Grief and its Companions
Recently, not surprisingly, I have been thinking a lot about grief. Despite so many wonderful people in my life I have sometimes felt alone in what I am feeling. So many people around me don't know how to handle our grief. This is not their fault, the loss of a child isn’t often spoken about.. So I took to the internet to seek answers and I found other people who have felt the same as me. I found this comforting. Because of this I have written this post to talk about my experience with grief. I hope it helps others going through a similar loss to not feel alone. I also hope to give some guidance to people on how to offer support to someone who is grieving, especially grieving the loss of a child.
When we lost Mackenzie, our world became engulfed in grief. I had never taken the time to understand grief, I was never really confronted with it apart from on the news. I thought it was as simple as missing someone. I was very wrong. Grief comes in waves. Grief becomes a presence in your life. There are so many levels to grief. Grief does not work alone, it has companions.
You have to deal with your grief now and how you carry your grief into the future. At the same time, you are dealing with how your grief affects others and how others around you deal with your grief and how society reacts to your grief. It is painful, overwhelming, exhausting, and confusing.
How Society Reacts to a Parent’s Grief Over the Loss of a Child
Our society doesn’t really handle grief very well. Often, we seem to work blindly through the grieving process. We are dealing with emotions that are frightening and painful, strange and even bizarre. Spouses who have lost their partners are widows and widowers. Children who have lost their parents become orphans. But there is no term to describe a parent who has lost a child. More than any other loss, society does not know how to handle the death of a child. If we don’t have a word for that loss, how do we begin to describe it, and begin to grieve? People often don’t know what to say to anyone who has lost a loved one, but doubly so for a parent who has lost a child. Instead people often don’t say anything at all. The feeling around death is silence and the silence around child loss is deafening.
Losing a child is sometimes called an ‘out of order death’. We are born, we live, we love (if we are lucky), some have children, and then eventually we die. There is an accepted order to life and, when a child dies before their parents, that death seems against the accepted order of things. In general, people seem to be so overwhelmed by the death of a child that some just push it away, never taking the time to try to truly understand what that parent’s grief must be like. They don’t want to know. They prefer ignorance. I dream of ignorance. I miss ignorance. Others seem to feel embarrassed or even guilty that their lives have not been touched by such a tragedy. They don’t know what to do.
My Initial Grief
Until Mackenzie was diagnosed, we had lived a mostly normal life. Ignorant of the pain of loss just like everyone else. We had experienced some pain and trauma in life. I had previously had a health scare with a malignant melanoma at around 23 years old and, at a similar age, Jonny had been badly injured in a riot in the Solomon Islands whilst he was working there. However, apart from that we had lived an ordinary, healthy, innocent life, oblivious to the possibility of losing a loved one, especially a child. Our family had largely managed to avoid real harm, serious illness, or pain, in other words, the realities of living. But suddenly we were living the life everyone walks around secretly dreading. Everyone has the secret fear that one day their life will change in an instant, they’ll get that news or a knock on the door.
‘Everything can change in an instant. Everything. And then there is only before and after’ - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
When we lost Mackenzie I felt the overwhelming injustice of it. This overwhelming sense of injustice fed my overwhelming sadness. I thought, ‘She is a baby. How can the universe give a baby a terminal illness? She is so perfect, small and innocent, she deserves to have her life. This world seems so cruel, this is torture.’ It was a nightmare from which we couldn’t wake up. How can I begin to describe our grief?
‘I will never forget the moment your heart stopped and mine kept going’ - Angela Miller
I was so angry at the world. Why did this happen? Why Mackenzie? Why us? Every day we had to live, knowing that she was not going to live, we had to watch her taking her last breath, I had to plan her funeral, I had to see her in a casket. How could this be happening?
Both after Kenzie’s diagnosis and after her death I shut down for a period of time, I become encased in my grief. My emotions made me feel walled in, like there was no escape. My mind couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I was, and am, so lucky to be surrounded by Jonny, my parents, our families and some truly stunning friends.
After Mackenzie died, I kept asking our psychologist whether I was ‘grieving correctly?’ Such a bizarre question to ask but I didn’t know. What did grieving look like? Was I crying too little? Was I crying too much? Was I allowed to smile or laugh? Was I ok? Was I breaking? Why did I feel guilty with everything I did? What is normal grief?
I soon learnt there is no ‘normal’ when you grieve. There is no correct way to grieve (unless, of course, you are damaging yourself or doing something unsafe). Everyone has their own individual way of grieving. What is right for you might not work for others.
I also learnt that you should never judge how someone else grieves. Don’t question what someone needs to grieve and to heal, how much time they need, what support they ask of you. What has helped me is to be open and honest with my grief. I have shared our journey and have been honest about it, no matter how raw the emotions, because I want, and I need to tell people about Mackenzie’s life.
It has also helped both Jonny and me to campaign for change in Mackenzie’s name, to create a legacy for her. Finally, it has helped us to focus on expanding our family and create her siblings. But our way is not right for everyone. Some people in our position might prefer to be more private and close the door, they would not want to speak about their loss for fear of reliving the pain and, for some, the thought of having another child might feel wrong. As I said before, grieving is different for each individual, and very personal. There is no right or wrong in grief. You will never know how you would act until you are put in that situation. So please don’t judge, just support, the person who is grieving.
‘It’s fine to feel a little heavy, and it’s just fine to sit here and catch my breath, and it’s just fine to be a mess at times, and it’s just fine to be relatively normal sometimes, It’s just fine to miss them. It’s just fine to let it all hit me, surrendering and succumbing.
And it’s just fine to remember that grief has no rules, and that really, it will in many ways last as long as love does. Forever.’ - Scribbles & Crumbs
My Grief Now
It has now been three months since we lost Mackenzie. I think that now my mind knows I won’t see her again, I won’t hold her again. But my life has been forever changed.
Life is beginning to go back to normal but as exhausted as I am, as much as normal would be a relief, I dread normal. If life goes back to normal it will be like she wasn’t ever here.
‘Grief is like living two lives. One is where you ‘pretend’ everything is alright, and the other is where your heart silently screams in pain’ – Healing Hugs
These days I feel like I am walking around with a sign that tells everyone ‘I am the woman who lost her child’. Every time I see people I know I feel like everyone is staring at me, watching my pain – I feel the performance pressure. If I laugh, I feel people are wondering how is she laughing? If I am crying, I make people uncomfortable. It is exhausting. I want my old life back with my easy friendships, but I also don’t want to ever pretend Mackenzie wasn’t here. I feel like I can’t win.
I avoid crowds and get tired easily. I dread seeing groups of people I know because they often don’t know what to say so instead they say nothing. Saying nothing is worse than saying the wrong thing. Silence is pretending she didn’t exist. That our pain doesn’t exist.
I also dread meeting new people. They ask me the standard questions – what do you do for work? Are you married? How many children do you have? I don’t want to lie because my life is not something to lie about but telling the truth makes everything hard and uncomfortable. In an instant, an easy light conversation becomes awkward, hard and tiring.
We also struggle daily with our understanding of the universe. Before we had a sense of innocence, I was never religious, but I liked to believe in karma. I believed good things happen to good people, but now that innocence is taken away from me. Life is random, karma doesn’t exist, bad things happen to everyone. There is no purpose to Mackenzie’s death. It feels like her death has no meaning.
Whilst we feel so much pain we try hard to not let it take over our lives. We try to wake up each morning and think of what we are grateful for, to think about our love for Mackenzie. We try to strike a balance between living our lives and keeping her memory alive, honouring her. Every morning we wake up and say good morning to her, we also have a candle always burning next to flowers we buy each week. We talk about her during the day, at night Jonny and I both have our good night rituals for her and I usually watch videos of her before I go to sleep.
These days we can’t tell what will set us off. Something you would expect to make me start crying might not but something simple reduces me to tears. Every moment is meaningful – the first time we go to her favourite park, the first month since she passed, her birthday, our first Christmas, her favourite food, a star in the sky. These moments are beautiful and we celebrate them all, but I am exhausted, there are too many meaningful moments. It is hard, it is too much.
While I realise that life will never be the same, that’s also because Mackenzie was born and there will never be anyone like her ever in the world; she brought her own special beauty to the world.
Another thought that often sits with me is will I ever be whole again? Sadly, I know the answer is no. We have started to laugh again and I truly believe we will have a happy life in the future. We will create more children, we will be a family and our lives will involve Mackenzie’s memory. But even if good things happen to us sadness will always sit alongside joy. Happiness will always be complicated for us. It is not as simple as ‘moving on’.
How Others Dealt with our Grief
I never thought for a second that part of our grief would involve dealing with how others react to us, both positive and negative. This has actually been one of the biggest shocks and greatest comforts.
To be completely honest, some people have hurt us deeply while we have been grieving. It’s as if they made our pain about them, ignored our grief or tried to force us to move on. I doubt it was their aim but they seemed to be unable to comprehend our pain and how we were then affected by how they treated us. In some cases, it felt like they couldn’t see past what was happening in their own lives in order to be able to support us. Along the way, they judged us when we asked for help, they compared what was going wrong in their lives with our pain and, in that way, tried to justify their actions.
In some cases, those who hurt us did so by being supportive initially but then stepping back when they thought that they had done enough or when it seemed that they were sick of us talking about Mackenzie and about how we were feeling. They put a time limit on our pain which we could not, and would not, abide by.
Other people simply stepped away and went quiet. Not so much because they were feeling the pain of grief but because they were just unsure of what to say. It was too overwhelming for them to put themselves in our shoes so instead they pretended it wasn’t happening or did something kind at first but then ran away never to be seen or heard from again. Whilst I understand why, it hurts, it is noticed. I know that, in some cases, they were worried about saying the wrong thing and thought it was better to say nothing at all. Silence is worse. I promise that people who are grieving will remember the silence.
Some people made comments that tried to justify Mackenzie’s death. They obviously felt they needed to explain away her death with comments like ‘she is in a better place’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’. These people were only meaning well and we know that but saying those things will not fix things. Nor will saying, ‘It’s just a matter of time.' These are all just another way of saying ‘I don’t know what to do or say that will make you feel better.’ To feel ‘better’ is not right when someone you love has died. There is no justification for her death. All anyone needs to say is ‘life is cruel, I recognise that you are in pain, I’m so sorry’.
My purpose in sharing these negatives is not to express my anger or to point out other people’s faults. I honestly understand that no one ever set out deliberately to harm us. They are all good people, kind people who were scared, unsure and misguided. I am bringing up the subject in order to share my experience of how other people react in this situation, to help guide people who don’t know how to deal with someone’s grief, to educate where possible and to change how even just one person acts in the future. I intend to give people an insight into what it is like to be the person who is grieving, and how you can help/what you can do.
‘Maybe I can’t stop the downpour, but I will always join you for a walk in the rain’ - Author unknown
Luckily, most of our experiences have been so so positive. During a time in which we were experiencing the worst that this life has to offer, through the death of our child, we were also shown the beauty. We were shown kindness, compassion and love by our family, friends and even strangers. Kindness beyond our wildest dreams. Acts of kindness came in so many forms – friends arranged food deliveries and cleaners, presents for Kenzie were dropped (and are still being delivered) into our mailbox from unknown senders, including flowers, cards, and sentimental gifts to remember Mackenzie, like books made from photos of her, jewellery, massage vouchers, photos turned into videos and so much more. Jonny and I have been far ‘luckier’ than many other people who have lost a loved one. We are truly appreciative.
Losing Mackenzie meant we lost our belief in our future happiness, but then every act of kindness chipped away at the concrete in which our hearts had been encased when she died. Every supportive or caring word gave us the strength to get through that day and the next. I cannot possibly tell you all how much these random acts of kindness did for us. For our hearts. For our healing I am so thankful to have been shown the kindness and generosity of so many people. So thank you.
Thank you to those who loved us, even when we were no longer fun and happy but were angry, sad, withdrawn or confused.
Thank you to those who took the time to do something kind for us, no matter how big or small.
Thank you to those who listened when we wanted to talk, sat with us when we needed silence and company, and distracted us when we wanted to pretend just for a second that we hadn’t lost her, that everything was ‘normal’.
Thank you to those who continued to let us into their lives and didn’t exclude us. It allowed us to have some normality, to still be involved and let us give back to those who were giving to us.
Thank you to those who stepped forward, with a kind and open heart.
Thank you to those who showed me that we could and would find joy in life again.
Thank you to those who have honoured me by sharing your life, your story, your pain with me.
Thank you to all the strangers who became friends during this time. Who took the time to reach out to me, who knew that kindness rules the world.
Tips on Dealing with Someone Who is Grieving
I am by no means an expert on grieving (honestly, who wants to be an expert on grieving…) but, through my experience, I have learnt something about grief. In some cases the level of support you provide will depend on your relationship, however, I know first hand even the support from a stranger helps. I hope this can help someone who is grieving or who knows someone who is:
Just be there. A message, a hug, sit with them or if you are unsure what to do ask them what they need;
Let them share what they feel. Listen to them;
Don’t disappear. Be around when others fall away. Chances are that when a tragedy first happens lots of people will be around to help and do kind things. But slowly, as time goes on, people forget as their lives move on. They don’t really realise that the pain of loss doesn’t go away so quickly. Be there even months on;
Don’t get bored with someone’s grief. Don’t ever impose your timeline on someone else’s grief. People are all different. Some people need more time than others. No one persons time frame is correct. On this if you are in a family who are grieving, don’t feel guilty if you feel ok while someone else is grieving still. That is ok;
Do something kind. Little gestures of kindness create huge ripples. The acts of kindness we received did more for our mental health then people will ever know;
Don’t be afraid to say the person’s name. I am terrified Makenzie will become a dream. When people say her name, my heart sings;
Say something. Anything is better than nothing. Yes you may stuff up and say something wrong but most people will understand that you are not an expert. Silence is so loud, I can guarantee someone going through a hard time will remember those who were silent as opposed to those who tried. One of the best things you can say is ‘I hear you, I see you, I acknowledge your pain, I’m here, keep speaking’;
Continue to share your life with them. Make them feel included, like some things are still normal, turn to them. One of my best friends was there for me every day but also let me be there for her. It gave me purpose and kept our friendship close; and
Don’t minimise their pain or sugar coat it. There is no need for you to explain their grief with meaningless, common quotes.
‘Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom’ - Marcel Proust