Losing a baby is devastating. It changes everything. Every dream, purpose, desire along with every part of your personality shaken to its core. For parents, friends and relatives its a life sentence, a taboo subject that is too painful to talk about or even think about for some.
A few weeks ago Baby Loss Awareness Week (link) brought together a community of incredible people who have encountered the sadness and grief of suffering the loss of a little one. Whilst no one can ever take away the experience that a mother will go through, it made me consider my own feelings and emotions as a father having lost my son Louis 21 months ago.
"Dads are expected to stay strong, be relied upon and keep the family going"
Both losing a child or losing a loved one in a road collision are devastating events. But dads are expected to stay strong, be relied upon and keep the family going through what are incredibly tough times.
This is where I found myself in January 2021. I sat in a small room being told that Louis had died and that Rachael was seriously injured and was not likely to survive. At this time not once did I consider what this really meant. My reaction was immediately to be strong. I asked what I could do. Can I sit with Louis and keep him company and then can I sit with Rachael. When I finally left hospital the next morning to get changed I went to where the collision happened. I remember telling myself you have two choices, give up or stand up and be counted. Our family was two members down but I was still here and Rachael still had a chance.
The next 12 months were a blur, I just kept telling myself to stay strong. I think it was my coping mechanism. Stay strong, get on with life and be there for my family. I visited Rachael every day for 118 days both in Cambridge and then a 4 hour round trip in London. Looking back I don't really know how I managed it, leaving the house at 7am and returning at 10pm, 7 days a week. It was what I needed to keep going, but eventually it would take its toll.
Once Rachael was discharged I couldn't bare to leave her. She'd been through so much and I just wanted to make sure she was safe. Eventually I decided to go back to work. The main motivation was that after so long away we needed to earn money to continue paying for Rachael's treatment (the NHS refused to provide any rehabilitation, so everything had to be paid for privately). I also thought I needed some normality. Something routine and usual to try and get back to normal.
I managed this for about 6 months and then realised I wasn't coping. When you wake up every morning and cry for half an hour you can't help but think something is wrong. But what? I knew I had experienced a terrible event, but what can I possibly do to change how sad I feel? I realised I needed to change course and take some time for me. I resigned from my job and started to take time to reflect and talk.
But who do you talk to? By this point 15 months had passed since it happened. Friends and family have moved on. You can't just call someone up and say I really want to talk about some terribly sad things that you'll never forget. My wife wasn't there either, she was suffering her own trauma even worse than mine. She couldn't bring herself to even consider my feelings or what I had been through.
At this point things had got even worse. In January 2021 I lost my son and I fought so hard to get my family back together. But now in April 2022, I had officially lost everything, my job, my son, my home, my sense of purpose and now my wife wanted to get divorced. It's not surprising when you read about this. 80% of marriages where a baby dies end in divorce and we had the extra twist of Rachael being severely injured.
At this point I realised I needed help. Staying strong and continuing just wasn't an option. The cracks were too much to hide. I had developed a terrible shake in my right arm, had frequent panic attacks, cried at least once a day and had rationalised that suicide would be a sensible option if I was too weak and wanted to be with Louis. I needed help.
One positive is that this experience has opened my eyes to a more emotional side of me. When I speak to people I feel an empathy that didn't exist when I was younger. With some people I could just tell that they were carrying something sad. You can see it in their eyes, deep in the soul. It's like an inner acknowledgement, deep in your soul of sadness and grief. But you're still here fighting, that's what matters.
This is when I really started to talk and confront my problems. It was terrifying (and still is). Opening up and feeling hopeless and vulnerable is one of the most difficult things anyone can do and is even harder for men. We're supposed to be strong, reliable and in control. The simple reality for me was that I wasn't. I couldn't even control my own emotions.
"I was terrified of 'moving on'. I didn't want to move on."
I was terrified of 'moving on'. I didn't want to move on. I loved my family and I still loved Louis and Rachael, but I had to. In the end I considered that 'moving forward' was a suitable phrase that gave respect to the past but acknowledged that I could progress and do something new. I know my friends and family cared, but it was so hard to ever open a conversation with them that I know wouldn't upset them.
In the end, my friend in my time of need is an amazing person, who one evening said to me 'I don't really care what you've been through, I just want to be happy and if you want to talk to me then I'm here'. It was the sort of straight talking sense that only someone scared by their own emotional trauma would be brave enough to say. I needed to be happy. Or at least believe I could be happy again.
Over the next few months we talked through so many sad moments. I dealt with issues that had been weighing me down. Back in September 2021 I had abandoned our family home and now nearly a year later it needed to be sorted. Over 2 months I packed, tidied and sorted everything. Louis' room was the hardest. It had been abandoned on the 22nd January 2021, untouched, washing still in a basket, clean clothes ready to be put away. But I had to do it. I knew I was strong, but I had never had the courage to do this. I decided that anything that wasn't sentimental would be donated to a baby bank. I never knew these places existed, but what amazing people! After 4 car trips I knew that I had made a difference to someone's lives and another little one would be able to enjoy some of Louis' things.
Then came the court case. I won't talk about the verdict here, but having got into a much better place this tore me apart. Sitting and listening to the British justice system in full flow made me realise how ridiculous the system has become. More sympathy and allowances made for criminals than for families and victims. Another traumatic event that I had to be strong for. After all I was Louis' dad and our foundation will make change so this never happens again.
"Talk, listen, take time to reflect, relax and do things for yourself."
By this point though I knew how to cope with my trauma. Talk, listen, take time to reflect, relax and do things for yourself. It's hard, but you have to do it. Don't just ignore problems, confront them. It's ok to be sad, but this must be balanced with happiness. It's amazing when you take each day at a time just how far you can go. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change how I acted when this happened, it was what was needed, but spotting the signs of burn out at the right moment is crucial.
So that's me. I sit here writing this living out one of my dreams to come and see Elephants. Louis' favourite animal was an elephant and bizarrely whilst walking earlier I broke down in tears when I saw one. It's no doubt another clue to how I find strength and deal with emotions but doing it and talking about how it feels is helping day by day.
Oh, and I'm not just going to go on holiday forever either. In a few weeks I start my dream job for an incredible company which will get me back on track with my purpose, challenging me to be the best I can be, but now with added empathy, perspective and an ambition to do good in the world. Plus lets not forget my charity which I know will one day ensure no little ones die on our roads ever again.
Grief can destroy you, but knowing that deep in your heart exists the little one you loved so much is so powerful.
I know we'll always be together.
The Louis Thorold Foundation is a charity registered in England and Wales with the aim of preventing all deaths of children on Britain's roads. For more information about our campaigns or to donate visit www.louisthorold.com.