I feel extremely privileged that since I began writing about losing Teddy, and the life that we have found ourselves in since that day, that people now write to me to share their experiences of loss. Hearing that others have found comfort in my words after losing a child or have been able to make sense of their own feelings during loss, makes me realise how essential it is for us all to try and talk about this subject as openly as possible. It makes people feel less alone, and that can only be a good thing.
Some of the questions I find I am asked most frequently in emails and Instagram messages, come from the friends or family members of someone who has very recently lost a child. Questions like “How can I help?” or “What is the best thing to say?” . They often write things like “I want to be there for her, but I am worried I will upset her even further.”
I often wonder if these were the questions that my friends were asking themselves when Teddy died, and how the hell did they know the answer? Was it led by us; what we said or perhaps didn’t say? Or did they find themselves entirely in the dark, being led by each other and just wondering each time they spoke or contacted me that it might be the wrong thing, or indeed the wrong time? It is such a minefield, and not one I would wish for anyone to have to navigate through. It’s also one that I am unsure I have the answers to, even as someone who has lost my son.
The more I have reflected on these questions, and on many occasions tried to answer them as best I could; the more I find myself offering non-committal answers to people, such as “It’s so difficult to know as we are all so different” and “What worked for me might not be the right thing for your friend?”. I worry that I will give the wrong piece of advice, that I’ll set someone off on a mission of good intention only for it to be entirely misunderstood by the grieving parent and it will all be my fault. After all, I am not a professional in any capacity, I am just another mother on this road (this bloody, buggery, bastard road. Phew, that feels better!).
When I think about how people expect us to be or to react as a grieving parent, it always draws my mind back to our first (and might I add, last) meeting with a bereavement midwife. It went a little like this….
It was just six days after Teddy had passed away; it was a day that will stay in my mind for so many reasons. I’m not entirely sure how long shock lasts when you lose a baby; I am sure it must be very different for everyone. Maybe it was because my hormones were settling down; my engorged breasts had finally turned a corner and my milk production was stopping. I think my body was beginning to understand what had happened; in part, at least. I can remember waking up that day; it was the morning that I have spoken about so often in my writing and when speaking to people; the day I realised that life went on. As I lay in bed, I watched as the light crept through the shutters on the window; a window that had been open overnight, and so I could hear the footsteps of people on their way to the train station; commuters and school children leaving for the day ahead. That was the moment that I realised it; life just goes on. Whether I wanted it to or not, and whether I liked it or not; it was bloody well going to happen, whether I chose to partake or to remain forever in the safety and security of my home in my dressing gown (some days I do still feel like just going back to that!). With that, I got up and I showered. I put on some clothes that fitted (those were few and far between I can tell you) and I put on my make-up. I looked in the mirror and I saw “me”. Yes, she looked tired and a little (OK, a lot) fatter than usual; but it was still me, I was still in there somewhere. When the midwife arrived, I greeted her at the door with a smile and asked her if I could get her a cup of tea. I think she thought I was totally mental at this point ; as though she should be getting straight on the phone to the hospital and saying to her colleague “Yep, Jane, we’ve got a real problem here. This one isn’t even crying and she’s dressed. I think she might have even washed her hair? We’ve got a code red.”
My husband and I sat with her for around an hour, and in that time I quickly realised that speaking with her about Teddy wasn’t going to be incredibly useful for me. For starters, she hadn’t even bothered to learn Teddy’s name before her arrival; to her he was just a nameless, faceless baby who had never made it home. I can remember thinking “YOU HAD ONE JOB!” My notes were the size of an ancient tablet by this point as they combined Teddy’s notes from the NICU. I just thought she could have at least given them a flick though to find out his name before she stepped into our home and proceeded to try and counsel us. I went out of my way to show her photographs of him; to show her who he was. I don’t think she liked my style, and to be brutally honest I wasn’t the biggest fan of hers. She wanted me to sit and sob; but I had done that for six days, I wasn’t just going to sit and turn on the waterworks for her benefit. If she was here to talk to me about our son and what had happened to him, then that was what I was going to do. She kept pausing at extremely forced moments (it was a little like talking to a human bereavement textbook); I can only assume these were appropriate moments in which we were supposed to use the time to grieve and/or reflect on just how shit our situation was right now. I told her I had an idea for fundraising as I wanted to help the hospital, her response was “Are you sure you are ready?” I think it was the moment that my husband (usually the most easy-going man I know) said “Right, are we done here then?” that I knew he was as uncomfortable in her company as I was. She offered to see us again for a return visit, we politely declined. I can’t say that the hospital didn’t try to help us, they truly did; she just wasn’t the right person for us on that day and I felt as though she should have been more sensitive to how we were grieving for our son. Instead she tried to force textbook rules of grieving upon us that had no relevance to how we were feeling on that day. After all we are all different, and we aren’t textbooks, we are humans; and we are all so different.
It’s always this event that I look back on when people in need of advice ask me questions of what/ how/ when? As much as I want to help them (believe me, I really, really want to try and help anyone who has lost their child); who am I to know what is going on in that person’s mind, or at what stage they are in their shock and grief? I have instead begun to offer a new kind of “advice” when those questions are put to me; instead of saying what to say or do (or perhaps to not say or do); I simply tell them what did work for me. I tell them what helped us in those first weeks and months. I recall the things people did and said that made me feel human again. Our friends did so much for us in our hour of need; leaving hampers on our doorstep, collecting money so they could treat us to a night-away, leaving us alone when we needed it, and equally being there when we needed them. It was as much a rollercoaster for them in many ways as it was for us; no one knew what they were doing, it was uncharted territory. They did it brilliantly though; bloody brilliantly, and I feel very lucky indeed that we have such wonderful friends and family around us.
The more I reflect on all of this; the more I realise that it absolutely is a privilege to be able to (try and) help others now we are a little further on in our journey (yes still hate that turn of phrase) of life after loss. If this process of grieving for Teddy has taught me anything, it is that we are all so very different; and that is OK.