Vidosava Kuzmic (Télé) – 12.11.2019
Outliving a child is one of the most devastating things a parent can go through. Losing a child within the first year of its life, let alone week, is another nightmare that some parents have to experience.
Claudine and Laurent François have experienced the tragedy twice, losing their twins not long after Claudine gave birth. In Luxembourgish, babies that die within the first year of their lives are called Stärekanner – star children. The grieving couple believe that Luxembourgish society does not talk about infant mortality enough and are telling their story in an endeavour to break the taboo.
“A situation you wouldn’t wish on anybody”
Eight out of 1,000 children born in Luxembourg die in their first week of life or are stillborn. Claudine and Laurent’s twins, Vic and Max, died not long after being born four years ago. One of the twins passed minutes after, the other died a few days later. Claudine explained how her pregnancy had been without complication up until her sixth month, at which point she began experiencing bleeding. In hospital, the doctors gave Claudine specific medicine to prevent a premature birth.
However, Claudine was not told how critical the situation was up until a few days later, when she went into labour. The first twin, Vic, was in the process of being born. Laurent had been sent home not long before his wife went into labour and missed the birth of his child, only to arrive and find out his son hadn’t survived. The baby had only lived five minutes.
Vic’s twin, Max, was born half an hour later. He was immediately put into an incubator plugged in to eleven machines in order to monitor his situation permanently. The next tragedy happened two days later as the neonatal unit discovered a cerebral haemorrhage. Claudine and Laurent faced a difficult decision and had to let their second son go, feeling overwhelmed and helpless as they grieved both their babies.
A long grieving process
Psychologist Jeanne Chomé stresses that the death of a child – whether sudden or due to an illness – is always a traumatic experience for the parents. Chomé works for Omega90 and supports patients with grief for more than 20 years. She highlights that it is crucial to give the affected parents room to experience all their feelings losing their child(ren) so soon after giving birth. The psychologist advises that parents organise a memorial to say goodbye to their loved ones and that they have somewhere they can go grieve their children, such as a forest cemetery. It is an elementary requirement for parents to be able to show they have not forgetting their child. However, she also believes that parents should also be able to take breaks from their grief, and often tells parents they are allowed to laugh or go eat out with friends. They need those breaks to be able to cope with the next wave of pain.
Claudine and Laurent were overwhelmed with the support from their family, friends and neighbours in the aftermath of their loss. After two months, Claudine took the step to see a psychologist to deal with her anger, explaining she was angry with herself. She blamed herself, believing her body wasn’t capable of carrying the twins. She also felt angry that she had taken the chance away from Laurent to be a father. Alongside the anger, Claudine explained she doubted whether she was even capable of being a mother. And Claudine needed help to process the way her grief manifested in rage.
Laurent found it was helpful to talk about the twins, either with friends or Claudine. The whole family had been affected by the loss and decided to plant a small tree in front of the house, to give them a place at home. The couple also has mementos around the house to remember their children, especially photographs, which helped remind them the boys had existed.
Charitable photographs offer services to grieving parents
German photographer Alexandra Emmel understands the importance of the first and last photos of such ‘star children’. The photographer has been taking photographs of newborns and small children for three years and last year, decided to join the German association ‘Dein Sternenkind’. The association regroups some 600 photographers who volunteer to take photographs of deceased babies to help parents in their mourning process. Emmel herself had two miscarriages and only has ultrasounds to remind her of her lost children, which is her main motivating factor in giving other parents what she doesn’t have.
Photographers belonging to the association are alerted to the death of an infant in their area via an app. Emmel explained that sometimes, her phone can go off up to 15 times. The photographer volunteers for the majority of the occasions in her region, having photographed 25 children in one year alone. She claimed that the difficult situations are made worth it by providing parents with those beautiful moments. When parents hold their baby and look at it in wonder, they share that moment with parents of living babies.
The photographer is always ready with a suitcase filled with accessories and cameras in the event of another loss. The first time she photographed a deceased infant was for the Baden family: Eva and Christoph lost their son six months before his due date. They were told they could have a professional photographer come to shoot them, and were initially sceptical. Now, the couple views this as the best decision they could have made.
Emmel says she is still in touch with the majority of parents, and when she meets them, it is always emotional: “It’s beautiful to be a part of their lives. They let me, a stranger, into an incredibly intimate and terrible moment. Often, I’m the only person aside from parents and midwives to meet the baby and I obviously see this as an honour.”
© RTL Archiv
“You think of the moments you don’t get to experience with them”
Losing a child can often break up a couple, but Claudine and Laurent managed to get through the immediate aftermath together. Three months later, Claudine was pregnant again, in a decision they made together. Her pregnancy was nine months of fear and concern, but ultimately she gave birth to her daughter Claire.
Now three-year-old Claire knows she had two older brother. The family visits the Hamm cemetery three times a year, which is where Vic and Max were cremated. They go on their birthday, All Saints’ Day, and St Nicholas’ Day.
The couple explains that every so often, they think of the moments that they had with them. Then, they imagine what life would have been like if they’d survived: “You think of the moments you don’t get to experience with them.”
As time goes by, the couple learns to cope with the loss, which remains ever-present. Claudine and Laurent don’t just want to break the taboo in talking about losing an infant, but want to give other parents in the same situation strength, and remind them they’re not alone.