Guilt was an all-too-familiar emotion that Vivian Gaiko, 26, tried to thwart unsuccessfully when she lost her first child, 16-day-old Princess Amani. Questions like ‘Could I have done something to prevent her death?’ ‘Shouldn’t I have noticed that something was wrong with the baby earlier?’ plagued her months after her baby had been buried. "Ironically, I was left with the caesarean section wound as a daily reminder of the tragedy.”
Princess Amani had developed breathing problems a few weeks after her birth. Vivian and her husband took her to a private hospital where the baby was put on an oxygen mask, and were later referred to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), where a paediatrician diagnosed her with neonatal sepsis. But it was too late.
Princess Amani died on Good Friday in April 2014. “After she died, I clung on desperately to hope and waited for her resurrection, just like Jesus.”
Everything seemed to go in fast-forward motion after that. “My family made the decision to bury her in Lang’ata a day after she died, so I never really got to say goodbye as I should have.”
Once that was done, Vivian was left to deal with the emptiness. “I had deferred my studies at the university to have a child but now there was no child to take care of. I was jobless. I told everyone who asked about the baby that she was doing well, growing up well. Clearly, I was in denial.”
The emotions that were brewing up in her propelled her to her lowest point, emotionally. She suffered from depression and attempted suicide twice. “My husband buys Piriton and paracetamol tablets in bulk, so one day I decided to overdose on both. I studied a unit in pharmacology at the university, so I know what levels of aspirin in my blood could cause death.
“All I remember after that is that I fell into a very deep sleep and was very feverish. I sweated profusely. It is only when I woke up that I realised I had vomited a lot. Apart from that, the only other evidence of my suicide attempt was the ringing in my ears and a heavy head.”
Ashamed of her actions, she cleaned up the vomit and breathed not a word to her husband. Her husband, on the other hand, dealt with his grief by burying himself in work.
Vivian went back to medical school, where she was studying medical laboratory science and technology. Visiting Kenyatta National Hospital was part of the school’s lessons, and each visit triggered painful memories of her loss.
Just when Vivian thought she had finally moved on, fate decided to have the last laugh.
“I had attempted suicide twice, but on this day, I was relaxing in the house having a meal of potatoes when I suddenly started choking. A piece of potato had wedged itself inside my windpipe. I struggled for a while and finally managed to dislodge it.”
That was her epiphany.
“Something out of my control was trying to kill me yet I had attempted suicide twice! I realised then that if I had not choked to death, then perhaps I had a purpose for living. I owed it to myself to explore what that purpose was.”
What happened next, in early 2016, strengthened her resolve and validated the choice she made to live fully.
“My neighbour lost her newborn twins minutes after each other. She committed suicide soon after on the same day... she just couldn’t handle the grief. Her husband soon after relocated to the village. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of grief he was going through.”
Vivian wondered whether there was anything that she could have done to ease the pain of the grieving mother, and remembered how difficult it had been to deal with her own grief. She decided to do something about it. That was how Empower Mama Foundation was birthed.
Empower Mama Foundation helps parents who have lost babies.
“We offer psychological and social support for mothers and their spouses.”
Vivian currently also benefits from the counselling sessions that Empower Mama offers.
Today, she is the proud mother of Ivan, who is almost three months old.
“I was worried I was going to lose him when he turned 15 days old, but it was just paranoia at play. I have learned to take one day at a time. Ivan is very special; he is our rainbow baby (a baby born after the loss of a previous one to miscarriage, stillborn or infant death). He is not a replacement of Baby Princess but he carries the torch of the love we always have for her. Parents of rainbows can understand this. The term ‘rainbow’ is given to these special babies, because a rainbow typically follows a storm giving us hope of what’s to come.”
Looking back, Vivian says she should have sought help earlier. “The signs of depression were there. I wasn’t sleeping and when I did, I slept for far too many hours and couldn’t get out of bed. I cried myself to sleep months after we had buried Amani.”
If Vivian could say anything to her 23-year-old grieving self, then it would be this: “Don’t ever say you are okay when you are not. Take time out and be kind to yourself. Be you. There is no timeline for grieving.”