Image: Barney Beech

Zoe McKenna lost her first child, Jack, when she was 19 years old. He was 14 months old and she was six months pregnant at the time with her second child. Fourteen years later, living in Earl Shilton, Leicestershire, with a new husband James, her son Freddie, 13, step-daughter Hermione, 11, and their greyhound dog Rosie, Zoe reflects on finding joy, and accepting pain, in the aftermath of the deepest loss. 

CP: Your son, Jack, was just 14 months old when you lost him. Could you talk me through what happened?
ZM: Trying to recall the events from so long ago is devastatingly hard and also very easy. It’s tough as some of the memories I’m sure I have repressed for my own sanity’s sake and so they appear foggy and hazy, and yet some of them are crystal clear and feel as real and raw as they were 14 years ago.
Jack was my first-born son. I became pregnant at 19. Despite the unexpected nature of the pregnancy and the infancy of my relationship with his father, I felt ready to have my first baby.

CP: And how did you find those first few months as a young mother?
ZM: Jack was born on New Year’s Day, 2003. It always seemed fitting that his birthday fell on the day that we traditionally associate with “fresh starts” as it felt that he was mine. The birth and first year of Jack’s life was relatively normal – as normal as any new mum finds that fuzzy and exhausting period. When Jack was nine months old I discovered I was expecting again and I was really pleased. Jack brought me so much joy and I figured that having two children closer together would be easier in the long run.
I chose to continue to work while I was expecting and my mum cared for Jack while I did. I had dropped out of university so I worked at Help the Aged in one of their charity shops. It was such a fun and dynamic job and I loved it. As is some grandmother’s wont, my mum spoiled Jack rotten when she had him and took great delight in feeding him foods from my banned list as soon as my back was turned.

CP: What happened the day that Jack fell ill?
ZM: One Saturday in late February 2004 when Jack was 14 months old, my mum took him to a wedding and dutifully fed him the largest slab of chocolate cake she could find. I have a photograph of him sat in a high-chair at a long table, dark chocolate smudges around his face, his hands sticky and his white T-shirt ruined. He looked really pleased with himself for making such a mess. That photo is the last one that was ever taken of him.
The following day Jack had a tummy bug. I blamed the cake. My mum was duly told off and I settled myself in for a day of mopping up after my poorly boy. There was little improvement on the Monday and so I took him to the doctors who advised rest and fluid. He didn’t physically examine him but I had no reason to question his advice.
On Tuesday there seemed to have been an improvement, his symptoms had subsided and he was once again an inquisitive one year old. On the Wednesday morning, however, Jack woke up groggy. He seemed lethargic and tired, he was cold to the touch and wouldn’t eat his breakfast. In fact his eyes barley opened as I sat him in his high-chair. My then partner took him back to the doctor whose diagnosis was “a grumpy child “ who was recovering from diarrhoea and vomiting and who “most likely” had a virus. This was not backed up with a physical examination but once again we trusted the advice we were given.

CP: And what happened after that?
ZM: I was working that day but called home several times to check on how Jack was doing. Later in the afternoon my then-partner said that Jack was lying next to him in bed, he hadn’t really stirred all day, he hadn’t eaten or drank and although he responded to touch, there was something “not right” about his response. I decided to leave work early. When I got back I changed Jack’s nappy and noticed some pink staining within it. Foolishly and naively I believed this to be Calpol colouring his urine. Nonetheless, I called the GP to book a telephone appointment and was told that I would be called back within the hour. I wasn’t contacted so I continued to call a total of 13 times. Eventually, at 6:15pm, the same GP who had seen Jack that morning called me back. I explained the symptoms to him and he advised that take to syringing water into Jack’s mouth as we still had been unable to get fluids into him. He told me that he had seen him that morning and that if I was that worried I should call an ambulance, but it was likely a virus. I didn’t call an ambulance, I felt chastised and a little like an annoying young girl.
I setup a travel cot at the end of my bed that night. I remember getting up in the night to use the toilet and leaning into it and feeling Jack. He was cold to the touch, I remember pulling a thin blanket over him and thinking ‘I don’t want him to over-heat’ and ‘at least he doesn’t have a temperature’.

CP: And the following day?

ZM: The next morning I picked Jack up from the cot. He felt heavy and limp. I cradled him and decided to run a bath for him, thinking it would warm him up and make him feel better. Once the bath was ready I remember my mum calling in and sitting on the edge of it. I sat Jack in the bath and he fell face forward onto the water. I picked him up, wrapped him in a towel and listened as my mum urged me to take him back to the doctors. I refused to call them, I felt silly after the day before and didn’t want to cause a fuss. Thankfully my mum had no such qualms and called them, sourcing me an emergency appointment for soon afterwards.
I walked into the consultation room with Jack in my arms. The GP took one look at him and told me ‘no normal one-year-old presents like this. He called the local hospital and told me to take him there immediately.
My mum drove us and dropped me off at the door while she went to park. Jack was put into a large hospital bed. He looked so little and vulnerable lying there. I recall lots of activity around his bed and assumed that people were just being super helpful as he was so young. Moments later Jack began to vomit blood and his little body convulsed violently; at that point a curtain was pulled around him and I was led out of the room.
I can’t remember how long I waited there. I do remember my mum joining me but don’t recall how I explained what I’d just witnessed. I felt numb. My mum says that she wiped blood from my hands and held me. I can’t recall that. I do remember Jack’s dad arriving and then some time later being told that he’d been transferred to intensive care, that his heart had stopped but they had restarted it and were in the process of finding out what was wrong with him.
This was Thursday lunch-time. Over the next 24 hours a stream of professionals came into the room and examined him. I still felt in the dark but was informed by the consultant that they were, too. Early the next morning they told me they were going to try and ascertain Jack’s brain activity. They had managed to raise his temperature and were optimistic.

CP: Do you remember when the mood started to change?
ZM: Some time later, surrounded by my family (I don’t know when they arrived, I don’t know who invited them) the consultant called us into a large side room. He told us that there was no brain activity and a machine was keeping Jack alive. It was our choice whether to turn off the machine but not doing so was, in his opinion, cruel. The boy we knew and loved was gone, there was nothing anyone could do to bring him back. We didn’t know why Jack was dead, we just knew that he was. The air seemed to have been sucked out of the room, out of my chest, and everywhere seemed dark. People were talking but it was just a murmur, I couldn’t make out distinct words or conversation.
Again, I go into self-preservation mode here. I can’t recall how we assimilated that news exactly but I do remember getting up and asking everyone to say their goodbyes and then walking out of the room. I sat just outside Jack’s room in intensive care with my head down. I was vaguely aware of people coming in and out but I didn’t meet their gaze. I wanted to be the last person to hold and touch Jack. I wanted them to go and leave me alone with him. It had all started with me and I wanted it to end with me, too. I thought their presence was unnecessary; death makes us selfish, doesn’t it
At the right time the consultant placed Jack into my arms. He had explained what would happen; he had warned us about slight colour changes and noises that we may hear but that didn’t prepare me. In my mind I hugged and kissed him, I talked gently and promised to love him always. My then-partner says all of this is a figment of my imagination and that I actually screamed and shouted and swore and cried. I don’t remember it that way but I’m glad I don’t, I like my serene version better. Death robs us of our dignity, too, doesn’t it? Not content with taking the ones we love it also makes off with our self-control and serenity.

CP: In your previous email to me, you mentioned that yours was a story ‘of loss, of heartbreak, of trying to forget the heartbreak, of trying to live, of trying hard not to live too much. Of never wanting to risk having another baby, of never really wanting to remember, of wanting to remember all the time, of being to blame, of wanting to blame everyone else…’ Today, you have another child, a new partner, and a step-daughter… How did you move from the mental space you were in in the aftermath of losing Jack, to where you are now?
ZM: After Jack’s death I returned home. The house was busy for weeks and months after with well-wishers. I can’t remember who visited as those early days are a blur, but I do recall lots of laughter. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? But I’ve learnt that people are much more comfortable joining in with laughter than they are with tears. There were lots of effort to keep things upbeat, to be jovial, to be silly, to celebrate and to distract. I didn’t really care to be honest as whatever emotion I was outwardly displaying I felt the same cold dark emptiness inside.
Eventually I had the call from the pathologist to tell me Jack had died from pneumococcal meningitis. He had an underlying bacterial ear infection, which had triggered this. In fact, his ear was so badly infected that had he survived he would have almost certainly suffered substantial, if not total, hearing loss. I went back to work two weeks after Jack’s funeral – I was going insane at home. Where I was once a busy attentive mum, I was now alone and unoccupied. With too much time to think all I could think about where those images of Jack convulsing.
I had Jack’s little brother Freddie three months after losing Jack, in June 2004. I was still grieving, still in shock and still reeling. I do remember taking Freddie’s birth and early years in my stride, I never felt able to moan about being tired or frazzled as I felt lucky just to be a mum again.
As time passed I started to give more thought to Jack’s death and my role in it. I Still can’t believe I didn’t see that pink stain and know it was blood, I can’t believe that when I felt how cold he was I didn’t run him to A and E myself. I thought all mums would be able to tell if their child was dying, I felt a fraud and I felt that I deserved what had happened to me. I also felt guilty at still being alive, I’d have happily swapped places with my son.
I also felt angry and let down by my local GP practice, one of whose doctors had made a house call as soon as they found out that Jack had died wanting to discuss a “timeline”. This was compounded when I had to sit in a coroner’s court and listen to them contesting my version of events. I never persued my complaint and to be honest I can’t bring myself to. If truth be told I feel as culpable as they may be. I should have protected him, I should have done more. I’m sure my youth was part of the problem, I was treated as a young innocent and naive girl (which I was) and I don’t think I was listened to as closely as if I’d have been an older more health-literate mum.

CP: What now; how do you go about healing after something like this; is there anything that has helped, day-to-day?

ZM: Moving forwards there isn’t a formula, a process or any wise words that help. There’s just waking up and getting on. The hurt gets locked away in a little box and I revisit it often, gingerly almost, as I’m too scared to deal with it all in one go. My relationship Jack’s father didn’t last, I found it too hard dealing with my own sadness to be able to deal with someone else’s too. There is joy, too, though. Freddie is amazing even though he’s at that surly teenage age, and I wouldn’t change him for the world.
When Freddie was six months old, I left my job at the charity shop and decided to do something completely different. I went and re-trained and became an occupational therapist and have been practicing ever since. I think I wouldn’t have done that had it not been for my experience. The whole saga made me focus on feeling able to always look after Freddie and so one of the first things I did was ensure that I could do that, financially. I also wanted a new start. To be Zoe without always being ‘Zoe who lost her son’. It was better to retrain as it gave me some anonymity, and I could just be whoever I wanted for a while. That made me feel guilty, too, it was like in not wanting to be known as a grieving mum I was somehow trying to leave him behind, which was not the case
I never had any therapy, myself – maybe one day. I still have large voids where the memories are hazy. I’m sure If I scratch the surface I’ll be able to recall them but I’m not sure I want to yet. I’m sure therapy is very helpful but I still feel that the price I should pay is this sadness that lives with me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all-consuming on a day-to-day basis, it’s just there and I’ll reflect on it sometimes. It’s become part of who I am and a reminder of Jack. I almost don’t want it to go away as anything that keeps his memory close, even this, is oddly comforting
To anyone who fins themselves in this situation, my heart breaks for you. All I can say is that there is a tomorrow, there will be joys along the way; your life isn’t over. You change irrevocably, but sometimes it’s for the better. In addition, I eventually met a man who helped me to heal slowly. He did nothing other than give me permission to feel however I wanted, whenever I wanted. I think that’s key to moving forward when you lose a child.

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