STILL PARENTS: Exploring experiences of baby loss through art… in lockdown

STILL PARENTS is the Whitworth’s programme to support families who have experienced the loss of a baby in pregnancy and just after birth. The project was launched in October 2019 in partnership with Sands (Stillbirth and Neo Natal Death Charity) and provides workshops that allow participants to explore and share their experiences of baby loss through art, with the help and guidance of an artist, alongside support from Manchester Sands, the local, volunteer-led branch of the national charity Sands. 

Sands is the largest national charity supporting baby loss in the UK. Since lockdown, Sands has seen an increase in demand for its bereavement support services as Covid-19 has reduced the ability of bereaved parents to access crucial support.

“It is a tough time for all our bereaved families, human contact is so important. Lock down really brings the pain of losing a baby or child to the complete forefront as people are isolated from their friends, family and other support services.”

Bereavement Midwife, University of Manchester NHS Foundation Trust

Using Zoom, we have been able to take these important sessions online and into the home environment. For each session, tailored art kits are sent out to each participant allowing them access to all the tools and materials they will need to participate in the practical sessions.

“All the resources were delivered to my home, beautiful art resources that made me feel like I was being invested in. This support, particularly during lockdown when people feel even more isolated when suffering from baby loss has been a life line.”

STILL PARENTS participant

The workshops have been promoted through our partners Manchester Sands, who have a large network of bereaved families. We also work closely with the bereavement midwives and counsellors at our nearest hospitals, who signpost newly bereaved families to the programme. 

“We lost our baby a few weeks ago and I have been feeling depressed so asked my midwife if there were any services available for bereaved couples. She referred me to Still Parents and here I am”.

STILL PARENTS participant 
Lino print inspired by ‘Woman Holding her Past’, 1988 by Elaine Kowalsky (1948-2005)
© P.1993.76. The Whitworth, the University of Manchester

The response to the initial launch of the project suggests that there is a real need for this work. Within one day, the workshops were fully booked with forty enquiries for fifteen spaces resulting in the decision to double the sessions in order to cater for the high demand. 

“I never accessed any support groups after my baby died. I just didn’t feel like they were for me. When I saw these sessions it felt like something a bit different something that I wanted to try.”

STILL PARENTS participant

‘The feedback that I have had to date and the actual art work that I have seen is poignantly beautiful and moves me more than words can say, they take my breath away and I can see the power of art in action.’

Bereavement Midwife, Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust

During lockdown, the project has not only been maintained, but has flourished. The original numbers have been sustained and we have gained 8 new participants. Newly bereaved families are now regularly referred to us by bereavement midwives and counsellors from Manchester’s NHS Foundation Trust.

STILL PARENTS is unique in that it provides a different method of support to the usual talk-based support group meetings. The art and art-making is at the heart of the sessions. Participants are introduced to new mediums and learn new skills all the while being surrounded by people with shared experience of baby loss. There’s no pressure to talk, no pressure to share just to feel supported by a community that you know understand the pain.

The sessions are so valuable to me, just knowing I can spend time with people that have experienced baby loss without the expectation that I have to speak is just so comforting. I find being creative and involving J in that is just so special. It’s dedicated time to spend thinking about him which is so precious to me.

STILL PARENTS participant

As well as practical content the workshops have also introduced the participants to the Whitworth’s collection. With guest visits from the Whitworth’s Curators participants have had the opportunity to access the Whitworth’s collections online and have identified works that resonate with their individual stories. These responses have been collated and are freely accessible on the website – click here to view STILL PARENTS online collection.

‘Two people – The Lonely Ones’, 1899 by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
© P.22685. The Whitworth, the University of Manchester

“This really spoke to my pain and what I was going through. So many other members of the group were drawn to the same piece and had their own individual and unique take on it. It was the first time I saw everyone and their grief. We experience it differently but we were all in the same boat. It was a unifying moment for me to be reminded of the power of art and its ability to bring people together. It was the moment I knew for sure I was really in the right place that could help me on the journey of healing, forgiveness and recovery. The Whitworth has provided a place for us and our memories of our lost babies and a safe space to process healing and moving forward.”

STILL PARENTS participant
‘A Girl by the Sea Repelling the Spirit of Melancholy’ by Maria Louisa Catherine Cecelia Cosway (1759-1838)
© D.1946.2. The Whitworth, the University of Manchester

No matter how sad I feel sometimes or how much at times my knees want to buckle.  I don’t want fuss or empty comforts. I don’t want pity or to be touched. I just want to be in the place that holds the memories of our babies. By the sea.

STILL PARENTS participant

The online workshops have enabled the project and the gallery to extend the geographical reach as well as allowing for greater flexibility. 

For example, two participants have recently given birth and returned to subsequent workshops which wouldn’t have been possible if the sessions were at the gallery.

“Because of this group my husband and I have been able to share this grieving and healing process together in a creative and productive way which helped us open up to each other about our own personal feelings about our loss. I just wanted to take this opportunity to let you know how this group has changed my experience of loss and brought me a level of peace that I’m not sure I would have found otherwise.”

STILL PARENTS participant

Evaluation shows that throughout lockdown parents have come to rely on the project as a crucial part of their support network, and with increased demand for bereavement support services, continuing these sessions online has proved vital. 

We would like thank The Friends of the Whitworth and Tommy’s Manchester Research Centre for their support enabling these sessions to continue during these challenging times.

We are still welcoming new participants during this time. If you or someone you know has experienced the loss of a baby in pregnancy or just after birth then email Lucy Turner at the Whitworth.

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