A remarkable mum has revealed how she channelled her devastating grief into something positive after losing two babies, by starting a venture to help other women who have experienced a similar ordeal.
Falling pregnant for the first time in 2014, marketing agency owner Justine Maher, 37, of Lowestoft, Suffolk, was heartbroken when she was told her unborn child would not survive outside the womb.
Thankfully, when she and her husband Dale, 27, a civil enforcement officer, tried for another baby, Harrison, now four, was born – happy and healthy – weighing 8lbs 13oz on 22 March, 2015.
Justine and her children (Collect/ PA Real Life)
But when the couple tried for a second child in 2018 Justine suffered a traumatic miscarriage, which made her determined her babies should not have died in vain. So, in July that year she launched Angels and Rainbows, a Facebook support group for women who have lost babies.
Collect/PA Real Life
“The first time I lost my baby I didn't allow myself to grieve, I went back to work and just carried on," said Justine, who has since had a second 'rainbow baby' – a healthy baby born to someone who has experienced miscarriage, infant loss, stillbirth or neonatal death.
“The grief didn't hit me – I didn't let it hit me, until I suffered the second loss. Then all the emotions that I hadn't allowed myself to feel overcame me. It consumed my life and if I hadn't had Harrison, I don't know what I'd have done."
Justine and Blake (Collect/ PA Real Life)
But Justine, who had her second son, Blake, in September 2019, became determined to harness her feelings and use them to help other women who would identify with her loss.
She continued: “I wanted to put my grief to good use and realised that even though I felt isolated and alone, I wasn't the only woman feeling like that.
“I decided to set up a Facebook group called Angels and Rainbows that would connect women in the local area who'd had similar experiences."
She added: “As the group grew, I began organising monthly meet-ups, so women could just chat face-to-face and not feel so alone.
“Not only has the group helped other women, it also brought me back from the brink of despair and helped me to deal with my own grief."
Seeing how positive Angels and Rainbows has been for women like her, Justine is now keen to register it as a charity this year.
As the group grew, I began organising monthly meet-ups, so women could just chat face-to-face and not feel so alone
“We have monthly meetings where we just have a coffee together and sometimes, we have pamper nights, to give the ladies some time to relax," she said.
“Sometimes a counsellor comes too, but it's so important for the women to talk to each other. Miscarrying is still thought of as a taboo and it shouldn't be.
“I want Angels and Rainbows to become a charity to help local women talk and deal with their grief."
Harrison and Blake (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Justine and Dale had been delighted when they first fell pregnant just a few weeks after they started trying for a baby in 2014.
“We were both over the moon," said Justine. “I was a little older expectant mum, as I was approaching my mid-thirties, but I wasn't fazed.
“I'd never smoked, I don't drink, and I'd always been healthy and fit, so I didn't worry."
Dale and Harrison (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Shortly after she discovered she was expecting, Justine experienced a terrible bout of morning sickness.
“I had to spend a lot of time in bed. It just felt like I had a bad case of the flu," she said.
But any concerns she had about her baby's welfare were alleviated when she attended a 12-week scan at James Paget University Hospital in Great Yarmouth.
I had to spend a lot of time in bed. It just felt like I had a bad case of the flu
“The emotion you feel when you see your baby's heart beat for the first time is just indescribable," she said.
And soon after the scan, Justine's sickness subsided.
She said: “I felt completely fine and all my symptoms went. I didn't have a baby bump either – but I didn't think much of it, because lots of women carrying their first baby don't show."
But at her 20-week scan, Justine was dealt a devastating blow.
“The nurse asked me if I'd had any water loss, leakage or bleeding, which I hadn't, so I told her I'd been fine," Justine recalled. “She just looked at me and said, 'I think there might be a problem.'
“Then another nurse came in and said they couldn't see my baby's kidneys."
Blake and Harrison (Collect/ PA Real Life)
She added: “At first it didn't hit me that my baby might not live. I just thought, 'This is fine, as soon as the baby is born, he or she can have a kidney transplant.'"
Justine was referred to Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital for a second opinion but, tragically, she was told that, because her baby had no kidneys and an enlarged heart, it would not survive outside the womb.
“I was devastated, and I didn't know what to think or do," she said.
I just couldn't accept it. I spent a lot of time in denial, thinking, 'This only happens to other people this can't be happening to me
“I just couldn't accept it. I spent a lot of time in denial, thinking, 'This only happens to other people this can't be happening to me,'" she continued.
From there, Justine had to take tablets to induce labour, fully aware that her baby would not survive.
“It was heartbreaking knowing that soon this beautiful baby I had grown would be gone," she said.
Dale with his newborn son (Collect/ PA Real Life)
And, at 24 weeks, Justine delivered her child.
“It just didn't feel real," she said. “You're giving birth to this baby that's been living inside you for six months, but you'll never be able to take the baby home.
“We'd already started buying clothes and bottles. It was the most traumatic experience of my life."
Justine, pictured here whilst pregnant, with Dale (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Too traumatised to face the reality of what had happened, Justine chose not to even look at the baby boy she had given birth to.
“I thought if I looked at him my life as I knew it would be over," she said. “It didn't feel right naming him either, so we just called him Baby Maher."
Refusing to give into her grief, Justine went back to work within weeks and tried to carry on as normal.
I thought if I looked at him my life as I knew it would be over," she said. “It didn't feel right naming him either, so we just called him Baby Maher
“I didn't want to deal with it or think about it," she said.
“It made me realise how much I wanted to be a mum. Luckily, I knew the chances of having another baby without any kidneys were like one in a million – so we decided to try again."
Justine fell pregnant for a second time in June 2014.
Justine and Harrison (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“This time I was worried about everything," she said. “I'd worry if I wasn't well, and I'd worry if I felt too well that the baby had died."
Thankfully, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Harrison, in March 2015.
“I just couldn't quite believe my little rainbow baby was here and was perfect," she said.
But not wanting to give up on her dream of having a large family, Justine and Dale decided to try for a second child.
“We always wanted at least two children, although we were worried that if something went wrong, we might not come back from it," she said. “So we waited a while and then started trying."
In March 2018 she fell pregnant again, but sadly it was not meant to be.
We always wanted at least two children, although we were worried that if something went wrong, we might not come back from it
“Around the eight week mark I just didn't feel pregnant anymore," she said. “I had no sickness, no tiredness, no bleeding and my symptoms had gone."
Then, at her 12-week scan, her worst fears were realised.
“My baby had died at around eight weeks, in what's called a missed miscarriage. This is when a routine scan reveals your baby has no heartbeat, or is too small for your date of pregnancy," she said. “I was given the choice to take the tablets again, but I chose to have surgery instead."
Justine's Angels and Rainbows care package (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I had to be put to sleep and to have an operation for the embryo to be taken out," she said.
“I was so angry, I just kept thinking, 'Why me again?' I don't smoke or drink and I just kept thinking, 'Why, why, why?'.
“But then something changed, and I thought, 'Why not me? I'm not privileged.' That was my turning point. "
After working through the anger stage of her grief, in July 2018 Justine started Angels and Rainbows, hoping to connect women locally who had suffered child loss.
“Setting up the group was a coping mechanism for me," she said. “I was helping other women, but at the same time I was helping myself.
“I know there are groups nationally to help, but there was nothing locally, and it helps so much more if you know of someone nearby going through a similar ordeal."
Setting up the group was a coping mechanism for me,
She added: “Just popping round for a cup of tea and a chat with someone who understands really makes a difference."
After finally allowing herself to grieve, Justine felt ready to try one more time for a baby.
“We thought long and hard about it, but we desperately wanted to give Harrison a younger brother or sister," she said.
Justine with Harrison and Dale (Collect/ PA Real Life)
She said: “We decided to try again and if it didn't happen, that would be the last time."
Fortunately, Justine soon fell pregnant.
“I was so worried about my baby again, it was torture, especially if I didn't feel them move for a while," she said. “Kicks Count, the charity which aims to reduce stillbirths by raising awareness of baby movements, gave me a Rainbow Baby Pack that helps expectant mums who have experienced child loss previously.
Justine has set up a support group for other mums (Collect/ PA Real Life)
She added: “In the pack was a wristband that helped me to track my baby's movements -that really helped me get to through the pregnancy."
To her delight, Justine's second rainbow baby, Blake, was born weighing 9lbs in September 2019.
“Blake and Harrison are my world. Dale and I love them more than anything," she said.
In the pack was a wristband that helped me to track my baby's movements -that really helped me get to through the pregnancy
“But I never want to forget my two angels either. I scattered Baby Maher's ashes on my Nanna and Grandad's grave and in the kitchen, we've got a plant that reminds us of our second angel," she continued.
“That's why I named the group 'Angels and Rainbows,' because it's so important to remember the angels, who have passed, too.
“Losing two babies is the hardest thing I've ever been through and I want to help other women who have experienced a similar ordeal."
Justine with Harrison and Blake (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I want to help them realise it's not a taboo and talking and being open about miscarriages, as well as allowing yourself time to grieve, are the two most important things to do," she concluded.
“And if you need help don't be afraid to reach out to get it – women should never just suffer in silence."
Elizabeth Hutton, CEO of Kicks Count said the term 'Rainbow babies' is used to refer to babies born after the loss of a previous child.
Justine's care package (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“The bundle that we are making available through midwives is designed to help allay fears and provide support," she said.
“The focus is on positivity, self-care and mental wellbeing, as well as the importance of baby movements and the contents have been put together carefully as a result consultation with groups of mums who have been through pregnancy after loss."
To find out more visit www.kickscount.org.uk