“My sons lost three brothers who they never met, then they faced the grief of their dad dying.”

Video by ABC

Warning: This post deals with themes of loss and death and may be triggering for some readers. 

My living sons Owen (nine) and Harvey (seven) have grown up knowing about their three prematurely born triplet brothers, Henry, Jasper and Evan, who came before them.

Both boys will tell you without any hesitation that they have four brothers. Henry, Jasper and Evan are a part of our everyday conversations as a family. Harvey often comments on the would-be logistics of all of us living under the same roof. He often speculates on who would share a room with whom, or who would sit where at the dining room table.

Drawings of our family always include all five siblings and birthdays for each brother are eagerly anticipated and counted down. Visits to the cemetery these days are usually fun; there are toys on Henry, Jasper and Evan’s graves and there is no taboo around conversations about death. Questions that may be confronting to adults are not off limits for Owen and Harvey.

And we’re off! WA adventure here we come…

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‘Are their bodies now skeletons? Are animals eating them?’ they ask.

While they talk about the triplet’s physical bodies’ decaying, they always talk about their full spiritual lives in Heaven. Cards are drawn and written for them on special days, and discussions held about how they were so tiny when they died but are now nearly twelve years old. The triplets are Owen and Harvey’s big brothers who will always be their baby brothers.

They’ll often ask me to tell them stories of their brothers’ lives. They love the story of when Jasper opened his eyes for the first time, or when their dad played a game with Evan called ‘If you love me wiggle your toes’. They love to hear about the day the West Coast Eagles won the AFL Grand Final and Jasper’s humidicrib was decorated in the team colours. My living sons also want to hear the stories of the triplets’ deaths, and hear how heartbroken their mum and dad were. When he was younger Owen used to talk about how sad he was when his brothers died, as if he too shared in that time with us.

While this grief and loss have always been a part of Owen and Harvey’s lives, so too has the quest to turn our tragedy into something positive through the charity we started in the triplets’ memory.

It was Ash’s idea to start running to raise money for the hospital that cared for our tiny boys. It was a way of doing something pro-active to remember them, and is something that has evolved to a fully-fledged, registered charity. The Running for Premature Babies Foundation (RFPB) has so far raised $2.5 million for the Royal Hospital for Women Foundation and is now supporting other hospitals too, with a vision to grow to support NICUs Australia wide to give premature babies a better chance of survival.

The charity is a big part of our lives; Owen now runs on the RFPB team every year in the SMH Half Marathon and both boys participate with their friends in our annual RFPB Kids Fun Run on Jasper and Evan’s birthday. It’s a huge party to celebrate not only the triplets’ lives, but all prematurely born children, living and lost, and to raise awareness of premature birth while raising more funds for life-saving equipment. Owen summed up the work of the charity in helping other premature babies to live when he said, ‘I’m very proud of my brothers’.

What do you say to someone who’s lost a baby? Holly Wainwright and Andrew Daddo speak to Bec Sparrow, about what we could possibly say to a mother who’s lost a child. Post continues after audio.

As well as growing up with loss of their brothers who they never met, Owen and Harvey have once again faced grief and loss at a young age, through the tragic death of their beloved dad Ash. Ash was diagnosed with brain cancer when Owen was only six months old, and we always attended doctors’ appointments together as a family. From the very beginning when Owen was a cute bouncing baby on Ash’s lap Ash always wanted to bring his little boy to appointments to show his doctors what it was he was fighting for. A few years later we had baby Harvey in tow as well as our now precocious three year old.

Words like ‘chemotherapy’, ‘radiotherapy’, ‘surgery’ and finally ‘palliative care’, became part of our boys’ vocabulary. They judged their dad’s current state of health on his ability to throw them on the bed. It was a game they loved, with their dad lifting them up and throwing them so they came crashing down on the bed, full of squeals of delight and laughter. But they knew it was only possible to play when Daddy was well enough. In the weeks and months following surgery, or during chemo, they would wait patiently, often asking ‘Can you throw us on the bed yet Daddy?’ When his cancer eventually took over and Ash was in his final decline I had to tell Owen and Harvey that unfortunately this time Daddy wasn’t going to get better. They were incredulous.

‘What?! Daddy’s going to be sick FOREVER?’

And then one day Owen asked me, ‘Mummy, would you rather be sick forever, or dead?’ It was the first time any talk of death was raised, and Owen was devastated when he learned that his dad was actually going to die.

Walking together as a family through those last few weeks of Ash’s life was strangely beautiful. We were able to care for him ourselves at home, with the help of some wonderful friends and family, and so the boys were not shielded from his decline. I am forever grateful that we had this time together, and that the boys were able to be around their dad and care for him. Countless hours were spent together colouring-in, playing simple board games or just cuddling up in Ash’s bed and watching cartoons. As part of his homework recently Harvey had to write a sentence about a time he made someone happy. Harvey wrote, ‘I made my dad happy when I lay in his hospital bed’.

And when the time did come and Ash died, I’m grateful I didn’t arrange for our boys to be taken away or shielded from the truth. When they wanted to visit their dad’s body at the funeral parlour and the funeral attendant told Owen ‘He’s in the coffin’, Owen, aged seven, corrected her. ‘You mean “it’s” in the coffin. That’s my dad’s body and it’s an “it”. My dad’s in Heaven.’

Owen and Harvey are clear about where Ash is. He’s in Heaven with their brothers and it’s where we will one day all be reunited. In the meantime their brothers’ legacy helps other sick and premature babies to live, and Ash watches over all of us, giving us the strength to live our lives fully, with love and joy.

Sophie's Boys
Image: Instagram.

Sophie Smith is the co-author of Sophie’s Boys. Available 10 April, $32.99. For more information on the Running for Premature Babies team click here

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