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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