TVNZ star Hayley Holt suffered a tragic loss last year when her son was stillborn. She’s finally ready to share her story, and tells Sophie Neville how she has found unexpected light during her journey through grief.
It was the moment Hayley Holt had been willing away with all her heart, but when it finally came – in those devastating seconds when she knew her baby’s life was slipping away – there was beauty. Wondrous, reassuring, life-changing beauty.
“Out of nowhere I saw bubbles… beautiful, opaque, pearlescent bubbles and I felt like I was walking with angels,” says the broadcaster. She’s speaking for the first time about the heartbreaking loss of her son, Frankie Tai, who was stillborn on April 25 last year, when Hayley was seven months pregnant.
“They were going pop, pop, pop, all bubbling up in front of me as I walked along through the grass. And that’s when I knew he’d gone, because it felt like someone was coming down to get him. In my head, I was saying, ‘Goodbye, my baby’, but I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted that moment just for me. It was magical.”
It’s almost a year since Hayley lost her much longed-for baby boy, and in some ways, time has helped her heal. She’s back at work in a new role as a TVNZ sports presenter, she’s madly in love with her partner Josh Tito, and she’s still got the vivacious energy and sense of humour that has made her one of our best-loved TV personalities.
But Hayley has changed. She’s a quieter version of herself now, bruised from what she’s been through and with a new wariness of the world. Until now, she’s laid low, relying on a small circle of close friends and family to help her through the grief.
But she and Josh, whose love for each other has become the greatest silver lining, are finally ready to share their story. Not only do they want to honour their beloved baby boy, but most importantly, they want to say thank you to the thousands of people who sent love and support.
It seemed that their loss, which happened in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown last year, touched us all in some way, and for that, Hayley will be forever moved.
“I used to have a rule that I didn’t read comments on stories about me and I even avoided reading Facebook messages, because they were often not very nice,” she says.
“But it was my mum who went through them all and read them to me, and it was incredible to know people out there shared our pain and were sending their love and energy. Every day there were letters, cards, emails, messages… It was a huge source of support and really showed us the power of love and the way it can transform an experience from tragic to beautiful in some way.”
While the sense of loss is still raw, Hayley is doing her best to practise what she calls “radical acceptance”. Accepting what happened to her, accepting that perhaps Frankie wasn’t meant to be, and accepting that life, in many ways, is out of her hands. Her deep spirituality has helped her enormously.
“If I hadn’t been on this spiritual journey, it would’ve been a completely different story,” she says, emphatically. “I have a strong idea of this life not being the one and only, and I really believe in being able to have the energy of your loved ones around you. The idea that perhaps some things are meant to be or not meant to be… or the idea that something might be terrible and horrible and bad, but actually, if you look at it from the outside, it might have got you to a better place in the end.
If I hadn’t been on this spiritual journey, it would’ve been a completely different story
“I cling on to every single one of those ideas and go through many different narratives about why this might have happened, because let’s face it, anything is better than just, ‘Your baby died.’”
Hayley’s story starts back in 2018, when she and Josh met by chance at an Auckland bar. As a non-drinker, bars weren’t Hayley’s usual choice for a night out, but she’d agreed to join an old friend for a bit of fun. After chatting to Taupō-raised Josh, whose iwi is Tūwharetoa, the pair stayed in touch, and over the next few months developed a casual sort of friendship. It was during one of their catch-ups in 2019 that Hayley, who turned 40 last July, confided in Josh that she longed to be a mum.
“I told him I had no interest in finding a partner, I just wanted a baby! He pretty much said, ‘Let’s give it a go then, let’s roll the dice!’’’
The lovebirds laugh as they tell the story to Woman during a summer getaway at Carrington Estate on the Karikari Peninsula, admitting they didn’t give the logistics a huge amount of thought.
“I kind of saw it as an adventure,” tells Josh. “I’ve always approached life with a ‘take it as it comes’ sort of approach.”
“We’re kind of similar in that way,” adds Hayley. “We were both happy to leave it to fate and see what the universe brought us.”
Just a few weeks later, Hayley was delighted to discover she was pregnant. “It happened so fast, but I was stoked,” she smiles. “Absolutely over the moon.”
Confiding only in a close friend and her mum Robin, who was overjoyed, Hayley waited two months before telling Josh. “I just wanted to sit on it for a bit.”
When she did break the news, he took it in his stride, agreeing with Hayley that it was important they solidified their friendship before tackling parenthood together.
“My biggest thing was that I wanted us to be best friends and to always be on the same side,” she explains, adding that from then on, they started spending most of their spare time together. It wasn’t long before their friendship turned into something more – a romance neither of them were expecting.
“It was summer, we were hanging out as friends, and we found out we’re actually really similar,” Hayley says. “We’re both relaxed, free-spirited, and let’s be honest – he’s really hot!”
In fact, it was during a weekend in Taupō to meet Josh’s dad, Mark, and sister, Tiare, that Hayley realised she’d fallen in love. Their 10-year age gap didn’t faze either of them.
“It was such a special time,” recalls Hayley, who was at the time living with her parents Robin and Murray at their rural home in Warkworth, an hour north of Auckland. She had no intention of moving in with Josh but, like most of us, hadn’t banked on a global pandemic!
As New Zealand went into national lockdown, the prospect of six weeks apart was too much to bear for the couple, so Hayley made the decision to invite her new boyfriend to move into the Holt family home.
She laughs that while her family have had 40 years to get used to her spontaneity, this was next level.
“I’m sure they were all thinking, ‘Oh my God’, but I was pregnant, so what could they do?! And thank God he did join us, because even though I didn’t know it at the time, I needed him.”
Hayley laughs as she recalls her dad’s excitement about a fit young man joining the nest.
“He had him up on the roof replacing roofing sheets the first day he arrived,” she giggles. “I had to put my foot down after a few days and remind Dad that he’s my boyfriend, not his – I wanted him for myself, not over there being free labour!”
For the first few weeks, life was blissful in their rural bubble. “We’d get up late, eat too much, Josh would hit golf balls across the paddock,” says Hayley. “My tummy was growing, everything was hopeful and happy.”
“We didn’t want lockdown to end,” adds Josh. “It was such a cool time.”
They were delighted to learn they were expecting a baby boy, but the 20-week scan also identified a possible problem: the left ventricle of his brain was measuring on the high side of normal.
“The doctors were on the fence about whether to refer us for further scans,” explains Hayley. “But in the end, even though they assured us it was probably nothing to worry about, they erred on the safe side.
“I resisted the urge to google anything,” she says, relying on a friend to pass on only reliable information. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Josh was unable to be in the room with Hayley during her weekly scans, instead pacing around Auckland Domain while he waited.
And with each scan came increasingly worrying news. It was discovered that the dangerous condition called hydrops had developed, where fluid builds up in the baby’s tissues and organs. “At each scan, the problems we knew about were still there but they’d then find something else. It was clear he was really, really sick.”
The couple were scared, but throughout the ordeal, the one thing that gave them hope was the strength of their little boy’s heartbeat. It pumped so strongly that they nicknamed him Lion Heart, and told each other their boy was a fighter; there was no way he was giving up.
Doctors at Auckland Hospital’s Foetal Medicine Unit were mystified as to the cause of the problems, finding no sign of infection or other obvious links. An amniocentesis test, where a needle is passed into the womb, also shed no light.
They liaised with Starship Hospital about how best to care for him if he came early, but the consensus was that Frankie’s best chance of survival was to remain inside his mum’s tummy as long as possible.
While the couple did their best to keep the faith, it was slowly becoming clear they were facing the very real possibility their wee boy wouldn’t make it. It was an unbearable thought, but one that Hayley – a huge believer in counselling – had been preparing herself for. Having been advised to talk openly about her worst fears, she would often ask Josh and her parents to listen to her concerns and talk them over with her.
“Even before my fears were confirmed, I’d make them sit down and listen to me explain what would happen if the worst happened and Frankie didn’t make it,” she remembers. “They thought I was playing my crazy hippy games again, but I’m so thankful I did because it helped me so much to prepare for what ended up happening.”
It was amid this emotional agony that, at 29 weeks pregnant, Hayley experienced her vision of the bubbles. Hand in hand with Josh as she walked across the paddocks on the Holt family property, Hayley felt sure of what she saw and was “completely awash” with the sense that her baby was leaving this world.
“Everything felt different after that,” she tells quietly. “ I just knew we’d lost him.” When Hayley returned to the hospital the next day, doctors confirmed little Frankie Tai’s heart had stopped beating. He was at peace, but his parents were devastated.
“I can’t even explain how it felt,” she says, through tears. “We were just shattered.”
Josh coped by fixing his focus on Hayley, who now faced the reality of having to give birth.
“That was the hardest part of the whole thing,” remembers Josh. “I just had to help get her through it; I had to be there for her.”
Hayley was sent home and told to return to the labour ward two days later to be induced.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life. I felt like I wasn’t in this world. I was sort of floating around on top of it. I had this baby who I loved and who’d become a part of me, but there was also the terror that I had to give birth to him.”
With Robin and Josh by her side, she laboured overnight, with morphine and an epidural to help control the pain. It was the hardest experience of her life – physical and emotional agony in equal measure – but Hayley pays tribute to the midwives and doctors from both the Auckland Obstetric Centre and the hospital for treating her with such love and care.
And, unbeknown to Hayley, her mum had earlier been in touch with Josh’s musician brother James, a member of the Modern Māori Quartet, to ask him and his wife Awhimai Fraser to write and record a waiata for Frankie. Instead of just one song, the talented couple created an entire album dedicated to the little boy, which was played during the birth. “That was so beautiful and it just showed how loved Frankie was by everyone, not just us.”
When Frankie was finally born at 7.30am on April 25 – Josh’s 30th birthday – there was not a dry eye in the room.
“He looked just like Josh, he was so lovely,” says Hayley. “Perfect hands, perfect lips, perfect little nose…and his feet, they were little paddles, just like Josh’s.”
Reaching for her phone, a teary Hayley shows us photos of her sleeping angel.
“It was incredibly emotional and there was so much sadness, but when I held him for the first time it felt amazing. It was traumatic and beautiful at the same time.”
Josh is still in awe of the way Hayley dealt with the birth. “She’s a warrior,” he says. “It blew me away.”
The couple spent the day with their son before saying their goodbyes and handing him over to the care of doctors. That first night at home was incredibly difficult, so much so that the couple decided to return to hospital the next day to collect him.
“We weren’t planning to do that, but it didn’t feel right that he was left there all by himself,” says Hayley. “We needed him with us.”
For the next four days, their precious boy lay in his little basket in the couple’s bedroom. They talked to him, played music to him and simply spent time with him.
“Even though it was sad, for me it felt really natural to have him with us,” recalls Josh. “Death is just a normal part of life, so there’s no reason to be scared about it.”
Hayley says this approach made the process of acceptance much easier – as well as Josh’s way of bringing humour to such a heartbreaking time.
“Josh dealt with everything so well. His ability to be present, make light of heavy situations and be stable amid the chaos really anchored me.”
The couple organised a beautiful memorial service to farewell their son. James and Awhimai sang, and broadcaster and Māori language advocate Scotty Morrison performed a heart-wrenching blessing.
“I’ll never forget that,” she says. “It was a very special experience.”
Hayley says the next few weeks passed by in something of a blur. Her sole objective was to make it through each day not feeling sad all the time. Mornings were the hardest.
“Every day I’d wake up and there would be that split second when I’d have forgotten what had happened. Then I’d remember and I’d sob. It felt like it was never going to end.”
Josh’s constant love and support gave her enormous strength. “He just cuddled me while I cried,” Hayley says. “Hours and hours of sobbing and he never stopped cuddling me, just doing everything he could to be there for me and give me some comfort. He was incredible.”
Hours and hours of sobbing and he never stopped cuddling me, just doing everything he could to be there for me
Hayley also credits Josh’s tight-knit whānau for instilling in their son the ability to be open with his emotions. “Josh has taught my family so much,” she smiles. “We’ve never been big sharers, but I think this experience has changed all that.”
Their boy’s name, Frankie Tai, has special meaning. Frankie is what Hayley and her mum named the growing baby during a pilgrimage to Egypt to visit Robin’s grandfather Frank’s war grave, and Tai was the name of Josh’s much-loved Rarotongan grandmother. “She was a very special person in their family’s life.”
Returning to her job as Breakfast host at the start of June was a big moment, and one Hayley realises now she probably wasn’t ready for. She battled through, putting on a brave face for the camera, but she can see now that she wasn’t coping. She shut out her friends and tried to block out the pain as best she could, but things were unravelling.
“I felt myself getting a bit lost,” she explains. “I’d just lost my baby and I guess I was feeling insecure. I wasn’t behaving normally – I was losing the connections with people around me, I was paranoid about everything to do with Josh, and I was worried about what people thought of me.”
“It was pretty heavy,” she continues. “I was in a new relationship and we’d gone through this huge trauma, and I felt awful about Josh having to deal with a new girlfriend who was crying all the time. I was worried there was no reason for him to stick around now there was no baby.”
Josh though, was her rock, constantly reassuring her and patiently being there for her. “He’s a very special human being,” Hayley says.
But as it became increasingly clear that the gruelling 3am starts weren’t helping her already delicate mental health, it was around this time that TVNZ bosses suggested she switch to a sports role. It was a move she now believes saved her sanity.
“I’ll be forever grateful for the fact they noticed I wasn’t OK,” she says, adding that leaving Breakfast – where she sat alongside broadcasting legend John Campbell – was bittersweet.
“I loved that job,” she explains. “It sort of gets into your soul, because you care so deeply about the stories and interviews. But that means it can also take over, and the hours just start to destroy you.”
A long-time sports lover, Hayley is relishing the new job, and its regular daytime hours have done wonders for her recovery.
While she misses Frankie every day, she feels his presence with her always – a huge comfort when the waves of grief come calling.
“I feel a very physical love inside me for him, like an energy of some kind,” she says. “It’s comforting to know I will always have him there, that he’s a part of me forever.”
Hayley is the first to admit her grief has presented itself in many different ways. While she’s more at peace now, she’s battled feelings of guilt and fears that perhaps her boy had chosen not to stay with her. “I’ve learnt that when something horrible happens it can bring a lot of old paranoias to the surface. It’s been really complicated.
“I’ve come out of this a different person. I’m definitely more scared of what life can bring, but in some ways, I’m calmer. I am no longer searching for answers. Frankie has freed me from that.”
I’ve come out of this a different person. I am no longer searching for answers. Frankie has freed me from that
Therapy has helped enormously, yet it’s finding and focusing on love that has been the biggest blessing to emerge from this tragedy. Hayley points out it’s not just her own perspective that changed, but that of the whole whānau, with her brother Logan proposing to his now-fiancée Maris Webb.
“That brought even more love into the family, which has just been so wonderful.”
While Hayley used to be “obsessed” with her independence, Josh’s love has softened her.
“I’ve come to learn that it’s OK to need someone, and that as humans, we are meant to depend on others in order to live,” she explains. “I’ve come to understand the lovely feeling of having someone who has your back and truly fills you up. I am so thankful.”
And together, Hayley and Josh are holding on to their dream, hopeful that 2021 will bring them the joy of another baby. “Getting pregnant again is our absolute priority,” says Hayley. “But whatever happens, I’m focusing on all the positive things in my life and all the things I’ve learned through this.
“Obviously, my perspective has changed; the things that matter to me are family, loved ones, and the beauty of nature. We lost our beloved Frankie Tai, but we gained so much.”