Afterword to Death of a ChildTuesday, 07 June 2011 12:47
The Death of a Child edited by Peter Stanford.
A collection of a dozen essays in which parents and siblings tell their own stories of losing a child, brother or sister, and of how they coped with bereavement and grief.
The Australian psychologist and writer Andee Jones was worried about her son, a lovely young man who had lost his way. Later, when writing about how she learnt of his suicide, she said, 'I've been floating in a paper boat on an ice-black sea. There's a blood-curding crack! And the massive shelf crashes down, plunging me into the glacial deep, tearing me to shreds with its scalpels. The giant shards rip through me, freezing blood, guts, lungs and brain. Am I dead? How can I not be dead? If I'm not dead, let me wake up from this nightmare.i
A year later, she wrote that, 'the knife is still embedded in my heart. . . . I don't know how to go on. Being alive and awake is the stomach-sinking, palpitating experience of sitting in a hospital cubicle waiting for test results. "Don't get dressed yet, dear, we might need to get you straight into theatre."'ii
Each in his or her own way, the authors of these chapters have lived through what Andee Jones experienced. They have learned that, when someone dear to us dies, our whole being and our world shatters and falls into a kind of painful nothingness. Grief, as C.S.Lewis said, 'feels like fear.' Indeed, grief is fear, the fear that your whole sense of being a person and your world has fallen apart, even disappeared. You have become a non-person in a non-world. Yet you have to move and act as if the world that other people know is still there, and that you are the person you have always been, only now you are sad. Other people do not see that loss and grief have turned you into a ghost in your own life.
Few people understand that what each of us knows as myself and my world, what we call 'I', 'me', 'myself', is made up all the ideas, hopes, dreams, images that have formed in our brain and mind during our existence. The person you love is an important part of that structure. When that person dies, part of the structure that is you is torn away. What is left shakes and threatens to fall apart. However, there is always enough left to be the observer of what is happening and say, 'I feel I am falling apart.' The structure that is you rebuilds itself, but it can never be what it once was. From then on a sense of absence is always part of who you are.
Some people die of grief but most do not. They learn how to keep the broken structure of themselves hidden from those who do not want to see that grief is ugly and disturbing, just as Picasso showed in his portrait of a woman grieving. Nor do they want to be reminded that to love is always to risk loss. The platitudinous lies that other people tell, that 'time heals' and how important it is to seek 'closure' so you 'can get on with your life', force those grieving to hide their grief and pretend that they are 'taking it well'. They might give the appearance of leading a normal life, but they know that the one who has been lost can never be replaced, and that they will live with their grief forever. For such a loss there is no recompense, no reward.
All that those in grief can do is to do what all of us can do when we are trapped in a painful situation from which there is no escape. We can re-construe it, that is, we give it a different meaning, something with which we hope we can live. However, the death of someone we love never allows us to construct a meaning in which there is no pain. No meaning however comforting can ever replace what might have been. As time passes the pain becomes softer but never disappears completely. Even when the person who dies is very old and suffering great pain, or has enormous physical disabilities for which there is no cure or amelioration, being told that the death is a 'merciful release' is not a comfort because, even if the person is beyond pain, you are not. You have to bear the pain of that loss and all that that loss means to you.
Each of us has the task of surviving both physically and as a person. We are born with a very keen sense of what might be a threat to us, and with a very readily activated defence, that of anger. Anger is an emotion that carries the meaning 'How dare that happen to me!' (All emotions are meanings where the subject is always the person feeling the emotion.) The death of someone we love is a threat to our sense of being a person. Consequently we cannot help but be angry. Wise people know how important it is to acknowledge our anger. Unacknowledged anger does not dissipate but stays inside us, only to make itself felt when we least expect it. Unfortunately, many of us are taught as children that our anger is unacceptable, even wicked. We bury our anger and thus fail to learn how to express it in a multitude of socially acceptable but self-affirming ways. When our anger does make itself felt, we do not know what to do what to do with it. Some people believe that, if they give vent to their anger they will be completely rejected by other people. They are so frightened of being punished in this way for being angry that they refuse to recognise their anger as anger and instead call it fear. They then find a cause for their fear somewhere in the world around them and refuse to leave the safety of their homes. Some people who have been bereaved react in this way.
Robin Baird-Smith told how, when he relaxed his guard, he was surprised to feel an an anger so fierce that his whole body shook. He recognised that the meaning 'How dare this happen to me!' demands someone to blame. However, Robin was reluctant to respond in this way. He had been busy removing any likely object for his anger out of harm's way. He wrote, 'How could I feel angry with the driver who had driven into me? I learned subsequently that his girl friend who was in the passenger seat has suffered far worse and longer lasting orthopaedic injuries than me.'
Robin could not allow himself that complexity of thought of which we are all capable where we tolerate two conflicting emotions. It is possible to feel sympathy for the person who has injured us while, occasionally, experiencing intense anger, even to the point of wishing to kill that person. It is possible to express this wish, not by putting it into action, but by imagining ourselves doing what we wish to do. Children who are allowed to daydream quickly discover the advantages of lying in bed and imaging severe punishments for their mother who had spoken to them sharply and sent them to bed, but then finding in the morning, that not only they are no longer angry with her, but she is there to get their breakfast. By expressing our anger in imagination we can, eventually, dissipate it.
In the space of time that we feel an emotion, that emotion is our own truth. We need always to acknowledge our own truths, and not deny them or pretend they are different from what they are. Children learn, not so much from what their parents tell them but from what their parents do. If, in times of high emotion, parents do not explain to their children what they are doing, their children have to make their own interpretations.
Children need to be shown that all emotions are naturally self-limiting. Falling in love might come to an end, or it might transmute into that softer emotion of love that can last a lifetime. Mummy and daddy might sometimes be angry with one another and argue, but their anger is soon over while their love for each other goes on forever.
The meaning 'How dare this happen to me' gives our sense of being a person a certain coherence while grief shatters it. Not knowing what to do, some parents hide their grief from their children. Adults protect themselves from a child's grief by telling themselves that it is best if children are not told about a sibling's or a parent's death because 'children soon forget'. These fail to understand that children are human beings like themselves, and that we do not forget events for which we have been given no satisfactory explanation. We continue to puzzle over these events, and often arrive at conclusions that worry us much more than the truth would have done.
Anyone who doubts that children, however young, should be told that someone close to them has died should read Louise Patten's chapter about the death of her brother Charles. When he became ill, as her older sister Anne-Marie recalled, the adults in the family slipped into 'a state of Paglossian denial'. 'Denial' is a word that we psychotherapists use because we prefer to use soft-sounding 'expert' words instead of the words that everyone can use. To deny that something that does exist does not is to lie. Anne-Marie learned from people outside the family that Charles was dying. When she questioned what her parents had told her, she was sent away from home. Louise wanted to believe her parents but she could hear Charles screaming in pain. She was sure that Charles wanted her to comfort him, but her parents forbade her to go to his room because she was 'too noisy'. She did not believe them. When we discover that someone has lied to us about something important we never fully trust that person again.
No one explained to the children why Charles suddenly vanished into hospital. Then they were told that he had gone to heaven. They were not allowed to go to his funeral, and no one mentioned the word 'death'. Even when we watch someone die we can find it hard to believe that the person is no more. When all we have been given is a report of the death of someone important to us it can take us a very long time to accept that the report is true. Louise was sure that her parents were mistaken. Charles was alive and be home for Christmas.
On the day that Wendy Perriam's daughter Pauline died, leaving two sons, Will and Ned, Will asked Wendy, 'Is Mom a ghost now?', and later, during a family discussion about a suitable memorial for the grave, he suddenly remarked, 'We can't plant a tree, because the roots would get tangled up with Mom's feet.' This was a family where the children's grief was acknowledged and they were given help to deal with it. I marvelled at Wendy's strength in being able to do what she did in the midst of her own grief, but her understanding of people that we see in her books is such that she could not have done otherwise.
Children who are not told the truth about a death in the family often blame themselves for that death. Unless an adult explains to them that they are not to blame, the guilt that these children feel is likely to have deleterious effects throughout the children's lives. Often as adults people cannot understand why their life has gone so wrong, but they cannot seek an answer by examining their childhood because they believe that it is wrong to blame their parents for what had happened in their childhood.
So prevalent is this belief that, in describing how her parents excluded her and her siblings from everything to do with the death of her little sister Clare, Joanna Moorhead felt obliged to explain, 'I don't blame my parents for all this; their belief that we were resilient, that we would make it through without special help, was understandable enough.' However, we cannot increase our understanding of ourselves if we think solely in terms of good and bad, blame, guilt and punishment.
We need to understand that what determines our behaviour is not what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us. Our interpretations can come from only one place, what we know at the time. As adults we should look at our childhood in two ways, how we interpret childhood events now and how we interpreted them at the time. Children make the best interpretations they can, given what they know at the time. Often they are wiser and more truthful than the adults around them.
The interpretations we create always have consequences. The consequences of how you as a child interpreted events form part of who you are today. We need to remember, not only how we as children interpreted events, but why we chose certain interpretations rather than others. Looking back like this with our two perspectives at the loss of someone we love, we might discover the grief that we were not allowed to express and the anger that we had to bury. Acknowledging our grief and anger, even much later in our life, can help us reduce the pain of our loss.
People whose thinking about themselves is always within the framework of blame and guilt often become experts in feeling guilty. When they ask themselves, 'Who is to blame for my loss?' their immediate answer is themselves. They soon discover that blaming themselves for their loss is, in fact, the recipe for turning natural sadness into depression.iii
Depression has many purposes. It is a way, albeit a very painful way, of holding yourself together when you feel that you are falling apart. Depression gives you the space and time to put yourself back together in a different, wiser way. Depression is a means of avoiding the chaos in your life, and of avoiding some painful truths. One of these painful truths is that, while we like to think that we have our life under control, we live in a world where things happen by chance. We are always at the mercy of events. Many of us find such helplessness intolerable, and choose instead to feel guilty for not having prevented a disaster.
Feeling guilty for having acted or failed to act carries within it the meaning, 'I was in control of the situation and could have acted differently had I chosen to do so.' In the absence of any evidence that you were in control of the situation and could have prevented the disaster, feeling guilty acts as a defence against the fear of feeling helpless. Feeling guilty to defend against the fear of being helpless is a terrible waste of time and effort, as is being depressed. Lost in such guilt or depression, we are so completely taken up with ourselves that we ignore other people. Yet it is from other people that we might learn how to accept and live with our helplessness, and how to share the burden of the grief that everyone carries. We all suffer loss. No one escapes. We can also learn that, when we love someone, our image of that person makes a home inside us, and in its own way comforts and guides us until the day we die. Each of the chapters in this book is about the image of the person the writer loved and has never entirely lost.
i Andee Jones Barking Mad: Too Much Therapy Is Never Enough publishPIIin ink (sic) 2010, p.159
ii Ibid p. 198
iii Dorothy Rowe Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison 3rd edition, Routledge 2003