A letter to myself after neonatal loss
My son Grey was born via emergency C-section on a Sunday evening in 2019. It was 17 November – World Prematurity Day – and he was 9 weeks early.
When he was 12 days old, our neonatologist and 2 wonderful nurses took my husband Mike and I into a quiet room and gave us our son’s devastating diagnosis. I have a picture of me holding him that afternoon, smiling at the tiny bundle on my chest, eyes red, lids puffy with tears. After 21 days tucked into an incubator in a NICU in Kent, on 8 December 2019, Grey died in my arms.
A letter to my past self
If I could pull up a chair next to the girl who sat with Grey curled into her neck on that day our lives changed forever, this is what I would say…
In the next few days, you will have to do things that no parent should have to do. You will say goodbye to Grey. You will lay down his tiny beautiful body and know you will never pick him up again. You will plan his funeral, tell friends they will never meet him. And then you will live for the rest of your life without him.
The weeks and months that come after today will be strange, confusing and unspeakably painful. In some ways that will never leave – some days you will be transported straight back to the raw agony of this moment. But, you will come, bit by bit, to accept that pain. Hold tight to that little boy in the time you have left, because when you can’t anymore, he’ll see you through.
In the early days you will feel numb, the acute pain will come to you a little later – I’m sure that is different for everyone. There will be times when you find sleeping easier than waking – those heartbreaking split seconds when everything is ok, before the crushing weight of reality falls. Know that that will ease. I know you don’t want to, but you’ll find resilience inside yourself that you didn’t know you had.
This is not your fault. I know you won’t believe that part, even writing it, I’m not sure I believe it, but trust people who know better than you do. This is not your fault.
Grey will remain a vivid presence in your life – with you always. You will often wonder who he would have been – allow yourself to imagine, though the thought will make you sad. Remember that a little of him lives on in each of his brothers – the one who met him and the one who never will.
Say his name as loudly and as often as you want (and know that the more you say it, the less uncomfortable people will feel to hear it). Tell his story, include him in your family. Never feel ashamed or strange to do that. You are a mother to 3 children, no matter what the world sees.
And remember that speaking about him is your choice. When you choose not to, don’t feel guilty. Remember the mother who said to you that he is precious, you don’t have to share him with everyone – not telling people about him does not dishonour his memory.
Please know that it’s ok to not be ok. Cry. Whenever you want. Never feel ashamed of it, never apologise for it (that part’s hard). In time you will discover that you can feel agony alongside happiness, deep sorrow alongside deep joy.
You will meet wonderful people. You will find a shared bond with others who carry great pain, some you may never have met had it not been for Grey’s death – a sharp and beautiful truth.
Know that everyone grieves differently. Let yourself feel whatever you feel, try not to compare yourself to anyone else. You are where you need to be. Don’t worry about smiling too soon, or screaming in agony many months after he is gone.
You and Mike will feel this differently. And that’s ok. Try to make space for the ways separately and together you will process this huge, enormous, life-changing thing. The different ways you will carry Grey with you.
We live in a world that fears death, grief and bereavement. That can be isolating. Remember the wise words another grieving mother said to you – forgive anyone who says an odd thing. Because people will say odd things – and those things will hurt. Sometimes you’ll feel angry, upset. You are allowed to.
Some people will not want to face your pain – know that there are many reasons for this. Try to forgive the faltering awkwardness, to understand that people don’t know what to say – you don’t know what to say. Don’t be afraid to tell someone that they’ve said the wrong thing – you want to know when you say the wrong thing.
Some days you’ll need to sit quietly with your sadness. Other days your grief will feel loud, intrusive, difficult to manage. Allow yourself to feel what you feel. Take support, let people carry you.
Try to remember the clarity you feel about the world right now. And then forgive yourself when you don’t, when you worry about small things, when you get bogged down in the humdrum of life. When the day to day is boring and irritating and stressful.
Embrace the ordinary. Celebrate it. Take time to breathe in moments that before might have seemed mundane. Remember Joan Didion’s wise, wise words – ‘life changes in the instant’. See the magic in the regular. Squeeze the ones you love a little tighter.
Most of all, remember that this grief is love and you will carry it forever, carry Grey forever.
And I promise, there will come a day when you look at that photo, Grey snuggled into your chest, and remember first the joy of that little heart beating next to yours, before the blinding pain of his diagnosis.
You will smile again. You will be happy, sometimes more than you could imagine before this little boy came into your life.
You are going to be ok.
Georgie with Grey on her chest
Writing a book about my experiences
I've written more about Grey, and the months following his death, in my memoir, If Not For You. If you'd like to find out more or pick up a copy, you can check it out at Waterstones.
For our information and support resources following a neonatal loss, click here.