Let me say at the outset that in this piece I’m going to use the singular pronoun. I’m going to say ‘I’ and ‘me’. It’s not selfish, because I’m more than aware that what I’m about to write about involves not just me but my family. All of them.
But, my daughter and I talked about this and the idea was that I’d contribute a piece as a ‘grandfather’s view’. I can only write that as me.
I’m a writer so I was already dealing with the weird world or working from home long before it became the go to discussion on every Zoom call. I was there in April 2019 when my daughter called to say she was on her way to hospital. She was going to be induced. It was fine. ‘Do not panic father, nothing will happen today’.
I was still there some hours later where she called and said ‘Where are you?’ I said ‘I’m here, working’. She said that the baby no longer had a heartbeat.
By that afternoon my daughter and son-in-law had navigated their way through the ordeal that led to my granddaughter being delivered. By then of course we knew that the dear little girl was already dead.
There’s the back story for you. Fast forward and let me run you through some things I’ve learned.
Firstly, that ‘phone call from Katie my daughter. ‘Where are you…?’ There are days when it doesn’t happen. Not many. Because mostly, at least once a day, my brain plays the whole conversation back to me as if it’s on a loop; recorded for training purposes.
Next, and this information arrived quickly, in terrifying fragments, like a mortar shell had exploded. Distilled down it centred on the fact that a quarter of pregnancies end this way. How can that be? In the uk? In 2019? You keep asking those questions, and you realise that you’ve scratched at a statistic you knew nothing about, but you can’t stay in that big picture for long because everything now says focus on your family.
You think you’ve gained some experience in life of course. I mean you were about to be a grandfather. You can deal with everything. But this? How do you deal with this? How do you deal with standing in a hospital car park, the next day, with Ben, your son-in-law, telling you that when you go in, now, to see your daughter, she has Ottilie, your granddaughter, with her?
If this piece is about lessons learned, you do it. It’s a given that there are no right or wrong answers in all of this; that we all deal with it differently. But, it’s my belief that if you’re ever in this nightmare and you don’t sit with your grandchild you’ll aways regret it.
I’m not saying it’s easy. The tiny hands, the perfect nose and seemingly sleeping eyes that never opened are all so peaceful. This is the first time in your life you’ll ever wish, pray and hope for a baby to cry.
But you’ve met her. Or him.
And then you’ll say goodbye to her. Or him. If you think you’ve been sad so far I doubt you will ever witness anything more sorrowful than your son-in-law and daughter carrying your grandchild’s coffin to her grave. Some of us make plans for life. Some just blag their way through. But nobody, not even the most far sighted strategist, ever plans to stand at their grandchild’s graveside.
When I watched Katie and Ben during those moments I learned something else. I discovered that they were two of the most dignified, emotionally intelligent, human beings I know. Pride isn’t an anaesthetic for grief, but seeing their strength was, and is, a comfort.
Life moves on, as of course it must. Let me give you an insight into another lesson learned. Again, it might be different for others, but for me it’s this. I can see a baby and feel fine. But a toddler? That’s different. A little girl, in perfect little clothes, maybe chattering to her mum; that’s the one that stings. It’s not jealousy, or rage. It’s a key that unlocks a box full of what if’s.
It’s about now you’ll realise how many mailing lists you’d signed up to for retailers of baby clothes and toys. This is when you find, in your wallet, the loyalty card, with stamps on it, for a baby wear shop.
Then come the milestones. That first year anniversary. And the other ones. Mothers’ Day. Father’s Day. You’re just about seeing some progress in how you’re dealing with all of your grand parental grief when you realise you’re standing on the edge of a bottomless pit of pity for the parents.
Now, if all of that so far sounds self indulgent, even excusably cathartic, it’s because I wanted to give you an insight into some things a bereaved grandparent might expect to feel and experience. To share my experience.
But there’s more to add. Some discoveries and advice that are forged in a more positive mould.
As a bereaved grand parent you’re going to have find the balance
between being there when you’re needed and not being there when what’s needed is space. It’s challenging. But do it.
You’re going to have see where this goes. That might sound trite, or vague, but let me explain. The discovery of those terrifying statistics, the realisation that we don’t even have a word for ‘the bereaved parents of a stillborn child’, and the need for greater awareness has driven Katie and Ben to do something about all of that. To take action. Not everybody will go in that direction but if you want any evidence that something good and positive can come out of something this bad, there it is.
Finally, Rachel Cooke wrote recently that is her ‘strongly held belief that a man who can make his own daughter – who is almost bound to be, however loving, a sceptic so far as her male parent goes – collapse into laughter is basically doing all right’. Few things give me more pleasure than the sound of my daughter laughing. A couple of times recently I’ve made it happen. There’s a long way to go, but we, all of us, might, just might, be doing all right.