In some ways the 14 January 2009 feels like it was a lifetime ago now, but when I think back it could be yesterday that I heard the words “I’m very sorry, your baby’s condition isn’t compatible with life.” I was 23 weeks pregnant with my first, much longed for child, and listened in deafening silence as my consultant explained his condition and helped me to understand a medical termination.
The days that followed are a tangled patchwork of memories. Laying in the bath that night and watching my baby move around inside me for the last time; poring over the scan photos and marvelling that that such a perfect little face could be so unwell; the desperate phone calls to family and friends that were filled with tears and pain. My birthday cards that were never opened; trying to find a film for the camera so we could take as many photos as possible. The waiting room, and the searing pain before the morphine took over and dulled everything; my midwife Sally, the bittersweet relief when I finally managed to push Ryan’s body from mine. The devastating pain etched on the faces of my family when they came to see him shortly after he was born; the open window; the curtain blowing and the relentless rain that didn’t stop. The midwife who came to help me when I was stumbling out of bed in the night, and told me how beautiful my baby was. The grey dawn that followed, where I would have to leave him behind; milk streaming down my legs in the shower. The photographs and my childhood teddy that were placed in Ryan’s tiny coffin, and the face of the undertaker carrying him across the churchyard.
In those early days I spent a lot of time looking out at the seemingly endless grey sky. The world continued to turn, but I was rooted to the spot and unable to imagine a life where I would ever be able to move forward from the physical pain that was like a piece of glass deep inside my chest. My little dog, Dudley, was the reason I got out of bed and his biscuity smelling coat soaked up the daily constant stream of tears. Cards and flowers arrived, people visited, I eventually returned to work. On the surface I was functioning, but I felt like I was shattered into a thousand tiny pieces and drifting through each day where the only release from my thoughts was sleep.
I wanted to talk about Ryan, his birth, what he had looked like, how all I wanted was him to be here and, in my arms, a living, breathing, beautiful baby. Eventually those thoughts became too much to carry on my own and I started counselling, which gave me the space to let those thoughts come to the surface. I can remember crying solidly for the first session. Huge, heavy tears that didn’t stop. That space and time was the start of counselling sessions that have continued on and off over the years and helped to slowly put all those tiny pieces back together. Through a charity I was also lucky enough to find a very special friend who lost her son on the same day that I lost Ryan. In those early months we exchanged emails and phone calls, and many years later continue to contact each other at every anniversary. She was a lifeline to me then, and we still share many of the same feelings and thoughts as each year passes.
As Spring started to turn to summer two blue lines appeared again. From the beginning I had an overwhelming sense that things would be different. This time all my care was from the consultant that had been with me through Ryan’s diagnosis and birth. One of the cruellest things about the loss of a baby is that you are robbed of the beautiful innocent excitement you felt when you went for your first scan. In its place is a knot of anxiety that never really lifts until you are holding your baby in your arms. I struggled through each scan, desperate to get past 23 weeks. Ryan’s beautiful brother burst into the world seven weeks ahead of his due date and almost eleven months after Ryan’s birth. Despite the fact that he’s now taller than me, Jake will always be the tiny little rainbow baby that helped to heal my heart.
Almost thirteen years have passed and our life has changed so much in that time. My marriage to Ryan and Jake’s father eventually ended. There were many difficult moments as this happened, and stepping away from the only other person that was there when Ryan was born, and moving away from the village where Ryan is buried were some of them. I have been lucky enough to marry a wonderful man and through that marriage gain four beautiful stepchildren. We both talked about Ryan during our wedding speeches last year. His name was tied to my bouquet and wrapped up in the love we felt that day.
The 17th January this year would have been Ryan’s thirteenth birthday. The sense of what could have been could have been never gets any easier, especially as I watch Jake grow into such an incredible young man. I would do anything to feel Ryan’s hand in mine – soft and pudgy as a toddler and long fingered as young man. I’d love to have the privilege of watching him sleep, play with his cousins and know his grandparents. What would it be like to feel the weight of him in my arms or touch the hair on the nape of his neck? I drink up all these moments with Jake and will forever have a deep sense of gratitude that I am fortunate to experience them with him.
When I imagine my grief now, I always picture the sea. Sometimes it is calm and I’m at peace with what has happened. Sometimes the waves are harder to navigate and it’s not as easy to stay afloat. Sometimes it’s a dark crashing storm that is pulling me under no matter how hard I try to keep my head above the water, and I feel like I’m drowning. I’ve learnt now, that like the sea, you cannot stop your grief and change it. Grief will come like a storm and it will pass like a storm. If you try to change course or bury the grief it will eventually find you. I have learnt that in those times of darkness, when you are slipping underneath the waves of grief, there is always light – my incredible family that always say his name, my wonderful husband who has absorbed Ryan’s beautiful memory into our new family, the friend who asked for a photo of him in the days following his death, the Uncle that always writes both our names in my birthday card, the friend that visits Ryan’s grave when she is out walking. All of these things are the lifelines that keep Ryan’s memory part of our family and still the waves of grief.
The glass in my chest is smoother now and the pieces that shattered when Ryan died have slowly come back together. Time has inevitably moved us all forward, and joy has returned to my life in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I first heard the consultant’s words and Ryan’s diagnosis. In the months that followed his death I read a book about baby loss which ended with the words “It’s a happy life, something is missing. It’s a happy life, someone is missing”. Even though the pieces have come back together, there will always be one missing and I can accept that now and feel peace. In its place is not only grief, but an intense love which is holding all those pieces together. Ryan’s brief life showed me this and I am forever grateful for his gift.