Coping with grief: farm couple’s struggle to come to terms with loss of a child
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk farmers Emma and James Strachan were left devastated by the death of their second child as a result of complications during childbirth. Eventually, they got help and say the couples counselling they received was invaluable. But the traumatic experience caused them to reassess everything,including how they farmed. Sarah Chambers reports
The traumatic death of their second child, Bonnie, following complications in childbirth caused Emma and James Strachan to profoundly reassess their priorities.
James had been an 80-hour-a-week dairy farmer, dividing his time between looking after the 200-strong herd and putting in long hours at Marybelle-Pur Natur in Walpole, near Halesworth, the highly successful dairy diversification which the family had created, but which by then was majority-owned by a Belgian firm.
Dairying was all-consuming, a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-week commitment, but the Strachans, based at Rendham, near Framlingham, on a 200 acre farm, were typical of many farmers, particularly those involved in livestock: they worked hard, they never complained, and they just kept going. They needed to be ‘strong’, and to cope with whatever challenges confronted them.
The loss of Bonnie in 2015 turned their world on its head. Following the trauma of the inquest into her death, the couple poured their energies into effecting change in how hospitals dealt with complicated births following their experiences in the delivery room. They achieved remarkable success, prompting the NHS to look at reviewing its guidelines to recognise the importance of having a consultant during higher risk births. Ipswich Hospital also piloted a counselling service for bereaved parents.
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“It was a bit of a milestone in our recovery,” says Emma, a physiotherapist. “You want to do everything you can in these awful situations to try and get something positive from it.”
But meantime, they were neglecting their own grief. It was a struggle sometimes for them even to understand each other, because, as they learnt later, they were at different stages of the long, hard process of coming to terms with their loss.
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They were approached by Karen Burgess, chief executive of bereavement charity Petals, based at Cambridge, which deals with those who have suffered loss through pregnancy, supporting them with free counselling sessions. She had seen them on TV during their campaign and offered her help.
James admits he was in shock for a long time after Poppy’s death. Emma had faced the added trauma of life-threatening physical complications of her own after the birth, with a twisted bowel and surgery. For both, the natural grieving process was delayed. Karen helped them through that.
“I don’t think you could ever prepare for it. You never expect that sort of thing to happen to you,” says James.
Once the fog of grief allowed, they began to look critically at what they were doing. James was still working for Marybelle, and the dairy farm business, while washing its face, wasn’t making any money. It was all becoming too much. James decided to quit his job at Marybelle and the family made the difficult decision to sell the herd.
“It’s that kind of jolt we had which made us really look at things and think: ‘Hang on, where are we going with this?” says James.
Emma adds: “If you are not careful, it’s work, work, work. It’s made us a lot more mindful.”
Now the format is less frantic and more relaxed. James’ parents, David and Colette, still live on the family farm and Colette continues to run a bed and breakfast business. James, along with his sister, Katherine Manning, is still involved with Suffolk Meadow, the ice cream business which the family retained following the sale of Marybelle in 2014.
The emphasis for James and Emma is on having a good quality of life, with plenty of family time with son, Percy, now five, and four-month-old daughter, Boe. They also want to keep things small and manageable.
“We felt we had done quite a lot with the cows. We had set up Marybelle and Suffolk Meadow Ice Cream. We had given the dairy a really good shot, but it was a case of getting a lot bigger or doing something else. With everything that happened, we felt investing in large-scale just wasn’t for us,” says James. “We thought: ‘Why not concentrate on what we have got and have a little bit of quality of life?’”
They had a great location, with an idyllic country setting and redundant dairy buildings. After much research and deliberation on suitable diversifications, the idea of a campsite emerged and Birds and Bees at Rendham Hall was born last year. They were keen to give it the personal touch, and incorporate a warm reception for guests into their offer, which has proved a hit, especially with tired Londoners wanting to escape the rat race for a few days.
James used his savings to tide them over while he built the campsite ‘hub’ building, complete with facilities including showers, toilets and a camp kitchen last year. They are now set to embark on their first full season when the campsite opens for business on April 12.
“We are still in that transition period. The farm still needs to pay. We are hoping this full year will help and we are doing some other things as well,” says James. “The nice thing about the ice cream business and the campsite is it’s got seasons to it. With the dairy farming it was every day.”