EastEnders recently announced that characters’ Shabnam and Kush’s baby will be born sleeping – a fate that sadly happens to 17 babies every single day.
We see most things on TV these days – violence, sexual assault, bad language – even on soap operas broadcast during family viewing time. For all this, a storyline about baby loss still has the power to shock.
The BBC show says it has worked closely with the stillbirth and neonatal loss charity SANDS to make sure their portrayal of the tragedy is as sensitive and truthful as a fictional TV show can ever be.
Advance notice about the upcoming storyline has been seen over social media – I picked it up via the SANDS Facebook page. I haven’t watched EastEnders for years, so otherwise would probably have remained blissfully unaware. The warning is useful for parents like me who have suffered a similar tragedy so they can avoid watching something that may cause a trigger. The devastating impact of the death of a baby cannot be underestimated and while parents never ever forget, triggers like TV show storylines can be like reliving the trauma all over again.
I have been disappointed, but not surprised, to see responses by some to the effect of ‘the storyline shouldn’t be shown because it’s too upsetting.’
Yes, it is upsetting. Very upsetting, devastating for parents who lose a baby.
But unlike most TV, it is fact.
Like it or not, pregnancies do not always proceed until 40 weeks, with proud parents able to take their new baby home. Like it or not, some babies are born too early and have to fight for life. Like it or not, some babies, like my Hugo, sadly die.
TV educates viewers. The education may happen consciously through something intended to be educational such as a documentary, or subconsciously through entertainment programmes such as a soaps. Soaps can be a very helpful means of raising awareness of an issue, and generating discussion.
When sensitively done, a ‘challenging issue’ storyline can shine a light on something we hope many people will never have to experience personally. With realistic dialogue (or as realistic as a TV show can ever be) we can gain an insight into how the protagonist may be feeling. We can learn in the example of the stillbirth storyline what support the bereaved parents receive from family and friends. Hopefully, the dialogue will include sensitive, helpful, empathetic phrases, not platitudes.
Popular Channel 4 ‘warts and all’ birth programme One Born Every Minute also showed the sad death of a baby recently. Baby Ollie James was born prematurely, and lived for just a few days.
Many OBEM viewers like to hold a running commentary on Twitter during the programmes, and the episode that featured Ollie James was no exception.
Many tweeters respected the way Ollie-James’ parents dealt with the loss of their son, and admired their courage in allowing their story to be shown on national TV.
Some, however, (again not surprisingly) tweeted things along the lines of they wished it hadn’t been shown, because they prefer their OBEM episodes to have happy endings.
Unfortunately, life does not always have a happy ending.
For the parents of 17 babies a day, the ending is anything but happy.
And that is why we need to talk about it.
Our culture’s way of dealing with death tends to be not talking about it so we can pretend it doesn’t happen.
We need to break the taboo – and the only way to break a taboo is by talking about any ‘challenging issue’ openly. We need bereaved parents to feel able to talk openly about their babies if they so wish.
We need people to learn how best to talk to bereaved parents about their babies, too. We need to learn the difference between sympathy (“Oh, that’s really sad…but at least you had 35 days with Hugo”) and empathy (“I’m so sorry, what was your baby’s name?”).
So, if you are someone who has never suffered the loss of a baby when you hear about an upcoming storyline about baby loss on your favourite TV programme, please don’t reach for the remote. Stay tuned in – yes it is uncomfortable, sad, devastating – but please remember your sorrow will be fleeting. Please watch try to learn more about the lives of bereaved parents – how to support us, and celebrate our precious babies’ lives.