An Open Letter to a Recently-Bereaved Mother

Dear Broken-Hearted Mama,

I see you, numb.

Yet so full of pain. Pain that you cannot even begin to describe.

You may feel like the pain is unbearable, that the pain is going to crush you, that the pain is too much.

You may feel like your life has ended. That you do not want life to carry on.

I understand. I have been there.

My son Hugo died at the age of just 35 days. He had been born when I was 24 weeks’ pregnant, my first and so far only child.

Each one of those 35 days is so precious, but not enough.

No amount of time can ever be enough.

While your life has not ended; you continue to exist, your life as you knew it has ended. The end of innocence. The harsh realisation that bad things happen in life – and not just to other people.

Bad things happen to you, too. No one is immune.

We evolve during the course of our lives, of course. But grief changes you: suddenly, abruptly, shockingly.

Your relationships may change: some for the better, others for the worst. You are likely to discover that the old adage about seeing the best and worst of people during times of crisis is true.

Some people – even those previously closest to you – may not know how to deal with your changed relationship. The changed you. Most will want to do all they can to help you but because they do not know what to do for the best may blunder, put their foot in it, utter endless platitudes, and when tempers get frayed make you feel as though you are at fault.

The knowledge that the blunders are well-intentioned is unlikely to make you feel any better. It may feel like constant salt in the wound.

Me and Hugo enjoying a cuddle.

Me and Hugo enjoying a cuddle.

So much of your pain cannot be expressed in words. What you may want most of all is someone to sit with you as you cry or stare into space.  Someone to understand that you don’t know how to express your emotions. That sometimes, the power behind those emotions scares you. That you think the pain will never ever end.

But many people are uncomfortable with silence. People may want to talk at you, want to tell you about their own experiences of bereavement. Or they may want to tell you what they think you should do. They want to make you ‘better’, not realising life will never, ever be better. You may well sit their patiently waiting for them to shut up – but it is fine to ask them to stop talking, too.

People may not mention your child’s name, worried it may upset you but failing to appreciate that not mentioning them upsets you more – and after all, the worst has already happened.

People may not want to talk about your child with you, filling you with frustration. They were your beautiful, perfect child who you grew and love with every cell of your being, now and forever more. You want to talk about them, how proud you are of them, irrespective of the time you spent with them. This reticence from other people may lead to resentment.

It may lead to a feeling of isolation. A feeling that it may, as a consequence, be better to avoid certain people, certain places, certain situations not because you want to, but because you need to protect yourself from further hurt.

The knowledge that you are now ‘different’.

That is enough negativity for now. As I said, you will see the worst in people – and the best, too. The kindness of people can know no bounds. Compassion, empathy, the compulsion to reach out and help – the help you need, not what they think you need.

Those who will sit with you as you cry, as the cascade of tears fall, holding your hand and passing endless amounts of tissues..

And those people can often come from places you least expect; relationships can take on a new depth, friendships and acquaintances can be strengthened, new friendships forged often with strangers with whom you may now share a common experience.

Those who share the common experience, those who ‘get it’ are invaluable. It often does not matter if you have never met them, it does not matter if their child died in circumstances that are completely different – they understand. You may find you have a certain shorthand with them, and not having to explain is liberating.

You may feel the value of liberation: grief is exhausting. It seeps in to your pores, into your bones. The simplest of tasks can seem challenging; your memory unreliable, turning even the smallest thing that makes your life a tiny bit easier into a precious gem.

You may feel like you will never be happy again, never smile again. Indeed you may feel like you do not want to be happy again, nor smile again – or that you deserve to.

The feeling of guilt can feel all-encompassing. The knowledge that rationally, you know you have no reason to feel guilty – that you did everything you could, and would have done more, if only, what if – is irrelevant.

I still feel like I failed my child. I did not keep him safe. Even though I know, rationally, if he had not been born when he was we both would have died.

Emotional torment.

And the anger – oh, the anger. So raw, so visceral. Anger at the world in general, at the hand life has dealt you, at the world being so bloody unfair. Anger at those who embellish and become melodramatic over trivial everyday annoyances (no, spilling your coffee is not the worst thing ever.)

Anger at those who seem not to appreciate their children, take them for granted. But in the same breath, thinking you are glad that other people are blissfully unaware of such heartbreak.

More than a year on after Hugo died, I have learned to feel happy again. It is a different sort of happiness than before. A happiness borne out of different priorities and perspectives.

But that does not mean that I am better, or that my life is better. No, not by a long shot. I still get bad, low, devastating days as a result of a trigger, or of nothing at all. Those days can make me feel like I am back to the beginning, back to the darkest days, all my progress out of the window.

I have to remind myself I am not back at the beginning, that it is the fault of the path of grief. Grief does not progress in a straight, orderly line. It is a mass of intertwined squiggles that make no sense, with no end.

And that is part of the reality. Grief has no end. There is no better, only different.

You may discover within you a strength you wish had lain forever dormant. That strength comes from intense love, intense pain, and it can take on the world.

I am not going to tell you what to do, how to grieve. I cannot do those things, because while we may share a similar experience in common our individual journeys are so very personal.

But I would like to share with you a few points that have worked for me, take them or leave them as you will:

  • One day at a time.
  • Don’t expect too much of yourself.
  • Whatever is right for you, whenever is right for you.
  • Find people you can trust to confide in, or just to listen.
  • Be open and honest with your partner about your feelings, no matter how much it may cause extra tears – you need to be honest so you can support each other.
  • Find a way to express your grief – whether that is drawing, writing (on a blog or in a private journal), talking to someone, raising money for a charity.
  • Try to be gentle to yourself, and take time for self-care. Grief is exhausting, meaning you need to find ways to recharge your batteries.
  • Take time for your grief – ignoring it does not make it go away (as I discovered to my cost).
  • Being selfish when you need to be is acceptable – often life after loss is about personal survival.
  • There will be days when just getting out of bed is an achievement – and there will be days where you feel you can take on the world.
  • Bad days can come from nowhere.
  • You are not a bad person. You deserve love and happiness, even if it may take time to return, take a different form and be fleeting.
  • There is no ‘normal’, no better. Just different.

You will get there, Mama.

You can survive.

We are all here for you.

With love,

Hugo’s Mummy, Leigh xxx

Sunday Thought July 26, 2015: Two Perspectives, One Half of the Same Whole

At first for today’s Sunday Thought I was going to choose one or the other of the pictures below. Both appeared on my Facebook timeline this week, and summed up perfectly my feelings.

After a while, I realised I couldn’t choose between them because they are two halves of the same whole – so I chose both:

AngelaMillernew

For anyone who thinks that grief has a time limit, or that you ‘move on’ from the death of your child. There is a Hugo-shaped hole in my heart that will always remain. I feel the ache from that hole every day, I feel the pain of the void his absence has left in our lives. I feel the frustration when people don’t know what to say for the best, or do not mention Hugo.

But – oh, I feel such a proud rush of love when people do mention Hugo. When they admire him for the gorgeous, feisty baby he was. When they observe the work that has been done in his memory.

That is because Hugo’s Legacy comes from that pain, that void. As Angela Miller says, the love that oozes from it gives me the power to use my experiences to help others, to make others sit up and listen, to challenge.

To change the world.

MeganDevine

This is something I have difficulty with.

Since Hugo died I have discovered the very best of people: people I knew before, some I have met since. Such kindness, empathy, warmth.

Through my blog I have made the most beautiful friendships. Some are fellow loss mamas, others are not. We share in common a passion for sharing with others our feelings and experiences through words, a determination to give comfort to others, reassure them they are not alone.

Through social media I have made the most wonderful friendships. Professionals from all fields. Kind, compassionate, determined people willing to listen and take account. People willing to help me get involved, use my skills, collaborate to make a difference.

Through my blog and social media I have been given fantastic opportunities. Opportunities to get dressed up, have fun, be me; opportunities I never thought I would have.

Opportunities I never thought I would pursue, or do: speaking in front of large audiences, and with a clear voice too. The power of that love for Hugo gives me the strength.

Many beautiful moments.

All opportunities that came because Hugo died. Yes, these opportunities have come as a result of a lot of hard work, but the motivation for the effort comes back to the same reason.

Friendships, relationships, opportunities. But no son. No offence, but there are no prizes for guessing which I would prefer.

While I have a better sense of comfort with the opportunities I have been offered in the past year, I doubt it will ever sit well with me.

I would give it all back to be another mummy with the everyday trials and tribulations of caring for an energetic, willful 13 month old little boy. Who knows what our lives would have looked like in reality, but it would have been full of beautiful moments. Beautiful moments of a different sort. The wonderful moments of motherhood, the frustrating moments.

But what is done cannot be undone.

The way forward is to move forward. Reflect on the beautiful moments I had during those 35 precious days with my beautiful boy. Wish for more, so many more; no amount of time can ever be enough.

Hold on to those beautiful moments, and look to the future. Forging more wonderful friendships, generating more opportunities, creating more beautiful moments.

Hugo will always be a part of them.

The Origins of the Society

“At last”, he said. “We have been waiting for you for a long time.”

The woman felt a chill run through her. The events of the past few minutes had thrown her world upside down.

Recognising the woman was looking a bit perplexed, he offered her a cup of tea. Deciding the bookseller was eccentric but harmless – and hearing the torrent of rain continuing to lash down outside – she accepted.

Considering its age and fragility she thought it safest to leave it on the cash desk for the time being. She found a spare spot on the desk amongst the plethora of paperwork and books of every age, shape and size. With a sigh, she sat in a straight-backed chair upholstered in worn velvet that was placed next to the desk, and watched as the man shuffled back in to the dark alcove. The clink of cups and the rolling boil of the kettle prompted the dog to wander over to the woman, probably in the hope of a stray biscuit.

Books were everywhere, even stacked on the floor to relieve the overflowing shelves. She looked around her trying to find a place to set her wet umbrella where it wouldn’t get anything else similarly soaked and ended up stashing it under the chair, giving herself a mental note to remember to pick it up on her way out. The dampness of the weather outside added to the intensity of the mustiness in the bookshop.

Her handbag rested on her lap, and she reached in to retrieve her phone. A missed call, three texts, a few emails and social media notifications. She was about to open one of the apps to write about what had just happened but she paused, finger paused over the screen.

What would she write, and what was the point anyway? She had confided in only a couple of her closest friends when she joined the Society. Friends she knew she could trust, those who would not judge, pry, or ask too many questions. They knew she would give them updates, little snippets, when the time was right and she was ready to talk.

Everyone else? Well, they wouldn’t take it seriously, thinking she was just having a laugh, hence the secrecy.

With a frown, she locked the screen of her phone and popped it back in to her bag. Her hands tightly clenched the bag’s strap while her feet tapped up and down in a combination of excitement and nervous anxiety. The book – the book! – sat just a couple of feet away on the cash desk.

The dog nudged her for another fuss as the man reemerged with a tray bearing a tea pot, cups, a milk jug and a sugar bowl.

The crockery was old-fashioned bone china, delicate cups and saucers with a pink and green flowery print. Beautifully kept, with not a chip the china was clearly kept for best.

As he poured the tea, she leaned forward eagerly – but what to say, where to start? It would all come blurting out in a right old muddle – best to let the man start by saying what he knew.

A cup was set in front of her; the proffered milk was added, and sugar declined. “You might want some anyway,” he said. “You’ve had quite a shock.” After a moment’s hesitation she realised how light-headed she was and sweet, sugary tea always helped with that.

With shaking hands she picked up her tea; some of it spilled in to the saucer. Embarrassed about her lack of grace, especially during such a momentous occasion, she took a deep breath and told herself to get a grip.

With one hand on her tea cup and the other fussing the dog’s head, she watched as the man finally stopped fussing with the tea things and sat down on the other side of the desk.

The book sat between them. Both looked at it, cup of tea in hand.

Remembering the grunt of greeting she had received when she entered the shop, she realised she might have to start the conversation.

“I have been wanting to read about the origins of the Society for a long time. There are so few people involved in the Society, and not much is written down. There is so much hearsay, verbal history passed from member to member, so it is difficult to know what to believe.”

The man gave a barely perceptible nod, which she took as a prompt to continue

“I can’t believe I found the book here. I mean me! All these years, so many people looking for it, and I found it! Surely people must have looked? Most of the meetings are held in a place only down the road.”

Placing his cup back on his saucer with a gentle tap, the old bookseller gave a wry chuckle.

“That is because they think they know what they are looking for. You, by contrast, kept an open mind.”

“The book finds you.”

The events of this story happen directly after The Second Hand Bookshop.

book-659203_1920

mumturnedmom

What Happened at the National Maternity Review Team Listening Event?

Yesterday was the first listening event of the National Maternity Review, held at London King’s College.

The invitation, from the Chair of the review herself, Baroness Julia Cumberledge promised that the event would “…be pooling ideas to improve maternity services.”

And that “We are most anxious to hear from all those who have an interest in maternity services; the public, users, commissioners, professionals, and organisations who would like to contribute to our initial thinking. We believe there is much that is exceptional, good, kind, and sensitive to the needs of women and their families. But we also know that there are services which could improve and some which are deeply disappointing with issues that need to be addressed. At this early stage in our work, we do not have any answers but wish to hear from you and your colleagues about your experiences, your thoughts, views and opinions and some possible solutions.”

I was invited because of my work with #HugosLegacy and #MatExp. Hugo was of course present via his handprint on my necklace:

And I was keen to share to promote the post What I Want the National Maternity Review Team to Know

How did the event perform against these objectives?

Overall, very well. The room was full of a range of interested parties including consultant obstetricians, midwives, members of the Royal Colleges of Midwives and Obstetricians; various NHS organisations, members of organisations that had been set up in response to personal tragedy (such as the MAMA Academy and the Campaign for Safer Births whom I was pleased to meet but did not have enough time to talk to).

Julia Cumberledge introduced the event by outlining the scope of the review, which is looking at the maternity experience from conception through to six weeks after birth. The timescale for the review raised a chuckle…

Workstreams include choice, continuity, diversity, professionalism, culture, accountability (mutual respect between professionals and teamwork), levers (triggers and incentives) – and barriers.

The comms plan for the review includes visiting centres across the country so as many voices as possible can be heard.

I loved the ethos for the event:

Be compassionate

Be a friend

Have fun

Assume it’s possible 

And so we began with the first round table discussion, looking at issues and solutions.

A few points from the discussion (facilitated by Cathy Warwick) on our table include:

  • Women need individualised care within a system that genuinely supports the range and variety of experiences and needs women will have
  • Polarisation – high risk/low risk and between obstetricians and midwives – is very unhelpful
  • Connected with the above point, for better collaboration and teamwork between midwives and obstetricians – no ‘them’ and ‘us’. There is evidence to prove that training and working together as a team provides positive results.
  • Dignified care and safe care need not be mutually exclusive (contrary to what some of the polarised debate about where is ‘best’ to give birth may suggest)
  • Time for training – health professionals want to do the best they can for their patients, but are constrained by lack of time for training. Training on things like team working (such as cross over training between midwives and obstetricians so each can better understand each others’ perspectives) and effective communication would be invaluable.
  • Targets – such as C-section rates – are a barrier to women receiving care that meets their own individual needs.
  • Policies, procedures and guidelines are important of course, but there needs to be more encouragement for health professionals to use their own judgement to respond to women’s individual needs without fear of punitive action. This connects to issues relating to training and teamwork – enabling staff to do their jobs and giving them confidence in their practise – in short, empowering them to do their best.

Feedback from the other tables was insightful, including this point that being part of #HugosLegacy was music to my ears…

twitter

There needs to be a seamless care pathway to better meet the needs of mums whose babies are in the neonatal unit, as described in my post about what I want the review team to know.

Other points of insight included:

  • Need to make sure good practice can be shared across hospitals
  • Need to find ways to make sure care is women-centred – this goes back to tick boxes and things like C-section targets.
  • Need for better postnatal care.
  • Need for commissioning that is better connected between CCGs, local authorities, and NHS England.
  • Need to look at culture – acceptance that innovative vision is the way forward to make the changes that need to happen.
  • We need to manage risk, risk should not manage us. Antenatal education needs to empower women to make the right choice for them.
  • We need to eradicate concept of ‘high risk/low risk’.
  • Women and their families need to be more involved in the creation of pathways
  • Evaluation methods need to be more useful for service users – and the feedback meaningful.
  • A woman needs to be seen as a whole person, not a womb with legs – her emotional and psychological needs, for example, need to be considered too.

Three crucial concepts are: language, behaviour, and leadership.

(This is not an exhaustive list, and I may have missed things!)

There are a few issues that bear further exploration, for example: the remit of the review includes experiences up to six weeks after birth. This has the potential to miss two crucial issues: postnatal mental health, and the needs of mothers whose babies are in neonatal care, and/or who suffer a loss. The needs of these women extend well beyond the six week timeframe, and have long-lasting, serious consequences if those needs are not met.

I would be interested to see how the review incorporates these issues.

From a personal point of view, the event gave me a wonderful opportunity to catch up with and meet fantastic people whom I have got to know through social media. I won’t try to name everyone because I usually end up missing people out, but here are some photos…

Flo and I managed to stop talking long enough to take a photo

I loved seeing Alison Baum again (she’s CEO of Best Beginnings, creator of the DVDs for which people so generously donated money for Hugo’s first birthday) and meeting Heidi, founder of the MAMA Academy, of which I am proud to be an ambassador.

Meeting and having a chat with Jacque was fab

Gill and I enjoyed a lovely evening chatting. We forgot to get a selfie, but I have a picture of my pink shoe on my pink bag…

Flo took a JFDI #MatExp view to sharing the campaign, with one of the brilliant graphics and giving people an overview of the Whose Shoes game.

I may be biased, but the innovative, grassroots, no-hierarchy approach of #MatExp is key to the success of the review. It is heartening to see there is interest:

The event nearly ended in tears for me, however. Chatting about #MatExp to two ladies at the end of the event led to me sharing my own experience. Asking how long Hugo lived for (35 days), they commented that it was ‘quite a long time’. I disagreed, saying that it was not nearly long enough. Objectively, I know that as Hugo was born at just 24 weeks the fact I got any time with him at all was miraculous, and I am very grateful for every precious moment I had.

But a tip for others when talking to a bereaved mother: DO NOT try to tell the mother that they are in any way ‘lucky’, and especially DO NOT persist in your point of view once the mother has expressed upset.

The women did apologise, saying it’s difficult to know what to say to bereaved parents. Another tip: empathy is key. ASK the parent how they feel, and if you really don’t know what to say, STOP TALKING.

Considering the breadth of experience of women – and men – attending these events will have, taking a moment to consider sensitivity, as well as sensible things to say (and not say!) is crucial.

Fortunately, it did not mar the very constructive and productive day. I hope we can see our thinking translated into real action and change for women and the staff who care for them.

Next steps are…

and if you want to be involved…

 

 

Mums' Days

Another Year Older – And I Am Glad

It’s my birthday tomorrow, another year older.

And I’m glad.

I don’t have to go to work; I have a lovely day planned. Cards have already arrived, yet to be opened; and if I am lucky I may even get some gifts.

But it is not for those reasons I am glad it’s my birthday tomorrow: I am glad because I have lived another year, and I am growing older.

I am not going to pretend to be 21 again. Instead, I’m proud to be just two years shy of the big 4-0.

Why this gratitude and pride to be growing older?

Because it is a privilege, a gift denied to so many. An occasion to celebrate.

My last birthday felt like it was just another day: the pain of Hugo’s death still raw, I did not feel like celebrating, nor did I feel like I had anything worth celebrating. My son had died in my arms just a couple of months previously; my pregnancy had ended prematurely in a very traumatic fashion; my life had gone so very awry.

Last year, I felt incapable of feeling happy, or even that I should ever allow myself to feel joy.

Fast forward a year, and some things have shifted. My heart remains broken, the trauma remains, my life still has gone awry. But those things now feel different, and I have a different perception of life.

This year, I feel more capable of feeling happy, and that I am allowed to feel joy. Indeed, I need to feel joy – and I find it in the small things like nature, the seaside, a cuddle.

birthday-cake-380178_1920 (1)

It’s an irony of life that when as children we are eager to be older, to be an adult with responsibilities and to make our own decisions. Yet when we are an adult we wish we could liberate ourselves from those wished-for responsibilities, slow down the clock against ageing.

A decade ago, I was dreading my 30th birthday. It felt so old! Of course, when I reached the milestone I felt no different. In fact, if anything there are ways in which my thirties have been my best decade from the point of view that I am comfortable in my own skin, feel better able to be myself, and I have a direction in life. I wouldn’t like to repeat my twenties (and my teens? Don’t go there), even considering the benefits of a body that has not been ravaged by ten or more years of ageing….and life.

And life is what is all about, isn’t it?

Yes I have grey roots. I visit my hairdresser every two months to get them covered up and to be honest, they start being visible again after two to three weeks – I don’t stress about it.

I have wrinkles around my eyes, despite using eye cream. Again, not worth worrying about: they are a sign of ageing – and of laughter and tears.

Those tears have helped me find a balance in life:

I don’t spend time worrying about what I can’t change – with myself, and with others.

I don’t get involved in gossip, or other people’s dramas.

I recognise that I am me, I am enough.

The balance helps me find more time for laughter. Laughing loudly, not worrying what others think of me.

Instead of criticising what I see in the mirror, I reflect that I am fortunate to have what I do. Instead of wasting time worrying about things that I can’t change, I try to make the most of what I have.

I know life is too short to not indulge in a little of what I fancy – we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow. That said, while tomorrows are not guaranteed I strive towards achieving a healthy balance to make sure I can enjoy the tomorrows I am blessed to receive.

And tomorrows are what birthdays are all about. The traditional salutation for birthdays is “Many happy returns of the day”.

I hope my birthdays return many more times in the coming years and decades.

I hope I have to visit my hairdresser more regularly to cover my ever-increasing grey roots, and that I have even more lines around my eyes from laughter. I cannot say I hope to not add to those lines through tears, because that is something I cannot control.

Another year older tomorrow, and I am glad.

I hope for many happy returns of the day.