So after an unfortunate Saturday morning working in Blackpool (any Saturday mornings working are unfortunate, nothing against Blackpool!), it turned out that my sister-in-law Jodie and my wonderful niece Millie (not that Jodie’s not wonderful too, of course) were also in Blackpool on a weekend trip. So I took the opportunity to go and hang out with them for a bit on the famous Blackpool promenade.
Here’s some background – Briony and I have four nieces and a nephew: Lily (aged 11), Lottie (aged 9), Chloe (aged 9), Felix (aged 6), and Millie (who’s four, and is just over a year older than Henry). Millie is a sweetheart but time with her, whilst incredibly enjoyable, is often bittersweet as she and Henry would definitely have been besties if he was here.
So we went for chips from a van and then we went hunting for 99s (with flake of course!), found some dodgy tat shops (Blackpool promenade, obviously…).
Armed with our ice creams, we headed for the beach for the standard uncle-and-favourite-niece-with-ice-cream-in-Blackpool selfie:
Then we concentrated on making sandcastles and ‘pudding pies’ (I still don’t really understand what those are, except to say they are NOT sandcastles and involve sand and water, in very specific measures, in a bucket).
After we’d made a few sandcastles, we decided to write Millie’s name in the sand. Once we’d done that, I asked her if she wanted to write any other names. “Ida Stevens”, she said, “that’s my name, Millie Ida Stevens”. So then we agreed that we were only writing first names.
“Whose name do you want to write?”
“Cousin Henry, he’s my favourite.”
I am not ashamed to say I stood on Blackpool beach with tears running down my cheeks. If Henry had lived, I have absolutely no doubt that he and Millie would have been as thick as thieves.
So to know that Millie thinks of Henry and loves him means the absolute world. Bereaved parents struggle as time passes after their baby dies with the realisation that people forget, people move on, and people expect them to “get over it”. People stop talking about your baby. People think you should stop talking about your baby. People think that there’s a defined period for grieving.
What people don’t realise is that this grieving is lifelong. You won’t get past your child’s first birthday and then suddenly be “back in the game”. Every time a milestone arrives, it will stick in your gut. Every time one of your friends with a baby of similar age posts about a tooth coming out, a first day at nursery, first day in ‘big boy’ beds, it will cue a sharp intake of breath and the need to take a moment.
I talked in But the world keeps turning about how in 2014 I threw myself into work and used it as a distraction, with extremely successful results.
What I discovered at the start of 2015, as time passed and I became less busy, was that I had more time with my thoughts. I struggled. It all caught up with me. In the latter half of 2014, I pushed through my grief by burying myself in work.
In early 2015, it hit me. I really began to struggle. I talked in The days that followed about how rugby pitches and operating theatres became my two ‘safe zones’ where I could leave my struggles and my emotions at the door, but I started to struggle with basic tasks. Every time I sat down in front of a spreadsheet or to do a DVD review of a rugby match I’d refereed, my head just became mush. I do a lot of driving for work too – it can be a lonely existence – and I found myself driving along (usually on the M62, which is a depressing drive at the best of times) questioning the point of it all.
I even asked myself on occasion whether there was any point to carrying on, or whether I’d be better off just throwing the steering wheel into a hard lock. It’s taken me three years to be able to say openly (to write it here) that I found myself, from time to time, feeling suicidal after Henry died. It’s a strange thing – when you leave hospital after your baby is stillborn, there’s virtually no follow-up.
A six week follow-up appointment, “this is why your baby died” (I’ll do a blog about that soon), but in terms of proper assessment of your mental health, there’s nothing. There’s less follow-up of a mother’s mental health after her baby has been stillborn than there is after her baby has been born alive and well with no complications. Go figure… And as for fathers and their mental health provision…what provision?
So in early 2015, I plucked up the courage to tell a few people that I was struggling. That, in itself, was a big thing for me. Blokes don’t like showing weakness or admitting that they’re not always on top of their game. So even saying it was a big deal.
People’s responses weren’t quite what I had hoped for. These were things we had heard in the early stages, and continued to hear both before and after I’d summoned up the strength to seek help. Language is SO important, not just for professionals supporting parents, but also for everyone else around them:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Be thankful for…”
“Just give it time…time is a great healer.”
“At least… [insert any piece of marginal positivity you care to insert here]”
Even my own mother, about ten months after Henry died, came out with “there comes a point where you have to get over it and move on”. I love my mother VERY much, but she can excel herself sometimes…
I have to “get over” my son’s death? What’s the timescale for that? We haven’t even reached his first birthday, and you’ve told me to get my shit together and forget about it?
I’m two and a half years further down the road of this journey of grief now, and I can safely say that this is 100% NOT true. You never “get over” the stillbirth or death of your child. You never “move on” from holding your dead child in your arms. You learn to deal with it, yes. You learn how to handle your ‘new normal’, yes. But you never “get over” it, and you never “move on”.
Of course these exchanges left me utterly devoid of any confidence to talk about my mental health in the two and a half years hence. Why would I, when it is abundantly clear that I will not get the help and support I need? So I’ve plodded along, rolling with the punches, dealing with the good days and the bad days as they’ve come. Have these comments set me back? Absolutely. Has the still-existing lack of understanding from wider society contributed to that too? Yes, without doubt.
Bereaved parents hear so many of these things that people think are going to help them. I have no doubt that my mum sincerely believed that telling me to “get over it and move on” was what I needed to hear. It’s just a simple fact that she was completely wrong.
What people fail to understand (and I’m delighted that they don’t understand it), is that we don’t get to see our son grow up. We don’t get to put 50p under the pillow as the tooth fairy (is it more nowadays? We live in Harrogate, so probably). We don’t get to spam you all on Facebook with Henry’s first game of rugby or his first day at school (like so many people have done in the last few weeks – every single one of those pictures of a young lad in uniform seven sizes too big because he gets to ‘grow into it’ is an unwitting knife through the heart).
I have forever lodged in my brain the trip to the funeral home that I took on the morning of Henry’s funeral, to say one last goodbye. I will never be able to rationalise the fact that I had to kiss my son, turn around, and walk away in the knowledge that I would never see him again. In that moment, time stood still. I just wanted that last cuddle to last forever.
Bereaved parents hear all sorts of these things that are designed to make them feel better, but end up making them feel a million times worse:
“You don’t need counselling, you just need to get pregnant again.” (GP)
“I know how you feel, my dog’s just died.” (Community Midwife)
And at one point, my mother even excelled herself again with the immortal line “I am NOT a grandmother yet, thank you VERY much.”
With the possible exception of the last one, all the comments I’ve mentioned in this post come with the best of intentions and a desire to put a positive spin on a situation. I think this is human nature. There are some things – and your baby dying is unquestionably one of them – that people simply cannot fluff up and put a positive spin on. And nor should they try.
Bereaved parents do not expect people who have not walked in their shoes to be able to comprehend what they’re going through. In fact, most of the time, we’re incredibly grateful that you have no idea of the journey we’re on – we wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But we do hope for a little bit of understanding, and for people not to trivialise or gloss over what we’re going through.
Another phrase bereaved parents often hear is “you’re so strong, I just couldn’t cope if my baby died, I’d just die.”
This is meant in a positive way, to express how strong people think we are, how well people think we’re doing. What it actually does is invalidate our grief. Wait, you’d just die if you were in my shoes? So why am I still going? What’s wrong with me? Why am I still sticking this out? Is my grief not sufficiently great? Should I be doing more, am I not grieving enough?
The fact is, bereaved parents don’t want your advice about how they should be feeling or what they should be doing. They just want to know that you’re right there alongside them, ready to be joyous with them when they’re having good days and equally that you’re ready to pick them up from the depths of despair when they’re struggling (and they WILL struggle).
Most of the time we’re more than okay talking about our babies. Talking about them validates their existence, makes them REAL, allows us to make sure the world doesn’t forget that they were here, albeit fleetingly. You’re not making us sad by mentioning their name – news flash, we’re already sad – you’re making us happy that you remember them too. This is why I love these photos of pine cones that people post to my Facebook wall all the time now. It means people are thinking of our son, and THAT means everything.
And if you’re at the other end of that spectrum and you can’t handle us talking about our children or sharing images of them, then you’ll probably find that we’ll get rid of you. If we can live without our children, we can certainly live without you.
So it occurred to me today, as I stood on the beach in Blackpool with my four year old niece looking at her name and Henry’s written in the sand, that she was showing a wisdom way beyond her years. She was showing an understanding that actually she wants to talk about Henry and that we do too (even if it upsets us sometimes, or occasionally catches us unawares coming from a four year old).
Millie was telling us that, you know what, there shouldn’t be any hesitation for people in talking about our babies. Say their names. Acknowledge their existence. THEY WERE REAL. Don’t tiptoe around us. Discuss it with us. Ask us how we want to engage the topic of these precious children that we have in our hearts, not in our arms.
So today I learnt a lesson from my four year old niece. People don’t have to feel like they need to avoid talking about Henry. It’s a lesson that I wish my four year old niece could have taught my mum, and lots of other people along the way.
Say their name. You’re not reminding us that they died. We haven’t forgotten. You’re acknowledging that they lived. And that means everything to us.
I originally published this blog a few weeks ago and then removed it and have made a few changes for legal reasons. I am reposting it now and the vast majority of the content and the principles behind it remain unchanged.