“You have to put your child’s needs first, whether it’s going to break your heart or not,” says Nicole Bowles, who together with husband Dan had to make the most devastating decision of her life.
The mum of four – Alistair, eight, Toby, four, Edward, one, and angel baby Ben, who would be six this July – has lived with a missing piece in her heart, since the day her world changed forever in November 2012.
But precious memories of her beautiful baby boy have inspired Nicole to launch a brilliant campaign with an eye-catching badge, to give bereaved mums and dads the confidence to talk about their children – and break the silence they all too often endure from other people.
So if you spot someone in the street wearing a heart-shaped lapel pin with a jigsaw motif, don’t be afraid to ask them, who’s the missing piece in your family?
He was so beautiful and so perfect
Five years ago, Nicole had been walking sons Alistair, then two, and Ben, four months, home in the rain in their double-decker buggy. They’d had a lovely morning at toddler group in Helensburgh and stopped by the shops.
Stopping to check on the boys, she was horrified to find that the pram hood’s poppers had failed and bag of shopping hidden by the rain cover had slipped over Ben’s face.
It was a shocking accident.
Ben was rushed to hospital
Ben had stopped breathing and Nicole instantly started CPR. At first it seemed like it had worked. Ben was rushed to hospital where he was put on a life support machine to help him breathe.
Doctors did the best they could to save him. But Nicole and Dan knew that before long, they were going to have to let him go.
“He was so beautiful and so perfect and suddenly, there he was on life support, with so many tubes coming out,” she says.
“It wouldn’t have been fair to carry on, just for our own sakes.
A heartbreaking decision
“Before we made the decision, Dan and I made a pact that we wouldn’t let it break us, or our relationship. We’d fight for us and fight for positivity and do it for Ben.”
After Ben’s life support machine was switched off, Nicole held him in her arms, as he slipped away. The funeral, she says, was the day they really said goodbye to him.
It was so very sad, yet also beautiful, with flowers arranged to look like a wonderful woodland adventure and Ben tucked up snugly with his favourite toys in a tiny woollen coffin. A slideshow played photos of their darling boy, as the funeral came to an end.
Ben’s beautiful funeral flowers looked like a magical woodland
Coping with grief was hard and it wasn’t always easy to find help, as many bereavement support organisations are set up to help people who are bereaved in certain circumstances. Losing a baby in a tragic accident is more unusual and doesn’t always tick the ‘right’ boxes.
Thankfully, the Bowles family was living in Scotland when Ben died, so baby loss charity The Scottish Cot Death Trust, was able to step in with support, even though Ben wasn’t lost to cot death.
Wanting to talk
The family often moves house, because Dan serves in the Armed Forces. When they relocated south, Nicole found it difficult to find a place where she could get support.
Harder still was how friends drifted away and that other people didn’t seem to want to talk or hear about Ben.
She couldn’t bring into conversation that her boy had died, without an awkward silence, or even share memories about how he had lived and had brought such joy – a cheeky chappie with incredible spirit.
Beautiful boy: Ben
Nicole found herself walking on eggshells to avoid mentioning Ben or saying: ‘My son died,’ so as not to make other people feel uncomfortable.
“People don’t know what to do, or they say ‘sorry’ when you mention it,” she says.
“But I’d been ready for a conversation. I don’t want to deny Ben’s existence anymore.
“Whether you lose a baby, a six year-old or a 30 year-old, all parents need support,” she adds.
“The daughter of a friend of mine died in a car accident aged 21. She was a real person, with friends, a life and suddenly she was taken away and you ‘can’t talk about her anymore’.”
Breaking the silence
Nicole decided that enough was enough and not long after, she hit on a brilliant idea. What if you could make people aware that you’d lost a child, but that you’d be very open to talking about them?
What if there was some kind of symbol that everyone would recognise, that would make other people who had lost a child feel less alone and confined by silence?
“I said to Dan, it needs to be simple,” she says.
A simple badge could signal ‘Yes! Do ask! – I want to talk about them!’
And so, Nicole designed one, a heart-shaped lapel pin with a missing jigsaw piece.
Nicole and Dan wear their Our Missing Peace badges with pride
Maybe if everyone who had lost a child – however old, or long ago – wore one of the badges, other people might recognise it and ask: ‘Who’s the person you’re thinking about?’ or share about their own loss.
“Breaking the silence has to come from the parents,” says Nicole, who has set up a charity to raise awareness, called Our Missing Peace.
“The idea is that if someone’s wearing the badge, then they are okay to talk about child bereavement.”
Nicole, Edward, Alistair, Toby and Dan
Every year since Ben died, the family’s done something that they think he’d have liked, on his birthday, July 14.
On his first birthday, they planted a tree at the church where Nicole and Dan wed. They went to the beach on the day he would have turned two.
The family had a fun day playing Dinosaur Golf on Ben’s third birthday, and had an amazing day at Legoland on his fourth.
To mark Ben’s fifth birthday, there was a family trip to Gulliver’s World. And that wasn’t all. Nicole launched Our Missing Peace at the Scottish Parliament.
Members of the House including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon all wore the heart-shaped Our Missing Peace pins in support.
Support: Nicole launched Our Missing Peace at the Scottish Parliament
Nicole is due to host a gala fundraising ball at the Chester Grosvenor hotel on Ben’s sixth birthday.
She’s raising funds, because she hopes to support the cost of making and distributing Our Missing Peace Badges for free. At the moment they are currently available to buy at £2 each, which simply covers how much they cost to make.
Nicole’s found that grandmas, grandads, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters are keen to buy and wear the badges, too, in memory of a much-loved child who has died.
“It started as something for bereaved parents. Now it’s got wings,” she smiles.
“It’s amazing the conversations that the badges have opened up.”
The Our Missing Peace badges are inspiring people to have a conversation
Along with the Our Missing Peace badge, Nicole is also hoping to raise the profile of a special word, to describe the mum or dad of a child who has died.
As she explains, a bereaved husband or wife is widowed, while a child who loses a parent is an orphan. But there’s no word to simply express that you have lost a child.
Nicole has adopted an ancient word, Vilomah, which she hopes people will begin to understand means ‘a bereaved parent’. It comes from the Sanskrit way of saying ‘against the natural order of things.’
Nicole and Dan have always been determined that Ben will always be a part of their family; someone they can talk about just as they do about Alistair, Toby and Edward.
“I’m very vocal about Ben,” she smiles.
“Wearing the Our Missing Peace badge is a way of showing the world that we are not ashamed of our loss and say it's okay to talk about them.”
A badge of honour
- If you’d like to find out how to buy an Our Missing Peace badge to wear, or become part of a network of supporters involved in spreading the word, you can find more details at www.ourmissingpeace.org.
The website also directs people to organisations which support parents who have lost a child, however recently or long ago.