I recently wrote a social media post on the fourth anniversary of Henry’s funeral about how grateful I am to his two godfathers and his godmother for their incredible support in our darkest days, and especially at his funeral where they all took on central roles in the day in the least godparent-like activity you could ever imagine.
In it, I talked about how pretty much every bereaved parent can tell you about the friends who disappeared off the radar after their child died, for whatever reason, but that we can almost all also talk about the friends, some who weren’t even that close friends, who really stepped up, and in doing so are elevated to the pantheon of close friends that parents will keep forever. The analogy I used was that of firefighters running towards a burning building, and I implored anyone reading this who knows someone who loses a baby to be the firefighter, to run towards the burning building of their friend’s life.
Those of you that know me well will know that I really love films and TV shows with important life messages woven into them. The ones where after a titanic struggle, the good guys always come out on top but through the struggle learn more about themselves and become even better than before, that sort of thing. You know the drill…
Recently Briony and I have got really into a new American TV programme called Station 19. It has ALL the criteria to be flagged up as a Show Chris Will Love. It stars Jaina Lee Ortiz as Andie Herrera, a charismatic firefighter who has the career in her DNA. Her dad is the station captain at Station 19, but has been diagnosed with cancer and Andie is locked in a battle with her ex-boyfriend Jack to succeed him. It’s great!
We’ve just finished Episode 5. Andie and Jack, along with many other candidates for captain, have been battling for recognition at an assessment centre as part of the selection process. Jack impresses when it’s his turn to lead the team into the simulator to rescue the casualty and extinguish the fire. When it’s Andie’s turn she makes the right moral decision but in doing so goes against the criteria stipulated by those running the test. (Stay with me…)
At the end of the episode, as it winds up and the credits are getting ready to roll, Andie’s voice is overlaid with a beautiful song in classic TV-drama-wrap-up-episode-style. Her words really struck a chord with me:
“The thing we sometimes forget is – there’s real strength in numbers. We don’t have to go it alone if we don’t want to. There’s value in reaching out. There’s hope in asking for help.
So reach out, open up, be honest.
Trust your team to get you out of that burning building, even if you can’t see the way out yourself. Because one thing’s for sure, you can’t do it alone.”
Losing Henry was the single most isolating experience I’ve ever had. When your child dies, you honestly feel like you’re the only person in the world that this has happened to – because people don’t talk about this. It’s too difficult, so it’s easier to find the biggest carpet society can and just sweep it underneath. We were utterly unaware of the scale of this issue until we found ourselves living it every second of every day.
I said in Blissfully Unaware that if you’d asked me about stillbirth on 29th April 2014, I’d have looked at you like you had three heads. Stillbirth was a thing that happened in the Old Days, or maybe today in sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian subcontinent. It doesn’t happen to white, middle-class families from posh towns like Harrogate.
BUT IT DOES.
The world has 2.6 million stillbirths every year. Just spend one minute now processing that figure…
If you’ve spent a full 60 seconds processing that reality, between the last paragraph and now, another 5 babies around the world have just been born still. By the time the clock hits midnight tonight, another 15 British families will have had their world shattered by the death of their child between 24 weeks’ gestation and 30 days old. Add in early and late miscarriage, termination for medical reasons, and other forms of pregnancy loss, and the scale of this issue starts to hit home. That’s before I even mention neonatal death, SIDS, accidental death, the list goes on and on.
Parents lose friends, family members make obtuse comments, many couples even struggle to process their grief together – a huge proportion of relationships break under the strain of dealing with this loss.
And yet, you discover that you have a team of incredible firefighters around you. People you didn’t know, whose paths would never have crossed yours if it wasn’t for this shared experience. You didn’t know the members of your very own Station 19, but the loyalty and the love that surrounds this team dynamic is a real sight to behold.
Our first exposure to this team was the memory box we received when we were in hospital. In Two days to last a lifetime, I described this box as “the gift to end all gifts”. This is how I described it in that blog:
Getting a memory box means so much on so many levels.
It means you have something tangible with you to help make memories.
It gives you something to take home to validate your child’s existence.
It means you don’t have to walk out of the hospital with nothing in your arms.
And on the deepest level imaginable, it sends you a clear message – “You are not alone”. When this happened I felt like we were entirely on our own, like we were the only people this had happened to.
That box was a real, physical representation that not only had this happened to other people IN OUR TOWN, but that they had survived, they’d got through it, and they’d been able to channel their grief into giving US (people that they hadn’t met) this box to help us at the start of our journey.
These memory boxes are that most tangible recognition of the existence of your child. They mean everything. If our house was on fire, I’d save Briony, our cat Abby, and that box.
Oh and some of you might have been wondering – why TWO teddy bears? One stays in your memory box, one goes with your baby. Henry is buried with one of his two bears, we will forever have the other.
This team will get you out of that burning building even though in that moment you can’t see the way out yourself. And they’ll keep rescuing you every time you need rescuing.
Without even realising it then, you wake up one morning and you discover that you’ve found a new team. An eclectic group of people from all walks of life who’ll keep picking you up and keep putting you back together, as many times as needed, without ever batting an eyelid – because they truly get it, because they’re living it too. Every day.
Without realising it, you’ve found your tribe.
Now I know I can turn to David & Siobhan, Kirsty & Trung, Steph, Heidi, Juliette, Jess, Heidi, Hannah, Catherine, Emma & Martin, Bronagh & Matt, Emma & Martin, Nicole, Natalie, Rachel and many others whenever I need them. I can reach out, any time, day or night, and someone will respond. Because they’re family now.
Yet I know they won’t be offended by my saying that I’d give them all up in a heartbeat if it meant Henry being here. I know that won’t offend them because I know they’d do the same if it meant Grace, Holly, Bea, Aidan, Ben, Leo, Ally, Dexy, Benjamin, Charlie, Jude, Kitty, Ben, Otis or Dorothy being here. But I also know that’s the only (entirely theoretical) situation in which I’d give up knowing any of them. In every other circumstance, if one of them needed me, I’d just get in the car and drive to them, run into a burning building for them if I had to.
Social media has many faults, but one thing I’ve been amazed by, over the last year or two, is how much of a force for good it is for parents following the loss of their child. It’s not perfect, but what it does is it allows parents to (in the words of Andie Herrera) to “reach out, open up, be honest”.
One of the ways that this manifests itself that I love the most is when I see bereaved parents sharing each other’s children’s names and memories. I’m really blessed that many of my friends (and many midwives that I’ve met) who haven’t lost a baby engage with the pine cone thing – pine cones are recognisable I guess, but every so often I’ll get a message with a photo, often from bereaved parents I’ve never even met face to face, with a pine cone or with Henry’s name written in the sand on a beach, or on a leaf, on an elephant-shaped post-it note in an exotic Far East location, or even written in pine cones alongside their own son Henry’s name.
By doing this, this team are constantly helping each other up off the ropes. The fear, for instance, that your child will be forgotten, eases slightly when people keep showing you that they haven’t been. I can’t truly express how much that means to parents. So I know I can open up about this journey because I trust David, Emma, Bronagh, Steph and the rest of my team to get me out of the burning building even if I can’t see the way out myself.
The more of us that do that, the more other parents who find their lives suddenly on fire will gain the strength do get through it too. The more parents will find their tribe.
The more parents will share their own experiences, and in doing so will create ripples like a pebble being dropped in a pond, which will reach yet more parents, help their friends and family understand more and maybe not run for the hills (maybe they even start sharing their names in photos), and so the cycle continues.
Maybe, just maybe, more friends and family will engage and talk openly and freely about their children.
It’s already happening – it’s really important to say that parents have been speaking out for ages, not just because Tommy’s have launched a campaign – but it’s bloody great that a big charity have launched such a campaign, as it just adds extra momentum.
And the campaign is brilliant, but it’s still not inclusive enough. Much more focus still needs to be given to the impact of Baby Loss on fathers, for instance. With the inevitable focus on miscarriage and stillbirth, the campaign may unwittingly exclude others – neonatal death, infant death, ectopic pregnancy, TFMR (Termination for Medical Reasons), the list goes on. And we ALL need to open up and be honest about our experiences.
Because “the thing we sometimes forget is – there’s real strength in numbers. Because one thing’s for sure, you can’t do it alone”.
So if you’re reading this at the start of this journey and your life is on fire, hang on in there but don’t be afraid to reach out too. We’ll get you out.