“That was my motivation, to give families a voice” – ‘Still Loved’ Director Debbie Howard (The VH Interview)

The subject of death is one which Western society still struggles with discussing frankly. This is especially true with the death of the young and even more so with stillbirth. Stillbirth is defined by the NHS as a baby who dies after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. Despite around 5,000 parent(s) leaving hospitals having lost their baby due to still birth in the UK alone, it is a subject not widely discussed. Debbie Howard’s new documentary Still Loved is a moving piece that explores this topic. I urge you to watch Still Loved. It is difficult viewing at times, naturally, because of the content but it is a documentary and these truths deserve to be heard. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to speak with Debbie.

James: I really enjoyed the film, I feel weird using that word whenever the subject matter is what it is but, no, it was a really moving piece.

Debbie: Thank you.

The part where you interview the children and stuff they’d written for their siblings that hadn’t been born, that was *exhales*. The reason I wanted to do speak with you was my mum had a stillborn after me, a baby sister.

Did you always know what had happened? Were they honest with you?

I would have been about 3 at the time. I remember we used to go to her grave on her birthday

It is hard, and I don’t think it’s anything people fully let go of, but you learn to live with it. I think that’s what the essence of the film was that understanding of the fact that it isn’t something you get over or forget but you do learn to process it and to be happy again. That is what I wanted to look at, that it never goes away but you learn to process it.

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What was it that motivated you to look into this topic?

My most recent short film was called Peekaboo. That’s when I started to look at this subject. The reason I made that film was because I had two friends who had lost babies, neither was stillbirth but it was baby loss and I started to appreciate what a massive impact that had on people. I started to look into this and I was shocked at the statistics of how common it is.

By the time I’d finished Peekaboo, I’d become very passionate about this subject and I got to know a lot families that had lost babies and realised they didn’t have any kind of voice at all. Many of them told me the same stories, that after their babies died they lost loads of friends.  Some of them they never called them again, because they didn’t know what to say. I realized I needed to make a documentary and tell peoples own stories, which are way more powerful than anything I could write.

That was my motivation, to give families a voice. There is a real emphasis on the dads. As you can see in the film, there is a massive pressure to be the strong one, to be there for their partner. I thought, but what about them? Their baby has died as well. Everyone asked about their partners, how they were doing, rather than asking the dads themselves how they were. This can lead to a lot of repressed grief.

What sensitivities did you find you had to be aware of when tackling these and talking to the families?

It’s something I felt my way with. The first few shoots were incredibly hard for all of the crew as well as the participants. We cried all day. It was really hard. I felt like I was reopening wounds for them. When we talked about it later, I realised it had been a very cathartic process for them. I was always very aware though of being respectful to each family and who they were. It was easier with some than others, some people were very open and comfortable and others needed a lot of support. I would always check things with them as we were filming. I’d try to be incredibly sensitive to what they wanted. I was very aware they were sharing their most painful and tragic moments of their life, and didn’t want to exploit that. At the end before we signed the film off I showed it to them and asked if they were happy and if there was anything they didn’t like. It was an important part of the process. They were all happy with how we had put the film together. Our Editor, Joby Gee, was fantastic and we were on the same page throughout the edit which was great.

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Which story stood out, if that’s a fair question?

Eve’s was the most difficult, because she was on her own, and I felt she had no support. She was the only single parent. She had endured a horrendous attitude from the dad’s family, blaming her. Culturally, there are issues around stillbirth where she is from. She was incredibly fragile and we did nearly lose Eve. I thought she was very strong and didn’t want to cut her story. She did drop out at one point and I was devastated. Luckily, about a year later she got back in touch and said she wanted to do some more filming. I was so happy because we’d nearly finished editing at that point, so we filmed some more and were able to finish her story which was just great because I think she’s a very powerful part of the film. It was difficult because I wanted to support Eve as a friend and didn’t want to push her into something she was unhappy with. I love all of them but at least the others had each other. Being by herself, not just without a partner but also without her family and in a different country it was very difficult for Eve.

The minute she began telling how her partner had left just because she was pregnant and didn’t want anything to do with the baby, that by itself, was difficult.

Yeah, she went through so much. When she carried the coffin herself, her strength was incredible. She’s strong and fragile all at once. I felt I wanted to protect her.

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Why do you think there’s such a stigma around stillbirth? Why are people so unwilling to talk about it?

I think culturally, we find it really hard to talk about grief and death. So when it comes to the death of a baby, it’s just too horrific for people and they can’t cope. The attitude towards this film right the way through making it was difficult. People are appalled by the subject matter. It’s really hard to get people to watch it for that reason. I think there’s also a real lack of understanding that when somebody’s baby has died. It’s still their child. The mums have carried them for many months. They also had hopes and dreams for their child, chosen names, thought about the future. All that stuff dies along with the baby and it’s really hard to process it. People don’t understand. If someone’s 10-year-old died, you wouldn’t dream of saying to that person, “never mind, you can have another one”, which is what people often say when you lose your baby

My mum cannot understand the cultural event of American baby showers. She doesn’t want to be too cynical, but why do all that before having the baby?

Yeah exactly and I heard that from all the families that with their next baby, they wouldn’t buy things or get things ready as they didn’t want to have the hope taken away. There’s such an expectation, that if you’re pregnant you will end up with a living baby.

What really struck me about these families, was they have gone through one of the worst things ever, to lose your own child, but they dealt with it by helping other people. They set up a charity or support group or made memory boxes for the hospital or raised money. It was really interesting for me to see that, and I could see how that was helping them to process their grief by helping others through theirs.

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I think the ending helps and is uplifting and helps you cry in a better way so to speak.

That’s good to know. It’s a hopeful film I think. Anybody who’s gone through a horrible phase of grief at any point in their life, it’s good to know you do get through those worst times and you do find new ways of being happy again. There’s a phrase used in the baby loss community, ‘finding your new normal’. I think that’s quite poignant in a way, it’s never quite the same but you do find a different way to laugh again and have fun again. It’s good for people to know if they’re in the middle of the worst stages of grief.

I think Lou is very strong in the film because her personality allows her to speak openly and her humour lets her laugh about even quite dark things. You need to do that sometimes as a release, a way of coping.  

Still Loved is released through Big Buddha Films, an independent film company on the 4th the October in cinemas across the UK alongside Baby Loss Awareness Month. It is available on digital from 1st November. The film’s production was supported by The MJB trust and Maudsley Charity. If you or anyone you know wishes to know more or seek support about stillbirths, please contact Tommy’s or Sands. This film is an excellent way to introduce yourself to some of the key aspects of the issue and through education and action we can all help work towards lowering the staggeringly high numbers of stillbirths in the UK.