The day after Jessica’s funeral, we attended the Little Hearts Matter memorial service at the National Memorial Arboretum. Six months on from the last day of her life, we returned for the Little Hearts Matter autumn memorial walk.
For us, the day was about having space to remember Jessica and our beautiful memories of her, and to be able to talk with other bereaved heart parents and share memories of our children. This is the part of the heart family community that none of us want to join, but it is a wonderfully supportive community. These are the families who walk similar journeys to the one we walk. To know that we are not alone, that there are others who understand, helps so much.
We were greeted at the entrance to the Arboretum by one of the volunteers. She took us to the marquee where there were refreshments and a craft table set up ready for decorating paper hearts.
Sophie enjoyed decorating a paper heart for Jessica with coloured glitter. She insisted on using as many different colours of glitter as possible on her heart. There was quite a lot of glitter on the table afterwards, so she put glue on another paper heart and used it to pick up glitter from the table. It made another pretty heart for her to hang on the Little Hearts Matter tree.
Once the children had finished decorating their hearts, we were taken in small groups on a guided walk around the Arboretum. It was interesting to hear more about some of the memorials we passed and some of the stories connected with them.
We found the SANDS garden very moving. The centre of the garden represents the SANDS logo – the sleeping baby in middle of an eye with a single teardrop below it. There were flowers and a balloon next to the sculpture of the baby which had been left there during Baby Loss Awareness Week. Around the edges of the garden are painted pebbles – each in memory of a little one who gained their wings too soon. It broke my heart seeing so many pebbles, especially where there were multiple pebbles from the same family.
After visiting the SANDS garden, we stopped for a few moments at the sensory playground. Sophie loved the bannister slide and was very quick at skidding down it! She enjoyed it so much that she went on it again and again until it was time to move on.
I loved the vintage postboxes that made up the Postal Workers memorial. There is a green Victorian postbox surrounded by painted pebbles in the centre. There was no gold postbox though!
The Gift of Life memorial was one of my favourites on our last visit. This memorial, a colourful butterfly resting on a forget-me-not, is dedicated to the memory of organ donors. We would have liked to have donated Jessica’s organs after she died but were unable to do so. I still feel sad that we weren’t able to help others in this way.
We had now reached the Children’s Wood where the Little Hearts Matter tree and bench are. Sitting on Daddy’s shoulders, Sophie was the perfect height to hang her paper hearts in the tree.
After Sophie had hung her hearts in the tree, Ian from Little Hearts Matter helped her to plant some spring bulbs around the bench. It was nice to chat to Ian and to hear that the two books I created based on Jessica’s book helping to prepare her for her last heart surgery were proving popular. It’s lovely to know that her story continues to help other families.
The next part of our walk took us along the river Tame. I loved the information boards showing the different animals that live around the Arboretum, and pictures of different leaves to identify. We didn’t spot any of the animals along the way, but Sophie enjoyed looking at the pictures. She also had fun splashing in all the puddles!
Some of the memorials were more interesting for the children to look out for. The Railway Industry memorial with a granite model of a train was one of these. On the back of the memorial is a montage of images representing the railway industry.
The winged Pegasus on top of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces National Memorial also attracted Sophie’s attention. She was happy to pose with the paratrooper at the base of the memorial and let Mummy take a photo.
The carousel horse at The Showman’s Guild memorial was better still as far as Sophie was concerned. She loved being able to sit on the horse. Next to the horse is a roll of honour. This shows the names of Guild members who died during the First and Second World Wars.
I found the Shot at Dawn memorial very moving. The trees represent the firing squad and the posts behind the blindfolded soldier are each in memory of a soldier who was executed. It is so sad to think of these men, many of whom were still really just boys, being shot when many of them were just terrified and traumatised.
The final part of our walk back to the marquee took us through “The Beat” – an avenue of chestnut trees, each dedicated to an individual police force. Sophie couldn’t resist collecting a branch along the way. She insisted on bringing it back to the marquee. Thankfully, she didn’t end up wanting to take it home!
Back at the marquee we hung up a photo of Jessica and had lunch. Thomas had slept in the sling for the whole walk. He woke up when we got back to the marquee ready for a feed!
After lunch, Sophie decorated a couple of flags for the Flags for the Fallen installation. This is an outdoor art installation to remember soldiers who fell during the First World War. The area where the flags are planted is marked out as a map of the UK with signposts marking the different regions. There are also areas marked out around the UK map to represent other countries.
It felt appropriate to spend this milestone on our grief journey doing something special to remember Jessica. As well as being six months exactly from Jessica’s last day, it was also the 18th anniversary of me and hubby getting together. Our “coming-of-age” anniversary. This journey that we are on together has been very different from how I imagined it might be, but I am thankful to be doing it with such a wonderful man by my side and to have been blessed with three wonderful children. It was lovely to spend family time together remembering our big girl who is always so very loved and missed.
Visiting the National Memorial Arboretum – what you need to know:
The National Memorial Arboretum
There is a large pay and display car park.
The National Memorial Arboretum is open every day (except Christmas Day) 9am – 5pm (or dusk in the winter). Entry to the Arboretum is free, but donations are welcomed. For more details, click here.