It’s mid April and Covid-19 holds the world in her grip, leaving death and uncertainty in her wake.
But I’ve woken to rain, a quiet house, a cup of tea and the chance to write.
Our way of life has changed, or been put on hold, or perhaps altered forever. Who knows? No-one I know has lived a pandemic before.
And yet some of this feels familiar. I’m not the only grief mother who has heard the echoes. In an online group, one I hadn’t visited in a long while, someone mentioned how similar it felt. The quiet where there should be noise. The unravelling of expected routines. Hopes and plans stolen away. The gaping, awkward spaces between people. The constant obsession with the one thing you cannot change. The longing for a different set of circumstances. Rallying against unfairness and trying to find someone or something to blame. The relentless search for an anchor. Something you can control. Something to hold to.
Losing a child is trans-formative. I am not the same woman I was before Xavier died. You lose your everything and you gain resilience and perspective. And, while I will always prefer Xavier back, I know I’m more prepared for this period than I would have been without his loss.
I’m harking back to the lessons I learned in those dark days of early grief.
In the days following Xavier’s death I searched desperately for answers. Literally. Through Google. Hoping to stumble on some certainty, some clarity. I drowned myself in news in the same way weeks ago. It’s not helpful. This saturation of media in the vain hope of clarity. I was searching for something that didn’t exist. And it was, as it did then, drawing me away from the things that would nourish me. In those early days I became accurately aware of what would drain and what would enrich. Over consumption of media always drains.
There were light days in grief. Even in early grief. When a pervasive optimism would surprise me. The first time it happened I thought I was done. Adjusted to my new normal in a jiffy thanks to a positive personality. Of course, it was a far thing from the truth. But I learned to cherish those moments of normality. For as long as they lasted. And in the same way now, I’m mindful of moments. The periods of time when hope bouys me. When I wake to rain and a quiet house and a cup of tea. I’ll take those moments. Grief isn’t linear or all pervasive. It comes and goes like the tide. You learn how to read it.
The way I spoke to myself changed after losing Xavier. Rather than berating myself about being useless, I became kinder. I needed that internal cheerleader to help me through. I remember trying to prepare dinner one night and it seemed impossible. This simple task rendered overwhelming. Quietly, I told myself I could peel the carrots. I could chop them up. Each little step broken down and each foot finding its place after the other. That’s the kind of inner kindness we all need right now. No one knows the path ahead, but forward is still one foot in front of the other.
Acres of time open up after your baby dies. You have hours and hours to fill. No-one is so insensitive as to suggest you pick up a new hobby or learn a new skill. I have only felt that now – this expectation to remain productive. How did I fill my days back then? There was a lot of quiet contemplation, a lot of creating which helped me feel connected to Xavier. The things I did were not focused on filling time or becoming a better person, they focused on bridging a gap between myself and my baby. And even then, I felt pulled away from that work by the constant needs of my family. At that stage, including a three year old. They kept me busy, kept me sane and kept me away from projects I may have fulfilled otherwise. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Right now, books remained unread, puzzles unsolved and sewing patterns untouched. Five weeks into isolation and I’ve not learned a new language or a new instrument and that’s okay. I have had more cuddles with my kids, more walks with the dog and more conversations with friends than I have had in a long while. Sometimes time leads to space to create stronger connections, rather than self-centred improvement.
Judgement abounds right now. The right and the wrong ways to do things. Righteousness anger when one persons response does not look like your own. We have experienced loss of safety and our illusion of control shattered. So when others continue to challenge that, it’s understandable that we respond with fear and outrage. Our capacity for tolerance has been stretched too thin. If it’s impossible to increase that bandwidth, then we need to stay away from situations that challenge it. For me, that’s limiting social media commentary, being mindful and placing boundaries around my time.
There are subtler judgements too. Feeling like we’re failing at isolation when someone else post pictures of their family’s good times in lock down. But the highlight reel remains the highlight reel. We’re still not sharing the messy times. Perhaps even less so because we are looking for normality and escape. I created a lot of beautiful things for Xavier after he died and I shared them. Those who had not lost a baby looked at those things and thought I was coping admirably well. Those that had, may have struggled with those images. But we also had a lot of spaces to be real. Online and real life groups where a rawness of emotion was allowed and encouraged. We saw the beauty but we also saw the blood and the tears. We were real with each other. And I think we need to be real now too. This is hard. This sucks. This isn’t all driveway drinks, teddies in windows and rainbows on pavements.
One reality is exhaustion. I was so exhausted when I was in the early days of grief. And I wasn’t doing much – certainly not waking every other hour to a newborn. I didn’t feel that bone aching tired you feel at that stage. It was more a mental exhaustion – a feeling of constantly having to push myself through the normal aspects of life. Things that used to take no effort, took a great amount of effort. I was so tired of the new normal. In every sense. And while my feet aren’t as heavy right now, that dragging feeling is there. That tiredness is there.
Because I’m over it. I’m sure we are all feeling a little over it. About five weeks after Xavier died I fantasised that someone would appear at the door and hand Xavier back to me. They would apologise for the confusion and congratulate me on handling my grief with such grace. They would let me know I had learned the necessary lessons and that life could return to what it was. I think we’re all fantasising about an end to restrictions and a return to normality. The newness of this particularly reality has worn thin. But just as no one magically appeared with my son as I lost patience with my grief, this reality isn’t going to change because the novelty has worn off. It was always going to get harder before it got easier. The human spirit is an amazingly resilient thing. This too shall pass.
Of every piece of advice I have gathered and gained, the most important remains to “go gently”. Those two words became my mantra in grief. Be gentle with yourself, your heart, your words, what you watch and read. Be gentle with those around you, those leading, those hurting, those lashing out. Greet yourself with a spirit of kindness. Hold yourself gently.