Despite reading so many peoples experiences of loss, I still get hit hard by some of the systems that lack in any compassion that surround loss. One aspect that I know many families have to encounter, that we did not due to Leo being stillborn, is a police investigation and everything that follows. It feels so utterly callous. The impact of it is clearly life long. I urge anyone who works alongside the bereaved in any capacity to take note of every single one of Suzanne’s words.
Please welcome Suzanne and Leighton to the Diversity In Loss series…
The lift door slides open.
It is the dead of the night and we step into a dimly lit corridor filled with parents shhh-ing, comforting their children’s cries. I clutch a cream shoe box with white knuckles and tear stained cheeks, my clothes drenched in breast milk and vomit. I hold the box closer to me, protecting it from the stares as we slowly, reluctantly, make our way down towards the exit.
A mother catches my gaze as she comforts her small child who is nestled into her. Her face softens then immediately changes as she catches sight of the oversized box, she looks at my face. Here is the first pity gaze – the first of many.
For eight hours before walking out of the children’s hospital, with our box of hurried memories, my healthy, beautiful son Leighton died suddenly at seven and half months old.
In the U.K. one in four of us will lose a child to miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. Yet under this umbrella term of infant loss, what many don’t want to see or know is that amongst all that pain and heartache there’s yet more. A death even more taboo. In the U.K. alone, 255 babies die of SIDS/SUDI (Sudden Infant Death/Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy) per year. My baby was one of them.
The grief that consumes you following the death of a child at any stage is horrific, a lifetime of possibilities erased and in it’s place a lifetime of pain begins. When your child dies unexpectedly there are a few things that are different, more intrusive and more painful. There are processes that, by law, have to be adhered to following the death of a child in infancy. Processes that aren’t applicable, or even thought about, should your child die before they are born.
For when a child dies suddenly and unexpectedly the police are involved from the moment your child breathes their last breath.
My rational mind understands this completely. So many children have slipped through this country’s system over the years. They have to ensure no foul play is involved. They have to ensure a child hasn’t been harmed.
The mama in me, the broken human still in shock of the day’s events that had unfolded, was shocked. Then later angry. Approximately an hour or two after Leighton died in my arms, there came a quiet knock on the door of our heartbreak-silenced room. One of the nurses (or maybe a doctor, I don’t quite remember) quietly stated that the police were here to speak to us and could they come in?
I wasn’t in a position to say no. I’ve never been in trouble with the police before, but a sense of panic washed over me.
They thought I had killed my baby.
Two detectives causally walked in, a male and a female. I studied their faces as they adjusted to the dimly lit room – the deathly silence did not lift. The female, who would support us throughout the investigation, and a male who I don’t think we ever saw again were both unreadable. My world had fallen apart and they were expressionless. The pair made brief apologies on Leighton’s passing, “this is just procedure” they said. A phrase we would hear repeatedly over the course of the next few days. Whilst Leighton’s peaceful body cooled in my arms, cocooned safely against those who would interrupt us, they asked, ever so lightly, if I could make my first statement. I was forced to relive the events of that afternoon again, in forensic detail. From what time he woke up, to what he had for lunch, up to the moment he became seriously unwell. I had to take them right up to that point, where I was holding him physically but, spiritually he was gone. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to speak, to tell them about his final hours. At that moment the night was dark but, my grief was infinitely darker.
This continued for a short while before they casually announced they would need my husband to come with them, to let them into our house so they could take pictures of our home and our personal belongings. We would have to hand them a key to our family home, and until their investigation was complete we weren’t allowed to go home. “You will have to find somewhere else to stay.” We are sorry for your loss, this is just procedure – it echoes around the room, as if it were an announcement for a delayed train. Always reminding us: this was just procedure.
My baby had just died. I had never experienced this level of grief before, my heart had just been shattered. Nothing was standard procedure. This day was not standard procedure. My baby had died and I was feeling more at fault than anyone could imagine. I couldn’t save him or protect him, and the presence of the police was only serving to validate these feelings. They thought I had killed my baby. And so did I. We weren’t allowed back to our family home and although Leighton remained in my arms, he was under police care. This was not ‘just procedure’ to me.
When we left the hospital, the lightness of our oversized cream shoe box taunting, it would be four days until our child’s physical self would be released into our care again. Four days of interviews. Four days of statements from grief-stricken parents in separate rooms. Four days of phone calls and statements from professionals who attended to Leighton. Four days of our home being under police arrest. Four days of signing out our eldest son’s medicines. Four days of questions. Why do you want Leighton’s blanket? He slept with it. It smells like him.
Then finally a simple phone call ended it all. A phone call. Over. A death certificate had been issued. Our son was being released back to us. “We will drop off the certificate and your keys. We are so sorry for your loss.” He spent four days alone in a hospital mortuary. The investigation was closed. “This was just procedure.”
This was just procedure.
Four days I felt like the establishment believed I was a criminal. I believed I was seen as a criminal. Those early days of grief were consumed with their involvement and presence. But we were the lucky ones. No inquest to wait for, no statement to give in court. Post-mortem results immediately. There was no media snooping about, clawing for the story of a family’s tragic loss. We went through hell, yet we were the lucky ones.
This is not the norm. Countless families have been subjected to more intense and intruding investigations. Many have had to endure an inquest. Have had to stand up in a court of law, swear an oath, in front of a judge all because their child died unexpectedly of an unknown cause. So many bereaved parents, hours after the death of their child, have been made to re-enact their child’s final moments with a doll. Parents in this country have been subjected to invasive urine, hair and blood tests. The majority have implications of blame adding to the trauma, increasing it three-fold. An unfortunate few will catch the attention of the media: a half-told story twisted to imply blame or to hint at unknown and mysterious circumstances, speculation, vilified by an army of unknown public, angry and aggressive at the untruth.
The trauma of the investigation lasts as long as the grief. It lasts a lifetime.
But, it’s just procedure.