I spoke at the Digital Parents Conference in March, just before I got sick. I was on a panel moderated by the amazing twin–rearing, dirt–bike–riding supermum Grace. The panel was called ‘Blogging Through Adversity’. I shared the couch with the gorgeous, humble Tiff who blogs at My Three Ring Circus; and a lady named Rachel whom I’d never met before.
I know Tiff fairly well, and we’ve shared podiums and talk-spaces a few times in the past. Tiff is understatedly awesome. Her writing is honest and real and raw, bringing light and hope and truth and laughter to thousands of other mums and dads whose children have no choice but to be fighters, living every day with illnesses that make the word ‘normal’ seem like a fairy floss cloud on the horizon. She works passionately and tirelessly to promote two causes that are worthwhile for more reasons than I cover– the importance of Red Cross blood donations; and the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
While Tiff and I are veterans at grief, seasoned at speaking about it; Rachel is heartbreakingly, horribly new at this, this ridiculous position that no one would wish for. Being unfortunate enough to be so deep in pain you can’t breath. But still, blessedly, somehow having the tangled words to speak about it. And finding writing to be your only solace.
I can’t quite find the words for what I actually want to say here. That’s something of a rarity for me. But I need to try, to write this one out. Because I was honored and proud to share this panel with Rachel. Sitting across from her, watching her speak and weep and roll waves of pain across the room, I wanted to open my heart so wide I could wrap her up in it. I wanted to be able to take that haunted ache away for her, just for a moment, just for a second. Just to give her some relief, so she can muster her strength to keep going when simple existence is the hardest task in the world.
Rachel lost her little boy in October last year. His name was Hamish and he was just twenty months old. It’s not my story to tell, and Rachel tells it beautifully herself on her blog, Mummy Muddles. Just five months after losing her child (five months… A blink of an eye, nothing at all. The longest five months of her life, I would guess, every second stretching out in agony). Rachel sat with Tiff and I on this Blogging Through Adversity panel. She spoke, eloquently and passionately, bravely and endearingly.
And she was gorgeous, angelic with blond hair and an open friendliness about her. She smiled and socialised and was amazingly, admiringly composed.
There’s a particular tilt to people’s smiles, when they’re grieving that deeply, so fresh in that pain. Something that lies just behind the upward curving of lips that tells you, if you recognize it, that it costs the earth to smile; that smiling feels unnatural and forced. It’s not because you don’t want to smile… you seem to have forgotten how to do it properly, and it almost never comes naturally anymore. Real smiles, natural smiles, they take you by guilty surprise.
There’s a certain exquisite loneliness that comes with it too… I think I know only because I’ve been there. But I saw it on Rachel’s face through the entire day of the conference, which must have been so long and exhausting for her, so much effort involved in being around people who are sympathetic but don’t understand, can’t possibly understand. That loneliness, even in a room full of people… it feels like existing in a goldfish bowl, a glass bubble of reality. The normality of normal people presenting itself as bizarrely obscene.
Rachel took all of that, all the pain and sapped energy of playing the charade and folded it inside herself. She seemed to find the small, bright, densely burning light of needing to tell her little man’s story. Of wanting to share his life with people. Of being able to shed light on the pain of an untold number of grieving parents. And she spoke, her voice clear in the total silence of the room. Amazing everyone. Blowing us all away.
It hurt to watch Rachel, remembering how I felt five months After– unable to catch myself, sentences dissolving into tears before I realized I was crying. At one point Grace asks me “Is there anything you can tell Rachel… is there any kind of silver lining?”
“It gets better”, I say to Rachel after a pause, weighing the words I’m presenting. Looking at her, speaking to her and no one else. Wanting so badly to give her some assurance that she won’t feel like this forever, that things will not always be as they seem in the moment. “I promise, it gets better…”
I feel almost like a fraud, a little, more than I’d like to admit. How do I know, really? Losing a husband, losing a child… it’s incomparable. It’s apples and oranges, chalk and cheese, ‘indeterminately’ to ‘forever and always’. It’s comparing your heart broken from the outside, to your heart ripped from within.
Another blogger, a friend of mine named Fiona, asks me in the break following the panel, “Do you know, for sure? Will it get better, really…? I mean, she lost a child…”
For a moment, I’m stumped, silenced by the weight of all the things I’m nowhere near certain of.
“I don’t know… Yes. It will. I think it will. She’s only five months in… Even just the trauma of what she witnessed takes twelve months, at least, to wear off. The shock is so deep….” I trail off, the sentence unfinished. Shake my head and shrug. Hope I’m telling the truth.
I think I am. I’m almost sure. What I went through is totally different to what Rachel, or any other parent who loses a child, experiences… apples and oranges, chalk and cheese. But I remember being in that dark place, where Rachel is now. The place where sleep is the only relief you ever get. Where it’s just too difficult to smile and most everything is either insignificant or too significant, shredding your soul with its displaced familiarity. The place where every day is just a constant thumping, accusing heartbeat of ’why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why….’.
That doesn’t last forever. I promise. Rachel, and anyone else who is grieving someone they love dearly… It gets better. I promise. It has to.
Rachel told her story for a second time at the conference, at an evening story telling session. It was held in the stone cellar of the castle–turned–reception centre the conference is held in. The space is small and intimate, cosy and acoustically perfect– the speakers are without microphones or podiums. Just themselves and their words, remarkable and heartening and as real as life itself.
Rachel reads the story of her beautiful boy and how she honors Hamish every time she writes, every time she shares herself and her grief, her thoughts and her dreams. I can’t find a big enough word for her. She’s eloquent. Strong. Brave. Dignified. Graceful. A loving, earnest mother. A warrior woman.
I’ve offered to read for her, should she need me, but I doubt that she will. At one stage she falters, tears tumbling over the words she’s trying to say, and I walk to stand beside her, reach for her shoulder so she knows I’m there. She doesn’t need me to take the paper from her hands and the words from her mouth, she’s far stronger than that. But I can’t help standing with her- I remember the power of someone’s hand when you need it, an anchor to the world as you float on a balloon of almost tangible longing.
The small audience is quiet, silent, dense… absorbing her story. When the event finishes I attempt to tell Rachel how very in awe of her I am; again, I just can’t find the words I need for it. So I try to give her something else. It’s a monkey’s paw of a gift, the smallest solace that’s really nothing but words. But I remember when my psychologist told me this same thing, with compassionate regret in her eyes.
“I don’t know if this will help or not, Rach, but it helped me… it will get better. Really. I promise. Two or three years and you will feel better. Two or three years and you will start to feel normal again. I know it sounds strange, but it was something, to know there was an end point to it…”
“Instead of the way it feels now,” says Rachel, and I’m telling myself I saw the tiniest flicker of hope in her eyes, “as if it will go on forever…”
All I can do is nod, and hope she knows I’m telling her the truth as best I know it. Two or three years… it seems like such a horribly long time. It is a long time. Does it become more of a burden, to know how long it will take some of this heaviness to lift…? I don’t know. Yes, and no. Three years may as well an eternity. But when you’re grieving, people keep telling you, “It just takes time…” And when you ask “How long?”, they say “I don’t know… Just give it time.”
An inconclusive guesstimate of how long, exactly, this pain will hurt so intensely… a least it’s something. A month, a year. A point of reflection. Something to hope for.
For Rachel (who has read this post already, because so much of this is her story, not mine); I need to tell you this. I wrote this blog post on my iPad, my Pensieve, sitting in my overgrown fairy garden. A cup of tea by my side. Autumn sunshine toasting the fabric on my back, warming me through to the core. It’s quiet and peaceful. My cat is curled up by my side. My kids are at school. My house is, admittedly, a mess… but lets not ruin it with that.
Right now, I’m at peace, more than I have been since my husband died. Sometimes it all still hurts… of course it does, to tell you otherwise would be lying. Things will never be the same again, and I look back at the Before like Alice through a looking glass. Like it was some kind of fairy tale in a world that doesn’t exist anymore.
But I’m more me than I ever was, Before. I’m so alive, so real, I take my own breath away. I know myself and the people around me with a certainty I’ve never felt before. I take nothing for granted. I appreciate little things, work for big ones. Life is full and chaotic and occasionally satisfying. I find solace in watching the world turn.
It gets better. I promise… because I’m here. This sunshine. This cup of tea. This sense of wellness and satisfied acceptance of the world. These are the best proof I have, the best evidence I can give. They’re not much. But they’re real.
It gets better. It will. I promise.
Huge thanks to Fe from Lumsdaine Photography for allowing me to use her images.