Losing a child: A father’s perspective

I have agonised over whether to put this story online. Would this blog exist if I didn’t have a book to publicise? Probably not, though the book is there to help grieving people and the royalties will go to hospice patient care, so perhaps that is justification, and maybe in some small way it gives meaning to Paul’s life and death.

Paul was born in mid September 1981 and died in early December 1982. His death was recorded as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, although later investigations in the Pathology Department at Sheffield Children’s Hospital suggested a specific cause (It also suggested that post-mortem tissue samples had been retained). The revised cause of death pointed to an enzyme deficiency involved in converting fatty acids to sugars; Paul had a snuffly cold when he died, which meant he had no appetite for a few hours. His body could not draw on his fat reserves for energy.
I wrote the story below in 1996; for a presentation on SIDS as part of my counselling diploma training. In the 14 years that had passed, Paul’s death was still vivid, as it is today 31 years later.

Now I work professionally; supporting others following the death of a child, from whatever reason, including miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death, accident, drug overdoses, suicide, congenital abnormalities and disease. I work with mothers, fathers, and sometimes couples together.

One thing that is agreed universally is that to bury one’s child goes against the natural order of things, whatever your age and whatever the age of your dead child. Is a mother’s grief worse than a father’s? or vice versa? I would say that in most of the stories I have met and worked with, it is different. Mothers have the feeling that they have failed to protect their own flesh, a person they gave birth to. I suspect that this is a very primeval feeling, raw in the nature of its biology. A father, at least in the West, is brought up to be a fixer, a mender, a provider. When he loses a child and witnesses the rawness of his wife’s grief, he is powerless, impotent. Like his wife, he feels he has failed. Perhaps for the first time, here is something that he has no chance to put right. Research suggests that for a time men postpone their grieving until their partner is strong enough to cope for a while. Delayed grief is common in fathers. Society compounds this. Following the death of a child, friends ask “How is your wife doing?” They are less likely to ask the man how he is doing.

In the different reactions between the husband and wife, there may be suppressed conflict. The father feels that whatever he does is not enough, the mother that her husband does not care enough to cry. I didn’t cry until an event triggered it when I was away from home, six months after Paul died. I felt I had to be strong, to hold it all together. Marriages often fail at this point, for the want of talking and sharing feelings. I feel that an important part of my job is to get couples through this difficult phase. Paul’s mother and I parted in the early 1990s.

If you want to learn more about fathers’ grief, may I suggest this book.

Paul pic

“Mr. Wilson?”
“It’s the Doncaster Royal Infirmary. I’m phoning about your son. He’s been taken ill and he’s in casualty. Can you come straight here? Your wife is here waiting for you. She says to drive carefully and not take any risks.
“I’m on my way.”

The journey between Barnsley and Doncaster is never easy in the rush hour. Any approach from the quadrant between North and East eventually funnels the traveller onto the bottle neck of a Victorian bridge, a miracle of engineering in its age, spanning, through a series of brick arches, the River Don, a canal basin, the mainline railway and extensive sidings. Long queues back up along the routes towards the bridge and on that afternoon, in my panic I made three separate detours along the lesser used rat runs before I could begin the slow crawl for half a mile over the bridge. This of course took far longer than if I had patiently waited for the prevailing flow to carry me along.

I locked the car and took a deep breath. Earlier memories of a different hospital. Who designed the signs and the smells to make all hospitals the same?

A young nurse took me to Dian who was sitting in a curtained cubicle. There were three female friends with her, white knuckled clutching wet handkerchiefs. Dian sat in their midst. I tried my “not-to-worry smile”. Her eyes grew wide and childlike.

“Haven’t they told you?”
Somewhere within I felt a grim foreboding in that fraction of time but it was unreal, as if we were acting out a play and it was my line.

“Told me what?”

Her voice grew thin and trailed away on the second word

“He’s died”


The friends with Dian melted away through the curtains: the actors on cue. The principal players were alone. There was no prompt in the wings and I was struggling for my words. I tried to hold her. Her body was stiff and unyielding.

The words I said next haunt me fourteen years on.

“ We can have more babies.”

Dian looked at me with incredulous horror

“I don’t want more babies, I want Paul”

In the context of even the most terrible of personal tragedies The System must be serviced. The police were there to take a statement. Not all sudden infant deaths occur naturally. Also, somewhere behind the scenes was a small, cold little body awaiting formal identification.

The set for scene two was touching in its simplicity. To one side of the room was a vast spray of fresh flowers. On a raised plinth Paul lay on his back. He was covered, save for his head, in a purple velvet drape onto which was appliquéd in wine red with a gold border, a crucifix. His light golden hair had been combed but one eye hadn’t been completely closed and there was the chilling glimpse of a cloudy pupil. The police officer didn’t ask. I went back to Dian.

“Come and see him looking peaceful. It’s a better last memory than seeing him ill.”

Dian agreed. I went with her. Her silent anguish rent the very fabric of the room. Outside she said.

“It was right to go in. I’m glad I saw him like that but they could have closed his eyes better.”

One of the police officers drove us home in my car. His colleague followed us home and they both came into the house to see that we were okay. They told us that the Coroner’s office police officer would be contacting us the next day, but that the questions would be gentle as this officer was specially trained for such a sensitive task.

I telephoned Jane who living just a few houses away, had taken in Emily during the emergency. Within minutes there was a ring at the door. Dian hugged Emily, who clearly wondered what all the fuss was about and then embraced Jane. Jane said, “I’m sorry”,
Then nobody said anything.

That evening friends either briefly called or phoned. Dian’s dad joined us. He was predictable in his stoicism, having practiced first hand the traditional male position in such circumstances twice previously. I phoned my mother, 120 miles away in Cambridge.

“ Oh darling”, she said in the same voice as she’d used to comfort me when at the age of nine I had irreparably broken a favourite toy.

By late evening I had most of the story from Dian. Paul woke at eight but had been both sleepy and restless. He refused to eat. By noon he was listless enough for Dian to ring the doctor. She spoke to the doctor and described the symptoms. He made her an appointment for the beginning of the five o clock surgery. Dian telephoned Sheila, a friend from Labour party and CND meetings to keep her company and share the pacing up and down. Sheila was holding Paul when at three o clock he had suddenly stopped breathing.
The ambulance driver’s attempt to cope came out as flippancy

“What have you been doing to him?” He said with a smile as he took the little bundle from her. It took Dian weeks to come to terms with that remark.

At nine o clock that evening there was a timid knock at the door. I answered the door to Sheila. That night she and Dian consumed copious amounts of wine together and mourned loudly and openly bonded by this shared tragedy. Sheila left at midnight. Dian crawled into bed and collapsed in a stupor of exhaustion and alcohol.

I could not rest, let alone sleep. Dian’s dad slept on the settee in the living room and Emily in her bedroom. I paced our room as I had so often done in getting Paul to sleep.

Dian was in a coma-like sleep. In that night were the loneliest hours I had ever experienced.

Without any spoken justification to myself I found myself walking the mile long journey back to the hospital to where Paul had been born and to where he was now. It was two thirty in the morning. Most of the cars were taxis but this was a busy road. It seemed unreal to think of the World still continuing unchanged after such a tragedy. I walked past the casualty department and on to the maternity hospital. The receptionist glanced up but did not stop me. I went up the stairs to the ward where both of our children had been born. The nurse who found me wandering about sat me down and listened to the story. By then I had concocted a crude justification for my actions. I was feeling powerless; I wanted to be of use in this situation. I could perhaps help other children to survive. I could describe all the events leading to Paul’s death, talk about, for example the herbal decongestant we had put on his pillow. I reasoned that if all parents of sudden death babies did this a huge National database could be created and some common factors might come to light. If I could see the consultant paediatrician I could write down anything that might help now.

The nurse explained that the paediatrician was off duty but she promised to ask him to contact me the following day.

I walked home in the first light of the late autumn dawn. The house was still in icy silence. Emily had crawled into our bed. Dian had reached out an arm and they were cuddling each other although fast asleep. I managed a smile as I undressed and gently pushed myself a space in the bed. The light of dawn was piercing the curtains. None of us stirred until nine the next morning.

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