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I really felt like I’d lost my very soul’

When Laura Nelson lost her baby, she turned to fitness to try to cope with her pain. Soon she had the idea to help other women and give hope and healing to grief-stricken mums. By Erin McCafferty

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Laura Nelson at a Strong Mums NI class

Laura Nelson at a Strong Mums NI class

Laura Nelson with her daughters, Georgia and Ella

Laura Nelson with her daughters, Georgia and Ella

Baby Emily’s tiny hand next to a teddy bear just moments after she was born

Baby Emily’s tiny hand next to a teddy bear just moments after she was born

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Laura Nelson at a Strong Mums NI class

Exercise class gives hope to Grief-stricken Mothers By Erin McCafferty A free online exercise class, specifically for mothers who have lost babies, is helping Irish women to deal with their grief.

The class, run by fitness expert and mother of two, Laura Nelson (38) from Craigavon, Co Armagh, came about after Laura herself lost her little girl Emily in tragic circumstances. Laura and her husband Andrew Nelson (43) were expecting a baby girl when they attended Craigavon hospital for a 20-week scan in August 2016. The couple already had one child – Georgia (now 8), but had suffered a miscarriage earlier that year. They were excited for the arrival of their little daughter who they’d already named Emily.

“Walking into the hospital, I was nervous because of the previous miscarriage, but my husband told me not to worry,” says Laura. Unfortunately her instinct was right. The scan revealed that Emily had a number of health issues, chief amongst them the fact that her kidneys were not functioning properly and her little lungs had not developed. Although she could live inside the womb, she would not survive outside. “It seems very cold to say the words now, but the consultant simply told us Emily would ‘not be compatible with life’,” recalls Laura sadly. “I could barely take it in. All I could do was cry and cry. “I just felt devastated, like I’d lost my very soul. It was like I was in coma and shouting out for help and no one could hear me.” Laura and her husband were faced with some very hard decisions in the weeks that followed. She was told she could carry Emily, waiting for her to die and then give birth. Or she could go and see a psychologist who’d advise her to go abroad for a termination, which wasn’t on offer in Northern Ireland.

“I felt insulted and angry by that, insulted that they were suggesting I could flee the country and have my baby terminated,” she says. “I felt it was something that should have been offered here as part of my care, not that I would necessarily of taken that option.” In the end, Laura decided she just couldn’t terminate her child and that she’d carry Emily for as long as possible, that it would be the baby’s choice when she arrived.

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Laura Nelson with her daughters, Georgia and Ella

Laura Nelson with her daughters, Georgia and Ella

Laura Nelson with her daughters, Georgia and Ella

"The months that followed were bitter sweet however. Andrew, Laura’s husband was hugely supportive, but it was hard on him too. They would go together once a week for a scan. “I could feel Emily inside me and see her moving about on the screen,” says Laura.

“Sometimes I felt positive about it and at other times, I was simply heartbroken knowing that she wouldn’t survive.” In the end, Emily arrived at 34 weeks. “She was born with life,” smiles Laura remembering her beautiful little baby. “The love that I felt for her was just so unreal. I’m so blessed that I had that.” Sadly little Emily died in Laura’s arms about 20 minutes after her birth. Laura’s husband Andrew was by her side.

Despite the fact that her child had died, Laura experienced the typical hormone fluctuations and emotions that come with childbirth. In the days afterwards, she found her breasts engorged with milk and yet there was no baby to feed it to. She has no regrets about carrying Emily to the end but In the coming months she fell into a deep depression. For three months afterwards, she would visit Emily’s grave every day and sit on a blanket beside it crying. “I really thought that I’d never enjoy anything again,” says Laura. In time, however she began to exercise. “I’d always gone to the gym,” she explains. “It was a way to maintain my weight and look better. But after Emily was born, I realised the mental health benefits. I loved the way exercise made me feel.”

Before her 20 week scan, she’d worked as recruitment manager for a global firm, but she’d given up the job. “My priorities changed,” she says. “I wanted to spend more time with my family.” In 2018, she decided to retrain as a fitness instructor and began to run exercise classes for mothers in the local gym. Then one day, she had an idea to set up a free exercise class specifically for grieving women who had lost babies – women who’d had miscarriages, abortions, still-born babies or babies who’d died. “I wanted, not only to help them get back to a level of fitness, but to provide emotional support and hope,” she says.

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Baby Emily’s tiny hand next to a teddy bear just moments after she was born

Baby Emily’s tiny hand next to a teddy bear just moments after she was born

Baby Emily’s tiny hand next to a teddy bear just moments after she was born

She called the class Strong Mums NI (Northern Ireland) and began to run it once a month. That was 2019 and she’s been running what she calls ‘Emily’s Class’ ever since. It consists of 60 minutes of postnatal exercise, followed by 60 minutes of talking in a group. Since Covid struck, she’s moved the class online. She now has 45 women in the group but not all attend at the same time. Those who do, extol the benefits and claim they find it a healing experience. “I have mums that have joined me as little as two weeks after they’ve lost their little one,” says Laura.

“I have another who lost her child 16 years ago and she still finds value in the classes. I always say nobody would ever choose to be part of this class, but there’s great bonding amongst the women. Sometimes we tell each other things we would never talk about outside the group.” Laura herself has found it hugely beneficial. “Setting up the class was my way of coping in the aftermath of Emily’s death,” she says. “But it’s given me great comfort to be able to help others.”

Although she now has two daughters – Georgia (8) and Ella (4), Laura will never forget little Emily. “In a sense, Emily’s class is a way to keep her memory alive,” says Laura. “People go about their lives and they forget. But she will always be in my heart.”

Visit m.facebook.com/stro

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