This Father’s Day will be the same as it is every year. My wife, Broadchurch actress Sarah Parish, and our seven-year-old daughter Nell will spoil me, and then we’ll go outside into the garden at our Hampshire home and plant a sapling next to the tree my family gave me when our baby died.
It’s an unspoken rule but we never celebrate anything – Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day or this one for daddies – without including Ella-Jayne, who, sadly passed away when she was eight months old. She’d have been nine this month and I wonder what she would have looked like and what sort of personality she would have had.
The pain of losing her never goes away. It’s not as raw, I’ve learnt to live with it, but you never forget. Initially it was a great deal of pain, and shock, but once that subsided and a version of normalcy returned I learnt to cope. It’s always going to be at my emotional core though and sadness gets randomly triggered. I could be on
a plane or looking at a picture and it
stirs up lucid memories and I’m right back to when she was alive. Before, that was very painful and it is very emotional but I’m grateful for those times because it’s my heart remembering that Ella-Jayne was part of my life even though she isn’t around.
We only found out there was anything wrong with her two hours before she was born. Sarah had a scan and doctors were worried because the baby’s head was smaller than it should have been and then they noticed a problem with her heart. They told us Sarah had to have a Caesarean and that there was an underlying problem with the baby.
It was all a shock, and I just remember thinking there will be a time to grieve but the most important thing is that Sarah and the baby are looked after. That’s how I felt when Ella-Jayne was born. She had a scan at a day old and there was no diagnosis, but she had emergency open heart surgery at three days old, and that was a success. Doctors said that when she was stronger they would go back in again but the prognosis was very vague. She had a syndrome called Rubinstein-Taybi, which meant she had a myriad health problems, but Ella-Jayne also had special needs. I loathe to bandy that label around because it has such a stigma attached to it, but even though Ella-Jayne’s case was severe, we had come to terms with that. We were referred to the Paediatric Intensive Care unit at Southampton Hospital, where Ella-Jayne spent four months, and which became our second home. We were never told, like some other parents are, that there was only a limited amount of time with her, and in one way I’m grateful for that as we learnt to live in the moment.
After Ella-Jayne passed away we didn’t want to sit and brood. I knew that would be very unhealthy. Sarah and I decided to go out to Vietnam and Cambodia to do some volunteer work and travelling. Otherwise we would have ended up sitting in a pub being very introspective. Instead we spent time volunteering in orphanages, one of which was for children whose families had been in Vietnam during the Vietnam War when the US military dropped Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical on them. It was meant to destroy the forest and jungle cover used by the North Vietnam and Viet Cong fighting against the South Vietnam and US troops, but was later found to have caused genetic damage, which meant half-a-million children were born with severe deformities and birth defects. Being there was excruciating and a life-changing experience. We were in an emotional vortex because of what had happened to us and we had all this pent-up sadness, but we saw such compassion there.
A lot of former GIs volunteered at the orphanage because of the guilt. Some of them had even piloted the planes which had dropped the chemicals and were back to try and help in any way they could. But, even in such an emotional environment, we saw that people were happy and smiling, and it put everything into perspective. We slept on the floor and I thought sometimes it was all too much, and I cried. It was the trigger to release my grief and sometimes men need that. The lock to our tears is slightly harder to unlock than it is for women because traditionally and culturally we’re brought up to be strong and hold everything in; keep our feelings under wraps. I’m one of those guys but I’m grateful for experiencing that volunteer work and seeing life from a different perspective – how people can be happy and grasp onto hope in circumstances that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
We were so grateful when Sarah fell pregnant just a couple of months after Ella-Jayne passed away. We didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl. What we didn’t think is “we’re having a girl and it’s Ella-Jayne again or a mark two or that this is the girl we should have had.” Nell isn’t anything like Ella-Jayne. They are very different people and completely different personalities. We did have scans done of her heart during the pregnancy, though, because of Ella-Jayne. We went to Winchester Hospital when Sarah was 36 weeks pregnant and the same obstetrician said he wanted to operate to get the baby out as he wasn’t happy with her heart rate. He might have been being over-cautious because of what happened before, but Sarah also had Placenta Accreta, where her placenta had attached itself too deeply into the uterus wall and was also attached to some scar tissue from her previous Caesarean. This was risky because it could have caused a huge bleed, which might have meant she would need a full hysterectomy.
She had to go off for five hours of surgery and I was left waiting in the same room at the same hospital late on a Saturday night while the same obstetrician operated on Sarah – the circumstances were exactly the same as they’d been with Ella-Jayne. I remember thinking: “Does lightning trike twice?” I felt incredibly lonely finding myself on the same emotional rollercoaster, panicking about whether the same thing was going to happen again. Finally, at 3am, the obstetrician came out and said: “Mother and baby are doing fine.” Relief just flooded through me. Sarah and I love children and we always imagined we would have lots, but it’s too risky for her to have another Caesarean now. There’s no regret. We have had two daughters and one of them is still with us. We love her to bits – she is the most loved that any human being can possibly be.
Nell is at an age where she is beginning to get involved with the trust we set up after Ella-Jayne’s death to raise money for the University Hospital Southampton. Nell comes to talks we give and fundraising. She gets it and we can see she will be just as passionate about it as we are. It will always be a huge part of our lives.
We have raised £500,000 for a paediatric specialist unit at Southampton and are going to raise a total of £2 million, which the Government promised to match. But I do want to think about what we can do as a charity for men – for fathers who’ve been through a similar journey. It was tough. I don’t want pity for me. There’s a special bond between mothers and their child, even before it’s born, and so, quite rightly, they are given a lot of support and help, and this is how it should be. But it means that men grieve in the shadows. Society is, thankfully, beginning to change, and those traditional masculine roles are changing, and, don’t get me wrong, I did have good friends and family who conjured that grief out of me and helped me, but it is harder for men to express their emotions. We do need to change and have help to readjust when traumatic episodes happen.
We have brilliant role models like Rio Ferdinand, who is a single dad bringing up his kids following a tragedy and being very open and progressive about it. But a lot of men suffer in silence, and we need to address that, and make sure they get the help and support they need. Men’s mental health is an important topic, and one I would like to address in some way. It’s a delicate but important subject. We need to help men with how to deal with extreme grief – I don’t have the answers yet, but it’s something we need to look at.