One for sorrow, two for joy, 3 for a girl and 4 for a boy
I never thought of myself as a superstitious person but all that changed after Conor died. On the way to the hospital on that fateful day we saw a single magpie. Conor’s daddy and I looked at each other. Neither of us said a word but we both knew it wasn’t a good sign. We were about to hear our baby had died and we were falling into a deep pit of sorrow.
That fateful day changed so much in my life. It was the first time where I realised what little control I had. I thought if I lived a healthy life all would be ok. Yet I had followed all the advice around pregnancy and my baby still died suddenly at 41 weeks.
Conor’s death started a whole obsession with magpies in someone who would previously have been so skeptical of superstition. I noticed these beautiful birds everywhere. I was relieved to discover that if I salute a single magpie I could possibly fend off the bad luck and sorrow. I used to pause on walks until I saw the “friend” of a single magpie fly into view. I started blowing kisses at pairs of magpies willing them to bring me some joy. I took photos of groups of 3 or 4 magpies and shared these with friends who like me were trying to conceive rainbow babies. Magpies became little symbols of hope and despair. 8 years on since conor lived and died my obsession has waned but hasn’t gone. While my head knows that superstitions are just that, there’s a little voice that prompts me to keep saluting. Maybe this is what hope looks like.
Conor is the little baby who died 8 years ago. He is the little baby whose 8th birthday we celebrated with these fairy cakes at his grave.
Conor is the little baby whose 41 weeks growing inside me made me a mother and changed me for ever. He is the little baby whose death floored me.
Conor is my not so little boy who I think about throughout the day. He is the not so little boy I don’t get to tuck in at night. He is the not so little boy who should now being going to football matches with his Daddy.
Conor is also the boy who should be close in age to his cousins and looking for snacks on days out. He is also the grandson who should be spoilt with ice creams. He is the nephew who should be picking his own Christmas present. He is the brother who should be getting annoyed with his siblings for knocking down his lego.
Conor is the 8 year old who should be playing out the front and making his presence felt like the other 8 year olds on our road. He is the boy who should be going into 2nd class in school and busy with clubs and activities.
Conor is all of these and none of these. I miss both the baby he was and I miss the boy he should be. When there’s no bank of memories to bring comfort it makes missing Conor hard.
Our living son was recently unwell. We had to bring him to A&E and he was called back to hospital for a number of tests. It was taken very seriously as the outcome isn’t always good with this illness. Thankfully he was one of the lucky ones and he made a full recovery.
Nearly 7 years ago I wasn’t so lucky. I fell on the wrong side of the statistics with Conor’s death. When pregnant with Conor I knew that 1 in 200/250 babies die in and around the time of birth. Like most first time mothers I assumed I wouldn’t be that 1. We all know this didn’t happen.
Now when it comes to health issues, a new anxiety has me believing and expecting to be that 1. I take no comfort from hearing that something is “rare”. Someone has to be that “rare” case and why wouldn’t it be me/my son. During the recent illness we were told that 1/10 children can have serious complications and that a small percentage can die from these. My anxiety was sky high. Even when our living son recovered it took me weeks to trust that recovery.
When everyone is well my health anxiety is mostly kept at bay. However, as soon as a family member becomes unwell I leap to the worst case scenario. It is exhausting symptom watching. Maybe health anxiety when it comes to our children is common. I only know parenting after loss and so don’t have the luxury of innocence to fall back on. Parenting through a global pandemic really isn’t helping either.
We are approaching Conor’s anniversary. I feel my energy and patience draining as it always does in grief season. There are already lots of conversations at home about what cake to bake in our star tin. Our living son asked if he can share the cake with his buddies on the street. He sees it as a way to tell people about Conor’s birthday. I love that cake is the vehicle for so many conversations about our beloved son and brother. Watch this space for this year’s cake. This is last year’s…….
This month I am returning to work. It’s been nearly 5 years since I went on maternity leave with Conor’s little brother and I left the job and workplace I once loved. I am returning to that same workplace….to the job and building where Conor kicked and lived inside me.
In my old life I loved my job. I was always super proud to tell people what I did and where I worked. I worked with kind and supportive colleagues. When news broke that Conor had died my colleagues organised a service of remembrance. My parents represented me at it and my dear Dad spoke on my behalf. He was moved to tears by the love being shown to us and talked about this service up until his own death.
I returned to this much loved job after Conor died as a changed person. Walking back through the doors that I had left with great excitement a year previously was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I struggled. My grief was still so raw that I had very little energy for anything beyond survival. I no longer felt like the right fit for the job I used to love. Conor’s little brother was born alive a year later and I didn’t return after his maternity leave. While I loved being at home, I found myself grieving my old life. I missed the person I used to be. I felt sad that I had lost so much of myself including my professional identity.
I am now over 6 years on from Conor’s death. It was hearing about a vacancy in my old department that helped me to recognise how much healing has taken place in this time. I was successful in my application and start later this month. I am excited and grateful to be given this opportunity to fulfil the career ambitions that I feared were lost. I have been keeping a toe in the water with some local work but now it’s time to jump back in fully. It feels good to have found some of the old me while preparing for the interview. I expect it will be emotional walking back through those same doors once more but I am happy to be back.
Baking (and eating the bakes) continues to be a favourite activity in our home. It’s no longer the quiet reflective time I once treasured. Instead, baking with two enthusiastic helpers is noisy and messy! We recently made heart shaped chocolate digestive biscuits to mark Valentine’s Day. Mid way through Conor’s little brother asked if we could make one star shaped so we could remember Conor. I am not sure I have ever felt more love for both of my boys.
We are coming to the end of baby loss awareness month and this time I think I’ll be glad to see the back of it. I totally embraced it the first couple of years after Conor died. Reading all the stories and seeing candles lit gave me a sense of community. I felt less alone in my loneliness. I have found the month of October tough the last couple of years. Now when I read all the stories and see the photos of other babies who have died I find it overwhelming. There are so many stories that mirror ours. I revisit memories that I didn’t invite back. “Just don’t read them” I hear you advise. Yet, somehow I am drawn to them. It’s like an addiction. I don’t know how many times I clicked refresh during the Wave of Light Day on 15th October but I couldn’t stop. Tears flowed freely and left me exhausted. This new life with grief is so unpredictable. Just when I think I am on the right track I am thrown off course and for a while grief takes over. I am ready to say goodbye to October and take charge for a while.
Lighting our candle during the Wave of Light gave us an opportunity to speak about Conor with his little (now a busy and chatty 3 year old) brother. It gave him an outlet for questions; “can we get another Conor, one who isn’t dead?”….then came the question I hadn’t prepared for “what happened to Conor?” The truth is I barely understand what happened and have only recently stopped asking this question myself. I sought advice from the online community I had recently been addicted to. I wanted my answer to reflect both our true story and our cultural beliefs. I also didn’t want to scare a sensitive 3 year old. The question was asked again another day;
3 year old; “Mummy what happened to Conor?”
Me; “Conor’s body stopped working when he was in Mummy’s tummy”
3 year old; “but why?”
Me; “we don’t know”
3 year old “but why?”….
I thought I had to give my inquisitive 3 year old a definite answer but there isn’t one. Sometimes in life we just “don’t know” and that’s the challenge for all of us.
Can you believe you’re 5 now? That’s all your fingers and your thumb on one hand. We’re each going to need our other hand next year to count your age. Your little brother and I had fun making your cake. We used the new star tin that Elena’s Mummy bought us. We covered the cake with chocolate icing and your little brother poured sprinkles all over it (and all over the kitchen too).
I am sorry I’m late writing to you. I wanted to write earlier but I was just too sad. You should have been starting school this year. I should have been polishing shoes and packing your lunch in a Superman rucksack. I should have been holding your hand tight and kissing your head as you walked into the classroom…..but that’s not how our story goes.
It’s been a busy year Conor. Your little sister arrived safely into our family of 5. Just like your little brother did, she grabs hold of my star necklace and I tell her about you. I expect one of her first words will be star too. Your brother has started asking questions about you. We answer honestly and simply. He doesn’t understand but then in many ways, nor do I.
I love you now as much if not more than I did when I first met you. I am sending sloppy kisses to your star and back. Stay close Conor.
Love Mummy xx⭐️xx
The pages of Cakes for Conor have been quiet of late. Over the past year my energy went into surviving another pregnancy after loss and entertaining a very busy little brother. My grief has entered a different phase. Maybe this is the acceptance that I have been both hoping and fearing would come. I am happy to have so much joy in my life while equally I welcome the grief to enable me to feel close to Conor. Life after loss is complicated.
Today a most beautiful letter arrived in my in box. My wonderful sister has written to Conor. I wish to share it here as it deserves to be part of Conor’s story…
To my beautiful nephew Conor,
As your Auntie, I miss you every day.
Despite the distance, I was with your mummy every step of the way. I remember feeling you kick during a happy time to see your mummy and prepare for your arrival. I spoke to you, a memory I will carry forever as I know you heard my voice.
I will never forget seeing you in the hospital. The loss of a future so painfully felt whilst I stroked your beautiful face and held your hand. The journey over to see you the day you were born is the most important journey I have ever made or ever will.
I worried about you in the days after you were buried, so aware of the changing weather with a sense that you were getting cold or wet. I just wanted you to be safe.
I want you to know how amazing your mummy and daddy are. They are such wonderful and kind people making their way without you, but filling their home with love for you and your little brother. Your mummy makes the most amazing cakes on your birthday and we share special times together remembering you always.
If you are looking down on us wondering why we are writing your name in the sand, bringing out the star for family photos, dressing up as superheroes to go for a run or painting your name on stones….it’s because we love you and will always talk about you. We tell others all about you and say goodnight to you every night.
So my darling Conor, you are so sorely missed and hugely loved every day.
Today Conor’s little brother turns two. I spent his pregnancy holding my breath and I haven’t stopped pinching myself since. While his noisy entrance into this world has brought colour into my life, so much remains black or white; dead or alive. I describe parenting after a loss as “looking into the pram, not just to see if he is asleep/awake but to check he is still alive”. After Conor’s little brother’s safe arrival I spent time worrying about SIDS (previously known as cot death). I could have told you that our baby boy fell into a risk category with his gender and prematurity. I could have told you that the biggest age risk was 2-4 months and that I breathed a little bit easier after he turned 5 months. I watched his room thermometer like a hawk. I know that adverse outcomes can and do happen. My worry has eased somewhat as Conor’s little brother has got bigger and older. He can now tell us when he is “sore” but it rises to the surface any time he coughs or sniffs.
While I worry about health I think I am a more relaxed mother than I might have been with Conor had he lived. Conor’s little brother is alive and happy and most of the time that is enough. I don’t consult child development books. In some ways life is simple. I don’t seek perfection or approval from others. I sing nursery rhymes (loudly & badly) and make up songs not caring who hears me. I don’t stress if Conor’s little brother cries or screams in the company of others having known the pain of silence.
The last two years have been truly amazing. I am essentially a stay at home mother and this has done wonders for my mental wellbeing. For the first time (maybe ever but definitely in this new life) I find myself living in the moment. I see the world from the eyes of a now two year old and I like it. I jump on shadows and throw stones in the sea. I feel sand in between my toes and watch windmills go around. I stop and just watch/listen/feel.
Right now I am planning a Peppa Pig themed birthday party and cake. I am so very grateful that I am getting the chance to do this for a living child. It’s a milestone I thought I would never know. Yet at the same time I am sad that we do not get to plan Conor’s parties. Tears accompany so much of this life’s chapter… Conor’s little brother laughs and I cry. I cry tears of joy for his presence in our lives while simultaneously crying tears of sadness that his big brother is absent…and this is parenting after a loss.
I have been writing and rewriting a letter to you for the last few days. There is so much I want to tell you and I am struggling for words (it’s not often I am lost for words!)
Today is your 4th birthday. As you know, no birthday is complete in our home without cake. Your little brother and I made you a chocolate and almond cake. He didn’t eat any of his dinner in anticipation of the cake! We hope you like the Star balloon we left for you. Your little brother has the same one at home too.
I love you so very much. My love did not end as you died. Sometimes I think it got stronger and that I might burst if I loved you anymore. I just have to find different ways to show it….
It’s been a special year Conor. Your little brother started talking and his 2nd word was “Star”. I think that’s because he kept touching my necklace and I told him that’s “Conor’s Star”. He kisses your photo beside my bed and he told me he was making “Conor’s grave” with his stickle bricks the other day. He likes lighting candles for you in churches.
I try to do lots in your memory Conor. Your little brother and I continue to run the rainbow group for mothers & babies. You might have seen him and all the other rainbow babies fly past your star and the stars of all the other babies who have died while we sing “zoom zoom zoom, we’re going to the moon”. We had another “Baked with Love Day” with lots of people baking cakes and sharing memories of their loved ones. So many people know your name now Conor.
This year we moved house too. We have a fabulous house on a windy hill by the sea. Sometimes when I look out to sea I feel you close and find a kind of peace. I also get lots of chances to write your name in the sand and on pebbles.
I have got to know a new group of Mummy friends at the local playgroup. I baked star shaped biscuits as a way to tell them all about you so they now know that I am a mother to two very special boys and not just the little boy they see waving at everyone.
I miss you so much on your birthday and always. I wish we were altogether eating cake and leaving messy crumbs.
Sending you a big Mummy hug, a sloppy Mummy kiss and lots of tickles.
At our first ever bereavement support meeting (just 3 weeks after Conor died) I was told that my address book would change following the loss of my child. It did. I had anticipated it changing anyway with the arrival of my child. I had planned to attend parent and baby groups to get to know the other mums in the area. I expected to be out less and in more. I expected to never have a quiet moment but I was left with only quiet. The silence of stillbirth is deafening.
For a long time I struggled with the sudden change in my relationships. I had never felt so lonely yet this loneliness only increased in company. I felt angry and bitter as people carried on with their seemingly complete lives. I clung to the same few people who held me as I fell. Others fell away from me. My anxiety was so high at times that I could barely leave the house. A conversation with a former colleague has stayed with me. This woman worked with bereaved parents and offered to meet me for a coffee on my return to work. When I told her how I was struggling with relationships she advised the following…
Think about the role that people in your life can play and use them for what they offer…
Those who offer emotional support Those who offer practical support Those who offer fun and distraction Those with the same interests Those who offer professional support Etc
Nearly four years on from Conor’s death and three years on from the death of my Dear Dad I find myself reflecting on this conversation and advice in a new light. For the first couple of years living this new life I sought only emotional support. I pushed away those offering practical help as it wasn’t needed. I didn’t want fun and distraction and turned down meet ups. I needed to “wallow” in my grief such was it’s rawness. I also had to recognise that while I hoped family members would take on each of these support roles, this expectation was and is unrealistic. Each person’s personality type, cultural beliefs around grief and life experience influences the role they can comfortably play. It has been my experience that most people do not deviate from their roles.
Since moving house this year my world has got bigger as I have added to my relationships. I have found a new energy in myself with this new start. I think I have even found some of my old self. I have left behind so much of the trauma that was associated with the old house and its environs. I have left the neighbours who crossed the street to avoid the mother whose baby died. I have left the roads that we drove along that fateful bad news day. I have left the location of the life that I thought I’d be living. For the first time I have friends who are parents of living children the same age as Conor’s brother. For the first time I feel I too can contribute to parenting discussions regarding living children (though I have no advice when it comes to getting a toddler to sleep through the night!!). I have set up a book club for book (and wine) loving women in my new neighbourhood. I am busy living and finding enjoyment in this new life. It doesn’t take away the sadness but I no longer feel so lonely or bitter. Somehow it is all made easier because I have no expectations of the new people I meet. For the first time since Conor died I have looked for people to fill the fun/distraction/practical roles. I do not seek or need to have emotional support from these new relationships. I continue to have my little group of “go to” people; Conor’s Daddy, my amazing sister, my little army of girlfriends and my loss mum friends who say “me too”…to name a few. These are the people I am grateful to for keeping me going. They are the people I turn to when I need that emotional connection. I know in the coming weeks as I face into Conor’s & Dad’s anniversaries that I’ll be leaning just a little bit more on each of them. I also know that the relationship is reciprocated as I take on the role of emotional support in their lives.
Back to baking…. the new oven has been used for bread, cake and biscuits. I continue to find peace while following a recipe and my sweet tooth is satisfied with the results. This is a recipe I found online for use with the bundt tin I treated myself to with a voucher for my birthday. It looks like a star shape to me and I love to find this connection with Conor. This cake is a delicious blend of almond and chocolate. It has been baked with love for friends old and new…