A Fine Line

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.

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A little reading around the subject. Nobody can accuse me of not being prepared!

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.

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“Tell me about your mother.” No, Sigmund, I have not lost my mind.

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.

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White feathers. Honestly, they’re everywhere.

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).

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The child’s footprint outside our house.

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.

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Those pictures. Top left and bottom left are different views of St John Baptist Church in Cirencester. Bottom right is Big Ben, seen from The Evelina Children’s Hospital.

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.

 

17 thoughts on “A Fine Line

  1. Natalie Baird-Clarke

    Without wanting to disregard the sadness in this post, I loved it! I just loved reading it. I’m going to read it again. Thank you Andy. I don’t think you’re crazy, but that comes from someone who might be slightly, so you never know…

    Thinking about you & Clare every day xxx

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  2. Fleur

    A beautiful sunset with lots of spreading light, from the earth up to the sky makes me think of Ned and you all. To me he is light, and i have not even had the pleasure of meeting him, so who had gone bonkers here? No Andy, you are not losing it, thank you for sharing.

    What an aweful dream and gets you straight to your pain, thinking of you all, xo

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  3. suzie

    Andy as I read your post I find myself travelling with you and the family which I know is part of the reason that you write it. It also reminds me of the many other families who have allowed me the honour of travelling with them after the loss of their child. Nothing that you say is mad, talking to your son is such an important thing to do, finding joy in the small things that remind you or him or that may well be messages from him to you is so special and important. Thank you so much for telling your story because not only does it give all of us a small insight into your thoughts it also helps so many other families who experience the pain and isolation of loss when a child dies. These posts are very special thank you so much. With love from Suzie and all at LHM

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  4. Jools

    Thank you for sharing this, Andy. In reading your words, I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s definition of ‘synchronicity’, which is ”a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.”

    I’ve learned, over the years, to trust my inner voice and wisdom, rather than anything or anyone external – it has served me wonderfully well and taken me to places, and on adventures, that I would never have dared to explore if I’d listened to ‘conventional’ wisdom and thinking.

    Words I say to myself, often, are ‘Trust yourself’ and now I say the same to you. Trust yourself and your innate wisdom, Andy – nothing else matters.

    With love

    Jools xx

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  5. Friend of a friend

    Hi Andy,
    I come from an engineering background – definitely more of a left hand brain kind of chap. Throughout school, university and my working life logical thinking has always been encouraged and nurtured.

    But, I get a real buzz about the sort of events you’ve described above. It needs a quantum leap in thinking to believe that they could actually be true but I love allowing space in my mind for such things to exist on an equal footing with all the logical stuff.

    This means I can be logical and sensible most of the time but still make allowances so that all sorts of outrageously complicated and unfathomable things can also have a place in my view of the universe.

    We know as much about the how or why we all got here as we do about how Edward’s feather followed you up the street.

    When you think that it was only 100 odd years ago that we worked out how to fly. It makes me realise how much of knowledge of our universe is unknown and undiscovered. Leaving our minds open to anything outside of what we “know” is the only way to go!

    So relax and enjoy, you’re not going mad, you’ve just got an open mind with a little boy who will always be part of it…

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  6. Nicky

    As a friend of your sister Fiona I heard about the car alarm some time ago and truly believe it was indeed little Ned, your not mad in believing it and I hope you find more evidence that these things are sent from above. Bless you for continuing to write such an amazing blog ..

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  7. joc marchington

    I wasn’t aware of the white feather phenomena before, that makes sense now! I lost my father last year and had wondered why there were so many feathers everywhere!
    You’re not mad…believe and go with the flow 🙂

    Mrs M

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  8. Julie Shum

    I know exactly what you mean and no they are not coincidences, Ellie has seen our James on two seprate ocassions bless him , bless Ned and bless you all xxx

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  9. Sarah Siddons

    You’re definitely not mad, you’re just a deep thinker with an open mind. Life isn’t black and white – it’s all the colours of the rainbow with so many things we can’t explain……I think you’re very brave to bare your soul the way you do and I can imagine It’s helped others who feel pain like yours but perhaps aren’t able to articulate it so well x

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  10. Norma

    Andy, wow ;
    what a powerful account of your experiences. Heart rendering stuff; and I don’t say that cynically.
    This sort of conversation, I have had( in small sections ) with people as you do, when confronted with grief; not that I have got a massive experience personally thankfully. However similar accounts of inexplicable or
    otherwise, coincidences or whatever, do seem to be a reoccurring theme.
    Similarly with ” the white feather”; I think the presenter you mention would be Gloria Hunniford, who so sadly lost her daughter Caron to breast cancer. I have her book if you wish to borrow it, just haven’t got round to reading it as I want to be able to give it my proper concentration.
    I have seen interviews that Gloria has given, with her explanations of Karen’s beliefs; she is soon to be on with Piers Morgan if you are interested.
    So “no” I don’t think you are going mad either, as previous comments before mine agree; there are some lovely reassuring thoughts there aren’t there; I just think the brain can play tricks on you, and then there can be no explanation of other points and there timings.
    As I read your mention of Freud , in the background the TV is on and I hear (i did rewind to get it down)’ Freud would make a unique claim’ “what we want is so vital and so potentially disruptive, that we are forced to dream it in a strange and symbolic way.” Well I don’t pretend to know and certainly have’t studied Freud apart from a tiny bit in the psychology ‘block’ of my nursing course ;(decades ago !!) but in relation to your dream, isn’t this how your brain is playing tricks on you! As you know, there is no greater time , than when in anguish, how a tired/ exhausted brain conj ours up all sorts and how traumatic a dream ! You must know that you couldn’t have done anymore for Edward; you and Clare. I do hope you can get more positive sleep and dreams; forget that one !!!
    Much love, XXXXXX

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  11. sally spring

    Andy what a beautiful post I am absolutely sure Ned is with you trying to let you know he loves you.
    Although Edward is not here to cuddle you will always be a father of three children. Edward will always be an essential part of your family
    Never lose sight of this.
    With much love
    Sally spring and family

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  12. Emma Pete and Rosie

    Dear Andy, reading your post has made me think about a couple of articles I have read recently. The first was written by Reg Thompson whose daughter Charlie was killed in December 2005. He wrote letters to her as away of keeping her at the centre of his life. A book was published: Charlie Letters to a lost daughter. The other article was about ‘Grief Encounter’ a bereavement organisation(www.griefencounter.org.uk). One of the fathers who found support through them said, ‘It gave him permission to grieve for his daughter for the rest of his life’. From what I have learned / am learning about grief is that we find our own personal way through. You have a unique way of expressing yourself so openly and honestly. Whatever you experience and feel because of Ned’s death please keep writing it down. Talking about grief, pain, loss seem to still be a taboo to many, but it is through people like you and Reg Thompson that it becomes less so. With love to you all, Emma and family xx

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  13. Annie Ramsay South

    You have heard of a co-incidence? What about a God-incident? recently explained that a God-incident is what some would label a coincidence, except that God is at the center of the event. It is not a coincidence at all. For God has purposefully made it happen. Is it from divine providence? Not necessarily. More often, it is through a cluster of people living in relationship with him and being obedient to his voice.

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  14. Pettifers

    Once again your insight and bravery shines through, Andy, as you put yourself and your beliefs on the line for others to read and cogitate.

    I too have had many experiences/coincidences (call them what you will) which have given much needed comfort and pleasure over the years. Even at moments of doubt (when ‘common sense’ kicks in and I tell myself that no-one would believe me and that it must just be chance that makes me look/see/hear at that particular moment) I take comfort from the fact that the incident has at least given me a quality moment when I’ve stopped and remembered.

    At the moment I’m sure the tears just ooze out – it’s as if your tear ducts have a mind of their own. But eventually there comes a point when your coping strategies take over, and are so effective, that suddenly crying doesn’t come so easy, even when you want to. In those moments, try listening to a song that is particularly meaningful/poignant, it often has the desired effect and it’s amazing how cathartic a good cry can be.

    I had lost my link to your blog and wondered if you’d taken it down – I’m so pleased to have found it again and that you are continuing with Edward’s story. I’m glad to hear that your holiday to Cornwall went as well as it could, and that Alice and Arthur are supporting each other and enjoying school. Life as a foursome will, for all of you, continue to be strange and hard, but I’m sure the strength and love that you and Claire have demonstrated throughout this terrible time will support you all.

    With love and best wishes, Sandra xox

    Reply

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