This post might start off on a sad note and is long, but if you persevere with it I hope you will see that it is ultimately a happy one. Either that or you will think that I have taken leave of my senses.
I have decided to take the Route 1 approach to grief. Confront it, embrace it, and whatever you do, don’t fight it. Grief is so powerful and overwhelming that ignoring it will only push it into the depths of your psyche from where it will return to haunt you whenever the opportunity arises. Demons don’t sleep deeply. They wake up when the nearest door opens.
I am learning about grief every day and, somehow, despite its depth and sadness it has also become a friend of sorts – the kind of friend that can hurt and comfort you in equal measure. The kind that you sometimes think you must get rid of, but on other occasions comforts you because it is proof that your child once existed.
Grief is the price we pay for love and, like love, it can be very cruel. Until last night, I had not dreamt of Edward, but I haven’t worried because I think of him throughout each day. I knew that he would appear at some point, and finally he did. I dreamt that I was a brain surgeon. A succession of sick children were brought to me and I saved them all. But then, in came a child that I could not fix. I operated on him several times, but I kept making mistakes. Not deliberate, but silly mistakes, avoidable mistakes. The child died. As I unwrapped the bandages around his head for his parents to say goodbye it was Edward’s face that was revealed. My blood ran ice cold. I had killed him – my mistakes, my decisions, my ego. I know that this is not true, but grief also knows that it is my achilles heel. It knows that I have tortured myself over the decision to operate this summer as opposed to next and whether or not it would have made a difference. How can it dare to play with my inner demons like that? It knows where the worst of the pain is hiding, digs it out and lays it bare, but in so doing hopefully prepares the wounds for healing.
Yet, grief can also comfort me. It now has a familiarity about it that is reassuring. I hate it but I want it. I talk to it, challenging it. “Come on then you little shit, do your worst. You can hurt me but you will never, ever beat me.” I know this because although my grief is for Edward, I feel that he is helping me to fight it, and having him on my side is all that I need. It will not defeat me. I will now try to explain why.
I have had to think long and hard about what I am about to write. This blog has now been viewed almost 100,000 times and my credibility is probably at stake. That’s an awful lot of people to think you’ve lost the plot, especially if you’re self employed! We have all read about grieving parents who lose their grip on reality and see things that aren’t there. We feel their pain and feel sorry for them but know that they will soon ‘come round’. Until then, we just have to turn a blind eye to their grief induced, but clearly transient, experiences. I know, I’ve done it myself.
So let me start by saying that I am the kind of person that requires rational, empirical and emotional evidence to take what someone else tells me seriously. I often analyse events in such depth that it becomes problematic. I was the kind of boy who, upon being told to count sheep when I couldn’t sleep, would consider what breed it was, how high the fence was, the condition of the ground and how the energy was being transferred from their feet to enable them to jump over the fence. Don’t even get me started on existentialism. I have battled with it almost every single day since I was 11 years old. Sleep and I have not been good friends ever since.
This attention to detail means that I often, rightly or wrongly, dismiss many phenomena as coincidences or anomalies. It has been quite a useful trait as I come to terms with the loss of our son and try to keep my perspective intact in the midst of grief. In an earlier post I mentioned the term ‘confirmation bias’. It’s used by psychologists to describe the tendency of some people to attribute events to a particular cause, and can be prevalent amongst the recently bereaved who are prone to believe that they are communicating with dead people. I am acutely aware that I am in this bracket.
Many years ago, a famous TV presenter lost her adult daughter to cancer. I recall reading about her devastation, for which I now have complete empathy, but also my cynical response to some of her experiences. This woman happens to believe in angels and was convinced that white feathers appearing around her were evidence of this. I know nothing of angels and am certainly not mocking her. I would love them to exist and hope that they do but I know that if you look for white feathers you will find them. Everywhere. In our house, they are all over the place because our sofa and pillows are stuffed with them. They are also plentiful outside, because so too are thousands of birds. I was in the car a couple of days ago when a white feather drifted down and landed on my bonnet. “Don’t you dare!” I shouted out, chuckling at the thought that it was just the kind of mischievous trick Edward would love to play. There was, clearly, a completely rational explanation – a bird in the sky. Only yesterday I left the house to go for a walk and a white feather followed me half way down the street. Seriously. I kept turning round to look at it, like a wanted man keeping an eye on the plain clothes detective stalking him. Again I laughed, knowing that it was just being carried on the wind until it eventually waltzed away in the backdraft of a passing car. I then went to the park with Alice and Arthur – there was an impressive collection of white feathers by the lake. Next to the swans’ nest, of course. White feathers are everywhere. Coincidence.
Likewise, a few weeks ago on another sleepless night, I went for a walk. The old town in Cirencester is beautiful in the still of the night and it helps to calm my mind. When the hubbub of traffic and activity has faded away, the sounds of nature are a huge comfort. I often feel that Edward is now a part of nature, a child of the universe. The sky was clear, I looked above to see the stars and was treated to a display of meteors that took my breath away. I cried. Was it Edward saying hello? Of course it wasn’t – it was the annual Perseid Meteor shower that happens, funnily enough, every year. I had read about it earlier in the week and wanted to see it. Not even a coincidence.
On another occasion, just days after Edward’s death and before his funeral, we were all in the car driving to Bristol on the M4. We had been avoiding listening to the radio because certain songs are just too hard to bear. Alice and Arthur asked for one of their favourite CDs so we had to turn the stereo on. What was the song playing on the radio? Firework by Katie Perry, one of Edward’s favourite tunes which we later played at his funeral whilst the children all lit candles for him. It was the first song we had heard on the radio in weeks and it had to be that? Clare and I were in tears instantly. I wanted to believe that it was a sign, a little poke from Edward. Perhaps it was and in my heart I hope so, but the fact remains that the song was on a playlist that had been pre-selected by the radio station. Coincidence. Damn it. (Although it doesn’t explain why the kids asked for their CD at that exact moment – don’t go there, it’s full of trouble).
A couple of weeks ago I noticed a child’s footprint on the pavement just outside our house. It won’t go away. Every other mark has been washed off by the elements, but this one endures. It has poured down with rain several times and it’s still there. Every other footprint fades quickly, except this one. I see it every time I walk out of the house, like a florescent elephant in my path. I have grown to love it and will miss it when it finally disappears, not because it is Edward’s footprint (of course it’s not), but it’s somewhere he stepped almost every day of his life and it makes me smile. Another, albeit lovely, coincidence.
It’s easy to see why incidents like these, that occur every day all over the world, can play havoc with the mind of a grieving parent. Is it any surprise that in our despair we see things others don’t? If I was not aware of confirmation bias, I would now be confined to a straitjacket.
Fast forward to the night of August 28. Once again, I could not sleep, but this time it was really bad. It was one month exactly since Edward had died. Each hour that went by I remembered exactly what we were doing that awful night – the time we turned off his dialysis and the fluids; the moment we withdrew the inotropes and he started to pass away. I was distraught, the pain was relentless. I left our bedroom, went downstairs to the living room, curled into a ball on the sofa and wept. I was inconsolable. I wanted to stay up all night, until 5.28am, to somehow mark the moment that Edward left, a show of respect for our beautiful boy. However, I was soon exhausted and emotionally drained and, knowing that I had a long drive the next morning to Devon, I conceded defeat. I went back upstairs to bed and eventually fell asleep.
A few hours later, Clare shook my shoulder to wake me. The car alarm was going off. It had never gone off before and hasn’t since. Furthermore, I had taken the unusual step of parking the car right outside the house rather than up the hill opposite, so we could clearly see whose car was making the noise. I looked at the clock. It was 5.28am, one month to the minute from the moment Edward died. I was stunned. I waited for the tears to come, but they didn’t. Instead, I was instinctively happy for the first and so far only time since he passed away. I felt at peace with the world and everything around me. It was as if the universe had put its arm around me and told me that everything was ok. I smiled for hours.
The overwhelming feeling was one of comfort, that somehow my grief and pain throughout the night had reached out and that the alarm was a little poke of acknowledgement. Why, instead of sorrow and pain, did I instantly feel peaceful, calm and happy? Why not the despair of remembering the exact moment of his death which was one of the hardest moments of our lives. Surely my instinctive reaction should have been sorrow, but it wasn’t. I know what will be going through people’s minds but I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Coincidence? No, sorry, not for me. Too timely, too personal, too perfect.
I accept that my credibility may now be in jeopardy. I can hear the chorus from some of my oldest friends from prep school. “Come in 109, your time is up. You’ve lost the plot.” But don’t feel sorry for me or think that I will soon come round, because I won’t. There was nothing contrived about what happened, either before or after the alarm, and it was beautiful. Have you ever found a car alarm soothing? I doubt it. The feelings that accompanied it were simply too profound and beyond all empirical, rational or emotional parameters.
It’s been almost three weeks since that incident. The daily pain of grief has returned but it no longer feels hopeless. I am not telling you that I have found evidence of life after death. I am not saying hallelujah either. My relationship with religion is too complicated for that but I have found myself drawn to my local church and vicar whose support has been outstanding. I am merely telling you a series of incidents that have happened. I can attribute most to coincidence but not the car alarm. I don’t want to. I can’t and I won’t. Why would I dismiss something that has given me so much comfort during a period of otherwise sustained sorrow? Besides, whoever you are – atheist, agnostic or religious – you have no proof of anything either for or against that will convince me otherwise. It was, and always will be, a defining point in my life.
Today I went into the church to light a candle for Edward. As always, I talked to him. Yes, I’m the mad fool who talks to his dead son. You’ll see me doing this all around town. I told him what we’ve all being doing lately and reminded him of the car alarm incident and joked that it was a shame he couldn’t poke me a little more often, just to reassure me. I walked out of the church, through town and stopped by an art gallery that I have never been into since we moved to Cirencester in 2005. I saw a painting in the window display that looked interesting. When I went inside I saw two paintings by the same artist that stopped me in my tracks. The first was a picture of St John Baptist Church in Cirencester, where all our children were baptised and where we held Edward’s funeral service. Right next to it was a picture of Big Ben, an image that we saw every night from the Evelina in London. There’s nothing peculiar in that – there are millions of paintings of Big Ben. But this one was painted from the promenade in front of the Evelina Children’s Hospital, where Edward was treated throughout his life and where he passed away. The manager walked over, intrigued by my staring and constant head shaking, and I explained. She too was taken aback. Coincidence? Probably, but I don’t want it to be.
If this hasn’t already, there is one other thing that happened when Edward died that will surely convince you all that I have lost the plot, but I will write about that in due course. If I do it now, you’ll all stop reading and this blog will be bookmarked as ‘Well Meant but Sadly Crazy’.
I’d better write something sensible first.