As a child I used to be rewarded for good deed done or consoled about childhood's slings and arrows with trips to the bookstore. Among the rows of books, at home with the familiar smell of paper and ink, I was allowed to roam in pursuit of my newest treasure or my most recent salve. Back then -long before the internet and online used book stores- that small store and its selection of tomes held what I believed to be the entirety of all books everywhere. I suspect that somewhere in that bookstore there was a section for books written about grief although I never did see it or if I did I never understood enough about the truly sad things in the world to give it much more than a passing thought.
The most comforting smell in the world to me is not that of my grandmother’s banana bread wafting from a warm oven. It is not the smell of the gardenia perfume that my mother always used to wear. It is the musty smell of books well loved and worn. It is no surprise then that the first thing I did after returning home from the hospital after our son died was to search for books that I could wrap myself in and read words that would convince me somehow that I was not the only person traveling that lonely road.
How I Came to Hold You by Ben Wakeling is a compilation of stories about people who have walked that same lonely road. They are the stories of loss that are so familiar to those of us who find ourselves at Glow in the Woods. But they are also stories of love and how it was to cope with such profound grief through subsequent pregnancies.
Burning Eye and I had the opportunity to ask the author some questions about his own personal experience with baby loss as well as his experience and writing this book. Thank you to Ben for being generous with your time and responses.
What made you decide to take on the very emotional task of writing a book about baby loss?
I had previously written a couple of humorous, anecdotal books about fatherhood, and wanted to stretch myself to write something more serious and meaningful...something that would have a tangibly positive impact. I decided to write for a charity, and after a short consultation with the readers of my blog I chose the charity Sands.
The proceeds of this book go to Sands. What would you like us to know about this organization? What kind of work do you do with them?
I'm only affiliated with Sands as a member - I don't work for them, either on a paid or voluntary basis. They work tirelessly to help support parents and families who have lost a child, as well as focusing on improving the care they receive and funding vital research into the prevention of stillbirth and neonatal death. They aren't a huge charity - and many of them work on a voluntary basis - but the work they do is priceless.
How did writing this impact your own journey through grief after the loss of your baby?
By the time I began writing this book I had come to terms with the grief that I experienced following our miscarriage. As upsetting and distressing as it was, we lost our baby quite early on during my wife's pregnancy - about 9 weeks - and so we hadn't had the time to really bond with our unborn child. What it did highlight to me was the incredible endurance of the human spirit in the face of the most awful circumstances. The raw courage of the parents in my book - and any parent who has lost a child - to simply put one foot in front of the other astounded me. I have no words to describe the admiration and respect I have for anyone who has suffered the death of a child.
Why did you choose not to tell your own story in the book?
I wanted to tell the stories of those who had suffered a loss later on in pregnancy or shortly after birth to highlight to anyone enduring the same trauma that the grief can be managed, and that there will - one day - be a light at the end of the tunnel. Sands also works primarily with families who have suffered a stillbirth or lost a baby shortly after birth, and so choosing families who had endured similar traumas dovetailed with the work they do.
How did you find and choose the families you interviewed?
I advertised in local newspapers, and asked for people to contact me via Twitter and Facebook. It was the most effective way to obtain case studies, because in advertising for families who had experienced loss I would only be approached by those who were willing to share their stories.
How did you connect with the parents whose stories you tell in this book?
I have an immense amount of respect for the courage shown by the parents I interviewed. Here I was, a complete stranger, sitting in their living room and asking them to tell me the details and emotions surrounding the darkest days of their lives. I began by reassuring them that I would never push them to tell me anything they weren't prepared to; I was approaching them as an author, not as a journalist. I also avoided preparing any questions beforehand; I didn't even have a notepad in the majority of cases. It would have restricted the interview too much. Instead, I just placed the voice recorder on the table and asked them to tell me their story. I found that the conversation flowed naturally, and that the parents were willing and open to share their thoughts and feelings with me. There were some interviews, which lasted in excess of two hours in which I asked just two or three questions.
What led you to write the stories as interviews instead of having the subjects write their own stories?
I wanted the book to flow from one account to the next, and this could only really be achieved by keeping the same writing style. I've always maintained that it is the parents' stories being told, it's just that I'm the one who wrote them down. There was no creative license involved - the subject matter was far too sensitive and personal for that to have ever been considered. I made sure that I sent a write-up of each parent's story to them before publication, so they could check for any factual errors which may have crept in and be perfectly happy with the result. Many families said that telling me their story was quite a cathartic experience, and seeing their experiences on the page in black and white allowed them to begin to make sense of their tragedy.
Your subjects for this book are all couples who, after their initial loss(es), are either pregnant at the time of the interview or have already gone on to have another living child. All but one of these couples stayed together after the loss of their baby or babies. Secondary infertility and divorce are not uncommon experiences after the loss of a baby. Was it intentional to only profile couples who went on to become pregnant again or to have another baby and who remained in the relationship? If so, why?
Yes, in part. When I first met a couple of representatives from Sands we sat down and discussed the theme for the book. It was noted that there was very little in the way of literature which covered the unique emotions, experiences and challenges faced by parents who had lost a child and then gone on to become pregnant again, and so it was decided that the families interviewed would meet this criteria. The fact that the majority of the couples remained in a relationship following the loss of their child (or children) was more coincidence than judgment.
There is a lot in these stories that resonates with all of us babylost parents. Something familiar: the emotions, the experiences with the medical profession, picking up the pieces, deciding to try again. Who is your intended audience for these stories? Who are you hoping to reach?
Primarily, the audience is those who have suffered the loss of a baby. Many parents feel like they are alone in their experiences and emotions after their baby dies, and one of the most common pieces of feedback I have received from those who have read the book is that it helped them to realise that they are not alone in the challenges they face. I think the book also allows those who are on the periphery of baby loss to have a small insight into the mind of a grieving parent; perhaps friends and family who know a loved one who has lost a child. It goes a small way to help them understand what the parent is going through, and how they can help.
There was a common thread amongst these stories of medical mismanagement or poor care. Did you find that these experiences to be true in a widespread way in the UK? Were you trying to make a statement about the state of prenatal/postnatal care in the UK?
Fortunately, from the stories I have heard and the feedback I've had, poor care is only experienced in a small percentage of cases. In the majority of instances the families are dealt with sensitively, and with respect. There are certainly improvements that can be made in some areas, and there will always be instances in which a member of the hospital staff mismanages the situation, but thankfully this is not widespread. I certainly wasn't trying to make any statement about the state of care in the UK; I have a lot of respect for those who work in care and medicine.
As a writer, what sort of writing did you do after your loss? Did you tell the story to many people around you? Did it help?
I didn't write much about the loss, as we kept it to ourselves, only telling close friends and family. My writing would have taken the form of a blog post, and I didn't want our loss being widely known at that point. Those who we told were incredibly supportive; a couple of people didn't say anything to us, because they weren't sure what to say; which was quite upsetting, but understandable.
You can find more about Ben, Sands, and How I can ot Hold You at: