Reading another mother’s blog tonight I was reminded of how I went through the motions of normal life after Juliette died. I turned up at the children’s dentist appointment two weeks after the nightmarish day in Ipswich Hospital ICU. Well, it was the summer holidays – a good time to get their teeth looked at.
Elodie and Pierre loved Mrs Thompson. She spoke several decibels louder than necessary with a huge smile and very small words. After a perfunctory sweep of their mouths with her tools she would remove the glove she’d been wearing and blow it up. “Lady or man?” she’d ask. According to the reply she’d draw a face on the latex with permanent markers. This day was a little different.
“How was your holiday?” she boomed.
“Well, not great. Juliette died.”
She deflated like one of her own punctured gloves, and became human. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
I wished I’d cancelled the appointment. I thought she was going to cry as she prodded Pierre’s baby teeth, and I sat there awkward, with a baby Raphi smelling of regurgitated bottle milk on my lap.
It’s alright, I wanted to say. Look, I’m functioning aren’t I? After this I’m going to go home and cook a meal for us all. The world has stopped but apparently, we all still need to eat. Perhaps something will even make me laugh, later.
I’m not sure what the world expects. What would I have expected? Certainly not to be “normal,” whatever that should mean. This week I spent some time with a mother whose 18 year old son died last year. She suffers, not just from her own grief but from what others expect of her. She was tired, she said, of putting on a front. People wanted her to be as she was before – better, not consumed with the sadness she has every right to feel. When she stepped out of the house with make-up for the first time in a week, people would congratulate her for doing so well. “But I just spent four hours crying,” she would think. As bereaved parents, others have wishes for our recovery that butt right up against the perspective of what they think we should be feeling.
“You’re so brave. I wouldn’t be as strong as you in your shoes.”
This should never be said to a bereaved parent. Unless you have lived through this loss, you have no idea that our outside is just a shell and inside we are a thousand shattered pieces, and to say this to us you are suggesting that we are somehow lacking in emotion, failing our beloved child. Worse is the terrible invitation to look on the bright side of the lightning bolt that has exploded our lives.
“At least you still have your other children.”
Those that have other children know that there is some bludgeoning of the pain in the necessity of continuing their routine, but we bereaved parents are the only ones who can admit this. In the months after Juliette died I felt cut off from all those I loved and I’m afraid for a while, that included our other children. What I suffered when Juliette left us made love too dangerous, so an approximation of the emotion was all I could manage.
Other children do not replace a child who has died, whose particular smell, solid form, every mannerism and tone of voice you crave like an addict in the agonies of cold turkey. I would hold one of the other children, shut my eyes and fantastise that they were Juliette, to quench for an instant the desperate need to touch her. The guilt came afterwards, but the solid bliss of that second seemed worth it.
So much of what I live now has the loss of Juliette assimilated within it. Her absence is what is “normal” now. She’s been gone longer than she lived,and that’s nearly nine years. If she had been a parent, or my husband, no doubt by now I would be getting on with my life in gratitude at what we shared, and part of me does feel that. I am glad she chose me, us, for her time here. Despite all the pain, I would not wish to erase her five years for a different life of a mother who had all living children. Through her eyes, I learned more about life than I have in all my other forty-three years, and for that I am privileged.
What’s different about losing a child is the length of the future they should have had. That knowledge is a constant companion for those they leave behind. I will die when I am old, I hope, but Juliette’s brothers and sisters will still be young. Their lives should have gone on including Juliette not just now, but into their own old age. Children should not die.
Yes, we have got used to it, but there are moments when what should be cuts through us all.