The donation operation took less time than we thought, only about two hours, so we were able to see Abi by around lunchtime.
The nurse caring for her took us to a quieter part of the hospital. This was the Rainbow Room. It’s a bedroom-style room, decorated with children in mind – some bright colours and teddies, but not over the top. It was a nicer prospect than seeing her in a more ‘clinical’ room.
The nurse explained that Abi had been washed and that she’d plaited her hair. I truly felt she had cared for her just as I would. She reassured us that she looked lovely. We were nervous again, only in a different way. The anxiety of the ICU seemed to have dulled, but the prospect of seeing her ‘truly’ departed was daunting to say the least. I could barely even look at a dead bird in the road, let alone my own precious child.
I was relieved that on entering the Rainbow Room we were shown immediately into a side room with a sofa. This room had an open door leading into the bedroom where Abi rested. This made things that much easier for us as we were able to collect our thoughts and view Abi from a distance before approaching her. I can imagine the mixed emotions people must feel at this stage.
But, as I looked through the door, I simply saw our lovely daughter asleep. The atmosphere was so serene and calm. We felt no qualms about being close to her. She was naturally very still, but looked to be in a deep sleep. She had jaundice (a result of the operation) so her skin was tinged yellow but despite that she looked peaceful, without trauma of any kind. The nurse had tucked her up in bed, with all the teddies she’d spent time with, but the most remarkable thing of all was that she was smiling!
Abigail – a happy, life-loving daughter, relative, friend – had the most serene smile with an element of cheekiness on her face. She looked as though she was having the most wonderful dream, or was pretending to be asleep and trying not to giggle.
Far from the distress of seeing my beautiful girl this way, I cannot emphasise enough the intense certainty I felt at that point knowing that she was truly in heaven. I knew that everything was okay now for her, that everything we’d done (the organ donation, the baptism) had all been so right. It was her way of sending a comforting message to us.
How she went from her coma state through death and then to smiling is beyond me, but it was so powerful an image that we took photos of her. Taking photos at various stages is something I’ll never regret. As well as being able to share this moment with her siblings (when they were ready), I need to remind myself of her serenity at this point quite often to know that I didn’t dream it. Every time I look at the images I feel a different emotion. Death is undeniably hard, it’s heartbreaking, terrifying, humbling, shocking, but it’s also very real. No one can escape death but we can learn a huge amount from it… about our life, our faith and ourselves.
My faith in God – which I had ignored for many years for various reasons – came rushing back to me on seeing Abi. I felt that Jesus was with me once again (not that he’d ever ‘left’ me), letting me know that he is looking after Abi now. This may seem a rather ‘radical’ thing for me to say, but on seeing Abi I simply couldn’t deny what I have known to be true all my life. I don’t know why I know it, I just do, it’s just that I’m not challenging it anymore.
A new chaplain visited us and we said the prayers of committal. We took some time together to talk about Abi before she left; we found we were keen to tell others about how special our daughter was, how much she had to offer, how missed she would be.
We spent some more quiet time with her. We were nervous about touching her, she felt so cold, but she looked beautiful as though nothing had happened. I gingerly kissed the top of her head, feeling the coolness of her against my lips. My eyes played tricks on me as I imagined I could see her chest slowly rise and fall, I kept having to blink to remind myself that couldn’t be possible.
One of the donation surgeons arrived to update us on the operation and she remarked how the entire surgical team were stunned by Abi’s heartbreakingly beautiful expression – she had tears in her eyes, sharing our grief at this awful tragedy. Strangely, we didn’t cry ourselves during this time. Perhaps the stress of Abi’s passing had taken it out of us, but we were almost relaxed in her company. The intensely terrible time was over… but we knew only too well that we had the ongoing grief to come once the shock had waned.
Abi was always smiling, and even though my heart is breaking and my grief overwhelms me, I know she will be smiling for all eternity…