Jane, one of our Bereaved Parent Support Coordinators, looks back at what happened to her family and reflects on what they have done since their son Ben died that has helped them benefit again from family holidays.
On Friday 1 August 2003 our 11-year-old son died on a mountainside in the French Alps while all around us other tourists enjoyed walking on a beautiful summer day amid the majesty of the mountains, unaware that our lives were being turned upside-down, never to be fully right again.
Ben was walking in front of us with his older brother, Jonathan, when he slipped, knocked himself out and then fell over a concealed cliff. He didn’t die instantly, but gained consciousness for about fifteen minutes, during which time Dave and I were able to climb down to him, leaving our other two children at the top with a kind English couple, who we’ve never been able to thank. We talked and prayed with him while waiting for the helicopter, but he died shortly after the medics arrived. We were taken by helicopter with our other children to the rescue centre, leaving Ben on the mountain.
We spent much of the next two days in Chamonix Police Station giving statements and talking to the British Consulate, but most of the time we just waited around. Fortunately, the police accepted very quickly that it was a pure accident and issued the death certificate, which would allow us to bring Ben’s body home, although we were told that would take several days. We decided to go home as soon as we could, as we needed our church and family support network around us, and the children needed somewhere familiar and safe. In a complete daze we returned to the campsite we’d been staying at, and packed everything up (including Ben’s clothes and toys).
We faced many difficulties, but looking back, some of the things that really helped were:
- Friends who had keys to our house – they were able to fax Ben’s birth certificate across so the death certificate could be issued.
- Constant text messages from friends and family at home, helping us feel we were not alone. We found texts better than phone calls, because you don’t have to respond to them immediately, or at all.
- Having adequate insurance cover. The insurers arranged everything – our flights home and transport of the body, plus payment for the helicopter, hospital, hotels, transport, etc.
- Friends who were willing to fly out to be with us – we didn’t need it in the end, but they were there for us.
- Close friends who came into our home, and with our permission, rang almost everyone in our personal phone book, so we didn’t have to do it – it must have been incredibly difficult for them.
Why are holidays so difficult?
It is now some years after Ben died. We miss him every day, though the pain is now less acute most of the time. However, holidays are one of the things we have had to learn to manage.
- Ben died on holiday, so planning for and actually going away are always tinged with the thought that something could go wrong. I suppose I do still breathe a sigh of relief when we get home safely afterwards, although my husband Dave no longer feels this.
- My eldest son tells me how hard it was to see his mum struggling on holiday, obviously worried and on edge for much of the time – I thought I was hiding it!
- We now have a six and a half year gap between our other children. Jon was fourteen and Becky, eight when Ben died – he had always been the bridge between them. We have needed to find things they could enjoy together, otherwise Jon would have stopped wanting to come away with us.
- Holidays are supposed to be times of relaxation and refreshment – that is so much harder when a previous holiday was so traumatic.
- Our children found it hard that there were things they could no longer do. Jon says, ‘The pain was always him not being there. Competing against your slightly younger brother in swimming, football and cards is not quite the same as competing against a much younger sister.’
One tricky question we had to face was – do you change how you do family holidays, or keep them the same? Should you completely change things, because it is too painful to do what you would usually do? Or, for the sake of the other children, do you keep the pattern the same, knowing that familiarity is good for them? I don’t know the answer.
Soon after Ben died a friend warned us not to change everything in our family traditions, because the other children then not only lose their sibling but also their familiar traditions and normal celebrations too. It is something we have tried to take on board, and was very good advice to help keep the stability of the family. However, regarding holidays, change was necessary. Ben was just too much at the centre of our holidays – on the beach, sharing a tent with his brother, playing games, etc. Talking to the children now though, they would actually have preferred to go back to our usual pattern sooner. Perhaps in retrospect, we should have done so.
Some principles that have helped us:
- We don’t take a long summer holiday as we used to do, but now have a few shorter holidays of different types. Certainly for a while, it was helpful as a survival mechanism.
- We talk to the children and ask them what they want to do. We involve them with plans, as they tend to know what they can deal with.
- Different family members react differently. Becky struggled with mountains and slopes for a very long time, but Jon loves them as they help him feel close to Ben.
- Make time to be just the nuclear family, rather than always going away with other people.
- Accept that what happened was not part of some ongoing divine punishment against you – death and horror are no more likely to happen now than before.
- Try not to restrict what your children can do any more than before. Your children won’t need reminding that bad things can happen on holiday – they will certainly remember that on their own.
We do enjoy holidays again now, though for a while it was something I felt we had to do, rather than something I enjoyed. We took the ferry back to France for the first time some years ago – it was fine, but tinged with a mixture of sadness and happy memories.
Holidays will never be the same again. But then, when you lose a child, nothing is the same again, so why should we expect holidays to be any different? I suppose it is more acute for us, because Ben died on holiday. However, holidays are now, once more, times for relaxation and refreshment.
Now Jon and Becky are both adults and don’t always come away with us. Their bond is incredibly strong, one wonderful thing to come out of their joint loss.
Holidays are still special family times, when we talk more about previous holidays and about Ben. Nowadays, we can remember with happiness and laugh about how he would have enjoyed it and what he would have done, knowing he is safe in God’s hands – the same hands which continue to support us day by day.
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