This article first appeared on John Cosgrove's personal blog. We are reprinting it here with permission.
From April, there is to be a new right to bereavement leave. The law will give parents who lose a child under the age of 18 two weeks of paid leave. It’s not before time.
28 January 1984 was a Saturday. With a baby of three months we were pleasantly surprised to be allowed something of a lie-in, but we knew it couldn’t last. Our other children, aged two and three, would be up soon, so at half-past six I went to wake Francis for his morning feed.
What I found will be frozen in in my mind for ever. The cot, the cover thrown off, Francis lying impossibly still, the cold clammy feel of his skin, the lack of response…
And then the next six months of my life are a blur. Some things stand out clearly from the general fog. The paramedics refused to tell me Francis was dead: “I’m sorry”, one told me, “we can’t say”.
What did this mean? Was there some hope? No. It seemed a cruel trick, but really we knew.
Two police officers came and took away all the bedding from the cot. I know why, and I might have expected that to be hard, but they were gentle in manner and, actually, what did it matter? Nothing anyone did could make this situation worse.
The news seemed to leach around the town without agency, as if by osmosis. Friends, acquaintances, strangers came and went all weekend: our parish priest, the nuns from the school, who offered to look after our oldest daughter in Reception class on the Monday, and several parishioners.
One neighbour took the two older children for the Saturday, and again on the Sunday. I don’t know where they went. Two others sat in our kitchen and were just there, comforting with their presence. All four doctors from our surgery visited at different times, as did the practice nurse.
To me, none of these are proper, firm memories. I know they happened, but they are just a sequence of faces, drifting in and out of my recollection like ghostly presences in a dream.
You cannot compare pain. Toothache can drive out every other thought; arthritis cripples and dominates lives. But the pain of those dark winter days in 1984, as January turned into February, was worse to me than anything physical ever could be.
And the pain never seems to go. It is quiescent now for long periods, but always ready to flare up, even 36 years later, triggered perhaps by an image on the TV, or a careless word.
For years, when meeting someone new, the question: “How many children do you have?” could reduce me to tears.
At first, the self-opinionated theorists could upset us. Those who declared with total conviction that Francis died because of: too many clothes, too few clothes, becoming tangled in blankets, smothered by pillows…
In reality this is ignorance. No one knows. Except, except…in 1984 the best advice was to put babies down on their fronts so they could not choke if they were sick in their sleep. I try not to think of that, because the advice has now changed. Now, parents are told to put babies on their backs, and the incidence of cot death has been drastically cut. But it still happens.
The few silver linings were very poor solace. We took up the nuns’ generous offer: our daughter, at three and a half, thrived in school, and the irregular arrangement became permanent, so she gained two extra terms of formal education.
Monday morning phone call
We went on to have three more, beautiful children. We became more resilient: I have often been asked why, and how, I can remain calm in very difficult situations, whether it be an awkward member of staff, a child in a meltdown, parents shouting and swearing at each other at the school gate, even Twitter trolls…none of these gets under my skin, and the reason is awful in its simplicity. Our baby died. Nothing ever can be as bad again.
Somehow, that year, the children I taught got the best O-level results I ever managed. I have no idea how. That spring and summer are missing in my memory. Up to about August, my last very clear recollection is of my headteacher phoning up on the Monday morning.
He was very sorry, he told me, and he wanted to express sympathy on behalf of everyone at school.
He didn’t have to ring. His intention was kind, and I know he did not mean his next words the way they sounded. But I have never been able to forget them, or how they made me feel. Try as I might not to let them, they affected my view of him for the rest of his time at the school.
“So”, he said, “when are you coming back?”
Thanks to Lucy Herd, and others who have campaigned for the new law, bereavement leave will be a legal entitlement, and means no grieving parent should ever again hear those words uttered in that way.
John Cosgrove is a retired headteacher, author and freelance writer. He tweets as @johncosgrove405