I had a busy, noisy household with four children who filled my time being ‘mum’s taxi’ to school, swimming, riding, football and with endless washing, cooking and fun. But in 2004 our lives changed after a car accident when I skidded on black ice during a school run. My two younger children, Grace and Rory, who were aged six and four, died at the scene. Lucie, aged eight, broke her ankle and I broke my back. My eldest son Hugh was ten and went to a different school on the bus. My husband at the time was working away.
Initially I was in shock and only half-comprehended the enormity and truth of what had happened. In the immediate aftermath my time was filled with a constant stream of visitors, who I’m sure couldn’t believe how composed and together I seemed. I decided that I wanted to see friends, family and colleagues as soon as possible to avoid awkwardness which would have crept in over time. This gave me less time to be alone and contemplate an empty future. I had to support Lucie through an operation, have surgery on my back and concentrate on rehabilitation to return home as soon as possible. I had two children for whom life had to go on. In many ways, young children appear more worried about going to someone’s party or making football practice than all the complexities of adult grief.
Did we have double grief because we lost two children? I don’t know. There were 21 months between them and they always played together. I do know it gave me comfort and a sense of peace that neither was alone. I am sure this seemed a crazy notion to most people! I also had my faith and held onto the belief that I would see them again and that this wasn’t the end. This faith, together with amazing supportive friends and family and keeping busy – probably too busy – was my way of getting through an impossible situation. I threw myself into work, regained my fitness and then studied for a Master’s degree! I also had a gritty determination that I wanted Grace and Rory to be able to view me as the same mummy, not broken but living, and they became my champions – two ‘guardian angels’ on my shoulders willing me on.
Don’t get me wrong – it was a survival game, living one day at a time. Losing half of your children overnight creates a hole in your family that feels so big, especially in the evenings when I was still very much involved with baths and bedtime stories for the older two. For weeks I over-catered at every mealtime, and the quietness in the house was deafening. Having other children is a double-edged sword. It gives you a reason to get up, keep living and keep moving – but sometimes I wanted to disappear and hide and just be alone with my grief. That could never happen.
We were blessed with another child and he was indeed a healing touch for us, giving us a new light for the future. But grief is a journey, a rollercoaster of emotion, and it can throw you curved balls. My journey was sadly further complicated by the failure of my 20-year marriage. Many times after Grace and Rory died I felt an awkwardness to join in a conversation due to the ‘elephant in the room’. The death of two of your children is a bit of a conversation killer, but I got used to engineering a way round that. However, surviving the loss of two children and then losing a husband seemed like the ultimate failure, and a story no-one wanted to hear. The end of my marriage hit me harder than losing my children – again, something most would not comprehend. This time I lost my sense of stability, along with the person with whom I had shared both the good and painful memories, birthdays and big anniversaries. I felt there was a stigma of being a single mother – rightly or wrongly, that was just how I felt. Through this time I experienced loneliness, both emotionally and socially, that I had never felt before.
How did I survive? The passage of time and small steps, plus the human capacity to grow, rebuild life and adapt to a further new normal. When I was at my lowest I knew I was still blessed with three wonderful children who would always be there with me. Eventually I met someone who had never known Grace and Rory but understood our loss and became a rock to my children and myself.
Would I do things differently? Yes! My husband and I thought that we were coping. In truth we were probably too busy with work and used this to escape the reality of our situation. I wish we had seen this and sought professional help from a counsellor. And I wish it had not taken me ten years to attend a Care for the Family Bereaved Parent Support event, where for the first time I was in a majority, not a minority. I discovered that there is a comfort and an empowerment from talking to others. Their journey may not have been the same, but there are more similarities than differences.