Sunday, 21 January 2018

The New Normal

Sunday. Two days post-funeral. It is snowing. I am sitting, staring out of the window watching the snowflakes against the backdrop of an aged, evergreen tree. I am surrounded by beautiful mementos of my daughter, and the snow is settling on the holly tree... and I am crying all the tears that I never shed on Friday, at her funeral.

"Funerals are for the living, not for the dead," my partner has always said. Funerals allow those of us left behind to express grief over our lost loved one, who is already gone. I poured my heart and soul into Holly's funeral. I gave her in death all the things I couldn't give her in life. I spent the weeks since her brief existence, planning every moment, sourcing the right things to remember her by, making things by hand, recording the music myself. I even carried her up the aisle... And her funeral was everything I wished it to be. It was beautiful, and touching, and poignant. It was far better attended than I could have ever hoped for, and I am moved by all those who came to say goodbye to my baby girl, who they never met in life. Her funeral allowed everyone who never met her the opportunity to grieve. I never turned around during the service, but I could hear the crying behind me. It was as it should be... And yet, I barely shed a tear.

It took so much planning, so much mental effort. Adrenaline kicked in a few hours before the service, and in the immediate run-up, all I could feel was anxiety. I wanted it to be perfect. Then I was presented with familiar faces; faces of loved ones, in greater numbers than I had expected. I felt a strange contradiction of emotions; joy at seeing people I hadn't seen in a while, a strong desire to hug everyone, and to laugh with them... But everyone wanted to give me their sympathy, yet I wanted to smile, and laugh, and catch up, and hear good news about their lives! And there were enough people present to make it difficult to get around everyone... it felt important to mingle, to make sure nobody was missed out.

During the service, I never felt present. I stared at her beautiful tributes, and her sweet little casket (so like a Moses basket). But she was already gone. I didn't hear the sermon, except for the moment our lovely pastor choked up. It was the only time I zoned in. At the moment she cried for us, it felt real.

I knew the songs by heart, because I had recorded them myself. I knew the poems by heart (printed by hand). I can relive her funeral, and it was beautiful, but I barely shed a tear at the time.

Funerals are for the living, not for the dead. But, for me, I would go one step further. Funerals allow guests to grieve, and can even provide a sense of closure. I've been to funerals before where I have cried throughout the entire service and wondered how on earth the family are holding it together so well. When you "host" a funeral, it can be very different. When you have planned every moment, it may not be the "final goodbye" anticipated. For me, those goodbyes had already taken place... For some, a funeral is a necessary conclusion. But for some of us living on a daily basis with grief, a funeral changes nothing...

I am glad everyone else got the chance to meet her, and to grieve for her. I am proud of her send-off. I will remember it as a beautiful service. But I was not able to grieve. Not at her funeral.

Now two days on, I realise there is no conclusion - nothing has changed. And I am faced with a new reality. The feeling of emptiness that she left behind, that I have tried to fill with planning, and with words, and with "beauty"... that feeling will never go. That emptiness is part of my world now. The chasm didn't close with her funeral, the void lives on. After all the well-wishes, and the heartfelt condolences, and the fun-filled laughter of friends, I realise as I stare out of the window at the snow, that this emptiness is my new normal. There is beauty in sorrow, there is beauty in song, there is beauty in snow, and there is certainly beauty in friendships (I value those friendships now, like never before). But this emptiness, this silence... The emptiness is not beautiful. It is hard to accept. The emptiness hurts like nothing else.

I smiled, and I laughed with friends at her funeral. And I will smile and laugh again. I cherish the thoughts of well-wishers, the refrain of a song, the twinkling beauty of fairy-lights, the perfection of freshly fallen snow. And above all else, I cherish the cuddles of my wonderful son. In all of those things, there is gladness, and gratitude; there is beauty, and yes, there is happiness. But the emptiness will always be there, hidden behind the smiles. Emptiness is my new normal, and it always will be.

Snow settling on the holly tree.
"The first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly."

Friday, 19 January 2018

Farewell, Holly Rose: Her Funeral

Friday 19th January. Her funeral has been and gone. It was a lovely day, and I am proud to share it with you, for those who wanted to attend and weren't able to.

When Holly Rose first passed away, we initially thought we would content ourselves with a small, perfunctory service, just myself and my partner. Because she was born alive, and lived for a short time, it became our legal responsibility to arrange a burial or cremation, and along with that, we came to realise that perhaps a service for her would, in time, become something we could look upon with gratitude. I am so relieved that she had a proper funeral. I poured my heart and soul into her service, with a lot of personal, handmade touches, and in the end, I would not have wanted it any other way. I like to think we did her proud.

We printed the order of service for guests ourselves (admittedly, after a certain amount of swearing at the reluctance of our irritating printer). Sweet and simple. And I will share the contents below.

Holly didn't arrive at the funeral in a hearse, as I felt it was too formal, so she came in the funeral director's car. The service began with "Holly's Carol,"* which played while I carried her casket up the aisle, myself, accompanied by her Daddy.

Holly's Carol is known as "The Sans Day Carol," which is a traditional Cornish carol. I sang it every day throughout advent at Rowan's school, during the run-up to Holly's birth. It isn't a carol I knew prior to singing it daily with Rowan at his school, and because of the relevance of the lyrics, I wanted to play it at her funeral. I couldn't find a version I liked, so this version was arranged and recorded specially for her, with musical arrangement and instrumental backing by Michael Lovelock. Lead vocals by myself, with mixing by my sister, Jill Priest. Also featuring some backing vocals provided by Holly's auntie Jolly, and her big brother, Rowan - aged six.

Our former pastor, Jeannie Benger, from Chesterfield's Ikon Church then spoke a lovely sermon (although I confess I remember very little of it, due to adrenaline kicking in). However, we really appreciate your words, Jeannie. xxx

The next song was "The Rose," sung by myself and recorded by our very dear friend, Rod Munro, on the day I met him some years ago. This rough, one-take recording was played to Holly Rose during the brief time she was alive.*

This was followed by Jeannie reading Psalm 139, Verse 1 - 18 "For the Director of Music."

1 You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

Followed by a short extract from a children's book (frequently read to her brother),
"No Matter What," by Debi Gliori:

"Look at the stars - how they shine and glow,
but some of those stars died a long time ago.
Still they shine in the evening skies
Love, like starlight, never dies."

The final song was my version of "Baby Mine," with some re-written lyrics by myself. This was recorded some time ago, and I will always be grateful that I had the foresight to play this song and "The Rose" for Holly while she was with us.*

The curtain then came around Holly's little casket, and the tributes that we had arranged for her. She spent most of her existence on the stage with me (while I travelled the UK in a musical theatre tour while pregnant), so it seemed only fitting that her service ended with "the final curtain."

It was a short, but beautiful service, with almost everything hand-made by ourselves, from the printed order of service, to the flower arrangements. It was also far better attended than I had ever hoped for, and I hope those of you who were not able to attend will appreciate being able to share the moment retrospectively, via these photos and links.

Holly's floral tribute (the vase with the white roses) was arranged by me (although I did have a brief panic on the morning of her funeral, when I realised I am really not very skilled at floral arrangements!). It features branches from our Christmas tree (which I had preserved for the purpose), white roses, olive branches, holly from our garden, and rose hips. I also included some dainty fairy lights, because she was born so close to Christmas, and a bauble for the same reason.

She also had a holly wreath for her casket (this went with her), which was made by my Mum before Christmas, who also made the bouquet of red roses and holly.

Rowan, her big brother, wasn't at the service as he had already said his goodbyes in person. I felt that at his age, he would be restless and distracting if he was there, but he did meet everyone afterwards and contributed in his own way to Holly's various tributes.

On the back of the order of service, is a poem taken from another children's book, "On The Night You Were Born" by Nancy Tillman. I bought the book in time to take it with us to her service:

On the night you were born,
The moon smiled with such wonder
That the stars peeked in to see you
And the night wind whispered,
“Life will never be the same.”
Because there had never been anyone like you… ever in the world.
So enchanted with you were the wind and the rain
That they whispered the sound of your wonderful name.
It sailed through the farmland
High on the breeze…
Over the ocean…
And through the trees…
Until everyone heard it
And everyone knew
Of the one and only ever you.

I am also including here, the final two pages from the book:

For never before in story or rhyme
(not even once upon a time)
has the world ever known a you, my friend,
and it never will, not ever again...
Heaven blew every trumpet
and played every horn
on the wonderful, marvelous
night you were born.

Various floral tributes and mementos, including Holly's footprints, her blankets, the outfit she wore (formerly her brother's) in hospital, and her little hat. The teddy is one of two given to us when we left the hospital; the other one went with her and you can read about other items that stayed with her in a previous blog entry.

I'm also going to include Holly's charity links again in this blog post, for anyone who may still wish to donate. However, please don't feel any obligation. We are moved beyond belief by those who attended, and will never forget the kindness of all those who have supported us, in various ways. Her funeral was beautiful.

Thank you.

*If I could, I would have given you the world, my love. 
In the end, the only gift I could grant you was the gift of song...
I can only hope you heard.

All my love,

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

One Last Time

We went to visit Holly Rose at the funeral director's this morning. When we first met up with Anthony, at Gillotts (our funeral directors, who have been so wonderfully supportive), he asked us if we would want to visit Holly one last time, before the funeral. I answered honestly, that I would always want to see my baby's face again... but not if she looked "altered" after the postmortem, or if she looked distressing in any way. That isn't how I would want to remember her. So I trusted him to make the decision on our behalf, and let us know when she was safely in their care, whether he would advise us to see her again. We duly took his advice and went to see her this morning.

I'm not going to lie; Holly didn't look distressing, but she did look a little changed, and truthfully, she no longer looked like "herself." As my partner said, she just looked more "distant"... However, I am really glad we went. I suppose accepting that she's really gone is part of the process, and looking at her today, I knew that she was really gone. In some ways, that makes it easier to let go.

We sat with her for a while, and played her "Holly's Carol," which I've recorded especially for her funeral. And I left a hand-written poem with her in her casket. It's a poem I wrote seven years ago for her "sister," my ectopic pregnancy, who I lost via surgery at ten or eleven weeks pregnant, and I always believed was also a girl... (Yes, I realise this will also be news to many of you reading this. Nobody really talks about such things, but I lost another pregnancy before we had Rowan who I have equally, never forgotten). I felt that I wanted to acknowledge and honour both my lost babies - one of whom never even got the chance to be recognised, and putting the poem in with Holly was my way of saying goodbye to both of them. I have shared this poem many times since writing it seven years ago, with other women going through a similar loss. It was written for "Ivy" (my first pregnancy, who named herself seven years after the event, following Holly's birth). Every word remains true, and applies to Holly Rose, too.

If you had lived...

They say that some things are just not meant to be,
But nevertheless, you were special to me.
You were my hopes, and my future plans,
I imagined my world in your tiny hands.

In my thoughts, I had held you,
Pictured who you might be,
And I felt that I knew you,
Though you never knew me.

For weeks, you provided my secret smile,
And I'm proud that I carried you 'round, for a while.
I like to believe you are safe, up above,
But if you had lived - you would have been loved.

Her eco-woven casket is really, truly beautiful (I am not sure these photos do it justice). I am so glad we chose it. It was important to me that it was an eco-friendly one, so that Holly can depart the world as she entered it - owing nothing, and with a clean slate. I will be able to say that she has only ever contributed positively to the world that she was part of for such a short time. But aside from being eco-friendly, it looks so like a Moses basket; very sweet, and so tiny. It's beautiful. It's lined with a gorgeous, soft cotton lining, and it really does seem like my baby girl is just sleeping, wrapped in her knitted blankets with her teddy. She is wearing a tiny babygrow and vest that was her brother's; nothing fancy, but I wanted her to be wearing something of his, and I'm really glad we visited her, so I was able to confirm for myself that she has been well looked after, and has all the things with her that I wanted.
  • Her teddy bear (we were given two in a memory box by SANDS when we left the hospital. One stays with her, and the other we kept).
  • Her blankets (hand-knitted, and again, given to us by SANDS).
  • Her brother's tiny baby clothes (I have kept the ones that she wore in hospital, but provided another set for the funeral directors to dress her in).
  • My hand written poem, which I placed in the casket with her, for her and her sister, along with a note that I've photographed so I can remember what I wrote to them in years to come.

On Friday, she will have a holly wreath for her casket (made by my Mum before Christmas, to hang on the door... it contains ivy, too). I have managed to keep it fresh, and will replenish it with a rose to match her floral arrangements, which I'm doing myself.

Above photo taken in the hospital (not at the funeral directors),
of Holly Rose with her little bear.

I really hope that nobody finds these photos distressing. It isn't my intention to upset anyone. Perhaps it may seem strange to share images of her casket, and talk openly about her death, and her funeral arrangements. Part of the reason I share these things is not just for my own benefit (although for some reason, I do find it comforting to write about her, say her name, and share her photos), but also by putting this blog in the public domain, there will (sadly) be other parents in a similar position... Parents who never expected to find themselves arranging a funeral, or choosing a casket in which to bury or cremate their child. Who probably never considered whether or not they would want to view their baby at the funeral directors. (I know this to be true, because until a few weeks ago, I was one of them). Perhaps somebody somewhere, may find these posts helpful when making their own difficult decisions, and for that reason, I am putting my thoughts out there.

Friday, 5 January 2018

"What Can I Do?"

So many people have asked me, "what can I do?" since we lost Holly.

As it's my godforsaken birthday (which anyone who knows me will tell you I despise at the best of times), I'm going to attempt to answer that question.

First off, I'll start by saying, please don't wish me "a happy birthday." And I am not saying that to be ungrateful, I appreciate the gesture. But let's not even pretend it's going to be a happy one. Let's find some alternatives that you can do, instead. So here are some suggestions (I've even highlighted some in bold for skim-reading, in case you don't fancy reading this epic blog post in its entirety. Go me).

The best thing you can do is continue to do what so many people have done already, which is simply offer support. Be there. Don't pretend it didn't happen, I can't bear the thought of my daughter being forgotten. Talk about her. Use her name. Acknowledge her existence. Words bring me comfort, I have always been fond of words. Don't be afraid to talk to me about her or write to me about her.

Come and visit us. We moved to have more space and be more sociable. There are spare rooms and the door is always open. If one positive thing came out of Holly's death, it was how amazing it was to hear from people I hadn't heard from in a while. Sometimes time and distance get in the way of friendships, but if you want to do something, then let's make the effort to meet up.

Speaking of visiting... no doubt I have mentioned that the house is under renovation, and is a "work in progress." We were due to have a new kitchen fitted on 2nd January, and I tried everything possible to get hold of the kitchen-fitters as soon as I was admitted into hospital on 21st December. To no avail, I was unable to contact anyone to postpone the fitting - closed for Christmas holidays with no emergency number and nobody responding to emails. We lost time while I was in hospital (and obviously, finishing the kitchen in readiness for the fitters was no longer top of the list of priorities), which meant I had to stand on the doorstep in my PJs, on 30th of December when a delivery van turned up to deliver the component parts of the kitchen ready for fitting, explaining through tears that we were not yet ready to receive the kitchen... Many phone calls later, and we finally have a new installation date, which is now 20th February. There is still work to be done before then. If you live in the area and want to offer practical assistance, feel free! Bring old clothes, and we'll set you to work on DIY... And fear not, once the kitchen is finished, there is plenty more to be done... a whole house-worth, in fact. Practical assistance and DIY expertise, gratefully received.

Child-minding: again, mostly applies if you are local, and so many people have helped us out by offering to take care of Rowan while we have dealt with practical matters, such as visiting funeral directors and birth/death registry. Again, I can't thank you enough. There will still be times in the near future when we need to do things that a noisy six-year-old would be better off staying away from. Rowan has said his goodbyes to his little sister, and won't be attending the funeral. Immediate family will be attending, so if you're able to take him for a play-date, the offer would be gratefully appreciated... And speaking of Rowan, please let me reassure everyone that he is absolutely fine. He understands what's happened, and we have been open and honest with him. Young children are very accepting of their reality, and with the exception of occasional fleeting moments of sadness, he is very much the boisterous, happy child he has always been. He also had the most unexpectedly fantastic sixth birthday, due to the kindness of people I know who bailed us out when I couldn't quite pull things together. Things absolutely came together for him at the last minute and he will only remember the best moments. Please don't worry about him.

Give me a job. Seriously. This may sound callous, but I know a lot of casting directors/directors/producers. Being self-employed, I was lucky to continue working throughout most of my pregnancy, but I had to pull out of a panto contract over Christmas, and things are now uncertain (as they always are for self-employed performers at the best of times). I have no idea what work I am likely to line up in the near future, and although I believe I am entitled to some form of maternity pay, it isn't much, and I would rather be working. I am not 100% sure when I will be able to face auditions, but I have always loved my job, and my career is a source of comfort. I don't want to be away from it for too long. If you know of a role that might suit me (singing/acting/voiceover... extending into photography/writing, which I am also very much capable of and have credentials), please bear me in mind.

Artists/musicians (I know a lot of those, too), if you want to draw/paint/compose in Holly's memory, nothing would make me happier. Don't feel obliged in any way, but if you feel inspired to create something for her, then please run your ideas by me, and I'd love to come up with something meaningful together. (Just an idea). I am already immensely grateful to some musical people who have helped me to make Holly's funeral extra special with some personalised recordings I couldn't have achieved on my own... you know who you are. Thank you.

For my friends overseas... it's harder to offer practical solutions for things you can do, but I can't tell you how much I have appreciated each and every message.

So, for those who want to, I have also set up two JustGiving pages with alternative charities to donate to. I don't like asking for money, but some people have expressed a desire to donate, and these links support worthy charities (rather than myself). I like the idea of some good coming out of Holly's existence.
One is the UNHCR, who do amazing international work with refugees, and mean a lot to me on a personal level (because I recognise that there are people in a worse situation than myself).
If that isn't your cup of tea, the other is Sands, which is relevant under the circumstances, as they helped us to get through the worst moments of our lives by offering a Memory Box with some beautiful mementos in it (which perhaps, I will one day share).
Links are here, should you feel so inclined to donate:

Lastly, for anyone who wishes to know:
Holly's funeral will be held on Friday 19th January, at 3.30pm, in Chesterfield (Brimington Crematorium).
We genuinely do not "expect" anyone else to attend, however, we also realise that this is not only our tragedy, and some of you may wish to come along, or find it comforting. In which case you are more than welcome, and we would love to see you. If you are travelling from further afield, then please let us know, and we can arrange a spare bed and/or lifts to and from the funeral.
It will be a brief but beautiful service, filled with music, personal touches, and a lot of my heart and soul. While we would love for you to share the moment with us, please do not feel in any way obliged.

You can also follow this blog, which for now is where I will continue writing about Holly Rose. I had more to say about offering advice on what to say and what not to say to a grieving parent... at least from my perspective. But for now, this post has been hard to write, and I am exhausted. Thank you for the birthday wishes. Please don't think me ungrateful, but I would far rather you take up one of the suggestions in this post, than wish me a happy birthday.

Wishing everyone a blessed 2018. xxx