Susie Ferguson on lending an ear to grieving parents

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8 November 2021

Reading Time: 2 minutes

With her award-winning podcast, Susie Ferguson lends an ear to grieving parents and gives them an opportunity to share their stories of loss and love.

My first brush with the loss of a baby was eight years ago, when a friend’s daughter died aged three months old. The hall was packed at Emily’s funeral, standing room only. Although the sun was shining through the back of the hall, I felt cold holding my husband’s hand.

Despite having experienced two miscarriages, a baby dying in this day and age seemed unbelievable. But over the next five years, we saw four more friends’ whānau lose babies shortly after birth. Kate and Sam, the couple at the heart of The Unthinkable, were number four; they were the second in a month. I was overwhelmed, trying to understand something so primal but that made no sense.

When Kate became pregnant again shortly after their daughter Wren’s death, I wondered if they would talk to me to tell the story of their firstborn but also to talk about creating life in the aftermath of loss. I’m still amazed they agreed at such a vulnerable time.

Initially, I didn’t know what those interviews with Sam and Kate would become. But as the months and then years passed, the story took shape.

I heard more, from women who’d lost babies decades ago, women who’d found comfort and solace in tikanga. For some, it totally changed the course of their life. But the one thing they all spoke of was love. When people ask what The Unthinkable is about, I tell them. But I also say it is about love – unending love for a child, for whānau and, in Kate and Sam’s case, for each other.

And it’s more common than you might think. I was shocked to find the number of babies that die in New Zealand every year averages double the road death toll. Deaths on our roads get a lot of coverage, but we struggle to acknowledge and hear from families who lose a child.

One time when I was driving back from Kate and Sam’s, I was really struck by the isolation, the loneliness and the whakamā (shame) that can surround baby loss. And there are certain times of year that are particularly hard, like birthdays and Christmas.

It can feel awkward to talk about. People don’t want to upset bereaved parents, so they don’t broach the subject. But for many, that’s the one thing they want to share. After talking to parents for The Unthinkable, some of the advice that stood out was to give space for people to talk about it if they want to.

I sometimes ask something like, “How are the little ones?” That opens the door for people to talk about any of their children that are on their mind. And be prepared to sit with the person if they push on that metaphorical door that’s ajar – listening can be so valuable. No fancy questions are needed, just a sympathetic ear, gentle curiosity and allowing people to tell their story.

The Unthinkable is a five-part podcast, created by Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report presenter Susie Ferguson, covering an issue most of us find hard to think about, let alone discuss: the loss of a baby. This series recently won gold at the prestigious international New York Festival Radio awards. You can listen at rnz.co.nz/programmes/the-unthinkable or on your preferred podcast platform.

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