23 March 2020 – Lockdown Day for us all here in the UK. And the world wondered, we all worried – will life ever be the same again? But, we didn’t know, we still don’t know … no one knows.
However, 23 March is a day for me, every year, when I am reminded that life will never be the same again. This year, I had just returned from a long forest walk with Mike, my husband, when the news of lockdown broke. It wasn’t unexpected, but it certainly was unknown and it was uncharted territory for everyone I know. There was no one to ask how this was going to work.
23 March 1994 is the pivotal date etched in my mind forever with a definite ‘before’ and ‘after’: the day our seven-year-old son Philip died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. Each year we make space for our thoughts, our memories, our heartaches – time alone, time together, time with nature and with God. Philip’s death wasn’t expected, it certainly was unknown and uncharted territory for everyone I knew. There was no one to ask how this was going to work.
Life for me has never been the same – but with the benefit of hindsight and a whole heap of other stuff, I know life can be rebuilt: there is hope, purpose, a future, there can be joy.
I am no stranger to death, my earliest memory, aged eight, being the death of my Granda, but being protected from conversations and ceremonies surrounding that. I remember a girl at school dying suddenly and seeing the tears and emotion of her friends and form teacher leaving school to attend her funeral. The death of my uncle whilst I was a student was the first death that I needed to process personally, not understanding why tears would often come uninvited. Then the sudden death of my father-in-law brought not only deep grief but very practical challenges; making a 300+ mile journey, needing to support Mike in making funeral arrangements, sorting out a house and 30 years of belongings to get it ready to sell – all with a three-week old baby! The sudden death of my own Dad only days after my 40th birthday awakened me to my own mortality, the very deep grief of my Mum losing her soul-mate after 54 years of marriage and the need to support her. Then the news of her death, nine years later, brought into sharp focus the reality that the whole of that generation had now gone.
For us, losing a child was in a league of its own, but over time I have realised that there is no hierarchy of grief – your worst loss is your worst loss. Whatever the loss, it is a difficult thing (personally, I think it’s an impossible thing) to face alone. Grieving, for the vast majority of us relational beings, needs to be done to some extent in the community.
When Philip died, our support came from many different sources: those we lived and worked amongst; the school community, where staff and parents were also navigating worries and fears amongst other children; our church community, friends and family, locally and around the world, who were rocked. No one expects the news of the sudden death of a healthy seven-year-old. Each of these individuals had a personal journey of grief to travel. Many chose to do it alongside us and as such brought us company, encouragement and hope. Alongside this was overwhelming practical support carrying us through those first few months. In hindsight, I see how very blessed and well provided for we were.
But what about those who are grieving this year? Where can they go for help and support? Sudden loss, lives lost way before expected, those who have suffered long and painful illness over many months and even years, finally losing their battle against cancer or other terminal illness. What a different scenario for their family facing lockdown and physical isolation. Let’s not call it ‘social’ isolation – we desperately need some form of contact, but how hard not to have that hug, that coffee and to share those tears with someone close.
How can friends find honouring ways to say goodbye? There is a great need to be creative, to research, to think more widely and long as well as short term. Communication through social media and using technology has been vital both in one-to-one support and in allowing others to join in farewell ceremonies – but it is important to remember that when the pandemic has passed there will still be much to process. And that is fine.
A word I have understood more over the last 26 years is ‘lament’, which to me conveys the longer-term impact of loss. The deep sorrow that lasts past those earlier stages of loss but is less intense. It is something that I allow myself time and space to do, especially each March.
Grief following the death of our child is something that takes time to process. As George MacDonald describes in his poem ‘Walking with Grief’: ‘Do not hurry as you walk with grief: It does not help the journey. Walk slowly, pausing often. Do not be disturbed by memories that come unbidden’. Take time. Pause and embrace memories.
So yes, we need good support in those early days. At Care for the Family, we are so pleased to still be able to offer our Telephone Befriending Service and to launch online events. Talking to another bereaved parent can be so reassuring and comforting in the early days. But grief isn’t something that mends like a broken bone, leaving no sign of injury; we need space and time to grieve the future we have lost. We bear scars for life; the absence we feel is evidence of our love. Our friends and family need to know this is a long-term loss, affecting our lives forever. Their love, care and support will help us this year, next year and onward as we work towards that ‘new normal’ in our individual families as well as in the world around us.
Friends who still remember, who know that there is still a gap in our lives even after 26 years, are like gold. Those who walk beside us long-term are the most precious of friends, for whom we are truly thankful.