The inspirational Marina Fogle, author of The Swelly Belly Diary wrote this moving account in the Telegraph following the sudden death of her third child. She is the bravest, most wonderful woman who will help so many women going through such deeply distressing times. She is a ray of light and an inspiration to us all.
Last August, on the final day of what had been a blissful summer holiday, my world was rocked, suddenly and tragically. I awoke from a general anaesthetic to find that not only had I lost the little boy I was carrying but I had also very nearly died myself.
At 33 weeks, I had suffered an acute placental abruption; without warning, my placenta had become detached from my uterus, starving the baby of oxygen and causing a life-threatening haemorrhage that left me within 20 minutes of death.
Until that point I had had very little experience of profound sadness. Shocked to the point of numbness, I have since felt myriad emotions. Today, I sit writing this without ever having got to know my youngest child, but I am infinitely wiser and, thanks to the incredible people who have helped me over the past months, working out how to navigate this fog of grief.
I’ve spent the past two years teaching antenatal classes, helping women through their pregnancies and preparing them for the role of motherhood. Talking to them, to the professionals I work with and to friends, I’ve been asked again and again to share what I’ve learnt because not everyone whose life is blighted with tragic loss has the support that I’ve been so lucky to receive. I would like, if possible, for others to benefit from my experience.
Grief is like the weather; how it affects you changes constantly. At times you might feel fine, bright and cheery, and the next, for no reason, you’re teary, tender and vulnerable. Nothing you have done precipitates this change and all you can do is bear it. You can’t fight it – so just accept the sudden misery and wait patiently for it to pass.
There’s no point insisting on wearing shorts and flip-flops in the pouring rain; put on your wellies, weather the storm and wait for the sun to return.
It is also absolutely normal to have moments of great happiness and then periods of deep sadness; it’s not inappropriate to laugh from the belly, to forget momentarily.
Crying, when it comes, is crucial, it’s a natural release. I frequently have a really good sob; it’s very physical: it is like feeling nauseous and knowing instinctively that you will feel better if you let yourself be sick. I believe that crying provides me with the release to expel my sadness so that I’m equipped to relish what is good in my life.
Grief is exhausting. You’ll find you need much more sleep than you used to. It can also affect your brain, your ability to remember things and to concentrate. This perplexed me so much that I worried for a time that my extreme blood loss had resulted in some brain damage. It was reassuring to know that it is normal and will slowly improve. I warned those around me that if I was forgetful, distracted or absent-minded, to forgive me.
This is a time to spoil yourself: book a holiday, get your hair done, lose yourself in a box set – and if you feel like eating ice-cream for breakfast, do it. It won’t make everything all right, but lots of little boosts will help you feel more human.
And let people help you. I was overwhelmed with emails, letters, flowers and gifts as the news filtered through, not only from friends but also from people whom I had worked with or met only briefly. Some were articulate and touching, others were short and simple messages. Each little act of kindness brought a tiny bit more warmth to my frozen heart.
Don’t be afraid to talk about what has happened to you. At the beginning it was hard, but now I know that each time you talk about it, you will adjust a degree emotionally. You will never ”get over” your loss, but slowly you will come to terms with what is your new normal.
Tell your children the truth. Children are equipped to deal with it better than we think. If nothing is said, the overactive imaginations of youngsters can result in them dreaming up something more gruesome and scary than the reality. Unless you open a dialogue with a child, you have no control over what they’re worrying about. It wasn’t until I sat down with Ludo, my five-year-old son, that I realised he had been so worried about me. I told him that I was safe and nothing was going to happen to me and it was as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
Nor should you be afraid to cry in front of your children. They are led by example, so if you suppress your emotions in front of them, you’re effectively teaching them they shouldn’t show how bad they may be feeling. It’s less traumatising than you might think seeing a parent cry. If you hold it all in, children will sense something is wrong. Unless you initiate the conversation, though, they might feel they can’t talk about it with you.
Don’t deal with grief on your own. Like learning to ride a bicycle, coping with grief is a skill that you have to learn and it will take longer and involve more setbacks if you go it alone. Professional understanding of emotion is extremely sophisticated, and talking to someone really does help. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am right now, nor able to write this piece, without Julia, a wonderfully enlightening grief counsellor who has helped me through the past few months.
You will never overcome your loss but you will come to terms with it. On August 24 my world shifted on its axis and I’m gradually accepting that, in one part of my life, I’m extraordinarily lucky, with a loving husband, Ben, two perfect children Ludo, and Iona, 3, and the most wonderful family and friends. But in another part, we’ve been catastrophically unlucky. No one could have predicted the sudden death of our son and the events that ensued; it was sheer bad luck. These two dichotomies don’t balance each other, creating a kind of ”OK” equilibrium; they coexist in their extreme forms.
Lastly, I would recommend creating a memory box, a place where you can keep reminders of the person you have lost. Parents whose child has died are usually encouraged to spend time with them. It wasn’t something I was keen to do but my sister, a doctor, insisted that parents who don’t often regret it.
So Ben and I did spend some time with our little boy, we named him Willem and we took photos. It wasn’t easy but I’m so grateful that even though I never saw him open his eyes or smile, at least I held him and told him how much he was loved.
I find I want to spend time losing myself in the insightful words of those who have written to me offering love and support, and often I’ll rediscover something to help me at that moment. Today it’s this, from an obstetrician friend who, because of her speciality, deals with bereavement on a daily basis. “What you are going through is life’s most painful journey, so take your time and embrace the wobbly moments. There will (and should) be many of them.”
If you’ve been affected by Gemma’s story and need further help and support, we recommend Tommy’s website and advice line: 0800 0147 800, Monday to Friday, 9-5pm and The Lullaby Trust’s Information and Advice line on 0808 802 6869. If you are looking for support following the death of a baby or toddler, The Lullaby Trust can help. Please phone our Helpline to talk to an Adviser on 0808 802 6868.