I am the mother of three children. The question I dread the most from a stranger is, “How many children do you have?” Every time I have heard it I have died a thousand deaths. The first time anyone ever asked me I answered, ‘Two’ out of sheer panic and the ensuing feeling of guilt and shame tortured me for days. This was just two weeks after Romy’s passing when, in the depths of my grief, I was wandering about in some kind of haze. I had absolutely insisted on keeping a chiropodist’s appointment, despite everyone in the house insisting that this wasn’t a necessary, or advisable, thing to do. I justified it by pointing out that it was at a clinic I had never been to before, nobody there knew me and besides, it was imperative that I got the dry skin on my heels taken care of immediately. Grief makes big deals out of some very pointless things.
As I arrived, I admit I felt a little frisson as I realised that for the first time in two weeks, I was a complete stranger. Nobody was staring at me, giving me that look which asks whether it’s okay to approach. Nobody was going to mention it. I was just a normal person, coming for an appointment. I wasn’t The Woman Whose Baby Died. Of course now, six months later, I can almost laugh at this naivety. This is an ingrained part of my identity now. If I ever imagined that I would get a day off from this moniker, I was badly mistaken.
Still, I sat myself in the chair revelling in the once ‘normal’ feeling of being just another person ready to make small talk, now already such an alien feeling. The young girl doing my treatment was very pleasant and chatty, the kind of person I would have enjoyed interacting with Before. Her opener was, “I bet you’ll be looking forward to the end of the summer holidays won’t you?!” I struggled for an answer. I was barely aware that we were in the summer holidays. And no, I wouldn’t be looking forward to the end of them because I couldn’t bear the thought of being apart from my other children. Still reeling from this question, I decided to stay silent in the hope that she’d assume that I was enjoying my heels being grated so much I might drift off into sleep.
Nope. She followed it up with, “How many children have you got?” You know the rest. This was only the beginning of my half hour appointment; the rest of it was a masterclass in how to pretend that your child hasn’t just died by forcing yourself to chat merrily away with an innocent stranger. Strangely, almost as bad as the question itself was my irrational fear that, in telling her that my daughter had died two weeks previously would make her think I was a terrible person. What kind of bereaved mother even leaves her house, let alone arrives seemingly chirpy to a foot appointment? I practically ran out of the clinic on my newly filed heels, called home and cried uncontrollably down the phone. That was a harsh lesson, and the day I learned that I wasn’t myself any more and that I would never really know myself again.
Grief has two faces. Grief is the silent thief in the night; it creeps up on us, steals every facet of the person we previously knew ourselves to be and leaves us bereft, not only of our loved one but also of our sense of self, of all that we previously were. It forces us to retreat, to hide, to go within. It spawns depression. It also produces uncontrollable rage.
Grief’s partner in crime is Guilt; they are rarely apart. Grief sets the situation up while Guilt sits silently, passing judgement on us, waiting for an opportunity to pounce and torment us at will.
Where Grief and Guilt really collude is when I start to wonder how ‘the new me’ feels to my children. Goodness knows it feels weird enough to me. They didn’t ask for any of this. There they were, happily going through life with two parents who were generally happy and well adjusted. They welcomed a new sister. Their new sister suddenly disappeared and in place of Mummy is a person who sometimes feels very different. On some days, this ‘new Mummy’ is irritable and snaps about things that don’t seem to be very important. For some reason, she is worried about them hurting themselves. She used to worry about this before, but now it is all the time. She cries sometimes, and they know that this is because Romy died. She used to work with babies and talk about them all the time. Now, when she sees someone with a baby she looks upset. She is quieter than she used to be and wants to be with them all the time. Every Friday, on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, birthdays and any special family day, she goes to Romy’s place at Clayton Wood. She takes them to the doctors a lot more than she used to. If anyone bangs their head she becomes almost hysterical, quiet paranoia kicking in and convincing her that all her children must have been born with a freak anomaly in their brain that could ‘go’ at any time.
I think about this and I feel so guilty. On ‘bad’ days, it consumes me and I get angry. Apart from being angry that one of my children is missing, I am angry that my husband and my other children have to endure this awful version of me who I don’t recognise and don’t even like. As I once remarked to my husband, ‘You’re lucky – you can go into another room, go for a drive or even leave me; I am stuck with myself, with the contents of my own mind, for the rest of my life. You have a choice whether or not to stick with me – I don’t.’
And this is what a lot of grief is about, especially when you lose a child. You are stuck with it. You are stuck with the version of yourself it has painted. Added to this, you live with a constantly running film of scenes you don’t want to watch. However, you make some kind of commitment to keep these things hidden from the world at large.
I try a vast number of tricks to escape from my own mind. Some of them work, some of them don’t. I still can’t access memories of Romy while she was alive; by which I mean I can, but the fear of how overwhelmingly upsetting they will be prevents me from doing so. I almost unconsciously block them out. There are only so many tears you can cry, only so many times you can feel your heart break. You know that you will keep experiencing these feelings but you try to stop it happening all the same. I still can’t look at photographs of Romy. My mind replays her last 48 hours with exhausting regularity. It never stops. Each time I still my mind for a moment an unwelcome image flashes into my mind. And yet I hold back the ones I want to see for fear that I won’t be able to handle my response. Enter our old friend, Guilt. If I carry on like this, it whispers, blocking out all the good memories, there will come a time when I won’t ever be able to remember her. That possibility is just too horrible to bear. For a while after Romy’s passing I turned to the clichéd props of alcohol and cigarettes in a lame attempt at escapism. Having not done either for over ten years, just for a short time I convinced myself that this approach was working; my old rebellious triggers fitting in nicely alongside my anger and justifying both. Of course, they don’t work. Counselling provides some relief, but it can’t get into my mind, it can’t change what happened. It can’t bring my baby daughter back to me. There is no help. There is no escape.
Part of why I began writing this blog is to help others to understand the complex nature of the life of a bereaved parent. As I write this it is almost seven months since Romy passed. We’ve stumbled through Christmas and New Year and her first birthday is looming in March, along with Mothers’ Day and my birthday, which is four days after hers.
We have experienced a phenomenal amount of support. However, things change, the Universe flows and everything quite rightly moves on. We are selling our home and moving out of a small village and into the outskirts of Brighton. The children are at a new school. I have given up my life’s work and my brilliant husband is starting out on a new business venture, which I am working on with him. Thank goodness we have no plans to get a divorce, otherwise I think we’d be close to some kind of record for ‘Most Stressful Experiences It Is Humanly Possible to Live With At The Same Time.’ This doesn’t even count the two teeth I had extracted recently, the two speeding tickets I managed to collect within ten days of each other and the car I drove into last week.
The relentless looping of my mind and the stratospheric highs and lows of my emotions carry on with depressing regularity, and yet they are mostly unseen and unwitnessed. Strangers wouldn’t know I am a bereaved mother. Outwardly, I organise my children, declutter my house, cook, clean, help my husband with his business, laugh, go shopping, volunteer for things.
People tell me of their troubles and by now, they have largely forgotten to add, ‘Of course, this is nothing compared to what you’re going through’, and why shouldn’t they be free to complain? I truly believe that all life’s struggles are relative. I don’t hold the monopoly on tragedy, and the fact that someone else may be living with a difficult situation is still very relevant. I honestly do not believe that it is any the less meaningful simply because I lost a child – on the contrary, we all have things to learn in life and this is my learning, not yours.
Besides, I harbour a very deep seated desire to give back even a little of the overwhelming love and support I’ve received. If anything, I am in a great position to do this because I have suffered, I suffer still and in some ways I know how to ‘be’ with grief, difficulty, tragedy or suffering, whether it’s yours or mine. On the other hand, in the middle of a Bad Day, I admit that if I happen to overhear a mother complaining about her baby/consequent lack of sleep/inability to find an au pair, I feel like screaming. So-called ‘middle class problems’ seem like travesties to those of us who wish that’s all we had to worry about.
As I became more accustomed to hiding certain parts of my grief I worried that I was extending the well documented ‘denial’ phase. In Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s widely recognised Five Stages of Grief, this, along with anger, is the biggie. Newly bereaved, I went into overdrive, launched myself into one project after another, didn’t give myself a single second to sit still. I made a conscious choice to live my life outside of my bed, I made a choice to engage, though on some days it is truly the most difficult thing I have ever attempted to do. I filled my days with everything I could to avoid facing the contents of my head, which terrified me. The only place I could give in to my grief was in the car, the shower or at Romy’s burial place, where I really let rip. I continued this up until Christmas when my body finally gave up and I was felled by a nasty, lingering virus – all the physical ‘stuff’ of my grief, leeching out.
As I limped into this new year, I made another conscious decision to even things out a little, to stop hiding. I started to become more honest with myself about how I felt and what I wanted. This is harder than it seemed because the business of grief is utterly exhausting. But I am trying.
I read a piece recently entitled, ‘You Went to A Funeral…..And Then You Went Home’, which spoke very honestly about the two faces of grief. Those of us who grieve usually choose to do it privately, and there are many ‘private faces’ of grief which are too raw, too uncomfortable to share openly in any situation. It’s a double edged sword. You don’t want to share these aspects with complete strangers or acquaintances because they are too personal, too shocking, or require more explanation than you have the energy to give. It’s very difficult to share them with the ones you love the most as you instinctively want to protect them from more pain. Our family and close friends are already party to our grief by way of association; the last thing I want to do is to cause them more pain by ‘enlightening’ them.
So recently, just for myself, I invented a third ‘face’. It’s one that has nothing to hide. It is open, it is just as it is, it’s a no make up selfie. I imagine this face in repose; not screaming, not crying, not caught up in the workings of its own mind. This face is strong and it is not hiding. It is ‘facing up’ to any situation because isn’t this true of demons? In facing up to them you can face them down? Grief is a little more complex, it’s true, in that it never goes away completely, it cannot be conquered. However, rather than shrinking from it in fear, it can be honoured, and therefore the most terrible parts may be eased. I have faith that I can use this strength to find my way.
The neopagan Triple Goddess is characterised by the phases of Maiden, Mother and Crone. In fact, I have a tattoo in honour of this very goddess on my left ankle. In conjuring her, I hope that some of her strength may help me as I navigate further into this first, very difficult, year without my beloved daughter.
I have three children. My grief has three faces.