The question I fear the most

Today is World Mental Health Day. It’s also the second day of Baby Loss Awareness Week.

This tells me a) that there are a lot of awareness days – and lots of them are important and b) that it might be an appropriate time for a post about both subjects.

Earlier this year, I attended a festival with a group of friends I didn’t know very well. It was a great event, and I got to know lots of new people, who do similar work to me, have similar interests, and were generally a similar age.

This meant that I got asked the question I fear the most, quite a lot.

And what is that question?

“Do you have any children Ian?”

On the face of it, it’s a simple, straightforward question, and it’s obviously not one designed to offend or cause a sinking feeling in my stomach.

When I am asked that question, there are two possible answers – the long one or the short one. Or the truth or not the truth.

The short answer is the easier one:

“No, I don’t.”

But of course, that really isn’t the truth. The honest answer takes longer to explain and is quite a lot to tell people who I don’t know.

The reality is that I struggle to choose which answer to give, and I then struggle to get the words out.

Telling people, I don’t have a child sticks in my throat – it feels like I am denying the existence of Tilly. But choosing to tell people about her means I must find the words. That can be hard enough at the best of times, but it’s especially so with people I don’t know very well or when I or they don’t have much time.

Whenever I make what I consider the right choice, and tell people about Tilly, their reaction is positive. People are supportive and happ that I’ve chosen to talk about her. They all agree that I am a father and that I should never forget or choose not to talk about Tilly.

So that’s what I will do.

After all, how I can I say that baby loss shouldn’t be a taboo subject if I avoid it myself?

I know that my mental health receives a bounce when I do mention her, and people want to listen.

Thank you to everyone I’ve had this conversation with at work and everyone I met at Comms Unplugged. You’ve all been so supportive. It means the world.

On Leeds United

On Leeds United
Last night Leeds United were beaten in the second leg of the play-off semi-finals. This ended the team’s season.
In actual fact, our season was over by Christmas, and since that point we’ve simply been delaying the inevitable.
Twitter’s 140/280 characters aren’t nearly enough to cover the emotional rollercoaster that being a Leeds fan is, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts here. I’m hoping it’ll be cathartic.
But at the very least it’ll be a reminder of what happened in years to come.
Bielsa brought belief
I really can’t understate this. In recent years, the club has been a laughing stock – for any number of reasons – not least of which was the high turnover of mostly inadequate and uninspiring coaches.
This season we recruited one of the best. He was willing to come to Leeds.
And despite the season’s ultimately sour-end, he transformed a team that finished 15th last season into one that were challenging at the top and who ultimately finished in third place – bronze medal position.
But he’s not a god
He could only do so much. People have talked about Bielsa’s teams fading before, and it happened here. I don’t think that’s a failing on his part, but rather because he managed to get the very best from a rag-tag bunch of odds and sods.
We’re not the third best squad in the league, but by playing with high energy, we overpowered teams and overperformed. At least in the first half of the season.
Sadly, once teams learned how to play against us, and the energy levels fell, the results faltered.
Invest or die

This means that if we want to challenge next year, we must invest. Our defence hasn’t been consistent enough, we haven’t scored nearly enough goals in the latter half of the season, and the goalkeeping towards the end of the season has been calamitous. When injuries have hit – and they do when you play with the energy and drive that Bielsa demands – our squad has been paper thin; embarrassingly so.
All the talk last night and this morning is of whether we’ll keep Bielsa. But we should only do so if we can support him with a squad that can compete.

Bielsa’s personal integrity means that he rarely criticises the players – preferring to shoulder the blame himself. This is an honourable trait. Despite that, he has said that the he doesn’t think he could repeat this season with the current squad.
So invest, or let Bielsa leave with his reputation intact, and we’ll remember this season as something special, something almost, but not quite good enough.
Next steps
It’s hard right now to picture what next season looks like. Off the field, Leeds United are in a better position than ever before. By bringing back belief, the crowds have returned to Elland Road and they’re supporting a club that seem to care about the fans once more.
Will this continue next year? I certainly hope so. But we’re not cash rich like some other clubs, we don’t have parachute payments of some other clubs, and crucially, we’ve taken the decision not to invest at key times on too many previous occasions. So we can’t be certain of anything.
Lots of people have said things like, ‘there’s always next season’ or ‘come back stronger’, but the truth is we just don’t know.
If previous performance is anything to go by (and five play-off defeats in a row suggests it might be), our next chance of success will be in the 2013/32 season. Until then it’s the occasional giant-killing appearance in the FA Cup!
I doubt that things are that bad, but there is definitely a ‘head versus heart’ thing going on here.
A good season?
After so many seasons of mid-table mediocracy, finishing third can only be considered an improvement.
But, to be top at Christmas and not go up is a new level of failure – no one else has done it in recent memory. To blow the final few games and play offs with woeful performances is a new low.
Had the season been played in reverse, we’d be happy. But the reality is that it isn’t. We started strongly and managed to blow it.
And that hurts.
To be honest, it hurts more than a season that’s over by Christmas. Maybe because it’s so unfamiliar.
And while it was unfamiliar, the implosion had a curiously Leeds United feel about it.
Isn’t that the problem?

Looking after your mental health

I created this blog at work, but the content are just as relevant outside of the workplace… 

Mental Health Awareness Week is upon us, and once again we’re asking people to think about their mental health and wellbeing.

If you feel like we do this a lot, then you’d probably be right. Over the last few years there has been a sea change in how we consider issues like mental health, both across the country and, specifically here at Sellafield. I am pleased to see this.
However, the trouble with mental health is less straight forward than physical health. For a start, people are less willing to talk about it.
But even at the simplest level, when we have a cold, we know how we’re feeling and know when we’re feeling better. The same is true of many physical conditions. But it isn’t necessarily the same with your mental health.
Last year was a difficult one for my partner and I, and I know that it impacted my mental health. We’ve both turned a corner now, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t some days where I feel in a dark place. Events and anniversaries can trigger this, but sometimes I just feel sombre. 

I do try to talk about it to friends and colleagues, and they have been a tower of strength. But some people are less keen to do this. This can mean it’s hard to support our friends and colleagues as we’d wish to.
One of my close friends has recently struggled with their mental health. I want to do everything I can to help them, just like they did for me last year. However, sometimes I worry that I stray into platitudes territory.
So, this Mental Health Awareness Week, I am taking the time to read up on the issue a bit more, so that I can better help my friend. I am also thinking about what helped me – knowing that people were thinking of me and were there with a listening ear if I needed it was always appreciated.
This is echoed in the guidance on how to look after your mental health from the Mental Health Foundation. Their top ten pointers are:
  1. Talk about your feelings
  2. Keep active
  3. Eat well
  4. Drink sensibly
  5. Keep in touch
  6. Ask for help
  7. Take a break
  8. Do something you’re good at
  9. Accept who you are
  10. Care for others

If you know someone who is struggling. Why not reach out to them? They won’t expect you to have the answers, but they will probably appreciate your support. 

Baby Loss Awareness Week

Today marks the start of Baby Loss Awareness Week.

Sadly, thousands of people across the UK are affected by by the death of a baby or experience pregnancy loss each year. Yet despite this, it’s something that far too few people feel comfortable talking about.

The week is designed to address this by raising awareness of the key issues affecting those who have experienced pregnancy loss or baby death.

When I started writing this post, I assumed that the week was a relatively new creation. Yet this is actually the 16th year. This merely highlights the point that the topic is still considered taboo.

Those of you who are frequent readers of my blog will know that my partner Charlotte and I lost our daughter in May this year. Tilly was born at just 26 weeks old with a sacrococcygeal teratoma (tumour). This meant she was simply too small and too delicate to survive. We managed to spend a few precious minutes with her, and for this we are both eternally grateful.

Since that point, Charlotte and I have been battling our way through the grieving process, through good days and bad days and through positive and heartbreaking memories. We’re getting there, but we still feel the pain of our loss on a daily basis.

One of the things that has helped us through this has been talking – both to our friends and colleagues, to professionals (such as bereavement midwifes and counsellors) and to other people who have also experienced baby loss. This has been invaluable to us. Not only does it ensure that Tilly lives on, but it also helps us understand the process we’re going through. We’ve also been able to help others on their journey.

So I wanted to blog today, in Tilly’s memory, not just to raise awareness, but also to thank everyone for their support and to urge everyone to talk about this issue. If you know someone who has been through similar circumstances, talk to them about it. I guarantee they’ll appreciate your thoughts.

If you want to know more about the issues surrounding baby loss, or would like to know the one or two things you should avoid saying (‘everything happens for a reason’, being the example for me) then visit www.babyloss-awareness.org/.

Thanks

My last blog was particularly sad. It was written with tears in my eyes.

For both my own benefit, and perhaps yours, I wanted to follow it with something brighter.

We all know that a crisis is the true measure of any friendship, and what is clear from our experience is that we have some strong friendships and some amazing friends. This post is for you. It’s a small thank you, for everything that you all did for us.

People really did step up to the mark, in so many different, varied ways.

Firstly, we have received messages, cards, and tokens of people’s thoughts throughout our whole, traumatic experience. Sometimes this has been a simple text or email, but on other occasions, it has been a handmade card or personalised gift, more thoughtful that I’d ever imagine.

Friends have dropped their plans to be here for us, when we need them. They have given readings, or presided over funeral services, without the blink of an eye. They have travelled to see us from the length and breadth of the country.

Work colleagues have sent words of support and encouragement, they’ve given generous gifts, and they have raised money for charities that are now close to our hearts.

My managers have been supportive, considerate and understanding at all times. They’ve helped me come back to work and have understood why I have not always been on top form. They never rushed me back, nor bothered me about trivia and minutiae.

People – including those we do and don’t know – have taken the time to reach out to us, and to share their experiences, to show us we are not alone. They’ve offered support and guidance, but have never told us how to feel or what to do.

Our families have been rocks – offering all the support we could ever ask for, and much more.

Neighbours have done things like take in parcels, water plants, and general keep things going, when we have been unable to think about this.

Nursing and medical staff have gone the extra mile to give us care beyond which we could have ever imagined.

These are just some of the small examples of the kindness we have experienced over the last few months. We are grateful for every single one of them.

So thank you, everyone, for everything.

All our love.

Time of death

Tilly was born at 0056 on Saturday 26 May 2018. I’m sure you know that already. But I knew because they announce it, and they write it on the board. It also stops the giant clock on the wall. It is unambiguous.

But the time of death is different. Less clear cut.

They don’t actually tell you that, at the time. You find out later.

When Charlotte went into labour, we knew what the likely outcome would be. And when they started the section, with dozens of trained professionals in the room, we also knew that we were unlikely to spend much time with our child.

In fact, shortly after she was born, the fantastic and utterly empathetic neonatal consultant came over to tell me, as considerately as he could, that he would give our daughter comfort care so she could spend some time with us.

We knew what that meant.

They did that, and after a few, agonisingly long minutes, they brought our living, breathing daughter over for Charlotte and I to cradle.

We knew what this was. We knew we didn’t have long. But this was the most important few minutes of my life. At that point, we saw her chest moving up and down, and Charlotte got to feel her precious breath on her face.

This was borrowed time. She wasn’t going to stay with us, and she couldn’t stay breathing.

So at some point – perhaps when I was escorted out of the room, so they could clean up Charlotte and transfer her to the suite for parents like us – she stopped breathing; disappearing as quickly as she arrived.

But that didn’t stop us spending time with her. Nor did it stop us embracing her, loving her; longing for her.

Eventually we were told that she passed at 0130, meaning we got 34 precious minutes with Tilly. Not much longer than an episode of a soap, but every bit as much of an emotional roller coaster.

One I wouldn’t change for anything.

This blog was particularly hard to write, and hard for Charlotte and I to talk about – but I also knew it was one I had to write. It was the part of the journey that will always haunt me.

Carrying on

On Saturday it’ll be ten weeks since Tilly’s short time with us. I will have completed my second week at work, and will continue to carry on. Whatever that means.

As you all know, I was daunted about returning to work. I am pleased to say that my worries were short lived, as my colleagues quickly made me feel welcome, through their care and consideration, and by giving me some proper work to undertake.

So far, no one has said anything upsetting, and very few people has asked probing questions. Most people have avoided items on the ‘tick-list of things not to say to a grieving parent’. So in that sense all is good.

When people ask how I am doing, I have a few stock answers: “I’m not bad, thank you” or “We’re getting there,” or “it is good to be back and good to have routine”.

These are all true, but they’re all essentially a way of saying, “I’m carrying on”. If I am honest, that would be the best, most succinct, most honest, yet most raw answer.

I don’t feel the same as I did before Tilly was born. I am a different person. A version of me; mostly the same, but not quite. Like a good cover-version of a song you love, or the reformed line-up of your favourite band.

Like most men, I don’t cry much. I’ve not cried at work. I’ve been teary when close colleagues have embraced me, but that’s as much a reaction to their love and kindness. I think the reason I don’t is quite simple – when I cry I feel sad, and I’d rather not feel sad.

So I know that Tilly is always with me, and I think about her countless times, every single day. But I think of her in more of an abstract way, as I attempt to carry on. It just feels easier that way.

However, every now and then I start to feel guilty about this – should I not be trying to carry on? Should I show my emotions more? Should I mention her more at work? Should I go on the work night out tomorrow or is that inappropriate?

These are the thoughts that hound me. And in that sense, I can’t win. Am I even carrying on?

I think so, and I think, probably, I’m doing OK.

And OK is good enough, right now.

It’s the little things

Charlotte and I have just had a relaxing break in Cornwall. Now we’ve returned, my thoughts have turned to my return to work.

At the moment this feels a little daunting, but I know that this nervousness will subside.

It’s the little things that are worrying me about my return. Things like:

When I last left my desk, I was going on holiday before the ‘gender reveal’ scan. Christ, how things have changed since that point. I almost feel sick at my naive excitement and enthusiasm for this.

The building I work in has offices for a number of different teams and departments. Whilst those I am closest to know exactly what I have been through, some, inevitably won’t. I am already dreading the first ‘how are you, I haven’t seen you for a while’ conversation.

On that note, what do I say to people? I could give answers ranging from a sentence or two, to a two-side summary of our experiences. I have no idea how much detail I will want to give.

Should I have a picture of Tilly on my desk? My gut feeling is that yes, I do want one – and after all, other fathers have pictures of their children. But will that upset me, especially when people ask about her?

In the grand scheme of things, these are all small considerations, but right now, they are what occupies my mind when I think about going back to work. That’s before I even think about what work I need to pick up, what on earth is waiting for me in my emails, and remembering where the coffee machine is and what my code for the photocopier might be.

However, when I do get to that point, I know I will have Tilly’s memory with me, and I know that will help me get through the tough times.

#NHS70 – it’s all about care

Tomorrow marks the seventieth anniversary of the foundation of the National Health Service. This is a significant anniversary and one which is rightly getting lots of media coverage.
With this anniversary looming large, I thought it was an appropriate time to write a blog about my recent experiences. There will be countless people writing about the politics and policies of the NHS, and they will know far more than me; so I’ll avoid the pitfalls of straying into this territory.
As regular readers of this blog will know, my partner Charlotte and I recently lost our daughter Tilly. She was born at 25 weeks +1 and was sadly too little to survive. 
Our experiences of the NHS started like most other expectant families, but from 20 weeks onwards, things were anything other than normal. From this point, we experienced the care of three different NHS trusts in three different counties – Cumbria, Tyne and Wear and Lancashire. 
Despite the change in circumstances, and the different trusts, one thing was consistent across them all – care. 
It’s a big word, and it means lots of things to different people, but at almost every point in our journey, it was this that stuck in our minds.
For me it ranges from the little things like the midwife trawling to try and find me some cheap accommodation when Charlotte was transferred to Newcastle, to the almost-parental support we received from the midwives after Tilly was born.
It’s things like the staff making sure I had a lunch or dinner when I was on the ward, or that every single night, the midwives’ handover and introduction to Charlotte took place a long time after their shift had finished.
Or the midwife who hunted us down to give Charlotte a much needed hug when her waters broke, to the one who accompanied Charlotte in the ambulance, so that she wasn’t on her own (incidentally, she finished work late and 50 miles from where she started her working day).
And things like providing us with rooms away from the delivery suites and newly born babies, where we had time for Charlotte to start recovering, us to start grieving, and to be kept in a constant supply of cups of coffee.
Midwives constantly went above and beyond our expectations, doing everything they could to make our experience less painful than it might be. They did this because they cared.
Our experience of the doctors and consultants was also as positive. I think back fondly to the consultant who squeezed us in for an appointment in trying circumstances, who showed so much compassion that I nearly broke down in tears at his empathy. Our consultant – a European expert, no less – was blunt, frank and honest in his communications with us, but despite this, managed to combine these traits with compassion. And care.
At nearly every point in our sad journey, we felt like we were treated like humans, like individuals, like far more than a number or name on a list.
And in our, ultimately, tragic circumstances, this is what we needed more than anything. 
Whilst I don’t want this to be a political point, this care, was all offered to us by the world’s largest publicly funded health care service – one which is founded on the principle that good quality health care should be available to all, free at the point of delivery and from cradle to grave. In my mind, it’s hard to argue against that.
So, this blog post is my small, and somewhat clumsy attempt at recognising the great work of the almost 1.5 million people who make up the NHS. Thank you. Thank you for caring.