When Eastenders hit the headlines with a traumatic cot death storyline, Benri Henry, 22, could relate to the heartache all to well…
Just like any other evening, Berni, 22, and her partner Matthew, 29, tuned in to EastEnders.
Curled up on the sofa next to each other, with their daughter Rhiannon, 3, and son Rhys, 7, tucked up in bed, Berni squeezed Matthew’s hand.
They had both watched EastEnders for years, but the mood was different as the credits began to roll.
Along with millions of people across the country, the couple sat rapt as Ronnie Branning’s son James died from cot death and was switched for Kat and Alfie’s baby Tommy.
But, unlike most viewers, Berni and Matthew understood the unimaginable heartache of cot death all too well.
Last September, the couple’s four month old son Romeo died in his sleep at their home in Gloucester.
“I knew the storyline was coming, but I didn’t know the specifics,” says Berni. “I realised it would be tough to watch, but I wanted to see if the show would handle the subject with respect.”
In Jesse Wallace’s performance, Berni recognised a heart-breaking reality that reflected her own reaction to her son’s death.
“I can see myself in Kat,” she says. “Sitting at home, constantly crying and rocking myself back and forth. In time you come to terms with losing your baby, or at least try for the sake of your family. But four months on, it’s still raw for me.”
For Berni, the honesty of Kat’s grief was overshadowed by the controversial decision to have Ronnie snatch Kat’s baby, to replace her dead son.
“I felt sick afterwards,” Berni says. “Not only sick, but disappointed too. This was an opportunity for EastEnders to do something positive. By showing the reality of cot death and how the parents suffer.
“After losing your child, it’s hard enough to cope, but now EastEnders has left cot death parents looking deranged.”
When Berni and Matthew met five years ago, he already had a son, Rhys, but she longed to have children too.
Two years later, Berni had her daughter Rhiannon.
It was the happiest day of her life, only matched by the birth of Romeo on May 31st last year.
Arriving home, Berni and Romeo were greeted by a house full of friends and family.
“I know every mum will say this, but Romeo was a beautiful baby,” Berni says. “The second anyone caught a glimpse of his bright blue eyes they fell in love with him.”
Every moment Berni and Romeo spent together was precious, even more so now.
But on September 5th, Berni was robbed of any new memories.
That night, as an exhausted Berni slept on the sofa, Matthew carried Romeo to his cot.
Matthew placed the cot beside his bed and they both fell asleep.
In the early hours of the morning, as the sun crept through the curtains, Romeo woke up.
But after a cuddle from his dad Romeo relaxed and started to snooze beside Matthew.
Only a few hours later, Berni heard a desperate cry from upstairs.
“He’s not breathing!” Matthew shouted.
In an instant Berni was on her feet and racing upstairs, just as Matthew came running in the opposite direction.
He was clutching Romeo in his arms and Berni instantly saw her son’s lips were blue and his body was drained of colour.
On the living room floor Matthew performed CPR as Berni frantically phoned for an ambulance.
When the paramedics arrived Matthew and Berni were both in hysterics and distraught with panic.
As Romeo was raced to the hospital, accompanied by Matthew, Berni waited at home in floods of tears.
Struggling to keep control, Berni was taken to the hospital by the police.
Through the windows of the Accident and Emergency department, she saw Matthew crying.
Tears crept down his cheeks as he turned to face Berni, who approached her partner knowing deep down the devastating news he was about to deliver.
“He’s gone,” he said. “Romeo’s gone.”
Hearing those words, Berni fell to floor.
No!” she screamed. “No, he’s not!”
Berni was left with nothing but tears as she wept on the floor.
Four months on from Romeo’s death and life is still hard for Berni.
“I take each day as it comes,” she explains.
“You have this hurt inside you and sometimes you take it out on the people closest to you. For me that person was Matthew. In the back of my mind I blamed him and I blamed myself too.”
To help Rhys and Rhiannon cope, Berni told them Romeo had been taken away by the angels.
When the undertaker returned Romeo to Berni’s house before his burial, she told the children that the man was the head of the angels and their brother was going back to heaven after they had said goodbye.
As Berni continues to grieve, having another child is not something she wants to consider.
“In the future, I would like more children. But right now it would be for the wrong reasons.”