Saturday is my youngest daughter’s eleventh birthday. She’s getting very excited, as eleven is the age at which her elder sister got a mobile phone, so she has certain expectations of her present. She is having six friends for a sleepover party on Friday night. There will be cake.
Today is my eldest child’s birthday. It is fifteen years today since he was born. He will not be having presents, or a party, or a cake, because his birthday also marks the day that he died.
Every year my son’s birthday falls within Baby Loss Awareness Week, which this year began yesterday. Normally, I just mark this on Facebook, but this year I can do something different. This year I have a platform. This year, I am giving my son the gift of raising awareness. It is time to talk about baby loss.
People don’t like to talk about it, it is one of the last remaining taboo subjects. Those who have experienced it find it hard to talk about because it makes other people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say, and any mention of the fact you have lost a child tends to bring a conversation to an awkward, stumbling halt. So we learn not to talk about it. We hug it to ourselves like a dirty little secret we can’t mention in polite company. A form of social leprosy, as if baby loss is something contagious. I doubt people realise what pain this causes. When people ask me how many children I have, I say two. Two – because if I say three, I have to explain why one of them is missing, and this makes people uncomfortable. So I deny the existence of my son. And I do it to protect other people from embarrassment.
People who haven’t experienced the loss of a child find it hard to talk about because they are afraid. They are afraid that they will remind us of our loss. They are afraid that they are going to be the one that causes us to relive the pain of that loss. They avoid the subject with the best of intentions, I know. It is a hard subject for everyone.
But I’ll let you in to a secret. If you mention my loss to me, you aren’t going to suddenly remind me of it. I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten about my son and the fact he died on the same day he was born. What you will do is remind me that you remember he existed. That you remember my pain and that you want to acknowledge it and share it with me. That you are there if I need you. I can’t tell you what a gift that is. It means everything.
And you aren’t going to be the one to cause me to relive that pain, because I carry it around with me always. I’m reminded of it every day in a hundred different ways. When I drive past the cemetery that holds my son’s grave. When I see how much my other children have grown and imagine how he would look now. When I watched last Tuesday’s series finale of Upstart Crow. And here is another secret I can reveal – I don’t want to forget that pain, because the pain goes hand in hand with the only memories I have of him, and they are all that is left. When you share that pain with me, you share my memories of my son, and they are precious.
My son’s grave bears a line from a poem by Margaret Postgate Cole called Praematuri:
“And so our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.”
This poem was written in memory of young men lost in the First World War, but its sentiments ring so profoundly with me. It talks about the loss of loved ones when you are young and all the years you have to live without them. I live every day with the loss of my baby. If you keep silent, trying to protect me, all that means is that I am left alone in my grief.
Well, I want to say now to anyone who has lost a child, you are not alone. There are people out there you can talk to. Let them know you need support, that you want to talk. Talk to your family and friends, talk to professionals. Talk to me. It’s been fifteen years and it still hurts, it always will. I understand. Don’t feel that you are alone in your grief.
For those of you who want to reach out, but don’t know how, you don’t need to say much, or make a big fuss. A ‘how are you doing?’, a hug, a text, a heart on Facebook, some flowers, a card, an invitation to coffee – a squeeze of the hand. Anything that means ‘I remember, I am here,’ is enough. A genuine sentiment of empathy, however inadequate it feels or awkwardly it is expressed, is much easier to accept, much less hurtful, than a back turned in embarrassment or discomfort.
When I lost my son, two people I had been close to for a long time cut off contact for a while after I told them. Later they both explained that they hadn’t known what to say, so they decided abandoning me was the right approach. Another friend phoned me as soon as she heard and when I couldn’t speak, simply sat and listened to me cry on the phone for twenty minutes. I’ll let you guess which of these friends I stayed close to.
So I’m appealing to all of you now, let’s break the silence about baby loss. This affects thousands of people every year across the UK and we need to raise awareness of the effects that such loss has on families and make sure that facilities and help are in place nationwide to support them through those worst of times. More needs to be done. We need to let them know they are not alone. There are lots of ways you can get involved. For more information on what you can do, please visit babyloss-awareness.org. Wear a pin, write a letter, join in the conversation on social media, join in the Wave of Light on Monday 15 October at 7 pm. But most importantly, reach out to someone. Break the silence. Do it in remembrance of all the babies we lost too soon. Do it in remembrance of my son.
And if you are someone who has been affected by what I have discussed here and you need help, please reach out. Don’t suffer in silence. Contact https://www.sands.org.uk for help and support.