'All we really want for Christmas, is him'

Jess from The Legacy of Leo writes about coping with grief through the festive season and the beautiful way she and her wife are commemorating their baby boy Leo, born sleeping last January.

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Tommy's guest blog, 17/12/2016, by Jess Clasby-Monk

This time last year, Jess Clasby-Monk and her wife were preparing for Christmas, full of excitement and anticipation for the birth of their baby Leo who was then at 34 weeks gestation.

Tragically, Leo was born sleeping at 37+1 weeks last January.

Over the last year, Jess has blogged about their experience of stillbirth and their on-going journey after loss to 'try and make sense of the constant running thoughts' in her head.

We hope you find comfort in her words this Christmas

by Jess

Christmas 2015. I was 34 weeks pregnant, and had just started maternity leave. We were on the final countdown and making the last preparations to welcoming our first baby.  It was so exciting – this was actually happening!

My wife had put baby milestone cards in my stocking, to match our pregnancy milestone cards. My sister had bought us the nicest multi-coloured winter romper – a strong contender for the ‘coming home outfit’.

Everyone was thinking ahead to next Christmas, and how much fun it would be with a little one around trying to pull down the tree and playing with the wrapping paper!  

We braved the Christmas sales to buy the last big purchases with our families - the car seat, the pushchair, the changing bag. And a few more exciting things, like a Christmas Jumper for a nearly one year old – all ready for next year!

By New Year, we were ready – just the final tweaks on the nursery to be completed, and we were done.

As we left our families and friends over Christmas and New Year, everyone kept saying “When we see you next time…!” in anticipation.

We never expected that the next time we would see them, we would be parents, but it would be at our baby’s funeral. Leo never came home.

He died just a month after Christmas. Our lives… just, changed. In an instant.

The baby milestone cards have been left unopened. They were unpacked from the hospital bag. There would be no ‘first smile’ or ‘I am two months old’ photos. The romper has never been worn. The car seat, once installed just in case of surprise early arrivals, now sits in the empty cot, collecting dust.

Now, as we approach our first Christmas since Leo died, the festive spirit is no longer there. We can pretend, and act along, put up the tree, and buy the presents.

Yet the excitement, the festive cheer, the extra dose of effort to make it special is a challenge to muster.

Any celebration after the loss of your baby is painful. It’s hard to comprehend how you can celebrate your birthday or an anniversary when your baby is no longer with you. After all, what is there to celebrate?

As the year has gone on, we have learnt how best to approach these kinds of events: lower our expectations, keep it low key and include Leo somehow.

Christmas, however, is even harder than the other normal celebrations. There is no escaping it – even if you wanted to.

Christmas is not just a day. It starts in the summer, with the family conversations of “Where is everyone going to be this Christmas”, and then the adverts with pregnancy announcements and happy families, the supermarkets selling ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ baby-grows, the tea-break conversations of work colleagues discussing their children’s gift lists, the social media staple of Elf of the Shelf, and the constant memories of last year, and the what ifs and he should be here’s....

It’s relentless, and when you are not feeling able to relax into the festive mood – Christmas seems brighter and louder somehow.

There is just no escaping it. No chance to catch your breath.

All we really want for Christmas, is him. Is to see his eyes, to hear his cries, to feel his warmth. I would trade it all, for just one moment again. To remember what it felt like to feel him alive, to have him here with us, and to not understand this pain.

Back in summer, amid another breakdown around the six month mark following Leo’s death, and birth, we knew we had to work out how we would tackle such a huge event – our baby boy’s first Christmas, just weeks before his first birthday in January.

We decided to follow the lessons we had learnt already; lower the expectations, keep it low key, and include him somehow.

And it’s the including him aspect that really helps soften the pain.

It is, and never will be a cure. It isn’t us ‘making lemonade with the lemons’, it is simply finding a way to parent our baby, who isn’t with us anymore, just as we have done all year long.

We decided to dedicated Advent and Christmas to Leo - especially this year, the one year we knew for certain could be all about him.

So during advent, we have been doing #AdventForLeo. With his large Christmas tree advent calendar, gifted to us last Christmas from his Granny in readiness, we placed an activity to do each day – a memory to create, or kindness to spread.

We have donated toys to the local children’s hospital appeal, left money for people’s car parking, bought strangers a coffee, attended our local baby loss Christmas remembrance service, decorated Leo’s grave with his own tree, and placed his ornaments on ours.

It really is tempting somedays to switch of the lights, and pretend none of it is happening – that the reality is just a dream.

Christmas cannot be ignored though, not fully, no matter how hard you try. Every trip outside has reminders, and no one quite understands the anguish that it all creates.

So by including him in our activities and by allowing them to be festive at times, means he is still apart of the season for us, we are able to share his story a little wider, and create new memories associated with him. I have a feeling it will become an annual tradition.

On Christmas Day we will visit his grave, read him some new festive books that we have added to his collection, and build him some new Lego. We will start the day with Leo, and that will hopefully give us some peace to relax.

The thought of us not buying him anything for Christmas is more painful than knowing that what we do buy him, he wont be able to unwrap. It only feels right that he has some new things for his collection at home, and on his grave.

I knew that other bereaved parents would also find this season such a challenge, especially in the early days of grief. So I decided to send some Advent Comfort Boxes to a few friends that we have made this year because of Leo.

I included a personalised Christmas tree decoration with their baby’s name on, a wish bracelet for future wishes, and a keyring Sharpie so wherever they are, they’ll always be able to write their baby’s name somewhere (a must have for most bereaved parents!), and some comfort ideas for when the month gets too challenging – bath bombs, hot chocolate, posh chocolates, and some adult colouring in to relax, and a candle.

Self-care is so important at times like these, as is acknowledging that the build up is often the most stressful aspect of the event. That’s why it’s important for us to take a step back, be kind to ourselves, and recognise our limits.

There are so many events and activities during the festive season that very quickly it all begins to fall apart.

I’ve decided to skip this year’s work Christmas do – the memories of last year, heavily pregnant, enjoying myself and the difficulties in relaxing into joyous social occasions are just too much.

We are skipping the big family Christmas gatherings, and just doing Christmas for the two of us – a complete first, and something that would have never happened if Leo hadn’t died.

Recognizing the challenges, and then working out how best to approach them helps us to feel in control, and settles the anxious anticipation of the event, to an extent.

Baby loss is far too common. There will be so many families facing Christmas without their much loved, and always missed babies.

And sadly, it’s not far from my mind, that there will be many facing that devastating news and dark, hopeless grief as others open their stockings and begin their celebrations

Jess and her wife are currently 10 weeks pregnant and will be visiting Tommy’s Rainbow Clinic for placenta scans in the New Year.

Being pregnant again after a stillbirth can be an extremely anxious time. If you are struggling with your emotions then please know that you are not alone. You can read a supporter’s story of anxiety after stillbirth here.

It’s important that you are mindful of your mental health in pregnancy, especially if you have previously suffered a loss. Take a look at our mental wellbeing advice page and when to seek help here.

If you want to read more from Jess you can take a look at her blog, The Legacy of Leo, here.

Read more Tommy's Christmas stories

Read more about support after a miscarriage

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