It takes a village to raise a child, and a village to grieve one. Ann-Maree Imrie understands this more than most people and is working to make the supporting village even bigger.
WARNING: This article is about infant loss. If this is triggering for you, please contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
Xavier Rocket Imrie was conceived only five months after Ann-Maree and her husband started trying for a baby. When his life was cut tragically short during pregnancy, they lived through every parent’s worst nightmare.
Ann-Maree noticed reduced movement in her belly so on the advice of her GP she went to hospital for scans. “I have a very clear memory of the midwife standing at the end of the bed, holding my feet. She looked at me sadly and said, ‘Oh sweetheart’. I remember thinking that she was looking at me as if our baby had already died. But I refused to believe it,” Ann-Maree says.
When the sonographer told them that he couldn’t find the heartbeat, she knew he was gone. “We left the hospital and went home for what seemed like the longest night of our lives. The next morning, we went back to hospital and I was induced. I gave birth to Xavier at 2:18pm on Saturday 31st January 2015. He weighed 1.14kg and was 40cm long. Xavier was absolutely perfect. He just looked as though he was sleeping, and I remember holding him in my arms, willing him to wake up.”
Ann Maree describes the week that followed as ‘a combination of a total nightmare and immense love’. The couple visited Xavier in hospital to hold him and talk to him about the funeral they were planning. Xavier was buried in a children’s garden between two other boys. “I felt such mama pride that we’d given Xavier the send-off that reflected his beautiful little life. My pride, however, was mixed with total heartbreak as I watched my baby boy lowered into the ground,” she says.
Initially, Ann-Maree couldn’t fathom how to move forward, until she realised that each action was progress. “I was basically just hearing ‘I can’t’ on repeat. But I was doing it. I was living. I was going to work. I was seeing people,” she says. She puts this down to something more than strength. Something universally human, that was innately within her ready to be accessed when she needed it.
Keeping her connection to Xavier strong was instrumental in Ann-Maree’s healing. The Imrie family celebrates his birthday each year, and she wrote her book ‘You Could Have Been…’ as a way to communicate to him through reading – something they would have done together.
Support from her husband, family, friends and workplace also helped Ann-Maree through her grief. “I was lucky to have some family and friends who were incredible and pulled me out of some very dark moments,” she says. “When I eventually returned to work five months after Xavier died, my direct line manager and the company as a whole were so supportive and became a huge part of my healing. She just worked alongside me, encouraged me and helped me slowly build my confidence back up. I am still employed by this same company 6 years later. It’s a pretty special place!”
Ann-Maree is now combining what she’s experienced at work with honouring Xavier by raising awareness about bereavement. The Senate Inquiry into reducing the rate of stillbirth and improving support for bereaved parents (including amendments to workplace policy) prompted her to take her efforts further. For the last two years, she has been working on The Baby Loss Project – an online training program designed to educate employers on how to support the bereaved. She hopes to take the fear out of conversations around stillbirth and promote social change.
It’s also a part of her continued healing journey. “It doesn’t feel like I’m out there supporting people, it just feels like I’m doing something I HAVE to do. I am compelled, in a way. Even when my own grief takes over. Even when I get tired and overwhelmed. I know I’ll keep going because I am desperate to see change,” she says.
Her advice to anyone in a position to help parents of a bereaved child is to start with empathy. “It’s important to learn to sit in the discomfort of not having answers or solutions because there aren’t any. All they want is to have their baby back. It’s about being able to tolerate their pain, without trying to change it. You are there to bear witness. To simply hold space for their feelings. It requires compassionate listening and patience.”
Part of Ann-Maree’s healing journey involved forgiving herself and her body. She describes feeling ‘furious’ and ‘resentful’ towards her body after losing Xavier. “This has played out in many different ways in the years since, but I am finally getting back to a place of reconnecting with my body and giving it love.” Her shifting attitude towards her body and her amazing work with The Baby Loss Project ties perfectly into her chosen Powerpants affirmation, ‘I am beautiful’.
"I know I’ll keep going because I am desperate to see change."