When I was asked recently to speak about my “grief journey” to a group of bereaved parents, my first reaction was that it wasn’t such a good idea. I was very worried that it would trigger something in me. Because seven years ago, I watched my 14-year-old son Kadian ride down a hill on a bicycle, and into a road where he was struck by a truck. He died in front of me.
I was also anxious about making generalisations – after all, everyone’s experience is different. There is no blueprint or boilerplate for how to cope with such a calamity. I didn’t want to cause anyone additional pain.
I decided to take a pass.
Later, I took my dog out for a walk in the hills behind our house. And there, up in the yew tree forest, I thought some more. What if I had heard someone speak on this subject seven years ago? What would I have liked them to say? What would have made a difference to me back then?
So, here is what I came up with.
The first thing I would say to my seven-year-younger-self is this: I am so sorry for your loss. I am so, so sorry for your loss.
That awful question came up in conversation when I met strangers: how many children do you have?
There are some people who will struggle to say this. Who will be awkward and embarrassed and overwhelmed. But not me. Plain and simple, this is a catastrophe. It is horrible. Terrible. Disgusting. Awful. Life-changing and unfair.
I am truly sorry.
The second thing I want to say is that I am still here. Seven years later. Still breathing. Still standing. Still talking. There is a future ahead. I didn’t always see it that way.
One of the worst moments for me happened after I had just seen the ambulance take Kadian’s body away. I found myself in a car on my way back to my parents’ house, where my daughter Sam was waiting. She was 13, and I had to tell her about her brother. That he was dead. It was an impossible task.
When I told her, Sam collapsed to the floor. I held her. We cried together for a long while. And then she said something that had an immediate impact, and has stuck with me ever since. “We must live every moment to the full,” she said, “because Kadian can’t.” And so I made the commitment, then and there, to live every moment to the full. It’s been a guiding light for me.
Then there was Graham, our neighbour, who had lost his teenage son in India four years earlier. I asked him how he was doing, and he said that he was “accommodating” to it. I thought about this a lot. Accommodating. Not getting over, or moving beyond, or turning the page – all of which sounded wrong to me, almost disloyal. But accommodating. It sounded strange to say, but it felt right.
A few days later, I saw a tree growing in a hedgerow near our house. I looked closer at its large roots, extending down around an enormous boulder and into the ground. And this is what I realised Graham meant by accommodating. The large boulder lies there for ever, cold, inert; but somehow the tree had found a way to build a life around it.
And so we began to rebuild our lives around this awful event. And one of the first things I learned was that our son’s death had changed the key relationships around us. This was both unexpected and unnerving. The profound trauma and shock amplified our existing relationships, so those that were good were now great, and those that were not so good were now appalling.
Fortunately, my sister Amanda had said something just after we lost Kadian: “You have permission to do anything that makes your life better.” This get-out-of-jail-free card was incredibly helpful. Whereas in the past I might have worried about hurting someone’s feelings, now when my wife and I made decisions, our only concern was how it would protect us and our daughter. As a result, we avoided those family and friends whom we now found toxic. Seven years later, we have reconnected with some of them, but the relationships are different, more shallow, more managed. Most we have not. And that’s OK.
For a while I was mad. I cried a lot. So did my wife. One breakfast, our daughter asked us if we could try to limit the crying hours, perhaps to daylight hours. She said it so nicely that we laughed. Mostly we succeeded.
At first, my wife and I tried to do everything together. It felt safer. I could take care of her, she could take care of me. And then we realised that this was actually making things worse, that we had different needs at different times. This was a big moment for us. To keep our sanity, we had to walk the journey close, but separate.
Such strategies helped, but still I was unable to avoid the triggers that kept on coming: seeing Kadian’s body in hospital; receiving his death notice; reading a sensational headline in the newspaper; shutting down his mobile phone account; going out for dinner and then seeing the fourth chair empty; attending a family occasion where all the grandchildren were there, but him. Each time feels like a punch to the stomach, like being told for the first time that our son had died.
My marriage was always strong. We met when I was 18 and she was 23. But the death of our son has brought us even closer
And then there was that awful question, which came up in conversation when I met strangers: how many children do you have? At first I said “two”. Then I was asked their ages. I would pause and give Sam’s age – 13, then 14, then 15, now 20. Then I would say that we also have Kadian. He was aged 14 – when he died. And this almost always exploded the conversation. Typically, people would not know what to say. Most changed the subject, some even turned away. A few would be curious. How did he die, they would ask? Or the real shocker: was he wearing a bicycle helmet? Why did they ask this? Did they want to establish guilt? Of course he was wearing a helmet.
For a while I told people I had one child, but it felt so unbelievably disloyal that I stopped almost at once. Now I give a limited amount of information, and if the inquiry moves in a direction I wish to avoid, I simply say, “I do not wish to talk about that,” and move the conversation gently on.
But there’s another question people ask: how are you and your wife doing? I know where it’s coming from, because one or two people went further and mentioned a statistic that the stress of losing a child leads to breakups. At first, I responded with anger. How dare they challenge my marriage, which I rely on every day just to get by? Then I found numerous studies that undermined the bogus child-bereavement-leads-to-marriage-breakups claim, and quoted these at anyone who dared bring the subject up. But I quickly realised that the questioners just looked at me as if I were crazy, which I was. Now, when people ask, I keep it simple. My marriage to Debora was always strong. We met when I was 18 and she was 23. But the death of our son has brought us even closer. I loved my wife before Kadian died. I love her even more after.
A few weeks after we lost Kadian, my instinct was to go back to work, to keep busy, to distract myself, and so that’s what I did. I helped a friend with his book-keeping, and ran a real estate brokerage. At the same time, I had just sold my first book to a publisher and was about to start a round of edits. I hoped that by trying to return to some semblance of normality, it might give me comfort in a world that had become, overnight, abnormal, uncontrollable and unreliable. But I found there were some things I could do and others I could not. I learned that I could not deal with people. I responded badly to tension and conflict. Any problem, however minor, triggered a massive anxiety attack.
So I gave up everything except my writing, which suited me fine. I was by myself, working in a safe environment that I could control. My wife also found that she could no longer stay in her job. Between us we had lost 80% of our income. Before long, not only were we having to deal with the traumatic loss of our son, the emotional impact on our daughter, PTSD and social alienation, but also the real prospect of losing our house.
So, what would I tell my seven-year-younger self about this? I certainly would not deny how hard it is. Nor would I say, everything’s going to be fine – because it is not. But I would say, you’ll find a way to get through it. And when you can’t, you will need to find people who will help. Which in my case is a hard sell, for I am not someone who finds it easy to ask for help. But sometimes you have no choice. So I would tell myself to get over my pride. And that it’s OK to borrow money if you need to – you will find a way to pay it back. And that those people who love you will want to help you if they can.
I would also say that it’s OK to lie on the couch and watch TV, if that’s what makes you feel better. And I would tell myself, it’s fine to drink whisky. But I would add, be careful. Try not to drink too much. If it doesn’t make you aggressive or depressed, and doesn’t give you a headache the next day, fair enough – but still, watch out.
And I’d also say, at some point you may want to speak to a therapist. But give yourself permission to say that this person is not the right fit. Because a therapist is like a girlfriend or boyfriend – the chemistry has to be right. And when it is right, listen to them.
Even then, it’s not easy. It wasn’t easy when my therapist said I should consider taking medication. “I’m not that kind of person,” I said. “What kind of person is that?” my therapist asked, kindly. “Well, someone who is broken, traumatised, grieving, lethargic, unable to perform basic functions, lying on the couch all day watching box sets, drinking too much whisky.” And of course, I realised I was that kind of person. So I took the pills, and this helped me get through. Until it was time to come off, which I did, slowly and carefully, and again with help. And now I’m not on them, though I still like watching box sets. I still give myself permission to take time out when I need it, because sometimes the world’s just too much.
And then I would say to seven-year-younger-self: enough of all that. Please tell me about Kadian. Because that’s one of the ways to keep him close. So here’s a story about Kadian…
Each summer, we go camping with friends and family, melt marshmallows over the fire, fly kites and remember Kadian
Two months after he died, his art teacher came to our house, holding a bag. She explained that Kadian had been working for weeks in pottery class on a project. He was going to give it to me for my birthday. It was a white ceramic cube with a pedestal inside, which was turned by a stiff crank. Above the top was carved his favourite slogan from Apple: “Think different”. There was so much about this that was Kadian: generous, inventive, creative, artful, thoughtful, kind.
He and I had recently painted his bedroom silver in honour of Apple, which had been a wonderful father-son time. We laughed a lot, our faces and arms covered with silver paint. And now here was this object, magically arriving at our door. Impossibly arriving, after he was no longer here. Because though Kadian is gone, he is still very much here, at least in part.
How do we keep him with us? We tell stories about him to our friends and keep pictures of him around the house. Each year we take his birthday off and go for a walk. Each summer, we go camping with friends and family, eat good food and drink good drink and melt marshmallows over the fire and fly kites and remember Kadian as we go. We keep him close. Always.
And though we grow older, and he died at 14, somehow he is ageing with us. Of course, he is not here, and to tell you otherwise would be a lie. More than anything, I don’t want to lie. I say again, his death is, was, will be terrible.
So, my dear younger self, my hurting, confused, troubled, broken me. If you can, try to be grateful for your time together. Be angry, truly angry, for what you have lost. Shout at the sky. Smash some plates. Scream at the world. Why would you not? But remember the good times. The laughs, the hugs, the moments of joy. The special, private moments that only you know. Write them down if you can. Or talk about them with people who also remember. Or sing or paint them, or find another way. For he was magic, and in your life. Not for long enough, that’s for sure. But if you can, be grateful.
The moments will pass. They will become hours, then days, then weeks and years. Your dear, darling, beautiful child will still be missing. Not here. But also, somehow, here, too. And in front of you, let’s hope, will stretch the next seven years, and perhaps the next. So try and do what Sam said: live each day to the full. Because you can.
• This article is adapted from a speech given at the 50th anniversary conference of The Compassionate Friends, who support those who have suffered the loss of a child; tcf.org.uk. Thomas Harding’s book, Kadian Journal, is published by Penguin Random House.
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