Published on: June 9, 2011

What is it like for a mother when she loses her only child, born after her ninth fertility treatment? In the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine, Sally Ayles describes a day in her life, six months after losing 18-month-old Katie to meningitis.

Sally found support from The Compassionate Friends, a forum for bereaved parents. They understand what it is like to lose a child; others do not. We are glad we got together a similar initiative for the bereaved in Trivandrum. The self-support group meets once a month, and keeps in touch with one another over the phone in between.

A Life in the Day: Losing Katie
Sally Ayles, 40, lost her previously healthy 18-month-old daughter, Katie, to meningitis four days after Christmas. She would have been two tomorrow.

For Sally Ayles, to lose her child was to lose her identity as a mother.

I often wake around 3am and listen to Radio 4 on the iPlayer until I nod off again. I need it so I don’t have just my own thoughts to listen to. I wake again around 6.30 with the headphones still in. People wonder if there’s a split second after I wake when I forget Katie’s gone, but there isn’t.

I open her curtains straight away, just to get it over with. I don’t spend time in her room at the moment, though I did in the beginning, and maybe I will again. I’ll have toast on the sofa watching TV. Anything not involving happy families or death. Then I’ll log on to The Compassionate Friends [TCF] forum to see if anyone has posted since the night before.

TCF is for bereaved parents, by bereaved parents, and I feel lucky to have found them just nine weeks after losing Katie. Everyone in my old life has their child except for me and I need it so I know I’m not alone. People write about that day’s challenges, the bad days (every day is bad, but some, like Mothers’ Day, Christmas, anniversaries of death, birthdays, are even worse). I’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter how old your child was — stillborn, 18 months, 10, 20, 40 — it’s the same loss of your future, your hopes and dreams. A child isn’t meant to die before a parent. It just shouldn’t be.

Katie, the result of our ninth fertility treatment, was fully vaccinated, yet still she died. They battled for her life for 36 hours. When we were taken to a room to be told she wouldn’t live — “I’m so sorry,” the consultant said — it was surreal. The strangest response I had was that I had to take my boots off. Maybe all the blood rushed to my vital organs, away from my extremities, and my legs felt funny.

With the wonderful nurses, who cried with us, we washed Katie, cut a lock of hair and took hand- and footprints. We said yes instantly to organ donation, and suddenly it seemed her death wasn’t 100% in vain.

Donation brings such comfort — why don’t they publicise that? We then had another 16 hours with her. She looked so perfect, even after she was pronounced dead.

Though we held her death certificate in our hands, her chest went up and down on the life support until she went to her transplant operation.

The final moments were very precious. We sang Hush, Little Baby to her, as we had every night.

Losing my only child means I’ve lost my identity as a mother. I have no purpose. I can’t bear to see other children. Summer is worse, as everyone is out for family walks, going to the park, pushing children along on their trikes, as we did with Katie. In some ways I look forward to the cold winter days when they’re all stuck indoors again.

I’ve just started back at work, where I’m an account manager for BT. My husband, Chris, works in IT in London. Our employers have been extremely supportive. On days off I might meet someone for coffee, and every week I’ll see my grandma, who went to the funeral of her only great-grandchild. What could be more tragic?

I only eat because I need to stay healthy. If I’m at home lunch will be anything that’s in the fridge, or pasta with pesto. I might watch TV, then back to TCF. Some threads are uplifting, such as “acts of kindness”. Our neighbours raised £852 at a coffee morning and my colleagues are doing a 10km run, both for the Meningitis Trust.

Our nursery is also fundraising, and gave us pictures that Katie had done. Most of us suffer from friends, neighbours and even family being unable to talk about our beloved children. Then there’s that terrible question: “Do you have children?” Our counsellor advises: “We had a daughter but she died.” I’ve only experienced this once, at the hairdresser, who was actually wonderful, asking all about Katie. But most people make any excuse to escape. It’s not contagious, you know, all I want to do is tell you about her.

A most wonderful celebrant, Pam, did a humanist funeral service. It was very moving. Bizarrely, I feel comfort in my lack of faith. I can’t bear to think of Katie in heaven. She was a real mummy’s girl and she’d be crying hysterically to be apart from me. I prefer to think of her only in my heart, and lying in the local bluebell wood where we scattered her ashes.

If Chris is out, dinner could be a second round of pasta. Five months on, the cards and letters people sent are still all over the dining-room table, so we eat in front of the TV. It’s true that men and women grieve differently. I am crying more. Chris hides it better but is hurting just as much.

Every week gets harder as it takes us further from the chubby little toddler we knew. What would she be doing now? What new words would she be saying? What would she look like as she lost her puppy fat and grew up? I get into bed around 10, with Katie’s spotty Grobag under my pillow, listening to the iPlayer to help me sleep, as I think about how happy we were. Life will never be the same again. But one day we hope to have a little brother or sister for Katie.

Words by Sally Ayles. Photographs by Hannah Lucy Jones. Published: 5 June 2011

2 responses to “Living With Loss: A Day as a Mother”

  1. Sally Ayles says:

    Dear Raj

    I would like to thank you for taking the time to write to TCF in response to my article about life without my daughter Katie. I was so touched to see it on your website and that you are planning to use it in your support group. Grief crosses all cultures and I am honoured to feel that you feel my article is worthy of sharing. I have been looking at your website and think the work you do is amazing.

    I wish you and all the people you work with love and kindness and sorrow for their pain.

    With kindest regards

  2. Christian Morris says:

    Dear Ms Ayles,
    I was very moved to read A Life In The Day in the Sunday Times about your terrible loss. I have never had children myself and it is unlikely that I ever will but I am aware of the cruelty of losing a child, especially your only one. I would like you to know that my mother I are praying for your husband and you and that I strongly hope that you will get another chance to become parents again, very soon, as you both so much deserve.

    Christian Morris (Mr.), Dublin, Ireland.