It’s officially Baby Loss Awareness Week. Today’s photo is of my daughter’s memory box. My daughter’s memory boxes are pink and soft and have a zip on them, like a suitcase. i wanted to pack her things into them as if she was going on holiday, not like I was packing her away. The boxes include the moments from the hospital where she was delivered by c-section; the hat she wore, her photos, her footprints on a card, her birth and death certificates, some of her toys, my favourite of her clothes, some flower heads from the flowers at her funeral, some of the lovely cards we received. Every thing else is stored away in hope of a brother or sister for her. The cat toy on top of the box is one that we bought for her. I remember the day we bought it from ikea in Leeds. She’d spent the entire journey kicking me in the cervix and it was both incredibly uncomfortable and weirdly tickly. I gritted my teeth but laughed at the same time. After ikea, where we bought VAST amounts of baby stuff, we went for tea at some burger place of other. people smiled at me, because I was so obviously pregnant then, heavy with child, as they say. The waitress smiled at me when i ordered three different dishes, all stuffed full of jalepenos, the craving that just wouldn’t quit. When I think about that day, I feel just the most immense joy in remembering that I was really that pregnant once. The booties that ‘nipples kitty’ as we so eloquently named the cuddly cat (on account that it actually had kitty nipples) is wearing were the very first things I bought Matilda. The first thing i dared to buy her at the twenty four week mark. We’d held out until we were ‘safe’. I wish now that we had relaxed more in the pregnancy, enjoyed it more. That kitty toy has seen some tears. It was roughly her size, I used it in the early days when my arms literally ached for my daughter, I carried it around, I held it, hugged it. The flowers are my mother in law’s birthday gift each year, to Matilda. They are always stunning and perfect, usually with a little butterfly r a diamond heart, something we can keep for the memory box.
I wanted to talk about things that help and things that don’t, from the perspective of a bereaved parent. It’s a difficult thing for friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances to understand and to deal with, and often they simply don’t know what to do or say, so they say nothing. In my opinion, saying nothing is the worst thing. It’s like pretending that the baby didn’t exist. Worse still is avoiding the bereaved. When my maternity leave finished and I had to face going back to work after losing Matilda, I was shocked by some of the reactions. Often people who I had worked with, people I had known for years and years and years, crossed the street to avoid me or turned down corridors to avoid me. One saw me and virtually ran across the car park to avoid speaking to me. Not out of malice, just out of awkwardness. But for the bereaved parent, that is horrible. You already feel so alone, you already feel like an outsider because you probably don’t know anyone that this has happened to, most of the people you know have had a pregnancy and then had a baby and the baby is alive and sweet and the mum brings them in to show them off (another worst case scenario) and you know you will never do that and it breaks your heart. So when you come back to a work environment feeling utterly vulnerable, the last thing you want to see is the back of a colleagues head, sprinting away from you. Things that meant a lot to me were the people that said anything, the ones that said: I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry this has happened to you, or the ones that just hugged me, and in particular the best thing was when people asked about her. When friends gave me the opportunity to talk about her to show pictures of her, to talk about her curly auburn hair and how much she looked like Chris. And yes, it was horribly upsetting and I cried, but it was needed and it was a way of rebuilding my work life. Thank you to those friends who put their awkwardness to one side so that they could support me.
Insensitivity – this is a big one. And perhaps it’s one of those things that is just down to personality type, but I wish people would think before they speak. Before you sit in the rest room planning your child’s first birthday in minute detail, think about the woman whose child’s first birthday is going to be spent at a grave. Before you bring your scan picture in to show everyone, think about the woman who is so desperately sad and missing her bump. Obviously life does carry on, a bereaved mum can’t always avoid every pregnant woman (I’ve tried) but if you know that someone has lost a baby, perhaps don’t sit next to them complaining of swollen ankles and morning sickness and how you ‘can’t wait for this pregnancy to be over’ spare a thought for the woman who would literally eat burning coal if she thought she could have those swollen ankles and morning sickness symptoms back. Similarly, don’t look on the maternity leave that a grieving mother is allowed as some sort of bonus holiday, I had a few people say to me ‘Oh, well at least you get the summer off, what do you think you’ll do with all your free time‘ and what i should have said was ‘well, first I’ll be recovering from the birth, trying to control the PTSD, crying most days, wandering the house holding my arms up because they ache without her, then I will attempt to get out of the house in which I have been trapped because of the sadness and anxiety, I may even go really wild and try and read a book or watch a film without crying or feeling guilty because I laughed at a joke, but mostly i’ll be grieving, i will be tearing myself into shreds because my child is dead. ‘ what i actually said was..nothing at all, I took the cowards way out and let my husband answer.
Don’t always ask the male partner how his wife is, he lost a baby too – How’s Wendy doing? is the question Chris got asked most. Not, ‘How are you?’ But as if the child was mine alone. It made him feel like he wasn’t supposed to grieve, like his grief was inferior. he got two weeks paternity and took some extra time off, which was then frowned upon because the company he worked for were busy. Small things that upset him were such things as the works newsletter announcing all the latest births and pregnancies, and not mentioning Chris’ loss. Not mentioning his daughter. The way that his doctor never called to see how he was, where as mine called round the house to give me sleeping pills. It made him feel like he had no other part in this story but to look after me, and he needed people to ask him about his daughter, so that he could talk about her too. It made me very sad, and still does.
There is no time limit on grief. We parents of the dead don’t suddenly stop grieving a year after the loss, it goes on. christmas, birthdays, any child orientated holidays, all are triggers. Anniversaries are hard, years and years later, they are hard. So don’t ask when we are trying again. Don’t ask us if we’re broody. Or tell us we’re next when the next prig woman walks by. Perhaps we are not ready to move that far away from our children.
Things I will be eternally grateful for; the bereavement suite and the bereavement midwife, who was specially trained at Leeds General Infirmary, The ‘Tilly tree’ that my friends bought us; an ornamental cherry tree that flowers every day on Matilda’s birthday, gifts and flowers that people brought out of love, the tenderness of the people that cut the grass around Matilda’s grave, the anaesthetist who came in to see us after her shift was finished because she’d been an IVF patient too and she wanted to see how we were, the complete stranger in a shop in Scarborough who gave men a hug because I started crying trying to get past the baby aisle, the consultant who told me that I’d done my absolute best for her, the nurse who came in to the room and picked Matilda up and passed her to me at three o’ clock in the morning because I was bed bound. Mostly, I am grateful that i had the chance to experience pregnancy and the absolute love that is the love that a person has for the child. I feel truly blessed to have known and held my daughter.
Today’s organisation is one of the best known. SANDS is an incredible organisation. The support they give is amazing, there is a helpline, information and they do research which leads to improvements in infant death and stillbirth, they helped to bring in the idea of bereavement suites and specially trained nurses and memory boxes and taking footprints and handprints and making the experience something beautiful as well as helping with the devastation. I can’t sing their praises enough.
And finally, today’s poem is one of mine. It won the Yorkmix competition and because of this it was nominated for the forward prize, where it got a highly commended and is in the current forward anthology along with very many wonderful poets and poems. But it;’s very special on a personal level, it pleases me that people might read that poem and without knowing us, they will know the love we have for our daughter.
Here is the divide: on the one side,
the pregnant wife, on the other
the grieving mother. and in between:
a father, a husband, a man in a vacuum
as the surgeons rush past. After the sudden
hydraulic drop of the time of death being called
the woman will emerge; a sleeping Cleopatra
on a white barge.
That little thing they lost in the rush
between pregnancy and birth is a sink hole
beneath them; sudden and inexplicable.
and don’t they look uncomfortable
for the photos; no natural smiles, their heads
heads are flicking back and forth, knowing that these
are the inly images they’ll have and really,
they should look happy for eternity, rather
Like shuffling cards, these emotions. Then here,
at 3 AM as the fan glides round again
and halogen anoints her husband, wrapped
as he is on that camp bed, she lays on her side
staring at the puddle of light that illuminates
her daughter, and wonders how she can feel so lost
but yet so found.