There’s nothing that can prepare you for the tragic loss of a child, and the enduring grief that follows.
Maria Mihos and her husband George know this first-hand.
Tuesday 11 December would have been their first-born son’s sixth birthday. Haralambos Harrison Mihos was born premature at 23 weeks and three days, weighing just 660 grams. In critical condition, he fought for 21 hours of his life. By the next morning his body had shut down.
“We’ll never know why this all occurred,” Maria told Neos Kosmos.
“I had an infection – the Strep B strain; most women can have this in a pregnancy and go through with no issues. However this may’ve brought on the sudden labour for me.”
Following Haralambos’ passing, a nurse at the hospital, which Maria wished not to name, offered to bring the baby to the couple, instead of them going to the morgue. They were thankful for the offer, but were shocked with the events that would follow.
“They brought him to me in this zipped up black freezer bag – if you can picture like a bassinet-style, but it was fully zipped up. They were in a rush and whatnot, so they just placed him at the end of my bed … They said ‘we’ll be back in 10 to 15 minutes max’ obviously because he’s in a freezer and they can’t keep him cold,” she recalls.
Left alone with their baby, Maria looked to her husband and then back at the bag, and proceeded to slowly unzip it.
“Our precious boy [was] lying peacefully in the outfit we had placed him in after his first and final bath we had given him just a few short hours before.
“Then they took him away and that was pretty much our only time that we spent with him until his funeral,” she says – recalling that moment as “bittersweet,” a memory which is forever imprinted in their minds.
In the months that followed, as part of her own healing process, Maria went on to do a lot of research into infant death, and during her search came across the Cuddle Cot.
A small cot, it is designed with a cooling system fitted to lie beneath the baby to give bereaved families the chance to keep their baby close, and to spend as much uninterrupted time with them as they wish before saying their final goodbye.
“I thought it just would have been more comforting to have that instead of the memories that we do have. He could have been with us for as long as we wanted, it’s not rushed, it’s as close to normal as you can get,” Maria explains.
Since then it has been a rollercoaster six years for Maria and George, who after losing Haralambos have gone on to have three children: Connor Konstantinos George, aged five; Nina Mersina, aged three-and-a-half; and Louis Lambros aged two – all of which were difficult pregnancies.
It was just four months after Haralambos’ passing that Maria fell pregnant with Connor via IVF again. Told she had an “incompetent cervix,” she was bedridden in hospital and monitored closely from 24 weeks pregnant.
Connor was then born at 27 weeks, and spent 86 days in the NICU and Special Care Nursery, during which he overcame the odds, and went home fit and healthy.
While they have had their hands full, over the past six years their memories of Haralambos have remained a constant. Wanting to do something to honour their son’s memory with a lasting legacy, the opportunity came in late August. To coincide with pregnancy loss awareness month in October, they teamed up with charity Bears of Hope to launch a fundraiser to raise $6,000 – the cost of supplying a hospital of their choosing with a Cuddle Cot.
“Now I’ve had a bit of time to breathe, but I reflect everyday. I can say it’s made us stronger, but there are many days that I don’t feel like that. All you hear from people is ‘oh wow, you’re so strong, and you show such courage’. Yes, life has gone on, and Harrison now has three baby siblings… but we go through the motions everyday. The grieving process is not something that passes; it’s like a part of my heart will always be missing,” says Maria.
“So if this is just something little that we can do to help and support families that will unfortunately go through it, because it continues to happen; if you can make the healing process from the beginning a little bit easier, that’s what we hope we can do.”
Along with honouring baby Haralambos’ memory, for Maria, by sharing the fundraiser with family and friends online via social media and email, it has also been a way of raising much-needed awareness about infant death, which is still very much a taboo topic.
“Before all this, I didn’t know of anyone who had experienced a neonatal loss. But it’s amazing after the fact, so many people either know someone or may have gone through it themselves whether or not it was an early miscarriage, stillbirth at full term or neonatal loss and some people have never spoken about it,” she says.
“You celebrate a birth; the baby books that you read do not really focus or discuss SIDS, stillborn or neonatal death. Unfortunately, we have experienced everything that tends not to be focused on too much in the books.”
With Wednesday having marked what Maria has dubbed Haralambos’ sixth “Angelversary,” it was only fitting that they had surpassed their $6,000 to make their Cuddle Cot donation to St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Fitzroy where Maria, with the help of her obstetrician Dr Guy Skinner, had her three subsequent babies.
Meanwhile, in addition to the money raised, a particularly generous donation was made by a family in honour of their matriarch’s passing and that of Haralambos, for the sum of $6,000.
“It wasn’t planned that we’d be doing the presentation the day after Harrison’s 6th Angelversary… but in a way I’m kind of glad that it was, because it makes it a little more poignant and will help with our healing, because our healing is still everyday… it’s a grieving process that will last until the day we meet again.”
The Cuddle Cot fundraiser will remain open until the end of the year. For those wishing to donate, visit https://cuddlecot.gofundraise.com.au/page/MariaMihos0