Friday 22 March 2024

Shades of Grey

NB: this piece of memoir contains references to loss, including baby loss. 

I’m sitting in my neighbour’s flat. She lives on the floor below me in our small block of flats. It’s the first time I’ve been inside her home, although we often chat outside in the shared parking area. The décor is not quite to my taste but I like it. There’s been some reconstruction work so the lay-out is a bit different to mine too. The building is over 50 years old so the rooms are somewhat bigger than in some of the newer builds in town. In amongst the sofas, bookcases and coffee tables there’s quite a bit of child paraphernalia including toys and a colourful plastic table and chairs set. I smile and ask after her grandchildren who I sometimes hear when they are staying over. She apologies, as she always does, about the noise they make and I reply, as I always do, with ‘no, don’t apologise, don’t worry, I like to hear them’. I mean it. I do. Another neighbour, newer to the block, who lives above me, and whom I’m already finding more difficult to connect with, asks the inevitable (well so it has been for me) question; ‘do you have any grandchildren Gayle?’.

‘No, no children or grandchildren.’

Oh a nice easy life then.’

My mood dips as my stomach clenches, my world turning pale grey. Not the blackness of despair which I once felt, nor the bright flashing red of angry for, for sure, I’m used to such comments by now. The assumption that I will have followed the expected maternal path and the insensitive – through embarrassment or just a lack of real interest or care – throw away retort when I name my status, or rather the lack of it.

‘Well it wasn’t my choice,’ I reply, ‘but I’m lucky to have many children and young people in my life’.

The conversation moves on. We are gathered to discuss some work that needs doing on the property we share. My mind wanders. I’m thinking of a quote from Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost (published in 2004 by Harper Collins publishers) which I first saw when it was shared on twitter just after her death in late September in 2022:

You think of the children you might have had but didn’t. When the midwife says, ‘It’s a boy’, where does the girl go? When you think you’re pregnant, and you’re not, what happens to the child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that never worked after the opening lines.


I began this piece during a writing workshop organised by the Centre for Death and Society (#CDASWriting). Our theme was ‘narratives of loss’ and our first writing prompt was ‘what colour does this morning feel like to you?’ Still uneasy following the interaction in my neighbour’s flat I chose ‘pale grey’ as my colour. Yet grey is an ambivalent, not solely negative, colour for me. I love my smart grey trousers and the several same colour comfy, soft to the touch, jumpers I wear through autumn to spring. I chose to have two grey walls and a grey carpet in a living room otherwise full of colour. So although ‘pale grey’ seemed to fit well my, on the verge of sombre, mood (and the weather) I choose it also for its' (for me at least) association with warmth and the comfort of home.

Shortly after the house meeting I posted a brief outline of the unsettling exchange on Facebook and received many supportive and empathetic comments. The most touching being; ‘Easy life, nah, you’ve got all of us’ accompanied by a photograph which includes the friend who posted the comment, her two young children, her brother and his husband, her mum (my oldest friend) and dad and me. The picture was taken at a day out at a local sculpture park earlier this year. The sun is shining. We’re all smiling as the selfie is taken. I remember a good day. There was a picnic and other fun too. I was with people I love, who love me; the group including some of the most significant children and young people in my life. This memory leads me to reflect on others, of other days, other happy times. When writing of loss and of grief my mum, Dorothy, (my dad, my baby and my husband too but especially my mum), is never far from my mind. My wonderful, funny, clever, ferociously protective mother who always put me first and foremost, who loved me unconditionally and who supported me through so many other losses (my dad, my baby, my husband and more).  The day after the #CDASWriting workshop, whilst doing 10 minutes or so on the exercise bike ‘temptingly’! placed in the corner of my living room, the second track from Kirsty McCall (the artist I’d chosen to encourage me on my ride) comes on; ‘Thank You For The Days’. I cried listening to this at my mum’s funeral and as my legs continued to circle round and round I lifted my hand to brush away my most recent tears for my most beloved. The memories on this occasion were mostly happy though; the many wonderful times we had together, the laughter we shared, her smile and her gentle touch. Grief, such a funny, complex thing.

The final exercise of the writing workshop was to write a piece to challenge a dominant narrative, an expectation of behaviour, feeling, thought. I returned again to my own personal maternal identity and experience:


People say ‘never mind, it’s for the best. It will happen next time, next time, when the time is right'.


But there never was a next time, a right time.


It did NOT happen ever again.

it did NOT happen ever again

It did NOT happen ever again.


It began with an actual loss. A baby. Just a foetus to some but a baby to me. A baby who died before it had the chance to be born.

And then a loss of possibilities.

No more pregnancies (or at least not that I know of).

No more babies, children, grandchildren.


Childless I am not.

There have always been, and are, plenty of children and young people in both my personal life and my work life.

But, the loss, the losses, I feel acutely still, more than three and a half decades on since my baby died.

I’m reminded everyday by a family tableau in a café, a TV drama, a careless comment…  


I feel the loss, I carry it huddled in a corner within me.

Waiting, always, waiting to remind me of what might have been.

I talk about my loss(es) when asked and share my experience in the hope that in some small ways I might raise awareness in the less than empathetic and connect with others who have been through similar.

And yet the word never feels quite right.

If I accept that I ‘lost’ my baby, aren’t I admitting to failure? To a lack of care, to not preventing an event that could have been prevented?

A worry underscored by the fact that the time never was right.


People say ‘never mind, it’s for the best. It will happen next time, next time, when the time is right'.


But there never was a next time, a right time.


It did NOT happen ever again.


A book I read years ago comes to mind. Not so much the words within the cover but the cover itself. A couple holding a baby between them, BUT NOT, as the space where the baby should have been was blank. Like a jigsaw puzzle with a few missing pieces.


My life is full, enriched, happy. And yet my own personal jigsaw (like, for various reasons, those of many others) will always be incomplete.

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