Reins of control

my beautiful
Juliette, a few days before we lost her

As parents, we control what happens to our children. We keep them warm and fed, sneak vitamins into their meals and catch them before they fall. We filter the cruelty of the world, because protecting them is what we do. The essential delusion to which most of us cling is that we can control what happens to them, just as we control what happens to us. The death of our child shatters that.

The most tormenting thought I had when this beautiful girl in the picture died was that I could have done something to stop it. I think for most of us who have lost a child this feeling is unavoidable, at least sometimes. It didn’t matter to me how many doctors insisted there was nothing I could have done differently, or the number of friends’ attempts to convince me that this torture was pointless, I agonised over the sequence leading to that awful day in search of the moment that would have changed everything.

It seems to me that to move on from this, you can choose one of two paths. You either ferment in the regret of your ‘mistakes,’ painfully alert to the fact that what happened could happen again (unless you prevent it), or you decide that you were, and continue to be powerless. Call me a godless, arrogant self-determinist, but I’ve always erred on the side of imagining that I am the primary agent in my life and those of my younger children. However, maintaining this notion of control following the loss of a child is a double-edged sword. Certainly the world feels a safer place if you can make choices to protect yourself and your children from its hostile vagaries but if those choices were always mine to make, how could I have let Juliette die? How much more appealing then to place your fate and theirs in the hands of unknown forces?

I’ve had a salient reminder recently of what being in control means to me, and at an especially critical time. Five weeks ago and seven miles into a long run, I broke my leg. OK. I have spent the last few years managing my life and with a small dose of luck, making things happen. I’ve found work that I truly love and shockingly, for which I seem to have an aptitude. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I (previously a non-runner) have finished three marathons in respectable non-runner times, written two books and achieved a distinction in a Science degree with my flabby Arts brain. An effective puncture to any pride is that with my leg currently in a cast, even keeping myself clean is a challenge. I can’t carry a cup of tea between rooms or tidy up, let alone drive myself to work or to the university to complete the prison education research about which I’m passionate. As someone close to me observed, “If your life were a novel, this would be an obvious plot device.” The capable and in-control protagonist has been reminded she is not, after all, in control of all that much.IMG_20160410_150238

Tidying? Not possible.


I don’t like it. I’m fairly sure I’m not on any OCD scale, but the need to feel in control (and the discomfort when I’m not) I recognise as far more of a driver (ha) than it ever was before Juliette died. Yet I’m painfully aware I need to work on this as one of the less healthy effects that losing Juliette has had on me, especially where the children are concerned. So, when a recently-returned-from-Ghana Elodie telephoned late at night from London to describe symptoms of suspected typhoid, I successfully quietened the voice that said, ‘Get dressed and drive 60 miles to take her to hospital now and she’ll live. Stay in bed, and she’ll die.’ Elodie is an adult, and I know I have to trust that I’ve helped her develop enough sense of her own to make good decisions most of the time. I aspire to be Khalil Gibran’s stable bow to my children’s living arrows, but too much of the time I’m still the anxious archer.

I’m resigned never to shake entirely the anxiety of not being in control and able to keep those I love safe. Unfortunately I am all too primed for the heart-stamping agony of losing people I care about and this places my emotions on a hair trigger, but knowing this about myself is part way to dealing with it. My conscious viewpoint (and perhaps a broken leg at this particular juncture was a useful reminder) is that life hands you a random script – mine just happened to include the death of my incredible daughter – and the limit of your control is how you play your part. At some point after Juliette died, I made the occasionally hard decision to live as intensely as she did because she no longer could. In the context of my current incapacity I must remind myself that raging against my foolishness (why was I admiring the sky rather than watching the uneven road?) and wallowing in self-pity at crutch-induced tendonitis, is no shortcut to happiness. Reading for my prison study, catching up on unfinished novels (and un-watched box sets), seeing my lovely friends and writing the odd blog post is, at a time when I have been chronically busy, a joy. And ‘only’ another five weeks without driving. Who knows? Any minute now I may be thanking my lucky stars.


'You're grounded.'







My beautiful, extraordinary little girl would be 18 today. It’s nearly 13 years since she left, and the family she knew has changed. This morning we all got ready for our days without a mention of Juliette. I hate that it implies we’ve left her behind, when in fact her short life infuses every single day of mine.

Tomorrow we watch Elodie perform in a dance show – we’ll stay the night close to her university and remember Juliette together on Saturday. Meanwhile it’s raining in Essex, and I have to find time to pick up a bunch of pink and purple flowers in between bouts of writing a long statistics report for my Psychology MSc. It’s surreal.

Why did she have to die? I know she would have made a fantastic, original, funny, bright and compassionate adult, but instead I have her spirit inside me, memories and a few old photos. On days like today that really doesn’t feel like enough.


I must try to remember that the moments of self-indulgence I feel on particular days are not what defines the other 364, or whatever. So now, a bit of a sob and a shower later…it is absolutely right and entirely healthy that none of us mentioned Juliette’s birthday before leaving the house this morning. Our walls are lined with her drawings, and photographs of Juliette cover all surfaces. She has not diminished in our minds. It is simply that loving her then losing her, colours us almost unknowingly (in pink and purple, naturally) every day. I have bleated endlessly about my gratitude (in the absence of choice) for the way my life has changed thanks to my amazing daughter. I am braver, because she was brave. I love people more because she thought people were wonderful – despite evidence sometimes that they aren’t. I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself because I’ve remembered she never did – and she suffered far more in five years than I ever have. My extraordinary, always-five-year-old Juliette.

With Grandpa
With Grandpa
Watching petals fall
Watching petals fall


Singing in the bath...
Singing in the bath…




April 13th 2014

2014 marathon-1

Before… Crossing Tower Bridge at 13 miles

Well, that was quite hard. Once again I’ve learned you can train all you want, have a realistic target time in mind, and things can still not go quite right on marathon day. My heart sank at the heat of the sun as I walked from Greenwich station to the start, and it was only 8.30 a.m. Yes, It wasn’t as hot as 2007, but when you’ve done your long runs in the cold it was still darned uncomfortable in the upper teens.

Anyway, I began in high spirits – it’s impossible not to be excited by the music and noise of the crowds. At mile 2 I sang along to Robbie Williams ‘Angels’ with my fellow runners, and bounced along to ‘Come on Eileen’ at 4. I kept an eye on my watch and my mile times were roughly what I planned. It was lovely to see my cousin and his family at 5 miles and my own with Dani and children at 6, with other friends and their jelly babies at 12.

My leg cramp-avoidance strategy was not to drink any water, only sports drink, but at around 15 miles I worried I’d missed the Lucozade station. I was thirsty and desperate enough to pick up a discarded, sticky bottle – to the horror of a race official who almost slapped it out of my hand. He told me the station was half a mile ahead. Phew, and gaargh…What was I thinking?!’ A little further on, African drummers boomed in an underpass – I felt every beat in my chest which gave me a shot of energy.

My family was a welcome sight at 16 miles, but I was annoyed to find my wooded comfort break spot at 17 had been fenced off since 2009. Undeterred, I climbed the railings to avoid the portaloo queues. An absence of embarrassed dog walkers was an unessential bonus. At that point, I just couldn’t have cared less.

Around 18-19 miles I started getting tearful. My maths went to pot and at 19, I was thinking ‘I can’t run another 9 miles…’ My spirit a little broken, I began to walk and run. ‘Fast as you can to the traffic lights, then you can walk for a bit..’ I told myself. I counted to 100, repeatedly. The rhythm helped, and concentrating on what number came next helped block out the voice that was trying to say, ‘Stop! You bloody fool!’ Sometimes I said the odd numbers aloud, sometimes the even. Even in my long distance running delirium I knew I must have seemed a little mad.

I had a strange stomach pain around 22 miles (ruptured kidney/ovary/hernia, obviously – drama queen…moi?) and a fellow runner led me to the St John’s ambulance people who were all for sitting me down and wrapping me in a foil blanket. I lost a couple of minutes, but decided no pain was going to stop me from finishing. I didn’t spot my family at 22 miles but I did see another friend at 23.

Things were getting ugly. I thought I would throw up if I tried another jelly baby or slug of Lucozade, but the support from the crowds was incredible. It’s impossible to overstress the difference it makes when someone uses your name and calls out something encouraging. Still, it was a struggle in that heat, and with the stomach pain. I never got the abysmal leg and foot cramps of the previous two marathons (thank you, mega doses of calcium and a total water-drinking ban) but I’d used far too much energy acknowledging every single ‘Come on, Geves!’ and just staying cool.

I ran (in between sobs) past Buckingham Palace and down the Mall, but it was not a glorious finish. When I had my medal, I sat on the ground and cried (in between gulps of water and bites of muesli bar) while I contemplated the disappointment of 5 hours and 3 minutes.

Anyway, enough. I had a 25-minute window for the time I wanted/could expect. I couldn’t have trained or prepared better than I did so although it was the end of that window, it was at least IN the window, and I should be content with my time. Hey, it was a personal best by five minutes after all! And I’ve raised nearly £4000 for Child Bereavement UK, which brings our fundraising total since we lost Juliette to just over £25,000. My little girl had been with me every step, particularly over the tough final “9” miles. “Count, Mummy..” I heard her say.

I suppose it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but I know I can run 26 miles in under 5 hours… and I could JUST be recovered for the Halstead marathon in three weeks time…

2014 marathon-2             The medal

After…. a few yards from the finish              The medal, after a bowl of pasta and some prosecco

New year treasure

Treasure chestWe have in a corridor of our house something my grandmother used to call “a glory hole.” In hers, you would find fragile pieces of beautiful china (incomplete sets), broken pieces of favourite jewellery and pieces of fabric from dresses she wanted to remember. Essentially, it was a cupboard of things with which she could not bear to part. I don’t care that the term has acquired a different use because to me, it still conjures up the magic of my mother’s mother.

Anyway, our cupboard of the name is overflowing with what others might term ‘junk.’ It caught my eye today and I could not think of a good reason to avoid tackling it. So, I pulled out dusty ring binders of notes on massage from a course I completed as a distraction after Juliette died, (binned), VHS tapes of films we’ll no longer watch as well as those we’ve replaced on DVD (binned), photographs not yet in albums (kept), and endless lesson plans and materials from when I used to tutor French (tentatively kept). My tidying yielded no broken jewellery, no fabric scraps or china, but I did find a box.

The box has a window lid, into which at some point I must have put a poem that Juliette had written during her last term at school. Inside I rediscovered cards written by Juliette, a dragonfly brooch she made me during a hospital stay, a still sticky empty jar of homemade jam (she had picked the strawberries), one of her favourite books (We’re going on a Bear Hunt) and a lock of her hair. Nestled amongst these was a white stone with a hole in it that Juliette found on Southwold beach during her final week and that she had given me, ‘because it’s lucky, Mummy.’

I felt a jolt turning over a card Juliette had made for her class during that holiday – we never posted it because she was taken into hospital for the final time – because in my scribbled handwriting were numbers that must have been her last blood count. She’d had a routine blood test on the Monday. It was good. All her levels were fine. On Thursday of the same week, she died from an overwhelming infection.

It must be at least three years since I’ve opened the box. I remembered that I had these things, but I had forgotten I’d saved them like this. It was a poignant find for the first day of 2014 – the 12th we have entered without her – but a lovely one. She is never very far away from my thoughts and always inside me, but finding these tangible memories reminds me she was once real, solid and adorable. While holding on to everything my life is now, I still miss her so much.




prime-numbersI wonder if other parents who have lost children now have a thing about numbers?  I’ve never thought of myself as a superstitious person, but what I’m about to say would rather contradict that.

Five is my golden number. It’s the age that Juliette reached, and it’s also the number of babies I’ve given birth to. I attach it to anything I want to be lucky, yet it also feels a little clandestine. To people I’ve only just met I say, ‘I’ve had five children,’ which I hope I do not have to develop into, ‘but only four are living.’ I’ve never had more than four living children. Five is the number I get away with if I can.

26. Juliette was born on the 26th March. It feels like a lovely, auspicious combination of digits.

7 is the number of people in our family, only we look like a household of 6. For the first few years after Juliette died, I couldn’t send Christmas cards because, how could I sign them off and exclude Juliette? The first ones I managed to write included her name with ours. I know lots of bereaved parents do this, but for me it very soon felt mawkish. Now I sign any family cards or presents with a pattern of seven kisses. It probably looks childish, but I don’t care. I know Juliette is ‘there.’

18. This is the worst number. I try to avoid arranging anything important on the 18th of any month. Even hearing of an 18th birthday, because of the digits, makes me feel a little sick.

2002. This is an odd one, and was the first to make me wonder about my thoughts and behaviour. I quite often fill my car with £20 of diesel, but if I misjudge the pump and it stops at 20:02, I have to keep going until it reaches £30. Eleven years on, that’s a bit insane, isn’t it?

Shipwrecked – from Watching Petals Fall


A kind person on Mumsnet linked to my blog in reply to someone who asked how to help their friends who had lost a child. It is so difficult for non-bereaved parents to understand how we feel, and I really appreciate an individual who wants to try. It is brave and although I do understand, sadly for those of us living with this situation it is also extremely rare.

This is the chapter from my book that attempts to put into words what I felt in the early months after Juliette died.

Chapter Ten

The end of August approached and Steph had not been at work for almost seven weeks. His boss had been sympathetic, but we could not avoid the inevitable forever. We knew this, and yet the thought that this part of our routine would simply resume as if nothing had happened tormented us. It seemed impossible that firms could continue to trade, but then it seemed impossible that we could continue to breathe. The planet was unaffected by our loss, and life marched on without even a backward glance at the space where Juliette had been.

Steph’s job involved managing ship cargoes around the world, and not everyone he spoke to had heard the news. A simple, ‘How’s the family?’ forced him to tell people he hardly knew about losing Juliette. Certain others who were aware, no doubt remembering their feelings when a parent or grandparent had died, expected Steph to be more philosophical after such a long break. Opening this emotional vein several times a day made it difficult for Steph to stay professional.

I felt desperate for him, leaving every morning to face people who might not care. I would not have coped as he did. Talking to people who knew me well was hard enough. It was ironic, but for me this return to ‘normal’ life happened at exactly the point where I started to collapse inside. Outwardly, I did everything that was expected. I made meals, cleaned the house, and took the children out. Every day I tried to act normal in the hope that eventually I would feel it. I might cry at home for a couple of hours while coping with the children, then wash my face, put on some make-up and step outside. People believed I was coping. One day I even kept the dentist appointment I had made for Elodie, Juliette and Pierre before we left for Southwold.

The children had always loved the dentist. Mrs Thomas spoke several decibels louder than necessary, with a huge smile and very small words. After a perfunctory sweep of their mouths, she would remove her glove and blow air into it. ‘Lady or man?’ she would ask. According to the reply, she would draw a face on the latex with permanent markers. This appointment was a little different.

‘How was your holiday?’ she boomed.

‘Well, not great. Juliette died.’

She deflated like one of her gloves. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered.

I wished I had cancelled the appointment. I sat with Raphi on my lap, watching her fight the tears as she examined Pierre’s mouth. I felt bad for her and wanted to say something, but it had taken all my reserves just to leave the house. Exhausted by my own grief, I lacked the strength to make it easier for anyone else. I wanted to be at home, with the door shut. This became a common theme.

 I was only dimly aware of how hard it was for other people to say the right thing or act in a way that helped rather than hurt. If they had not lost a child themselves, how could I expect them to predict how I was feeling? Half the time I did not know what I was feeling either. I wanted people to talk about Juliette but at other times, I could not bear the sympathy. I was tired, and I longed for normal conversations where Juliette was not dead. People spoke to me cagily, weighing each word, looking for a sign that I was not going to burst into tears. When I managed to keep it together, some called me ‘brave’.

I am not brave.

‘I wouldn’t cope as well as you are’, they would say.

They meant to be kind, for me to find comfort in my own strength, but the suggestion I was brave was terrible to hear. It inferred that my love for Juliette was inadequate; inferior to the love they felt for their child. What they took as evidence of my courage was just a snapshot. I was all right in that moment, but I might have been crying for most of the previous hours. Coping with other people’s expectations was confusing and exhausting. How could I explain that I felt like a shell a lot of the time, blissfully empty of pain, until it filled me again? I did not want a medal for being strong. I wanted Juliette back.

The best friends were those that listened and were kind enough not to tell me I was repeating myself, and those who could bear to sit while I cried without trying to cheer me up. Sometimes I just needed to cry. Having to save crying always for private made my head want to explode.

Although my poor friends worried about making things worse, I was grateful that no one crossed the road to avoid me. I was an embodiment of every parent’s darkest nightmare; to hear my words must have brought these fears sharply into focus. Even the kindest people did sometimes respond in the wrong key. One acquaintance told me that Juliette’s life was ‘just not meant to be’. I appreciated their intention, but it was too early for me to feel resigned and fatalistic about my daughter’s death. Nevertheless I always preferred people to say something, even something clumsy, than nothing at all.

Lucy, already coping with her own family challenges was my chief support. She phoned or dropped by most days and always had time to hear my thoughts, despite these being dull and unchanging. I missed Juliette and wanted her back. I could not make it more interesting than that. Lucy played with the children, took them off for treats and the two of us went for long walks. Her greatest gift however was the way she cried when I cried. It was of enormous comfort to know she shared some of my suffering.

It is difficult to be with someone else’s misery. The temptation to comfort is strong, yet what I needed to hear most was, ‘Yes, it’s awful she’s died. I am so sorry’. I was lucky that only strangers and no good friends offered the terrible invitation to look on the bright side of Juliette’s death. ‘She’s in a better place’, ‘Juliette wouldn’t want you to be sad’ or ‘She’ll always be looking over you’, were thoughts intended to cheer me up. What they did not realise was that nothing could make me feel better, except to see Juliette walking through the door. The worst sentence of all, was, ‘At least you still have your other children’.

It was true. I did have my other children. Their existence bludgeoned a fraction of the pain but it was Juliette, Juliette, Juliette I wanted; Juliette to hold, to stroke, to hear, to smell. Juliette was gone, a wreath of smoke that disappeared as I grasped it, out of my reach forever.

I was so shocked, all my capacity to love focussed on Juliette alone. In the face of her sudden, surreal absence, the physical presence of the other children was almost a torture. It feels terrible to admit but for a while, I had to fake expressions of love for my living children. It was as though overnight the emotion had become too dangerously associated with agony.

My other, beautiful children could not fill the space that Juliette had left. I craved her particular smell, her solid form, mannerisms and voice like an addict in cold turkey. Sometimes when holding one of the others, I would shut my eyes and let myself imagine I was holding her. I felt guilty, but the methadone-like relief it gave me for those few moments was worth it.

Knowing how lead-like my presence was at any gathering and how worried people were about saying the wrong thing, I was grateful they still invited me. I could no longer manage the small talk I used to find so easy. It overwhelmed me how little anything people talked about mattered, and yet my mind rebelled against this judgement. The achievements of children, holiday plans, local gossip, paint shades and fabric patterns had once been important to me too. At least, they had been important to the person I was when Juliette was still alive.

Barely two months after Juliette’s death, a friend asked the children and me to her son’s birthday party. I was wary, knowing there would be people there I had never met, but she convinced me and I thought I could handle it.

At the party, a nice looking woman with a son the same age as Pierre came over to chat. I was relieved. Egotistically, I imagined my friend had steered a sympathetic person in my direction. ‘How do you know Laura?’ she asked.

‘Music group. How about you?’

‘Oh, school. Anyway,’ she paused, ‘do you have any other children besides Pierre and Raphi?’

I just stared at the poor woman, unable to reply. How many children did I have? I had no comfortable answer. Impact was imminent and I had no control of the brakes.

‘Well, Elodie is seven and I lost my five-year-old daughter in July.’


The woman’s face seized with mortification. ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry.’ She dropped her eyes to the floor, clearly wishing herself a million miles from me.

‘Thank you. It’s alright.’ I accepted the tissue she offered me and smiled, trying to make my loss of composure easier for her to bear. Then I felt angry. I was furious with my friend for not telling each of the dozen mothers there about Juliette. I knew it was irrational. I had planned enough children’s birthday parties of my own to know how stressful it was to remember everything.

Opening up drained me. To protect myself, it was generally less tiring to accept clichés from people I did not know well rather than engage. ‘Time is a great healer’, was a phrase frequently offered. Logically I knew this sentiment to be true and yet, I did not want to be healed. At least, not then. I wanted the pain to stay raw. To feel that it would one day diminish would be to accept the outrage of Juliette’s death. I could not do that

Often it was safer to stay at home, and limit my contact with the world to the smallest circle of friends. I felt like a fresh, gaping wound where even the slightest brush of a casual question would hurt. I could not take more pain.

My friends and family were supportive, and yet I had never felt more alone. I had never considered myself a person that depended on others, but now it hit me with brute force that no one could make Juliette’s death better for me. My mother was wonderful but she was grieving too. She grieved for herself but also for me, and my pain was difficult for her to witness.

My father and I became even closer in the months after Juliette died, but parents want to fix children. I understood his need to see me getting better and looking forward, but I just could not do that yet. What I craved most of all was a sense that my outrage at Juliette’s death was shared, and that my misery was an acceptable response.

Sometimes the pain was too great and at times when I could find no other ways to distract myself, I read obsessively. Fiction was impossible. I could not concentrate for long enough to lose myself in a story and instead, I sought out post-child loss road maps written by other bereaved parents, looking for clues as to how I could navigate and survive. I read poetry to make sense of my feelings, and spiritual books for the promise I would see Juliette again.

I visited blogs and chat rooms, for anything that helped block out my own thoughts or conversely, to clarify them. I would read how someone else expressed the loss of a child and then did not have to feel it fully myself. Absorbing the thoughts of other bereaved parents made me feel less alone. Defining the agony with words, even someone else’s words helped to diminish the way it gripped me.

I imagined one book would explain to me why Juliette had died and how I could survive and until I found it, I kept looking. On one of my quests, I discovered a poem called ‘After the Burial’ by James Russell Lowe. The poet wrote it after the death of his young daughter in 1850, and he put into beautiful, poignant words the searing pain and his internal response to another’s clumsy attempts to comfort him.

The mourner offers Lowe all the unwelcome platitudes that are served up often unthinkingly to bereaved parents. The whole poem is lustrous with raw emotion, but one of the verses in particular struck a chord. It reads, ‘Console if you will, I can bear it / ‘tis a well-meant alms of breath / but not all the preaching since Adam / has made death other than death.’ The poem ends with the line, ‘That little shoe in the corner / so worn and wrinkled and brown / with its emptiness confutes you / and argues your wisdom down’. I could never read it without crying, but lacking the vocabulary of my own I wanted to point to it and say, ‘Look, that’s what I’m feeling, right there.’

Another passage I found was by Mark Twain, written after the loss of his adult daughter, which expressed the disbelief and shock that I also felt with the sudden absence of Juliette. He spoke of his daughter being but ‘treasure in the bank’ the need to count daily ‘not necessary’. Now someone tells him the treasure is gone and he asks, ‘Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?’.

I craved proof of Juliette’s physical presence; a chanced upon scribble, a forgotten toy, a syringe or stray hair all became sacred objects. Even a grisly, previously unnoticed streak of sick on the wall behind her bed at my parents’ house was something precious.

The thinnest link with Juliette sustained me. I started researching clairvoyants, and visited several. After each meeting, I fantasised how the next one would be more convincing and would make me feel Juliette was reachable. If I had this, I had not lost her entirely.

I wanted Juliette back so badly, and this desire played tricks on my reason. I thought seriously about adopting a five-year-old girl, with no sense whatsoever of the grounds our application would be rejected. I wanted another baby. I spoke to Steph about the pros and cons of another child as if I was a rational human being, but the longing was primitive and visceral. My desperate brain trawled everything it knew of how to get Juliette back, and came up with a biological solution. A few weeks later, I was pregnant.

We kept the news to ourselves for as long as we could, but then we had more medical news with which to cope. The post-mortem results were back. We were going to find out why Juliette had died while there was no discernible trace of leukaemia in her body.

Angela Tillett came to visit us at home, armed with sheaves of notes. I sat beside Juliette’s much-loved doctor on the sofa, and she shielded the words from my view. She spoke, changing the columns of words and numbers into sentences a parent could bear to hear. I took notes. I had trouble remembering anything, and it seemed so important not to lose any detail of Juliette.

Angela cried. She described a virus that entered Juliette’s digestive system and had so overwhelmed her, her heart stopped. The seemingly normal blood test indicated a desperate final bid by Juliette’s immune system.

‘With adult heart attacks,’ said Angela, ‘it’s often the first sign something is wrong. When a child has a heart attack, it is usually at the end of a long chain of events.’

‘You mean there was nothing we could have done?’


The details were agony to hear, but I made myself listen. I could not run away from Juliette’s final hours. I heard how an impersonal, cruel virus had taken our perfect little girl with sand between her toes and pink nail varnish on her fingers, and killed her without ceremony.

Knowing it was a virus, I had a new set of tools with which to torture myself. Should I have kept her at home rather than letting her go to school or anywhere else? Had I become complacent about her health? Did she eat something before I made her wash her hands? Where did she pick up the virus?

I knew deep down it was self-defeating and pointless, but I agonised over whether we could have done anything to alter what had happened. Steph got annoyed with me as I went round in circles, asking the same questions. He hated to watch me punish myself. ‘You can’t change anything, darling,’ he said, but that was the whole point. I wanted to rewrite what had happened, and change every detail.

On the day Steph went back to work, I started a diary. Writing things down helped to rid my head of some of the most confusing thoughts. I imagined that by shutting the book on my words, I would contain them. I could continue with my day.


27th August – I told Elodie earlier that if we’d had a crystal ball and had known when Juliette would die we would have done nothing different, going to school etc. I believed it as I said it. I wanted to extinguish any doubt in E’s mind after what that foul child said to her. But it’s not true. I would never have wanted her to leave my sight.


Why did she have to be taken from us? Why did our happiness have to be shattered like this? Whatever can we do to be a tiny part as happy as we were? I miss my girl so much.


I’ve just spoken to someone who told me Juliette was an old soul who needed this one last experience of being ill as a child, and that she chose us for the love we gave her. She wanted me to picture Juliette giving me a hug, with her arms round my neck. I could really feel it, the way she would squeeze and give me a kiss, then giggle and say ‘mmm, you’re so sweet!’  I cried a lot, but feel much better now.


29th August – God what an awful day, meaning I cried a lot. Just couldn’t stop this morning so ended up calling help lines for the first time. I miss her so much – the weight of it in my chest feels physical, crushing the breath out of me.


I managed a picnic with other people today and didn’t feel like they were all staring at me. Went over to the grave on my own after Steph got back. I saw one of Juliette’s friends when I was walking home. Pathetic. I stopped to talk to her and her sister, hoping they would mention Juliette, but they didn’t. I asked J’s friend if she was still going to be in Mrs Lewis’s class when she went back to school. No, she said, she was going to be in Mrs Tetley’s, and she was going to be a Year 1! I just thought how excited Juliette would be and said, ‘bye’ to them. Didn’t even get as far as the church before I was sobbing. Saw a couple I didn’t immediately recognise and thought, ‘if I just put my head down,’ but it was our neighbour. She gave me a big hug and I said ‘sorry’ and she told me she thought I was one of the bravest people she knew. I walked on and saw another neighbour, who said if ever we wanted a chat, just to pop across the road. People are so nice but no one can say, ‘Look! We found Juliette for you!’ That’s the only thing I want to hear. 


 2 nights without Valium and I’m sleeping worse, but better. I dream more, maybe. The other night I dreamt that Juliette was not dead after all but in hospital for an operation on her heart. She was lying still on her bed and I was telling her how much I loved her and how gorgeous she was, and she started smiling with her eyes still closed. Then when she was going into theatre, she was teasing the nurse in the way she used to saying, ‘you’re a lovely boy!’ and giggling like mad.


1st September  – I’ve been thinking about the case of the little boy who went missing in Greece years ago, but a body has never been found, although there have been various ‘sightings.’ I’d always thought ‘how mysterious…white slave traders, etc.’ which has kept the parents searching. Now I think, what bloody torture. The poor boy is probably dead but the need to keep looking for him must be overpowering for the parents. How can they accept he is dead? Why do we love so deeply and powerfully? We are only animals after all and ‘love’ is just our word to dress up an instinct to perpetuate and preserve our species, isn’t it? Or is our enormous emotional capacity for love a glimpse of the divine spark within us?


As we love, so we lose. This thought comforts me when I’m in self-torment mode and ask myself, ‘did I love her properly/enough?’ I just looked at photos of when she was around 2, our holiday in Brittany, etc. – and in all of them I seem to be holding her, with my arms around her. She felt my love I’m sure. Only I would have held her all the time if I knew I was going to lose her. Fi said yesterday, Juliette was like the Readybrek kid, glowing with love, and when she smiled at you, she gave a little of this out. Juliette’s herbalist sent a card saying how she admired me for keeping life normal and happy for her. I hope I did OK. Lots of people seem to think I did. It’s just the voice of self-doubt. I did get cross with her sometimes. She was so like me with her quick rages that she couldn’t control, flailing fists, and the way she would goad Pierre with half a smile. I made her sit on the steps when she’d been naughty. She wouldn’t stay there, running to her bedroom and slamming the door, lying there with her hands over her eyes. When I went to talk to her she’d say ‘Sorry – I want a cuddle,’ and that would be it. She knew how much I loved her, didn’t she?


6th SeptemberI read with her and told her how well she read. I read stories to her. I cooked with her. I loved that and so did she.


14th SeptemberWhy is it that just after she died I could picture vividly every inch of her body but not her face? I could see the puckered scar above her collarbone where the Hickman line was, the oval purplish scar on the right side of her torso, the curve of her tummy, her chubby legs, her slightly trembling mottled fingers, also chubby, her lovely round bottom, the pulse in her neck. Now I can picture the chickenpox scar under her right eye.  Why everything in scars? Because that’s what made her unique?


I hope Steph and I can keep talking. I want to keep close to him. We were allowed Juliette for five whole years, a special little soul. Some people never become parents. We have four special people in our lives. Steph said last night, ‘she’s not suffering any more’, but the whole, sad point to me is that she wasn’t suffering – she left us in perfect health it seemed, but God how do I know? Her body was overwhelmed by a virus that could give someone else a tummy ache. Her little body was exhausted.


I can only survive if I believe that she’ll be there when I die, that I’ll see her again. I think it was right that she went to school. Please let it have been right. She had so many kind people looking after her and she was so loved  in school, as she was everywhere – magnetic, someone said, my special little girl.


15th September – I’m reading ‘Talking to Heaven’ (James Van Praagh) at the moment and thinking about going to see a clairvoyant. What if Juliette doesn’t appear?


21st SeptemberSteph told me that he doesn’t remember Juliette putting her fists in her eyes when she felt any trepidation, like when she got out of bed in the evening. How many other memories do we not share/will we not share? He has no sense that she might just come back either. I know logically this is brain fog on my part, but it’s such a relief I can’t help indulging.


I’m not going to the grave much at the moment. I want it to look lovely but have nightmarish images of what’s going on. Elodie dreamt the other night that Juliette came out of her coffin and was a skeleton. Why is my family having to go through this? WHY?? Why did she have to go and leave us? Someone told me we choose our lives. Did we choose this? It sounds like bollocks. More likely that God randomly metes out misery and there is no comforting plan at all, just one giant biology experiment with no more meaning to us than the cells in our bodies. I want to believe in the eternity of our souls so much, but this wanting to believe is absolute self-interest. I need to believe that life is not pointless. Does that make me one of the millions propping up nonsense religions around the world? Because that’s what we’re all scared of – a big gaping nothingness behind EVERYTHING. Juliette has to be

somewhere, because I can’t bear the alternative.


I owe phone calls, letters, money to everyone. All I can do at the moment is my ‘projects’ – reading, painting the children’s rooms, making half-hearted piles with the letters we’ve received – I do about 15 then forget what my original purpose was and what the piles signify, so stack them up again. I rush to the post every morning hoping there will be a letter or card, telling me something I’d forgotten or never knew about Juliette. I love more than anything to hear other people’s recollections and impressions. When they’re talking I want to say, ‘hold on, can I write this down?’ but worry they’ll think I’m deranged. I want to make solid all these things, afraid they’ll disappear, like she did.


Talking with Elodie the other night she said, ‘If someone came to you and said they’d bring Juliette back but you had to pay £5000, would you do it?’ She seemed amazed by my answer that I’d pay millions, eat dog poo every day to have her back. I was thinking of that heavy metal singer who used to bite the heads off chickens as part of his act – I would do that all day long – oh just for the chance to prove what I would do to have her back.




 October 2nd   – I don’t want the point before Juliette died to be the highest point in all our lives, from which there is only descent. I want something magical to be present from now on – she was in our lives for five years and I want to be better for it.


 October 3rd  – I don’t want this to have happened – who decided it was OK to take Juliette from us? It is NOT OK with ME. I don’t have her forever and it’s someone’s  fault. People say the word VIRUS and I get a thrill of hatred, but I wish ‘The Virus’ was a man, wore a suit, lived in a street I knew and had a phone number that I could dial so I could call and tell him how much I HATED him for stealing my daughter FOR WHAT? Where is that virus now? Has he gained from ending my daughter’s life? Steph is away, it’s 11.30 at night and I’m crying – I know I’ll be tired tomorrow & tired = Bad Day but I feel alone. I’ve been asking Juliette to come and sleep beside me and sometimes it feels like she does. Am I crazy? Maybe she no longer exists? Perhaps people like me who lost someone they loved invented the idea of an afterlife. Where is God? Why can I feel no comfort? Do I want comfort? I want JUSTICE. Why is my little girl not here – why do I have to have lost her? Who decided it?


Neighbour won’t look me in the eye – probably he’s heard me howling – I don’t care. I am seeing people in a new light & they are seeing me differently – I sometimes feel like life has been stripped down to the bare bones – I can never be the person I was, 50% faker – fuck though, I’ll be 50% faker again, blind and stupid to have my Juliette back – rather that fog than this god awful clarity. 3 days before seeing clairvoyant for the 1st time. I hope so badly I’ll hear something – setting myself up for disappointment – I’ll keep trying though.


October 5th – I think I know that this will all make me a ‘better person’ whatever the fuck that means. I believe we’ll grab something positive from this and I do want that, but… I am NEVER going to hold my baby again, see her sleepy face in the doorway and I feel so resentful – I just long to see her again, feel her weight on me, touch her head.


I saw a man who has just lost his young wife sitting near her grave this morning – I didn’t speak to him. If ever a figure could look utterly desolate in the distance, he did. Poor man, and his children. To lose a mother is like losing the right arm and eye of the family body – there can only be one mother… it’s different & God I’m not saying that ours is easier – his wife got to be an adult and have her own children – but as a family unit, I believe we can knit back together. I have such a desire to hold J even for one minute – a bestial urge to touch her & smell her. Makes me promise crazy things in my head.  I have to look at the other children and remember why I love them – Elodie with her grace, her gentleness, her loving nature and the way she can be made to laugh – she’s growing up so amazingly. And Pierre with his fabulous monologues, reasoning the world away with crazy 3 yr old’s  non-sequiturs  – he’s so full of love. Raphi’s just starting to be his own person with animal noises ‘duck wack,’ his noise for everything – understanding so much now, longing to play cars & trains with Pierre – very cuddly with me.


Where Juliette was there’s a hole that will never be filled – perhaps she can stay there, invisible but present – glue. I never wanted to be without her, never thought really that I would be. I want to dream about Juliette but no matter how hard I think about her when I’m falling asleep, it’s been weeks now since I dreamt about her.


October 17th – I feel angry because now I have to keep my children’s memories of their sister in a box. This is not fair. I went to Lucy’s last night because I needed to look at Juliette’s things. It was delicious agony to see them, all so familiar. I wanted to bury myself in them, smell them – felt everything of hers I touched was holy. Lucy brought me tea after about an hour & helped me look for J’s white Gap top with flowers that I always picture her wearing. She was touching Juliette’s things like they were just things. I couldn’t explain how I felt to Lucy, because I sound mad and she’s so kind to me.


October 20th – I dreamt the other night that Steph and I were being chased by a bear & I couldn’t remember what you’re supposed to do, and then suddenly I did remember that bears won’t touch dead meat, so hissed to Steph that we had to pretend to be dead. In another one, I was at our old house in Scotland, and there were lions and tigers everywhere, nowhere seemed to be safe. Fear of being consumed? More disturbing was a dream last week that Steph and I were at home & we had a call from the hospital to say that Juliette was dying, and we weren’t there. I woke myself up from that one. I feel a longing for anything, contact with her, reminders, although I’m afraid that things will lose their power to evoke memories – I’ve lost too much already, terrified of losing anything else.


In another dream I was with people I didn’t know in some deserted wasteland. There was a car they had re-painted white to hide something, but I thought, ‘what’s the point of that when they haven’t even changed the number plate?’ One of the strangers told me they’d tried to burn the car because there was something in it that would prove it was me who had killed Juliette, then a police car drew up. I just felt relieved I was going to be punished for her death.


October 29th  – you ask me whether I want to go to a cutesy Christmas fair while I imagine how decomposed my daughter’s body would be now – you are so TRIVIAL and disrespect me and my feelings. WHY did this happen to us? I want my daughter back.


October 30thI miss the complacency I felt with my four perfect children, love all around us, protecting us, the six of us, Juliette’s funny faces, making me laugh. I can’t see how I could ever be better now she’s gone. I’m scared Steph might die or that my parents might die. I think how we’ve been robbed of our Juliette and it makes me so angry, that she might be here but she’s not – and I want to know why, and blame someone. I get angry when people assume they know how I must be feeling, & their petty, little lives continue untouched by our enormous tragedy, saying their child ‘misses Juliette’ which they think is ‘sweet’. Fuck off with your Baby Jesus sentiments, cherubs & chubby children kneeling praying in their Victorian nighties just FUCK OFF – you know NOTHING  about real death & pain & my searing LOSS just FUCK OFF


November 2nd – Elodie said today, ‘No I don’t want you to be pregnant because I don’t want to feel anyone’s taking Juliette’s place.’ She comes out with this against a background of blandness, which I know I shouldn’t, but I find so isolating – I want us to cry together but I know that’s not fair. She’s not an adult, I should be sharing with Steph. I told her I could understand why she felt that, but that no one could replace Juliette – she wouldn’t let them.


I’m feeling so horrible at the moment – very dark all this week – I’d say like tearing my hair out if that wasn’t a cliché. I hate the way that sounds – detached & self-conscious. I feel hopeless – pointless – hopeless & why go on? Nothing means anything anymore, it’s all a sham, it was real & now it’s not – no more bright canopy, the true ugliness of the sky all too clear & we are unprotected from it – why go on? – Juliette lies in her grave & the world puts on plastic Halloween masks to go and fill tubs of sweet crap from their neighbours – I don’t want this life to go on, there’s no beauty anymore.


November 6th  – It’s so unreal – I feel that Juliette can’t be dead. She’s just not here at the moment. I look at her familiar face in photographs and I can’t believe that I won’t be seeing her again for real. I don’t want it to be me that’s lost a child. Why’s it me? Why did my lovely family have to be torn up? It’s like a continual weight. Juliette won’t be with us again & what’s the point in anything? Why do I carry on with the mundane things? There’s no joy in anything. The birth of Dani’s baby has washed over me. I tried so hard to feel the elation I knew I should in little Theo – the way she felt when all of mine were born – but I felt dull – even birth is pointless – I miss Juliette – I didn’t want her to leave my life – who took her? I needed her, I wanted her, I LOVED her – I love her, my special little funny girl. I want to hold you & feel your solid body pressed against mine & hear your cheeky laugh. Why did you have to die? Dani told me she dreamt the day she had Theo you told her they would have to cut her open to get the baby. How did you know? You were such a funny, secret little girl – all blonde & smiling & mute. I can’t wait to see you again darling. Please help me to feel happy to be here. I have to be here, your sister and brothers & Papa need me. Please help me to be happy & make them happy too. I want you to be happy when you see us together, not sorry for having made us sad when you left us. We love you so much.


December 1st  – It’s been so long since I wrote anything here. I have just woken up and realise that I think Juliette was in my dream – but I didn’t/don’t feel that desperation for any scrap of her that I must remember all the details. We’re into the 5th month now…does this mean it’s a new phase? I don’t want to be coming to terms with it. Thinking about Christmas coming up & all the memories of last year, and imagining how she would be. I can hear Elodie and Pierre opening their advent calendars in the kitchen. I have sometimes been able to share their excitement, then immediately feel guilty. I really can’t/don’t want to share their joy. I have done about ¼ of my Christmas shopping, which is a relief – I didn’t think I was going to be able to start. My lovely mother is doing Elodie’s stocking – I couldn’t look at girl’s things because I’d think, ‘I’ll get that for Juliette, she’d love that’ – each occasion a stab in my throat. We don’t know how to mark it/remember her yet and each time I think of it I think ‘this is all wrong – I don’t want to be buying a new angel for the tree, lighting a candle, making a donation, I want to be spoiling her with presents and feel her excitement & joy. I miss her so much – the way she would make us all laugh – right, got to stop and get their breakfast.


Dec 4th  – I had Juliette in my life all that time & some people aren’t that lucky. She had a happy, good life for as long as it lasted. When she was tired or not well, she had a way of just appearing in a doorway, tousled and unsmiling & utterly adorable. She used to curl herself up on the sofa or in bed, with the perfect little bow-shaped mouth. I can’t believe she’s dead. How can someone so full of life be dead? What does her existence consist of now? Does she see us & miss us? Will we ever get over this? At the moment I don’t even want to.


December 5th  – Darling, I’m so sorry for all the times when I said ‘I haven’t got a lap at the moment,’ when you asked to sit on it. If you were back, you could sit on my lap all day if you wanted – I’d give anything to have the chance to offer it to you. I’m so sorry for the times I shouted at you when you got out of bed. I didn’t feel as fierce as I sounded but I thought you, more than the others, needed me to be strong with you – you could so easily have had us doing everything you wanted. I miss you because you were so like me with your moods and your ‘look at me! don’t look at me’ personality. We knew each other. I miss your surprise kisses, your uplifted smiling face with those perfect teeth, and that wobbly one that didn’t have a chance to fall out. Did you really promise to buy Elodie sweets with your £1? You loved your sister so much. Still love her. That’s the worst of my hurts, that you two don’t have each other anymore. I keep imagining how you’ll be when you come to meet me when I die. I try not to want it too badly. I long to see you but I don’t want to leave the others motherless. I couldn’t do that to them or to Papa. But I wish you didn’t have to have died. So many people miss you and love you, but especially Mummy. I saw the curly chimney today. Do you remember I told you a giant had twisted it to make it like that? I thought it was one of those images you’d hold onto forever, a funny childhood memory – but you never got to be an adult. It’s not fair.


You’re going to have a new brother or sister but I expect you know that. You probably know which.  I hope you don’t feel jealous. We’ll all be together again very soon. I love you darling.


December 28th  – I think all the time, imagine if she were to come through that door? How would she look? I can picture it, WANT IT and though it’s been five months she would slip straight back into life with us. Why could that day just not have happened? We could have finished our holiday in Southwold, and be here having had Christmas together, she could be playing with Elodie, fighting with Pierre, cuddling Raphi – why can’t that be our life now? 


We got through Christmas – I have never found it so phoney – godawful sermon from the canon pastor speculating in what he thought were a poet’s words & voice about the baby Jesus’ first minutes on earth. I wanted to hit him and then shout to the rafters ‘YOU BASTARD! Why did you take my daughter?!!!’ Why can’t she just come back?


8½ weeks pregnant. Are we doing the right thing? 34 weeks to go – with sleepless nights on the horizon after that, hooray. I must write this diary when I don’t  feel low – I don’t feel low all the time – just when it feels real. Other times, when people are offering sympathy I think, ‘it’s really not that bad’, but it is bad – IT IS VERY BAD my little Juliette is gone & though I can remember her so clearly now – will I always? Will I always be able to recall her presence, or will she become just a photograph?


I wish I could bottle her smell, her laugh, her touch, the way her chubby little body felt, the feel of her hair. I remember pulling my fingers through her hair, little tangled curls, that windy Tuesday on the beach in Southwold – she was wearing Steph’s grey anorak, which swamped her. We were watching Steph & Elodie fly the kite while Pierre dragged his big plastic boat around on a string. J made ‘aaaah’ complaining noises as I ran my fingers through her hair – but her curls were so tempting. We stopped at the Sole Bay Inn – Steph and I had a drink – Steph beer, me shandy & we went to choose ice creams for the children at the corner shop opposite – then went back for tea – what did they eat? That was our last outing together. Will I ever forget this?


I dreamt of her the other night or at least, I thought I was awake & suddenly her cheeky little face popped up on Steph’s side of the bed, grinning, looking like she did when she was 3. I just said, ‘Hello darling! Hello Juliette!’ and that was it really, but it felt like she’d been there.


March 22nd  – Why did you have to go? We’re so lost without you. Did you know you were leaving us? I long to sense you near & hear your voice – to hold you, but I can’t. Sometimes I imagine I hear you but maybe it’s me putting your voice there. I long for a tiny scrap of you. I think of your grave – I would hug your bones – kiss them, to have something physical of you. It’s going to be your birthday soon and tonight I can’t bear it. 6. I should be organising your party, thinking about wrapping your presents, imagining you on your birthday morning. Do you remember I put ‘I am 5’ balloons outside your bedroom last year? I thought I’d start a new tradition. I never thought you wouldn’t see 6. I thought maybe you wouldn’t see 5, but you seemed so well. You were taken from us when you seemed most alive. I think about you every minute of every day. Not the same thought. Different thoughts, but you are in every minute of every day. I’m so tired, darling. I’ve been digging a new flowerbed today and I kept thinking of how you loved the garden. It was your garden. I keep picturing you there if you hadn’t gone – playing with the others, & how much Raphi would love you  – we all love you & miss you. Wherever you are, know Mummy loves you & you’ll always be my small girl. I long to see you again.


June 13th  – Did she know how much I loved her? How much I long to have one of those nights when she couldn’t sleep, and take her body in my arms. Stay with me forever, darling – I’d keep you at home with me all day – no school – just be with Mummy – god I wish I had the time back. I didn’t know she was going to die – never thought she was going to die. 


July 18th  – Darling. We’ve just passed the hour at which you died, around 2.30 pm. Tatty & Grandpa, Dani & Adam and of course Papa are all here. Elodie wanted to go to school and Pierre is there too on a pre-school visit. I don’t know why I’m telling you, you know anyway.  Pierre told me you were standing behind him when he was in school on Wednesday morning – you seem to be around him a lot, which is lovely. Elodie looks sheepish if I ask her whether she sees you, like ‘what does Mummy want me to say?’ We have hardly talked about you today – maybe even less than a ‘normal’ day, but everyone is together for you. I go between horrible pain and hopelessness at the idea of you no longer being with us, to being OK. I’m reminded of this time last year and of feeling the same, but now the feeling of being without you is depressingly and wearyingly familiar, and your presence a glittering and unreachable fantasy. Now that the hour has passed I feel less tense – that helped with 2 glasses of wine – the poor baby, lurching about inside me, reminding me of the unbroken strand of life. I’ll take your sister and brothers crabbing in Mersea soon, and hope you’ll be with us. I don’t feel you around me as much as I’d like. Or is this sanity, trying to reassert itself? What would you be like at 6 years 4 months? Are you laughing at us all in our pinks and purples? Would your new favourite colours be navy blue and beige? I don’t think so – you’ll always be my pink and purple girl.


February 20th – I was looking at my face in the mirror before I got into bed and was noticing again how sad it seems, even when my mood is good. There’s a downturn to my mouth that wasn’t there before and my eyes look worn. It looks like the face of someone who has suffered a tragedy. Now I feel that time has made the pain more familiar, duller – no, not duller – sometimes it is just so acute, and at moments when I just don’t expect it, but I guess they are less often. I am stuck in a place where I acknowledge that the longer we go on the more bearable it is, I have the historical evidence after the time that’s passed, but this takes me further away from her.


I read back on some of my descriptions of Juliette and the familiarity is no longer there. It makes me glad to have written them down, but it’s horrible to feel these glimmers are fading.

Just five more minutes


When Juliette first died, I indulged in desperate fantasies where I could hold her again even if only for five minutes. I promised everything in my power for the chance to bury my face in her hair, to smell her, feel her weight on my lap, wrap my arms around her and tell her I loved her one last time. From an inner core of madness I went on making my promises, stuffing the dam until the certain knowledge I would never see her again, drowned me.

Southern Britain stopped moving two days ago. We’d had hurricane-strength winds which had blown several trees down in our village, cutting off two access roads. Fallen trees meant no trains were running in or out of Essex, and this was the day we expected Elodie home for her first brief visit from university in over a month.

I know it’s not logical, but Elodie’s absence has had for my doom-primed subconscious a shadow of Juliette’s. Now with the uncertainty of Elodie’s presence I remembered my crazed longing for my other daughter. I couldn’t let myself look forward to seeing Elodie. Besides, Steph, the rational, shook a grim head all day at the news from the rail company website.

Then a text… Elodie had boarded the first train that ran out of her university town that evening and was en route to London. At that point there were no trains from there to Essex. Over the next two hours we refreshed the website, and saw at last that a sporadic service had resumed. Elodie could come home.

She arrived to a house lit by candles – our power had been knocked out earlier in the day – and ran silently to hug me. I’d improvised a huge meal in the gloom. Steph, Pierre, Raphi, Celeste and I became cartoons, hysterical pastiches of ourselves at being ‘complete’ again. Little was clear in the half-light – nothing felt real. Then it seemed before we could touch her, she had gone again. It was as though we had dreamed her.

Another snatching of precious smoke happened that same storm day. My oldest female friend, Gabi, moved with her family to Australia six years ago. In a belated brainwave, we Skyped for the first time – she in her shorts and me in warm tights, me pointing the iPad camera at the garden and its wind-toppled fence panels and she angling the lens so I could see her sleeping, five-year-old son who I have never met. We grinned at each other’s expressions, our jokes sharp and intense through the distance, and yet utterly familiar. I felt as though I had spent a half hour in her company. She and her family populate my dreams, like Juliette does, and Elodie has begun to – the people I love, who aren’t with me.

I only wish death was undone so simply, with a train journey, or the flick of a camera switch.


ripples-in-waterI haven’t written here for a long time, but there are some good reasons for that. First, the sad.

At the end of August, Steph’s lovely father died. I tell people his death was ‘out of the blue’ because it was. Yet he was 86 and I hear how absurd our shock sounds.

My father-in-law was a vibrant, vital force, a man of quirks and favourite anecdotes with a hearty laugh that positively brimmed with love for his family. I’ve felt selfish in grieving for him – he wasn’t my father – but I loved him and expected him to be in all of our lives for many more years. I feel we’ve been robbed.

That all close deaths resonate and evoke memories of hers seems to be part of the legacy of losing Juliette. I hate it. I reason with myself, but it’s as though that chasm of grief spies a chink of weakness at the surface and exploits the chance to pour forth the pain I’ve taught myself not to feel. I miss my father-in-law. Knowing him enriched my life. I can’t bear to think of Steph motherless, and now fatherless, but the way I have felt is not in proportion. I’m frustrated to feel so in the grip of emotions that aren’t entirely logical.

Listen to me. When, exactly, are emotions logical?  Is it logical to love with an intensity that almost hurts, a tiny, screaming dictator, who vetoes sleep and causes you physical pain? Actually, Juliette was a fabulous baby, an amazing little girl. She didn’t scream, probably because she got what she wanted. Juliette twinkled with a wisdom that made everyone who met her want her to be happy. No fool, my daughter.

Losing her changed other aspects of me. In the early years of disordered grief, this knowledge of how fragile life can be, made me feel reckless at times. A sort of ‘what’s the point? Everything could be over tomorrow,’ never filled me, but lurked at the edge of decisions I made, still make. We have only one life to live and no guaranteed tariff. Juliette lived for each day. She seized every opportunity for love, for fun and to try something new. I can’t bear how this sentiment sounds clichéd but as I have learned, so many clichés around death appear true. I feel an obligation to live because Juliette could not.

Had she not died, I would never have started to write or rather, I would not have had the courage to share what I wrote. Telling my daughter’s story was imperative and in this context, what others thought of my writing was meaningless. Nor would I have had the self-belief and determination to run a marathon – I’m no athlete but I’ve just signed up for my third London next year. And it’s certain I would never have taken myself into a men’s prison to do creative writing classes. I am not, or at least never used to be that woman who believed she had something to offer. Rather the reverse. Now I have work in a school that rewards me in ways I could never have imagined. I thank Juliette for all this. It took me years to stop feeling angry but now, living intensely is a way for me to express my gratitude that she chose me to be her Mummy. I was blessed. I am blessed.

Lovely mothers

vodka1I am lucky enough to be a member of a closed online group of mothers (and fathers) who have lost children. It’s a place for bad language, irreverence, virtual drinking and fabulous mutual support. My only regret is that it wasn’t around in the lonely, early days after Juliette died. We bereaved parents need groups like these, because more than any other loss (yes, it is worse than any other) it’s rare to find a person who understands the myriad, ongoing resonances of losing a child, unless they too have suffered similarly. When Juliette died, I really thought I was going mad. I had no idea whether what I was feeling was normal because at first I knew no one. I haven’t hidden the fact that I had written about my experiences, but no one from the group had read my manuscript before this week. I wrote the book with other bereaved parents in mind, because when Juliette first died I remembered how desperate I was to see my experience reflected in the writing of others, and most of all I needed proof I could survive. In writing this book, I wanted to be honest about how hard it has been at times, but also offer the hope for my family’s future that I myself had craved in earlier days. Most of the parents in the group have lost their children more recently and I did not want to add to their pain, so it was with some trepidation that I asked whether any of them would like to read it. I’ve been overwhelmed and tearful at the feedback.  After the relief that (so far) my sometimes overly honest account has not hurt anyone, is that what I’ve written resonates with a group of people who although many of whom I have come to care about, I have never met in real life. These are some of the comments they’ve made so far, in private messages to me and on a discussion thread…

I’m on chapter 4 and it’s so beautifully written. I feel as though I know Juliette but the whole time I’m wishing for a different outcome…

I’m struggling through chapters eight and nine. It’s so familiar, especially coming home to everything looking the same. I’m glad you could write this down so eloquently…

I finished it this afternoon through tears and full on sobs. I can’t think of anything I’ve read about losing a child that I identified with as much as your experience. The parts about your feelings towards Elodie, Pierre and Raphael gave me goose bumps. I felt exactly the same way about Isla once Jude died. I cuddled her and smiled at her but it was just an act at first and often when I held her, I closed my eyes and imagined it was him. Thank you so much for making me feel less guilty about that. …I so wish my friends and family could read your words so that they could have half an idea of how I feel. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time and I really feel as though I know Juliette. I’m so sorry that you no longer have your beautiful, brave girl with you but I can’t thank you enough for putting it all down and sharing it with us. Fiona


Wow what a read! The first half of the book I felt as if I were reading a fictional novel almost, getting to know Juliette and your family. I was interested although interested isn’t really the word I’m looking for, to read about how her diagnosis affected you all as a family and about her treatment- I had no real idea at all about what a child and their family go through when you have cancer, I think I just believed in the romantic ridiculous notion that a little bit of chemo and they would get better- I really was that stupid. I felt as if I was really falling in love with Juliette I was really hoping that she would be ok. But when she died I felt myself right there with you in the hospital, I felt rather than reading about Juliette and your family I was reading a parallel story of my own. The second part of the book was a lot harder for me to read than the first because that grief I completely understood and I felt that all over again. So often in fictional books when a character dies the death is almost romantic and brushed over very quickly, this tells it how it is. How it affects every moment and every breath in those first weeks, how as a mum to other children you have to get on and do certain things and how it affects deeply every single relationship in your life.

I was in tears from the first chapter but compelled to read on which is one of the reasons I was still awake at 3 this morning.  Sally


I fear I won’t sleep tonight, I can’t stop reading. It is very eloquently written.

I just finished, and of course, I had to google Elodie and her torch run. I love the Olympics. I named Bodie after an Olympic Gold Medalist. How awesome that she got to carry the torch. The book was so poignant. I knew what the outcome was going to be, but I kept hoping for Juliette to recover. There is a market for this book, this group is proof of that.  Amanda


Half way through chapter 2 and already gripped…it is heartbreakingly beautifully written…


Have just finished it Geves, what a wonderful tribute to your beautiful special Juliette and to you Steph and the family…Thank you for sharing your book with us.  Heather



Geves, I started reading last night. As a result I’m tired today because I struggled to put it down. You write incredibly well. Thank you for telling it how it is…

I’ve just finished it. It’s so beautifully written. Thank you for allowing me to know your amazing family. I’m so sorry Juliette is no longer with you.  Beverley


A harrowing read…but also amazing. Geves, I was so inspired by all you are doing now, especially your work in prisons. Anne


Have read first two chapters, cannot put it down.

Oh Geves I am reading this in tears most of the time, but (and I hope this does not offend) I did laugh out loud when you were describing the birthing pool chaos! I am in awe of how you managed to write this.  Eleanor


I’ve read it all today! Seth was a touch neglected and watched lots of Peppa Pig…

I loved reading about your life with Juliette, and getting to know her a bit better. She was Max’s age when she was diagnosed, so I recognise some of the traits and cute ways of pronouncing words…

I coped very similarly to you after he died. I drew no comfort from his brothers, they actually made me feel worse, and got pregnant very quickly after. I struggle day to day as well, and Elodie saying to you that she is the person she is today because of Juliette made me cry, I hope that Aaron can say the same. Elodie and Juliette sound very similar to Aaron and Max, you didn’t really get one without the other.

When writing about your reactions and the things people say to you, your change of friends, your change of personality, all resonate with me too, it sounds like I could have written it.

I think it is a beautiful book. You describe my life really….I think I will read it over and over and over.  Jo


I could not have wished for better reactions. Thank you, lovely mothers.