Iain Cunningham did not know much about his mother who had passed away shortly after giving birth to him. On his 18th birthday, everything changed.

Iain Cunningham always felt like his birth was related to his mother’s death, but all the details seemed to be locked up in some sort of family secret that no one ever talked about.

It wasn’t until he grew up and had children of his own that he finally embarked on a journey to uncover the whole truth about what happened to his mom.

What follows is a touching story about honoring our loved ones, even years after their passing but also, making sure that their lives matter beyond their death.

On his 18th birthday, Iain was given a secret box

Iain had lived his whole life without much knowledge of what happened to his mother. Then, on his 18th birthday, everything changed.

“It was like a religious experience,” Iain says of a box that was revealed to him on his 18th birthday. “It was very powerful – it was the first time I’d seen photographs of her, the first time I’d seen anything.”

The box, which had been sitting in the attic for 15 years, revealed the truth about his mom, Irene.

Inside, he found photos from his mom’s wedding day in the early 1970s, as well as a wooden music box, and a vanity set that once sat on Irene’s dressing table, with hair from her head still entwined in the bristles of the brushes.

But also in that box was Iain’s baby book, in which his mom had documented his life as a newborn. She’d written his date of birth and the color of his eyes – but then the book had no more entries.

It felt to me like the pages of an untold story. I needed to fill in that blank space.

Iain Cunningham to BBC

A happy marriage interrupted

Don, Iain’s father, was 18 when he first met Irene, at a dance. “And then we arranged to meet the next week under the bus station clock,” Don says.

The couple went on to see movies together and have frequent dates. “We didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together,” Don remembers. “Inflation had gone through the roof so we didn’t go out an awful lot, but there was a pub not far away that we used to walk to, and we’d sit with one drink all night long because we were saving to get married.”

Don and Irene got married a few years later – and a few years after that, Irene got pregnant.

Irene was very happy when she was pregnant. We were both very happy.

Don Cunningham

But soon after Iain was born, in January 1976, things changed. Irene told a friend she’d been hallucinating while she was recovering from the birth in hospital, and when she brought her newborn son home she couldn’t sleep, began writing strange notes, and told her mother, “I’m not Irene, you know, I’m Irene’s ghost.”

Don took Irene to the doctor who diagnosed postnatal depression. Irene was admitted psychiatric unit at the local hospital where she was sedated and underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

“And not long after that she went into that catatonic stupor,” Don says.

His mother had unfortunately lived in another time

Irene was unresponsive and immobile for a while, in a coma-like state. When she was alert, her personality had changed – she was paranoid, withdrawn and would stare into space.

“I was devastated,” Don says. “But I had Iain to look after, work to go to and Irene to see in the evenings – I just had to keep going.”

While friends and family helped with the new baby, Don felt “completely in the dark” about his wife’s health and the treatment she was receiving.

“It was a different world – doctors didn’t give you any information and you weren’t told what medication they were on or for what,” he says. “It was never explained to me what a catatonic stupor was and in those days there was no internet where you could go and look things up. My life consisted of going to the hospital every night and just sitting next to someone who was completely uncommunicative.”

Irene spent about nine months in hospital, but then she came home for about 18 months during which she was living happily at home with her young son and husband. Life felt normal again….until she had a manic episode. She soon had to be readmitted to hospital.

“I just didn’t understand why it could happen again when she seemed so happy to be with Iain,” Don says.

One late October morning about three months later, the phone rang. It was Tom, Don’s brother. There was terrible news. Irene was dead.

She had died of heart failure, but Don didn’t get any further information at the time.

“I was 28 and my life had fallen apart,” Don says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself, left on my own with a very small child. How was I ever going to get my life back together?”

Iain never learned the story of her life…

Iain grew up having many versions of a nightmare of his mother dying in which he’d see himself running down a hospital corridor away from a blazing fire. He still remembers those dreams, but whenever he’d tried to talk to his father, Don would never open up.

A year after Irene died, his father met Judith, whom he ultimately married. Judith and Iain quickly became very close – “almost like birth mother and son,” Don says. But Iain never talked to his new mum about Irene either, and remembers crying when she went into hospital to give birth to his half-sister – he was worried that like Irene, Judith might never come back.

Looking back, Don is not sure why he didn’t talk to his son more about his mother. He was just doing his best to cope at the time.

What understanding would he have had at that age? I don’t know. It’s very difficult to decide when to tell someone about something like that.

Don Cunningham

“When you build a new life you don’t want to keep going back over what happened before – you’re just concentrating on being a family together.”

And that is why it wasn’t until Iain’s 18th birthday that Don brought the box of Irene’s belongings down from the attic for the first time. Together they looked through the photos and Don finally told his son about his mother.

And nothing more was said about Irene.

…until he became a parent himself

By his early 30s, Iain had married and become a parent himself. As his eldest daughter approached the age that he had been when his own mother died, Iain decided it was time to try to fill in some of the gaps.

When you have a child that age, coming up to three, you see that they’re a fully rounded and emotional human being, and I found myself wondering more and more about what happened to Irene and the impact that had had on me.

Iain Cunningham to BBC

“I wanted to amplify her a bit and celebrate her as a person – but first I needed to find out who she was, I really didn’t know anything about her,” Iain confesses.

Over time he tracked down Irene’s friends and relatives, and even some old neighbors. “There were all these photos, bits of my mum, scattered around in other people’s houses,” Iain says. “And she was still living in people’s heads – that’s what I wanted to gather up.”

Iain learned he looked a lot like Irene, and sometimes he’d find it a bit overwhelming to see new pictures of her. He gradually developed a better mental photo of his mother.

I’d never seen a photo of my mum until I was 18, and even then just the ones in the box.

Iain Cunningham

“There weren’t that many and in a lot of them she wasn’t well. So to see her as a young, vibrant, colourful person having a good time brought her back to life,” Iain said. “I’d had so little to go on, but I really got a sense of her fun and I felt very connected to the person that I’d made of her.”

He always felt he was responsible for her death

But Iain still had many unanswered questions. He’d always worried he was partially responsible for what had happened to his mum. Eventually, he managed to get access to Irene’s medical records.

“And when I opened them they had the answers to quite a lot of the questions that I’d had,” he says. Some people had said that Irene had had a difficult time while she was in labour, but the records described a normal birth.

I think there was confusion at the time about what happened. And mental health was something that people found harder to talk about then – there’s still stigma around it today.

Iain Cunningham

Iain showed his mother’s medical records to doctors who have helped him and his father get a better understanding.

“The description here is very clearly that of a postpartum psychosis with further episodes of what we would now call bipolar disorder,” said Dr Alain Gregoire, an NHS consultant specializing in mother and baby psychiatry. “About one in 500 women develop this illness after childbirth.”

Another doctor told Iain that the antipsychotic drugs that Irene was being prescribed were toxic to her heart, and that is probably how she died. “But it’s hard to say with absolute certainty now,” Iain says.

Old medical notes revealed more than he was expecting…

In the medical notes, he also discovered transcriptions of conversations his mother had with the medical staff.

And it was so nice to read things in her voice. She said she loved her husband and she liked the boy – I didn’t quite get her love but I got a like, so I was pleased to read that.

Iain Cunningham

As a result of Iain’s journey to rediscover his mother, he and his dad are much more open with each other now. “It was a conversation that we needed to have and it’s been really helpful for both of us,” Iain reveals.

They have come to understand their experience of a shared trauma from two different perspectives. “I understand more about what my dad went through and maybe just didn’t have the tools to be able to talk about,” Iain says.

I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know. So to get that information, finally there was an explanation of how she died. I think Iain and I have got closer, and I’ve become much easier to talk to.

Don Cunningham

Healing involves the past and present

Iain’s quest to discover his mother’s past led him to make a documentary called Irene’s Ghost, in which he brings the vestiges of her life to the screen. In a sense, he gave her a second life by celebrating the people she left an impact on.

His journey was not a selfish one. Through rediscovering his past, he and his father were able to get answers and heal their relationship after the trauma that Irene’s death had caused.

While it can be difficult to accept the death of a loved one, Iain’s incredible story proves that looking both at the present and the past can help us mend ourselves and move forward. By seeking answers, we can carve the path towards a healthier future.

More inspiring stories: