Finding the Words – How to Talk about Baby Loss

This week I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Victoria Derbyshire Show to discuss my experience of still birth due to medical negligence. Here’s the link to the programme, the segment starts at about 16:00 minutes in: Link to programme

While I often talk openly about my experience of losing my daughter, I write about it here and in articles for the media, I have posted You Tube videos and written a lot of poetry about the experience, I very rarely talk about my experiences with clinical negligence and the effect that it has had on my life. Partly this is because people have very strong opinions on the NHS and if I talk about it in the media I tend to get quite a lot of negative comments, no matter what I actually say. The Victoria Derbyshire show is thoughtful and I was treated sensitively. It’s not the type of show where different opinions are pitted against each other, so this was a really good opportunity to speak up for, not only parents who are at risk of losing their babies when mistakes are made, but also NHS workers who aren’t being given the opportunity to work effectively due to circumstances like funding, staffing and a lack of protocols. One of the things that was brought up on the programme was the lack of training available and how this differed between hospitals. There’s a real need for training that is the same not only across different trusts and hospitals, but also within those hospitals too. In my own experience I can say that I was given different advice from my community midwife, my GP, the out patient clinics and the consultant, which led to a very confusing situation, but also, long term meant that it was difficult for robust communications to be present between departments and different hospitals. I believe that had better communication been present, among other factors, my daughter would have made it through the delivery and would have lived. Perhaps she’d be alive now, she would certainly have had a better chance. It’s important that we address failings like this, it’s also important not to demonise the NHS staff, or the hospital, or the NHS as a whole. I worked as a microbiologist in the NHS for thirteen years and can assure you that, as I said on the show, no one in the NHS is out to do a sloppy job, or let their patients down. I have never met another NHS worker who didn’t want to do the absolute best for their patients, but if they don’t have the tools to do that, how can they do that?

Without sinking into another maudlin post, I will say what I said on the show. The effect of losing my child in this way has been life changing, literally. Apart from the obvious things that you can probably imagine – the devastation at losing a baby, the absolute devastation of losing our only child, our IVF baby, our miracle- there are other effects directly associated with clinical, medical negligence. I have changed my life almost completely in order to cope with the effects of PTSD, I have minimised the amount of triggers (I hate to use the word trigger, it’s so over used, but that’s exactly what they are) in my life, in order to live a life that is comparatively normal, to be able to enjoy my life again I have left my job, I have less contact with friends from my old life (some of which has been their choice, some mine – someone this deeply affected is often hard to be around and I understand not everyone can deal with that) I struggle to be around pregnant women, not so much because of envy (which is a completely normal reaction, incidentally) but because of the utter rising fear, the hyper awareness and the associated anxiety which regularly rises into bad panic attacks, due to the fear of something being wrong with their pregnancy. It’s ruined friendships I might have other wise enjoyed. It blocked me from being able to enjoy other people’s pregnancy experiences. I worry about their pregnancy, the baby, them so much that it swamps everything out. This of course runs parallel with the sadness that my baby died, and I would dearly love to be pregnant again and be successful in having a family, but partly due to the anxiety and depression that now goes hand in hand with IVF and pregnancy, and partly because our chances are so poor, it isn’t going to happen. By the way, I’m saving the ‘why I am not adopting’ post for another time.

There are other effects too, I don’t trust doctors, I always have to have every little bit of information about any medical situation, I need all the details to feel safe. I have to have second opinions, I have to question and question everything any doctor says, it goes on and on. I worry constantly whenever friends need medical treatment. It is an exhausting sort of anxiety, and very intense. So now I work for myself, rather than worry about being around that, which is fairly unavoidable in a hospital environment.  And to be fair, I would have always ended up working for myself, I think, and I absolutely love it. I always wanted to be a writer, full time and I am now, so that’s great. Go Me! But I don’t think I have been in the hospital which I used to work and who let us down since I had one of my miscarriages and you can only imagine how stressful that was, to have a missed, or silent, miscarriage induced, with all the anxiety around it, added to the fact that actually that went wrong too. It’s too much. I went for a scan at Hull once, a few years ago, because I was having some investigations for a uterine problem. It should have been done in my local hospital, a quick, easy out patient appointment. The scan took four minutes. I drove all the way to Hull (about an hour and a half away) rather than go to or local hospital. I could go on and on with examples like this, such as in one of our pregnancies; which sadly ended in miscarriage anyway, when we were putting a plan together for my care the consultants advised that I could have all my treatment in Hull, and spend time as an in patient there from 24 weeks until I felt safe, but in an emergency situation I would be taken to our local hospital. I strongly considered moving house.

I’m not asking for sympathy when I write this stuff, by the way, but it is vitally important that we talk about failings in the healthcare system, and vitally, vitally important that we talk about baby death. People do experience the death of their children, people do lose their babies and it is isolating, pretending that it isn’t happening or hasn’t happened doesn’t really help anyone. We don’t talk about grief in this country, we are a nation so clammed shut by the fear of offending the bereaved, that people would rather hide in a cupboard than talk to someone who is bereaved. (true story). yet it’s only by talking about it that we reach a point as a society where that taboo dissipates and people can be supported more effectively. By talking about problems, problems can be addressed, change can happen and no one should have to go through this. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  I think now, eight years on, I could probably visit someone in that hospital if needed, but I would be in pieces inside. I can visit my GP now, but I always, always leave it until there is no other option and I’m always terrified by what’s going to happen, always hyper aware over what they are doing, what they are not doing. It takes quite a bit of preparation to get from my house to the GP if I need to go there, despite it being a seven minute car journey, because of the anxiety. These are things that my family don’t really know about, my friends probably don’t really know how bad the situation is. But it doesn’t affect me 24/7 anymore. And though I still struggle with it all, I do not wish to be ruled by it all, like I say, I have adapted my life in order to deal with it. And it is a lot better than it was, but it won’t go away, this is pretty much my life now. I used to have terrible dreams, I rarely do anymore. I used to have terrible… well I guess you’d call them flash backs…where I wasn’t present in the moment and an hour or so might have passed before I realised I was standing in a supermarket, or sitting in the car and had no recollection of time passing, because I’d been time travelling inside my own life to my daughter’s death, or more likely the weeks and days leading up to it. I became adept at carrying on conversations whilst watching her death play out repeatedly in my head. It was an incredibly unpleasant time. This still happens sometimes, a lot less frequently, it has happened this week a bit after the TV appearance, but that’s what you might call a trigger, and it doesn’t last, I have had a mint week in a lot of ways and my life is very good at the minute, I am incredibly happy with where I am. I have a select number of good friends who support me, who even put down what they are doing to meet me and normalise my life a bit when I need it, who can ground me and pull me out of the time machine that I get trapped in, and mostly my life IS normal. I tell you what, you don’t know how much normality is craved when it’s not present! I woke up yesterday and sat and read my book in bed and wrote a poem and it was blissful, without anxiety or fear and God, I would just live in that little pocket of time forever if I could.

One of the things that has made the situation bearable is when people have asked about my daughter. When they asked about her as a baby, as my beautiful baby, and not as if they were asking about a car crash. The tendency is to treat baby loss as something similar to a disease or an accident, a terrible accident that has been survived. But there is another part to baby loss, which I think makes it unique, in that yes, the trauma is there, but on the other side of the trauma is the love. I don’t get to talk about my pregnancy or my baby because her loss is a trauma, so it’s often as if she didn’t exist. It makes it, understandably, a difficult set of emotions for other people who haven’t experienced it to deal with, people struggle to get their head around it. People don’t know what to say, and that’s understandable. But let me simplify it, without the need to write a ‘ten things you should never say to a..’ or a detailed guide book to the situation. One thing that you can say is that you are sorry for that person’s loss. That’s it. If you want to be a total star, say I’m sorry your daughter/son/baby died’ If you want to be the best friend ever ‘I’m sorry —insert name here— died’ and if you want to break the taboo, ask them what their baby looked like, ask them what their name was, ask them what they weighed, ask to see pictures. But don’t cross the road to avoid talking to them, don’t change your break time to avoid sitting opposite them in the rest room. I didn’t fit in anymore when I went back to work after Matilda died. I had some friends who were brilliant, and some people I barely knew who asked to see her picture. But people I’d know for years avoided me, literally hiding or ducking down corridors or across car parks rather than say ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ and risk me crying because my child had died, or risk themselves crying.

The brilliant charity SANDS have been leading a campaign recently about what to say to a parent who has lost a baby, this includes FATHERS. Men lose children too, but are expected to man up and get on with it all. Don’t forget to speak to them too.

SANDS has launched this little animation which is really very good, it sums up my own experience of returning to work perfectly. Please watch it, don’t be afraid to watch it. And by sharing it you give people a chance to understand how to treat us.

I’ll leave you with one thing, from an entirely female point of view: I am so pleased to see the reality of motherhood being discussed in the media and in art, I’m a poet myself so it’s bloody brilliant to see experiences of motherhood that don’t conform to the stereotype that the cult of motherhood would have us believe was the norm, there are poems about it winning competitions, collections about it gaining wide appreciation, women are now able to say: actually, I really struggled with being a mum’ and that is brilliant. But one area that doesn’t get a lot of air time is the experience of motherhood that I have had, and that many other women like me have had. Stillbirth, neonatal death are experiences of motherhood. My baby is still my baby whether she is alive or dead, I love her, I loved my pregnancy and it still made me feel like shit, I hated my fat ankles and even more hamster-ish cheeks and I loved my bump and I love my baby, loved shopping for her. I had an experience of motherhood, it was different, it was sad in many, many respects, but it was also full to the brim of love. Mine is not just a story of loss, it is a story of love.

 

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New Freelance Website!

I’m making a few changes to how I work and have been fiddling about on t’internet to create a couple of things. Firstly, I’m now separating my two career parts into this site, which will remain poetry based and will be where I talk about being a writer as well as the other things that are a huge part of my life (my daughter’s death, coming to terms with childlessness etc) and another site which is my freelance writer site, as well as a place for me to share recipes, articles and blogs about glorious Yorkshire. If you fancy the sound of that, here’s the link:

Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire

I’ve also got a Yorkshire twitter feed: Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire

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A Trip to Haworth

This week I have mostly been…

It’s been a busy but lovely week this week, starting off with some mentoring. My current mentee has written a series of science fantasy novels, I’ve been reading the first one and advising on editing etc. I’ve been absolutely blown away by the quality of the writing and the story. Every time I have sat down to read a few pages I’ve been pulled in and spent more time than I intended. So the next step was to decide what to do with it. My advice to said mentee was to try to get an agent on board. Thisis partly because the mentee has written a series of books and an agent has more chance of securing a good deal and a contract for the next books in the series. Submitting direct to a publisher would be fine, but they would likely only take the first book and decide on whether to take the next one based on the sales of the first one. This might still turn out to be the case with an agent, but an agent will bargain on her behalf, secure deals and have good contacts, they’ll know exactly who might want this sort of novel. However, as everyone knows, getting an agent in the first place is a challenge. I feel quite protective over this mentee, I know that in order to find an agent she’s probably going to get rejected quite a lot, and that’s just the name of the game, but I don’t want her to be upset or put off by rejections. This is all part of the mentoring process, as well as helping to get momentum on a  writer’s projects, I think giving a much-needed confidence boost and encouragement is half the job. It’s a brilliant job to have and I am really enjoying it. I put a list of agents together for her and advised her to stop trying to write the perfect cover letter or synopsis, stop trying to second guess what they may or may not think, just follow the submission guidelines, and go for it. They can only ever say no thanks. It’s almost as bad as when I submit work myself, I’m checking my emails all the time to see if she’s heard anything! My next mentee starts on Monday and it’s back to poetry with this one. Someone who wants to get their pamphlet together and also wants to get back into a writing habit – a writing boot camp awaits! A nice boot camp though, with more encouragement and less shouting and throwing tyres and stuff about.

The other thing I’ve been doing this week is research for an article about Emily Bronte. I have had the best time researching Emily’s life and the lives of the other Bronte’s and have spent a fortune on books which I have wanted for ages but felt I could justify as ‘research’. Yesterday I drove the two and a half hour journey over to Haworth and spent a pleasant few hours in the parsonage and walking on the moorland around the village, taking photos and enjoying the views. The idea was to walk where Emily would have walked and try to put myself in her place in order to see what her influences were in terms of nature and the outside. Every one knows that Emily loved the moors, but there’s a real connection between her state of mind when out in the wilderness and her creativity. The difference between the wide skies and granite outcrops breaking through the moorland, the freedom and isolation of the moors and the claustrophobic house, the small village and the constraints of sex, class and finance is palpable and it’s understandable that she fretted herself ill when she couldn’t get outside to freedom. I’m fully expecting to write more on the Bronte’s, I have to justify all the books!

By the end of the week, once the article was filed, I was ready to work up another article pitch and then it’s back to the low paid abstracting work, which fills a hole while I wait for other opportunities. This is the week that I submit my small ACE application too, which I am procrastinating over.

I have written no poetry whatsoever and I have submitted no poems either, letting several big competitions drift by without me really fretting about them. I suddenly find myself happy and relaxed, managing my workload and feeling good about it all.

There’s also been a very sad death in my family this week, my uncle passed away after suffering a stroke earlier in the week. I’ve spent ages decrying the use of Facebook and hating it and I am on the platform less and less and using Twitter more and more, but at the point of time when my cousin needed to get information to her cousins, facebook messenger allowed her to do that privately and with dignity, we added other people and cousins in (big family) as we went along and were able to take some of the stress off the family by simply letting people know on her behalf and bringing them into the group. It also gave us a chance to support her and share memories of our uncle and how much he meant to us. This is an odd family sometimes, we are not ones for big displays of love, but what a beautiful thing it is to see cousins reigniting the bond between, suddenly close again, a family suddenly without anything but the very human nature of reaching out and hugging, all be it virtually. There will be time for physical hugs in the future. My uncle was  funny, kind, a real magnet at parties. He was a story-teller, a joker and I can’t bear to think how my aunty and my cousins will be without him.

I fully intend on getting back to editing the new manuscript next week, but I’m also going to take full advantage of the bank holiday weekend and the Tour de Yorkshire, which is coming thorugh my village! Have a good one!

 

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Taking Time Out is Not Failure

I’ve been a bit down lately (massive understatement, but I’ll not go into it here) about various things and hit a bit of a wall. I think partly this was due to exhaustion, for want of a better word. I felt like I was going mad with working full time and studying towards the PhD part time (which actually equates to roughly 20 hours a week) and doing stuff for free for people and trying to write and finish the new manuscript. It was like all of a sudden my brain just said “nope” and everything started to come to pieces. I became much more isolated and stopped doing a lot of the stuff that I enjoyed and found that I was constantly worrying about how I was going to get everything done. I stopped sleeping, which is still an issue, when I did sleep I was having the most horrific dreams. And let me tell you, nothing increases stress like very little sleep. It was too much. I admit it, it was too much.

I have been juggling work, study and writing for the last…I don’t know…at least ten years, and always got through everything. I carried on studying right through the IVF and the loss of Matilda (I handed an assignment in a week after she died) and through miscarriages (I went to an exam whilst having a miscarriage) and it always gave me a really steely determination, like if I could hang on to this rope that was coming from a future place where I had succeeded in my studies, everything would be alright, like the future me was giving me a way to keep moving forward. So it came as something of a shock to suddenly realise that the thing that I had always, always relied on (this is my fourth degree, the big one, the end game) was causing me more harm than good. I have ended up having to work so much to get my bills paid and my tuition fees paid (I’m self funded) that I didn’t have adequate time in the working week to actually do the study I needed to do, so in effect I was working seventy hours a week at one point, every weekend and not having enough down time. I’d managed to get that down to fifty hours a week, but realistically, because I do some charity stuff and some unpaid work, I was actually still working most weekends, and when I wasn’t working I wasn’t switching off, I was worrying. I was no longer enjoying what I was doing.

I have worked so hard to reach this point in my writing career, where I am a full time, self employed writer, qualified, published, boxes ticked. But because of the stress, I wasn’t enjoying it. The PhD had become a huge weight with serious deadlines. I’d lost my supervisor a while ago and because the whole department was being changed, I went without support at a crucial part of my PhD process and I just lost my confidence, I drifted, I lost momentum and couldn’t work out how to get back into the work, so much so that when I finally did get two new supervisors, it was difficult to meet their requirements, even though the are both absolutely lovely. And then, as I say, the train came off the tracks and that was it.

It came to a head when I was doing some research for an article that I was writing for a magazine, with the subject being the Hand of Glory in Whitby museum. I was getting paid well for it, and I had been on a research trip to the museum to chat to the curators and look over the artefacts. I had had a wonderful day, I felt I was finally doing the thing I loved and was just enjoying it. But then I got home and one of my other clients had not paid when I expected them to, leaving us short, which put me in danger of not being able to pay my tuition fees, so I set to work doing ten hours of very low paid writing work, work that is always available, but is quite strenuous and mind numbing as often it’s on subjects I don’t know enough about and don’t have interest in. However, it is available work which plugs holes like this. But then, of course, that meant I’d lost ten hours of my twenty hours study time and suddenly I was acutely aware that this situation was happening all the time, I was on this never ending hamster wheel and I was simultaneously writing intensely painful poetry for the new manuscript and for the PhD and was fighting the council on the cemetery rulings, and I was turning forty and then it was Matilda’s birthday and I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t do it any more. My mind was racing and racing and I couldn’t think what the answer was. I’d become so used to the idea that I would just continue to study, that it didn’t occur to me to take a leave of absence from the PhD. And then, suddenly, it did. Of course, removing not only the time spent doing the PhD, but the financial strain of doing the PhD and the stress of it all is an obvious solution, but you see, studying, like I say, had always been a lifeline and this is my big one, this is the place that I had imagined getting to all those years ago.

I knew it was the right decision immediately, but the sense of failure was also over whelming. I don’t deal with failure very well, I set my targets very high and to be fair, that makes me work hard and accomplish what I want to, but it also leaves me feeling bereft when I fail because I feel that it is intrinsically part of who I am to be rubbish at everything, and I have to work hard to prove to myself that I am not. I don’t have confidence in myself, my work, my studies, I’m actually quite reliant on having confirmation of any talent that I do have because my own sense of self is skewed to see someone who is unlikeable, unlovable, untalented, unattractive, un-wantable. There’s also a very very deep wound inside me that says I failed my daughter. I failed my child and I will never know what would have happened if I had shouted louder for scans, for appointments, to be believed. I often feel like there must be something utterly, horribly bad about me that all my babies have died inside me, like I am a pomegranate that has gone rotten on the inside, out of sight. I blame myself in a  way that I don’t think you can imagine unless you’re a mum who’s baby is dead. I might even try a little more therapy to deal with it because I feel that I am stuck in a place of grief a lot of the time. But then, I think I am always like this when it’s her birthday, it’s a massive trigger. Perhaps I need to cut myself a bit of slack. Eight years, it sounds like a lot, but it’s not. I have relived her death repeatedly in those eight years, every day, several times a day. But a lot of the time I relive the absolute joy that I felt to have her with me, the pride that I felt in seeing this perfect, beautiful baby that we had created. I remember the love more than the loss, mostly. There I go again, all roads lead back to my daughter, always, always, always. I don’t know if I am ready for them not to, if I’m honest. It feels too permennt. I still haven’t emptied the baby clothes out of the drawers, I got as far as taking the maternity clothes out of the wardrobe and putting them in a bag, and getting rid of all the old pregnancy tests and literature from the IVF , but I am blocked when it comes to dealing with her things. Perhaps that is about failure too. I’m a fighter, I fight, I even fight myself, a lot. It feels almost like being disloyal to her, to take her things and move them or get rid of them, and I know that will sound bat shit crazy, but it’s like I might hurt her feelings and I would never ever have hurt her. It kills me to know that she might have suffered and I might have been the cause of that, by not acting, by not challenging the things that were said to me, by accepting, by being passive. That’s why it’s important to me to keep fighting now, against the cemetery rulings, against poor protocol, raising a bit of money here and there for charities, it’s like a sort of atonement in a way. Perhaps that’s why I find it so difficult to put her away, put her things away, because that feels like letting her down.

Sheesh. This wasn’t supposed to be about her, it was supposed to be about university. So, anyway….I decided to take a year off my studies. I need to build my freelance work up, start getting bigger jobs and I want to finish the next manuscript and this is a good choice, this is a positive choice to make. I’m certain of that. But still, the feeling of being a failure, of letting people down, of potentially upsetting or hurting people because of my choices persists. However, this is the first week I have managed to go to a poetry gig that I wasn’t reading at, and I have done housework and I have bathed guinea pigs and I’ve been reading poetry not attached to the PhD and I am going out researching for another article next week. And all of that, that’s where I wanted to be, with a new manuscript taking shape and being self employed. Perhaps this needed to happen, perhaps this is actually a natural process of coming to terms. Perhaps the frantic wound packing that I have been doing for the last eight years is stuttering, the fuel running out, the engine cough coughing to a stop. What feels like a car crash is perhaps just a change of transport, perhaps this is my brain telling me it’s time, perhaps I am so used to fighting and running that I don’t know how to stop and perhaps my lovely brain does know, inside, somewhere in a back room, perhaps lovely brain knows that it takes a massive collision with ‘now’ to stop me being so reliant on ‘future’. Perhaps I just need unplugging and plugging back in again. And the PhD is going to be there waiting when I’m ready.

Eight

Eight

 

Let’s start with the facts:

you had my hands,

my narrow feet. We would never

have found school shoes to fit.

 

Your hair was curly,

but the photos were over exposed,

who knows if the copper

of your hair was really there.

Who knows.

 

I didn’t dress you. I let the midwife

do it all; your body a brief jangle

of flopped legs, curved spine,

chin cupped in the midwife’s hand.

That awful bargain-basement-outfit

was my fault as well.

I didn’t bring your clothes.

 

I held you like a doll.

I should have touched

those still-wet curls,

sucked those little fingers

kissed your foot-soles

while you were warm.

I could have pressed you, naked,

to my chest, as other mums must do.

 

I have this, now. Not quite a fact:

You are eight years old, splayed on the sofa.

Your mucky outdoor-Spring-time feet,

are rested on my knees. I kiss them,

lift them, bend the supple joints. And this:

you’re at the table doing homework,

I web your curls across my palm.

 

Bed time: I tuck you in, run my fingers

down your perfect spine.

This is repeated over and over,

there is infinite, infinite time.

 

The Cut Off

In 2003 my husband and I got married on a blustery, autumnal day. It was beautiful. We started trying for a baby on our honey moon, we were so in love. We are still so in love, but of course, fourteen and a bit years later, we are no longer trying. When we went for our first IVF in 2009, six years after starting our journey, we made the decision that we would not be the couple that didn’t know when to stop, we would set in place a definitive cut off, a point by which the drive, the need to have a family would stop, it would be pre determined. It was supposed to help us to make the decision, to take the pressure off. It’s good to have boundaries.  We decided, because the miscarriage rate increases so much and the IVF success rate decreases once you pass forty, that that would be the time that we would stop. It would be the year when I was forty years old. Chris would be fifty in the same year, and we felt that that was a time when he would want to be slowing down a bit and concentrating on himself etc and we literally couldn’t imagine that in all that time we wouldn’t make it, we couldn’t imagine that we would, in fact, be the unlucky ones for whom a family didn’t happen. God, we couldn’t possibly imagine that we’d be so unlucky that despite all the IVF and the years of meds and scans and trying and temp taking we would actually have been successful, reached the third trimester, only for our little girl to die, partly due to mistakes made in our care by staff too busy, and too pressurised in a ward too understaffed and a hospital too underfunded. That we would have two miscarriages, that we would have already had the decision made, really, by a sudden and unexpected loss of fertility, that our chances of adoption would be slim and that, anyway, we couldn’t, literally could not face the emotional trauma after all of that to even look into adoption, and that time would run out, that I would be a few days from my fortieth birthday in a life so very, very different to what we imagined, when we went to bed in las Vegas, drunk on Yard long margaritas, sun burnt and so madly in love, all those years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life, I have a good life, I have worked very very hard to make something different for myself, based on things that I love: poetry, books, mentoring, teaching. Recently I have laughed and joked about how emotionally taxing I’m finding turning forty. I am a bit of a cliche, I understand that, the forty year old constantly checking the sliver hairs, the saggy eye skin, I am not vain, but seriously, please can I be youthful forever, please, TIA. But in all seriousness, I feel utterly bereft. The psychological cut off that was supposed to help us cope just feels like another wall that must be scaled and dealt with. The cemetery fight stuff hasn’t helped, I haven’t even been up to tend Matilda’s grave for weeks because I just can’t cope with the upset that the presence of the signs there is causing.  Other things are adding in to this feeling of sadness, as if the universe is intent on rubbing my face in it. Yes, I know, I’m ‘whining’ I am not looking at this with any degree of perspective – other people are having to actually deal with life changing events right now while I whine on about being forty and being alive and well and in good health with a husband and a life, a good life. I get it. Please don’t judge me, please don’t silence me, it’s how all the taboos around stillbirth and miscarriage and infertility are created, because people are not allowed to be miserable. It’s all relevant too,  I guess. Please give me these few days to wallow in my misery before I put all that heavy armour back on to get back out there and rebuild my life.

We lost our little cat this week. Elvis was eighteen years old. We got Elvis the first year that we lived together, in our first, rented, house. He came out of the cardboard box in a tangle of legs and eyes, ready to know us, ready to explore and embrace his life. I wasn’t very well that year with a kidney problem that would later result in a very serious infection and a big operation, and I think Chris had got him for me to cheer me up. Elvis and I were inseparable, he followed me everywhere. When I had to go back to work, I cried leaving him on his own. Somehow, that day, while we were out he managed to get on the answer machine and rerecord our answer machine message to a series of questioning meows: Meow? Meeeooow? MEOW? it was hilarious. There were many hilarious episodes, he hid things, stole things, destroyed things.  He was a stealer of paintbrushes from people’s houses. I once watched him jump over a wall into the next door neighbours garden while they were painting the fence. The man was kneeling, flaking at something with his finger. Elvis crept up behind him and carefully took the paintbrush from its pot, dragging it between his legs like a lion with a kill. The man didn’t notice and in a comedy sketch scenario, turned to pick up his brush, then spent ten minutes scratching his head and going through the motions of what he had just been doing, trying to locate it. Elvis had a bleach fetish and every time I cleaned the bathroom or the work surfaces he would appear, rolling about on his back and purring. He had his fair share of injuries and illnesses: an eye operation because his lids turned in on themselves, a serious fixing up after catching his armpit on, we think, razor wire, a serious fixing up after somehow catching his other armpit on razor wire, an abscess on his tail, a claw in his head, a blocked urethra, and finally hyperthyroidism. He bore it all well, never fought or scratched when he had medication. When we moved out of the town and to our little house in the village he loved it. We tried to keep him in, to settle, but he was having none of it. He was immediately out of the door and away into the fields. We received a daily delivery of live mice and birds for a while. Two or three in a single day sometimes. It became routine to be scrabbling under a shoe rack or behind the sofa trying to catch mice before work. One day he brought a live, baby rabbit into the bedroom at 3Am and helpfully released it. It got wedged behind the drawers there and I had to pull it out by its leg as it lay there, wild eyed. We released them all, much to the confusion of the cat. As he got older he became more serious, less playful, but still plenty capable of pricking toes that poked out from bed covers. He had this serious, polite manner when he wanted his tea and would tap me gently on my arm while I was working, before looking directly into my eyes and bobbing his head up and down, explaining that he thought there had been a problem, a misunderstanding somewhere and it was definitely time for his tea and could I please, if I didn’t mind, help him to sort out what had gone wrong. He slept by my side every night, we would spoon. He would sit at the end of the bed and wait for me to lie on my side and make the little nest area in front of me, then he would come and press his back into my chest, and I would stroke him and he would purr and we would sleep. Every night. He started to lose weight last week. Over the weekend he stopped eating as much. In the early hours of Monday morning he started coughing and wheezing. I had hoped that when the time came, he would slip away while he slept, but we ended up taking him into the vet’s on Monday morning for the inevitable. He went graciously into the cat carrier and quietly curled onto his towel. He didn’t make a fuss, he didn’t fight. He never did, he was a gentle little soul. In the vet’s we laid him down, gently and he tried to purr. I scratched his little head and kissed him and told him how loved he was. And he died so quickly and so quietly that we barely realised. He looked somewhat surprised afterwards, those beautiful, huge yellow eyes staring straight ahead. And then he changed, without anything changing, he went from looking surprised, to looking like he was no longer there, and he was gone. I cried so hard that first day. Intermittently the second day. Here I am on the third day, still thinking about him. It’s not just that he was my companion, my friend through all those years, our entire journey together, it’s that he was a direct link to before, to that time in our lives before we were even married. He was like a time capsule for our relationship, an emblem for all that time. He was there through it all. And now, a few days before my fortieth, the date when we had decided, all those years ago, that we would now embrace the new, different life, he is gone. And I am grieving for him, and grieving for that other life. And when I go to bed, there’s no little body to fill the space there, I miss him.

This is the worst snow we have seen since the winter my daughter died in 2010. It is unlikely that we will make it to Haworth. I had planned a lovely hotel stay, paid for by my generous mother in law, and a weekend of Bronte activities, something totally literary nerdy and self indulgent, and now that looks likely to be cancelled too. And yes, I know, it is only a weekend away, it can be replanned. But God, it would have just been nice to have that little space away, bubbly by a roaring fire, walking on the moors and no pressure to put the armour on for a few days.

This depressing post has been brought to you by the number forty and the letters F-U-C and K.