My Sister Died When I Was Pregnant. I Had No Idea How Differently People Would Treat Me As A Result

"As I willed my baby to hold on, my sister was being prepared for autopsy in the morgue; birth and death, joy and grief, the beginning and end of life."
The author pictured picking seeds.
Victoria Bennett
The author pictured picking seeds.

‘Just the one?’ A solo child, it’s a question I’ve been asked from the moment my son was born – in doctor’s surgeries, supermarkets, on the street.

I’ve never known how to answer. I’ve been pregnant more than once, but given birth to only one child. To agree makes invisible the children that I carried but did not meet; to contradict invites the awkward silence that follows.

It’s the same with siblings. In my head, I’m still the youngest of six. Yet also, I’m not. I’ve learned to say that I have two brothers and two surviving sisters. I’ve learned to let my grief take up space, but it wasn’t always this way.

When my sister died, it was without warning. One moment she was in this world, and then she was not.

She went out to canoe on the River Eden, like she’d done many times before. There was a late warmth to the sun, the wind was low, and the autumn light made the beech trees along the riverbank glow; a perfect day to spend paddling along one of her favourite stretches of water, silent and soft as the wild world went by.

Only she didn’t come back. Instead, her canoe capsized, folded itself around a rock and trapped her under the water. By the time help had been raised, she’d been submerged for over 15 minutes.

Despite attempts to revive her, she died. She was 47 years old.

In another part of the county, I was discussing baby names with my husband. At seven months pregnant, we’d finally come to trust this one would hold. Then the telephone rang and changed my life, forever making it a before and after then.

From then on, my son’s life became inextricably bound to my sister’s death; one an echo of the other. The shock triggered early contractions and I was prepared for neonatal ICU care.

As I willed my baby to hold on, my sister was being prepared for autopsy in the morgue; birth and death, joy and grief, the beginning and end of life.

Though my body recovered enough to stabilise the pregnancy, I was left broken. As I lay in the maternity ward, surrounded by new mothers, I cried, wondering how much I could bend in this pain.

My husband, nurses, friends, kept telling me I had to ‘think about the baby’. They begged me to stop crying – not being cruel, but in a desperate bid to ease my pain, and their own.

This was a time of life. No one wanted to talk about death, but I did. I needed to talk about it, I needed to understand what was impossible to believe. I needed to howl and scream, and loudly grieve this grotesque and meaningless death that had stolen my sister.

Motherhood though, is meant to be beatific, placid, homely, warm. Anyone who has been through, or witnessed birth, knows it is anything but that. It is fierce and full of blood and courage.

To bring life into this world is hard. To let it go, equally so. Perhaps, if we let ourselves be honest about this, we’d find the words for times like these.

But those words were not there, and my baby was waiting to be born, so I did what a mother had to do; I did what needed to be done. I put my grief into a silent place and kept going, making sure I ate well, slept, and thought about the baby.

No one spoke about death, and no one spoke about birth. After all, what can you say to a heavily pregnant woman at a time of grief?

There were no antenatal classes, no baby showers, no excited meetings with other expectant mums. My own mother tried hard to support me but how could she, when she was grieving a child of her own?

In the quiet of a winter’s night, after a long and difficult birth, my son was born at home, my grief and pain roaring out with him into this world.

Afterwards, I lay there, exhausted, holding his tiny, perfect being close, and wondered how I could do this: how I could love him so deeply and keep him safe in a world that could be so cruel? The motherhood I had longed for was here, and it was nothing how I’d imagined it would be.

Grief made me sharp and hollowed-out. I had enough love for my son but no one else. I needed to be held, but pushed everyone away.

When my husband asked me what was wrong, I simply replied that I was tired. I didn’t know how to talk about the grief. Instead, I carried it around with me, wrapping myself in it like a shroud, quietly letting it out in hot, silent tears as I nursed my baby son.

Grief and love melded into one, forming a deep will to survive; to hold on. I was, in those months, the closest to feral that I have ever been.

This dual existence of grief-beast and mother-milk took its toll. When I tried to go to the parent and baby class, instructed by the health visitor on account of being at risk of the ‘baby-blues’, I found it impossible to connect.

As I listened to conversations about the benefits of cloth nappies and the best way to stimulate milk, I wondered how I could fit into this world. The dichotomy of what motherhood ‘should’ be, and how it felt, left me feeling guilty and ashamed.

I pushed my grief further away, only letting it out once a week, as I sat in a windowless room with my baby in arms, talking to a bereavement counsellor about the beast, and birth, and the way my sister had drowned.

It wasn’t the last death or loss either. That is the thing about life: it’s both beautiful and cruel in equal measure. Over the first few years of my son’s life, we grieved others that we loved, and too soon.

At two, my son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, nearly dying due to late diagnosis. After that, I was his carer and his mummy, and if I had ever tried to hide from the fragility of being human, I could not do so now.

It was muddy hands that pulled me back to life. When my son was four, we moved to a new social housing estate, near where my parents lived in rural Cumbria.

Built over an old industrial site, the ground was poor and full of waste. This was our chance at a new start. After so much loss, I decided to see what could grow.

My son and I dug out the rubble, and using his crayon-drawn designs and the weeds and seeds that grew under our feet, together we created a wild apothecary garden. It wasn’t perfect but in that broken place, I finally came to understand my grief and see that in it, the strongest seeds of love were sown.

Victoria Bennett is the author of the memoir All My Wild Mothers – motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden out now, priced £16.99.