At my book group a couple of nights ago, we were six around my kitchen table. Of the six of us, four had lost a child or a young baby. I sat next to a friend who should the day before have been celebrating her son’s nineteenth birthday, but he died six months ago. Before we started talking about the book, I asked her how the day had been for her. We spoke quietly, and I guess this was because neither of us wanted to make the mothers with all-living children feel uncomfortable.
This got me thinking about a couple of things. Firstly how I seem to have congregated in my life people who have lived through losing a child. Some I met soon after Juliette died, through a need to connect with others for proof that I too could survive. Later I made an effort to become friends with more recently bereaved parents, thinking I could be that proof for them. Being with other bereaved parents is a bitter sweet fellowship. None of us wants the thing that links us but as that is not within our choosing, being with others who have lost a child is comforting. We can be ourselves, share the pain we know only too well, even make jokes that others might find shocking or macabre. We are walking wounds in various states of healing, or of scarring, but there’s no need to hide anything.
For other non-bereaved parents, we are an embodiment of their worst nightmare, and it can be frightening even to glimpse through us what it would be like. Who would want to feel it, if you didn’t have to? Not me, that’s for certain. Knowing this is what makes me try and help in my inadequate way, others who have lost a child. It is too hard for their friends to put themselves in the person’s shoes, and that’s normal. But those of us who have lost a child are already standing in them. In my own experience the best words for our friends to say are, “I’m sorry,” and mean it. It’s a simple but powerful expression of regret and with a hug on a bad day, it’s all you need.
So often friends and acquaintances are afraid of saying the wrong thing and that they might make you cry, so they avoid saying anything. We need to let them know that the tears are there anyway and if they appear as a result of a comment, it’s a huge relief. They can’t make us feel worse than we already do, it’s just not possible. Bereaved people need to cry, and permission to do this without being distracted or “cheered up” is often the best medicine of all.
Strangers are another thing. I hope I’m more sensitive to others now, but when Juliette first died, I was a one woman nuclear missile. Without forewarning I would tell poor checkout girls and other random people I encountered, that my daughter had just died. I didn’t care if they were uncomfortable and struggled for the right response. I just wanted to spread around a portion of the hideous pain I was feeling and in some primitive area of my grieving brain, I thought it would help. Luckily for all I stopped doing that pretty quickly. An elderly lady who happened to be behind me in a queue at the Post Office had responded, “Leukaemia was it? Oh well, she’s probably better off dead.” I started being more careful, trying to work out who could handle the information, and whom it was kinder (for me and for them) to spare.
It’s easier after eight years. Usually I’ll talk about Juliette, but sometimes it’s only my living children I mention, and it no longer feels disloyal to her. I’m protecting her memory in other ways.