was in,” she told me.
Her third pregnancy led Giulia to discover a new side of being a mother and gave her a better understanding of herself. This third pregnancy came after only a short period of trying, which surprised Giulia and made her internal alarm bells go off, even though she didn’t want to admit it to herself. A strange feeling pervaded her and made her worry; it all seemed too easy while her life had always tested her.
The implantation bleeding in early pregnancy seemed to give shape to her fears, but Giulia didn’t want to give in to those fears. “I wanted to give Bianca, my precious baby, reasons to stay inside me. I went to hear the sound of the sea, so she could also hear it. And she stayed.”
Accompanied by her father’s songs on the piano, her sisters’ voices and caresses on her mother’s belly, Bianca didn’t take long to show she was right there with them. Her first little kicks filled everyone with joy. Yet Giulia constantly felt a sort of anguish to which she couldn’t give a name. Only taking refuge by the sea gave her relief.
When everything stands still
And then everything stopped. No, everything started spinning. And it still hasn’t stopped.
It was the first day of April of last year, when Bianca’s little heart stopped beating at 23 weeks of pregnancy.
“I still wanted to give her a lovely birth; I needed to keep a clear mind for her” shared Giulia. “And also for my partner Alessio, who was experiencing fatherhood for the first time.”
If ever a definition of the perfect birth existed, Bianca’s had all its characteristics. No interference, soft lights, only Giulia’s partner and two midwives were there with her. Her needs were totally respected with extreme sensitivity. A respectful delivery guided by Giulia’s feelings, without pressure or unnecessary visits. “Probably, the ideal childbirth,” said Giulia, “which I was able to have only because I was in a particular situation, where everyone felt badly for me. And that made me suffer even more, because a respectful childbirth should always be the norm, no matter what your story is.”
Bianca was born at 2:45 a.m. on April 2, 2018. “I held her in my arms, and we took her footprint. I put a pink hat on her little head, and took a photo. I wanted to make sure I would be able to see her sweet face every day,” she shared with me. “My mind was clear. I was living every single instant, not a tear flowing from my eyes.” Then, her other daughters arrived at the hospital, and the tears flowed. There was no longer a reason to hold back tears.
Back at home
The doctor on the ward had already prescribed medication to dry up her milk supply, but Giulia wanted to give herself a chance to try and handle it on her own.
Once at home, the milk soon started to flow, so intensely that she couldn’t even touch her breasts. They were getting increasingly warm and sore. Using her breast pump was almost impossible; every arm movement became a challenge. The decision to take the medication to suppress her milk supply became, therefore, inevitable.
“Since I’ve always had a massive oversupply, I wouldn’t have had any difficulty donating my milk,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are still no milk banks in Liguria.”
The medication, however, was not enough. Giulia’s milk supply was increasing, and it needed to be handled. Massage and hand expression were the only ways Giulia could get some relief, as at that point she could not even move her arms from the pain. Even taking a simple shower was hard, and not just because of the physical ache. The hardest challenge was to feel and touch her own “empty” body, which no longer had a shape, the shape of love that it previously carried.
So the “massage and drainage” shifts started. Alessio and Giulia’s dear friend Erica took turns at long sessions of lymphatic drainage massage to empty Giulia’s breasts and give her some comfort. It soon became a routine that set the family’s pace. Giulia’s daughters got lunch ready and Alessio came home from work just in time for the “massage hour”.
Finding love, again
In those moments of calm and tranquility, where everything was led by the slow pace of the milk flow, Giulia and Alessio found themselves even more connected. They were rediscovering each other and felt reassured by their closeness. Bianca was the reason for this recovered intimacy, as if it were her gift to them. It was as if Bianca wanted to give back all the love she had received, when she was cuddled by the sound of the sea waves, by the notes of her daddy’s piano, by her sisters’ laughter. That had been her whole world, everything she had known, even if only for a short time. For Bianca it had been all so perfect, full of love, of heartbeats, of voices. “She took everything she could ever imagine having. There was no pain. Simply, she fell asleep,” shared her mother.
It was a precious, important time. Massages and hand expressions needed to be done for Giulia’s sake and helped stop the world around them. It was a time every mother who loses a baby deserves — a time to embrace sorrow, to cry, and to make sense of a reality that many people struggle to understand because they fear breaking something that is already broken.
But treasuring a memory in the heart is not enough. There is the need for tangible memories, that give a real place to these little angels, for their families. Something that can be cherished, like the little hat Bianca wore, her footprint and her photo, which are held in what is called a memory box1. It is not just a simple box of memories, but proof that Bianca was and is still with them.
At Giulia, Alessio and their girls’ home, there is a candle with a little butterfly carousel which goes round when the flame is lit. Every time someone arrives at their home, Giulia lights the candle. Bianca is there with them. In the garden there is also Bianca’s cherry tree that, in April of last year, under a sky which wept all its tears, had only one blossom.
1. The memory box is a project of an Italian association, CiaoLapo, designed as part of the welcoming protocol for families who lose a child. It is donated at the time of discharge, giving parents a real place to cherish their child’s memories. Find out more here: https://www.ciaolapo.it/.
Giulia Valdambrini is a La Leche League Leader in Italy, and she devotes all her free time to supporting mothers, babies and families of her territory. Giulia lives in a nice town near the sea with her daughters and her husband, Alessio.