News that’s hard to take

This is going to be a hard post for me to write, but I feel that I have to, as an act of catharsis if nothing else. It is going to be hard to write without what have been made to seem to be banal collocations, most of which have been so overused as to seemingly trivialise tragic events, but for example if I use the word ‘dreadful’ here I mean ‘full of dread’ and that’s ‘dread’ in the ‘anguish’, not the ‘anticipate’ sense.

I had a piece of news yesterday that’s as unwelcome as a piece of news can be. Someone I have known for quite a few years has had an occurrence in her family’s life which, for a parent, is the worst thing that can happen; for some time now she and her family will be living in a waking nightmare, a dreadful state of anguish. Yesterday morning she awoke to find that her young daughter had died in the night.

The previous day the little girl had fallen from her bicycle, and sustained a broken clavicle. She was at home that evening, feeling unwell, and so was invited into the parental bed. The next morning she was dead.

Many people become very emotional when hearing of the death of a child they have known, but it’s impossible for someone who hasn’t experienced the death of a child or sibling to know how painful it is. ‘Painful’ here being comparable to describing an amputated limb as ‘sore’; the feeling of helplessness is unimagineable.

Families who have had this happen to them have to negotiate every event each year while being reminded that someone is no longer going to enjoy these events. Every family birthday, every family holiday, and every Christmas, there will be a hole in the family. Every event in each of the siblings’ lives will be saddened by the fact that a family member is not only unable to share in it, but that family member will never pass that landmark themselves. And schooling is a procession of regimented events: moving from primary to secondary school, exams, school trips, prize days, parents’ evenings, sports days, summer fairs, concerts; and then going to university. And, of course, every anniversary of the death is a landmark. For many years, and for all I know still, my eldest daughter didn’t like Easter, as Easter was when our baby died, in our bed.

I rode to the hospital in the ambulance with our dead baby and I knew there was no hope of his life being restored. And now whenever I see an ambulance on an emergency run, or when I see a large vehicle traversing chicanes on the wrong side, the memory flashes back, I go cold and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

I had to make my way back from the hospital in the early hours, and then we had to tell his elder sister (his toddling brother was too young to really understand what was going on).

My numbed brain struggled to cope with the arrival of police officers, the Coroner’s Officer, our G.P. The grapevine worked well, but there were still people we had to inform. There had to be an autopsy, which was indecisive, and then a funeral. With a very small coffin. In the chapel the two older siblings put flowers onto the coffin, with a collective audible intake of breath from those present.

And at home we had to put things back together again. As he was a twin we had two of things you normally only have one of, or as in the buggy for example, double-sized things; and we had to think of what to store safely for the future, things his twin might want to have when she was older.

We got a lot of help from the FSID, and his surviving twin was put on the CONI (Care of Next Infant) programme, which monitors the baby’s progress by weekly visits from a Health Visitor, weekly weighing to record growth, and uses an apnoea monitor to monitor breathing. This was reassuring, but did act as a continual reminder of what had happened to our family.

We had a network of friends known through the local NCT, and the mums at the parent and toddler group I was attending, were so supportive, as were the staff at my eldest’s infant school. When the dust had settled a little we took her out of school for a fortnight and went to deep rural Wales for a holiday – my wife was still on maternity leave. It was arranged that we had a visit from a Health Visitor while we were away to do her CONI checks.

We did lose one set of friends completely, a family we were close enough to that we’d been on holidays with them – I believe it was because initially they didn’t contact us about our baby’s death, not knowing how to deal with it or what to say, then didn’t know what to do because they hadn’t been in touch, and so stayed out of touch. For thirteen years.

I often wonder which, if either, can be worse: to have an older child die, or a baby with whom you have yet to form an intellectual relationship, and hopefully a friendship; and with an older child there are not only the hopes and ‘what ifs’, but also all the memories of their life they shared with you. Every time I read or hear of the death of someone’s child I wonder this.

I now have a far greater emotional response to things. The instinctual part of my brain which deals with emotions has been made far more reactive.

This is going to have to sound trite, but Liz, I wish you and your family well, and send all of you my love. I couldn’t say ‘I know how you feel’, but I can say ‘I know what you’re going through’. The emotional wounds are supposed to become scars as time goes on, but they’re deep and long-lasting – the skin grows over the wound so it’s not obvious any more, but sometimes every now and again something opens the wound again. However, the mental pain does get assuaged with time, and your other children will be the mainstay of helping you through. I don’t know how parents cope with the death of a singleton.

And please forgive me if this is a little unpolished, there may be typos or grammatical errors, but I feel disinclined to proof read it at the moment, so you’ll have to have it as it is.

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4 Responses to News that’s hard to take

  1. Kristen M. says:

    What a heartbreaking post. I am sure neither loss is worse, just different. In industrialized nations, I think we tend to be more disconnected from death — which makes it even more surprising and painful, especially in the young. I am so sorry for your family’s previous loss and for Liz and her family’s loss. There really don’t seem to be any adequate words for circumstances like this.

  2. bagotbooks says:

    Thanks for the response. Reading Hester Thrale’s (Samuel Johnson’s best friend) journals gave me some insight to what it was like in the days when the child mortality rate was high – and they loved their children just as much as we do; but it wasn’t unexpected, if you had a sickly child it was likely they wouldn’t survive to adulthood. My brother had septicaemia when he was a boy c.1950, and only large quantities of the recently introduced penicillin kept him alive. I had mumps & meningitis simultaneously when I was small and nearly died even though I was treated with antibiotics.

  3. Jane says:

    Nigel, I’m so sorry. I don’t think there are degrees of loss: it’s all dreadful, and as Kirsten says, different.

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