A Tough Year – Phil Talks About His Grief

Below is a raw,  honest and heartfelt account highlighting the effect of an ectopic on both the expecting mother and father.  It is so crucial to have this perspective from partners to help everyone understand and support those close to us.  It is also important to realise that as a partner you also need support and it is just as brave to acknowledge and ask for this.

Phil Mountstephens Story:

You might hear people say sometimes, “It’s been a tough year!” You might think they’re exaggerating, you might think it’s a cliche, but for Lottie and I, years don’t really come much tougher. It’s all relative I suppose. Our year is the toughest we have experienced and I hope it is never topped, but the ectopic pregnancy was the start of what has been 12 months that would test the very fibre of every relationship.

12 months ago, we received the best news and a few weeks later, the worst. It never really sunk in at the time, but between the appointment in the hospital and leaving eight hours later, battered and bruised emotionally and for Lottie, physically as well, our whole world turned upside down.

Fortunately, I had 2 weeks leave at the time and was able to look after Lottie everyday through the initial recovery but this was only due to the fact I was about to deploy with work for two months on exercise. Being in the military at times like this can go both ways, the Armed Forces have a system in place to recover most personnel within 24 hours anywhere in the world should the worst happen back at home which is almost unrivalled logistically. Already being at home however, preparing for two months of separation is hard enough without the two of us having to deal with a tragedy like this.

The initial recovery came and went. Two weeks of looking after Lottie and licking our wounds before I had to get on a plane and leave her behind to deal with it all on her own. I managed to Skype and FaceTime a few times a week and of course this helps a little bit, but you can’t put your arm round them, you can’t kiss them and say it will all be alright, you just have to stay strong. Being busy helps and for me it was maybe easier to not think about everything whilst being wrapped up in work.

We made it through the two months apart and tried our best to resume our life whilst still processing everything. Shortly after returning, I was to join a Ship in Plymouth and living 100 miles away meant that I was no longer home every night. Only being home at weekends added another factor in the process of getting back to our normal selves but gradually we did, and Christmas came and went with family around us to support and cheer us up. We got into a routine with my work and we decided to try again.

The window of opportunity is small as it is, yet with only six weekends in three months spent together we managed to fall pregnant again. Finally, we felt like we had drawn a line under the previous 6 months and had something to focus on. In early March I was to deploy again, but this time for 9 months. Ironic you could say considering the good news that had befallen us, we of course kept it quiet and didn’t want to tempt fate. It was probably the most positive I had felt before a deployment and the excitement seemed to mask any nerves or fears that would usually rule me in the days prior to leaving.

I left for Plymouth, and joined the Ship a few days before we sailed. All I could think about was the good news that I wanted to share with everyone. Caution held my tongue though. We had only just sailed from another port a few days before I received a message from Lottie with concern and fears about not feeling great and issues relating to the pregnancy. Sudden fears and emotions come flooding back to you from experience and of course your mind thinks of the worst, but hopes for the best. This time I was a few hundred miles away in the middle of the Mediterranean and completely unable to do anything but sit on the end of the phone with fingers crossed and wait.

Trying to occupy myself and not worry, I busied myself as much as I could until I received the news we had feared. A miscarriage, not an ectopic again, but a crushing loss all the same. Lockers were punched, tears were shed and mates consoled me but I couldn’t help Lottie; I couldn’t rush back to her and tend to her this time. I just sat. I told her to ring the welfare cell of the Armed Forces to enable her to get to speak to me properly on the phone. Not many words were exchanged as we both knew what had happened, nothing needed to be said. It’s like being a spectator to your own life and watching it like a sitcom completely unable to affect the situation from so far away.

Once word reached the Ship I was taken aside and officially told (although I already knew) where I was offered the opportunity to go home for a few days. In my erratic emotional state, I actually contemplated the value of me going home. Looking back, it was absolutely crazy the logic that went through my mind, how on earth did I not just demand to go home? Part of the reason I think, is the fact that we had said goodbye for what was going to be an incredible amount of time and I didn’t want to compound feelings of loss with the emotional cycle of saying goodbye again. Additionally, I somehow felt I would be letting people down by leaving. I sat in the living quarters just vacant, until the rest of my colleagues around me made me realise how stupid I was being thinking that there was any other choice than to get on a plane and go home.

I mentioned earlier, that in the worst cases (death of a family member being the most extreme) the Armed forces welfare cell will get you home within 24 hours from anywhere. I was in my front door within 8 hours of leaving the Ship. I am forever grateful for all the logistical aspects that enabled me to do that. Half a day and I was back doing what I needed to do which was consoling Lottie.

I was given just over a week at home due to the tight schedule to get me back again but it gave me time to make sure that Lottie was ok. There is only so much you can do, but being there is the absolute priority. We cried, we shut ourselves away, I told only a handful of people I had come home as I didn’t want the attention on us, or the curiosity. Some still don’t know I came back at all. Having to go back started the farewell process all over again, combined with the loss and the 9 months ahead made this goodbye the hardest of all. I can only be thankful that I had to leave early in the morning and not go through a drawn out goodbye that makes everything so much harder.

I flew back out to meet the Ship feeling slightly numb but trying to refocus on the coming months and trying to get through them as painlessly as possible. The natural curiosity presented itself in my colleagues and I was ok being open with them and explaining what happened. I believe sometime it’s better that everybody around you knows and is aware so that they can tailor their approach to you, avoiding the risk of saying something innocent that could rub me up the wrong way and my reaction be a complete shock to anyone. Maybe that’s just me.

Things died down a fair amount over the next few months and Lottie and I spoke over the phone regularly. The inevitable pregnancy announcements and births of others would spring up on my Facebook feed and I would have down moments where I would retreat inside myself and process it all, I would either remove people from my Facebook or endure them if I could. I even wrote a poem about my thoughts, but that will probably never see the light of day! I had to try anything to refocus, to get myself back up and on with things.

My worst moment came a week ago. An announcement of a birth from someone I know but who wasn’t a particularly close friend. I felt rage, hatred and envy for what they had been blessed with. Why them? Why not me? Why do *** like them get what they always wanted? I couldn’t control my thoughts, I had nowhere to go. A Ship is only so big and places to be alone are almost non-existent unless you’re the Captain. After a few moments of erratic thoughts and anger, I took myself up to the upper deck, sat down on a bollard and gazed blankly out to the sunset and the horizon. I wasn’t alone, but whilst managing to hide my tears from the recreational runners circling the upper deck, I was able to process my thoughts and figure out why it had upset me so much. I can only assume that this was the tipping point for me. I finally understood the irrational anger and projection of bitterness that Lottie had been suffering the previous six months. What I was going through then was what Lottie had been through the whole time. I had been bottling it up and staying strong for her for so long that I had never really spent time grieving myself. This was just a manifestation of a year of not talking about my feelings or letting out my anger and my body had finally had enough.

After what must have been about 45 minutes of staring into space one of the runners, my boss as it happened, spotted me and decided to make the mistake of sitting down next to me. Not realising the state, I was really in, maybe he wished he hadn’t stopped, but he sat down and listened nonetheless, finally allowing me to vent my thoughts to someone and perhaps feel a lot better. His initial suggestion was to send me home again, after the mistake last time of thinking it wouldn’t help you would be forgiven for thinking I would jump at the chance however, there are less than two months of this trip left and to go through everything again and saying goodbye just for a month before coming home again didn’t seem to be the right course. It would also have had an effect on how much I will be home at Christmas and therefore thinking sensibly, I decided to play the long game in the hope for a fantastic Christmas to end a terrible year.

A second option was to fly Lottie out to me; in our final month of the deployment we will be hopping through the med, stopping off at a handful of desirable locations in order to decompress from the arduous 8 months that preceded us and prepare for returning to life back home.

So, the flights are booked, the hotel is reserved and Lottie is putting herself on a plane in order to see me (she hates flying and has never flown on her own). We will spend a couple days hopefully getting back to us, getting ourselves adjusted to domesticated life once again. It is about time we took back our lives from what seems to have defined us over the last year and as it turns out, the timing might be just right…fingers crossed!

This has been my story over the last 12 months, my hope is that this adds a whole new dynamic for people to understand the process that one couple have gone through and to demonstrate that, we men will often bottle things up by choice and will always try to be stronger for our partners. No matter how bad things may seem, it’s important to understand and process things in a healthy way so that we get our moment to grieve in order to be better able to move on for ourselves and our families. I hope you take something away from my story.