Baby Loss Awareness Week: A story of heartbreak and healing

It has been a year since Samoan mother Vaioleti Tongi experienced the traumatic stillbirth of her baby son, who died in her womb eight days before she delivered him.

Grieving the loss of a child who Vaioleti (28) describes as a “gift from God” is one of the hardest experiences that her and her husband, Tom Tongi (28), have had to endure. 

Although it is painful for Vaioleti to talk about her experience, she opens up about her pregnancy to mark Baby Loss Awareness Week and to be an inspiration to other Pacific mothers who are mourning the loss of a baby.

“This is an opportunity for bereaved parents to commemorate the brief lives of their babies, knowing that thousands of other families around the world understand how they feel and will be doing the same.”

Vaioleti and her Tongan husband met in 2011 when Vaioleti moved to New Zealand from Samoa. They got married in August of last year in Samoa and were expecting their first child three months later.

“I had regular check-ups with my midwife, and everything was fine, and the baby seemed to be healthy,” she explains.

But last October, Vaioleti noticed that she wasn’t feeling her baby kicking or making any movements. A concerned Vaioleti went to the hospital for a scan to check if everything was okay.

“After the scan, the midwife told us that our baby’s heart had stopped beating. I remember looking at my husband because I didn’t understand what she was saying. She repeated the words ‘your baby’s heart has stopped beating’. I still couldn’t comprehend what that meant.”

Seeing the confusion on Vaioleti’s face, her midwife turned to her and confirmed her worst fear.

“Your baby has died in your tummy,” she told Vaioleti.

Those words were devastating to hear and immediately brought on emotions of shock, grief and guilt.

“I felt like I had failed. I felt that my sole purpose was to look after this baby, to bring this baby to earth, to nourish him and give him life.

I kept apologising to my husband because I felt like I had failed him, and I failed our son because I couldn’t keep him alive.”

After the heart-breaking news, doctors immediately tried to induce labour so Vaioleti could give birth to her son.

“Every pill I took and every method they used to try and bring on the labour wasn’t working. Reflecting on this now, I think Subconsciously,  I did not want to let him go because I knew once I gave birth to my son, I would be farewelling him as well and I did not want that to happen.”

It took eight days for Vaioleti to finally give birth to her son, who she named Siosifa. After he was born, doctors performed many tests but could not ascertain Siosifa’s cause of death.

“I turned to God and I prayed to him like I have never prayed before. I had nights when I screamed as I was going to sleep. I cried and mourned for our son. As I slept, I never wanted to wake up again. I didn’t want to face the reality of what we were going through.”

Vaioleti’s parents, who live in Samoa, flew to New Zealand to be by her side and she also had the ongoing support from her husband.  The couple also joined the organisation called Sands, a support group for parents and families who have experienced the death of a baby. The combined support of all these networks helped her and her husband get through these tough times. 

Soon after their son’s death, the couple made the decision to try and get pregnant again. 

“In our hearts and in our souls, we were ready to try again. We didn’t want to replace our son, we just wanted to focus on something that was happy and positive.”

Three months after Siosifa’s death, Vaioleti fell pregnant again, this time they were having a baby girl. Her second pregnancy was filled with feelings of caution and uncertainty. 

“Falling pregnant after a loss is so emotional because you have the reality and the possibility that your baby could die. It’s happened to you once before; it could happen again.  

Every single day, I would feel my stomach to make sure my baby was kicking. If I didn’t feel the baby move, we would go straight to the hospital for a scan.” 

Last month, Vaioleti gave birth to a healthy daughter named Teuila. She says her daughter is a blessing and has helped her and her husband heal from the trauma of the past year. 

“We were filled with so much joy when she was born.” 

Vaioleti is speaking out about her experience to let other Pacific parents know that there can be happiness through the grief and sorrow.

“Right now, we are extremely happy. But we will always remember our son which is painful, and that is okay. 

You are never fully moving on; you are simply moving forward. It’s okay to be happy and we’ve learnt that happiness and grieving can coexist together.” 

Tongan senior lecturer in nursing and senior member of the Pasifika Medical Association (PMA), Sione Vaka, experienced the loss of his own baby 16 years ago. He says it was a painful experience, but him and his wife survived because they were surrounded by the love and support from family and friends.

“Losing a baby in the womb is devastating. In Tongan, we call the placenta fonua, which is the same word as land. So, although the baby is not fully formed, it is still a part of the family.

Our elders gave us encouragement and kept us in their prayers. Although we lost a life as a couple, the way we came together as a family in a time of deep tragedy, made us stronger and allowed us to move forward.”

For more information on Sands, the support group for parents who experience the loss of a baby, visit – www.sands.org.nz

#pmafamily

Date: Thursday 15 October 2020