Jackie and Matt are a quiet couple, shy even, and Jackie explains that it will be her speaking to me to tell their story. However, the importance of the family unit is clear throughout our conversation, and I hope that I have done justice to them both in the telling of their family’s story.
Their story is one that I know will sadly resonate with so many of you reading this. It is an intense story of infertility struggles, of multiple losses and of trauma. But it is also a story of transformation, a story of a family navigating their way to a meaningful future, a story of the hope and blessings that were found along the way.
It begins back in 2009, before the formation of Petals as the charity it is today, when the couple experienced their first miscarriage early on in their first pregnancy. Jackie had begun treatment for infertility in the form of tablets to help her ovulate and she explains that she hadn’t really even taken on board that she was finally pregnant when she started to feel unwell and have some symptoms which she soon realised were her miscarrying.
Her next words are so painfully familiar in the stories around miscarriage that we hear at Petals as she says: “When I realised what had happened, I went to the doctor and the whole thing was written off really. The doctor simply told me ‘It’s just one of those things.’ Now, looking back I couldn’t believe what had happened, that I had fallen pregnant and had a miscarriage, so I guess I sort of accepted what he was saying and didn’t really deal with it at all.”
Jackie continued with the infertility treatment and was pregnant again reasonably quickly. Her overriding memory of this time seems to be the anxiety that she was feeling that something would go wrong again. She explains: “You know, getting past that initial period of 8 to 10 weeks and going for our first scan, everything seemed ok, but we were still very wary about it. We had scans every couple of weeks, so I was being looked after and we got to our 20-week scan and everything seemed ok but I always had it in the back of my mind that there could be another problem.”
Despite the inevitable anxiety, the couple was hanging on to the hope that everything would turn out ok. So, when Jackie began to feel unwell at 22 weeks and she called the hospital she still thought she would just be going for a quick check-up. Jackie explains: “I wasn’t too sure what was happening so I called the hospital who said to come in and I casually said to Matt, that I was just going in to get checked out and that I would be home in a couple of hours. But, in reality, that wasn’t what was happening at all.”
As Jackie describes what happened next, it becomes achingly clear what a traumatic experience it was for her. The tone of her voice as she talks still holds the sense of shock and confusion that pervaded at that time. As she looks back, there are moments of extreme clarity alongside moments of thick fog clouding the events that came next and, in a way, it feels like she has to go out of her body to view what really happened.
She begins: “Our second loss was more painful and more detailed than the first. When I got into hospital and I was told that our baby had died, at that point, I was on my own and had to phone my husband and tell him what had happened, but I guess I didn’t actually understand what was happening at all and it is still a blur now you know, ten years later. What happened next in the process is still very vivid, but what happened around that, casually thinking I would be going into hospital just to get checked out and I’d be home in two hours is a complete blur.
At times Jackie seems to be struggling for the words she wants, the words that really convey the emotion of what she wants to say but when she speaks, I am left in no doubt about how painful the experience was. She continues: “Next, I had to go through the process of them giving us tablets and having to deliver our baby. I guess that moment where you are delivering a baby that you know is not there anymore and what happens after that, you know, you want to make it feel special, but it is really hard. I still look down at my hands now and I can see my baby in my hands – that’s how small he was. And then I remember them taking pictures and I didn’t understand why they were doing that; I cherish them now but didn’t understand why at the time.”
Matt and Jackie named their baby George but were at a loss as to what to do next, Jackie says: “you’ve held your baby, but you’ve gone from oh my goodness, I’ve gone for all these scans along the way, 8, 10, 12 ,14 weeks and you’ve been thinking this could be it, this could be really happening, we could be having a baby, to delivering a baby who is no more, to then thinking: ‘What do we do next? What happens now? Do you want to have a cremation? How are we going to make this special?’”
Jackie lifts her eyes to look at me and says: “How do you do that?” and I know she means not how do you do those practical things but rather how does a person make those decisions and survive? And I am reminded once again of the very vital nature of the work that Petals do – providing a place of safety and support for parents at a point of absolute despair. And it was at this point that Jackie came to see Petals Founder and CEO Karen who was, at that time, still working in The Rosie maternity hospital in Cambridge.
Jackie admits that taking that first step into counselling wasn’t in any way easy for her: “I was in my late 30s, I’d never had counselling and I’m one of those who won’t talk about stuff. To go into the room with Karen and talk about the experience was really, really hard. I sat there for a long time struggling to say anything. Having to talk about what’s happened just wasn’t natural. But Karen made you feel very relaxed, and she really helped me to start thinking about how we could take those next steps forward.
Karen allowed me the time to digest what had happened, allowed me to go to those dark places you go to, to communicate those thoughts and images that were in my mind and were playing out the whole time. She actually helped me to do a lot of writing and so I did a lot of writing stuff down, alongside a bit of talking which I got better at over time. It allowed me to translate it all into some sort of sense I guess, which was a clever way that Karen allowed me to do that, by giving us a route to expressing ourselves which worked for us, it wasn’t you must do it this way because that’s the right way or the right thing to do, she just let it flow and for us to express it in your own way.
And even though it was mainly myself at the sessions because my husband Matt is even shier than me and less than talkative, I always went home and told him what we had talked about, so it wasn’t just me doing the talking and she really gave something to us as a family.
And we explored other stuff as well which all became part of the healing process – stuff about our family makeup, our family values. You know, for me, that’s all I had wanted – I wanted a child and I wanted to take him home and it was just exploring around that with Karen. She made you feel at ease and able to express some stuff that you most probably wouldn’t otherwise say out loud.”
Matt and Jackie found themselves pregnant again quite quickly after George’s death and, understandably, it was a time of emotional turmoil, not least because after years and years of trying to get pregnant, it was a shock that they had fallen pregnant for the third time in such a short period. Jackie says: “I was pregnant again quite quickly and I was going through all those emotions of feeling guilty, of still coming to terms with everything.”
Heartbreakingly, this pregnancy once again ended in miscarriage at 16 weeks when the couple suffered their third loss – another baby boy who they named Jack. Jackie describes it as: “starting that treadmill all over again” and continues: “you know we weren’t so far along this time, so we didn’t go through all the processes we went through with George but…” And she pauses and I can see this part of the story is particularly painful, the remembrance that this really had happened again for the third time. Jackie struggles to find the words, just giving me a knowing nod and saying: “Yeah, yeah………yeah” as that period of time plays over again in her mind.
Once again, Petals was there to support the family in the aftermath of the loss. Jackie explains it as a time of: “working through those processes of how you move forward because my desire was still to have a child, so it was working through still trying but without feeling guilty about doing that and thinking right, you know, I don’t want to forget what’s happened, but I still have a desire to be a mum.” And it was a time that saw Jackie and Matt get married and fall pregnant once again.
At this point, the bereavement counselling service for parents at The Rosie had lost its funding and Karen was at the early stages of developing Petals as a charity and so it was that Jackie found herself having her counselling sessions on Karen’s sofa. It goes without saying that this was a time of intense anxiety for Jackie and Matt and there is no hint of exaggeration when Jackie says: “I honestly believe that Petals saved my life.” It is clear to see it was one of many dark times for Jackie but one that she came through with Karen’s support.
Jackie continues: “There was so much fear throughout the whole time and there were so many trepidations about getting past the scans – 8 weeks, 12 weeks, getting to 14 weeks and thinking that’s another hurdle over and then getting to the big one at 20 weeks. The whole way through I was just filled with dread that it wasn’t going to pan out right. You know, the baby was small and I wasn’t very big, so all the way through I was thinking we would come away with the same result again.”
As the pregnancy progressed, the couple made the decision to book a c-section two weeks before their due date because as Jackie explains: “I didn’t want to risk it anymore and even on the day, I was convinced he had passed away and that I would be going through that experience all over again.”
Happily, this wasn’t the case and after years of infertility issues, and multiple losses Matt and Jackie welcomed a healthy baby boy, Harley, into the world in 2011. I ask her exactly what it was that Petals gave to them during this time and she explains: “I kept in contact with Karen throughout it all to the time my boy Harley was born, and it allowed us as a family to carefully process and express our grief and what was happening to us and the space to deal with it whilst then pregnant again. And even now I reflect on some of those conversations because there are still dark days sometimes, you know, anniversaries come up and we still remember George and Jack and those conversations with Karen help me through, they gave me my coping strategies.”
Since Harley’s birth, Jackie and Matt have taken on a huge amount of fundraising for Petals and the money they raised has played a large part in developing the charity into what we see today. Jackie explains that for Matt: “it was definitely his way of giving something back and raising awareness about Petals and what it does. He organised two huge road trips from England to Monaco and to Scotland where trucks were sponsored by companies and had their branding all over as they made this journey.”
Jackie focused her fundraising efforts on running and she explains: “For my husband, it was more around what can I practically do to give something back to such a wonderful charity. For me, you know, it was definitely giving back but running was also a release. Sometimes, if I was having a really rubbish time I’d go for a run as that was the only way to get it out of me. I’ve done a few different runs, the London 10k, Cambridge Half and some others.”
I can see the joy and pride on Jackie’s face when she speaks about her family’s fundraising efforts and how much it helps her to know she has made a difference to the charity that helped her. However, the look pales in comparison to that which she has when she talks about her son, Harley. She says: “I look at him every day and I know how fortunate I am to have him regardless of what the challenges of the day are, you know that kids throw at you, even on those days when I’m looking at him thinking come on mate, help me out here!”
It quickly becomes clear that Petals’ support has enabled Jackie and Matt to talk openly to Harley about his brothers and that being able to do that was part of the healing process and has meant that they remain very much part of the family. Jackie says: “Harley is 10 now and he can clearly articulate what Petals do. I am super proud of him that he is able to articulate what Petals is and how it helps people and that’s because we have been open with him and we have made it no secret.
What Petals did means so much to us as a family, almost as much as having our boy. I know it sounds a bit weird but it’s a part of our journey that allowed us to get to where we are. Without Karen we wouldn’t be here – I couldn’t see a way forward. For us, as a family, it could have gone two ways and I couldn’t see a future without Karen’s help. She gave us that balanced outline to be able to see forward, to continue with our life and our journey and what we wanted as a family. Without them, our journey would have been completely different.”
Jackie sums up what Petals has done for her by calling it a “transformation”. Laughing loudly, she says to me: “If you had seen me in my first few sessions with Karen, I couldn’t talk about anything – and to think now where I am, being able to put my energy into raising awareness. You know, back then I couldn’t stand next to someone who was pregnant, couldn’t be in the same room, it made it so hard at work, I couldn’t be in that environment, and I’ve learnt how to deal with that, how to gather myself, how to say to myself that it’s ok, little techniques to help me move forward really. The greatest pride is in how far I’ve come in the last ten years, and it has definitely gotten easier in the last few years to talk.
More than anything, I know I am blessed to have our boy here with us at the end of this because I know not everyone is lucky enough to get there – it was the support I got from Petals that got me through two years of pure darkness and got me to the place where we could have Harley.”
Jackie stops and looks at me and says repeatedly: “We need more Petals!” and, having listened to her story of transformation, I have to say, I couldn’t agree more.