Along with William’s anniversary, his birthday is one of the toughest times for us. It’s personal and a time specific to him. Christmas and Mother’s Day are for the mass population, but 13th-17th November, and 10th February are 5 days dedicated to his journey entering the world, and then his journey and trauma leaving the world.
Losing your child feels like the cruellest gift that just keeps on giving. Take the weeks leading up to William’s birthday. Bereaved families would love to follow the usual traditions of baking a cake, blowing up balloons, wrapping up presents and planning a party. Perhaps spending the night before, scrolling through your camera roll of final bump pictures and thinking about their life. Particularly the previous 12 months and how much they’ve changed from one year to the next. Chatting about what you think the next year will entail.
One of the next milestones for us comes this year. We would have been applying for William’s place at the same school which Max and Lewis attend. I remember Max asking me how many years he would have at school with William, the answer was 2 years. 2 years of the sibling photo which I’d have framed and kept forever more. Instead, I witness other families’ children turn a year older. They’re turning 3, 4, 5, 6 years old, as if it’s no big deal. In fact, it’s the same for my other 2 children Max and Lewis. We count down the weeks and days until their birthday, assuming they’ll be alive to blow the candles out on their cake. We take for granted that we’ll have them for another year… but for William, we are constantly faced with the reality that he didn’t get to turn 2, and that he only had 1 birthday. He always remains 21 months.
My grief has evolved over the past 12 months. Last year I sat looking out of the window feeling very confused, my world came to a halt in November 2021, but almost 3 months on, there was all this apparent change happening to world around me. Winter had swept me off my feet and I had landed 3 months later into February, in what felt like the blink of an eye. Why couldn’t the world have stood still with me and allowed me to start processing that William had died, not force me into a new season.
At the start of February, Spring bulbs were waking up like a tortoise coming out of hibernation. Last year I took personal offence that snowdrops and daffodils were in bloom around our acer trees in the garden. Didn’t they know we were in deep mourning and colour in the garden wasn’t welcome here? The flowers didn’t care and like clockwork they came up, opened their petals and stretched out from their deep sleep of winter.
William’s birthday arrived last year; Keith and I sat and cried and looked through photos of our child in disbelief. How was this beautiful, smiling little boy not here with us? We were lost, our first birthday without him.
We went to a garden centre and started to look at, and design William’s memory garden. We wanted the day to pass as quickly and as quietly as possible. Once the boys were home from school, we each wrote a message on a number two helium balloon and let it go, into the sky. We stood there stunned that this was what William’s birthday had come to. A balloon and whole lot of upset. We made it through the day, no cake to cut, no singing happy birthday and no toddler to put to bed that night. But, we survived it.
I remember when I was assigned my wonderful key worker from Shooting Star Children’s Hospice, a few weeks after William died. We chatted and one thing that stood out, and what surprised me, was when she told me that the second of everything can feel harder than the first. I couldn’t imagine that the second birthday, anniversary and Christmas could be harder than the first, but it can…. Because people and time has moved on another year, and you’re not top of their priority list anymore.
Last year I was hidden away from the world, no one expected me to do school drop off and pick up, I was moving at a very slow pace. My diary was empty, and I chose to seek shelter in the safety of my home. I was an extremely fragile woman. I didn’t know what was happening to me, aches and pains all over my body, the intrusive thoughts that told me, it was my fault that William had died. It was because of me that he wasn’t getting to his 2nd birthday. I was lost and at the lowest point of my life.
A year on and 12 months seem to have flown by, by that I mean that the months have passed by at great speed, yet the actual days drag. Life has moved on, it’s been 15 months, most people only know its William’s birthday now because I tell them. There isn’t as much time for friends and family to sit in their grief. I notice it when I mention something uncomfortable about my feelings, or grief, and they’re quick to dismiss it or change the subject. They’re done with the awkwardness of this grief topic and want to talk about something less harrowing than baby/child loss. They don’t understand, they’re not living and breathing life without their child. They’re quick to change the subject about my dead child, and it’s usually to the subject of their living child. They’re more comfortable to chat about that, without the consideration of my feelings. I’ve become a great masker of my invisible pain, and can put on a great fake smile when needs be, because sometimes that’s easier.
Changes I can see in myself don’t come freely or without guilt. I am learning that grief can co-exist in my life with the positive steps I’m making for myself and my family. It’s like climbing a mountain each day, but I search for happiness and I cling onto hope that this life can be beautiful again. This year I have welcomed the spring bulbs, there are hundreds planted in William’s garden. Every day I check to see if anything new has popped up, if the brown soil is cracking and green shoots and buds are starting to wake up. I planted them in October and hoped they would make it through winter, and they have. Funny how I ‘hope’ for my plants and bulbs to survive the winds, plummeting temperatures, and the frost to make it through to spring, but I do. They were planted in 2022 and have come to bloom in 2023. I must have had hope that they and I would survive…and here they are, and here I am. Alive and surviving, with comfort in my heart knowing that William’s garden will look beautiful this year, and not feeling how I did 12 months ago, where the flowers made me angry, and like they were a traitor to me and my feelings.
4 days before William’s birthday I bought 7 little plants from the garden centre, not really sure what I was going to do with them, but knowing his garden needed some colour in it. On the drive home it came to me (it always does, when I least expect it, but I do trust myself to come up with something special and unique to mark William’s milestones), I thought, I’m going to make a number 3 out of flowers in his garden. Last year we didn’t have his memory garden, but this year and every year from now on, I can make his age out of flowers and plant them in the run up to 10th February. This new and beautiful tradition is something I’m proud of and helps make the week leading up to his birthday that little bit easier. It also allows me to write the number 3 down to see. I know he'll never get to turn 3, but there's something about freeing that number from my mind.
A birthday reminds you of the future you don’t get to have with your little one. I try to remember what Max and Lewis were like at 3, I can’t, probably because I took for granted that they made it to that age. I was wrapped up in making the perfect cake, buying presents, planning a special day and definitely saying to my husband, ‘I don’t want them to grow up. I want them to stay little forever’, but I was wrong to say that, because I’ve learned it’s a privilege to turn a year older, to experience the 4 seasons each year that the UK has to offer us. Just like me, so many bereaved families wish with all their heart that their child was given the simple gift of time. Time to age one more year.
All my love,