Richard Atkinson, 41, from Alvechurch in Worcestershire, has two sons - aged seven and 23 months.
On 26 May 2014, Ava was born at 26 weeks. She died after seven hours due to health issues including a bleed on her brain.
Overwhelmed with grief, Atkinson wanted to do something that would help his daughter’s memory live on. He set up Baby Ava’s Support Foundation to supply memory boxes to hospitals for parents who have suffered the loss of a baby.
Atkinson also wanted to use his charity to raise awareness of what dads go through, as he felt he wasn’t given enough support when his daughter died.
“My mind has travelled to many dark places and I have struggled - and continue to struggle - to cope with my grief,” Atkinson told HuffPost UK. “But supplying our memory boxes and knowing that parents will have some comfort helps me so much.
“I am continually striving to raise awareness of baby loss so that I turn my grief into something positive in memory of my beautiful daughter Ava.”
At the time his daughter was born, in 2014, Atkinson was out of the country. He was unable to get home in time to say hello or goodbye to Ava.
“I was told on a call from a consultant at the hospital that my beautiful little girl would not survive the next few hours and that I may not make it back in time,” he said.
“My wife spoke to me and we decided not to prolong Ava’s suffering and turn off the ventilator. My heart felt like it had been ripped out and crushed.”
As soon as Atkinson landed in the UK, he went straight to the hospital to spend as much time as he could with his daughter.
The dad said telling their eldest son, who was four at the time, that Ava had died was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do.
“We should have been leaving the hospital with Ava in her baby seat, but instead we left with only a memory box,” he said.
Atkinson found the weeks following his daughter’s death “unbearable”.
“The pain didn’t get any easier, it intensified,” he said.
“I felt alone, even though I had all the support and love from my family, so decided I wanted to help others going through similar pain.”
Atkinson and his family were given a memory box for Ava by a charity, that shut down shortly afterwards.
He felt it was clear it was something he had to pick up.
To get his charity off the ground, Atkinson arranged a disco and auction that raised more than £5,000, and he launched Baby Ava’s Support Foundation - on 4 March 2015.
Atkinson had one goal: To supply as many boxes to “as many hospitals as is humanly possible” and give grieving parents the opportunity to remember their babies.
“Memories last a lifetime but our angel didn’t,” he said. “But we have something we can always go back to and somewhere to keep her memories safe.”
Baby Ava’s Foundation Memory Boxes include:
- A hand and foot cast kit.
- Two identical teddies, one to remain with the baby and the other for the parents.
- An angel candle that can be lit every year on the baby’s birthday.
- A small plastic bag within a keepsake bag for a lock of hair.
- A star on a chain for the mother to wear and an ‘In the hands of angels’ keyring for the father.
- Forget-me-not seeds that, once planted, will flower every year.
- Two blankets - one hand-knitted and a fleece one.
- Numerous poems and Ava’s story.
It was important for Atkinson to raise awareness of the fact that dads should be supported, as well as mums, when their babies died.
“Fathers are left to fend for themselves following a baby death,” he said.
“As much as I cannot imagine what pain and emotions a mother must feel and go through from carrying and giving birth to an angel, I feel that us as fathers are seen as the ‘protector’, the person to hold the family together and offer support to everyone.
“Yet, I have spoke to numerous fathers who have said no one asked how they are feeling. We suffer as parents, too.
“I feel passionately that fathers - and siblings - should be supported as they often get forgotten.”
Baby Ava’s Support Foundation relies entirely on donations.
Atkinson completes many challenges - such as 10k runs and bike rides - to raise money for the charity. His biggest challenge was a 1,216 mile bike ride from Benidorm to Redditch in 11 days.
“People always tell me it will get easier, but it simply isn’t the case, we just learn to deal with our loss day to day,” he said. “I meander through emotion after emotion; some good and some bad.
“I find comfort knowing the charity is growing every month and that we have attracted some great supporters, including Sky Sports presenter Gary Newbon, Paralympic gold medallist Danielle Brown MBE and Clive Allen, former England footballer.”
Atkinson hopes to soon expand his foundation to set up a support group for fathers in the same position as him in the future.
To find out more about the charity or to donate, visit Baby Ava’s Support Foundation.