I was travelling along the M25 one day and unexpectedly found tears rolling down my cheeks. I’ve travelled that road many times, since that most memorable of journeys.
We drove back home at 1.30 am having just said goodbye to our eldest son, Philip, after he died in theatre in a hospital in Wimbledon, having suffered a sudden brain haemorrhage. The memories came flooding back as I recalled making late-night phone calls to family, arriving home to a very dark and empty house – and then more calls and visits the next day.
Many years have passed since that dreadful night, which was the start of a new and very different journey – one which we would never have chosen. However, it can still be surprising how something can jump, seemingly out of nowhere, to knock us off our balance. We often call these events ‘tripwires’, because there can be no way of knowing when or where they may appear. Sadly, there’s not a lot we can do to prepare for them. However, we can recognise that they do indeed happen to us, and to all other bereaved parents, and that feeling overwhelmed by them, when we thought we were doing okay, is totally normal.
Over the years we have tripped many times. There was the day all his classmates were taking their 11+ and one dear friend said how worried she was for her daughter. I could only reply that I wished that I too could be worrying about Philip taking the test that day.
Then there were GCSEs, followed by all his friends going off to university, choosing career paths, graduating, meeting that ‘special person’. And then we faced another ‘first’ – the wedding of one of his friends whom he had spent many long hours playing with as a toddler. Now, that one I thought I had prepared for. I was sure I would be okay. And I was – until we saw all the photos of the beautiful bride as a baby, toddler, school girl, dancer, teenager and young woman. I recognised many of those photographs, then it hit me all over again that our photograph album had ended so abruptly. I was reminded again of the suddenness with which Philip’s life had stopped back in 1994.
I suppose these times will always be there. A few years ago, we faced the prospect of our second son, Ian, now our eldest with us, leaving home and going off to university. That was a challenge, as we all knew that he shouldn’t be the first – Philip should have led the way. He should have been explaining about student loans, freshers’ week, learning to cook and keeping a budget. So Ian too was once more reminded of how much he misses his big brother as he faced the milestones in his own life.
I’ve come to realise that we have now ‘grown used’ to the fact that Philip is no longer around and here with us – even though in the early days we never thought that possible. But our love for our children will never go away. From the moment they were conceived we had hopes, dreams and plans for them and their future. No matter at what age they died, we still miss all of those dreams being fulfilled.
As we reach each of those milestones and see others pass by them, we miss our precious child all over again. But that is fine; that is normal; that is part of having a parent’s love. We will never forget our children, and hopefully we can find ways to remember them and even include them as we pass these milestones, as we trip over these wires, and as we get up again to carry on.
When you find yourself on the ground again, it is important to have a place to go to find comfort, encouragement and strength. That may be in those treasured photo albums full of the happy memories of times you have shared; it may be going back to special places, or it may be spending time talking to those family and good friends who have travelled with you on your journey. Make sure you take time to be gentle and kind to yourself when you are feeling that depth of pain all over again.
I got the photo albums out again when Ian left home – and I remember that he too found a little space for his brother’s photo in his bags when he began his new life at university. Those photos, we know, are so precious – and we can hold on to them and our memories for the rest of our lives.