Thursday, 13 September 2012

Right to grieve

I read something on a forum recently to the effect that, if a mother loses her child, then she has the right to grieve however she wants and everyone should do their best to support her.

It sounds great, nothing you'd agree with, right? But then, it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

When I was 15, my brother died in a work related accident abroad. It was hideous, and in the immediate aftermath the family pulled together. There was the funeral, and a few things we did, like lighting a fire on the beach and having a special bottle of wine, and little rituals that helped in the days and the weeks following.

But, gradually, my older surviving siblings spent less time with me and my folks, and more time living their own lives. Which left me at home with my parents.

My mum in particular was determined to find out as much detail as she could about what happened. A reasonable thing to want. Except, her obsession with this made my home life really difficult to bear at times.

For about two years afterward, our lives revolved around getting faxes and e-mails from abroad. I hated the fucking fax machine, it used to brood in the corner as a constant reminder that I couldn't move on. I remember getting an absolute bollocking because I accidentally switched it off once. Occasionally it would spit out a fax with details of my brother's death.

My parents used to leave these on the kitchen table so that neither of them missed one, and I'm not sure if I was meant to be included in the information sharing or not. On one occasion they left my brother's autopsy report there. They didn't ever ask me what I wanted, or make a point of talking to me about any of it. I just found letters and documents lying around. Some of it was really distressing - we'd been told at the start that he'd died instantly, and later information found it had taken 45 minutes after he'd been fatally injured.

Things dragged on and on. I generally left my Mum to it, although the whole situation was massively stressful for me, and caused fallouts with friends who I don't think really grasped what was happening. We did agree that she wouldn't try to get any press coverage, so at least that was something.

Except one day I found a note with a list of steps she was going to take to get things further, which included "contacting papers".

I became even more stressed and withdrawn. Eventually, in front of my father, my Mum asked what was wrong. I tearfully blurted out that I was really upset about her writing that she was going to contact the press after promising not to.

Cue a massive row. Dad took my side. Mum said she was perfectly within her rights to leave stuff lying around and came up with some really stupid excuse about why she'd written that down even though she wasn't going to.

I remember her cornering me the next day, away from my Dad, and saying again that the whole thing was fine, and that she was annoyed with me for bringing it up in front of my father, I should have asked her. But it isn't easy for a teenager, who has gone through a loss themselves, to stand up to a bereaved parent who thinks they are entitled to do what they want to bring themselves closure.

It dragged on some more. I think they got more information out, but there wasn't ever a big epiphany or court case that made anyone feel any better, as far as I could see. The small company involved had been lax about safety but there wasn't really a lot anyone could do about it now. My brother wasn't exactly Mr Health and Safety himself, and we loved him for it.

I left home. By this time, I had become irrationally convinced that I was going to die at the same age as my brother, and spent far too much time getting drunk and doing very stupid things. I might have felt like that anyway, but I think having to live alongside my mother's protracted grieving process didn't help me any.

Obviously I really missed my brother and would have done anything to get him back. But I also think that nothing was going to do this, and effectively trapping me in a situation where I couldn't move on wasn't in my interests, and it still makes me a bit angry and upset when I think about it. I think it possibly contributed to the depression and anxiety that occasionally surfaces in my life. It definitely made me surround myself with people who could help in a similar situation - even today, I occasionally run through a checklist in my head of people who could help sort things out in an emergency.

I can understand my mother's need to find out what happened to her son, and possibly even hold someone to account if someone was obviously malicious or overtly neglectful. I think remembering people is healthy, and that grief isn't something to be hidden away. I also think acknowledgement is important and sometimes people need to get over their awkwardness with death. People, generally, have a responsibility to those who have lost children, to help them get over their loss.

But I also think that, as difficult as it might seem, parents who have lost children also have a responsibility to others around them - other children, partners - to let them grieve for their family member and also possibly move on, rather than expecting them to manage their grief in the same way and for the same length of time.

I haven't written about this before but its cathartic getting it out after all this time!


  1. I'm sorry for you and your family's loss. I can't imagine how that must have affected life for you, then and now. I've had friends who have lost siblings, but I've been fortunate to still have all of mine with me (on the other side of the world).

    I can definitely see where you are coming from and it does make sense. Thank you for sharing and I do hope it helps you. *big hugs*

  2. Thank you for sharing your story of how your parents coped with their greiving. Its horrible that they dragged you into it with the papers being left in plain site however, in their mental state I don't they considered you would mind, probably thought that you would want to know as much as they did. We all grieve in different ways and we should probably realize that very fact and give consideration to other folks so that what happened to you won't happen to others. I'm sounding like a blathering idiot but I think you get the point.

  3. I'm so sorry you lost your brother. Grief is tough. We never know how we're going to react to it. So I feel very sad that your mother perhaps didn't have the support or guidance she needed, so that she could grieve, but also so that she could help you and your siblings grieve and move on too. Because your life was still to be lived.

  4. Thanks for commenting. It was a bit of a difficult post to write. Although I have long since come to terms with my brother dying, I still sometimes feel a bit angry about what went on afterwards. I think I probably need to do a follow up post to explain.