The death of a child, quite naturally, has a huge impact on an entire family and the aftershocks can be widespread and ongoing. In my case, my immediate family (husband and other two children) were emotionally torn, yet we had to find a way to continue to live our lives together, finding new routines and ways to be without pausing.
It’s without doubt that our relationships with one another have changed in some ways; thankfully, we are strong and this has bonded us further together, but it’s certainly no smooth path as each of us battles with our individual feelings, worries and fears.
Close family, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, have their own challenges accepting the reality of the death and must grieve their own sense of loss as well as suffering for the immediate family. In some ways, this is a double grief.
As a grieving mother, I haven’t had to consider comforting other family members to any great degree. The tragedy is, rather selfishly, mine. She was my first-born, the baby I grew inside me and gave birth to, the person I knew better than myself who I loved, raised and cared for. While I, of course, have done what I can to help ease family members’ grief, this was really not as easy as it seemed, especially initially as I entered the phase of shock and disbelief in the aftermath of Abi’s death. I simply could do nothing but close my mind to anyone other than myself, my husband and children – our own grief was enough to comprehend.
I was aware, however, that the relatives of a deceased child are somewhat left to grieve in their own way, with each other; even more, they are expected to carry on with life pretty much as normal, as their own extended families, friends and work colleagues can only offer a distant kind of sympathy. Then, they are also needed by the bereaved family as support and to share their grief. But it’s important to consider that, as a relative (or friend), just because it’s not directly affecting you, does not mean it’s not affected you.
Since Abi’s death we have received some therapy from Winston’s Wish, a charity set up to directly support the needs of bereaved children. Admittedly, it’s been bloody difficult for us to do. It took great courage to go the first few times. I felt anxious, irritable and upset before each session. Why put us and our children through all that tiring emotion and distress again? But, because we were directly affected, we felt we had to seek help in order to face the trauma and grief, and alleviate too much long-term damage.
We have a long way to go, but we’ve already seen the benefit of talking to specialists about our feelings. It’s a supportive environment which has become a place to focus on us and our feelings about missing Abi. This has been invaluable – while we think of Abi every minute, this is thrown in around the daily stuff and we have little desire to sit and discuss our emotions or upset one another at the end of a long, tiring day. I expect many people fall into this pattern, then one day they are feeling angry, confused and upset with no clear reason why and it spills out.
At Winston’s Wish, crucially, we are all in the same head space at the same time. The specialists we see don’t fumble over what to say. They don’t offer meaningless platitudes or say the ‘wrong thing’. They listen patiently without watching the clock. They understand. They are not embarrassed by tears and snot. They don’t feel awkward if we get emotional. They offer advice. They don’t judge. They know it’s hard. This necessary openness isn’t often possible with those who mean the most to you.
Some family members were present from the outset of Abi’s traumatic collapse and time in hospital, their own lives suddenly turned upside down, so I’m aware they will have their own painful memories and flashbacks of that time. Understandably, the attention is on us, the immediate family, and other family are expected to look after themselves, so it begs the question… who’s supporting the relatives?
In some cultures, the families spend a good deal of time all together, mourning openly. Ah, but that’s not really the British way… There are nationwide charities such as Cruse and others, or a local church bereavement support group, but there seems to be a reluctance to use those services when you’re not directly affected by a death. How can I get counselling when it’s not even my child that’s died, when I’m seeing my sister’s/brother’s/child’s family struggle with their own grief? What help can anyone give me to make me feel better about this anyway? This is just how it is, isn’t it; what’s the point in talking? But, grief is personal and a relative (or friend) is just as entitled to feel overcome by their feelings as the parents and siblings. They should feel able to seek and receive support for themselves.
I can fully empathise with this situation. When a friend from work died five years ago, I felt guilty for my grief and being so affected by it, feeling anxious for months afterwards. Yet I didn’t know her family well or was even a very close friend, but her death stayed with me for a long time after. I didn’t feel it was justifiable to seek help, but I know now that a few sessions or a chat with someone would have helped me understand my feelings and ease the anxiety that had developed.
Emotions run high after a death in the family and it’s often easier (and safer) to talk to a stranger, even by phone, as there isn’t the pressure of upsetting or offending the listener, or causing potential damage to suddenly strained family relationships. Some family members will feel themselves become closer to the bereaved, some more distant, so it’s important to have a ‘safe place’ in which to speak openly and honestly. Grief can’t be easily explained, but nor should it be ignored.
Some people feel better talking, so, if you are struggling and not sure why, consider talking to someone impartial… a bereavement charity, therapist or member of the church, as it will certainly not make things any worse for you, and might actually help. But, if talking isn’t for you, perhaps, do what I do… write. Buy a notepad and jot down your thoughts, or keep a diary and then look back over it to see if you have progressed at all.
Writing, I find, is immensely therapeutic, although I do balance this with talking to my family, my friends and God. Writing enables me to express myself however I like, whenever I need, day or night. Getting it down creates a little more space in my head and eases the pressure for a while and, when I’m feeling low again, I read over my writing and am comforted by my own words.
And even if all that is too much for what you’re feeling, sometimes just a coffee with a friend is enough to share your thoughts and ease your mind.
For more information about Cruse see www.cruse.org