I’m sure many of you will know that in the years since my dad died, I have been a ‘mental health campaigner’ and that the charity work and fundraising I’ve done has been for Rethink Mental Illness. My aim was and always will be to raise a bit of money, but perhaps more importantly to get people talking about and sharing their experiences of mental health.
I can honestly say that since I started fundraising and talking, a shift appears to have occurred whereby people are more open and more honest. That’s not to say there is a really, really long way to go, though. Perhaps I have rose tinted glasses on because many of the people I now know are as a result of the campaigning – maybe I’ve surrounded myself with like-minded people. But I do honestly feel that great progress has been made.
Anyway, that’s not what this blog is about. I bleat on enough about it that I’m sure you are aware that I became a dad this year. Whilst not without its challenges, I can safely say that it’s the most incredible thing ever and that I fall more in love with my little boy every single day. I’m utterly committed to him, his development and his mental and physical wellbeing. I could gush all day, but this isn’t the place…
Whilst preparing for the birth, Amy and I attended NCT ante-natal classes for two reasons. One was to understand exactly what would happen when Jesse was born and the other was to meet people going through a similar experience in the hope that we would form a good social network – especially for Amy, who would be on maternity leave. We did that, and our group was at the very least ‘interesting’ and at best, a lovely group of people who were generally on the same wavelength as us. One of the couples in particular, Gemma and Martin, were very similar to us. They didn’t take things too seriously and they were obviously people who made the most of what they had in life. As couples, we clicked and had a laugh. It made some of the more laborious exercises in the classes easier!
Amy was the first of the group who was due to have her baby, with Gemma a couple of weeks behind. Being a brand new parent puts you into this whirlwind of activity that I can best describe as a ‘required selfishness’. When we were told we could leave the hospital with Jesse, the realisation hit that he was ours, that we made the decisions that affected his entire future and that frankly, his life was in our hands. That was scary. I didn’t have to sign anything or take any tests. We could just go! The required selfishness is that you need to do whatever you think is right to make things work for your family – especially whilst you are learning. Asking visitors to leave, or indeed arrive, for example. To choose the wellbeing of your newborn and your immediate family above and beyond anything else that might occur.
It was during this period, early on a Thursday, that Amy received a text message from Gemma’s phone. It was a relative, who had text Amy to say that Gemma and Martin, who were now approaching a couple of weeks overdue, had lost their baby, Harvey. Amy was immediately beside herself and I struggled to comprehend what was going on. How could that be possible? What should we do/say/think? Amy informed the rest of the girls from the ante natal group and we then entered the space between a rock and a hard place. We gave it some thought and decided that we would not make contact yet because they had so much going on, had close friends and family around them and frankly speaking, would probably not want to hear from a couple with a newborn baby!
I had to teach a spin class that evening and the journey over there gave me some time to think about the situation. I found it extremely hard to consider what it might be like. It was far too hard to think about what I would do or feel in that situation just a few weeks earlier when Jesse was born. It horrified me. That evening, as I drove home with a real heaviness in my heart, I had a text come through on my phone. I glanced down to see it was from Martin: ‘Kev its me. Don’t be a stranger’. There was a tidal surge of tears and a struggle to breathe followed as I found somewhere to pull over. It’s hard to imagine that a man who had just lost his baby had taken the time and care to get in touch with me. I text back immediately and insisted that Amy and I would do anything we could to help them. I also said that I would totally understand if that involved removing ourselves from their lives because of the circumstances in which we met. If it were me, I would not only recoil into a tiny insular world of my own, but I don’t think I could do anything but want to never see anyone associated with my wife’s pregnancy again. It is a measure of a man to see beyond a gut reaction and to take the time to ensure that bridge didn’t crumble. I was and am absolutely honoured.
The days after Harvey’s death are a bit of a blur. Amy was deeply affected by it all and we both cried intermittently. We talked an awful lot and tried to contemplate the unthinkable. To consider the mortality of your baby when you have spent nine months preparing for it to have the best life possible is so hard to do. We kept in touch with Gemma and Martin quite often, always understanding that at any point they may decide that we must depart in order the let them progress. That never happened and we became closer than I thought we could get. Closer, I believe, than perhaps we would have done had this all not happened. We’ve sat and talked about their experiences (which I have purposefully not gone into in this blog, as that’s not my place) and we’ve sat and talked anything but their experiences; at all times mindful that this situation was engineered by an incomprehensible loss.
Gemma and Martin are wonderful people and I’m not sure they understand just how much Amy and I love them both. They have made us stronger in their weaker times and have had a profound effect on us. When our baby cries and won’t stop, we don’t mind. When we’re exhausted and haven’t slept, that’s ok. When things don’t go to plan, that doesn’t matter. Because we’re so lucky. I’m not sure I like clichés like ‘time is a healer’, but I do believe that over time, your resilience improves and you become a better person for enduring such hells. Seeing Gemma and Martin laugh is lovely. Talking to them about the future is dead nice. I’m not ignorant – I know this is all done with a heavy heart and that there are times when they go back to the bottom rung of the ladder out of this hole – but I have so much admiration for the way they’ve undertaken this journey so far. We want them to remain a large part of our lives, and of Jesse’s life.
Jesse will be told all about Harvey, his friend he’s never met, and how important he is. Legacies are often talked about on a whim and with no real significance. But I believe Harvey will have a significant legacy which manifests in his mum and dad, his nearest and dearest and in people he has never met. Because of the people they are, Gemma and Martin asked that instead of flowers for Harvey’s service, people donate to SANDS – the stillbirth charity – and have so far raised well over a thousand pounds. They seem to be doing well and are very well grounded. They’re refreshingly up front and honest and look to the future with fear and trepidation, I’m sure. But I can tell that they also look to the future with hope, resilience and unbreakable unity.
I wrote this blog because I do feel that sharing helps to ease a burden. And I’m not sure that I have fully come to terms with such pain. Not the pain to me, but that endured by Martin and Gemma. There is a helplessness that I hate and can’t do anything about, and so I wanted to put into words what the situation was like to help anyone else who might end up in a similar situation. I purposefully haven’t gone into details that may be intrusive and I hope you can see that it has been written with sensitivity in mind. I asked Martin if it were OK for me to write it. ‘No problem, MOFO, was the response’. Typical!
The second reason I wrote this is because I am someone who has campaigned for years to get help for the people who believe the want to choose to die because life provides nothing for them. In essence, I wanted to help my dad, long after his death. I have come to realise that Harvey did not have the option of whether to choose life, or indeed not choose life. The choice was made for him and he was taken from the world. It’s the opposite situation to my dad which results in the same outcome, and that hurts. Ten years after my dad died, and I still have conversations with him in my head. I still go to him for advice in the hope that I can remember what kind of person he was like. And it’s after some of these conversations that I know he would push me to say that this year, I will not raise money for a mental health charity, but am instead asking you to give some money to Gemma and Martin’s charity of choice, SANDS. I’d like you to donate anything at all to help reduce the number of still births in this country and to provide the essential support and care for the parents who have had to endure what no parents should ever endure – the loss of their baby. I will still campaign and I’ll still be ‘that suicide guy’. But I want the money to go elsewhere this year.
I’m running the Brighton Marathon this year for Harvey whilst being pushed to the finish line by my dad. I’ve talked to a few people about my lack of training and how hard it is with a newborn, and how a sub-3 hour marathon is nearly impossible. I can’t not try, because doing that gives a guaranteed fail. Perhaps you could give me some encouragement and a few pounds to help push me on? It’s been a couple of years since I’ve asked for any donations to charity, so please help if you can. Here’s the link:
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