Vicki & Bruce’s Story – for Ruby, born 19th December 2017.
All the couples I have spoken to whilst compiling this collection of case studies for our 10th Anniversary have been incredibly generous in the sharing of their stories – from the trauma and the heartbreak to their experiences of counselling and the way they now carry the babies they have lost with them in their family lives, all the intimate details that make these stories so poignant have been shared.
Vicki and Bruce are no different in their generosity and as you will read in this case study, they are incredibly open and honest about the impact of the death of their daughter Ruby who was stillborn on 19th December 2017. They are unique, however, in already having shared their story on a national scale having taken part in the groundbreaking Channel 4 documentary, Child of Mine. The film, which aired during Baby Loss Awareness week in 2018, followed three couples through their experience of stillbirth and included footage of Vicki and Bruce going through the counselling process with Petals.
The film was not only an important part of the process of breaking the taboo around stillbirth and baby loss but also served to highlight the crucial nature of specialist counselling for parents experiencing these tragedies. Indeed, the footage of Vicki and Bruce is still used today as part of the training for new counsellors joining Petals. We remain indebted to them for the wide-reaching impact they have had in telling their story.
As I watched the Child of Mine documentary again in preparation for this interview, I was struck by the sense of shock and devastation that comes through the screen. Filmed during Vicki’s labour and through the aftermath of the following weeks – the rawness of Vicki’s pain is palpable, as is Bruce’s shock and confusion.
The parents who sit in front of me now are recognisable as the couple in the film, but they are, without doubt, very different people. They are no longer the devastated couple trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. They are warm and open and despite no longer being together as a couple (again, unique in all the parents I have interviewed for this series) they are so at ease in each other’s company that I know the telling of their story will end in a place of hope.
Vicki starts by telling me about the day she found out she was pregnant with Ruby – in the way of all these stories, it is a memorable moment from an ordinary day that so many of us simply take for granted. “I found out I was pregnant, on 20th July 2017. I always remember the date because it was my niece’s birthday. We were both just so excited. At the time, Bruce was living in the Isle of Man, and I was in Cambridge, and we had been doing the long-distance thing, but we were both just so excited about Ruby coming along and all being together in England as a family.”
The pregnancy was what Vicki describes as “textbook”. She continues: “all my measurements were good, my two scans were positive, and every bit of feedback I had was really encouraging. But looking back, all I can see now is how naive I was in those early days. I don’t think I was ever even that aware of movements because I knew I was having a straightforward pregnancy. Looking back on it now, did I feel Ruby’s movements reduce? Probably. But it was my first pregnancy, and I didn’t have anything to compare it to, so I didn’t think of anything as abnormal at first.
Eventually, I got to the point where I couldn’t remember when I had last felt a really big movement, so we decided to go to Addenbrookes one morning but even then, on the way into the hospital our minds never really went there.
We never expected the result that followed. Even though we were going to get checked, it was very much a trip to just put my mind at rest. So, when they came to look for the heartbeat, and even when they were searching for the heartbeat using that little doppler, I still didn’t believe anything was wrong, it wasn’t until the sonographer actually came in to confirm it that it became real – and I think we will both always remember the look on her face, and she just said ‘sorry’. And at that moment, it was like a bomb going off in our world, everything just shattered.”
It is at this point in Vicki and Bruce’s story that the filming for the documentary starts and, when I hear Vicki saying “it is so surreal that we won’t take our little girl home”, my heart breaks for them. All naivety is gone, and they are left unable to comprehend not only how this has happened to them but that they were never aware that stillbirth was so common, that something that was happening to so many other families wasn’t even in their vocabulary.
It is this desire to spread awareness that drives them to take part in the documentary and what follows is incredible footage of Vicki giving birth to Ruby, holding and kissing Ruby and telling her how much she loves her. Watching Bruce in tears struggling to accept what is happening or to even look at Ruby, and then seeing him finding the courage to do so, are some of the most human and moving scenes of the film.
When I ask the couple how they feel about taking part in the film in retrospect, Bruce explains: “it didn’t take our minds off what had happened, but it gave us a focus and a drive, it didn’t give us hope or make anything better or easier but it channeled a lot of upset at the time. The focus became trying to spread awareness of what actually goes on and, for me, it gave me a focus and a sense of normality at a horrible time.”
Vicki agrees, saying: “It was almost cathartic to have people around who knew about stillbirth and who you could keep talking about it with. And, you know, losing a child, (and I think this is true for anyone who has lost a child), you want something good to come out of it and for me especially – I couldn’t get Ruby back, but if her passing could raise awareness or mean one person goes and gets checked out earlier, it would mean her short life could mean something.”
Whilst sharing their story to this point is incredibly brave, it is in the telling of what comes next that, for me, the couple has the most important impact. In the aftermath of Ruby’s death, Vicki and Bruce grieved in hugely different ways which rapidly pushed them apart and they discuss what happened between them at this stage with searing honesty.
Vicki explains to me: “I went into devastation very quickly after leaving the hospital and I was really struggling to come to terms with what had happened.” In the film, you can see the rawness of her pain as she describes how she is “waking up every day and remembering this is my new life, it’s happened, and nothing is ever going to change that. I’m just finding it impossible to accept it. The rest of the world keeps on turning and it’s not that you want it to stop, but my world has stopped turning.”
Bruce was in a totally different place at that time and says: “I didn’t understand how badly Vicki was grieving and she didn’t understand that I wasn’t really even there yet, I was just getting on with life. I definitely didn’t understand the place she was in and didn’t know how to deal with it. I just wanted to get on with life and obviously, that’s why we split because that wasn’t helping at all.”
Initially, the couple had separate counselling sessions with Petals before, in time, coming together. In the film we hear Bruce say: “I just couldn’t be around her. I couldn’t deal with it, cope with her being sad. I didn’t go off the rails exactly, but I just needed to be by myself. It hit her quicker than it hit me.”
In one of the counselling sessions that was recorded, we hear Bruce speak directly to Vicki about why he behaved the way he did: “I wanted to feel happy, and I wanted to feel normal – I did love you but at the time I was thinking quite selfishly, and I just couldn’t be around that pain, I needed to not be around it.”
From the outside, this can sound so shocking, but in the film, Petals CEO and the couple’s counsellor, Karen explains that this is actually a very common occurrence. She says: “Parents go into shock and that is a very individual process. They were both devastated by this but in very, very different ways. It overwhelmed him and he needed to be separate from it and that’s not unusual. Men very often need an escape and to be away from the shock and horror of it and then, when they have gathered themselves, they can come back towards the grief and be supportive to their partner.”
With the specialist support of Petals, this is what happened. Vicki says that: “Together, Karen helped us to understand that we had grieved very, very differently and how common it is for relationships to fall apart in grief.”
Vicki and Bruce have gone on to have two more children, Lilly, aged 2, and Henry who is 1 and as soon as they start talking about them it is clear to see how much love they share as a family. Vicki begins: “They are a joy. We always remember Ruby with them and celebrate her birthday, let off a lantern and have a little party. We talk to Lilly about her angel sister, and she doesn’t really understand that yet but she talks about her. If the kids are being particularly mischievous, we always say Ruby must be there playing with them! She still forms a huge part of our conversations, and we imagine her a lot in the dynamic with her siblings.
I always think I would have been a good mum but losing Ruby has made me cherish it so much more. Which I think, with being a new mum, maybe helped it feel less overwhelming, you know on all those sleepless nights, that is what I had missed out on with Ruby, so it gave it a different perspective.
Bruce agrees: “Yeah, I think for me, you know, you think about how you are going to be as a parent, everyone does that – I’m probably more relaxed than I would otherwise have been – you know the kids are not naughty at all but when they do those things that push your buttons or you’ve had a long day at work, I just don’t care – I sit back and think it doesn’t really matter.”
Vicki sums it up in one beautiful sentence: “Ruby has been her siblings’ greatest gift because she has nurtured more relaxed parents.”
And they are both just so relaxed! Listening to them, I have to remind myself they are no longer together. It is perhaps their willingness to be so honest with themselves and with each other, that has enabled their relationship as co-parents to evolve to a place of happiness and whilst, without exception, all the couples I have spoken to have blown me away with their strength, resilience and love, Vicki and Bruce appear to be the most at peace.
When I ask how important the support from Petals was to allow them to get to this place in their lives, Vicki says: “I always say Petals saved my life and I don’t mean I was suicidal but I had just become very indifferent, every day I was just going through the motions, trying to make it just through the day because I was riddled with pain. I had never felt pain like it. I was just basically trying to survive, and I think it was speaking to Karen and being in touch with her – she gave me the hope that it will get more bearable. Every time it was just talking it through and every time I was able to talk a bit more and knowing I had those sessions, not to look forward to, but to know they were there and I could say to myself ‘ok, I’ve got these sessions, I‘ve got the support’, made all the difference.
If I had gone home and never had the support, would I have processed my grief in the same way and come to terms with things? I don’t think so. It always sounds so dramatic to say that Petals saved my life but that’s how it felt – it was the only thing that helped because you know, in the beginning, I couldn’t even imagine being able to smile again.”
When Bruce explains how counselling from Petals has benefited him, I am once again blown away by the honesty of his words. He starts with a wry laugh, saying: “You know, I went that first time just to sort of check there wasn’t something missing and it turned out there was a lot missing!”
He continues: “I was shocked at how brushed under the carpet it all is and how little support there is after losing a child. You know we all go through life and things happen, you break up with a girlfriend or whatever and we’ve all been sad but when you are about to have something so special arrive in your life and then it’s just gone in the click of a finger, your world is shattered, and it is very different to just being sad. You are wrecked, you don’t know how to be, how to think and I just couldn’t believe how people could get through this without the support we had from Petals.
I was trying to just throw myself back into work like I’d just broken up with a girlfriend or something or lost my rabbit! I was doing all things you would normally do to get out of that upset when actually, the reality is in this situation, there is nothing you can do, you just have to let it be and understand it will get better one day. But it is what it is right now and there are things that can help – talking, counselling, but you have to go through it.”
He goes on to explain exactly how Petals counselling did help, saying: “Karen was someone you could really trust, she made me feel so relaxed and calm. You know, I might have mistreated Vicki in that I wasn’t there for her, and I acted badly in certain situations – Karen never judged me for that, never made me feel that I had done anything wrong, which at the time really helped because it allowed me to come to that realisation myself, that you know, actually I probably dealt with that really badly. You have to do the work to get to that point.
The counselling helped me understand what all these feelings were – is it anger? Is it upset? Even though you do all the talking, Karen was very good at unmuddling your thoughts. Without having someone specialised – I just don’t think they could understand. And that was the biggest thing for me that counselling did – just helped me understand my thoughts.”
Vicki and Bruce are both adamant in their belief that Petals played a crucial role in successfully navigating their way through the trauma of their experience and strongly encourage anyone who might be in a similar situation to reach out for support.
Bruce puts it best saying: “Give it a go, you’ve got nothing to lose. I felt like I was doing alright but actually, even though I felt like I didn’t need to go, after that first session I realised there was a lot more going on in my head that I was just blocking out – one of those things was emotion, it gave me more emotion towards the situation – I had been just trying to block the love, block the emotion and just keep on going. So, I think just give it a go and if it’s not for you, no problem or it might be that you don’t need a load of sessions and just a couple might help to get you through. But, you are not going to lose anything by going and you won’t be left wondering, should I have done it, you know, or if I had counselling would things be different, would I be coping better?”
The Child of Mine documentary ends with the couple scattering Ruby’s ashes and Vicki saying she feels now there is “a bit of hope for a happier future.” At that point, there was obviously still a huge amount of counselling to go through and many changes to happen in their lives to get to the point they are at now but, for me, that sums up Vicki and Bruce’s story perfectly. And more than that, it sums up what Petals gives to their clients perfectly: Hope for a happier future. Hope that you will grow strong enough to carry your baby with you as you embrace life again. Hope for a full family life whatever that might look like for you. Just hope!