For a long time I struggled with the concept of loss. I had always thought that I had gotten away with not suffering much from it. My only real experience of it was my Grandfather passing away in 2010. That hurt a lot, I had many happy memories of Christmases at his house, he introduced me to golf and cricket and was always the silent presence in the corner of the room at family events. All those memories are tangible, they are real.
But how do you cope with losing something you never really had?
Our first born son Dylan was stillborn in May 2012. Our world was obviously completely turned upside down. We had known there was issues with the pregnancy at the 20 week scan. Our consultant had confirmed that the placenta wasn’t doing the job that it should and Dylan’s limbs were not growing at the expected rate. We were set in the direction of getting him to a viable weight (500 grams) for him to be born prematurely with the view that doctors could do more for him once he was born than if we attempted to get to term.
I remember comforting my wife (Bryony) and telling her that everything would be ok, that we would get to that milestone and he would catch up. In truth, neither of us had any idea what the possibilities were. No one prepares you for it. You only hear about the positive side of pregnancy when it happens to you so you live in this world of ignorance expecting that it will all work out.
Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Would it have helped us or made it worse to know that 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, or that (at the time) 17 babies a day were dying in the UK either through stillbirth or shortly after birth? With Bryony’s predilection to anxiety (and in hindsight) I don’t think it would have helped us as a couple, but it may have given me more context to help me come to terms with what happened sooner.
Dylan was born at 27 weeks after 9 hours of labour. I focused pretty much all of my energy on getting Bryony through that mainly because it helped to distract me from the reality of what was happening. However, there was no escaping the deafening silence when he was finally delivered. It still haunts me to this day. Bryony then had to undergo emergency surgery as the placenta didn’t detach during the birth. Dylan was wrapped up and taken away and Bry was taken out on her bed drowsy from the morphine, she was scared and I was terrified.
I sat in that delivery room, hearing other births from neighbouring rooms, babies crying all over the place, not knowing if there was going to be some complication with Bry’s surgery and I would lose her too. I just felt numb. I felt a huge sense of relief when Bry was wheeled back in at about 2am. I managed to sleep for a while at that point. Whenever I am stressed I can always sleep. Pisses Bry off no end when we have a very rare row, that I can just go straight to sleep whilst she is seething with me!
The next morning was the one and only time we ever saw Dylan in person. He was obviously tiny and looked so frail but he was perfect. He was 420 grams when he was born. Bry held him. I couldn’t. I don’t know why, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Something I feel guilty about to this day. After a short while he was taken away and we agreed to have him sent for an autopsy. We wanted to know what had caused this to happen.
We waited about 4 weeks for the results, and they told us he was perfect genetically speaking. They couldn’t tell us why the placenta hadn’t done its job, it was just one of those things. At the time that didn’t make either of us feel any better about what had happened. I don’t know what we were expecting really, nothing was going to make us feel better.
On the 6th June we had his funeral. The hardest thing I have done in my life was to carry his tiny coffin from the car through to the chapel at the crematorium. Bryony read him a beautiful poem which I still don’t know how she managed. I remember vividly my dad crying softly behind me (something I have never seen him do) and my father-in-law powerfully singing Jerusalem (a hymn we had at our wedding less than a year before).
I have realised over the last 8 years that the following day I pretty much shut myself off emotionally. Well perhaps that’s not the right way of describing it. Maybe I have just been able to become very good at supressing my emotions. I focused all my energy on helping Bryony to recover.
It seems strange to actually write this down now but I am kind of horrified that I was able to almost feel nothing about Dylan for a period of time after he was born. At the time I couldn’t really understand why I felt very little. I told myself that it was normal to not have that emotional connection with him. I hadn’t carried him for the pregnancy. Had not felt him kick like Bryony had. I couldn’t quantify the loss because I felt that I had never had him to begin with.
We moved from Surrey to Norfolk shortly after the funeral, mainly to get Bry closer to her mum, dad and friends but also to help me escape. I saw it as a way for us to start again. I won’t lie, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Makes it sound like it was all down to me. It pretty much was. Bry was in no condition to make any decisions at that point. She was in an incredibly dark place. I had to do something to get her away from all the reminders.
A few months later in the September Bryony got pregnant again. Neither of us were ready emotionally for it, I was shut off and Bry definitely still had her demons at the time. This pregnancy sadly ended in a missed miscarriage just before Christmas. Bryony went into surgery to have the d&c on Christmas eve and we decided at that point we would fall into the cliché of getting a dog.
Barney the labradoodle was adopted into our family and there is no denying he saved us both. He gave something for Bryony to focus on and she slowly started to emerge from the darkness. She said she wanted to get back to work and basically re-join society after 9 months of grief. As she recovered, the realisation that I had not dealt with the emotional impact of losing my son started to hit me. I would try and distract myself where I could but there was a voice at the back of my mind that was quietly screaming at me that I wasn’t right.
I took on way too much at work at the time and became more and more stressed over it. This led to me becoming increasingly irritable over the smallest things. I would argue with people (especially Bryony) over nothing, seemingly to let out my emotion in the most immature way I could. I wouldn’t say I suffered from panic attacks at the time but the pressure I was putting myself under was not healthy. I realised it was time I started talking to someone about it. I started to see a therapist.
It felt somewhat liberating to be able to speak to someone who had no preconceptions of who I was and who didn’t really give advice. One of the hardest things about talking to friends or family is that they want to help by doing or saying something to make you feel better. For me that was definitely not what I needed. I just needed to talk about what had happened and how I had been dealing with it (or not in this case). I like to think of myself as quite analytical, so by laying everything out on the table I was able to recognise my emotional withdrawal.
I wouldn’t describe it as flicking a switch but I gradually came to terms with what had happened to us. At times it made me angry that it had happened to us, what had we done to deserve it? I would see other young families with newborn babies and feel that pang of jealousy. Not ideal reactions granted, but I realised that I was actually starting to feel things. This was me moving through grief as all of us have done in one way shape or form. Sure, it was taking me longer than some, but it was just how I started to cope with it.
Between us, we both began to change quite a bit. I had become acutely aware of how selfish a person I had been. Before Dylan was born, I would generally do the things that I wanted to do. After he was born, I realised I had a responsibility to my wife. I became more attentive; more understanding and we generally talked much more about anything and everything. Our relationship, I think, went to the next level.
Bryony had always taken life a little too seriously before our loss (ask her, she will admit that). She began to laugh more as our bond strengthened, which is a good thing as I like to think of myself as a bit of a comedian! We have truly become best friends since he was born and I just hope she realises how much I appreciate and love her.
After a while the anger dissipated. We both really started to focus our efforts on fundraising. It was a good outlet, especially for Bryony as she likes to take on ridiculous challenges, maybe as a way to punish herself for her misplaced feelings of guilt over Dylan not being here (that’s a whole other story and not one I am qualified to talk about). She has certainly gone from someone who liked to play it safe and control everything, to realising that life can be so unpredictable that you may as well challenge yourself to the unknown, to give up the control and just throw yourself headfirst into anything and everything. To give you an example, in the last few years she has run the London Marathon, ridden the Ride London 100 mile bike race (didn’t even own a bike when she entered this one) and swum the 2 mile Serpentine open water race (could only swim breast stroke when she entered this) to complete the London Classics. It’s not just the end product/races that have impressed me the most though, it’s the hours of training and dedication she has that makes me most proud of her.
I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, the acceptance stage of grief. People would often say to me “Time Heals All Wounds” or words to that affect. I personally think that’s a load of bollocks. The idea that somehow the grief you feel in your heart will shrink away to nothing is a nonsense. It will always be there and it will always maintain that significance. What does change over time though is how your life builds up around that grief, how you grow, how you adapt to the cliché of the “new normal”. For some it can be too much. Divorce/separation rates are much higher for couples who experience miscarriage or stillbirth. This makes me feel weirdly lucky in that our experience has tightened our bond and we face into the world united and ready to take on anything that is thrown in our path.
Fast-forward to 2015 and we agreed that the time was right to try again. Thankfully this time we had a different outcome. Our second son, Jenson, was born in October that year and what a little legend he is turning out to be. We like to think that Dylan had a word upstairs and they sent us a good one. We have always talked to Jenson about his big brother up in heaven. I won’t lie I wobble every now and again when he says he wishes he could play with his brother, but it makes me proud that he will grow up knowing how much of a positive impact Dylan has had on us and our family and friends.
Have I coped with losing Dylan? Probably not that well really, but it’s a work in progress and I will continue to grow, to look after his mum and his brother and try to be someone he would be proud of.
In many ways he lives on in us and so, to me, he will never truly be lost and you don’t get more real than that.