Sarah Parish: 'I want to achieve more in Ella's name'
Sarah Parish has starred in a string of TV hits, but off-screen she's endured devastating heartache. She speaks to Gabrielle Fagan about how she and her actor husband learnt to cope after losing their daughter
A baby's first smile is a moment treasured by all parents, but for actress Sarah Parish and her husband James Murray, it's a most poignant, precious memory as it came in the final hours they shared with their daughter, Ella-Jayne, who died aged just eight months.
"On her last day with us, Ella suddenly had this extraordinary burst of life. She'd never had the strength to take a bottle, but she managed to have three that day and then she gave us this smile," says the actress, talking movingly about the tragedy in January 2009.
"That smile was wonderful, one of my most precious memories, and I like to think of it as her last gift to us and maybe her way of saying to us, as parents, 'I've given everything I can - and you did all right'."
Ella-Jayne was a much-wanted first child for the couple who've become familiar faces in hit TV dramas. Parish (48) has won praise for her roles in Cutting It, where she and Murray fell in love, and on Mistresses, Broadchurch and W1A, while Murray (41) has appeared in Primeval, Cucumber and Defiance.
They had no warning that their baby would be born with a rare genetic condition, Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, which increases the risk of heart defects.
In her short battle for life, she underwent two life-saving heart operations before passing away at home, and Parish said at the time she would "never get over" her baby's death.
It's a testament to the couple's courage that, seven years on, she and Murray, who she calls Jim, have found a new way to cope.
They set up The Murray Parish Trust in Ella-Jayne's memory in 2014, to raise funds for the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital Southampton where she was treated.
Their charity is now trying to raise £2m for a new state-of-the-art children's emergency and trauma department to serve nine counties across southern and central England. The Government has promised to match the £2m if they hit their target.
"I don't have bad days now. Instead, we feel it's almost like we were blessed to know Ella-Jayne," says Parish.
"I often feel that things are meant to be and maybe the eight months we had with her were the eight months we were supposed to have. Of course, on her birthday and the day she died, there's a lot of sadness. Every year, I write her a birthday card which I keep for us.
"But there's no heaviness, or thinking, 'Now I must live with this terrible thing'. It happened and now we have to make something good come out of it. I'd feel we'd cheated ourselves if we hadn't done that.
"For a long time, we were scared of talking in public about what we went through, but setting up the charity has been a big comfort. It's nice to know something good comes out of something tragic, and perhaps that terrible journey wasn't in vain. I feel very proud of my daughter and what her legacy is achieving."
The couple, who married in 2007 and now live in Hampshire with their six-year-old daughter, Nell, worked through their overwhelming grief together.
Shortly after their baby's death, they spent two months volunteering at a Cambodian orphanage for disabled children.
"When it was very tough, we'd take life minute by minute, and when it wasn't as tough, it would be five minutes at a time," she recalls.
"After a while, we realised we needed to get away, especially from sympathetic looks and questions, so we went to Cambodia to be around children, and in another environment with trauma and upset. It helped put things into perspective, because otherwise it's very easy to think you're the only people in the world to lose a child and go through something awful.
"We took it in turns to prop each other up. Jim's very strong - he's good at being positive and when he wasn't, I was. In a heartbreaking situation that we were totally unprepared for - we were in total shock and traumatised, really, for months - you have no choice but to cope. Going through it together made us closer."
She was delighted when she discovered she was pregnant again, but there was further trauma. During labour, she suffered placenta accreta (where the placenta becomes attached to the cervix) and Parish was terrified she would lose another child.
"The birth was in the same hospital room where Ella was born, and it was horrific because it seemed as though we were reliving the nightmare. They couldn't find the heartbeat and I thought I was going to lose my baby again. They also warned me that straight after delivery I'd probably have to have a hysterectomy and might also lose my bladder.
"Poor Jim feared he'd lose both me and the baby, but, in the end, Nell was delivered safely and I was okay as well. Nell's a wonderful little girl and we're so lucky to have her. I was over-protective in the beginning, but then I gave myself a talking-to and she's a lovely, independent character who's full of fun.
"She readily accepts that she had a sister who had a poorly heart and died and we have pictures of Ella around the house because she's still so much a part of our lives."
Parish's only regret is delaying motherhood to pursue her career. "My late 20s and all of my 30s were brilliant and I had a great time, but it was a very selfish existence. Showbusiness is a bit shallow. I'd think, 'I better not have a baby now because there's a great job coming up," she reflects with a wry smile.
"Now, I look back and think, 'You silly woman', because I might have had more children and I don't think it would have made any difference to my career. Anyway, with the perspective I have now, I wouldn't have minded if it had done."
Losing a child has, she says, "changed me in a really fundamental way. I have grown as a person and, of course, it's deepened my empathy.
"Sometimes, it can make it hard to go to work as an actor because you think, 'Why am I doing this?' But it's my job and I love it and it's a really good balance with working for the charity, which can be emotionally draining, yet so worthwhile
"I just want to go on and achieve even more in Ella's name."