The other night, I glanced at Leo’s photos in our living room. One of my favourite photos of me holding Leo. It was the day we left. I got dressed that day, and I’m so glad I did. I showered, put actual clothes on, and walked around the bereavement suite, holding my son. We both sat on the sofa, took turns to have some time alone with him, and read our letters to him. It felt surreally normal. To sit on the sofa, with a newborn in my arms, next to my wife, full of pride.
Grief stained pride.
Those photos in our living room have been there for nearly two years. We displayed them at Leo’s funeral. They are probably the most looked at photos I have of our time with Leo. Yet, I looked at them the other night and felt such great unfamiliarity. I didn’t recognise them. I didn’t recognise him. Time. Time has created this expanse between me and my son, to the point that I don’t recognise him like I used to.
I haven’t really looked at Leo’s photos since before Eli was born. I used to get them up on my phone, scroll through them, stroke the screen, and it would either comfort me or break me. But, either way, it used to be my go-to in grief – to remind myself of our time with him, to feel close to him, to see that it was all real, that he existed, that this grief was for someone. But I haven’t done that in some time. His photos are there, they are around, I see them, and share them – but I haven’t really looked at them for quite some time.
Before Eli, Leo was the image of newborn that I had in my head. Now we’ve had Eli, a baby who looks incredibly like his older brother even six months on from the age Leo was and always will be, and I find it hard to relate to them both individually – to relate to both dead and living images of our sons. It is in Eli’s life that Leo’s death has become more apparent, and with that I think his photos have become harder to look at. Maybe because whilst Eli looks like Leo, Leo too looks like Eli.
This approach to his second birthday just makes this distance feel even more real… and painful. Time doesn’t heal, it can’t. It teaches, it soothes, it softens but it doesn’t heal. Feeling the most distant I ever have from the physical Leo is crushing. Its the realisation that yet again, we are another year on. I have sobbed, I have cried at nothing, I have laid awake going over and over two years ago – grief doesn’t go, time doesn’t really heal. Not how we’d sometimes like it too, anyway.
I can feel that this approach to his birthday is different from last year, the anxiety and confusion is not less – its just refocused. I still feel uneasy about the things we have planned, yet not planning anything would feel worse. I feel confused that we are here. I feel deeply sad that this is our lives, and keep apologising to The Wife for it. Its all still incredibly surreal. Whilst everyone’s life has gone on, and whilst ours have journeyed forward – Leo is still dead, and that truth is just as hard to sit with as it was almost two years ago.
We are well rehearsed now, and as a result the approach hasn’t felt as full of dread for as long – but neither was the approach to Christmas, yet Christmas was still hard. I think our experience is merely giving us extra space, yet leaving us unprepared, meaning grief catches us more by surprise. And no-one likes surprise grief, least of all when you want to feel joy.
Grief these days isn’t like it was – its part of the norm of day to day life now, some days we are just quieter, or sadder, or just can’t quite bimble along like we should be able to, we cry out of the blue, sometimes just a tear, other times a full on sob, sometimes we break – but its part of the norm. Its not everyday, or even every week, but when it comes (like at times of the year when you have Christmas, New Year and Birthdays within a month of each other), its managed with relative ease compared to the early days of grief. We allow ourselves now to flow from feeling and embracing the grief, to doing the washing up, or the food shop, or answering the phone with too much ease – familiarity in the ebbs and flows has taught us too well. Its the norm. Its not really of note anymore. It stops us in our tracks still, but we just keep on going.
As a result I feel somewhat stronger when thinking about his birthday. I’m more able to plan things that I could only dream of doing last year. I wasn’t brave enough to do anything outside of our close family, yet this year, I have included some friends. Although, I still never feel confident that anyone will really care enough. The disappointment of those who left us, still runs through me whenever I ask anything of others. That fear that people will at some point stop really caring about him never stops. After all, he isn’t their son. Surely people are bored of it by now? Its been two years!
Two years, yet I can still visualise it all. I can visualise our last, final scan two days before he died – on the 12th. The Junior Doctor Strike that was happening. I can remember the phone calls and text messages telling family, all was fine. I remember where we parked that day. I remember cooking dinner that night. I remember taking this photo. I remember the next day, the 13th, pottering in the nursery, constantly rearranging books, basking in the joy of kicks and rolls. I remember the morning of the 14th, every single moment of it. I remember sitting in the waiting room, being called through, finding out he had died, being taken to the bereavement suite, meeting our midwife and the way she talked us through what was going to happen. I remember sitting on that sofa, still carrying Leo, now dead. I remember staring out the window marvelling at the view from the seventh floor. I remember that evening, I remember the following day, the 15th. The intense fear. The shame, the confusion, the exhaustion. I remember repacking our hospital bag, re-choosing clothes. I remember going back in in the morning. Where we parked the car. Being too early for induction and walking around the field, and sitting on the bench. I remember going down to delivery suite. Meeting our new midwife. The meals we ate. The conversations we had. The jokes we made. The effects of gas and air. The faff of the epidural. The birth. Holding him. Seeing him. Texting people to say he’d been born. Recovering from the epidural. Finally being allowed to go back to the bereavement suite. The Midwife Assistant who said ‘congratulations’ presumably by mistake. The blur of the days in the bereavement suite, of round the clock pain and tears, exhaustion and tenderness. Of the comfort I felt just to have Leo in the room with us. To be able to just hold the side of his cot. Of taking photo after photo after photo. Of saying goodbye. Of walking out, memory box in hand, trying desperately not to look at anyone. Of going home. Without him. I remember it all.
Two years on, its all still there, so horrendously vivid, in all its technicolour with the intensity of the emotions as the soundtrack to the film that replays over and over in my mind.
Almost two years. I don’t remember what life was like before anymore. Life changed course. But those moments, almost two years ago, are embedded in my every cell.
– J x