Jason Watkins and wife Clara reveal heartbreak about death of their two-year-old daughter Maude

There is something about tiny shoes, and the significance they carry, that will break a bereaved parent — even one who believes they are ‘ready’ to hold them again.

The shoes in question here were red, toddler-sized, with a shiny buckle, bought for an event — a wedding or a birthday party; no one can quite remember — but they had been worn once.

They had lain nestled in a Start-Rite box, stuffed inside a big bag, banished to an attic, for more than a decade. Now it was time to bring them back into the light.

‘And I couldn’t bear it,’ says Clara Francis, the mother who had bought the shoes — at the time worrying only about how quickly they would be scuffed.

‘I put my hand into the bag — steeling myself — and I brought them out, and oh my goodness, the explosion of memories. It was like an assault on the senses. Her little shoes. I turned them over and on the underside, between the ridges, there were little bits of mud.

Jason Watkins and his wife Clara reveal their heartbreak in an extraordinary new documentary about the tragic death of their two-year-old daughter Maude 12 years ago

‘That was what I found the hardest. The mud was real, so it made her real again, not this abstract thing, this person who had been. She was there, Maudie was there, because there was the mud she had trodden in.’

Clara is crying, and apologising for crying — ‘I don’t cry ALL the time now, honestly’. Her husband, the Bafta-winning actor Jason Watkins, is upset, too.

How you move on after the death of a child is one of life’s impossible questions. No one wants to even think about it, never mind talk about it.

Jason and Clara were the same before they lost their beloved second child, Maude Violet, to sepsis on New Year’s Day in 2011. As Clara puts it: ‘We weren’t the sort of people to have a dead child. We’d never considered it. Why would you?’

Maude had been a joyful, healthy two-year-old who loved singing, hide-and-seek, and her big sister Bessie. Then she went to bed one night in the bedroom she shared with Bessie — poorly, but with a cough the doctors (a succession of doctors) had insisted was just croup — and died.

It was Bessie, just 18 months older than Maude, who came in that fateful morning — ‘when our world just combusted’, says Clara — and told them Maude wouldn’t wake up.

Jason was first into the room, and knew immediately, from the trickle of dried blood on her face, that their daughter was dead.

What happened next was a blur. Jason remembers ‘trying to breathe my life into her’, but thought Clara was downstairs at the time. No, she says, she was there. Whatever, there were suddenly paramedics in the room, screaming, hands reaching out to them, encouraging THEM to breathe.

Maude had been a joyful, healthy two-year-old who loved singing, hide-and-seek, and her big sister Bessie

Maude had been a joyful, healthy two-year-old who loved singing, hide-and-seek, and her big sister Bessie

The disbelief is still palpable, more than 12 years on. ‘How can it happen?’ says Clara. ‘Your child goes to bed with a cough, and never wakes up.’

Such is the scourge of sepsis, when the immune system overreacts to an infection. It is treatable with antibiotics, when identified, but the tragedy for thousands of families every year is that it is tricky even for trained medics to spot.

Since Maude died, the couple have campaigned tirelessly for more awareness, including launching the Mail’s End the Sepsis Scandal which, in turn, led to the introduction of a NICE quality standard for health professionals to recognise, diagnose and manage sepsis.

Jason’s growing fame — a prolific actor, he’s been in everything from W1A and Doctor Who to Line Of Duty and The Crown, and also starred in the Nativity films — has given the couple a considerable platform. Last year, they agreed to make a documentary, which was originally going to be a continuation on this theme, but morphed into something more personal.

As filming began, Clara felt there were things about their own grieving that they should not try to hide from the cameras. The family was at a crossroads, packing up to move out of their flat — the one where Maude had been born (‘I had a home birth,’ says Clara), where she’d spent her whole life, and where she’d died.

They tell me they had bickered about whether they should (or could) move. Clara says she resisted. ‘I kept saying ‘We don’t need anywhere bigger’, but the reality is I didn’t want to leave her behind. She was everywhere in that flat. I could almost touch her.’

The resulting documentary is one of the most affecting things you will ever watch, almost unbearable in its depiction of loss, and love.

Jason and Clara are filmed preparing to sort through Maude’s belongings, dissecting the minutiae of what happened (in some cases talking about key events for the first time), and even having grief counselling. You will need tissues while watching, as they did while filming.

Since Maude died, the couple have campaigned tirelessly for more awareness, including launching the Mail's End the Sepsis Scandal

Since Maude died, the couple have campaigned tirelessly for more awareness, including launching the Mail’s End the Sepsis Scandal

It all began so innocently, a routine cold that Maude developed in December 2010. When, 12 days later, on December 30, she started to sound chesty, Jason and Clara took her to their GP.

A throat infection was diagnosed, but something about the little girl’s symptoms caused the doctor to suggest they take Maude to A&E. There she was diagnosed with croup — where the airways become inflamed — and sent home with steroids.

But the following afternoon the toddler’s condition deteriorated — she was pale, floppy and having serious breathing problems — and the family returned to hospital.

While she was given fluids through a drip and antibiotics, she was never tested for sepsis. When Maude’s condition appeared to stabilise, she was discharged once again that evening.

Jason breaks down talking about father’s guilt — not just at the hospital when he, reluctantly, accepted ‘expert’ advice to just go home, but the searing guilt that came later when he realised his daughter’s body had been taken for autopsy without him there to hold her hand.

‘That has haunted me,’ he admits today. ‘That she made the journey on her own. I should have been there. I know it isn’t logical, but it’s the father’s role to be there, and I wasn’t.’

Clara howls once again when remembering being in the back of the car in the rush to hospital the day before she died, when they both knew something was wrong.

‘I’d forgotten about the weight of her on my lap,’ she recalls. ‘And the terror in that car. In the years since, we’ve maybe focused on the day she died, but the trauma started before.’

The footage is interspersed with home videos of the daughter they adored. Had they known, Clara says they would have made more videos, taken more pictures.

‘You don’t think ‘We must make memories here,’ ‘ she says. ‘It appals me now that I spent so much of Maude’s life thinking how hard it was. I had two small daughters. My life was all sleepless nights, poo, exhaustion.

‘I remember thinking ‘This was a mistake having two so close together’. I should have been treasuring that time.

‘If I had known, I would have done more treasuring.’

Today, at the kitchen table in their new home, they tell me that Maude’s toys and clothes were stored in their friend’s attic.

 Seeing mud on Maudie’s tiny red shoes made her real again

‘We didn’t know what else to do with them,’ says Clara. ‘Because the girls shared a room, we couldn’t just shut a door and deal with it later. We didn’t have the mental strength to sort them out . . . so my best friend Emma stepped in and said she would pack everything up and keep them, and we could deal with them when we were ready.’ She smiles. ‘Ready! As if.’

There were things that Emma did not take.

‘I remember dismantling the cot and taking it to the tip,’ says Jason, cross with himself now. ‘Why I thought I needed to take the f***ing cot to the tip myself is beyond me… but at the time I thought ‘Must do something practical, must do something practical.’ ‘

What strikes you about this couple is their astonishing honesty. They both trained as actors (although Clara has moved more into jewellery and dress design since) so perhaps they do have specific skills when it comes to expressing emotion, but still.

Their account of being tossed on the sea of grief is disarming. You do rage on their behalf hearing the full story. They have never sought to take legal action, or point the finger at the medics who failed to spot Maude’s sepsis.

‘We have made a choice not to be consumed by that sort of anger,’ says Clara, although Jason does ‘still find it astonishing that a child can be sent home from A&E twice, and die in the night’.

The couple have now moved house and the red shoes have come too. Maude is... everywhere

The couple have now moved house and the red shoes have come too. Maude is… everywhere

The system clearly failed them in other regards too, though. Jason was not a big-name actor when Maude died. He was a jobbing freelancer, who was, overnight, unable to work. Six weeks after Maude died, unable to pay their mortgage, they looked into what benefits might be available.

Clara is distressed reliving this. ‘What I remember was the tone of it, the scepticism, questioning. They were coming at it from a point of view of ‘Is this bulls**t?’ Did they think we were inventing a dead daughter?’

The process of verifying dates and times defeated them. They gave up trying to claim any money. ‘I was so discombobulated,’ Clara says. ‘You weren’t,’ says Jason. ‘You were traumatised.’

 The therapist looked terrified. My grief was animalistic

A friend stepped into the breach. Now it is Jason’s turn to cry. ‘I went for a walk with a good friend, a film director who lived nearby. He presented me with a cheque for nearly £6,000.

‘That saved us, and we were able to pay him back eventually, but what about people like us who do not have friends like that?’

Clara says that although she did have counselling in the immediate aftermath of Maude’s death, it had limited impact.

‘The therapist was young. She looked terrified. My grief was animalistic. I was howling, making sounds that weren’t human.’

She asks Jason if he remembers. How could he forget. He was petrified of her grief, too.

‘One day you wanted to run out into the road,’ he says, addressing his wife. ‘You kind of fell off the bed and I had to hold you down. You were fighting me off.’

Clara nods. ‘I wanted to run in front of a bus, which wouldn’t have been very nice for the bus driver, but in that state there is no logic. It was all so overwhelming, too big, too painful.’

Jason’s grief was more internalised, mostly, ‘although I did smash up the shower one day,’ volunteers the most mild-mannered man you could meet.

‘I was so angry — at fate, at the world. Why is she not here? Why have you killed her? Why? Why?’

The thing that got them through the early months was not professional therapy but a support system (‘a community,’ says Clara) that they established themselves.

Clara attended a local support group for bereaved parents, and at first sat there numb.

‘I remember thinking ‘But you are working. You are dressed. You have make-up on. And your child is dead. How are you doing that?’

‘Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done because it showed me that there was a way through.

‘Their advice was ‘Just live from cup of tea to cup of tea. One day you will be able to get dressed’.’

Does she remember the day she did? ‘I do. Bessie had been staying with my friend and wanted to come home but she told my friend that she didn’t recognise me because I was such a mess, not getting out of my nightie.

‘I went straight away and had a shower. I did my hair. I put on a dress. When I opened the door Bessie was so happy because I was back again.’

Clara now runs the support group. Getting a call from a newly bereaved parent seems to be something that happens often.

Jason sits for hours on end with the dads, too. ‘I talked to one man, who has just lost his 22-year-old, for a few hours the other day. You see yourself in them.’

There is something about tiny shoes, and the significance they carry, that will break a bereaved parent — even one who believes they are 'ready' to hold them again. 'Seeing mud on Maudie's tiny red shoes made her real again'

There is something about tiny shoes, and the significance they carry, that will break a bereaved parent — even one who believes they are ‘ready’ to hold them again. ‘Seeing mud on Maudie’s tiny red shoes made her real again’

They should write a grief manual, these two. They would permit some humour to seep in, alongside the horror.

Jason teases Clara about the fact that she turned to reality TV as a sanity-saver in the weeks and months after Maude died.

‘I became addicted to the Real Housewives franchise,’ she explains. ‘I worked my way through them all. I couldn’t read or listen to music. I couldn’t watch a drama — there would always be a dead child.

‘But reality TV kept me engaged without being emotionally connected. These people looking fabulous with their silly lives kept ME alive.’

The thing that most kept them going, though, was the fact that they had Bessie. Then, less than a year after Maude died, they had another baby, Gilbert.

‘It was primal, visceral,’ Clara says of the need to have another child. ‘I wanted a girl, too. I wanted Maudie. I would have cloned her if I could.’

They laugh about her chasing Jason — who had gone back to work just a few months afterwards — with ovulation sticks.

 The support group showed us there was a way through

Gilbert is now 11 years old, and ‘not stupid’, says Jason. Yes, he has asked if he was a ‘Maudie replacement’.

There is a difficult scene in the documentary where the couple are discussing having matching tattoos of ‘Maude’ on their arms, even though they are resolutely not tattoo people.

Gilbert asks why they don’t have a tattoo of him. ‘Do you want us to have one of you?’ Clara says.

‘It’s a minefield. No, not a minefield, but it’s a very tricky thing because we want to keep Maudie with us, without turning her into a deity who can do nothing wrong,’ says Jason. ‘But our way has been to talk about her, to keep her present, with us.

‘People like us want to talk about our child. We want you to acknowledge they existed.’

Perhaps the filming of this documentary was another vital step in their grieving process.

They have now moved house and the red shoes have come too. Maude is… everywhere.

‘I cried buckets leaving the flat. I felt I was leaving her too, but of course she wasn’t there,’ says Clara. ‘She is with us. She will always be with us.’

  •  Jason & Clara: In Memory Of Maudie, airs on Thursday, March 30 at 9pm on ITV1.

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