Portsmouth journalist and campaigner for justice for victims of vCJD (the human variant of ‘Mad Cows Disease’) Christine Lord recounts her experiences of losing a child and asks why society still struggles to acknowledge and address grieving parents.
Stage and TV actor Kim Cattrall – known for her role in ‘Sex in the City’ – told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in 2015 that she objected to terms like ‘childless’ to refer to women who have not had children.
“It’s the ‘less’ that is offensive: childless – it sounds like you’re less because you haven’t had a child,” she said.
Her objection got me thinking about my own situation and how language and wider society treat people like me. Like Kim, I don’t feel represented in the lexicon of parenthood because there are no words, titles or labels in the English language to describe my circumstances.
I am the mother of a dead child.
There. I have written those dreaded words. The worst nightmare of every loving parent/guardian, or caregiver. Stark prose from which most adults recoil, whether they are ‘child free’ or a parent.
My son Andrew was killed aged 24 years old in 2007. His sister Emma was just 17 when she lost her only sibling.
Yet Emma remains Andrew’s sister and I remain a mother of two.
We belong to a growing club whose membership runs into the tens of thousands in the UK. According to the Office of National Statistics, between 2010-16, between 8,600 and 9,800 young people under the age of 30 died annually in the UK (an average of 9,000 per year). This means tens of thousands of newly bereaved mothers and fathers every year. Hundreds of thousands across Europe and millions across the globe.
As a bereaved mother, qualified counsellor and journalist, I wanted to write about how it feels to be a parent of a dead child: how people’s sympathy often comes with an expiry date, and how we have a problem in our society if we cannot acknowledge and understand grief.
Bereaved parents are expected to neatly package our grief: to give it a clear beginning, middle and a final, accepting end, tears no longer shed, pain ceased and the dead child deleted as quickly as an unwanted email. At the same time, the catastrophic event of losing a child creates divisions within relationships – from close friends to work colleagues. In the media, parents of dead children are often written about as tragic humans, broken by tragedy.
How we treat grieving parents is important because it shows us how as a society we deal with – or hide from – our deepest fears, and the isolation this causes to those of us who have lived through those fears becoming real.
I buried my only son just a few days before Christmas on 21st December 2007. In the last week of his life Andrew asked me, ‘Will you remember me?’ I sobbed and assured him that I would always be so proud of him and would talk about him and his achievements until the day I died. Why wouldn’t I?
But in the months and years that followed, I learned that our society would often find my attempts to keep that promise difficult, embarassing, and off-putting. I still, proudly, declare that I am a mother of two children. In my experience, what to me is a simple fact has for others the power to perplex and shock.
I have discovered that many people view the death of a child as ‘taboo’; a subject that shouldn’t be talked about too often once the funeral has taken place. Part of this seems to be based on a perception that there is – or should be – a time limit on grief.
I’ve met many people who believe that after one year, or two has passed, a bereaved parent should be able to ‘move forward’, to ‘forget’,or to find some form of ‘closure’. All these terms have come to make me shudder, and to understand that our society does not like to address what life is like when you lose a child.
Contrary to this common expectation, the grief of bereaved parents is more likely to expand with the passing years, with each birthday, each Christmas and holiday. The life that should have been lived is ever present for us. Blinded by disbelief, we try and make sense of this unknown landscape, where we continue to live when our children are dead.
I still want to keep Andrew and his memory alive in my ongoing relationships. I want to talk about his job, his smile, his funny jokes. I don’t chatter on needlessly about Andrew, but when others talk about their children or parenting, I want to share stories about both of mine, too. This is not maudlin but a celebration. Andrew existed and he contributed to so many people’s lives and experiences. He will always be a part of my family, and a part of me.
In the early days after Andrew had died, I witnessed an array of responses. Sympathy, practical help and listening ears were welcome. But as time passed, people became dismissive, less able to engage.
‘He’s in a better place,’ I was told by a mum with three healthy kids and six grandchildren.
A neighbour suggested I ‘get a dog.’
Countless times I was told, ‘time heals.’
I’m not saying people mean to cause distress, I understand how difficult it is to know what to say in the face of tragedy and profound grief. But at the same time, to hear these remarks feels at worst, cruel, at best, thoughtless.
I spoke to John and Nicholas, two fathers who have also lost a child, and found similar experiences to my own.
John is 54, from Wimbledon, and a father of five. His youngest daughter, Felicity, died aged 21 after a car accident during a gap year holiday. He told me how he has to adjust his conversation in everyday life, so that he doesn’t upset other people.
‘After Felicity’s accident, I was totally numb for many years. I worked non-stop to try and ease the depression and shock. Meeting clients was and still is difficult.’
‘I am confident, articulate, I like socialising. But I found after Felicity’s death, if I mentioned my daughter even in passing, the atmosphere changed and became stilted and odd. Customers and even friends at social events would get embarrassed and didn’t know how to react. I then feel guilty that somehow I had upset them, ruined their day or evening.’
John put his head in his hands as he told me, ‘I don’t talk about Felicity at work anymore. I tell new clients I only have four kids, it made it easier. I even took down a family photo of us all from my office wall. It became just too awkward. It’s as if Felicity never existed, as if she has been wiped out.’
Nicholas, 48, is an IT consultant on the south coast. He raised Will as his own from the time Will was a toddler. Will died from cancer, aged 28. He excelled at sports and had just got engaged when he was diagnosed.
Nicholas told me. ‘Will was the centre of my world and I miss him so much. I would probably be a grandfather now if he was still alive.’
‘One night after a work conference in Scotland. I got chatting to a stranger in a bar. We both started to talk about our sons. It was great to share, laugh and compare notes with this other father. Of course we talked of other things and topics, it was a lovely relaxed evening. At the end of the evening the stranger said, ‘I’d really like to meet your boy, he sounds a great young man.’
With tears in his eyes, Nicholas told me, ‘I drank my pint quickly and left as I couldn’t bear to tell the stranger that Will had died three years ago. Bereaved parents are not supposed to laugh and chat away about their late children.’
I know exactly what John and Nicholas were talking about, it’s other people’s attitudes to our loss that can be shockingly painful.
It has been over ten years since Andrew was killed and no, the pain is not as raw as it was, but my heart is broken. It will remain shattered. There will never be a quick fix. Because my son is never coming home.
Losing a child is horrendous and terrifying, but it’s also something that as a society, we should try to learn from.
If a person has lost a husband or wife, the terms widow or widower lend a sense of dignity and significance. Would giving bereaved parents a definitive title offer the same respect and empathy?
In the decade since my Andrew died I still ache with longing, still get angry, still shed a tear. Yet people ask, astonished, ‘aren’t you over it yet?’ or tell me, ‘you need to move on’ as if I have failed in some way, or have just mis-laid a favourite handbag on a train.
Talking about my son has been essential for my mental health. All of us will suffer loss, death is an inevitable part of life. So the next time a bereaved mother, father, guardian, care giver talks about their lost child, please don’t walk away from difficult emotions and leave them alone with their grief.
Instead, be brave. Listen, comment, share, laugh and reminisce with them. It will be good for your mental health too.
Her latest documentary about the food industry, Cows, Cash and Cover-ups? will be broadcast this year, and you can view the trailer below.