I’ve held her inside every step of the way

I first knew Jane when we were both in our early twenties. She and her husband had just suffered a bereavement. Their little girl had contracted meningitis and had died within hours of reaching hospital. They were both devastated, searching for sense through the darkness of their despair; looking for any answer to the thousands of questions they had, all of their conversation tumbling out from their tears and sobs. I was there to listen and be present and to help them as much as I could.

I remember so many of those conversations with folks who had suffered the death of a child or baby – even if I’ve forgotten the names involved – or in truth I remember the feelings I was left with rather than the words. Feelings of utter uselessness in the presence of another’s brokenness.

I met Jane again years later and maybe understandably I didn’t recognise her at first. We had both changed, and we were not the people we were once. One thing she said though has stayed with me ever since. We talked about that first time we had met and about her little girl. Jane said to me “I’ve held her inside every step of the way.”

She told me of how it was really hard to go back home, the emptiness she felt and her desperation not to let go of anything belonging to her daughter – almost she said as if throwing anything away would be an act of betrayal. She told me how she’d visited the grave every day – how she just wanted to continue being a mum; she shared very openly about her attempts to hurt and harm herself because she simply wanted to be with her daughter.

All of this led to the breakdown of her marriage as her partner in her own words gave her ultimatum upon ultimatum as he tried ‘to drag her back into living.’

Then over time she said things started to change. Slowly at first – small steps but important ones. She started working again after 3 years; she began to go out and reconnect with friends; she reduced the time she spent at the grave and on some days chose not to go. She then after a while started dating and met someone.

As she told me of her marriage, of the birth of a son, of his first day at school, of his growing into a man and his graduation, after every story of her growing family and ageing self she said that at every moment of memory that she had held her wee girl inside her every step of the way.

I thought of Jane and her life of unforgetting love when I discovered that next Wednesday 3rd July that it is to be National Bereaved Parents Day.

The day was set up four years ago by the charity A Child of Mine, after they realised that there wasn’t a specific day that honoured bereaved parents from all walks of life. In their words:

‘National Bereaved Parents Day brings together anyone affected by the death of a child to show bereaved parents that they are not alone. This year’s theme is “Love Lives On”.

And how true that statement was and is for Jane.

Over the years I have been privileged to have spent time with people who have been bereaved and each and every encounter has been special. But I have found that the impact of the death of a child on parents has been one of the hardest of all experiences. It is a loss that lives with the parents throughout their time. It doesn’t diminish it just changes.

But what especially saddens me are the countless folks I have talked to in late and older age who are still mourning for a lost child or baby. It saddens me not because they are mourning or grieving but because in years gone by their loss was never validated, often ignored and rarely understood. Thankfully things have improved but I’m not wholly convinced that society doesn’t still expect us to speedily ‘ get over it.’ I’m not convinced that we are not still in a situation where it’s assumed that in your eighties or nineties that the grief for a child dead for decades should now be passed and forgotten. I’ve met too many in care home and community who have never had the chance to grieve and mourn, who have never been enabled to say a proper goodbye.

The death of a child remains with parents for ever – the love does not diminish. We all of us need to be much more aware and sensitive to the particular impacts of such bereavement. In fact in older age, it is often the case that parents may experience a resurgence of grief, particularly during milestones such as anniversaries or what would have been significant birthdays. As others see their children grow into adulthood and milestones like marriage or grandchildren arrive the painful longevity of grief touches ever sharper.

Older adults have often talked to me not least of the child who has died was an only child of how alone they feel as they age. Many older people as they age often face a shrinking social circle due to the deaths of peers or reduced mobility. But the absence of their child can amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation. Without their child to share memories with or support them, parents may struggle with a profound sense of emptiness.

I’d also want to highlight that parents can lose their child at any age and all that I’ve said about grief is as valid for the loss of an adult child as much as for a younger child. But added to the grieving is the possibility that if the deceased child had their own children, grandparents may take on the dual role of supporting their grandchildren while navigating their own grief. This responsibility can be emotionally and physically taxing, especially as they age, impacting their ability to cope and their overall well-being.

Every step of the way, every moment we age, every occasion and memento moment Jane and others will carry their child deep inside their heart. They will never be forgotten; the fracture will never truly heal. Love lives on even if its rhythm alters.

As a society I think we must do more to understand and acknowledge the particular aspects of losing a child at any age both for the parents and for others. We too need to find ways in which collectively and as communities we learn to carry the memory of those who are departed as we age together.

I leave you with a beautiful poem for all ages by the American animator and songwriter Rebecca Sugar called Time Adventure.

‘Time is an illusion that helps things make sense

So we are always living in the present tense

It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends

But you and I will always be back then

You and I will always be back then

If there was some amazing force outside of time

To take us back to where we were

And hang each moment up like pictures on the wall

Inside a billion tiny frames so that we could see it all, all, all

It would look like: will happen, happening, happened

Will happen, happening, happened

And there we are again and again

Cause you and I will always be back then

You and I will always be back then’

Donald Macaskill

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash