Hawra & Mustafa – 10th Anniversary Case Study – for Malak.

It is well documented that the death of a child can have a devastating and lasting impact on relationships and that siblings can be negatively affected too.   Very often, parents respond in starkly different ways to their grief and what follows is a disconnect that can be hard to mend.  Much of the time, our work at Petals involves helping parents to understand why they each behaved so differently and to find a way forward together.

In the very best of cases, this support results in couples leaving counselling in a stronger relationship than they have ever had, and I think this is certainly the case for Hawra and Mustafa who spoke to me about their daughter Malak who was stillborn in January 2018.

Hawra and Mustafa were a young happy couple enjoying life when Malak died.  They already had a daughter, Jenna, who was three at the time and with whom Hawra had enjoyed a “perfect” first pregnancy and birth which made the issues with the second pregnancy even more of shock.

At 32 weeks, Hawra’s waters broke, and she was rushed to hospital where she was initially told that everything was fine and that they would try and keep the baby in for as long as possible.  However, it later became clear that Hawra had not been listened to or monitored properly and everything was far from fine.  A scan later showed that her baby had died.

At the end of 2021, Hawra and Mustafa took part in the BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour series Under Pressure in which they spoke incredibly movingly and openly about this experience and the support they received from Petals in the aftermath.

During the programme, Hawra describes the moment she realised that things were not ok, saying: “The midwife said to me ‘Please get up we need to go down for a scan’ and you know something is wrong, but you don’t want to face reality.”   Her voice has cracked at this memory and there is a long pause before she continues: “Whey they scanned me I could see, and I could see the baby was in a fetal position and I straight away knew my baby had died.  At the same time, I could not believe it and I begged the doctor for another scan.  I said please, please I want to see, I want to make sure that my baby has gone, and she kindly did do another scan and obviously, no miracles happened.”

Hawra was on her own throughout this ordeal as Mustafa was abroad on a work trip and all their communication was happening over the phone, something that Mustafa clearly struggled with as he says: “There is always this regret, did I do the right thing by going away, should I have stayed and in hindsight, I would definitely have stayed.”

Mustafa returned home straight away, and Hawra goes on to explain how she was feeling as they left the hospital: “I remember leaving the hospital and I felt I’m leaving a part of me there, but I felt they were forcing me to go.  It really changes you, I thought I was dead myself; I was alive in a physical form but inside everything was dead.”

The couple goes on to describe how different the next few weeks of their lives were for them both and how they struggled to understand and support each other – something which can feel unique to you whilst you are living through it but something that is so common for us to hear from bereaved parents at the start of their grieving process.

Hawra explains: “I was ashamed, I didn’t do the only thing I should have done, having a baby, the glue that brought us together and now she wasn’t there anymore.  My husband was here, everyone was around me, but I felt I didn’t belong here anymore. I wanted Mustafa to be there but not be there, sharing with him was very difficult.”

Again, in a pattern that we see so often, Mustafa quickly returned to work and was driven by a desire to try and fix things for Hawra.  He says: “I wanted to get her out of this pain, and you want things to go back to normal somehow as well and you’ve got another daughter who needs attention. I think sometimes when you are trying to protect, you try and take control and move things in the right direction that you think is right.  I sensed I had to move on quicker but to go back to work you have to disconnect.”

This was an unbelievably hard time for Hawra who says: “After a few weeks, I felt Mustafa was moving very fast, but I was still stuck at some point and sometimes I even found it insulting that people around me had moved on, not Mustafa particularly, but everyone around me who had moved on.  Even seeing people go to the park or invite each other for dinners – I felt, I’ve lost my child, how can people move on so fast?”  I am so moved as she speaks so honestly, and I am reminded of the incredible W H Auden poem Funeral Blues which describes with painful precision the intensity and hopelessness of fresh grief; “the stars are not wanted now; put out every one, pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.”

Hawra began to isolate herself and she describes how their relationship changed: “before we would talk a lot, all the time, suddenly we were separated, I think we were both in our own worlds.” She began to immerse herself in watching TV, “just to run away really.”

It was at this stage that the couple began counselling with Petals and given how shut-off Hawara was feeling, I ask how she was heading to that first session. She replies: “That first meeting, in all honesty, I didn’t want to go.  I was really down, and I hadn’t gone out for about four weeks other than to the cemetery.  I remember walking to the appointment thinking I shouldn’t be doing this; I just want it to be over and to go back home.”

Counselling was also something that Mustafa had never contemplated, and he went into the sessions believing that he was going for Hawra, not that it was going to help him.  However, they both changed their view quickly as they began to feel safe in the counselling environment and it began to reconnect them.

Hawra explains: “I walked in thinking I have nothing to say, nothing to share with anyone but I think I cried the whole time and I do remember coming back feeling better; As if there was a cover over my heart, or my head or my shoulders – and that was taken away, that heaviness wasn’t there anymore.”

Mustafa felt the improvement quickly too: “I got back into work by the time we went to counselling, my life had moved on in a different direction and it was a very busy period at work but I think that definitely once I got engaged in it, I found the sessions valuable and I found that we could speak and open up in a way that we would never do independently.

“We didn’t have the tools to open up and it was about introducing those tools and making us comfortable about talking about it. Because, you know, bringing it up would make my wife emotional and is that really what I want to be doing? Do I distract? Or try and bury it away? How do you deal with that emotion? It’s very, very challenging.”

I ask Hawra how she thinks the counselling helped them to begin to reconnect and she says: “Obviously, the first reaction from me was to isolate myself, it’s an isolating experience despite how much you try. You know, even normal behaviour like having dinner together seemed abnormal, very cold, you don’t want to eat, you don’t want to talk.  Karen (the couple’s counsellor) kept on pushing us to share more, especially me, to talk, to say more to Mustafa, to share my feelings with him and not to keep it to myself, to cry together, be sad together.”

Being able to find a way to talk about Malak was a huge part of Hawra’s journey and she begins to describe how Karen helped her to do that: “She gave me loads of tips on how I can talk about my child and make her present, I think it is the only way…”  At this point, she is hit by the memory of the intense sadness of that time, she stops and her eyes fill with tears.

We all sit still for just a moment feeling the sadness before Mustafa fills the silence: “I think there were tools that we were given to connect with your baby but also to have control of that relationship and find meaningful things that can help us connect and really appreciate her presence.  It really did help us to talk about the baby and connect with her.”

Hawra has recovered and continues: “It is still difficult to talk about the baby – initially, when I was talking to Karen, I thought oh well, it will become easier, but actually, she is showing you a way to be able to deal with it, otherwise, it’s all the time cloudy in your head and you can’t move forward.

“I think how it helped me, in talking to Karen, was to be able to live normally again and to accept what has happened and make a little peace with it and be able to look forward to whatever life brings you rather than isolate yourself and not share life as it should be with those around you.

“Because your baby is born dead, I used to associate my baby with death, but that baby is more than its death – counselling makes space for you to love the baby and, despite her death, make space for her in my life and not be overwhelmed by the sadness.”

For me, this is a crucial thing for grieving parents to know – that counselling isn’t setting out to help you forget, but rather to build a new life that carries the baby who has died alongside you.

Mustafa says to me: “the death of a baby has an impact on relationships, on friendships, on family, on wider family in many ways,” and dealing with these wider relationships was a big part of the counselling process too.

Hawra nods her agreement and says: “I think people find it difficult generally to see someone crying and so upset over something that they don’t understand.  So, for them to soothe you or comfort you, is a difficult task, and they are going to say the wrong things and they don’t mean it, they mean well but the difference with Petals is that they will tell you the right things that will make you feel good in your heart.

“No one knows how to deal with this situation.  I know there is so much information on google and you can type in how to deal with a bereaved parent and a few charities come up and give you guidance, but I don’t think people think that way; we’re not framed as a society to deal with loss, especially loss of a child and I think what Petals does is breaks that taboo for us and for those around us.  It helps us to be able to deal with sadness as well as deal with those around us because people are tiptoeing around you, and you feel that.  And how do you deal with that, because they weren’t like that before.”

Hawra and Mustafa’s daughter Jenna was the other person to be most impacted by the loss and the help that Karen gave them in speaking to her about the death of her sister was invaluable.

Jenna had been so looking forward to the arrival of her little sister, even telling her parents that she would look after her and they wouldn’t have to do anything.  To go from that to no baby coming home of course led to many, many questions.

Mustafa explains how difficult it was at the start: “We talk about relationships but it’s more than just us, it’s the whole family unit.  She was very connected to the baby and then how do you talk to her about the baby was the question.  Because she was expecting a baby and he we haven’t got a baby!

“You know she (Jenna) woke up one morning and she was just crying saying ‘my sister died’ – and how do you deal with that? And I remember her asking questions like why do these people have a baby sister, and I don’t? It was obviously very challenging, especially when she was saying it in front of other people.  My brother had a newborn a month after and when she saw the baby for the first time she said: ‘We had one too, but she died.’ And as a child you know that’s just how they are, how they say things and it can be very awkward but really, you’ve got to put the child at the centre of the support.  She needs support and love from her parents and how do we create the right environment?”

As I listen to Mustafa speak and he says things like: “What scars do you leave on a child if you don’t engage and open up?” it is clear how very aware he was at the time of doing the very best thing for the long term happiness of his family and it is almost impossible to believe that he was previously someone who would never have given counselling a second thought.

Hawra expands on the help Karen gave them to deal with these very normal but nonetheless heart-wrenching questions: “Being able to talk about it to Jenna is really thanks to Karen because my first instinct was really not to talk about it because I was so worried about her reaction.

She helped me a lot with how to speak to Jenna and how to respond to her questions.  She had so many questions and I had no idea what to say.  And she asked me questions for a whole year – she was three and one month when my daughter passed away and up to her fourth birthday, she was still asking me questions because it hadn’t sunk in what had happened.  But Karen helped a lot on how to answer a child’s questions, things that hadn’t crossed my mind, simple things really that helped us and helped Jenna a lot.”

I say to Hawra that I think the fact that Jenna was able to keep asking her questions for a whole year, shows that she was doing a great job because Jenna felt that she could keep asking and that I just think that’s really lovely.

Hawra becomes suddenly very emotional and says: “Thank you for that because I always worry, have I scared my daughter? You know, you want to protect your children from traumatic experiences and an experience like this is out of your hands, and I remember when our third baby was born, she asked me, is this baby going to die as well?”

The couple’s third baby, Emel, is now 11 months and whilst the pregnancy was understandably full of anxiety thankfully, she arrived safely, and it is clear to see the joy and love the family now share together.

I ask where they think they might be now without the specialist support of Petals and Hawra simply says: “It would have been very difficult.”

Mustafa expands: “Definitely disconnected still.  There was a barrier in that relationship, and who knows what would happen if you allow that to maintain itself.  The stats are scary for relationships after stillbirth.  This was the most difficult thing we have had to deal with as a couple.  I’ve lost both my parents whilst we’ve been married and that isn’t comparable at all.  I think it has helped us even talk about other difficult things.

“And with Jenna, she just talks about her as her sister who went to heaven, she’s a part of the family.  Being able to do that is so important, we’re not hiding, we’re being open and honest about it.  These things are always going to be difficult, but counselling has just been such a huge investment in our lives, and I am someone who would never have thought of going to counselling.”

Towards the end of our conversation, Hawra says something that has stuck with me: “Sometimes, I still think I could have three daughters with me now.  I guess you learn to live with it.  Especially, as I had family members who had children at the same time that I lost my daughter; seeing their child grow and do things and reach milestones… these things make it hard.  But, at the same time, in a way, you are at peace with it.  You have your love for your child and that’s not dying out.”

I am left in no doubt that their love for Malak will never die and that they carry her with them in their family with such grace is a beautiful thing to see.