When Hollyoaks actress Kirsty-Leigh Porter held baby Nala Rai in her arms for the first time, she was overwhelmed with relief, joy and inescapable sadness.

Nala, now three, was a rainbow baby, born two years after Kirsty-Leigh lost her first daughter Penny-Leigh, who died when she was 29 weeks and three days pregnant. The Hollyoaks star travelled to hospital alone for a check-up after feeling reduced movements in December 2018. Doctors scanned her bump but were unable to find a heartbeat and Kirsty-Leigh was told her much-loved and longed-for baby had died.

The blur of hours, days, weeks and months that followed were the darkest of Kirsty-Leigh’s life. In hospital she gave birth to Penny-Leigh, held her, talked to her and loved her. She took prints of her tiny feet and hands. Then she and Penny-Leigh’s
father, Paul Barber, began to organise their baby’s funeral. Kirsty-Leigh had never felt pain like it.

Kirsty-Leigh Porter sits on a green sofa, resting her face in her hand
Kirsty-Leigh will never get over the loss of her baby daughter

“I’m not the Kirsty I was before Penny-Leigh,” she tells OK!. “My soul left for a little bit after Penny-Leigh. Everything flips upside down.”

Loneliness overwhelmed Kirsty-Leigh in the aftermath of her daughter’s death. In the end it was the support of strangers that helped her through, and the desire to make her daughter proud.

“You never get over it, you never forget. There’s always going to be a part of you that’s missing,” says Kirsty-Leigh. “I remember one day when I got up and I thought, ‘I can’t carry on like this any more, I have to do something. I do a lot of writing. Once
I’ve written what’s running through my head, I feel like I’ve offloaded a lot.”

Kirsty-Leigh felt strongly that Penny-Leigh was watching over her, which gave her some comfort.

“My turning point was thinking, ‘I’ve now got the best guardian angel in the world that I could ever ask for and I’m going to wake up every morning and do her proud,’” she explains. “That kept me going. I thought, ‘She doesn’t want to see me in bed grieving, I want to make her proud.’”

Kirsty-Leigh Porter poses in a floral dress with her second daughter Nala Rai who is now three years old
Kirsty-Leigh Porter's second daughter is now three years old

Posting on Instagram helped and Kirsty-Leigh found strength from others who were lost in grief just like her.

“I felt better reaching out,” she says. “I remember getting a lot of messages of support from total strangers on social media and reading every single one – and finding so much strength in their messages. It’s such a lonely, dark place, you feel like you’re the only woman in the world who’s just lost a baby. Then you realise that there’s this whole secret community that is just waiting full of strength and support for you. I found myself starting to heal and I became part of this baby loss group, this gang of people that you never really wanted to be a part of. The love and the strength of that group helped me to get better and stronger each day.”

Baby Nala Rai was born in November 2020, almost two years after her older sister was born.

“I was so, so elated and so happy that this baby girl was here and she was in my arms and everything was great and she was OK. And then came the sadness of not having Penny,” explains Kirsty-Leigh. “It was a total contrast of feelings and being hormonal and emotional, I don’t think I stopped crying. It was tears of joy and tears of sadness that one can be here and one can’t. It was just questioning, ‘Why can’t they both be here?’ But also being so overwhelmingly happy that Nala had made it safe. She was
here and everything was OK.”

Kirsty-Leigh Porter poses sitting down with her daughter Nala
Kirsty-Leigh Porter struggled with anxiety in her second pregnancy

Holding her baby in her arms, Kirsty-Leigh realised she hadn’t felt able to breathe since Penny-Leigh’s passing. “I felt like I was living but not really living,” she explains. “I felt like the breath had been sucked out of me, that my soul had been sucked out of me. Then she got here and I felt like I could breathe again.”

Kirsty-Leigh chose the name Nala Rai to honour her daughter’s older sister. She explains, “Nala means a fresh breath of air, it means water, earth, new life. Rai is short for Rainbow because she’s a rainbow baby. I want Nala to know she has a big sister. I don’t know how or when I’m going to tell her that.”

Falling pregnant again was joyful for Kirsty-Leigh, but after losing Penny-Leigh she couldn’t relax during her second pregnancy and spent much of the time filled with anxiety.

“When I was pregnant with Nala it was just literally trying to get through each day,” she says. “I didn’t relax and enjoy it as much as I probably should have because it’s a blur. It was just trying to get through each day and just get her here safely.”

Kirsty-Leigh Porter wears a jumpsuit as she smiles with her little girl Nala Rai
Kirsty-Leigh Porter wants her daughter Nala Rai to one day understand she has a big sister in heaven

Now Kirsty-Leigh is telling her story on screen in Hollyoaks. This week her character Leela Lomax will get married to her fiancé Joel Dexter and later take herself to hospital for a check-up after realising she hasn’t felt the baby kick for a while. Still wearing her wedding dress, she’ll be told her baby has died.

“This is Leela’s story, but it’s also mine. It’s my reality,” explains the actress. “I knew that I would tell it one day. I feel like now is the time to give back to the people who helped me. There are no arrows saying ‘go this way’ when you’re going through this. It’s for people who are going through it or have been through it, so they can feel they’re not alone. It’s also for me to process it, I still process it every day. You’re never going to fully get to the end. It’s just going to be, ‘Why did that happen?’ That’s constant and that’s OK.”

The storyline has been sensitively written with lots of input from Kirsty-Leigh and is packed with information for viewers. She doesn’t want to make new mums anxious, but she is aware this story has the power to save lives and start important conversations.

“It’s trying not to scare people, but I want to show that it’s normal to feel reduced movements – as long as you notice it and you do something about it,” says Kirsty-Leigh. “My maternity ward said, ‘No matter how small you think this matter is, if you ar worried or even if you’re not so worried, still make the phone call, still check…’ People watching this who are pregnant might instantly put their hand to their tummy. Even if we get that, that’s brilliant, that’s a job done because that’s exactly what we want. It could save a life. That’s the goal.”

Kirsty-Leigh Porter will tell her babyloss story on Hollyoaks when her character Leela is told her unborn baby has died
Kirsty-Leigh Porter will tell her babyloss story on Hollyoaks when her character Leela is told her unborn baby has died

After Penny-Leigh’s passing, Kirsty-Leigh felt unable to talk about her birth experience. “Women may feel like we’re not able to share that bit because it is seen not to be the same, but you still give birth to your baby. What stands out to me the most is the absolute sheer loneliness that you feel.”

Leela will spend time with her baby after the birth, using a specially cooled cuddle cot – just like Kirsty-Leigh was able to do with Penny-Leigh, spending treasured moments taking photos and making memories.

“It was unbelievably precious,” says Kirsty-Leigh. “We spent a couple of days with Penny-Leigh and it was so valuable.”

Filming Leela’s loss has been tough for Kirsty-Leigh but also therapeutic. During filming, several crew members opened up about their losses and Kirsty-Leigh hopes the same conversations will happen around the country when the scenes air.

Kirsty-Leigh Porter's daughter Nala Rai rests her head on her mum's shoulder
Kirsty-Leigh Porter would love to have more children - but fears another pregnancy

“Even during the week of filming we were breaking the taboo and the stigma. People were coming in talking to me, they were opening up about their own experiences. It gave me the strength to come in the next day and do it all again,” she says.

Kirsty-Leigh loves being a mum and if she could, would have “a truckload more children”. However, after losing Penny-Leigh, she’s too anxious to try for a third child.

“I could not go through the anxiety of being pregnant again,” she says. “It was a race to get Nala here safe rather than enjoying my pregnancy. I did wonder, ‘Why do I feel like this? Is this anxiety normal?’ And now I realise it’s completely normal. It’s sad because I would love more children but I just don’t think I could put myself mentally and emotionally through that again. We’re left feeling lucky that we’ve got children.

“I always say I have one in heaven and one on Earth but both are in my heart forever.”

Watch Hollyoaks on Channel 4 – stream or watch live, weekdays, 7pm, E4

Kirsty-Leigh is an ambassador for the Mariposa Trust, mariposatrust.org