My Parenting Journey: Clara Francis

This month, in honour of Baby Loss Awareness week, we asked fashion designer and actor Clara Francis to share her important, heart-breaking story. Mother to Bessie and Gilbert – as well as stepmother to two more boys from her husband’s first marriage – her second daughter Maude was only two years old when a persistent cough and chest infection prompted multiple trips to A&E. Having been told there was no reason to worry, Maude died of sepsis two weeks later, a response to an infection that can lead to tissue damage and organ failure. Here Clara tells us more about her experience and her determination to help other parents in similarly tragic circumstances.

Jason and I first met in 1988, when I was 17, and he was 26. I was doing my A-levels and working part time in the costume department at the Young Vic in London. We had a short-lived fling, split up, then reconnected 12 years later. We got married in 2014… and only because our then 7-year-old daughter Bessie was longing to be a bridesmaid! 

When Jason and I reconnected, his boys were only three and five. I found the prospect of being a stepmother daunting – but they were so brilliant (they’re now men, aged 23 and 25) that it was easy to love them… I never tried to be a disciplinarian, just a fun, cool friend to them. We have a lovely relationship now and their mum, Caroline, Jason’s first wife, has become one of my best friends. She never said anything negative to the children, always positively encouraging us all to have good relationships. We’ve even been on holiday together – with all the children, including her daughter Belle – and we really are one big messy, happy, dysfunctional family. We make it work, and I’m incredibly proud of that. 

In my mid 30s, I decided the time was right to have a baby of my own. I was doing a bit of acting, running a jewellery business and then one day I thought “Why am I wasting so much time?” My first pregnancy with Bessie was pretty unremarkable – I was very fortunate to conceive almost immediately and didn’t have horrendous morning sickness or anything. I remember I lived on salt and vinegar crisps, celery and cottage cheese for eight weeks solid, but those crazy cravings soon switched themselves off.

Giving birth to my first daughter Bessie was not exactly the most pleasant experience. I was fully prepped, did a hypno-birthing course, learnt all sorts of eastern breathing and yoga techniques, read the birthing books, lit the candles, made the playlist… and it all turned to crap after the first three hours of contractions. It felt never ending and I was in hard labour for 48 hours. Before, I’d been very sure I wanted a natural birth… but by the end I was begging for a C-section.

I got pregnant with Maudie only seven months after giving birth to Bessie. It wasn’t an accident, it was a choice. I was shocked after becoming a mother – the lack of sleep, the breast feeding, the exhaustion and loss of identity… it’s such a steep learning curve. So, I decided to have another child quickly, get my head down and push through the toughest years all in one go. My thinking was the worst would be over in a couple of years. 

I had another pretty straightforward pregnancy and labour with Maude. Only this time, I had a home birth. Jason kept saying “That’s it, I’m going to call the midwife now!” and she arrived ten minutes before Maudie was born at 10pm – there wasn’t even time for gas and air. At midnight, everyone had left, and I went to sleep with Maude sleeping in the Moses basket next to my bed. It was a beautiful experience. She came into this world very gently… she was a gentle soul all over. 

Over Christmas in 2010, Maude – who was two – had a persistent cough for a couple of weeks. It developed into a chest infection, and she just couldn’t shift it. She seemed lethargic and not her usual self. We took her to the GP who advised us to go to A&E to be safe, but once we were there, we were told it was only croup. The consultant gave her steroids, and we went home. Even so, my maternal instincts were telling me she was seriously unwell, and things just weren’t right. The following day, the colour drained from her face, and she was struggling to breath. She started turning blue and was limp, so we drove back to A&E. 

We cancelled our New Year’s Eve plans to stay home with the girls. The doctors had given Maude more steroids, but we wanted to keep an eye on her. She seemed happy and jolly, was eating marshmallows, and the colour returned to her cheeks, so I thought the worst was over. The following morning Bessie walked into our room early saying she couldn’t wake Maude… I just knew in that moment she had died in the night. 

Maude actually died of sepsis – it’s an overactive and toxic response to an infection that can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and often death. It’s considered the kind of medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment. If sepsis is diagnosed early, it is treatable, so to know it could have been avoided is unspeakably awful. Losing a child is the worst thing that could ever happen to a parent.

After Maude’s death, I went to the darkest place I’ve ever been. Nothing could be worse. I found myself bargaining with the universe to kill me just to bring her back. I didn’t care, I just wanted her back. There are no words to fully explain the unspeakable, wild, lonely agony of losing a child. It’s unfathomable and simply wrong. Jason was in his own world of pain, and I was in mine. Even though we offered each other huge support, it was still a very isolating and lonely time. No two griefs are the same, and Jason and I grieved very differently. I was unable to concentrate, function or work. Jason, meanwhile, threw himself into work. It was his way of coping. We’re both self-employed, so we knew we’d have no money coming in if we both stopped everything. There’s no government help for people who have lost of a child – there’s zero financial support in fact. 

When it comes to motherhood, there’s an expert for everything. But I regret not listening to my maternal instinct more. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I will never be so trusting again with anyone in a position of authority. Even so, what use is blame? I made a very definite decision in the early days of my grief to live a happy life. Maude had a beautiful, joyful soul and I resolved not to let anger and bitterness destroy me. I also chose not be eaten up with rage toward the A&E doctor who got it wrong. He was just as devastated that this happened. Doctors are human, they are fallible, they make mistakes. I don’t blame him or myself.

There are no words to fully explain the unspeakable, wild, lonely agony of losing a child. It’s unfathomable and simply wrong.

During those early weeks, I couldn’t even begin to process what had happened. I was in shock. Looking back, it must be the brain’s way of protecting us from tragedy. I was encouraged to have bereavement therapy but didn’t find it helpful at all. No amount of tapping, breathing or meditating could alleviate the anguish. Even then, I knew the only thing that would help would be time. I knew I was in an ‘unfixable’ situation, so I just had to learn to live with it. It was brutal, but that was my way of coping. The deep sadness of her absence never leaves me, but I have rebuilt my world around the loss. 

I also felt a deep compulsion to speak to other bereaved parents – but I didn’t know any. The logic behind this impulse was probably that I needed to speak to people who were further down the line, to prove it was possible to live a life afterwards. I found a local parent bereavement group called SLOW (Surviving the Loss Of Your World) which was set up and run by two bereaved parents. They meet once a week sitting together, eating cake, drinking tea and sharing stories. Knowing there was one place I could go every share my darkest thoughts was integral to my healing.

A couple of years ago, I trained as a group facilitator for SLOW. I now work for them part-time running my own group for bereaved parents. I also volunteer for the Child Death Helpline at Great Ormond Street Hospital, offering hope to other bereaved parents who may be in the same turmoil I was. I do all of it for Maudie and find it a very powerful way of staying connected to her. It’s turned her death into something positive. 

I’m lucky to have the most incredible friends and family, too. I only found this out recently, but for the first six months after Maude’s death, they made a rota so I was never alone. One of my dearest friends paid for the funeral and we also had a wonderful friend who lent us money when we were unable to work. They carried us then and they continue to carry us now. We never shy away from talking about her – she’s still very present in all our lives. There was, however, a very small number of friends who just couldn’t handle it. They crossed the road when they saw me or said insensitive things. Death can be a very difficult subject for some people – especially the death of a child.

Bessie was nearly five when Maude died. They shared a bedroom and she had tried to wake her that morning. She witnessed everything on that terrible day. Even though Jason and I were broken people, we had a duty to be the best parents we could be to Bess. It was the greatest gift – she was the reason we continued living. Children need structure, consistency and a sense of safety and it was our responsibility to give her that. I’m not sure I was the best mother I could have been, but my mantra was and is, always, “I’m doing my best.” 

We managed to get her an incredible therapist straightaway. He explained to us young children don’t really understand the concept or finality of death until they’re older. He was wonderful with her. To this day I have no idea what was said in their sessions, but I know that through play and creativity, he got her to process what happened. We probably won’t know until she’s older just how it’s impacted her life – losing her sister is unfortunately now part of her life story. At 14, all I can say is she’s brilliantly funny, kind, witty, stylish, empathetic and wise beyond her years. I’m incredibly proud of the woman she’s becoming. 

Birthdays and anniversaries are particularly hard. Rather than getting easier each year, Maude’s birthday gets harder. Every one that passes marks one more year without her. She will always be two in our memory, but she would be turning 13 this year. It brings up so many unanswered questions. What is a birthday without a birthday girl? As for the anniversary of her death – January 1st – we now have a tradition of meeting our closest friends and family on Hampstead Heath and walking to the bench we’ve erected for her. We bring flasks of tea and cake and chat while the kids play. We cry, laugh and remember her.

The decision to have another baby was instant. The day Maude died, I knew having another child was what I wanted to do. I told Jason but was worried he would think I was mad. However, at 39 years old, I felt I didn’t have the luxury of time. I obsessed about being pregnant day and night. I knew I could never replace Maude, but it was clear I was bringing a new life into the world who wouldn’t probably exist were it not for her death. In a strange way, our son Gilbert felt like a magical continuation of Maude herself. I was in a very fortunate position to still able to conceive a child naturally – many other bereaved mothers are not.

Gilly has been a gift to us all since the moment he came into the world. He is joy personified and his arrival almost a year after Maude’s death gave us hope to believe life could go on. Some people felt that now we had another child everything had been ‘fixed’ but I will never be fixed. There will always be a gap at our table where she should be sitting. That said, having another baby is very healing, if for no other reason than babies are so exhausting and demanding, there isn’t as much time to focus on anything else.

To other parents who have experienced something similar, know it will get better. It won’t always be this painful – it was so important for me to hold onto that fact back then. Even so, we must get the conversation going around grief. Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a positive shift but it’s still a taboo subject. I still worry that if I talk about her too much, I’m going to lower the mood or people might think I’m ‘stuck’. It’s very complex, and sometimes people don’t want to mention Maude to me for fear of upsetting me. That couldn’t be further from the truth. First off, she’s always with me and second, I love talking about her and hearing stories about her. It makes her feel very present. As a society, we’ve got to become less embarrassed about grief. Often people are scared to talk about death because they don’t want to get it wrong. But there is no right or wrong. 

Jason and I work with The UK Sepsis Trust and NHS England. We want to change the procedures around potential signs of sepsis and I’m thrilled to say things have changed in the past ten years. There’s now much more awareness – and many deaths have been prevented as a result. That is Maude’s legacy. That and our little prospering, happy, functioning family. I’m also working again as an actor, currently performing in the new Tom Stoppard play Leopoldstadt at The Wyndham’s Theatre and I started the dress label O Pioneers last year with my friend Tania Hindmarch. Maude is with me everywhere. Her death has made me a stronger, better human, and she has given me a sharp perspective on what really matters. I miss her every minute of every day, but her memory runs through everything myself and Jason – and many of our friends and family – do.
 

Baby Loss Awareness Week runs until 15th October 2021. You can find more information and resources via BabyLoss-Awareness.Org and TheMisscarriageAssocition.Org.UK. More information about SLOW can be found at SlowGroup.co.uk
 

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