The loss of a child is a dreadful and unnatural thing – your world is turned upside down. How can it be that this child, with their whole life and future ahead, should go before you?
The loss of an infant strips from you any residue of naivety. Hopefulness is torn away to be replaced with a gaping wound, empty aching arms and an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
I find it hard to imagine how such pain can be borne by the child’s parents, but I have experienced first-hand pain as a bereaved grandmother.
If this is the place you are in right now, whether you are a bereaved parent or grandparent, you have my deepest sympathy. I cannot promise that your pain will ever go away, I am not convinced that we want to let it go entirely, but perhaps I can offer some suggestions to aid your journey towards a ‘new normal’ – when you feel ready, of course.
When a child dies, the parents and grandparents lose a dream, the hopes and dreams they have for their child or grandchild. They grieve for the child who already exists in their mind. Although the child is not there, we have anticipated all those special moments in life, and each absence is keenly felt: the first smile, first tooth, first step, first birthday, first day at school, college, graduation, marriage… As grandparents, all these hopes and dreams are snatched away, but we must also watch helplessly as our own child suffers the worse pain they will ever experience. As a parent, you want to protect your child – you want to cuddle them, kiss it better, make the pain go away. But this is something you can’t fix and you feel a failure. You may also experience survivor guilt – ‘why should my grandchild be gone and yet I’m still here?’
As grandparents, it is important to be there for your child as they live through this terribly sad time, but it’s also important to take the time to grieve yourself.
Sometimes we see news reports of disasters in distant lands. We see women (and men) wailing and screaming over the dead bodies of those they love. Sometimes they shake their fists and cry out, even throw themselves into the grave. We are, of course, far to ‘British’ to show our feelings in such an emotional way. We prefer to keep a stiff upper lip. ‘How are you doing?’ people say. ‘Okay’, we reply in a shaky voice. ‘Just keep putting one foot in front of the other,’ they say, ‘take it one day at a time’. We nod and give a small brave smile. But we are NOT OKAY.
I found that writing helped me to manage my own grief. It was the start of my healing journey, giving me an outlet for my emotions and a place to store my memories and feelings, like photographs, to take out and experience again and again. Perhaps I wallowed in my grief a little – but sometimes I just needed to have a good cry. The page became my friend, someone I could talk to without having to watch what I said or how I said it. Sometimes I ranted with the fury of a madwoman – a raw, primitive wail.
The page allows you to vent your anger, guilt and frustration with no judgement or regret. You don’t have to worry that you might hurt someone else’s feelings by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. The good thing about writing is that you can’t write the wrong thing.
Write when you like, where you like, how you like. Write at home, on the bus, in a cafe.
Treat yourself to a pretty notebook – I bought myself one from the hospital gift shop and began by keeping a chronological account of what was going on. Equip yourself with a new pen or pencil – I always prefer a pencil, the impermanence gives me permission to write what I want. In the early hours of the morning when I couldn’t sleep, I’d make myself a cup of tea and pour my emotions onto the page. It was all a complete muddle of course, but it was something, anything, to keep my hands and mind busy.
Writing is cathartic. Write when tears are streaming down your face. Let grief fuel your pen. Spew your guts on the page. Swear your head off.
Some ideas to get your writing started:
Tristine Rainer* identifies four main diary devices:
- Free intuitive writing. Try writing freely for six minutes. Just hold the pen or pencil and let your words flow – nothing is irrelevant. Let go of any concerns about grammar, spelling or punctuation. If you don’t know what to write, just write ‘I don’t know what to write’ over and over. Something is likely to emerge.
- Cathartic writing. Weep or shout onto the page. Get on your soap-box. Vent your anger, guilt, fears and frustration. No-one is going to read it.
- Descriptive writing. Write down what happened or what is happening. Sometimes just a factual account is all you can handle at that point, and that’s okay. Try using your senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste to record what is around you.
- Reflective writing. Write about how you are feeling. What you think about what has happened. If you feel too close, try switching from ‘I’ to ‘she’ or ‘he’.
Openers (or triggers for writing):
These act like opening up Pandora’s box, and might get your words flowing.
- Start with an image – a baby photo; a twin buggy; a teddy bear; a rainbow…
- Take a line from a song that is playing on your mind – I wrote a poem from Kate Bush’s Running up that Hill – ‘If I only could, I’d make a deal with God…’
Extract from my poem:
I’d make a deal with God…
We’d build castles in the sand, watching
waves wash them into the sea.
Collect conkers of rusty mahogany.
Thread them on boot laces.
I’d get him to swap our places…
- A small accident, incident or coincidence (Freud said ‘these don’t just happen’) – seeing a congratulations card for twins; hearing someone call your child/grandchild’s name; reading about a celebrity expecting twins; two butterflies playing around you…
- Write a letter to your child/grandchild and tell him or her what you feel, what you will miss…
*Tristine Rainer, cited in The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing, Gillie Bolton