I think perhaps people underestimate the effect the last few months have had on the girls, perhaps because on the face of it, they appear to be doing so well. Although this is a blog about family, I’ve avoided talking so much about them because it seems a private thing, but sometimes I worry they’ll read this when I’m gone and they’ll wonder if I just didn’t care, or if I was so wrapped up in my grief that I wasn’t watching.
The children are different to me, their process is more like Max’s, a more linear one, which started at a point of disbelief and hurt and is gradually moving through the phases of understanding and coming to terms with it. It is a process familiar to Max, because he experienced a terrible, immediate family loss when he was 10, losing his mother when he was just the age Maddy is. I knew lots about his experience and how he reacted and he knew exactly how the children needed to be included in the process of Freddie’s life and death in order to allow them to absorb the impact. Not lessen the impact, that isn’t possible – our aim was more to ensure that when the tidal wave hit they were not washed away, so we tried to warn them, wrap them in sturdy clothes and tie them to a railing, hoping to goodness that the railings wouldn’t be entirely submerged.
I think that we can take full credit for how they’ve coped; if I’m honest, I think Max and I did brilliantly in the immediate days afterwards and much of their strength and general state of repair comes from that. I’d started a book just before I had Freddie where 2 out of 4 siblings die (ironic, no?) and in it, the parents disappear for a week, leaving the survivors in limbo. We tried to make sure that their world knew what had happened in advance, so that people were kind and supportive, we tried to carry on as normal, we tried to be there when they cried and answer questions and reassure them that life would go on. We acknowledged the plaintive and pain-filled whispers of “it’s not fair” and we let them see us cry and that we were sad but that we could also recover each time we crumpled too.
It seems a long time since that moment now; we came home and opened the door and Fran appeared at the top of the stairs and ran to me. “Has he died?” she asked and I said yes, carrying her up the stairs to my bed. I can’t believe I managed that, 11 days after giving birth. I don’t remember how Max got up the stairs or how the rest of us got to the room. I don’t remember what we said, only that the 6 of us left huddled on the bed together and did… something. I have no idea what.
I don’t remember what we did that day. I know it was the last time I saw my dad.
The girls are doing as the are doing largely because we’ve tried to preserve a sense of calm in their life. That’s what I think. Maddy thinks she isn’t sad enough, measures her grief by how much she cried for Smartie the rabbit. We try to tell her that it is okay, that no one thinks she doesn’t care, that she wanted Freddie very badly and that some people just shut off from that sort of hurt. We tell her she’s a practical girl and that no one wants her to spoil her life because of Freddie. But I worry about her, because she has been powerfully undermined by this; her foundations are rocked and she panics at even the slightest change in tone from us now. I talked on the phone the other night, while in the bath and apparently she cried for 20 minutes with fear that it must be something bad. I have no idea how to help her overcome that.
Josie has gone from a clingy baby child to a self-possessed and insular one, but is almost more likeable for it. She takes Freddie’s monkey everywhere with her, cannot countenance sleeping without it and plays careful games about hospitals and sick babies. She’s gradually moving on to games where she nurtures and mothers baby boys. She’s mostly utterly shut about Freddie though, will not acknowledge him as her brother, is firm that she is still the youngest and if, as happened recently, I refer to something being true for all 5 of my babies, she interjects with “four!” very quickly. I don’t think you can underestimate the impact that losing him has had on her. She was so little to experience just a thing.
Fran is different; I don’t know where her hurt is exactly, I think it has cut somewhere deep in her. She links Freddie and the loss of my dad into one thing and I think more than anything she she is bewildered that the universe could be so cruel to her. She says she feels “disappointed” and I think that although she refers to my dad with that, she means both. I think the universe and all its ups and downs got laid bare in one fell swoop. Life does not always work out kindly. She seems okay but she’s watching me all the time and you can see the strain on her. She needs to know how I am, what’s going to happen next, will we be okay, can I stop more bad things happening. I see it written in her face. She knows I can’t. She had to grow up in one horrible day and she’s too old not to feel the ripples. She knows people are hurting, she knows people can’t fix it and she’s sliding between the need to try and the need to ignore it, manifesting itself in desperately trying to achieve at all the things she loves to do and locking herself away in imaginary games at home. She’s never played like that – that’s how I know it is her process for coping.
Amelie is Amelie. Grief is writ large on her; every fibre of her being has “Freddie Died” written through it like strands of seaside rock. mercurial at best, she plunges and soars like the English weather right now; being hurt reminds her of that hurt. Every time she is sad, she remembers she has reason to be sad and you can almost see the thought rise to the surface before it bursts from her in painful sobs “I want Freddie….” She’s small and she’s angry and she’s hurting and the world is not a place where her mummy and daddy can control what happens.
I wonder if they think I’m sad enough? Do they worry the world would carry on the same without one of them? Would we be largely normal, still go to gym, still eat meals without one of them? If the space where Freddie’s highchair should be, even though it never was, can seem so huge, how large would their empty chair be at dinner? I see the thoughts shadow across the faces of the older ones often, sad and relieved they choose not to speak them.
I’ve turned into the mother from hell to some of the people in their life, I know. I want to keep their world still and calm. I don’t want more let down or disappointment for them. They were expecting something lovely for all that time, were so patient, put up with the restrictions. It is as if someone cancelled Christmas but the implications are so much wider than that. The ripples go on forever. Even, as strong and whole as they are, the effects of this are with them daily, every day is still a day when they’ve done well. Knowing they are experiencing so much grief and loss and disappointment because of something I wanted, maybe because of two things I wanted, it makes it incredibly hard for me to watch when I see the other parts of their happy life in jeopardy. It’s hard to explain how much that changes me and turns me into a high maintenance mummy.
I feel like I’ve got them to the lifeboat, got the survivors safely inside, but the sea is rough and the weather is bad and there is nothing to bail out with. And we don’t have life jackets. It will only take one more thing to go wrong and they’ll be drowning. The difficulty is that the passage of time means that we’re expected to be “back to normal”.
There is no normal. We’ve got nowhere to go back to.