When her baby died, Elle’s home took on a new significance. The Founder of award-winning blog, Feathering the Empty Nest, and author of the Sunday Times bestseller Ask Me His Name talks to Jessica Jonzen about how creating a calming sanctuary is helping her to heal.
ELLE WITH HER PUG, BORIS, IN HER GARDEN AT HOME IN SURREY. ELLE WEARS A JUMPER FROM HER COLLABORATION WITH SMITH WEBB, WHERE £5 FROM EVERY ‘HOPE’ JUMPER AND T-SHIRT GOES TO ‘TEDDY’S LEGACY’ WHICH RAISES MONEY FOR LITTLE ROO NEONATAL FUND. IMAGE: ELLE WRIGHT / INSTAGRAM
It’s the same for many of us when we’re expecting a baby. Our nesting instinct goes into overdrive, and heavily pregnant women around the world can often be found moving house, making tea for builders or painting walls in readiness for their new arrival.
In the Spring of 2016, Elle Wright and her husband, Nico, were reconfiguring the layout of their Victorian terraced house in Surrey to create a nursery for their baby. Elle, who worked in sales for L’Oreal, had had a straightforward pregnancy and was joyfully waved off by her colleagues a couple of weeks before her due date.
On 16 May, Elle gave birth to a beautiful little boy they named Teddy. After needing a little help breathing immediately after birth, Teddy seemed well. But during the night, Elle was shaken awake by a midwife telling her she needed to take Teddy as he was cold. He had stopped breathing and no one knew for how long. It took 18 minutes for him to be resuscitated.
Teddy was transferred to a specialist hospital where Elle and Nico were told that there was nothing that could be done for him. Teddy had a very rare metabolic condition called 3 methylglutaric aciduria (3MGA), which meant that everything was poisonous to him, even the air he breathed. Two days later, as Elle read him the children’s story Guess How Much I Love You, Teddy died peacefully surrounded by his family.
IMAGE: ELLE WRIGHT / INSTAGRAM
Returning to their home without their treasured and longed-for son was a cruel reminder of what Elle and Nico had lost. “I remember my husband taking the Moses basket which had been ready in our bedroom, the car seat and any baby paraphernalia and shoving it all into the nursery and shutting the door,” says Elle. “It just felt so surreal that we’d put all that love into it and then we couldn’t even look at it.”
The nursery door stayed shut, and Elle would see the shards of sunlight streaming through the crack and keyhole in its Victorian door. “All of that hope and anticipation and everything that I thought that my life was going to be was shut behind that door. I could almost see it taunting me, creeping through, and that was really hard to take.
I remember my husband taking the Moses basket, the car seat and any baby paraphernalia and shoving it all into the nursery and shutting the door. It just felt so surreal that we’d put all that love into it and then we couldn’t even look at it.”
“I remember one particular day seeing the light as I walked past and I thought ‘no, I’m not going to live like this, I’m not going to live feeling like I’ve had to shut all of that happiness away.’ So, I marched down the landing and flung the door open. I’ve never shut that door since.”
A few months after Elle and Nico lost Teddy, they fell pregnant again but tragically lost that baby at 15 weeks in January 2017. Two weeks later, Elle started her blog, Feathering the Empty Nest. “I thought ‘the universe is being an utter bastard to me and I need somewhere to vent,’” says Elle.
THE SITTING ROOM, HALLWAY AND SPARE BEDROOM IN ELLE’S HOME. “WHEN YOU’RE GOING THROUGH A DIFFICULT TIME, YOU NEED TO CALM A FRACTIOUS MIND AND FOR ME, THAT’S TO SURROUND MYSELF IN LIGHT, BRIGHT, CALM COLOURS WHICH MAKE ME FEEL HAPPY.” IMAGES: ELLE WRIGHT / INSTAGRAM
“I realised that I couldn’t be the only one who was having such catastrophic luck on that journey to motherhood. I was trying to find someone who spoke to me in the same kind of tone, perhaps with humour, and I couldn’t find it. I wanted somebody to say to me: ‘you feel like this now but in six months, eight months, two years’ time, you’re going to have a brilliant day and smile from the beginning to the end and you’re going to appreciate it more than you ever have done before.’”
Elle had immersed herself in her home, creating the bright, nurturing haven which she says calmed her fractious mind. In doing so, she had kept busy and learnt a lot of coping mechanisms. “My home really saved me and I thought if I could share what I’d learnt it might help one person and that could be wonderful, so that spurred me on to do it.”
The blog, and her Instagram account @feathering_the_empty_nest has touched people across the world as Elle has shared both the raw, messy reality of her grief along with the other parts of her life – her wonderful humour, love of her home and her gorgeous Pug, Boris. Unsurprisingly, a literary agent picked it up and after some persuasion, Elle wrote Ask Me His Name, which became a Sunday Times bestseller and came out in paperback earlier this month.
Its powerful title challenges the reader to move beyond the panicked, awkward silence that is so often the response to the death of a child. “I’ve found myself in so many situations where people have asked me if I have any children and I have to decide in that moment if I want to tell them or not, or whether I don’t have the energy that day, or whether they deserve that piece of me,” says Elle.
THE DINING TABLE, MADE BY ELLE’S HUSBAND NICO FROM RECLAIMED BOARDS; A SHOT OF THE MANTLEPIECE IN ELLE’S BEDROOM WITH A COPY OF HER BOOK ‘ASK ME HIS NAME’; ELLE SOURCES ANTIQUES FROM SUNBURY ANTIQUES MARKET AND THE COUNTRY BROCANTE AT COWDRAY PARK. IMAGES: ELLE WRIGHT / INSTAGRAM
“So often I would say ‘yes, I do, I have a son but he only lived for three days.’ Once you’ve made that leap of faith to tell somebody and then they don’t even say anything back to you, they change the subject as soon as possible, you think ‘why did I bother? Why did I put myself out there?’”
With both the book and the blog, Elle has opened up the conversation about grief, in all its raw, nuanced forms, and normalised it. “I think as a society we need to educate and equip ourselves a little bit better so that when we ask someone if they have children, we are prepared for any answer that we might get – not the typical yes or no answer,” she says. “I wanted a title for the book that would really hold the reader’s hand and encourage them to continue that conversation and know that it doesn’t have to stop with ‘I’m so sorry.’”
My home really saved me and I thought if I could share what I’d learnt it might help one person and that could be wonderful, so that spurred me on to write the blog.”
Although Elle and Nico packed away the pram and the Moses basket, the rest of Teddy’s room has stayed the same. “We hope to have more children. It’s the sunniest and happiest room in the whole house and I just can’t do it yet. Maybe if I get 10 years down the line and it hasn’t happened for us then I will. I’ve had lots of people message me to ask if I think it’s healthy to keep his room as it was. My response to that is, ‘have you lost a child? If or when you have, come back and tell me what’s normal.’ If you haven’t been in that boat, how can you possibly say what’s normal and healthy? Grieving isn’t linear, it isn’t the same for everybody. We are all so different.”
Elle’s home has become her sanctuary in a way she never expected it to and they have recently started their long-awaited kitchen extension. “We’re currently the least popular people on the street because of the noise and lorries so we’re about as popular as the Brexit negotiations right now” she says.
ELLE WEARING A SPECIAL EDITION ‘STRONG GIRLS CLUB’ T-SHIRT WHICH SHE COLLABORATED ON WITH MUTHA HOOD TO RAISE MONEY FOR TOMMY’S THE BABY CHARITY.
After much deliberation about what to choose for the kitchen, Elle has stayed true to her tastes and has opted for a light, bright shaker-style kitchen. “I’ve seen loads of these bold, dark very industrial-looking kitchens and while I think they look amazing, I can’t help but think that if I did something like that in a year or so I’d hate it. It’s so easy to make a decision based on something you’ve seen on Instagram but you need to choose what you love.”
After the emotion of writing and promoting Ask Me His Name, Elle is focusing on managing the extension. “I’m slowing down a little bit. To be truthful, we’ve been going through fertility treatment and it kind of takes over your life – it’s been a bit like running a marathon through treacle, so we’re just taking some time to go through all of that” she says.
It’s been incredible, but if I could take it all away and just be a normal mummy at home and nobody know who I am or who Teddy was because we were just at playgroup, that would be wonderful but it’s not the way,”
“If someone had said to me two years ago when I’d lost that second baby and was in the throes of starting my little blog that in two years’ time I would have written a Sunday Times bestselling book, raised more than £100,000 for charity and won the Tommy’s Mum’s Voice award, I would have thought they were mad. But it’s amazing what happens when you’re not planning for it. It’s been the most bittersweet time of my life,” says Elle.
“It’s been incredible and surpassed every expectation I could have dreamt of. But if I could take it all away and just be a normal mummy at home and nobody know who I am or who Teddy was because we were just at playgroup, that would be wonderful but it’s not the way,” she says. “Sometimes when life throws your cards up in the air you have to think ‘well, this isn’t how I planned it, but I have to do something different. There is always hope.’”
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