Herna Payet is 28 years old, and in 2020, she lost her two-year-old daughter Leeyah-Lolita. The loss of a child is undoubtedly the ultimate tragedy, and nothing can be more devastating, especially losing a young child. Her grief over the loss of Leeyah has been exacerbated and complicated by feelings of why her? — the understandable feeling—any loss become questionable. Now, a year on, she is trying to move on. Moving on is not about forgetting her daughter— that will never happen—she wants to live life with a purpose because, in the wake of Leeyah’s death, she found no sense in being here in the present without her daughter.
By jini gilbert-finnigan
Herna shares her pain of the loss and recovery journey, hoping that other grieving parents will find comfort in knowing they are not alone. During the early days of grieving, she experienced excruciating pain, alternating with numbness and felt that she could only “exist”, and every motion or need beyond that seems nearly impossible. She spent hours at Leeyah’s grave and replayed that fateful day over and over in her head. She knows that coping with the death and loss of her daughter requires some of the most challenging work she will ever have to do.
This is Her story.
The Birth of Leeyah-Lolita (Leelo)
Herna, (23 years old at that time) didn’t even know she was pregnant with Leeyah until she was four months gone. It was a surprise but one she embraced wholeheartedly “ I had a great and easy pregnancy. Leeyah-Lolita was born on 1st March 2018 at the Victoria Hospital at 6.15 am, and I was 24 years old. I had her at 41 weeks, a week after my due date. The hospital had already scheduled an inducement at 7 am for me that day, but Leeyah decided to make her entrance into this world on her term.”
“I hated the contractions; I screamed my lungs out with every contraction but seeing her face for the first time and hearing her cry made me so happy, and I was so in love with her. Seeing her made every stitch and pain absolutely worth it. Furthermore, my midwife Jimmy was the best. He stayed through all the screams and curses. I am forever grateful for him being caring and helped me deliver my daughter safely.”
Leeyah the Little old soul
Leeyah was surrounded by love, and she was everyone’s favourite. Her grandparents and her uncles spoiled her. She accomplished all her milestones early. Herna’s world was one of joy—to experience one of the greatest joys in life—raising her daughter and getting to watch her grow, play, laugh, and learn.
“Leelo always behaved like she was older than her age. From the day she was born, it felt like that to me. For 41 weeks, I carried her with no complications; at two months, she rolled over on her own, started eating at five months, and was walking on her own when she was nine months. At two years old, Leeyah and I were having proper conversations. She was truly amazing and my everything.”
Just a Normal day!
On the 8th of April 2020, it was what Herna considered a typical day; she had already decided to work from home with the pandemic close to home, it was the best decision, and she could spend time with Leeyah and keep an eye on her younger brother.”That day, Leeyah wanted to dress up; she let me comb her hair without any crying. She chose her princess dress for the day and started her day on a joyous note.”
“I had no other plans apart from working at home. Leeyah had my little brother to play with while I work. My ex-boyfriend also spent the day with us. Leeyah was playing with the dogs right after he left. I went to the toilet, and I was on the phone talking to him, and I remember telling him that the house is eerily quiet.”
Herna’s motherly instinct kicked in, she decided to go and check on Leeyah. But, unfortunately, she was not where she meant to be, so she frantically looked for her all over the house, calling her name. ” I was like a crazy woman going up and down the house shouting for Leelo, and she was nowhere to be found.”
Panic, Pain and Hysteria
Herna’s family house is by a marsh, and she noticed that their dog Laska was by the water and turning around in circles and overexcited. It was a full moon, and the seawater level was above two meters. ” I immediately ran to the water, but I couldn’t even see Leelo. I went back upstairs, thinking she could be hiding in my mum’s room, but she was not there. Then I looked at Laska again, and I thought it was strange she was by the bay moving around as if trying to tell me something. My dogs rarely go in the water unless there’s someone there. My instinct told me to go back to the water because Laska’s behaviour was not normal.”
“I rushed back, and then I saw her floating; I screamed so loud my 18-year-old brother Benjamin heard me from his room, I jumped to her rescue, him right after me. When I saw her floating, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe what was happening. My brother and I have experience in first aid response, and we were both helpless, went into a panic, and my mind went blank for a moment. Then the adrenaline kicked, my body shaking, and I started doing CPR on her. There was a couple on the beach nearby, and they swam to us to help. Leeyah had wandered out, tripped and fell facedown in the water and drowned. Unfortunately, we were too late to save her. “
Unfortunately, Herna’s call to the emergency was not a great experience either; she received what she described as a ‘rude’ and ‘unhelpful’ response, and nobody on the other end of the phone was comforting, something you expect when you are in distress. She tried to call several times in desperation, and the responses were always the same—wait!
“When the ambulance finally turned up, there was no paramedic, only the driver and porter who stayed in the ambulance and shouted at me to bring my daughter inside the ambulance. It was the man helping to save Leelo who carried her in the ambulance and went with me to the clinic. I thank God for him; to this day, I don’t know who he is. I was in such a state, and I was never able to thank him properly. However, I am forever grateful that he did everything he could to help us that day. I know the doctors did what they could, too, but I believe they could have been more prepared for emergencies.”
Then Herna had to do what no parents would want to go through-carry her lifeless child to the morgue. “With the police escort, I carried my daughter out of the clinic wrapped in a white sheet en route to the mortuary. My father drove us there. When we got there and seeing them put her in that cold room, I still couldn’t believe what was happening. It was like being in a dream. I woke up that day with my daughter in my arms and went home that night to an empty room, an empty bed and with the biggest whole inside me. I left my daughter in a place I thought I would be before her.
“For a long time, I couldn’t go in the seawater. I would sit by the bay and get scared. The place I called home for 28 years became my living nightmare.”
Grieving for Leelo
That day Herna’s own life lost meaning. She had to dig deep to face the enormity of her loss. Surviving the loss of a child takes dedication to live. As a mother, she gave birth to life—Leelo — a promise to the future. Now she must make a new commitment to continue living, as hard or impossible as it may seem.
“Coping has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do. It was even tougher because I was in an abusive relationship; I needed therapy, I was in denial, and it took 4-5 months before I accepted to do it. My parents were the ones who saw how much I was hurting and decided I wouldn’t survive it all in the state I was in, so my mum took me to therapy. I found myself on anti-depressants and sleeping pills with blood pressure problems. It was tough to accept reality as is. It’s been a year, and I still break down and cry.
“My family and friends were with me every step, from the day Leelo passed until now, they have been supportive and haven’t left my side. Slowly I realised that I needed to change—take control of my life—end a toxic relationship and grieve for my daughter. First, I had to accept letting go of the negativity in my life; then, I could grief and take care of my mental well being. It’s been a tough road.
“I didn’t really see how my family coped with the loss; I was in bed most of the time drowning myself in my sorrows and trying to make sense of what was going on. It was tough to even look at my parents in the eyes and not break down. But I remember seeing my dad sitting and crying by the marsh where Leelo passed, and it broke my heart even more. After our tragic loss, both he and my mum found close friends to confide in.
“I only wish there was more support in Seychelles for grieving parents. We see it online in many countries worldwide, support groups with other parents who have gone through the same, and I know there isn’t enough being done in Seychelles about this. Our mental health is affected when we lose someone; I hit rock bottom. I was so depressed I ended up at the Les Canelles institution. Whilst the environment could have worsened my situation, my psychologist was a great one and helped me immensely. However, his job could be easier if the facility was in better condition.”
Memories Of Leelo
Revisiting good memories after child loss can be one of the biggest challenges. Every memory, every thought is pain. Physical pain, but Herna’s healing is all about the good memories and joy she had for the two years she and her family spent with Leeyah.
“Being the only grandchild, Leelo was everything to my family. When I got pregnant with her, it was a shock for my parents, but she was loved. She was spoiled with love. My brothers were her only uncles, and they adored her. She had a mum and dad in her grandparents, and I know she would have been cared for if anything had ever happened to me. She had the best grandparents anyone could have ever asked for. She made everyone’s life happier; just having her around changed everyone’s mood.
“Leelo was free-spirited but quiet; she was loving, well-behaved, kind, joyous and funny. She was a very cheeky, happy little girl. She was very confident and brave enough to wear my six inches high heels around the house. Her favourite toys were her Moana doll or Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She had one of her princesses with her every day in her arms or right there beside her. She was my little adventurer who loved animals.
“We are all remembering her in our unique way. My younger brother Benjamin carved Leelo’s name on a stick he walked around with wherever he went, and when asked about the stick, he would talk about his niece. Mum had the idea for a white flowers garden, and six months later, she made it her life project. The white flower garden has become everyone’s happy place, it took me longer to get there, but it’s calming. We cannot wait to see the garden in full bloom.”
Moving on after loss
There is no timeline on grief. Grief is forever because love is forever. We have to accept that our grief might be a burden, but our loss is not. Herna is trying to understand the concept of moving on. “It is a different kind of moving on than I had once imagined. Before losing Leelo, I believed in the misconception that moving on meant forgetting. Now I know that it doesn’t have to be that way. You are allowed to move forward in life, and you can bring the person you miss with you.”
Herna’s message to other newly grieving parents :
“It is a scary, painful journey, but give yourself time to heal. It will not take a day, a month or a year. The truth is I don’t know how long it will take. Healing from any loss is probably a lifetime journey. Be patient; go through it. You are allowed to be selfish when it comes to healing from a scar as deep as losing your child. Grief doesn’t shrink over time. We only grow around our grief. So scoot, crawl and walk at your own pace. Do not let anyone make you feel like your feeling is not valid. Take.Your.Time.”
As part of her healing and grieving process, Herna has created a personal blog, Herna 365 Phoenix, to support others grieving and let them know that they are not alone.