mourning loss

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Coping with loss, from the mouths of babes

by Kerry Haggard hasn’t written for this blog for a while because she’s not really known how to write anything after tragedy struck and a friend and her two children were taken away suddenly and awfully. She’s learning that children seem to have the right approach to dealing with the difficult stuff.

You know when you become a mom that there are going to be times when you have to deal with the really difficult stuff with your child – the stuff of life, and of death – because both of these can be really hard, and both of these are inevitable.

It came sooner than I thought it would though, when three people that were part of our lives died in a fire. How to tell my big boy that the friend whose house he and his brother spent the afternoon with three days before, the boy he had shared a birthday party with the previous month, had lost his life in the bedroom that they were playing in, and that the boy’s mom and his baby sister had perished too?

I did what any chicken mom does. I delayed the inevitable, and called in an expert to tell the difficult tale. I dodged the question when my son saw the picture of the inferno on the front page of The Star, and asked whose house had burned down, holding off the terrible answer until someone else could give it, because I was too scared and too broken to do it myself.

The psychologist was amazing with Daniel and his friends at school. She asked about their friend, their favourite games with him, and what he liked the most. She then gently explained that he, his sister and his mother had been in an accident, but that they were safe now, and happy, and that they couldn’t be hurt any more. She explained that they weren’t coming back ever again, but that we could hold them all in our hearts.

Daniel was solemn, but calm, and only cried when I did. We wrote a message to his friend and his sister on helium balloons, and released them with the other children.

When my mom drove past the house later that week, not realizing where it was, he saw the burnt out shell and went quiet. “It was my friend’s house that burned down, wasn’t it, Nana?” he asked. “Yes, my boy,” she said, bracing herself. “It’s ok Nana. He’s safe now, he’s in heaven,” said my amazing boy.

I realized in this that the simplicity of his approach is what is helping him deal with the loss. He doesn’t know the details – although one day I’m sure he’ll figure it out. I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to delegate that explanation, one day when it happens. In being unaware of the details, he really is dealing with the simple facts. There was an accident. They are not here any more. They are safe. They cannot be hurt again. No more information required, really.

He’s not said much about it since, although every now and then he’ll mention a favourite game he played with his friend, or he’ll see something similar to a toy that he played with at his friend’s home, but he’s never sad or tearful.

Last week, he was all about tattoos, as some of the other children had some stick-on transfer tattoos. I hate them, but eventually gave in and got a pack of 35 (yes, 35!!!) tattoos for him and his brother to share. He wanted one on his chest, and just as I magically revealed the circular tattoo, he asked if that was near where his heart was.

“Yes, my boy,” I said.

“Cool. Then my friend can see it too. He’s in my heart, you see.”

A time to mourn

by Corinne Lamoral, a freelance writer and media consultant, practicing corporate communications three mornings a week.  She lives with her husband and three children on a koppie in Johannesburg where she pretends the distant hum of traffic is the ocean.

My Mom passed away nearly ten years ago, 2 days after my first daughter was born and I have missed her with a sharpness that did not ease until about seven years ago.  By that stage I had three children, we had moved house, I had grown up and all my memories of her were of a time in my life that no longer resembled my reality. I stopped looking for her in stranger’s faces and I stopped dreaming of her.  I hardened myself and could talk about her with love but detachment.  Then this month, on my birthday, I waited all day for her to call.

The grief I felt when I realised what I was hoping for brought me to my knees. I thought I had gotten over her loss.  I thought, although she would always be a part of me, I had accepted her untimely death.  I was not prepared for the reality that the pain would come back to me.  I still miss her.  I am still so sad that she left before she got to know her grandchildren, for the loss of her laughter in my life, the loss of her love and caring for me.  The loss of her beautiful self.

With this sadness came the gift of compassion for someone I know going through a loss.  It reminded me of what really helped in those nightmarish weeks and months after my mom’s death.  I remember wanting to tell people how to approach me, how to deal with my loss.  Don’t ignore it.  Don’t pretend nothing has happened, if you feel awkward a simple, heartfelt, “I am so sorry for your loss,” is all that is sometimes needed.

The kindest thing you can do for someone who is mourning is to acknowledge their pain, to hear their sorrow, to offer your empathy and then to just stand on the sidelines, making tea, bringing meals, waiting for them and walking away when necessary. Talk about the person they have lost and reminisce about all the things they said and did, all the reasons you will remember them. Let them talk. Let them say nothing. Don’t tell them not to be sad, don’t tell them it will be OK, because in that moment it feels like the world has ended and no one but you knows it.

When I meet people who have faced death there is a haunting in their eyes that I recognise.  There is an understanding that this world is far more random and vulnerable than you could ever bear knowing. I remember panicking if my husband didn’t call to say he’d be home late, or if the phone rang at an unusual hour, imagining all the worst scenarios.  I still do that sometimes, it takes supreme trust and belief that ‘what will be, will be’.  I cannot control the fate of those I love, and I cannot keep everyone safe.  I have to let go of my children’s hands at some point and tell them to go out there and have fun!  Just like my mother used to tell me.