'What is life like after you lose a baby?' A question I have been asked frequently.
For me, life after baby loss has moulded itself into two parts. The immediate, raw aftermath of one-day-old Grace's death was the beginning. It was a foggy period - a blur of tears and desperation scattered with some sharp memories which continue to pinch me daily. And then came the broader 'life-goes-on' cycle, which started sometime after Grace's funeral. This is when 'normal' life had to resume and I began tiptoeing my way cautiously through it, navigating as best I can.
Immediately after Grace died (the cause being a serious heart defect), I lay next to her with my hand on her broken heart. I watched her in the same way I had watched my first baby while she slept. The only difference was the absence of the rise and fall of her chest and the sweet, snuffled baby breathing sounds.
My husband and I bathed Grace, put a new nappy on her, cut a lock of her hair and took hand and foot prints. We took as many photos as possible, with the unspoken and grim realisation that they would be the only ones we would ever take.
We spent twenty-four hours there, just the three of us, until I was discharged. It was a peaceful, beautiful and quiet time. I wasn't prepared for leaving Grace; I wanted to stay in our little bubble for as long as possible. I worried about what would happen to her, where she would go and who would look after her until her funeral. In reality, I didn't truly leave. Part of me will remain forever in that quiet, sterile hospital room which, apart from my womb, was Grace's only home.
When I arrived back home, my daughter Susie (aged two at the time) didn't want to know me. She couldn't understand where I had been and why I had left. I had never been away from her before. I lay on the sofa, unable to play with her or lift her. When the midwife and friends came to visit, I cried, 'I don't know what to do' over and over again. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Grace's beautiful face as I cradled her in my arms and she took her last breath.
After a few of days, I decided that I would accompany Susie and my husband to a large out-of-town toy shop. I so badly wanted to be there for Susie and have some fun with her so that she would forgive me for my current state. It was mistake. As my husband helped Susie ride a bike up and down the aisle, I stood watching with heavy tears dripping onto the shiny floor. People were staring, but I couldn't stop myself. As soon as my husband noticed, he picked Susie up and supported me silently to the car.
That night, while propped up in bed, I started shivering uncontrollably. I couldn't breathe. I had no idea what was happening. My husband quickly recognised that I was going in to shock and held me tightly for a long time until I could breathe again.
Those are my overriding memories of the period following Grace's death. There was nothing but the pain. I can't remember when I picked up my heavy burden and started moving forwards. All I know is that it happened eventually.
Two years after Grace's death, my son Freddy arrived in a very bittersweet fashion. This is something that any parent will recognise on the birth of a rainbow. Life, on the whole, is very bittersweet these days.
I have changed irrevocably. I appreciate health for what it is - a gift, a blessing and by no means a certainty. Every time I lay my ear on one of my sleeping children's chests and hear their beautiful, strong heartbeats I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. That proud, rhythmic thud-thud is my favourite sound in the world. As I listen, I pray it will continue long after my own heartbeat has stopped.
My perspective has shifted hugely and I no longer sweat the small stuff. An unintended consequence of losing Grace is that I have become increasingly introverted. At times I isolate myself from other people because I find it too difficult to be around them. I just want to stay in a safe, protected bubble with my little family.
Having lost my mum eleven years ago, I'm no stranger to grief. I know how hard grief is to bear, but there is one considerable difference about losing a baby. My mum exists largely in my memory, where she appears and comforts me daily. I can see her or hear her whenever I like. I can take the last bottle of her perfume out of my wardrobe when I especially feel I need her with me. By squirting a few drops on my wrists, she magically stays with me for a few more hours.
Grace, on the contrary, exists mainly in my imagination. Apart from the precious few hours we spent together, I have no memories of her. I have no idea what she would look like, how she would smell, what her smile would be like and how her voice would sound.
This year, as I watched my family tucking into their Christmas dinners, I could easily picture my mum at the table with us. I know what she looked like on Christmas Days past - red faced from too much wine, Christmas hat placed haphazardly on her blonde head while chatting and laughing. I have no memories of Grace on Christmas day - no memories at all really. She never cried or laughed, I never fed her or played with her. She didn't even take one breathe without the aid of a ventilator.
My lack of memories of Grace means that my imagination is constantly called on to do the work for me. Sometimes it provides me with an image of her with almost-black hair and other times she has blonde hair. Sometimes she looks like my husband and sometimes me. My mind can't quite settle on one image yet. But there is one thing my imagination is certain of - in these abstract pictures she always has a perfectly formed and strong heart.
For me, the long terms effects of losing Grace are that my imagination is always on overdrive and my mind full of 'what-ifs'. The death of a baby throws the natural order of life out of the window. It's not supposed to happen this way. An underlying sadness clings to everything. Joy, hope, pride and all other feelings are tainted, never to be felt as forcefully as they should.
This is my life after baby loss. As with any type of grief, you never 'get over it'. Instead you learn to live with the burden. Almost four years later, I'm still adjusting - mourning my sweet little girl but also the me that used to be.