Saturday 19 August 2017

'My hope is that others will find this book useful'

A family tragedy, the stillbirth of a daughter, has inspired a new book and video, which aims to help children come to terms with such loss, writes Anna Coogan

Illustrations from Louis Hemmings author of Goodbye Au Revoir Slan.
Illustrations from Louis Hemmings author of Goodbye Au Revoir Slan.
Louis Hemmings
Anna Coogan

Anna Coogan

LOUIS Hemmings and his wife Liz were doing their best to get their first-born son Lawrence ready for the arrival of a new sibling, encouraging the toddler to kiss his mum's protruding belly and talk to the new baby.

The stillbirth of their daughter, Holly, left Louis and Liz with the added pain of having to explain to Lawrence, after months of building up the three-and-a-half-year-old for a new addition to the family, that they would not be bringing a baby home.

Now, to mark the 21 years after Holly's stillbirth on April 1, 1993, Louis, a poet and bookseller, has published a small book which tells the story of a stillbirth from the point of view of a small child.

"My hope is that other parents going through something similar, and having to explain to a young child that there will be no baby coming home, will find this book useful," says Louis, who admits that, to this day, he cries when he reads stories in newspapers about stillbirths.

Put together at his home and work base in Blackrock, the book, Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan ... is a slim, graphic novel which is written in the voice of a young boy watching and waiting for the birth of a sibling, and records his reactions to the funeral of his sister who was stillborn, and how his life changes when his younger brother, Luke, is born.

"A lot is made of preparing a child for getting a new brother and sister, and then, when you have to tell them that there is no baby coming home for them to hug, it's incredibly hard," Louis says.

"This book can be read aloud to a child in these circumstances or, if they are of reading age, it's easy for them to understand, and the graphics are very simple for them to follow," he says.

Lawrence – who inspired the book – is today aged 25 and works as a marine scientist for the London Zoological Society, while younger brother Luke is aged 20 and is studying Korean at Preston University.

The book has a Christian overtone, and refers to the Bible and Jesus, and reflects the fact that Louis and his wife Liz are evangelical Christians. They met while they were both members of a non-denominational church in Dun Laoghaire, and today are active members of the Church of Ireland at Kill O' The Grange.

Testament to how our lives are lived as much in our minds and our hearts as our daily routines, Holly lived large in the family's life during her brothers' younger lives. "We had a birthday cake for Holly on the first of April every year when the boys were younger," says Louis of keeping his daughter's memory alive.

"We talked about her a lot so the boys were always aware of their sister. I like to think that when I meet her again, she will still be a child, a cheerful bubbly child," he says.

"Lawrence has a scientific mind, as you can tell by his career, and doesn't seem to be affected now. When he was younger, he spent a lot of time planting daffodils and other flowers on Holly's grave with his mum. At the time, he told me we would see Holly again when Jesus returned, which I found very comforting.

"Luke is more emotional. He went through a grieving period for his sister when he was around three years old, even though he hadn't been born when she was stillborn. At one point, when he was growing up, he had a henna tattoo of her birth date on his wrist," Louis says.

Holly's stillbirth remains unexplained. Louis and Liz were told the baby had no heartbeat at the 37 weeks stage of pregnancy. Ten days later, Liz went into labour, and Holly was stillborn.

There is a video version of the book, which has been endorsed by the makers of a new movie, Return to Zero, in which English actress Minnie Driver stars as part of a young successful couple whose baby is stillborn. The video of Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan ... will be included as an add-on to the DVD of the movie.

"I sent the video to every stillbirth site in the UK and America, and anywhere I could, and it was seen by the producers who contacted me and asked for permission to use it and, of course, I said 'yes'," Louis says.

On Holly's 21st birthday on April 1, Louis – who sells theology books online and whose last book of poetry was titled First Kisses – and Liz visited their daughter's grave and discussed erecting a new headstone.

Louis says, "I don't like the expression used when a baby dies that they are 'an angel in heaven'. When you read the Bible, an angel has a specific purpose and a baby is a person.

"Holly shaped our family, and she has helped us to share our faith, and to value our lives."

Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan ... is available in Footprints on Talbot Street, and Raven Books in Blackrock, priced at €5. It's available for €6 including postage from www.louishemmings.com

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