Sharon Muriithi and her husband James Njoroge gleefully waited for the birth of their baby.
And when baby Njeri was born at 10pm on June 2, 2015, one month before due date, the couple never lost hope as medical staff struggled to save her life.
But her death weeks later and Sharon’s experience on grieving mothers at the hands of “callous” staff, terribly shook their marriage.
Sharon had delivered through an emergency Cesarean Section but because the infant was born sooner than expected, the specialist advised assisted breathing.
Baby Njeri was referred to a hospital with specialised equipment where she was admitted in the neonatal intensive newborn unit while the mother was discharged three days later.
“Her lungs had not matured so she was kept in an incubator for four weeks before we were discharged to go home,” says Sharon, accompanied by her husband James Mwangi,” in an interview with The Standard on Saturday.
And as hours turned into days as her daughter received treatment, Sharon was thrown into the reality of the lack of decorum by hospital staff as they relayed news to some mothers that their babies had died.
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“Huoni mtoto amekufa (Can’t you see that your baby is dead)?” Sharon remembers the heart-piercing words the hospital staff directed at a bereaved mother even as hers was fighting for dear life in the incubator.
“That was the hallmark of cruelty as the women recoiled, picked up their belongings and returned home empty-handed; without a word of condolence offered. The rate of death was traumatic, but the lack of bereavement counselling was even more heart-rending,” says Sharon.
That they were discouraged from consoling each other ignited a fire to reconnect with these women after their discharge, to walk with them on the journey nobody considered significant and today she is advocating counselling for parents at public health hospitals.
“I met a woman who had lost a second child after delivery in less than three years at the same hospital. Nobody cared to tell her whether there was an associative cause to the two deaths or even counsel her,” says Sharon.
Another wanted to commit suicide by jumping from the top floor of the hospital due to pain, anger, denial and bitterness. But fellow patients, Njeri included, consoled her and told her that life was still worth living.
And when baby Njeri attained the recommended two kilogrammes weight and could breathe independently, Sharon and James were elated to take her home. Still, Njeri’s heart remained heavy at the lack of psychological support for women who not lucky to take their children home.
Sadly a week later, her daughter developed breathing problems and despite prompt medical attention at a nearby hospital where she was placed on oxygen and other treatment, baby Njeri died at only six weeks old.
“She died on Wednesday and we buried her two days later and that is when our struggle with emotions began. James and I started fighting every other minute over trivial things,” says Sharon of the transition in their relationship. According to Sharon, bottling feelings after the loss prolonged their pain further, and appreciates that she and her husband were able to access counselling, a service that is a privilege to most women.
Kenya Medical Association chairperson Elizabeth Wala observes that breaking the news of a death is complex and should be done compassionately, addressing concerns of the parents and walking them to recovery.
“When a newborn dies, the parents go through turmoil and they need someone to explain to them events leading to the death,” says Dr Wala. Emotions associated with grief include loneliness, hopelessness, sorrow, guilt and despair.
Dr Wala acknowledges that despite counselling personnel at public health facilities being strained, psychological support for expectant parents is a critical component of both the pregnancy and delivery in a bid to prepare them for any eventuality.
“It becomes a journey where you walk with the mother right from the beginning, including conception for those who have trouble getting babies, all the way until delivery and the care of both mother and baby. At this time however, the mode of communication affects the recipient and their recovery process,” he adds.
Given the twin dilemma, Sharon reiterates that therapy may go beyond cost, with the affected sometimes requiring spousal and family support. When this happens, Wala advocates round-the-clock counselling stations at the newborn and maternity units in public health facilities where parents can be counselled.
She observes that even in the event of death of children, the counsellors are notified and know how to relay information to parents seeing they have already established a relationship and trust with the counsellors. “Childbirth is the most vulnerable state a woman can ever be in. To then lose a child is agony indescribable,” Sharon says in her opening statement in the proposal.
Through the online campaign, Sharon and her husband James hope to keep the dream of their angel alive on #IStandWithMamaNjeri, which she hopes can be adopted into the larger Beyond Zero maternal and child health campaign led by First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.
“A group is left out, the group that walks out of hospital empty-handed, or whose newborns do not live to see many days. ?#IStandWithMamaNjeri seeks to provide bereavement counseling,” she says in one of her online campaigns.
Whereas she acknowledges that government facilities play their part in treating patients, she believes psychological support is overlooked hence counselling needs to be integrated.
“One needs to be guided through these stages to grieve in a healthy way, by facilitators or therapists who are trained so one may feel a sense of rapport and enough initial trust to allow for a consistent relationship in building further trust to facilitate healing and wellness through this important transition,” she says.
And while the type of emotion depends on the relationship with the departed person and nature of their death, Sharon believes the loss of a newborn should not be casually swept under the carpet. “Mourning is a chance to say goodbye and counselling an opportunity to move on,” she says.
Her husband urges men to speak out and notes that individuals deal with loss in a unique way, even though it still appears odd for men to connect with their emotions with the loss of especially a newborn.
“Men are considered macho and we are not expected to shed a tear.
Men hurt too,” says James. He hopes to encourage other men to walk the journey with their partners to cement relationships further by providing solutions to unresolved issues.
She acknowledges the importance of the affected persons going through the five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as part of the recovery process.
“No two people grieve the same, and no two people grieve for the same time period. It is a process as unique as an individual person,” says Sharon.