So we’d done all our planning, everything was organised. Ante-natal classes all done, passed the test of putting nappies on dolls (just). Everything had gone swimmingly and we had the date for induction, Friday 2nd May 2014, 38 weeks.
Friday April 25th was Briony’s last day at work and her maternity leave began, a week to take it easy before the big day. As I said before in Blissfully Unaware, we’d not had any issues through the whole pregnancy, not even minor ones. The only question mark we’d had was over the impact of the anaesthetic that Briony had been given for her operation in September when she was just a couple of weeks pregnant and we had no idea. We’d been assured that it was not a problem though.
So we’d spent that last weekend getting ourselves organised, getting Henry’s room finished off, sorting out the last few bits, excitedly getting ready for our world to change for ever – little did we know that while this was still going to be the case, it wasn’t going to be anything like we’d envisaged.
Fast forward to Wednesday 30th April, my last day at work before two weeks of paternity leave began. I remember the first part of the day as clearly as if it were yesterday. The second part of the day is a complete blur.
Briony had been scheduled for a routine appointment that morning before her induction date had been set, and they’d said that she might as well come in anyway, no point cancelling it. I set off about eight thirty that morning for Macclesfield, where I was working with a surgeon friend of mine, Mr. Waseem, who was using one of my company’s shoulder replacements for the first time that day.
I remember leaving that morning like it was yesterday – a kiss for Briony and a kiss for Henry on her stomach (or Chickpea, his bump name). See you guys tonight and then the craziness begins. I got to Macclesfield just before 1100. For those of you who’ve never been to Macclesfield, it’s perhaps the single hardest place in the world to get into or out of. I said that when I was presenting at a study day in Kendal recently, when I realised I was speaking to a lot of midwives from Barrow-in-Furness, and had to revise my claim to “Macclesfield is perhaps the second hardest place in the world to get into or out of”.
My phone rang just as I was pulling into the car park at Macclesfield District General Hospital. I can even remember the parking space I parked in that morning. As I parked up, I got a call from an unknown number. This was par for the course in my line of work – getting called from a hospital always comes up as an unknown number. I assumed it was the theatre department at Macclesfield – my friend Helen – calling to see where I was.
It was a hospital.
It wasn’t Macclesfield.
It was Harrogate.
It was Briony. “You need to come home. Henry’s gone. We’ve lost him”.
And in that moment, the world stopped. I don’t really know how to describe it. I felt like everything was closing in on me. I couldn’t compute what I was hearing. My head told me that I had incomplete information (I’m a bit of an ‘information’ geek, I like to know everything there is to know about things), I needed to ask questions to get more details of what was happening. My heart told me just to hurry up and get home. I mumbled something along the lines of “I’ll be back as soon as I can”. It wasn’t the time to be pressing for more details on the phone.
I walked into Macclesfield’s operating theatres in a complete daze. I found Helen – “Waseem’s ready for you, go get changed.”
“Helen, I can’t stay, something’s happened. I don’t really know what but I think Henry’s gone. I’ve got to go. I need to speak to Waseem.”
He came round the corner at this point. He’s a truly lovely guy, a larger than life character with an infectious personality, and he does everything at 100mph, so I remember he sort of swept towards me like a big wave. “Come on, quick quick, get changed, let’s go”. I tried to repeat what I’d said to Helen but I just sort of mumbled. Helen spoke for me, she was my voice in that moment.
“Go, go, you must go, we’ll be fine here” he said. I insisted on spending five minutes with him walking him through the differences between the equipment he was used to and the system he was using for the first time that day. I don’t know how I did it. Helen’s since said it was the “single most amazing piece of composure” she’s ever seen. I didn’t see it like that and I still don’t. I just remember thinking “there’s an elderly lady who’s having her operation today, they don’t know this kit, I need to make sure that I’ve set them up properly”.
Waseem shooed me out the door at that point, and from there on, it’s a bit of a blur. I know I’ll always be grateful for the way he and Helen looked after me in those few minutes that morning.
As I said before, Macclesfield is a devilishly difficult place to get away from. Traffic’s always heavy and there are always lots of bottlenecks on the single lane road back to the Manchester ring road. The journey took about two, maybe two and a half hours. It felt like forever. I was in pieces, but I still didn’t really know what was happening.
I called Henry’s godfather, Robin. He’s an orthopaedic surgeon. I don’t know why I called him first, probably because I needed to speak to someone I trusted absolutely who also had a medical background, as if having a conversation with a surgeon could somehow magically alter the reality of the black storm I was driving back into. It couldn’t, of course, but I’ll always be grateful for the way he parked his own confusion and grief and talked calmly and rationally to me, it kept me on a level for a large part of the drive home.
Then I called my parents. My mother answered her phone and launched straight into a monologue about the cot that they were picking up, and the things they were shopping for in a baby shop right at that very moment. It took me a while to get a word in edgeways (nothing new there!). When I did it stopped her in her tracks. I remember that she regained her composure very quickly though (which I needed at that moment), and she and my father went into ‘practical’ mode – which I’d fully anticipated, the by-product of my upbringing in a military family.
They’d been due to come up on the Friday anyway. I can’t remember now whether they came up earlier or not. That’s one of the strange things about this journey, some parts of it you remember absolutely clear as day. Others you just have a complete mental block over. I’ll talk in another blog at some point about the impact of such severe trauma on your mental health, but random mind blocks and forgetfulness are two things I’ve wrestled with ever since.
I think I called other people too. I can’t remember. The next thing I remember was arriving home. One of the key emotions during your grief journey as time goes by is guilt. One of the things I have ALWAYS felt guilty about was not being there with Briony at that scan. It’s an irrational guilt – it was a routine scan, we were two days away from induction, everything was fine – but it’s a guilt that’s always stayed with me. Fortunately (haha yes, people going through this still find ways to say “oh weren’t we lucky that this happened this way?”) Briony’s mum had been at the scan with her. When I got home, she was stood by the front door having a cigarette. I gave her a hug and walked into the house. The bed was in the dining room as going up and down stairs with that big frame on her leg was challenging enough even without being heavily pregnant. Briony was curled up in a ball on the bed. I just went over and hugged her, it felt like that hug lasted hours.
What do you say at that moment? Blokes are meant to be the strong ones, right? We’re meant to be the ones that keep it together (for ‘keep it together’, read ‘bottle it up and don’t show emotion in order to appear tough when actually you’re falling to pieces inside’) and say wise things that stabilise situations.
But what could I have said at that point – “It’ll be okay”? No. No it f*cking won’t. It’ll never be okay. It’ll never be the same again. In that moment, our lives had irreversibly, irrevocably, changed for ever. Nothing would ever be ‘normal’ again, would it?
People say lots of ridiculous things to bereaved parents. Mostly, these things are said with the absolute best of intentions – I think it’s human nature to look to put a positive slant on something that’s negative, to try and pick someone up. That’s part of it. The other part of it is that some things are just so tragic that you simply can’t process it unless you’ve experienced it yourself, so you have to relate it to something else.
But there are some things you can’t put a positive slant on. People try though:
“Everything happens for a reason” – actually no, some things won’t ever have some higher reasoning that will somehow justify them.
There’s a fantastic documentary about stillbirth called Still Loved (I’ll blog about it soon), and one of the dads featured in it, Jay, sums this sentiment up perfectly for me – “when they say everything happens for a reason, it doesn’t. It happens because it’s shit.” Some things are just shit, there’s no silver lining. Losing your baby is definitely one of them.
“At least…” – different parents get different versions of this. Parents that already have children get “at least you have your other children” – like that somehow makes up for the one that has died; try choosing which of your children you could live without…Parents that don’t have any living children get “at least you know you can get pregnant…” – like that possibility in the future somehow negates the grief for your loss.
“Be thankful for…” – no thank you. Now, three years and more down the line, I can find things I am thankful for. But in the early stages of your journey after losing your child, being told there are things to be thankful for is the last thing you want to hear.
“I know how you feel…” – I’ve heard of people comparing someone’s loss of their baby to the loss of a grandparent, a parent, even a pet. Unless you’ve lost a child, this is not a good route to go down. If you have, you probably won’t choose this wording anyway.
So when I walked in the door that afternoon, I just held her in my arms. As the world caved in around us, we held each other, and there was an unspoken resolve that we would get through it. Some way. Somehow. Later, we settled upon the phrase “we just have to stick together like superglue”. I don’t know why. As the years have gone by this has shortened to a single word – “superglue” – between us when we’re facing up to a challenging situation or when one of us is feeling down.
And that’s pretty much what you have to do when your world caves in as you try to process the loss of your baby, it’s pretty much the only thing you can do in that moment.
Stick together like superglue…