When I say his name, When you say his name

I wonder if most bereaved mothers have been there.  Some-one utters the name of your child gone too soon.  And there is a quick sideways glance, monitoring your reaction.  Breath held.  Will she be okay?    

The mother of a child gone too soon talks about her son.  Furrowed brows.  Concerned looks.  Is she sliding back?

A mother accidentally calls one of her living children the name of the baby who left.  Silence.  Is she delusional?

In the months immediately after Xavier died, I would talk about him all the time.  His name was burned on my heart and never far from my lips.  I would speak of him to ensure he was not forgotten.  I would speak of him because I needed to hear his name out loud.  I would speak of him, between tears, because I needed to articulate my pain and I needed to remind those around me that it still cut deep.   His name remains deeply engraved in my heart, but I speak of him less these days.   And when I do speak of him, it is for different reasons.  His memory and his legacy feels safer now.  I do not speak of him to remind people he lived, or that his death caused me immense pain.  I speak of him, because simply and beautifully, he is my son.   

When I talk about Xavier, I do so because I love him.  It has taken time to get a point where I can talk about him simply because I love him.  To a point where I can talk about him without the lingering sadness.  Where I can say his name without tears.  For any bereaved parent, this is a difficult and long-fought battle.  Talking about a child no longer in your arms is not a sign of weakness, or sliding back, but rather a testament to strength.   It is a part of integrating them into the fabric of life.  It is something to be celebrated and acknowledged.

If I choose to talk to someone about Xavier, I do so because I trust them with his memory.  I know that they will cherish him.  It is a gift, just as some-one speaking to me about Xavier is a gift.

When someone talks to me of Xavier, my heart skips with happiness.  When someone says, easily and happily, that Elijah looks like Xavier, I beam.  When someone tells me something reminded them of my son, I want to embrace them.

There is a beautiful piece of advice written by Elizabeth Edwards, oft quoted by bereaved parents:  

 “If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.”

When a bereaved mother talks about their child, whether with a smile or with tears or with both, please accept it as a gift and a vote of extreme confidence in your understanding.  Do not be afraid to say their child’s name, but rather know that your remembrance brings more joy than pain.  Even if your kindness leads to tears – it’s only because you have given permission to drop the veil for a moment.

A dear friend of mine has written:

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A bereaved mother is, above all, a mother.  A child that has gone too soon is, above all, a much loved son or daughter.  And a parent, above all, loves each of their children.  In reality, it’s that simple.

Mothers Day

There are days in the year that tear me in two.   Christmas, Birthdays, Fathers Day, Mothers Day.   There is the joy and the noise.  The handmade cards and the sticky kisses.  The impractical gifts and the restaurant meal. Hugs and laughter.  One side of the coin.  The other side yearns for solitude in the midst of all the excitement.  Wishes for a moment of a peace and reflection.  And more than anything, wishes another little voice joined in the commotion.

Mothers day is hard for a lot of people.  Those that have lost their own mums.  Those, like me, that have a child or children in heaven.  Those that have tried and tried to fall pregnant only to face another mother’s day without a baby in their arms.  Those that yearn with all their hearts for a child but know it’s a wish that will never be granted.    It is a day filled with flowers, breakfasts in bed and handmade cards.  But it also a day filled with pain and yearning for so many.   And all of those people deserve a little love on Mothers Day.

I am fortunate to be celebrating today with my two earth-side boys, my mum, my grandmother and my mother-in-law.   Surrounded by beautiful family.  There is, as always, much to be grateful for.  There is, as always, much to turn my mind from Xavier.  The pain of missing him, now just a dull ache where once it was piercing, seems at odds with the day.  And yet, it must be part of the day.  I find it easier to reconcile my feelings on his birthday or anniversary.  They are clearly days to be in remembrance of him.  Clearly days when tears and reflection are appropriate.  Days that belong just to him.  The days that tear me apart belong in part to my living family and in part to the one who has gone where I cannot.  These are the days when I must learn to integrate the joy and the sadness.

Today, I think of my mum, who is a beautiful, unique and talented soul.  She has given me everything and I love her more than she knows.  I think of my grandmother, who continues to live an enviably full life and is one of the most peaceful people I could ever meet.  I think of my mother in law, who never stops for even a moment and would do anything for her children and grandchildren.  I think of my boys.  My eldest, crazy and wild, funny and loving.   My youngest, gorgeous and curious, healing in his very bones.  My middle son, never far from my mind and always in my heart.

Happy Mothers Day to all.

 

Innocuous comments, injustice and the heart of judgement

The kids are back at school after holidays. Inevitably parents comment either on the relief they feel when their darlings head back to school or they lament that the holidays just aren’t long enough.  And nobody is happy about making school lunches.

Little comments: meaning nothing to most, a knowing laugh to some and heartache to a minority.  It’s hard to explain how throw away comments can hurt a bereaved mother’s heart.  How it can take hold as an aching wish.  I wish that was what I had to complain about.

I remember hearing complaints of rough nights from newly minted mothers after losing Xavier.  I didn’t begrudge them the complaint.  I knew how hard it could be.  I just wished that it was my complaint.   I would be up at 3am, searching Facebook and online forums for some comfort, and there would be the mothers of little babies online, passing the time as they fed or rocked their safe little ones to sleep.  And it would be so hard not to resent it, even when I understood it.  And there would always be the creeping judgement.  If my Xavier were still here, I would not complain.

These little comments fray away at the heart but  the truth is there is more jealousy than judgement. At the end of the day, you know that your friends love their children.  Comments might lead you to believe that things are taken for granted.  But that is the beauty and naivety of life before loss.  And the beauty of life after loss is knowing the precise, precious weight of every breath your child takes.

If throw-away comments can fray the heart, news articles about child abuse and neglect can drive a dagger through it.   The complete unfairness of horrific parenting being rewarded with more children whilst loving parents have their babies ripped away.  The inner judge roars with the injustice of it all.  And yet I cannot tear myself away from those terrible stories.  I know I am not the only bereaved mother cursed with this macabre curiosity – many of the horrific stories I read, I have been led to by other mothers missing their children.   And as I read those terrible, terrible stories, the tears I cry for the little ones hurt are as much for Xavier and I as they are for the lost.   If that child were to die at the hands of their parents anyway, why weren’t they taken by SIDS?   If a child was to suffer torture and murder at their hands of their parents in any case, why not take them as a tiny baby?  Sacrifice them to the statistics of SIDS and spare them the pain.  Spare my family the pain.

As much as we like to talk about karma and what comes around goes around, the world doesn’t work like that.  Losing a child is not a punishment for a crime.  Keeping a child is not a reward for outstanding parenting.  Some little ones suffer through out their whole childhood, against all odds they survive and some even thrive.  Some little ones are given nothing but love and comfort and they cannot survive a nap.  Each of us has a journey and a story.  Some stories seem to be shorter than others, but they are no less powerful.

There is little fairness and at the same time I cannot complain about fairness.  In the space of time I have carried and borne two children, I know those that have yet to fall pregnant.  I know those that have lost a child and have been told that they will not have another.  I know those that yearn desperately with their mother hearts to hold their own baby, but never will. I know that despite saying a premature goodbye to Xavier, my family and I have been incredibly blessed.

So where does it all lead to?  I suppose, it’s about letting go.  I accept the world is unfair but that does not mean I should be blinded to its beauty.  I do not understand why some things happen, but I can stop trying to unravel the unfathomable.  I can try to let go of a judging heart and remember the words of a wise prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Easter – when love triumphs

Easter is approaching. The time of the year we celebrate love and life triumphing over death. Even in it’s pagan incarnation Easter is about welcoming the spring, a time of growth and newness. A time for birth and rebirth. The tender shoots of hope finally peeking through the cover of desolate winter.

After Xavier died, I wished for resurrection. When people would describe Mary as a grieving mother my heart would harden a little. For she had her son returned to her. She was given the miracle every bereaved parent begs for. Xavier was never returned to me in a physical sense, but the lasting relationship we share is a form of love triumphing over death.

In the yoga class I attend with Elijah, our instructor will often tell us to take a moment to nourish the bond between mother and child – the most un-breakable of all bonds. Whenever she says that, my mind wanders to Xavier. The bond between baby and mother cannot be severed. Not even by death. I was robbed of the physical relationship I had with Xavier by SIDS. But I could choose how much was stolen. The heavy burden of grief and the constant longing for what could have been threatened our continuing relationship. It took time to nurture and navigate a different kind of parenting but I am learning. I feel him close.

There are beautiful people and purposes in my life that would not have come to me if it wasn’t for Xavier. For a while I would question my attitude towards them. That I could not feel gratitude for things that existed due to Xaviers death. I feel differently now – a slight change of perspective. The positive things in my life that have come about because of Xavier are part of my relationship with him. They are not causally linked to his death, but rather his life, lived in the short span granted to us. There are so many beautiful things in my life because of him – not because he died, but because he was here. I do not believe that as a parent you can every truly accept the death of your child. Acceptance is popularly heralded as the last hurdle of grief. I do not think it is true. I think you reach a stage when you integrate the death of your child within your heart and your life. Where you can come to a point of resolution. For me, it was when the magnitude of love I hold for my son finally over-shadowed the magnitude of my pain. That took time and it took hope and it took faith.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is Love.

I hope Easter brings you all three and the last in copious amounts.

The Photos

The other night I was trawling through photographs on my computer for a little project. Finding snapshots of each of the boys at various ages. Little Isaac, so tiny as a newborn. Xavier, the few I have him, treasured and precious. The literally thousands I have of Elijah, as though I could preserve his life through capturing each moment.

Looking at your older children’s baby photos is always bitter-sweet, no matter what your experience. Gazing back with misty eyes on a baby-hood that will never repeat itself. Isaac’s sweet curls at 2 years old, his beaming smile at 1 year, his look of utter pride as he held both Xavier and Elijah for the first time. And as I looked through those photos, I could see Elijah in the photos of Isaac at eight months. Both boys full of cheek and joy. Sometimes I see echoes of the boys in each other, but nothing as poignant as a photo of Isaac with the same smile as Elijah. And I will never have that with Xavier. I will never know who he would have looked like at eight months, at one year, at two. I will never get to look back with misty eyes at once was – a joyful kind of melancholy.

Photos of Xavier are precious and suspended in time. They speak of what was, but never what will be. There is no nostalgic reverie attached to them. There is only longing. What kind of little boy would Xavier have been? Active and quick thinking like Isaac? Would he have spread joy the way Elijah does? I will never know that version of Xavier.

There is a folder within a folder within a folder on my computer labelled, “Xaviers last day”. No one aside from me has seen those photographs. I find myself looking at them from time to time. The most poignant are of each of our family and dearest friends giving Xavier goodbye kisses. At the conclusion of his hurried and cobbled-together baptism, each person silently bent over his hospital cot and bade him farewell. His little body, supported by machines, unresponsive as the last rites of love were bestowed on him. His baptism was one of holy water and tears. I look at the faces in those photos, drawn and pale. Everyone looks ten years older than they are. Grief and devastation bearing down on each of us. I look at Xavier. His tiny body intubated, hovering between life and death. But mostly I am drawn to the huddles that are inevitably in the out-of-focus background of each picture. Arms and hands entwined and each of us helping the other to stand.
These photos aren’t easy to look at yet I am glad I have them. They are powerful and true. They will never hang on a wall or grace a photo album but they will remain, a testament to strength and love and family.

In a world awash with images, in the share-happy culture of Instagram, these kinds of photos don’t really have a place. But they are precious and important. A photo doesn’t gain value by the number of people who see it. It’s value lies in how deeply it touches you. No photographs will ever touch me in quite the same way as the ones taken of Xavier. And photos of my living boys will always touch me in a different way because of Xavier. Forever remembered.

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This morning (and every weekday morning)…

This is not a blog post about grief.  This a blog post about what my morning looked like.  And pretty much the morning before it and the morning before it.  So if you have had one of those mornings.  If every weekday morning tends to be one of those mornings.  This is for you – you are not alone.

Wake up with eldest child’s foot in my face.  How is eldest child in the bed?
Squint blearily to make out the time on the alarm clock.  6:35am.  Make conscientious decision not to calculate the amount of sleep actually had after waking twice with the baby.  No good can come of it.  Check monitor and sigh with relief that said baby is still sleeping.  Hope madly that school lunch can be made prior to baby waking up.

Realise that eldest child’s foot is still in my face and that he is playing with the dog at the end of the bed.  Realising that he and dog are actually involved in a lick fest.  Rather than greeting eldest child with a beautiful “good morning” and cuddle, say “You know you aren’t meant to do that – don’t lick the dog back!”

Husband wakes, stretches and heads for a shower.  Think not very charitable thoughts about how nice it must be to have only person to get ready.

Get up.  Dog and eldest child involved in a very loud game up the corridor.  Baby wakes up.  Baby demands cuddles.   Realise that the dishes still are not done from the night before.  Wait until husband out of the shower before running the hot water.  Think this is really very nice of me.

Tidy kitchen and make school lunch with one hand as holding baby on hip.

Ask eldest to dress for school.  He cannot.  He must finish his game of legos.  Try not to raise  voice.  Breathe.

Ask eldest child to eat his breakfast.  He cannot. He must finish his colouring in.  Try not to raise voice. Breathe.

Make coffee in vain hope of finishing it whilst still warm.  Should really just switch to very short espressos.  Try to feed baby yoghurt.  Baby doesn’t really want yoghurt.  Baby wants a proper breast feed.  Feed.  Change baby. Calculate own time to get ready is rapidly dwindling.  Should still have 10 minutes though.

Pour cold coffee down drain.

Eldest child asks where his shoes are.  Tell him wherever he left them last.

Eldest child asks where his homework envelope is.  Tell him where he left them last.

Eldest child needs a feather.  Not entirely sure why but is terribly insistent about it.  Locate feather.

Time to get self ready now at about 5 minutes.  Doable.  Panic rising slightly.

Get in shower.  Baby crying.  Have to leave baby crying.  Fret about immense psychological damage this might doing him.  Pause and think about immense psychological damage this might be doing me.  Get changed.   Hold baby. Brush hair and put in contacts with one hand.

We seem to be relatively on time.

Put dog outside.  Have to employ military style tactics to trick dog into thinking this a good idea.

Cannot find keys.  Where are the keys?  Why don’t I leave the keys in the same place?  WHERE ARE MY KEYS?

Mummy, they are probably where you last left them.

Make it to school in ample time, looking like a nice, normal family.  Just like everyone else.

A little bit of a light (sabers)

My dear friends who read this blog often tell me they need to seek out a quiet corner and a box of tissues before reading my posts.  Whilst I want to write my heart and stay true, I also want to let some light in occasionally.  Light as in sunshine and light as in not quite so heavy.  So this post will need neither tissues nor a quiet corner.   This post is about Isaac’s first weeks at school.

We have chosen to send Isaac to a Catholic school but we are those kinds of Catholics.  The only services Isaac has attended are weddings, baptisms, and yes, a funeral.   In attempt to cover up our deficiencies, I thought I’d get Isaac to learn the school prayer.  My dear friend and co-school mum gently suggested that starting at the sign of the cross might be more appropriate.  At our first assembly half the prep class signed themselves proficiently and the other half had absolutely no clue (Isaac included).  I realised she was right.  Isaac has made up for his signage deficiencies by learning an extraordinary amount of songs about God in a short time.  These songs can only be sung at the top of ones lungs.  Apparently.   But our need to attend church more regularly was spectacularly highlighted this morning.   Isaac looked at me quite seriously and said “Mum, at school we say ‘peace be with you’ to the teacher when we say good morning,  but in Star Wars they say ‘may the force be with you’.  Can I say ‘may the force be with you’ instead?”  Ummm, no Isaac, probably not.

Isaac seems to have decided that school is a chance to hatch cunning schemes.   This week they are learning about kindness and getting rewarded for kind behaviour by earning jelly beans.  Isaac is very close with another little boy in his class, whom I will call J.  He tells me that he and J have devised a scheme where they pretend they don’t have a friend, the other then comes over to be a friend and voilà – a jelly bean.  I tell Isaac, “but you are still being kind to one another.”  Isaac replies, with a knowing smile, “Yes, that’s what the teacher thinks too.”

Today being Valentines day, Isaac wanted to make a valentine for a little girl in his class with whom he has struck up a friendship.  I asked her name.  “I’m not sure,” said Isaac, “but it’s not Jasmine.  She’s very tall.”   So we set about making a Valentine for Not-Jasmine (who is very tall).  It was delivered this morning and Isaac was rewarded with a very big smile from Not-Jasmine.

Isaac also made me my very first bead and straw necklace the other day.  I was overcome with pride as I wore it and nearly burst when he told me, “I found the biggest heart I could because that’s how much I love you.”

Our start to school has been funny and fun.  There have been some tears but more laughs and I am looking forward to many more.

When the family tree has fallen leaves

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This week Isaac’s prep class is discussing family.  It makes perfect sense.  It’s accessible and universal for four to five year olds.  It lends itself to numeracy and literacy concepts whilst  paving the way for discussions about diversity.   It allows children to learn that families come in different shapes and sizes.  It makes perfect sense.  Unless the shape of your family includes a large heart-shaped hole.

When the prep newsletter came home, stating that the coming week would include discussions about family, I talked to Isaac.  I told him it was up to him if he wanted to share Xavier with his class.   For me personally, sharing Xavier has became an issue with varying shades of grey.  There are times I choose to remain silent about him.  Not to deny his existence, but to protect his memory.  I have become more select regarding who has the privilege of knowing my son.

But when I told Isaac he had a choice, he looked at me in that way only five year olds can and said, “Of course I will include Xavier.  He’s my brother.”    And I was reminded of the black and white world children live in. There was never any question in his mind.  My concerns are not his concerns.

I worry about him having something in his life that sets him apart from the other kids. I worry about him being ostracised or people not believing him.  I worry that he will be perceived in a certain light due to his history.  I am angry that he even has to deal with something most adults would struggle with.  I am concerned that Xavier’s story will be taken home by a child and it will become sensationalistic talk over a stranger’s dinner table.  From a selfish point of view, I am worried about people I do not know learning about Xavier and making inevitable judgements before they even have a chance to meet our family.

Yet Isaac takes it all in his stride.

And I am quietly confident the children in his class will too.  Children have a beautiful and amazing way of bringing things into their simplest and purest form.  Isaac will simply say that he has a brother in heaven.

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When Isaac came home the other day, he said used a wonderful turn of phrase – that the class were “celebrating” each other’s families.   That he chose to celebrate Xavier.  And that’s a beautiful thing, because Xavier is worth celebrating.

The endless pursuit of Happiness

I am not sure when it happened, but somehow we have arrived at a place in time where happiness has become our birth right and everyone else’s expectation.  Joy is the perceived equilibrium.  Happiness is not a high on a scale of human emotions, happiness is apparently where our feelings should sit the majority of the time.  Countries are measured by the happiness of their inhabitants, we are constantly admonished try to be happy and if we aren’t wearing our gleeful faces, someone is likely to ask you what’s wrong.

I am a positive person.  I would say that I am genuinely happy for a good percentage of the time.  But through grief, my own and watching others, I have learned how violently this particular society reacts against emotions other than happiness.   No matter what has occurred, not matter how tragically a life has been turned on it’s head, happiness remains the goal to aspire to.  You are allowed a brief pause in sadness but dwelling there is self-pitying behaviour.  The expectation is to “buck up”, “count your blessings” and “try to be happy”.  

Trying to “jolly” some-one when they are in grief is not helpful.  Some-one very close to a person who is grieving died.  It’s okay for them to be completely devastated by that.  It’s okay for that devastation to reach into weeks, months and years.  It’s okay for them not to be happy.  We seem terrified that “not happy” is a quick and slippery slide into the realms of deep depression and even suicide.   We seem so very scared of emotions that we are taught are not positive.  Yet we are all human.  We are all capable of huge ranges of emotion.  Our hearts have great reach, perhaps even more so when they are broken.  

We need to be as comfortable with tears as we are with laughter.  We need to accept there are situations that we cannot “fix” but that company and silence would go some way to mending.   Sometimes we need to be okay with not okay.  It goes against the grain of our modern world, but we need to make room for sadness. 

 

 

Strong

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Strong.

How often did I hear that word in the days, weeks and months following Xavier’s death?  How often was it applied to my family and I, as admonition or admiration or assurance?

“You will get through this – you are strong”
“Strength will come as you need it”
“You are so much stronger than I could be”
“You need to be strong – for your family”
“You are the strong one”

At the time, I didn’t want to hear it, I craved hearing it, I believed it and I didn’t believe it, all at once.  Even now, I have a difficult relationship with that word.

Strong.

At Xavier’s funeral, I was told I was strong. Strong because I read a love letter to him (I cannot call it an obituary) and did not cry.  Strong because I only crumpled as I held his candle, following the small white coffin out of the chapel.  Strong because I greeted each and every one of those who come to pay their respects.   My dear friends and family saw strength. They did not see me practise that love letter over and over and over until I felt confident I could speak it without tears.  Speak so that everyone could hear me and know a little of my tiny Xavier – a small life that still contained likes and dislikes, funny moments and stories.   They did not know, as I embraced them and accepted condolences, that I was still reeling in shock.  That early grief had offered me a protective bubble and it was not until many weeks later that the full force of loss shattered against me.  They did not know that I felt closer to numb than to strength.

When people called me strong and said that they could not be, I wondered what that meant. Did they really think that if they lost their beloved child that the world would stop for them?  Because it does not.  The world cares little if you are strong or not, it will still carry you on its tide.   When people called me strong, I wondered, did they not see the pain?  Did they not realise that every molecule of my life had been rearranged and I was scrambling to pick up the pieces?  When people called me strong, when my brave face was on, mostly for their benefit, did they not realise it was a shimmering facade?

When my daily battle went unnoticed, when no-one commented on strength or bravery, I wanted to shout – “Do you know how hard this is? My baby died!”  When no-one mentioned strength, I craved assurance that my herculean effort of getting up and breathing each day was witnessed and appreciated.

There were times I wondered if I was really strong.  By trying to act as normally as possible, by trying to assure the comfort of those around me, was I being the opposite of strong?  Would I have been braver to show the full extent of my vulnerability?  Why was my strength measured by the way I made the people around me feel?

Now, with the perspective of time and a gorgeous new little baby in our family, I can see I AM Strong. My family IS strong.  We are strong beyond measure and we are blessed.   I can carry that label with more pride and certainity  now.  Perhaps I was always a strong person.  Perhaps strength lay dormant until I need it most.  Perhaps Xavier sent me strength.  Whatever the reason, I am stronger now that I was before.

We have walked through the coals, our souls a little charred, but we made it to the other side – hand in hand and heart in heart.

A little more world weary, more aware of tragedy, but we live with more love and more hope in the face of it.

 And that is strength.