There are no words in the English language to capture the devastating and utterly bleak grief that envelops you when your child dies.
The only way I can describe it is by saying it felt as if I had been dropped in an impenetrable forest – one that was closer to an underworld than anything I recognised from life. There was no light and I was alone, but I knew it was my responsibility to find my way to the other side.
My daughter Maude died in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2011. She was just two years old. The evening before, my husband [the actor Jason Watkins] and I had taken her to A&E because what we thought was a cold had suddenly got much worse, and she was having trouble breathing.
We were told it was croup and, despite our misgivings, were discharged. The next morning, her sister Bessie came into our room and said, “I can’t wake Maude.”
She had died of undiagnosed sepsis. The doctors hadn’t spotted it, but in those wild, grief-stricken weeks and months afterwards I felt like the worst person in the world because I had done the unthinkable – I hadn’t kept my daughter alive.
I now understand that it wasn’t my fault, but the aftermath of her death will always be a black blur of desperate sadness mixed with this terrible guilt. My life stopped. I have had many jobs – primarily, I’m an actress but I switched careers in my mid-30s and started a successful jewellery business. The beadwork I made was so intricate that it was almost meditative.
But after Maude died, I couldn’t work. I couldn’t concentrate or focus on anything other than my grief, and I envied Jason who could leave the house and – through his acting jobs – become somebody else whose child hadn’t died.
Instead, I sat on the sofa and watched television – the more mindless the better. I had a circle of friends who had a rota so I was never alone, but work was impossible as it meant being by myself, and I couldn’t bear that. One day, I tried to design something small, but all I could see on the desk was a puddle of my tears. I wondered who I was if I could never be creative again.
I had also stopped looking like myself. I have always bought and worn vintage dresses and even when I was a little girl, my mum would dress me in Liberty prints. Throughout drama school, when everyone else was in tracksuits, I wore the prettiest dresses I could find.
When Maude died, it became very difficult for me to get up and put on clothes and make-up; it all felt frivolous and stupid, and I was embarrassed I had ever cared so much about how I looked. In those initial fraught weeks, my best friend Emma would take out Bessie – who was only four – and one day she called me to say that my poor little girl was confused because I looked so different.
Before they came home that afternoon, I put on a dress and some mascara (which felt counterintuitive as I was just going to cry it off) but I felt a tiny per cent better. Every day after that, I wore a dress. I initially did it for Bessie, but in a way, she saved me.
Putting your life even half back together when your child dies is a cruelly slow process. It’s never going to be all right again, but there are incremental shifts in mood, and suddenly after six months you realise you can listen to music or speak on the phone. I slowly started designing again and the first time I lost myself in my work, it felt like the most wonderful respite.
One day, a few years after Maude died, a customer came over to buy some jewellery. She designed clothes but when she saw my beadwork, she asked if I could teach her. I had always wanted to make vintage-style dresses – mostly to save me spending so much time in charity shops or on eBay – and so we did a skills swap.
In her house, fuelled by cups of tea and conversations about grief, I started making dresses, and one of them became what is now our bestseller, the Clara. It’s a simple style – not precious or designed to be saved for best, it has one zip, no dingly dangly bits and pockets. But it is pretty, and I would wear it out and people would stop me on the street and say how much they loved it.
In 2019, my friend Tania [Hindmarch] and I decided to start a fashion brand selling these vintage-inspired designs. We called it O Pioneers, after the Walt Whitman poem, and also because I loved the sound and rounded shape of the O. We spent six months sourcing fabrics and finding the perfect patterns, and because we didn’t have any investment, we put in £3,000 each and built it ourselves from the ground up.
I can’t say it’s not stressful because it is, but it has been such an unexpected joy to start a completely new career in my mid-40s. We launched in 2019, and to our surprise, the brand took off over Covid, and when Net-a-Porter came calling, we couldn’t quite believe it. When you lose a child, you lose your confidence as a person. Everything is shattered, so people having faith in you feels transformative.
I’ve also realised that when the worst thing happens, you lose some of your fear – particularly in a business context. I don’t care about looking like a fool, but I do care about people being kind – and occasionally someone rude will come into the shop we opened in Marylebone, and I find I am unable to interact with them. Maybe I am thinner-skinned than I used to be, or maybe going through something so cataclysmic has made me brave enough to stand my ground.
My dresses remain, for me, a symbol of hope. I have worked with child bereavement charities since Maude died and when our groups get together, people will often ask what I’m wearing.
I know that the first time I joined one during those terrible early weeks, seeing people who were five or 10 years on from their child’s death – dressed and with make-up on – felt profound, because it showed they could function. I want people who are in that stage now to see I am surviving and living a life; making tea and wearing a lovely dress.
In that spirit, last year, Jason and I decided to make a documentary about Maude. We wanted to not only raise awareness of sepsis, but to share the story of our joyful little girl, and to talk about child bereavement, which is something people are often afraid to discuss. Initially, they wanted Jason to make it, but that felt wrong.
As the non-famous person in a couple, I’m sometimes sidelined – but she was my daughter too, and I knew we needed to tell her story as a family. While we were shooting, I wore my designs and I have been delighted to hear that some people found my colourful dresses an uplifting counterpoint to our grief.
In the days since it was released, I felt an initial thrill – it was as if she was out in the world again, with people saying her name and knowing what she looked like. But that didn’t stop me waking up one morning and realising that all the documentaries in the world couldn’t stop her from being dead.
Still, making it will allow other people to see Maude for who she was – our happy, sweet-natured, lovely and joyful child.
As told to Melissa Twigg
‘Jason & Clara: In Memory of Maudie’ is available on ITV