TRIGGER WARNING: This post is about death and loss. Please keep yourselves safe.
One year ago today, one of my oldest friends lost his girlfriend suddenly and silently. His story is not for me to tell, but I remember with sick clarity the moment his text came through that day. I physically felt the blood drain out of my face and I composed my reply with trembling fingers. I’d only met her once, but I thought of her all weekend. Several months later he posted a blog about their love story, culminating in what we only ever refer to as “that morning”, and I sobbed as I read it. I could not – and still cannot – imagine the hell he experienced that day and the heartache he has battled, with bravery and dignity, ever since.
Today I have thought about him and I have thought about that text a lot.
Things have changed now for all of us. Suddenly death doesn’t just come for the old and the very sick; it comes for the young and healthy too, on silent and unbidden wings. Death sneaks around corners and hides behind bedroom doors. It’s what makes me check on my children with just that little bit more care before I go to bed, and what makes my husband ask me just that little bit louder and with a slightly different cadence if I am okay when I’ve fallen asleep on the sofa. When you become a parent, death becomes your ultimate nemesis. You will fight tooth and nail to keep it away from your children, but there’s always that nagging little worry in the back of your mind that it could take you away from them too. I know this happens because it happened to me and, when I got a little older, I watched it happen to my friends too. Through sickness or accident, several of my peers lost a parent during their teenage years. Diseases like cancer creep up silently and leave devastation in their wake. Accidents perform a sickening snatch-and-grab of our loved ones, taking them from us before we even know what’s happening. Both are ruinous and heartbreaking, and neither are easy to survive.
At 17, a college friend of mine and his best friend were killed in a car accident. I’ll never forget that phone call, which came on an ordinary Sunday afternoon and changed everything. I knew, of course, that young people were killed in car accidents. I’d seen the stories in the newspaper, cautionary tales warning teenagers away from taking risks in their newly acquired cars. But it didn’t happen to people I knew. It didn’t happen to my friends and classmates, to someone I’d been making jokes with less than 24 hours before. Until it did. And all of a sudden, none of us were immortal anymore. Probably we were all a little more alert and careful after his death. I was still learning to drive at the time and didn’t get behind the wheel for weeks. It’s been 11 years now since that day, but I still always opt for the easy pass. I am still cautious. Maybe not always as cautious as I should be, but certainly more so than I perhaps would have been otherwise, without that hurtful and unwanted lesson.
On the seventh anniversary of his death, when I was pregnant with O, I went to put flowers on his grave. His best friend is buried beside him and, shortly before his death, his girlfriend had given birth to their son. What hit me and knocked the air out of me that day was that that baby was now seven years old and had written a note for his daddy that said simply “I miss you daddy”. I cried in my car until I thought I would turn myself inside out. Suddenly, it was all too easy for me to imagine how unbearable it must be for a mother to see her child grieving, and I made a promise to my unborn son that day: I promised him that I would never leave him. Of course, it’s a promise that I will one day break. I don’t know when that day will come, but I hope only that it will be when he is grown up and no longer needs me the way that he needs me now. I will do what I can to make sure of that for him, and for his brother too.
Children should not have to suffer the cold grip of grief so young, and it goes without saying that no parent should ever, EVER have to live through the death of their child. I’ve seen this too, with a colleague whose baby was stillborn a few years ago. She talks about her daughter often, and I am always blown away by her strength and tenacity. She, and every other parent like her, deserves the utmost of respect for her sheer ability to go on living through such hell, the depths of which are unfathomable to me. Nobody should ever have to experience that loss.
But sometimes life is cruel. Sometimes the things that happen to and around us don’t make sense at all. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t find a reason for these things or a light at the end of the tunnel. When I think about our future as a family, my only payers are these: Please don’t take my children from me and please don’t take me away from them while they are still young.
Perhaps we all think a little like this sometimes. Perhaps, every now and again, we all find ourselves heading down the rabbit hole. I hope, more than anything else, that we all have someone to reach out to and hold onto in those moments.
Take good care of yourselves.