CHLOE Print-Lambert gently touched her baby son's white coffin and wiped away tears as she bid him farewell in the silent, near-empty crematorium.
It was a devastating moment for the 24-year-old – made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that most of her family and friends were missing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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Chloe, from Warwickshire, had hoped to give her beautiful boy Samuel the "perfect" big funeral after he was stillborn at 21 weeks last month, weighing the same as a can of Coke.
Yet after the COVID-19 outbreak sparked health fears and rules on social distancing, she and her partner Jordan Mansfield were forced to lay their child to rest in front of only 11 loved ones.
"It was unfathomably devastating to not be able to share our son's funeral with all our loved ones," Chloe tells Sun Online. "It was the only chance we'd ever get to give him the perfect service."
Incredibly, having already endured every parent's worst nightmare, the grieving couple were then told they couldn't touch the container holding Samuel's ashes for at least 24 hours.
"It was because the virus can live on surfaces," adds the mum. "It was so surreal to be told, 'Don't touch the bag the ashes are in', when it was sat a stone's throw away from us."
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Funeral numbers slashed
Chloe and Jordan, 29, are among a soaring number of Brits facing strict restrictions on funeral numbers in a bid to tackle coronavirus, which has so far killed 433 people in the UK.
And the situation was particularly gut-wrenching for the couple because Samuel was the second child they had to lay to rest, after their daughter Emma was also stillborn, in 2017.
"For Emma’s celebrations, we had 80 people," Chloe tells us.
"We couldn't give Samuel the same as his sister. That hit us hard because you want the best for your children. We weren’t even allowed to have a wake after the funeral."
Years of grief
The couple, who live in Stratford-upon-Avon, met five years ago, when Jordan's family donated money towards a campaign to make Chloe's home wheelchair-accessible.
Chloe suffers from intestinal failure and the genetic condition Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) – which affects connective tissues and means she's reliant on machinery to survive.
She had been told she couldn't have children – yet in 2016, she discovered she'd suffered a miscarriage. It was an upsetting ordeal – yet also made her realise she could conceive a child.
In early 2017, Chloe was delighted to fall pregnant with Emma.
Yet tragically, shortly after her 20-week scan, her daughter passed away in the womb due to a rare brain anomaly. She was delivered that July, weighing just 380 grams.
"We were told we could try again – and that there was a less than one per cent chance of the same anomaly occurring with another pregnancy," Chloe recalls.
In 2018, the couple endured two more miscarriages.
'Feeling him kick was a huge comfort'
Then, in October last year, they found out they were expecting Samuel.
"I was absolutely petrified, obviously," says Chloe.
"I was convinced at every scan that he’d have no heartbeat, but week after week he was fine. Then I started feeling him kick, which was a huge comfort."
More gut-wrenching news
But heartbreakingly, at a later scan, the couple discovered their son had the same condition as his big sister had – which meant he had "no real brain function".
"We unfortunately were that one per cent," adds the mum.
Unwilling to terminate the son they'd fought so hard to have, Chloe and Jordan sat on their bed and begged their unborn child: "Please Samuel, make the decision for us."
"The next morning I woke up and I never felt him kick again," Chloe says.
"That night, when we’d gone to bed, he had gone.”
She adds: "We went into hospital the following week – we didn’t rush in – and they confirmed it. I was induced and Samuel was born in the room next door to where I had his sister."
Samuel was delivered on February 11, weighing 400 grams.
"There’s something incredible about giving birth to a baby who is stillborn," recalls Chloe.
"You have the same birth as other mums and, once the baby is born, you kick in to parent-mode.
"It’s like this strange sense of calm. It’s still really beautiful."
The proud parents spent a precious two days at University Hospital Coventry in Walsgrave with their son, reading him books, playing music and "showing him the sunrise".
There’s something incredible about giving birth to a baby who is stillborn… it’s like this strange sense of calm. It’s still really beautiful
The infant was later transferred to Birmingham for a post-mortem, before returning to the Coventry hospital, where he was supposed to be picked up by a Stratford funeral home.
Yet a week after the scheduled pick-up, he remained at the hospital – as COVID-19 began to make headlines across the world, infecting more than 428,000 and killing over 19,000.
"They said he was still in hospital because of coronavirus," says Chloe.
"I did go a bit mad about it."
Loved ones forced to stay away
Finally, on March 17, Samuel was transferred to the funeral home.
But his parents' relief soon turned to panic about his funeral service, as vulnerable and symptomatic Brits started being told to self-isolate at home to avoid being exposed to the virus.
For Chloe and Jordan, this included many close family and friends. While some – including both of their nans – were elderly, others had health conditions or worked in key job roles.
"It suddenly hit us – there was going to be next to no-one for the funeral," says Chloe.
'We filmed the service'
"We were also told we could only have 10 loved ones in attendance," she adds.
"We stretched it one person over, with 11.
"They were spread out – a couple on each row – because of social distancing."
Like a rising number of grieving families, the couple decided to film the service at Oakley Wood Crematorium, Leamington Spa, last Thursday so missing loved ones could later watch it.
"More than anything, you want as many friends and family there to support you," says Jordan.
"Our biggest fear was the funeral would be cancelled.
"We were just fortunate some of our family could make it."
But following the service, the couple were sent into further turmoil when Prime Minister Boris Johnson put Britain on lockdown in a historic TV broadcast on Monday night.
"It added a new fear for us that it was going to prevent us collecting Samuel's ashes," says Chloe.
"Emma’s here and we were desperate to get him here with us. Thankfully we were able to organise family to pick up our son's ashes yesterday, but had to leave them for 24 hours."
Because of Chloe's health conditions, she is among the 1.5 million most vulnerable Brits asked to self-isolate for at least 12 weeks – and, to protect her, Jordan is doing the same.
This means their loved ones are unable to physically support them through their grief.
I’m lucky I have savings that I can dip into but I'd wanted to keep them in case we need fertility treatment in the future
And because the pair are self-employed – working as independent distributors for a multi-utility provider – they are currently out of work and facing severe financial struggles.
These have been compounded by the fact they've recently moved into a bigger rented home – which they'd signed up to when they thought they'd be living there as a family of three.
"I’m lucky I have savings that I can dip into but I'd wanted to keep them in case we need fertility treatment in the future. It's all left a very bitter taste in my mouth," says Chloe.
'We know we'll make great parents'
Amid their money struggles, they're also trying desperately to grieve for their child.
"All appointments and support groups have been cancelled," adds the mum.
"What is so important about therapy to cope with grief and trauma is to have a safe place to go for an hour. You can then deal with those emotions in the room and leave again.
"But now, with a phone appointment, that simply isn't possible."
Despite their nightmare ordeal, Chloe and Jordan remain incredibly upbeat, saying they feel grateful for what they do have – each other and beautiful memories of their babies.
They still dream of having their longed-for family, and plan to explore adoption, foster care and embryo adoption in the future. "We know we’ll make great parents," says Jordan.
They also have a message for other parents who might be struggling with having their children around 24/7 due to school closures: make the most of every moment.
"People are already getting frustrated about their children being at home, wishing away the terrible twos, the 'threenagers' or the 'seven going on 17s'," says Chloe.
"While yes, of course, it is a really difficult situation, it is also one to be incredibly grateful for.
"We are all only human, but take a deep breath and, in memory of babies like Emma and Samuel, just try to have a little more patience for the children who absolutely adore you."
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