So, two days after Henry’s funeral, I was back at work. I’m lucky, I work in the healthcare industry – it’s packed full of people who care, people who have compassion. So every customer I went to see, every hospital I got to, I was surrounded by love and support – and a special shout out to all of you reading this from Wrightington and Royal Oldham in particular.
But grief doesn’t stop once the funeral is over. Baby loss is a lifelong journey of processing what you don’t have, a lifelong voyage of things that only other people get to experience. In Blissfully Unaware, I talked about all the things that losing your baby rips away from you:
You see, losing a baby doesn’t just take away the child you’d hoped excitedly for, the child you’d smiled at as he kicked your head away from your wife’s tummy.
It takes away every birthday, every Christmas, first words, first steps. The first smile, even knowing your child’s eye colour.
It takes away the first night they slept through (I’d give anything for a sleepless night because of our baby crying, wouldn’t bother me in the slightest).
It takes away the first tooth coming out, first day at school. First game of rugby – Henry would definitely have been a scrum-half.
First day of exam stress, first girlfriend, first break-up. Driving tests and university graduations. First jobs, first homes, even first grandchildren.
Losing your baby takes away every. single. hope. you ever had.
Once you lose that innocence, there’s no way of ever getting it back.
And your journey of grief continues even as everyone else dusts themselves off and steadily goes back to normal. One of the biggest fears of many bereaved parents is that their child will be forgotten. That’s why, contrary to most people’s perception, we love to talk about them, and we love to hear or say their name – because talking about them means they were REAL.
We will never forget them, but hearing you speak our babies’ names means you haven’t forgotten them either. That means so much to a bereaved mum or dad.
While we’re on that, please don’t forget the dads. I lost count of the number of times in those first months, in that first year, that people asked me “how’s Briony doing?” – and rightly so. But I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anyone (apart from other bereaved parents) asked me how I was doing. Dads often grieve differently – society in this country creates this macho world view that blokes have to be strong, to support their partner. The link between mother and baby is obvious, sometimes the link between bereaved father and child is less clear. Fathers didn’t carry the child. They didn’t suffer morning sickness or backaches. The physical bonds are not the same, so people assume the bonds aren’t as strong.
But those dads weren’t ready for this either. They had their hopes and dreams as well. They might be being strong on the outside, but they’re damn sure falling apart on the inside. So whether you’re a medical professional or just a friend supporting a family through this, please remember the fathers too. It’s ever so easy to overlook them.
And yet, life does go back to normal. People stop calling to see how you are. People text less. People become involved in their own lives again – as they should, of course.
Parents I’ve met on this journey talk about two separate lives – before you lost your child, and after. Life does go back to normal, but it will forever be a new kind of normal – and the phrase “the new normal” is one I’ve heard countless times in the three years since Henry died.
So this was our “new normal” in 2014:
Briony’s frame came off.
I threw myself into work, using it as a distraction like a typical bloke, breaking all my company’s annual sales records in the process. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you’re using work as a way to avoid dealing with your grief.
And we met the most kind-hearted and inspirational group of people you could ever wish NOT to meet. But boy, am I glad we met them.
The first Our Angels meeting we went to was in the first week of July. The June meeting was on the day of Henry’s funeral. Briony did not want to go – and I think a lot of people have the perception ‘why would anyone want to go to one of those groups, it’ll just be a load of women sat around crying about their dead babies’.
I wanted to go though, I wanted to feel like we were not the only ones on this road – and I wanted to hear that people get through it, that they survive. That people make it to the next day, and the next, and the sun keeps coming up.
“Well I’m going to my weigh-in, you go, and if it’s not totally horrendous, text me and I’ll come down.”
So I went, and it wasn’t totally horrendous. It was the opposite. I’ve never felt so overwhelmed by love and support from complete strangers in my life. These wonderful people took us under their wing (I texted Bri, she came down) and made sure we felt part of a community – “the club no-one wants to be a part of” – and not isolated any more.
Somehow, by the time we left that evening, I’d agreed to take on the task of getting Our Angels their Registered Charity status, and so this next chapter of our baby loss journey began.
In the autumn we attended our first Our Angels balloon release, a bittersweet and poignant day that has become a key date in our calendar now. Sending a balloon up to your son instead of having him next to you is painful, but at this event you can feel the love of this whole community of bereaved parents sweep you up and carry you along. I wouldn’t miss it for the world now.
And we noticed that Henry was buried under a pine tree – indeed that the whole baby section at Stonefall Cemetery (tragic though it is that there’s a need for a baby section) is backed by pine trees. So pine cones quickly became our symbol for Henry. We started taking and leaving pine cones everywhere. Little boys love pine cones, right?
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last few days, how I can express this feeling of the world carrying on regardless, not pausing to acknowledge your grief. I started trying to describe it a few times.
Then I remembered that I wrote an essay for my GCSE English shortly after original Henry, my best friend, had been tragically killed in a car accident.
We were given a selection of titles to choose from. ‘Loss’ was one. ‘A hard lesson’ was another. I combined the two and wrote a piece which I dug out the other day as I was trying to put this concept of grieving while the world carries on into words. When I re-read it, I realised I don’t think I could do a better job aged 37 than I did aged 14, so I’ll just share that with you instead:
Loss – A hard lesson
“Something bad’s happened, hasn’t it?” I asked. I could tell from the look on her face.
“Yes, but it’s not Granny or Gamp,” came the reply. My heart rate was increasing very fast.
“I don’t want to know who it isn’t,” I said. Then my father came into view.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said, interrupting him, “just tell me what’s happened”.
“It’s Henry,” my father said. My heart missed a beat.
“Yes. I’m sorry.” I was staring blankly in front of me, out of the window. I saw people getting on the bus at the bus stop opposite The Green.
“How?” I blurted out, still staring at the travellers. One was wearing a tartan jacket. Hen has one of those, I thought suddenly. A voice – my father’s voice – snapped me back into reality, and brought my mind back into the room.
“Yesterday afternoon; he was going back to his house from games; he got hit by a car. He was effectively killed instantly. His dad switched his life support machine off early this morning.”
I simply continued staring straight out of the window. I didn’t know what to say – had nothing to say – didn’t feel the need to, or want to, say anything. What was there to say?
“Would you like some tea?” said my housemaster’s wife, poking her head round the door.
“Chris?” my mother said, as she ferried the question on in my direction.
“Yes please” I said, without shifting my gaze from the scene outside the window. Mrs. Cleaver left.
All of a sudden, I burst into tears. My mother tried to embrace me and rest my head on her shoulder, but I pulled away and put my head in my hands.
“He was my best friend.” I stammered. “How can this happen?”
“Why? Why my best friend?” I shouted. “Why not someone I’ve never even heard of?”
My housemaster knocked and brought some tea in. He tried his best to look sympathetic, and tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t.
“Thanks”, my father said. “Okay then”, he replied as he left the room.
Outside the window, people still walked down the street, cars still flew past, children still laughed as they skipped along the pavement.
No-one stopped. Not for a second. They just carried on. People’s lives didn’t alter as a result of what had happened. They just carried on. I wanted to wind the clock back and start the week again. Life, however, continued. Time didn’t wait for my best friend.
I sipped the tea, but it burnt my mouth, so I left it to cool for a time. There it was again – ‘time’, carrying on unhurriedly.
“Do you want to come home with us?”, my father asked, breaking the silence.
We were just three days away from half-term. ‘An easy way out,’ my brain said. ‘Three extra days half-term.’
‘No,’ my heart said. ‘Stay, face up to it. It’s happened. Sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t help matters. No changing what’s happened. Stay here. They’ll rally round you.’
I thought in silence for a while.
“So you’ll stay here?”
“Yes, I’ve got to get on with it,” I said, sipping the now-cooled tea. Outside, a car flew up to the junction and straight out. It didn’t stop. It’s people like that, I thought.
“England won the rugby then?”, my father asked, in the knowledge that I had been watching.
“Yes.” England’s rugby match had carried on too. I’d watched it, thinking that Hen would have been watching it too – unless he’d been playing hockey.
Outside, another bus was pulling up. Again, people got off, people got on. My eyes began to water once more.
“Baywatch is on in ten minutes,” I said, trying to force a smile. I couldn’t. ITV didn’t stop either.
“Well, we’d better start leaving anyway,” my mother said, “we’ve a long journey back. Are you sure you want to stay at school?”
Another knock at the door. My housemaster came in.
“We’re going to be on our way soon,” my father said.
“No hurry,” Mr. Cleaver replied. “Is Chris going with you?”
“No, he’s decided to stay here.”
As I got up to leave the room, I looked back.
Another bus pulled up to the bus stop…