Blogging is dead then. Thought about proving it. Twitter? Facebook? Silence even? Decided against. Wifey is back in the building.
Explanation: anniversary of first son's stillbirth tomorrow.
1. wind back time. (Difficult)
2. sleep through day. (Impossible. Other children do insist on being fed.)
3. grit teeth and stagger on. (Probable pick.)
November is so not my favorite month. Some years are better than others - this is not a "better" one. This November is wet and sorry for itself, embarassed by its fallen leaves, its damp and gusty corners. So it should be.
Thought I'd run the piece I wrote for Marie Claire. Misery and company and all that. Readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away...
I do not think there is anything worse in the world than the loss of a child. Sometimes I watch my seven-year-old play or smile, count the freckles on his nose, or admire the curve of a cheek. I think: “He’s seven. How did that happen?” Then I think: “He’s seven – that means his brother would have been eight.”
My family looks pretty good from the outside. Handsome husband, two rampaging boys of seven and five and a beautiful girl of two. An attractive package all told – complete, you would think. But we are not complete, entire and whole. I have a lost boy. He is tucked away in my heart, my poor battered, stitched together heart, and I cannot hold him as I do my other children, at least not in the way I hold my other children. I cannot feel his warm, small hand in mine. Instead, I hold him in my heart.
My husband and I were together 10 years before we got married and we were lucky because I fell pregnant within a couple of months of trying. I was 35 and had a good pregnancy - ate organically, quit drinking, took up pregnancy yoga, avoided blue cheese, prawns, liver and bad influences. I bloomed with happiness. The only problem: I could not sleep. Instead, I surfed sleep. One night though, I slept well and late. Almost at the moment of waking, I realised the baby was not moving. I had a hot bath, ate vanilla ice-cream - an instinctive part of me already knew but the rational woman decided: “I must be wrong – such a thing could not happen this day and age to me.”
When we arrived at the maternity unit of Guy’s hospital in London, the midwife took me straight through. The room was dark as she cold-gelled and then swept my pregnant belly for the heartbeat on the ultrasound machine. I waited for the grainy pulse, for the baby to move. In vain. She disappeared to fetch a colleague and my husband gripped my hand. An older woman with a kind face and efficient manner came in. Silent, she watched the screen as she moved the scanner across and over my stomach, pressing it to find a scrap of life. She leant in to me and said: “I’m very sorry to have to tell you…”. When she left us, I sat up awkwardly on the hospital bed and my husband wrapped his arms around me. I remember holding onto him in the darkness and screaming.
When you have a stillbirth, you have to give birth. I had presumed there would be a caesarian section, but the consultant insisted on a vaginal birth because of the risk of bleeding and complications with future pregnancies. They started the induction process, gave me morphine. I thought “There have to be some perks” and 60 hours later, I gave birth to a son. He felt warm and wet and wonderful as I pushed him out; and then I was glad they had refused to section me - labour seemed the least that I could do for him. We washed him with soft cotton wool balls and dressed him in a tiny white new-born’s romper we had brought in with us. We were encouraged to collect mementoes – if you are not taking a baby home with you, keepsakes can be hard to come by. We took inky footprints and endless photographs of a subject that never moved. Our parents arrived and a couple of our closest friends. More would have come, but I was selfish with him – had I been able, would have set a three-headed dog at the gates of our personal hell. He was mine for these few hours, and I was reluctant to share the little I had.
Eventually, those who loved us best went away and the hospital staff disappeared into other dramas, leaving us with our beautiful dead boy and grief. That night, as London slept, I stretched out my hand, resting it against his body, insinuating my little finger and thumb into his cold and tiny clasp. I told him about Christmas and birthdays, jungle animals and Northumberland where we holidayed each year. I told him I loved him. You feel guilt when your baby dies inside - as if you have failed him in the most extraordinary and catastrophic way. Words like “suffering” and “crucifixion”, a simple word like “pain” carve themselves into your already mangled body when you lose a child. I can tell you how death smells and how a heart sounds when it breaks – like a wolf. My heart hurt – not metaphorically but physically - and lunacy beckoned. I was not safe to leave alone; where I had once nourished another life, grief and despair filled me brimful.
I know I was not alone in my tears – I was a reluctant conscript to a bloody army of women who know what it is to cradle their own dead child. In the UK, there are around 3,500 babies stillborn each year. Each one, a tragedy that affects not just the parents, but family and friends and colleagues. Technically, a baby is stillborn if the baby dies after 24 weeks of pregnancy – before that, it is termed a miscarriage. The baby will not have breathed or shown any signs of life during delivery. In my case, my baby died two days before his due date – he weighed nearly seven pounds. Sometimes a cause emerges such as pre-eclampsia, congenital malformation or infection. In around 10% of cases, such as my own, it is entirely unexplained. Doctors told me at the time that in the case of a middle-class woman going to term who has had an unremarkable pregnancy, a stillbirth is virtually always unexplained.
We were at all times treated with immense professionalism and sensitivity by our carers in the hospital then and during subsequent pregnancies. Without my husband, I would not have pulled through. A lot of the published advice warns of the damage a stillbirth can wreck on your relationship. We became frantic it would not have that effect on ours. We did everything together – carrying our son’s tiny white wood coffin complete with brass handles, registering his stillbirth and taking back the new buggy. The horrors knock one against the next when your baby dies – a coffin at the foot of your marriage bed where there should have been a crib. We made a pact with each other to keep talking about how we felt. We had bereavement counselling through the hospital and private therapy - I am convinced that talking is the only way back to sanity. I cannot count the times I wept over friends. They listened with endless grace and patience to my black and desolate ravings. Even as the years pass, they remember the anniversary of his death and will send a card or call or simply say later that they thought of us. Eventually, I eased back into work helped enormously by sympathetic bosses at The Sunday Times where I was a journalist. They let me work at home part-time at first, and only when I was ready, did I go back into the office. It was hard at first. One of my first assignments was to interview the then Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead. After the meeting, standing on the platform at Holborn underground station, I fell apart; I staggered onto a tube, bowed my head and wept for the entire journey back home. No one said anything to me, but a space cleared around me – the consolation of strangers. As I hung on to one of the handrails, I felt not fear or discomfort from fellow passengers but sympathy. What words could they have used to comfort me?
For me, the consequences are endless. Am I an angrier person?(tick). More depressive? (tick). Wiser (possibly). Funnier (probably). One obvious consequence was how tense my subsequent pregnancies were. I also believe it contributed to spells of post natal depression after my three other children were born. I cannot guess what sort of mother I would have been otherwise. My children would probably be sounder sleepers. Sometimes an inconsiderate child will sleep so quietly, they scarcely seem to move; I have to tiptoe in and check they are still drawing breath. Occasionally, I poke them. As for my relationship with my husband, his touch persuaded me not to die. We have shared many things together – two decades, a home, our three bright and beautiful children and we share the glorious love of our first born and the universe of pain that went with his death. Losing our son was like a bomb going off in our lives. It nearly killed us – didn’t quite, not quite - and we are stronger because of it. We made another pact – this one to strive for happiness together. Most recently, this shifted our lives away from London where we had spent 17 years together to Northumberland – somewhere he had always wanted to live. Had my son not died, I do not think I would ever have agreed to such a move.
Another effect I have noticed, is that it has sensitized me to other’s pain. If someone confides a sadness or a loss, I feel for them in a way I do not believe I would have done before. I try to use my own experience to help if I can - to listen over a coffee, to hear the anger and say that it is alright to rage against the stars. I was immensely angry at my son’s fate at the time, and irritated by the most trivial of comments or happenstances - by the friend who never sent a letter, by the shop assistant who insisted on a receipt when we returned the baby’s car-seat. In the long game, it is not the irritations or disappointments that stay with you, but the kindnesses and the glory of humanity – the tears in the eyes of the midwife who susbsequently became my friend, the listening silences of old friends who let me weep and weep again, the consolation there is in love. There are no rules when you lose a child, you survive however you can: drink wine; avoid those who are unhelpful; abuse the good will of those closest to you; a very black sense of humour helps. “Let’s think outside the box,” I would say to my husband and my therapist would cringe.
It does not go away – a mother never forgets her child and does not stop loving him however far from home he travels. If you are lucky, you reach an accommodation with tragedy. You swallow it up and take it inside yourself. If you are lucky, you have more children – other children. You do not so much “get over it” as get through it. People ask: “How many children do you have?” I say: “Three.” I think: “Four.”