Mum’s heartbreak: I couldn’t pretend Ben didn’t exist
What do you do when the unimaginable happens? talk about it, says nicole Bowles, 33...
Every night as we gather around the dinner table, my husband Dan and I encourage our boys to share their favourite moment from their day. Then we vote to decide which one our other son, Ben, would have liked the most. You see, unlike Alistair, seven, Toby, four, and Edward, two, Ben isn’t here to make a moment of his own. But that doesn’t stop us from including him in ours.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted a family. I met my husband Dan at school, and after marrying in 2008, we started trying for a baby.
Alistair was born in December 2010, followed by Ben in July 2012. Dan and I couldn’t have been happier. At three months old, Ben was already learning to roll. I remember the day he rocked determinedly on his play mat, with Alistair crouching down beside him, egging him on.
In November 2012, when Ben was four months old, I started taking the boys to a toddler and baby group in our home town of Helensburgh, with another mum, Sarah, and her little boy. On this particular day, the weather was awful, so I decided to take the boys in their double buggy, with Alistair placed in the top seat, and Ben in the bottom.
‘As I pulled back the rain cover, I froze’
After the group, Sarah and I walked into town where I stopped by the butcher’s to pick up chicken fillets for dinner. I placed the plastic bag full of meat on top of the hood of the pram, under the attached rain cover. Afterwards, we went to a charity shop. But by the time we were leaving, a heavy drizzle had set in. Pulling the rain cover over the pram, I ducked down to check on the boys. ‘Mummy doesn’t want you to get soaked,’ I said, smiling at them both. Ben was fast asleep, but Alistair was wide awake.
‘Shall we go for coffee?’ I asked Sarah, who suggested we head to her house, just a 10-minute walk away. As we got to the front door, I bent down to get the boys out of the buggy. As I pulled back the rain cover, I froze. The plastic bag of chicken had slipped off the hood of the pram and fallen behind Alistair’s seat. It had landed straight onto Ben’s face, stopping him from breathing.
Immediately, panic shot through me as I yanked Ben from the pram.
He was blue and floppy, his eyes closed and his chest motionless.
‘My baby!’ I screamed as I knelt on the floor. Placing his tiny body across my lap, I started performing CPR while Sarah ran to get help.
Quickly, people started to gather on the street around me. After a few minutes, I was so breathless that a bystander took over. It was then I saw Alistair’s little legs swinging in the pushchair. ‘What’s happening, Mummy?’ he cried. ‘It’s OK, we just can’t wake Ben up,’
I said, tears stinging my eyes.
Within moments, an ambulance and police car arrived. As two paramedics took Ben into the back of their vehicle, I stayed outside with the police and rang Dan. ‘It’s Ben,’ I sobbed. ‘Come quickly.’
Waiting for news
I paced outside the ambulance, while Dan raced to meet us. But the paramedics couldn’t wait any longer, and so watching the ambulance peel away, I prayed they could save my little boy.
Shortly afterwards, Dan arrived and we were driven to the hospital by the police, leaving Alistair with Sarah.
Ben had already been whisked through to A&E by the time we got there. So Dan and I waited in a bay outside his room.
Finally, after 10 minutes, a doctor emerged. ‘We’ve restored Ben’s breathing,’ he said. ‘But we’ll need to do further tests to check there’s no lasting damage.’ Although my heart swelled with panic, I knew I needed to stay calm for my baby.
But with each new result, the terrible extent of his injuries was revealed. The lack of oxygen had caused severe brain damage. ‘He’s very unlikely to get better,’ the doctor said.
In an instant, my whole world crumbled. Although it was the hardest decision, it was obvious to us all. The kindest thing to do for Ben was to remove his life support.
Back on the children’s ward, we spent our last moments washing and cradling him, before removing his oxygen tube. An hour later, Ben passed away peacefully in my arms – a beautiful and dignified death.
Leaving the hospital without him, I thought my heart might break.
When I found Ben’s favourite toy donkey on the dining room floor back at home, I clutched it to my chest and screamed.
The next few weeks passed in a blur. The tragic nature of Ben’s death meant I was consumed with guilt. It wasn’t long before the nightmares started. Within two months, I was diagnosed with PTSD.
I was referred for counselling, and received support from the Scottish Cot Death Trust, because there wasn’t a dedicated charity for what happened to Ben. But our lives were full of reminders, things that Ben would always miss.
At first, we mourned these events and his absence from them. But when I fell pregnant just over a year later, I knew we couldn’t carry on like this.
We realised the importance of talking about Ben as a way of keeping him with us. Luckily, our family and friends were incredibly supportive.
In February 2014, our baby boy Toby was born. A year later, in March 2015, we moved down to London for Dan’s work, and in May 2016, Edward was born.
Our new arrivals helped heal us a little, but being somewhere new, where nobody knew us, was hard. When people asked how many children I had, I didn’t know how to answer. I couldn’t pretend Ben had never existed, but if I said I had four but one had died, the conversation would stop abruptly. People didn’t know what to say or how to act. We were becoming isolated.
‘People didn’t know how to act’
I decided I wanted to change that. So in June 2017, I set up the charity Our Missing Peace, to support bereaved parents and the people around them.
We designed a purple, heart-shaped badge with a missing puzzle piece that people can wear to show they’ve lost a child, and they’re willing to talk about it.
Not everyone understands why you’d want to wear a badge like this. But over the past year, we’ve shipped over 2,000.
Ben would have been six years old now. Although he can’t be here, we’ll never stop remembering him. He was, and will always be, a part of our family. l For more information and support, visit ourmissingpeace.org; @ben_and_ breaking_the_silence
Ben when he was three months old
With Alistair and baby Ben
It’s important to keep the memories alive
Nicole and Dan with Alistair, Toby and Edward