So how do you prepare yourself to walk out without your child, with just a memory box to help fill your empty arms?
You can’t. Nothing can prepare you for that. We got home on that Sunday afternoon, and I can’t remember a thing about the rest of the day. We were both just numb, emotionally utterly spent.
I’ve talked in previous blogs about people who will forever be on our list of people who we’ll always be grateful to:
Helen and Mr. Waseem in Macclesfield when I first found out Henry had died;
Henry’s godfather Robin for keeping me together on that drive home on that fateful Wednesday;
Mark and Will for their speed and consideration in taking work off my radar instantly;
Amanda and Sue for their incredible care while we were in the hospital.
What we were about to discover was how that list would grow. As I’ve mentioned previously, losing your baby is an incredibly isolating experience. People you thought were in your inner circle, people you’d have run over hot coals for, can just disappear. You’ll see people you thought were close friends literally cross the road to avoid you, watch texts go unanswered.
And yet, you’ll also find that people you wouldn’t have put at the top of the list really step up to the plate. It’s a total re-evaluation, a complete overhaul of your world view, and that includes your view on which people really matter in your life.
I’ve heard it said that you find out who your real friends are when you have a baby. That’s bullshit. You find out who your REAL friends are when your baby dies.
Many people simply can’t comprehend the ultimate tragedy of a baby dying, so they distance themselves, run away in the opposite direction. Other people can’t comprehend it but come running towards you anyway, the friendship equivalent of the people who run TOWARDS a burning building to help save the people inside. You soon find out who the firefighters are in your circle of friends. They probably won’t be who you thought.
Sunday afternoon and evening was a complete write-off then. I’d tell you more about it, but I have no recollection.
So, Monday 5th May, 2014 – our first full day after leaving hospital. I referee rugby union in my spare time and I’d been making decent progress for the previous couple of years. I was in line for a possible promotion to the next level for the start of the following season.
I’d been invited to referee at a Premiership Academy tournament in Newark that day with my good pal Andy Scott who was knocking on the same promotion door. This was a big deal, the bigwigs from Twickenham were coming to assess our performance. The chance to put a real marker down in front of the right people. I’d known for weeks that Friday 2nd May was going to be Henry’s birthday, so I had been resigned to taking on this appointment after a couple of sleepless nights but had been confident that the euphoria of becoming a dad would see me through.
Now I wanted to withdraw. Just a game, right? There’ll always be another opportunity to progress, right? No-one would question it for a second if I pulled out in these circumstances, right? Briony said no. You’ve got to go. It’ll do you good. What’s the alternative, sitting around at home feeling sorry for yourself? So I went.
My parents were heading home to Surrey that day too, so they stopped by in Newark to watch. When they’re assessing your refereeing they fit you with a radio pack so they can listen to your communication during the game as well as watch what you’re doing.
I was on autopilot. I don’t think I refereed badly that day, but I certainly didn’t referee well. There were two assessors there – Peter Farrell, a high ranking RFU assessor from Yorkshire, and Gareth Thomas, the RFU National Panel referees’ manager. This was THE shop window. If you’re going to impress the big fish, this is the time to do it. My brain was fried.
Should I have pulled out? Probably. Am I glad I didn’t? Yes. Should I have told them what had happened? Maybe, but if I had then they may well have stood me down anyway. The only giveaway was the black armband of electrical tape that then ended up in Henry’s memory box (you might have spotted it in Two days to last a lifetime). Andy wore one too, as he had on the Saturday the day after Henry was born, when he was refereeing at Twickenham in the warm-up to the Army v Navy game:
So when they assess you they come to you after the game they’ve watched and grill you about it. They like you to engage and have detailed thoughts about things you did well or not-so-well. Gareth assessed my last game of the day. Leeds Carnegie against Northampton Saints I think (don’t ask me how I remember that). Straight after the game we got together.
“How did you think that went?”
“What did you think about your positioning?”
“What about your interaction with Green 13 when he got in your ear?”
Not a clue.
Gareth had to tell me what I’d said. The player had questioned a decision, and I’d responded with “Are you the captain? No? Off you go then” – a dismissive response on my part, which was totally at odds with my normal way of dealing with players. I was able to function on the field by single-mindedly putting myself into a bubble of concentration, but for the only time in my refereeing career, I had zero recall afterwards. I was just going through the motions.
I saw Peter Farrell at a Yorkshire referees’ event about a year later. He said “you didn’t need to referee that day. I understand why you did, but you didn’t need to.” It meant a lot, even a year later, to hear that.
Couple of pints with Gareth and my parents after the tournament had finished, and then back up the A1 to reality. I look back on that day with immense gratitude – it was a great opportunity, and Briony was right to press me to fulfil it. For a full day I was back to normality (of sorts), and refereeing has become one of my ‘releases’ in the months and years that followed.
In both my day job in operating theatres and in my refereeing, one thing rings true – once in the middle of it, my full concentration is required. So I had these two safe places, operating theatres and rugby pitches, where I could step through the door/onto the pitch and be lost in the responsibility of the position I held. I always knew that the challenge and the chaos and the devastation would be waiting for me once I’d finished, but for that period of time, that couple of hours here or there, I could isolate myself and focus entirely on what was in front of me. It was, and still is, one of the saving graces for me in my grieving process, without doubt. You find releases wherever you can on this journey.
So that was the Monday (it was a bank holiday). On the Tuesday we decided that we’d get Henry’s registration done. You have a certain number of days (forty-odd, I think) to do it, but hell, let’s just get it done. So we drove up to the registry office on the edge of The Stray (a beautiful park in the middle of Harrogate). Briony stayed in the car, she couldn’t face it. So I said I would go in on my own, get it done, and come back out.
I went in, and explained with a lump in my throat why I was there to the woman on the reception desk. She asked me to take a seat. After a few moments I was called in by a registrar. We started going through the process and then she identified that Briony and I weren’t married.
“Do you want your name on the birth certificate?”
Well yes, obviously.
“Well we need your partner to be here then.”
Sorry, what-now? I sought to clarify this. Briony’s just delivered a stillborn child and you’re going to make me drag her out of the car and put her through this? Yes. Yes she was. No way round this? No.
Right then. I went out to the car and explained to Briony that if I was to be on Henry’s registration documents that she had to come in too. She’s the most stoic and resilient person I’ve ever met – we’d test that theory over the months that followed – so she just shrugged, braced herself, and came in.
In Two days to last a lifetime I talked about a couple of bits of unfortunate interaction and described the lady in question as our nemesis. We’d found another nemesis here at the registry office. I couldn’t comprehend that anyone could be so cold and business-like when dealing with the registration of a stillborn child. She showed no emotion, offered no condolences, didn’t engage at all beyond the questions required for the paperwork. This woman had all the compassion of a carjacking.
At one point she printed off the certificate and passed it over for us to sign. She’d got the date of Henry’s birth wrong. Choking back tears I pointed this out to her. She didn’t break stride – “oh okay, I’ll do another copy” and rolled her eyes. Not even joking. No apology, just an eye roll.
Out of all the people we’ve met along the way, the one person who needed some lessons in basic compassion and human decency was this woman. When we got married just over two years later, we made specific enquiries to ensure that she wouldn’t be the registrar performing our wedding ceremony. She was fucking awful.
After Tuesday the days pretty much blurred into one for a bit. I had two weeks’ paternity leave but Will (he’s on the list already but he’d get on again for this) had told me to take as long as I needed. We were inundated with cards and flowers. I think I may have forced the florist’s delivery driver into considering a career change with my honest response to his “someone’s popular” quip after the fourth delivery. I’ve never seen anyone’s face fall so quickly.
In terms of reactions he was right up there with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who turned up one morning that week. I explained to them that I wasn’t really up for being converted right now and explained why. They were really taken aback and said “well we can do gardening for you as well if you like?”. I don’t think Briony’s ever forgiven me for turning THAT offer down.
So what do the days and weeks after the birth of your first child hold? For most people, dirty nappies, sleepless nights, and vomit I expect. For us, tears, sleepless nights, planning Henry’s funeral and days just passing us by, all blurring into one as I questioned what this meant for the rest of our lives.
Well that wasn’t how I had thought this would turn out.
Planning your child’s funeral, what an overwhelming, overpowering task that is. I imagine it is utterly incomprehensible unless you’ve done it. I grew up in a military family, spent ten years at boarding school, and served a number of years in the Territorial Army, so my natural instinct from these formative experiences was to break this mammoth challenge down into manageable pieces.
The hospital would fund the funeral, we were told. Just meet with a member of their general office staff to get it all sorted. So I went up to the hospital and met with a lovely lady from their general office called Jackie. I still see her from time to time now when I go up to the hospital, we always stop for a quick chat. I’ve written in previous posts about the immense challenge for midwives and maternity professionals when dealing with bereaved parents. I think this is magnified for these ladies like Jackie who aren’t coming from a clinical background. One minute she’s dealing with queries about the car park and then she’s talking to a guy whose baby has just died about a funeral.
A bit like the post-mortem, this process is lots of forms. Basically, sign here and the hospital will arrange everything, you just turn up on the day. That wasn’t really going to work for me, I’m a control freak at the best of times. The idea of having no input at all into the only thing we could ever do for our son didn’t sit right with me. Jackie wasn’t sure about how that would work in practice.
Were we happy with a white coffin? “White painted wood?”, I queried? Yes. No absolutely not – this just conjured up images of a white picket fence.
Could we just have a normal wooden one? Maybe, but they’d have to order it specially, so we might have to pay. Fine, no problem, I don’t want a cheap-looking white painted coffin.
The saga of the white coffin went back and forth for a couple of weeks. Poor Jackie was in an impossible position, having to handle me compassionately while I was both shellshocked and at my most stubborn – a difficult combination. She did her very best.
Eventually my inner control freak took over and I went to the funeral home and met with Nicola, who’d soon find a place onto that list. I explained to her my concerns about the prospect of a white painted coffin. “No no no,” said Nicola,” it’s not like that at all. It’s padded and quilted. Here’s a sample of what it looks like.” It. Was. Perfect.
Jackie looked confused when I went back to the hospital and said the white one would be fine after all. Nicola later arranged for a sample like she’d shown me to be sent up to the hospital so they’d have it to show parents to avoid the same misunderstanding in the future. It was a great example of how Nicola always goes above and beyond. I’m absolutely thrilled that she’s been shortlisted in the Best Bereavement Worker category at the 2017 Butterfly Awards, it’s no less than she deserves. She’ll always hold a special place in our hearts. And yes, on the list.
After that, I mostly just liaised directly with Nicola. This wasn’t to say I didn’t appreciate the care that Jackie had provided (I did), it just seemed logical to me to deal directly with the funeral director. At first we couldn’t plan a date, because we didn’t know how long it would take for Henry to come back from Newcastle, where he’d gone for his post-mortem. I think it took about two, maybe two and a half weeks. In the meantime, I could arrange most of the other aspects apart from the date.
Henry had three godparents, my best mates Terree and Robin (who’d be best man and usher 1 at our wedding a couple of years later), and Briony’s great friend Estelle. They’d never get the chance to do ‘proper’ godparent stuff for Henry, so we asked them all to take on roles at the funeral. They all agreed without hesitation.
We were going to need orders of service, so I went and asked our friend Lindsey who we’d both worked with. Lindsey was an expert in marketing literature, she’d know who we could go to for this. She helped me with the design, got it all just how I wanted – I must have driven her mad with the number of times I asked to tweak this or change that. She produced an absolutely stunning touch, underlaying the photo of Henry’s hands holding his bear into the background. She arranged the printers. I’d told her I didn’t care how much they cost. When the printers gave her a price, she took them to task in a way that only Linds can, and they didn’t charge us a penny. Lindsey, welcome to the list.
Should you have music at your child’s funeral? What music should you have? We chose Nimrod by Elgar to come into the chapel, and Be Still by The Killers at the end of the service. Most of you will probably be familiar with Nimrod, but maybe not heard Be Still. I stumbled across it at the end of a Greatest Hits album. It’s not the sort of song you’d normally associate with The Killers, but I think it’s the single most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.
Once Henry was back from his post-mortem, we could sort a date. Henry’s godfather Robin is a surgeon, so he’s the one who would have the least flexibility for attending. So we decided on Wednesday June 4th, Wednesday being his private practice day so the one that would be easiest to cancel. Briony’s sister Claire went mad – “You can’t hold it on 4th June, that’s Lottie’s (our niece) birthday! It’ll ruin her birthday for ever!” We held firm. This was the one thing that we could do for our son, give him a good send off, and it was all about him, no-one else. Of course, as the years have gone by it’s had no effect on Lottie’s birthday. I think Briony and I are the only ones who still make the connection between the two things.
In the week before Henry’s funeral, I reached out to the group at Our Angels for the first time. I looked back through those messages this evening, and I was really struck by the fact that these people I’d never met were straight back to me with love and support. They’d go on to become some of our closest friends in the world.
So 4th June it was. He’d have been thirty-three days old, I was thirty-three years old, and we were saying goodbye to him for ever. Once we had a date I was able to arrange the wake, which we held at Rudding Park, a stunning hotel on the edge of Harrogate, not far at all from the cemetery. They did an absolutely sterling job.
We didn’t want a big ceremony, just the people that mattered. So both our sets of parents, our brothers and sisters – Briony’s other sister Jodie was living all the way over in St. Helena at the time, she came back for the funeral with Henry’s cousin Millie (she was the only child at the funeral), and then Terree, Robin, Estelle, and Amanda of course, Henry’s wonderful midwife.
The last time I’d delivered a eulogy was at my granny’s funeral a few years before. This was a whole new level of challenging. I spent hours scripting something that was actually remarkably short. I think I must have driven Nicola mad, I was back and forth from the funeral home so much, checking, double-checking, and triple-checking every aspect of the organisation for the day. I just wanted it to be perfect. The day before, I went up to see her to give her the USB stick with the music on. She took me down to the cemetery and walked me through the whole route, where the cars would come in, and what the process would be for the ceremony. We checked the music worked on the sound system in the chapel, and then walked down from the chapel to Henry’s final resting place. I wanted every step of the whole thing clear in my mind. Henry’s grave had been dug and was covered with boards. That was a bit of a sucker punch, but importantly I had the whole thing mapped out in my brain now. That really helped me prepare mentally for the next day. Last job was to get some gifts for Terree, Robin, Estelle, Amanda, and Nicola.
So the day of Henry’s funeral arrived. I actually went to the funeral home that morning to say one last goodbye to Henry. Briony couldn’t. I don’t think there was a right or wrong thing to do in that regard, but I was glad I’d been. We’d been given the choice of Henry’s hearse coming to the house for us to follow or to meet it at the cemetery. Briony wanted him to go straight to the cemetery, so that’s what we did. Everyone assembled at our house and we went in convoy to the cemetery. We met the hospital chaplain, Reverend Grebby, and Nicola there. Shortly afterwards, the hearse pulled in through the gates and came down the hill towards us.
It’s one of those moments I really can’t put into words, seeing your son’s tiny coffin in the back of a small hearse. Coffins are not meant to be that small. Lives are meant to be lived to the fullest, not cut off right at the start. I’d asked Terree and Robin to carry Henry’s coffin into and out of the chapel respectively. Neither batted an eyelid. It was the toughest thing I could have asked these two great friends, and I’ll be forever grateful for their support both that day and every day since. We asked Estelle to read the poem These Tiny Footprints. That way we’d involved each of Henry’s three godparents.
So Terree had carried Henry’s coffin in, Estelle had read the poem brilliantly, I’d muddled through a eulogy, and Robin carried Henry’s coffin back out of the chapel, where I took it from him. I wanted to carry him myself for his last journey to his resting place. So we all moved down from the chapel to the grave. It’s about a minute or two’s walk. I laid his tiny white coffin down on two ribbons that Nicola and her team had laid out next to his grave and they threaded the ribbons through the handles. I’d asked my dad and Briony’s dad to lower Henry’s coffin, I wanted them to have a part to play in the ceremony too. Again, they both agreed without hesitation.
Nicola had a big basket of rose petals so everyone could throw a handful in, starting with Briony and myself. It was the little touches like that which showed me what a wonderful person she is. She’d made sure the ceremony went seamlessly and we couldn’t have asked for anything more from her. Then everyone slowly moved away and for a few moments it was just the two of us left there. Then we too had to turn our backs and walk away. Stonefall Cemetery is a fantastically maintained and incredibly beautiful cemetery though, I think having a Commonwealth War Graves section helps keep the standards high. The section where Henry is buried is so peaceful, we go back often and sit with him, for hours sometimes.
The wake at Rudding Park was a quiet affair. At “normal” wakes everyone can catch up with old friends or long-lost relatives and share stories about the deceased. This wasn’t that. Just a few sandwiches, and some bottles of spirits and bunches of flowers for those that had done so much for us that day.
And then, suddenly, we were at home, just the two of us. We were emotionally spent but actually sat in the conservatory that evening I think we both felt calm. There’d be more storms on the horizon. There’d be good days and terrible days, and everything in between – two steps forward, one step back. The journey of baby loss is not a straight line progression.
Right there in that moment though, we were calm and felt at peace. There was a sense of writing the last line of one of the early chapters of this book. We’d given our son a good send off. Tomorrow we’d start the next chapter, but for tonight that was enough.
Tomorrow’s another day…