As parents, we control what happens to our children. We keep them warm and fed, sneak vitamins into their meals and catch them before they fall. We filter the cruelty of the world, because protecting them is what we do. The essential delusion to which most of us cling is that we can control what happens to them, just as we control what happens to us. The death of our child shatters that.
The most tormenting thought I had when this beautiful girl in the picture died was that I could have done something to stop it. I think for most of us who have lost a child this feeling is unavoidable, at least sometimes. It didn’t matter to me how many doctors insisted there was nothing I could have done differently, or the number of friends’ attempts to convince me that this torture was pointless, I agonised over the sequence leading to that awful day in search of the moment that would have changed everything.
It seems to me that to move on from this, you can choose one of two paths. You either ferment in the regret of your ‘mistakes,’ painfully alert to the fact that what happened could happen again (unless you prevent it), or you decide that you were, and continue to be powerless. Call me a godless, arrogant self-determinist, but I’ve always erred on the side of imagining that I am the primary agent in my life and those of my younger children. However, maintaining this notion of control following the loss of a child is a double-edged sword. Certainly the world feels a safer place if you can make choices to protect yourself and your children from its hostile vagaries but if those choices were always mine to make, how could I have let Juliette die? How much more appealing then to place your fate and theirs in the hands of unknown forces?
I’ve had a salient reminder recently of what being in control means to me, and at an especially critical time. Five weeks ago and seven miles into a long run, I broke my leg. OK. I have spent the last few years managing my life and with a small dose of luck, making things happen. I’ve found work that I truly love and shockingly, for which I seem to have an aptitude. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I (previously a non-runner) have finished three marathons in respectable non-runner times, written two books and achieved a distinction in a Science degree with my flabby Arts brain. An effective puncture to any pride is that with my leg currently in a cast, even keeping myself clean is a challenge. I can’t carry a cup of tea between rooms or tidy up, let alone drive myself to work or to the university to complete the prison education research about which I’m passionate. As someone close to me observed, “If your life were a novel, this would be an obvious plot device.” The capable and in-control protagonist has been reminded she is not, after all, in control of all that much.
I don’t like it. I’m fairly sure I’m not on any OCD scale, but the need to feel in control (and the discomfort when I’m not) I recognise as far more of a driver (ha) than it ever was before Juliette died. Yet I’m painfully aware I need to work on this as one of the less healthy effects that losing Juliette has had on me, especially where the children are concerned. So, when a recently-returned-from-Ghana Elodie telephoned late at night from London to describe symptoms of suspected typhoid, I successfully quietened the voice that said, ‘Get dressed and drive 60 miles to take her to hospital now and she’ll live. Stay in bed, and she’ll die.’ Elodie is an adult, and I know I have to trust that I’ve helped her develop enough sense of her own to make good decisions most of the time. I aspire to be Khalil Gibran’s stable bow to my children’s living arrows, but too much of the time I’m still the anxious archer.
I’m resigned never to shake entirely the anxiety of not being in control and able to keep those I love safe. Unfortunately I am all too primed for the heart-stamping agony of losing people I care about and this places my emotions on a hair trigger, but knowing this about myself is part way to dealing with it. My conscious viewpoint (and perhaps a broken leg at this particular juncture was a useful reminder) is that life hands you a random script – mine just happened to include the death of my incredible daughter – and the limit of your control is how you play your part. At some point after Juliette died, I made the occasionally hard decision to live as intensely as she did because she no longer could. In the context of my current incapacity I must remind myself that raging against my foolishness (why was I admiring the sky rather than watching the uneven road?) and wallowing in self-pity at crutch-induced tendonitis, is no shortcut to happiness. Reading for my prison study, catching up on unfinished novels (and un-watched box sets), seeing my lovely friends and writing the odd blog post is, at a time when I have been chronically busy, a joy. And ‘only’ another five weeks without driving. Who knows? Any minute now I may be thanking my lucky stars.