It’s a simple ritual that means so much to Becky Dunning at this time of year.
As families get ready to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones it’s normal for them to decorate their homes, hang stockings and buy gifts.
Becky does all that too. But she also takes time to place a mini Christmas tree at the grave side of the twin boys she lost nine years ago this week.
Archie and Zack would have been due to celebrate their birthday on Friday but both died within 24 hours of being born.
Their 29-year-old mum has gone on to have three more children and is looking forward to celebrating Christmas with them.
But there’s always a twinge of sadness at this time of year as she remembers the tragic loss of her boys.
And that’s what’s spurred her on to reach out to other parents and families at what might prove to be a particularly difficult time.
She’s organising a special memorial service to give people the chance to remember babies and children they’ve lost this Christmas.
‘Even though there are a lot of memorial services in churches at Christmas there’s nothing geared up for people who’ve lost babies or children,’ explains Becky.
‘Christmas is so child-orientated, it’s every where you look, and that’s painful.
‘Even though I’ve got three other children, Christmas opens up wounds.
‘You know that there should be extra stockings and things like that. I’ve always got it at the back of my mind.’
Trainee funeral director Becky was 20 when she and her former husband found out she was expecting.
They’d been trying to start a family and were delighted when she fell pregnant.
At her 15-week scan Becky found out she was carrying twins but everything seemed to be OK and she was put under the care of a consultant.
‘When I got to 19 weeks I went into premature labour at work,’ remembers Becky, from Gosport. ‘It was awful, I was rushed to hospital and was put on drugs to stop the labour.
‘At 23 weeks I woke up in labour again and my waters had broken. I was rushed to hospital again but they did manage to stop it. I was constantly monitored and they knew that the boys would be born premature.
‘I was 27 weeks when I went into hospital again. I went into labour when I was putting the Christmas tree up. It was December 16 and I had them in the early hours of the morning.
‘Archie was the first born and he was just over two pounds. He was born at 4.16am and his brother Zack was born at 5.21am.’
As they were so premature, the boys were taken to the intensive care unit at St Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth immediately.
Becky didn’t even know she’d had two boys at first but once she’d been checked over she was allowed to visit them.
‘They looked healthy but they couldn’t get them breathing on their own so they were put on a shaking ventilator,’ she says.
‘The consultant pulled me to one side and said they’d done X-rays and their lungs were half the size they should have been. Apart from that everything was OK but eventually we were told that Archie wasn’t doing very well and the kindest thing to do would be to turn the machines off.
‘We spent hours and hours with Archie. Zack was still OK at this point but when we took Archie down to the mortuary, Zack wasn’t doing well.
‘I was certain I couldn’t let this one go as well but the decision was pretty much out of our hands and the same thing happened. We had to sit by his cot and he was passed to us as they turned off the ventilator.’
Becky spent what should have been her first Christmas as a mum grieving for the babies she’d only got to spend a few precious hours with.
And once the festivities were over she and her family had to get through the funeral.
Her own experience helped her understand why she wanted to train to be an undertaker herself and she now works at Ruby Funerals, in Stoke Road, Gosport.
Shortly after Zack and Archie passed away, a close friend of Becky’s lost her son too.
And over the last nine years she’s been surprised by the number of families she’s met who have had to come to terms with the death of a baby or child.
So when people began asking her if she knew of any memorial services in the area aimed at families who’d been through an experience like hers, she decided to arrange something herself.
The non-denominational service will include readings, poems and songs. It will give people a chance to light a candle and say something if they want, as well as an opportunity to stick around at the end for a chat.
She wants the service to be as inclusive as possible and for anyone who wants to take time out from their Christmas preparations to remember someone special to them.
Now mum to Ellie, eight, Katie, three and Finlay, two, Becky has re-married. But there’s always a sadness – particularly at this time of year.
‘It would have been their birthday this week,’ says Becky.
‘I’ve gone on to have three perfect children and it has made me a much stronger person but I still get upset.
‘We talk about Archie and Zack all the time. I was on my own with Ellie for a long time. What happened pushed me and my husband apart and we separated nine months after she was born so it was just the two of us. I’d take her with me to the cemetery at Ann’s Hill and that was always something we did together.
‘We always put a mini Christmas tree on their grave and I go down on Christmas Day.
‘It’s always been open to Ellie, it’s part of our lives.
‘Losing children is one of the worst things anyone can ever go through. It put a strain on my relationship, on my life and on my family. It was really hard for them and had a massive impact on their lives.
‘If I can, I want to help families through that.’
She adds: ‘A lot of people haven’t had help. There are women who have only just started talking about it now. I’ve always been very lucky in that I’ve always been very open and can talk about my boys when I want. I was lucky to be able to spend some time with my boys, to give them a cuddle.
‘A service like this will give people a chance to light a candle for their loved one.’
If next Tuesday’s service strikes a chord with others it could become an annual opportunity for families across the area.
‘It is hard at this time of year and hopefully if it’s popular it will happen again.
‘I think it will help a lot of people. There’s a lot of people who’ve had babies in different parts of the country that don’t necessarily have a grave that they can go to.
‘Some people might just want to light a candle and then go. It’s nice to be able to help people to give them a service to remember.’
She adds: ‘When it first happened I didn’t know where to turn. I thought “Is this ever going to get better? How am I ever going to get over this?”
‘I don’t think you ever do completely get over it. But it really helps to know other peoples experiences.’
WHERE AND WHEN
The Christmas memorial service will take place next Tuesday at 6.30pm at Christ Church, in Stoke Road, Gosport.
Children are welcome to attend along with any family members and friends who want to join in.
Businesses from the local community have already been quick to lend their support.
Gosport’s Waitrose has supplied refreshments and Stanbury Chameleon printed the posters and flyers.
The QA chaplaincy service, as well as local representatives from the Sands charity plus the Miscarriage Association, have also been involved.
And Becky Dunning’s colleagues from Ruby Funerals have supported her every step of the way and will be there on the night.
Becky knows the death of a child can send shockwaves through the whole family and says that the service isn’t just for parents.
‘What happened really affected my mum,’ she explains. ‘She lost her first grandchildren and also had her grieving daughter to support. It was hard because she wanted to cry but had to be strong for me.
‘There’s a lot of people out there like that and that’s why it’s a family memorial service. Parents can come, grandparents, brothers and sisters as well as close friends of the family.
‘I want it to be a service for absolutely everyone. It’s for anyone who has lost a baby or a child and they feel like it would help them.’