Rebuilding A Life After Devastating Loss
Polly fumbles to turn her camera on for our Zoom chat and apologises about the noise of her 16-month-year-old daughter Florence, who coos softly in the background. When she snaps into focus she is sitting in her lounge, laptop propped up on her knees with baby toys around her, a mum bun, and a warm slightly frazzled smile. She laughs and asks me to excuse the chaos, but this is normal for a mummy of a toddler. It’s actually heartwarming.
Four years ago though, life was very different. In 2016 Polly woke from an induced coma in a hospital bed in France, unable to move as she was told her husband and 10-month-year old son, Max, had died.
Polly met Larry when she was 21.
“The traditional way”, she tells me, “drunk in a club in Bristol.” Although they settled into a relationship swiftly, it was not without the usual complications of first love. The moving in together and driving each other so crazy they ending up separating for a while before drifting back to together again. Climbing their career ladders alongside one another, changing courses and finding new paths. All the usual trials and tribulations that couples go through in their 20s. Holidays, moving in together again a little older and wiser and building a life.
“It wasn’t a fairytale but he was my best friend,” Polly explains. “I know that sounds corny but we were just two people working life out, together.”
Ten years from having first met they got married and enjoyed each other’s company for a little while longer before deciding to have a baby. “It’s strange, I wanted to have a baby but I’d never really had any interest in babies and had no idea if I’d be any good at being a mum. It was hard to picture and sometimes I worried about it. But then Max was born and immediately I was overwhelmed with love for him. He was such a good baby, really he was.” Her face begins to crease up as the tears break through. “I just couldn’t believe how much I loved him.”
It’s difficult to be on the other side of a screen. Only able to watch her cry. All I want to do is reach out because her pain reaches me in an enormous wave despite the distance. This is why Polly wanted to speak to me today though. Because there is something taboo about grief. Something that unarms those around the person who is in it. She wants to air it. To strip away what she cites as a very British fear of talking about death. An avoidance of it. Having lived for almost a year now in the Corona Virus crisis, there is something similar in this invisible threat. Almost as if an unimaginable event, such as happened to Polly, might be infectious. As if tragedy can spread, like a virus.
“It’s often easier to talk to people who have been through something similar to you because they aren’t afraid of it. When the worst has already happened their faces don’t twist up as if they want you to stop talking about it. With other people, it can feel as if you're letting that reality into their lives. That losing a child, losing a husband, is not something that only happens in films and on the news.”
Polly never worried about anything happening to Max. She and Larry were too swept up in the joy of being parents and looking out for all his ‘firsts’.
“There were two attempts at holidays before France,” she continues. “Both were total disasters. We went to Norwich but Max was far too young and couldn’t settle away from home. Then the next trip he was poorly so it’s a wonder we went to France at all. Actually, it all went very well. We took my parents too and we had such a lovely time. A proper family away on holiday. Max was in good spirits and we’d visited some kind of walled village which we’d all loved. Mum and Dad headed back to the apartment before us, in their car. We followed shortly after. I don’t remember much, except that we were only ten or fifteen minutes from our apartment when it happened. It had seemed as if this was our most successful holiday, blissful even. Then it turned out to be the biggest disaster of our lives.”
Polly can’t remember hearing anything at all, which still perplexes her. All she can remember is a feeling of lifting into the air, much like riding a rollercoaster. She felt her insides lift and fall and then everything went black.
Two men discovered the car and were frantically rushing around the vehicle when she woke. For a moment she pauses in her reliving to tell me she still thinks about these passers-by. She feels so sad for them that they had to find them like that. She wonders if they’re ok because it must have been so traumatic to see. I have no idea what to say. I’m so taken aback that this has even crossed her mind. Yet, this is who she is. You know that saying that the worst things always happen to good people? That’s all I can think of as she shakes her head in sympathy for those two unfortunate men who called for her ambulance.
“I always sat in the back seat with Max,” she continues. “It’s odd because during the holiday we’d actually spoken about how maybe it was time for me to move back to the front seat, beside Larry. We had the best baby car seat and we knew it was fitted just right. He was safe back there, we’d thought, but I hadn’t felt quite ready to leave him."
"When I woke up I saw Larry first. His head was rested on the steering wheel unconscious, I’d assumed. Then I turned to the car seat, saw my baby Max and knew that he wasn’t with us anymore. Though I hung onto the possibility, though I asked about him each time I regained consciousness, I knew as soon as I saw him that he was gone.”
Polly doesn’t remember much more. There is still an open investigation into what happened that awful day but what is known is that a cattle truck, going too fast, had plunged into the back of their car as Larry had rightfully slowed slightly taking a corner. Since the investigation is on-going there’s not much we can discuss and I don’t think Polly wants to. So we talk about the hospital. About how she was in an induced coma when Larry, who had barely been alive in the car after suffering a brain injury on impact and a subsequent heart attack, was taken off of life support.
“Do I wish I’d been awake for that? I don’t know. Sometimes I think I would have liked to have said goodbye but, in truth, I couldn’t move at all. I wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye really so I don’t know. I just don’t know.” When Polly woke everything was blurry, physically painful and confusing. It was her parents who had to tell her that Max was gone. “It’s so weird because I remember being completely overwhelmed even though I’d known that he hadn’t survived. And I remember being angry that Larry wasn’t there telling me this. Comforting me. It hadn’t occurred to me that he wasn’t ok. Then they told me and I lost consciousness again.” Polly drifted in and out of consciousness for the next few days as arrangements were being made to get her back to the UK. The French hospital didn’t want to operate on Polly’s crushed pelvis because she would not be able to be moved for a long time after the operation and it would be best to recover at home, or at least in a hospital in her hometown. Fortunately, the hospital she was transferred to also came with one of the best doctors for the surgery she needed.
“The physical pain was horrendous,” Polly describes. “The agony at going from a mother and a wife though, to someone who needed spoon-feeding was torture.” Polly had been the carer of the family. There to look after her baby’s every need but also supporting Larry when he came home from work tired. She’d lived independently for years and suddenly she was helpless. “I went from the anchor to the one everyone was worried about. I didn't know how to be that person.” On top of that, there was unbearable grief.
“I suppose I grieved for Max first because he was my baby. To lose him felt so alien. As if something had been ripped from my body and that was more intense than even the physical pain I was in. I didn’t understand how I could be without him. Also, I was his mother and I know there was nothing I could have done to save him but it doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’d failed in the most important job I'd ever had.”
“Throughout this, I was feeling guilty because I wasn’t yet grieving Larry. There’s only so much you can take at once and so I guess my mind split the two. One of the most agonising parts was, although my family were wonderful, the only person I felt could feel the loss of Max in the same way I did was his dad. Yet, I couldn’t talk to him about it and I resented that.”
Losing Larry was a slower burn. Everyday reminders that her best friend and partner throughout so much of her life was no longer there to turn to in sadness or in laughter. For that matter, laughter, smiling even, was a source of immense guilt. Though highly infrequent, any moment of anything that felt even an inch away from despair seemed like a betrayal.
I’m hesitant to ask such an awful question but Polly has requested I broach anything at all, so I ask her if she’d ever wished she hadn’t survived the accident. “All the time,” she insists. “I’d have given anything for Max to live instead of me even though he’d have been left with no parents. I imagine what that would have been like for him too. Suicide was definitely in my mind a lot in that first year. In a strange way, it got me through. I’d think, ‘ok, so if I’m still feeling like this in 6 months then I’ll end it’. In reality, I could never do that to my parents, especially because I knew then what it was like to lose a child. Still, the idea of it weirdly made life feel less scary, less hopeless.”
Polly was also in denial about how long it would take her to walk again. It would be more than a year after the accident that she would take a few painful steps and even to this day, one of her feet has never recovered full movement due to a severed nerve. As she got physically stronger, Polly joined a widow’s group where she shared the loss of her husband with other young women who had been through it too. It took her a little longer to go to a group for parents who’d lost a child, she explains. Partly because the pain was so raw and also because she feared being surrounded by couples going through it together which would make her feel even more alone. “My friends were great, but I did avoid those with children the same age as Max. I feel awful saying it but I didn’t want to know anything about their babies. How they were growing up and reaching milestones that Max was never going to. Does that make me a bad person?” I shake my head, thinking I can’t imagine ever wanting to so much as see another child again if what happened to her happened to me.
Yet, the Polly that I meet today has two dogs and a beautiful 16-month-year-old girl in the background of our video chat. She has the slightly tired and hazy happiness of most mums and she’s only able now to talk to me about what she went through because life now has moved on enough for her to process it. So how did she get here? Although not much made sense after the accident, Polly did know she wanted another child. She tells me she never stopped feeling like a mother and even now she still feels like Max’s mum, even though he’s not here anymore. Still, she was a mother without a child to look after and she desperately wanted that again. After doing the calculations about meeting someone else, getting to know them, moving in together then trying for a baby when they were settled she decided there were too many variables in that approach and landed on having a baby via donor. Whilst making tracks in this, however, she dabbled in dating and met Ben.
“I didn’t want it to be an either-or. If what happened taught me anything it was that life's unpredictable and you have to go for everything you want even if it doesn’t fit a timeline. Timelines can be severed. So I was honest with Ben about what I was going to do and we decided to continue dating anyway. We were enjoying ourselves and each other. Of course, when I got pregnant via donor, things became complicated and we ended our romantic relationship for a while. Still, we kept in touch, talked a lot and not long before the baby was due Ben proposed that we give it a go.”
A year and a half on and Ben is like a Dad to Polly’s daughter Florence. They live together with two dogs and are experiencing the challenges of lockdown like all other families across the UK. Although Polly has a little perspective on that because she knows there are many worse things to go through.
““We’re happy. I’ve got an amazing daughter and I love Ben with all my heart. Sometimes I think other people think that means that it’s all over and that the pain has gone, but they don’t see the nights I still cry uncontrollably or know the guilt I feel at having got to a point where I can feel happiness again. I know now that it's entirely possible to love two people at the same time. I still love Larry and I still wish I could talk to him, even ask him what he thinks of what I’ve done and the life I have now. It still makes me incredibly sad that I can’t. Yet, I love Ben so much too. And I know that Ben loves me as I am and I'm who I am today because of Larry, and Max too. I’ve never felt as if I’ve replaced anyone. I carry Larry and Max with me always. Firsts are the hardest. Florence’s first birthday was lovely but I also felt the sadness that Max never reached that milestone. What would have been Larry’s 40th was also hard. You don’t consider that time will ever stop for anyone and it seems so cruel.” In terms of support, Polly is so grateful to her family and friends who have been there for her. Also though, she has often found it easier to talk to others who have gone through similar experiences. Partly because they didn’t know Max and Larry and so aren’t feeling their own loss too. I can see why this would be hard for Polly because, as I've talked with her, it’s clear how compassionate she is. Even now still worrying about the effects of seeing the scene of her car crash had on those two walkers that day.
And what would you tell yourself if you could go back to you four years again in the very worst of your grief? I ask Polly.
“Only that it gets better. Only that, though it seems impossible now, you will enjoy things again. It never goes away and nothing can ever be replaced but the pain gets a little smaller with time.”
After I’ve said goodby to Polly my head swims with all that she has expressed. How brave she is. How speaking to her about what has happened has made the idea of such a disaster almost less scary, because it didn’t defeat her. How she reached a point where she could make decisions about what she needed to be happy and how she took control of it, after having had such a loss of control over her life and her body too. Polly has a beautiful life now but it’s not a fairytale ending. It’s not an ending at all because life doesn’t work like that.
Mostly I find I am left with an image in my head of grief as an open door. Polly has walked through it into a new place where she has joy again and is able to create new memories. Yet, the door didn’t close behind her. Grief itself still floats through that open door into where she is now. Sometimes just a faint breeze and at other times bursting in once again like a furious storm. There’s happiness now, but there was happiness before too, so it is implausible for her to ever want to leave it behind. Even the pain is soothingly familiar. It creeps into her joyful moments, tinged with a pang of sadness because it has partly come from what was lost. The reality is that that’s ok. We are designed to fight for our lives, to reach for happiness because somewhere deep inside, even when everything is so inescapably dark, we know there is always more happiness to be found. Besides, it’s so precious that if it must, it can stand to carry a little sadness along with it.