Sometimes lollipop men get on my nerves. I drive a lot with work and often find myself sat waiting while a lollipop man (or woman…are they called Lollipop People now?) stops traffic for one mum and child when they’re still a hundred yards away. It particularly gets on my nerves when lollipop men stop traffic for adults who are on their own with no associated children – they’re grown-ups, they can cross the road by themselves.
Recently I was in Blackpool, and as per usual for about 0830 I was sat in a line of traffic while a man with a big fluorescent coat and sign up was up ahead, busily stopping us all dead in our tracks. In fairness, this particular lollipop man was shepherding a steady stream of mums, prams, and small children with oversized winter coats and backpacks bigger than them across the road.
And then I noticed something I’d not seen before. As each of these tiny tots (estimated age 5) were walking past the lollipop man (estimated age 65) they were, one by one, high-fiving him and then skipping off on their way.
And out of nowhere, for the first time in ages, I was broken. I don’t even LIKE lollipop men, for god’s sake. Yet this scene unfolding in front of me, which had initially made me smile in an amused manner, now crushed me as it hit me – Henry won’t ever get to high-five a lollipop man. He’d have to be with his mum of course, no way would I entertain that sort of behaviour. But it’ll never happen anyway…
I’ve always had a list in my mind of “things we’ll miss out on with Henry” – Christmases, birthdays, first day at school, first tooth falling out, exam results, driving tests, graduations, girlfriends, rugby matches. But it’s always been things that are, sort of, specific or unique, not daily occurrences. Here was something which wasn’t a specific ‘life event’, and it caught me completely on the hop.
Trigger events are a big thing for bereaved parents. Some are obvious, loom into view weeks in advance, and can (to some extent) be mentally prepared for – Mother’s Day, for instance, which the commercial world is starting to tell us is just a fortnight away. Others just sneak up on you when you least expect them and punch you square in the face, flooring you temporarily, even a few years down the line. This was certainly the latter. Triggers aren’t unique to parents of stillborns. They happen if your child was weeks, months, or even years old.
In actual fact, triggers aren’t unique to parents who’ve lost children, this isn’t just our ‘thing’. Everyone who’s experienced grief can have triggers, no denying that. I think the subtle difference between a trigger event relating to the death of a parent or grandparent, for instance, and the death of your baby is this – the former often triggers you based on experiences you had or shared, the latter triggers you based on things you never got the chance to have – it’s the difference between things that trigger memories, and things that trigger unfulfilled dreams.
Even with some of the former group, unexpected SPIN OFFS can catch you unawares. I know for instance, that I get triggered by the day that all the schools go back in September each year, the start of the new school year. It’s a very real reminder of one of those life milestones that we won’t get to have with Henry. But every year, the bit that I’m expecting to get me is the fact that it’s a particular day in the calendar – and every day, it’s the visual representations of that day that actually get me. The hijacking of your Facebook news feed by proud parents posting photos of kids in uniforms deliberately bought big so their children can ‘grow into them’ (even that phrase is a sucker punch). I don’t begrudge parents this moment, not by any means, but man it stings. I love that people get that moment, and love that they share it, but boy am I jealous.
I don’t have a photo of Henry in a school uniform to share with you, so here’s a photo of me and my oldest friend Jenny in our first school uniforms instead. She’s four hours older than me and has always been taller than me.
After Henry died in 2014, my first real trigger (apart from the inevitable emotional challenges of the early stages of grief) was Father’s Day. In Fathers’ Day when your son isn’t here, I talked about the constant reminders that commercialism gives you on this journey. Briony’s birthday was less than two weeks after Henry’s, so I don’t think it hit that hard as a trigger because she was still so numb with grief (we both were). Fathers’ Day was six weeks after Henry died, so I was just starting to dip my toe back into the water of the world around us, and it floored me.
The big one in 2014 was Christmas. We had Christmas outfits ready to go, as part of our Buying Very Important Things mission that we’d been on while Briony was pregnant. Here’s a photo I took tonight: nearly 4 years later and the tags are still on. Triggered again…
There’s no escaping Christmas – it powers into your consciousness, and onto your television screens, and into your newspapers and magazines, and everywhere you look from about September onwards. And the message is very clear: Christmas Is About The Kids.
Spoil your kids.
Buy them stuff.
Celebrate the joy they bring you.
Enjoy how happy your family is and how wonderful life is.
When you’re navigating life without your only child, Christmas is like being hit with a sledgehammer. Over. And over. Again.
In fairness, I listen to bereaved parents with other living children talk about Christmas, and part of me thinks that’s even harder. Constantly having to put a front on and trying to make Christmas special for your living children, while inside you just want to curl up into a ball. That’s tough too – at least I get the impression it is. Obviously we can’t reference that in our own experiences.
So we went to my parents’ for Christmas. I have two brothers, and neither of them have kids. Briony has two sisters and a brother, who between them bestow on us four nieces and a nephew. So we decided that Christmas 2014 would be a child-free zone for us. We went to visit Henry’s grave on Christmas morning and then set off on a 6 ½ hour drive to Devon. In doing so, we put ourselves back into a little bubble again for a few days, to let this latest storm blow over.
We opted out of Christmas with nephews and nieces and wrapping paper and chocolate and tantrums and toys.
We chose instead Christmas with grown-ups only. And wine. LOTS of wine. And the most important thing we did over Christmas 2014 was SURVIVE. We came out the other side, we did the things we needed to do, we avoided the things we needed to avoid, and we got through it. At many stages of this journey, sometimes just getting through a particular day, week, event or trigger is enough.
New Year was the second part of this festive double-whammy. It’s a real double-edged sword, the first New Year after your loss.
Part of you never wants to leave that year. Because leaving the year you said both hello and goodbye to your child feels like you’re leaving them again. Part of you wants to stay in that year for ever – because that’s THEIR year. 2015 means you’re not in the same year as 2014, which means symbolically you’re one stage further removed from their existence. And more than that, you feel like the world is one step closer to forgetting about them.
But then part of you (well, for us at least, having lost back in May) wants to embrace the new year as a chance for a fresh start on your journey to a new normal. “2015 will be a better year…”, we told ourselves, “…time for a change in fortune”. We’d been trying for another baby, but without success.
We’d been leaning on our wonderfully supportive GP, Dr. Maw, to push for us to be referred to an IVF specialist on the NHS, backed up by an emotive plea from our superb obstetrician, Dr. Kat Johnson. But Briony wasn’t falling pregnant – despite potions and tablets and vitamins and acupuncture and goodness knows what else – and the referral didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Still, 2015 would be a better year. It had to be, right?
So if you’re someone not walking this path, but you know someone who is, know this about triggers. These triggers can hit AT ANY TIME, often without warning. Some you can anticipate as a friend, family member, or colleague – remember important dates like their child’s birthday; recognise the joy you feel celebrating Christmas with your children but don’t forget that they’re not; imagine Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day without getting a gift and a card from your little one. Update 1/3/18: World Book Day has landed and knocked me off my feet again today. Kids dressed as atlases, Spiderman, you name it. Our home-made costumes would be awful (with apologies to my wife)!
Don’t respond to them by saying things like “it’s so much harder with a child” – if you do, you ARE the trigger.
- Don’t, on hearing that their child has died, say something like “I suppose she just wasn’t meant to be”, as someone said to my good friend Steph, Bea’s mum and the founder of the amazing charity Beyond Bea, today. Things like that just add fuel to the fire of grief.
Just be kind.
Some you’ll have no way of predicting – but try to understand when they do strike. If your friend texts unexpectedly and cancels plans, realise that they may have just had the rug pulled from under them completely out of the blue. This doesn’t just happen in the early months or years. Cut them some slack, their world’s not the same world they used to inhabit. Nor will it ever be again.
And if you’re a bereaved parent wrestling with triggers, or other people are struggling to understand why some things or dates or situations are triggering for you – your feelings are valid, your hurt is perfectly normal. Whether it’s a clear and obvious trigger (like Christmas) or an obscure one-off trigger (like an irritatingly upbeat lollipop man), these will happen. And that’s okay. Just stay strong and remember, sometimes it’s okay just to get to the end of the day and then get up the following day and start again.
Courage doesn’t always roar.
‘2015 has to be a better year’ became our mantra as the clock ticked past midnight…but only time would tell.