On the evening of the 5th July 2012 I went to bed tired and content. Life was close to perfect. We had just welcomed our littlest son into the world. A mere thirteen days old, perfect and all-consuming.
I woke the next morning and my world shattered. My son was no longer breathing and there was nothing I, nor the doctors, nor my husband could do to bring him back. Grief, a vague and conceptual notion up until that point, became my very real and constant companion.
Here are 10 things I know about dealing with grief.
1. It never looks like you expect it to and it doesn’t go away
Grief is a slippery beast. Just when you think you have moved out of its shadow, it turns on you. I cannot control my grief. I wish I could. There is a perception that grief is linear – that you experience an intense period of grieving directly after losing someone dear and then gradually heal. Those who know grief intimately realise that it doesn’t work that. It peaks and dips and turns you around in circles. Time offers a degree of healing, a scab over a wound. But it only takes a birthday, Christmas, an anniversary, a scent or a certain song to knock that scab off and it weeps again.
2. I want to hear my son’s name
I know that people hesitate to talk about Xavier with me. They worry they will bring up difficult memories and upset me. But those memories never leave me. Elizabeth Edwards said it best: “If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died–you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and…that is a great gift.”
3. Much of the time, it’s up to the grieving to educate those around them
This feels like unfairness heaped on unfairness, but we do not learn how to relate to the grieving. We are a culture obsessed with happiness and sadness is difficult for people to process. I found that I had to tell people what I needed in my grief. What I was comfortable speaking about. What was important and how I wanted to be supported.
4. The things we are taught to say to grieving people do not help
I did not want to hear that my son died for a reason. I did not want to hear that I was strong enough to bear the pain. I did not want to be told how lucky I was to have my living child. I did not want to think about what it might have been like to lose my eldest or my husband. It didn’t hurt less because my son was so young. I drew the most comfort from those that simply said “I love you, I love Xavier, I am so sad that he is no longer in your arms, I will remember him with you.”
5. The only people who truly get it, have lived it
I was lucky to find support groups. Other parents without a name – not an orphan, not a widow – but something so unspeakable that we don’t have a term for it – a parent whose child dies. It was here that I found people who truly understood what I was going through. I could not expect my friends to truly grasp what it was to have their child die. And I really didn’t want them to.
6. It’s okay to be functional
I didn’t fall to pieces when Xavier died. I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t. I was something beyond sad. I cried rivers and I felt like there was no colour in the world. But I never stayed in bed all day. I showered each morning. I looked after my eldest child as best I could. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, waiting to walk off a precipice. And I felt guilty that my grief didn’t look like other peoples. That I was “functioning”. Then I realised that my grief was my own. It would look different. It didn’t mean I loved my son any less.
7. Light returns
In the months after Xavier died, I resigned myself to a black and white world. I truly believed that happiness would no longer be a part of my experience. And if you had told me differently, I may not have listened. I would not have believed you. But gradually, light did return. Life has a funny way of pulling you along.
8. Tragedy does not make you a better person
I am a changed person since my son died. There are things I look at through an entirely different lens. But I do not think I am a better person. I do not think that I was refined by the flames or that I arose, phoenix like, from the ashes. It’s a romantic notion, that tragedy transforms us into better versions of ourselves. Maybe some people experience that. I don’t feel that I did. There are certain parts of me – a hopeful innocence – that are forever lost to grief. I liked that part of me. I wish it was still a part of me.
9. Every legacy is important
There are people who do amazing things after their children die. People who set up charities. People who change careers. People who dedicate their lives to finding cures. People who raise amazing amounts of money. People who run marathons and people who climb mountains. I am not one of those people. I admire those people but, at times, I feel inadequate compared to them. I feel like I have failed my son yet again because I haven’t changed the world for him. I write to connect with Xavier. I make little things to preserve my connection with him. And that’s okay. That legacy is important too. It doesn’t make my Xavier’s life worth less by comparison.
10. You’d do anything to have them back
No matter how much I have learned. No matter what deep friendships have been forged. No matter how many positives have entered my life since Xavier died, I would do anything to have him back. I would do anything to have all three sons in my arms.
Robyna May writes at the Mummy and the Minx. A blog dedicated to holding onto yourself whilst you hold onto your babies. Robyna explores the intersection between being a mum and holding onto your identity through a different challenge and focus each month. She blogs about parenting, love and life after loss at Chasing His Sunshine.
She lives in Brisbane with her family of boys (including the dog) and tries to balance blogging, creating, parenting and running her own business with varying degrees of success.
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Thanks so much for sharing this. Strangely enough, I have three sons too and my eldest son is Xavier. If we ever met, and I hope we do, I’d love to hear more about your Xavier. x
You are so lovely – thank you. It is a beautiful name.
I needed to read this tonight. Two weeks ago I lost my father and I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel. I’m functioning and I’m not crying all the time but I feel numb and heavy and not content. It’s good to know that grief is individual and there is no one way to feel, even if every book, TV show and movie makes it seem that way. I’m sorry for your loss Robyna but I’m grateful for your insight, your resilience and for your enduring love for Xavier x
I am so sorry that your Dad is no longer with you on earth. I think we often wish that grief did look the same – that there was some universal road map. But we each find our own way, and if we are lucky, we are surrounded by people that may not understand but are willing to be there for us.
This is such a beautiful and eloquent post. Robyna, you are so talented at putting words to things that would otherwise leave a lot of people speechless x
Thanks Hugzy. If I can give grief a voice, then I feel like I am really doing something for Xavier, so thank you.
Beautiful Robyna. x
Thanks Tash – love to you xxx
This might sound a bit strange, but… this is the best piece I’ve ever read about grief. Having never experienced it at close range, I’ve never fully understood it. It now makes so much more sense to me. One of my best friends lost her mum recently and though I feel like I’ve been there for her, I now know the type of journey she’ll be on for the rest of our lives. Robyna, thank you. And thank you Xavier for being a beautiful little shining star in the night sky. x
Oh Sonia, you have made my night – I think we all need to talk about grief a little bit more because it is a universal experience – whether we are personally touched or supporting someone. Much love to your friend.
You and Xavier have made a difference to the world by this blog post. I am sitting here in Australia on a cold day, at work, and I have teared up. My daughter was born on the same day and year as Xavier and your blog post really resonated me, so thank you xx
Thank Bec – I hope you can give your daughter an extra little cuddle from me tonight.
Robyna, Thank you for writing such a lovely, honest article. I’m shedding a few tears for your beautiful lost boy Xavier. I have never considered that parents who have lost their children have no name given to them. I think the pain in such a huge loss is almost unspeakable for many. I love that you are courageous enough to speak. Bron xo
Thanks Bron. I feel like speaking about grief gives my little boy a voice. It really is an unspeakable, unthinkable kind of loss, but not talking about it can make those experiencing the loss of a child feel even more lonely and isolated. So I will always write about him.
I love you Robyna and I’m very sorry that you have this knowledge to share, but I’m grateful you have shared it. xx
Thanks Amanda, and thank you also for sharing your own grief and how it works – I think it’s important that we talk about it and I love that you are brave enough to speak about David on your blog. Always with us xxx
Oh this is heart breaking, I am holding back the tears.
Oh, I didn’t mean to make you cry. But thank you for being touched by my words and my little boy.
Beautifully written. So wise and true. Don’t feel you have failed your son. By writing this piece you have touched many . Grief comes in many shapes and forms as you say can catch you unawares. Best wishes to you and your family.
Thank you Marie – I think it’s in my nature as a mother to feel that I have failed him, but I am learning. slowly, not to feel that way.
Robyna, this is an extraordinary piece of writing. I am so deeply sorry for your loss. A greater pain I cannot imagine. I am only able to relate in a distant way as I lost a much-wanted pregnancy recently and I am still coming to terms with my grief. I have a friend who lost her twin babies minutes after they were born and she told me that the hardest thing afterwards was having to make others feel more comfortable about the sadness. So many people never said anything to her – even those close to her. She wanted them to say something – anything, to acknowledge her loss and acknowledge that her babies mattered. I also lost my auntie recently who was like a second mum to me, so grief is a close companion of mine right now. I can take away so much from this post. It’s one of the most useful things I’ve read about grief so for that, I thank you. What a brave, wonderful woman you are – a gorgeous mother to Xavier who will always be loved and remembered. Thank you, and I wish you healing and happiness xx
Thank you for your kind words Michaela. I am truly sorry for the loss of your baby and your aunt. Much love to your friend – it can feel like madness when people don’t acknowledge your children and your loss. You wonder if you have any right to grieve when everyone else is pretending that nothing happened. I am sure that you are great support for her.
We lost someone very special, way too young earlier this year. Your article would have helped explain a lot of things to those around our family at the time and even to help us make sense of our own ongoing grief. Thank you for sharing. So sorry you didn’t get anywhere near long enough with Xavier xx
Thank you Holly – I am so sorry for your loss. It is really something that is not understood until it is lived. If my words can help people understand it a little better, then I am very happy. Thank you for kind words about Xavier.
Oh Robyna this is one of the saddest but strangely most heartening pieces of writing I have ever read about grief as it explains so many things. Bless Xavier … a very special little person, and his memory will live on always in your beautiful thoughts and words. It was so lovely by the way to be able to spend time with you yesterday xxx
Jo, it was SO incredibly lovely to catch up with you on Tuesday. Thank you for your kind words on this post – it means a lot to me.
So beautifully written. I’ve experienced grief many times over but losing a child would be the hardest ever. Thank you for sharing, I’m sure your words will help many understand better x