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Signs of growth and setbacks

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I remember imagining sitting at the bottom of an enormously steep hill, doubtful there even was a summit where I could sit and be at ease in any way again, no matter how long or hard I climbed.

When their child dies, parents often feel life has halted abruptly, they are paralysed and unable to go on. Somehow, the next day dawns, then the next, weeks become months and we begin to wonder if and when we will ever begin to feel ‘better’.

Adjustment to life following the death of our child and the accompanying growth in our strength and resilience can initially seem imperceptible, often only seen in the light of reflection of our reaction to different scenarios of life or to other’s observations of us.

We asked some of our befrienders how they’d been able to recognise growth:

Mike: “When Catherine left home, we still thought of ‘her’ bedroom and many memories of her growing up there since she was three. Five years after she died, with conflicting thoughts, we saw a house that suited us. There were tears, standing in the empty lounge for the last time, unsettled months wondering if we’d done the right thing, but gradually we came to love our new home, the quieter environment and friendly neighbours. It’s been part of our healing process, looking back, not with regret, but with precious memories.”

However, Ruth said: “The children were surprisingly upset when we decided to move two years after Matthew’s death, fearing losing his memories. David and I were glad to leave some difficult memories and images behind and refurbishing the house led to a more gradual transition, which helped.

Steve told us: “I’d call at Morrison’s after work to buy a treat for Lizzie who was too ill for school, but for almost three years after she died, I couldn’t face going in. However one day as I was passing I found I could!”

For several people realising that they were strong enough to reach out to others, cook a meal for someone else, support other bereaved parents and walk with them, being a companion in their grief, showed that they’d stepped towards becoming stronger and more able to see beyond their own pain and loss.

But it’s not always instant success. Sometimes our attempts lead to us feeling back to square one again. It just seems too hard:

Joy: “My son’s wedding was just two months after Debbie’s death and a year later my sister was married. Debbie should have been there!”

Steve: “Lizzie died aged 17. The following year we were invited to her friends’ 18th birthday parties. We went to the first one and it was just too much seeing them all but no Lizzie. We had to leave.”

Sometimes situations creep up on us, taking us by surprise:

Mike: Catherine’s funeral was 3 April, which was also Easter Saturday. We planned how to mark the first anniversary of her death and 3 April. However, Easter Saturday came three weeks later and I was totally unprepared as painful memories came flooding back.

Ruth M: Eighteen months after Matthew died, dealing with a distressed relative at work brought back memories of hearing the news of Matthew and crying, sitting on the pavement in Amsterdam. Colleagues supported me and I realised you are never so far on to be immune.

Ruth H: Graham and I arrived to look after our grandchildren, whilst our sons Chris and Ben went to a World Cup rugby match. Jon, our son who died, loved rugby. As we arrived, I spotted Ben, dressed in his kilt ready to support Scotland. He looked exactly like Jon! I felt I’d been punched in the stomach and had to sit for a while, before going into the house. It was so unexpected.

Sometimes we’ve thought that we were ready to take on new challenges only to be surprised at our vulnerability:

Jenny: I thought I was ready to go back to leading a women’s group within my first year, but clearly wasn’t. I found it difficult to sympathise with their problems, feeling they weren’t as serious as losing someone. I still needed more time to heal and accept that my ‘new normal’ will involve seeing and hearing through new eyes and ears.

However at times we’re faced with challenges or big decisions and there’s no way of knowing if we’re ready for the challenge or not. It’s a huge leap of faith stepping out into the unknown – but we need to commit and at times it’s been the best decision ever:

Ian: Eighteen months after Peter died, we emigrated to New Zealand. Being able to repeat our story as we met new friends was a healing experience. It was a big risk, but it paid off for us in a big way.

Sandra: My daughter and I met up with friends in America five months after my husband and son died. Looking back it was in some ways utter madness, spending the whole time in a bit of a fog. After a time with our friends, we did things on our own, determined to start making new memories. It was tough in so many ways, yet looking back, doing that so soon gave us confidence to continue to be adventurous. Maybe if we’d waited till we felt ready, we’d have missed out on realising that no matter how tough it felt, we could start to build a new life

In some circumstances, we may discover that there is another way to face the challenge before us:

Catherine: We moved house two years after Alistair’s death. Picturing Alistair, so full of life in every room, the thought of moving and losing that scared me. With everything else packed up, the coat hanger at the back door with Alistair’s coat and school bag still remained in place. Neither of us could take it down. Nigel unscrewed it and put it back up in the coat cupboard in the new house – with the coat and bag still on it. Twenty-one years later it’s still there! I didn’t lose those precious memories of Alistair when we moved; instead he came with us and is as much a part of our family now as he ever was.

We understand that we never ‘get better’ in the sense of back to ‘how we used to be’, but slowly, gradually and with help and support we do grow stronger into a new shape in a new landscape.

As Jerry Sitzer describes in his book ‘A Grace Disguised’: “I felt like I was staring at the stump of a huge tree that had just been cut down in my backyard.” But in time he discovered that he was able change that scene; he worked around it instead of removing it. He concludes that: “The stump is surrounded by a beautiful garden of blooming flowers, growing trees and lush grass. Likewise, the sorrow I feel remains, but I have tried to create a landscape around the loss so that what was once ugly is now an integral part of a larger, lovely whole.”