Tuesday, 30 November 2010


November 26th 2009 should have been Al's 18th birthday. One of his friends had  persuaded a local garden centre to donate a couple of Cherry Blossom trees - one for Al's school - that's another story entirely - and one for the local park where he hung out with his mates.

Although the park is privately owned and contained no memorials, she spoke with the owners who agreed that the tree and a memorial could be placed in there in his memory. They made it clear that this would be a one-off event and that no other memorials would be placed there. His friends joined in with the planting. Then we released 18 balloons in red, gold and green -his favourite Rasta colours. Apart from the huge numbers at his funeral, that was the largest gathering of people who knew Al I have seen. A few of my family, a few friends and neighbours, and a couple of colleagues also came. It meant a lot to me that people made the effort as it showed that he wasn't forgotten. A couple of people who had said they would be there didn't turn up - no apologies, no explanations, no reference to it since either.

Afterwards, a few people came back to my place and we sat and chatted and remembered him. Later, when on my own, I sobbed in my bedroom - quietly so that my daughter wouldn't hear.

Two nights later, we had the official birthday night out. Al was born on my nephew's first birthday and a joint night out had been planned for some time to celebrate Al's 18th and my nephew's 19th. I didn't want to go yet I felt duty bound to go to ensure he was remembered. Funny Girls in Blackpool, a club featuring drag acts, was the chosen venue - Al would have found the whole event lots of fun and my nephew, being as camp as Christmas, and twice as lovely, fitted right in and had a fab evening.

When the time came for music requests, I agreed to "Queen's "Don't stop me now" (one of the pieces played at Al's funeral) being played. I didn't want to hear it but I couldn't bear him not being acknowledged. The music struck up and I was acutely aware of being observed - I couldn't even slink off to the loos for a bit of privacy without being watched - and probably followed. And if truth be told, that was what I wanted more than anything else. Of course, I sat - rooted to the spot - it was their night out and they didn't deserve to have it ruined by my morbid ramblings. I cried when I got home and I was alone - I cry when I'm alone - it's somehow easier then.

Fast-forward six months to the first anniversary of Al's death. 30th May 2010. It was the day of the Caribbean Carnival in town. The year before, we visited the Carnival for the first time. Al had a great time ogling the semi-naked young women on the floats, and later sitting in the park bumping into old school friends and catching up. He'd taken good care of me as I was still fairly poorly following a surgery I'd had a few weeks earlier.

Anyway, my youngest wanted to see the Carnival again. I was reluctant - too many memories of the previous year with Al - but she was insistent. I hoped to see the friend who went every year and had always nagged us to go - the previous year, we'd given up waiting for her after a few hours and had gone home as she'd chosen to spend the day with other friends whilst constantly texting us to say she was going to be with us soon. Anyway, this year, in response to my daughter's text asking her what time she would be there, she let us know that she wasn't going to be there at all but sent us her thoughts as she acknowledged the anniversary. I was pretty fed up - like so many others, she'd assured me of her support when Al died but was nowhere to be found when I needed it.

We went home - my youngest happy because she'd seen her friends at the park - me raw with anger and hurt. On the way home, I laid some flowers at the side of the road where Al had died.

Later my sister in law and niece joined us and we walked along the canal - a route taken on an almost daily basis by Al - and up to the road where he died. A few of his friends were there - around 5 or 6 - one of them, a lovely lad, told me that he'd asked loads of Al's friends to join them and most had said they would. He was so hurt that hardly any had bothered. I couldn't tell him that was the last thing I needed to hear - that those young people who had professed to care about my boy, had all found better things to do than spare a few minutes to join together in his memory. He was so upset by it that I didn't have the heart to tell him that he might as well have just stabbed me with those words.

I put on a brave face and we crossed over the road and went to the memorial bench, which has Al's name carved on it. I encouraged Al's friends to help me light and release some Chinese lanterns and we watched them float away. It was getting dark by then so we went home. After my sister in law and niece left, I sat and rocked and held myself as I cried - silently so as not to upset my daughter.

Last Friday, 26th November 2010, should have been Al's 19th birthday. I'd been aware of my growing resentment at people not remembering these significant dates and I'd decided that I could either continue hoping people would remember and make an effort to mention him, or I could stop expecting too much of them and simply remind them of the impending date. Once I'd made the decision, I took the bull by the horns, and made a point of telling four of my colleagues. It made no difference to the level of interest - just one of them bothered to make the effort to acknowledge the day. I heard nothing from the other three - all are employed in what could be described as the most caring of professions - go figure!

I'd been to work - I didn't know what else to do and anyway, the general opinion seems to be that I should be 'over it' by now. A few months ago, I actually overheard someone at work saying, "Look I know you can't get over something like that properly but at some point you have to get on with your life - you can hardly carry on dipping in and out forever - I don't take the day off because I'm upset about my mum dying do I? I mean - you just have to pick yourself up and get on with things don't you. I know it's different when a child dies but whatever the loss, you can't live in the past forever." I wasn't sure the conversation was about me but it was clearly about someone who had lost a child.

I didn’t let on that I’d overheard - it seemed pointless and I guess most people would agree with her. The irony is that I was back at work within 6 weeks of his death and had only taken time off to make court visits during the trial of the man who ran him over. I was functioning, attending work, making an effort with my appearance, and giving the impression of ‘getting back to normal’ but even that wasn’t good enough – I had to make it crystal clear that I was well and truly over the death of my son and even if I wasn’t, then I should just pretend so that others don’t feel uncomfortable.

Anyway, after I left work, I collected the flowers from the florist. I laid cream and red roses at the roadside and a single lily on his bench. It was getting dark by then so I went home. A couple of Al's friends had posted on Facebook asking whether anything had been arranged and I had said they were welcome to visit and share their memories of him. None did. My sister in law and niece laid some flowers by the road and then came round to visit bringing the babies with them. No one said his name but the babies, who are both so adorable, created a welcome distraction.

After they went home, I cried. I’m sick of crying.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Faith ... and the way we treat the bereaved

I’ve been raised in a Westernised, and therefore, Christian-based, culture. I was baptised in a Church of England church. I was married in that church. My eldest daughter was baptised there and, as we'd moved to a different town, my son was baptised in a different church but into the same faith. However, I never believed. I’ve had periods of my life where I’ve tried to believe in the existence of God. I’ve looked at other religions in the hope that maybe I’d just been given the wrong one and if I could just find the right one, I’d somehow ‘know’ and would be able to believe and accept this ‘Higher Presence’. I envy others who have that faith. Despite my efforts, I haven’t found it yet.

For reasons other than faith, I was married and the kids were baptised in Church. Our parents expected it – indeed, there was an expectation that I would be married there and nowhere else – and anyway, it was traditional. And OK, it would look nice on the photos. I look back and think what a shame that was. I think for those who genuinely believe, it must be painful to see people like me simply going through the motions for the sake of tradition and pretty pictures. By the time I my third child was born, I had a naming ceremony in our home. I still wanted to give her the ceremonial introduction to family and friends but without any of my former hypocritical promises that I’d never intended keeping anyway.

As far as death goes, I think modern Westernised culture (which is pretty much rooted in Christianity) has it wrong. We’re scared of death - so it’s hidden away and avoided – like some dirty little secret we mustn’t discuss. My Muslim colleague  was shocked when I told her how my neighbour  thanked me for a casserole I made just after his wife died 20 years ago – I hadn’t known what to do so I cooked as I thought that they probably weren’t thinking much about eating. My colleague told me that when someone within her culture is bereaved, you visit immediately, "and you take food because the family will be in too much shock to think about feeding themselves - and it’s our job to look after them - it’s their job to grieve.” Her faith and surrounding culture guides her to look after those who are grieving.

I’ve noticed the acceptance of the loud outpourings of grief in other cultures but until recently, always found it a little distasteful. My westernised upbringing had lead me to think, “All that drama - you’d think they’d have a bit of dignity.” After my boy died, I clung to my dignity. It was all I had. My Mother has repeatedly said, “You never cried at his funeral – I did – I loved that boy,” as if I didn’t care. Her tone is accusatory and, to be honest, I want to punch her square in the face when she says it. The truth was that I couldn’t allow it. I had to make it as perfect as possible for him – for his memory. My grief was unimportant to me right then. Getting it right for him was everything. Maybe I should have sobbed and wailed loudly – although I don’t think I knew how to do that – still don’t. But at least others would have seen it and gained some understanding. Or perhaps, they would do as I did when watching some news item and seeing the outpourings of grief following an earthquake in the third world - “Oh puhlease - have a little dignity.” My experience of the culture in which I exist, is that people would rather cross the road than acknowledge grief.

A recent experience with another colleague has left me reeling and with a pretty sour taste in my mouth – if that’s religion, you can keep it! We visited her Church (just so I could measure up to make some tablecloths for them). We (my youngest and me) joined the service – it was the polite thing to do after all – it was all very happy-clappy. To me it bordered on the manic and I found it a little unsettling but I was OK with joining in at the appropriate points. The singer started speaking in the middle of a song. She said (in between thanking Jesus profusely and telling Him she loved Him and punching the air) that “if you love Jesus, you will live a long life.” Everyone was punching the air and agreeing with her.

I was horrified. I kept thinking, ‘So these people think that Al died either because he didn’t believe, or because I never raised him to believe. Either Al or me is responsible for his early death.’ I spoke to my colleague’s husband as we left and told him of my concern. His response was, “Hmm yes that’s a difficult one.” He didn’t elaborate but made his excuses and walked away.

My colleague emailed me to say she wondered if it was too soon after Al’s death for me to have gone to her Church. I repeated my question to her. She didn’t reply.

When at work, I approached her to discuss it and was told that it wasn’t a subject to be discussed there and we should talk about it perhaps when we met out of work for coffee. Except we never have since then. She’s suddenly a very busy person. That leads me to think that she believes my lack of belief somehow didn’t create the protection for him – and that therefore, I am to blame for him dying - so it’s my own fault anyway.

Does this mean that she has the sheer arrogance to think that her belief keeps her loved ones alive? Is it faith, or fear of not believing that she thinks stops them from dying? I sometimes wonder whether that would change if she lost one of hers and then I berate myself for even thinking such a thing because I wouldn’t wish this loss on anyone – I just wish others could find it in their hearts to have a little more compassion and understanding. But then why would they? Maybe, when I speak of my boy, they’re just thinking, as I once did, “Oh puhlease – have a little dignity.”

Having said that, until I became this new person – the bereaved mother – I was insensitive, stupid, and clueless too.