Steven Park has vowed to treat his girls to the dream Christmas their mum would have given them
The three baby girls dressed in their cute festive pyjamas sitting on the laps of Rachel and Steven Park represented sheer joy for their besotted parents.
The couple were frazzled but happily dressed their triplets up for pictures last Christmas because it marked a new beginning for the family.
Poppie, Mollie and Evelyn, born 14 weeks prematurely in March last year with a combined birth weight of just 5lb 2oz, were finally home following a long battle for life… and what better time of year for a homecoming?
At the time, relieved Rachel said: “It is unbelievable, we never imagined all three getting to Christmas, let alone being home.”
In fact, she revealed they had initially almost lost hope of having children at all. Their girls followed four rounds of IVF. So it was a true Christmas miracle.
But then came an incomprehensible tragedy. Rachel, just 39, died suddenly just hours after putting her babies to bed on Boxing Day.
Devastated Steven later learned his wife had suffered what the coroner termed a “cardiac event” – a heart attack – with no definitive cause found.
This Christmas, Steven is talking publicly for the first time about his loss and, as a widower at just 38, he poses alone with his 21-month-old daughters.
This has been a year from hell for him and he admits that Christmas will be incredibly painful.
Yet the inspirational dad says he is determined to give his girls the celebration Rachel would want for them.
“Doing nothing this Christmas is not an option,” he says, firmly. “Rachel always made such a big thing of Christmas, she put so much effort into making sure it was a good one.
“To honour her I have to make sure the girls have the magical time Rachel would have given them.
“I find myself consulting Rachel about what she would want, what she would buy them. I have bought them a Wendy house, it’s so sparkly, Rachel would have loved that.”
His voice wavering, he remembers how last year his life was totally different. “We were so looking forward to bringing the girls home, to being a family,” he says.
“Rachel bought Christmas baubles for the babies’ first Christmas, she already had one for the bumps’ first Christmas. This year I’m putting them on our tree as she would have done.”
He adds, gently: “She’d also bought one in memory of her mum, who died in 2003 – that feels more poignant now.”
He says the girls were Rachel’s world. “She called them her ‘three little ladies’… how much they were wanted, how much they were loved, how much they meant to her,” he says.
“I get angry. She fought so hard to be a mother. She has been robbed of that, the girls have been robbed of Rachel.
“I see her in them all. When I watch Mollie try to walk, she has her mum’s determination to succeed. If she falls and bumps her head, she gets up.”
He whispers: “It is hard to see but it is Rachel’s legacy. It is what she has left us – it is what we have left…” He recalls their final days as a family last Christmas with an air of disbelief.
Following months of health scares in hospital, all three of their babies were finally home.
“It had been hectic but so nice,” he says. “Rachel was the happiest I had seen her for a long time.
“On the 22nd we went to the Christmas markets and she pushed the big pram around. On Christmas Eve she went shopping; Boxing Day she was up at 5am for the sales. In the evening we watched a film and went to bed – it was normal. Rachel and I had done the girls’ bottles and bath. She had sung to them, Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells.”
At 2.30am on December 27, Rachel’s dad, who was staying at the home, went downstairs to let the dog out and found Rachel on the sofa.
“He called me, she wasn’t breathing. I started CPR and I went on for 20 minutes. At 2.50am the paramedics arrived. They pronounced her dead.
“It felt like a haze, a fog, a dream,” Steven repeats, grappling to find the right words. Just hours later, the babies were taken to hospital to give space to Steven, who was in debilitating shock. “I couldn’t process anything,” he explains. On New Year’s Day, the tots returned and with a lot of help from his parents, Rachel’s father and NHS carers, Steven just got through.
“I was grieving but I knew I needed to look after them. They were part of Rachel,” he says. “I tried to focus on their routine and to do what Rachel would have wanted me to do.
“It felt to me they cried more afterwards, that they missed her.” The coroner’s results barely made sense to Steven. “She suffered a blood clot to the main artery to the heart,” he says. Rachel had diabetes and Steven explains: “That can make you more at risk of a heart attack but not usually someone so young. Because of that she had been monitored so closely during her pregnancy but there had
been nothing found to indicate a problem.”
Rachel suffered pre-eclampsia – high blood pressure – and bleeding, before the triplets’ premature birth but that has not been linked.
Ever since her death, Steven has been struggling to make sense of it, to mourn and to balance those challenges with the care his girls need.
Most of all, he fears getting the balance wrong, he says, at home in Whitehaven, Cumbria, where photos of Rachel’s smiling face are everywhere.
He cries as he points to one photo on a ledge in the conservatory, which the babies are “drawn to”. It is a picture of Rachel surrounded by friends. “They always make a beeline for that,” he says.
His grief is still raw. He explains: “It just comes over you like a black cloud, a switch flicks and there is no control, like a tsunami it hits you and you have to ride it, and sometimes that happens when I am with the girls.
“I try not to get upset around them but sometimes it is unavoidable.”
Celebrating the triplets’ first birthday this year was exceptionally hard. Rachel had already picked out the pink tutus she wanted them to wear.
“She wanted a big fuss, with everyone there. So that’s exactly what we did,” he says. In April, Steven returned to work as a chef and is able to pay for the girls’ care, alongside the help his family gives, thanks to generous fundraisers.
Poppy and Evelyn have had to be fed via nasal gas tubes, which give them a special type of milk, because of an issue with reflux. But Steven was delighted to hear they should both be coming off the tubes early in the New Year.
He praises Cruse Bereavement Care and WAY, a group for young widows and widowers. The Rainbow Trust children’s charity has sent volunteers, and TAMBA, The Twins and Multiple Births Association, has also been invaluable.
“It does help to realise there are other people in this position,” he says.
Most of all, he is determined his girls will know their mummy. They each have a teddy made from Rachel’s clothes.
This Christmas they will be able to play with the baubles she so lovingly bought for them and there are photos all over the nursery.
“When I put them to bed I stop for a second and point and say, ‘That’s your mum,’” Steven says, softly.
For help caring for twins and triplets visit www.tamba.org.uk
WAY: Widowed and Young can be found at www.widowedandyoung.org.uk