It is 3rd July here in the UK – National Bereaved Parents Day and July is National Bereaved Parents Month. The idea of this day and month is to raise awareness that very sadly children die and leave behind grief stricken parents. This is to recognise parents bereaved through pregnancy, infant and child death at any age and through any cause.
We have been bereaved parents for just over 18 months now, we became bereaved parents just 27 minutes after we became parents for the first time and welcomed our son Lenny into the world. We have been twice bereaved parents for nearly a year as our second child Bhai died unexpectedly halfway through pregnancy.
Since becoming bereaved parents we set up Lenny’s Legacy – first as a website, then as a social media account alongside it and more recently as a registered charity. Through this we have connected with hundreds of bereaved parents whose child or children died in widely varying circumstances and ages.
I wouldn’t have known that National Bereaved Parents day/month existed before Lenny died. It shouldn’t exist, I wish it didn’t need to and I wish more than anything that babies and children didn’t die. I can’t sugarcoat it – being a bereaved parent is a brutal and heartbreaking reality. I will never not be a bereaved parent, it is forever and it is an isolating experience as (thankfully) it is relatively unusual – sadly most of us expect our parents to die before us, but we don’t expect our children to die – it is an ‘out of order death.’ When a child dies, parents grieve forward for the rest of their lives, for everything they missed out on with their child and everything their child missed out on.
A child dying at any age and through any cause is considered to be traumatic grief because it shouldn’t happen. It is generally accepted that becoming a parent for the first time turns your world upside down and changes you in ways you couldn’t have imagined – when a child dies it impacts every part of a person’s life and changes them in ways they couldn’t have imagined. We feel like strangers in our own lives – the deaths of the boys have impacted our sense of self, our confidence, completely changed our careers, impacted every single relationship in our lives, complicated every single interaction we have, and completely rearranged our entire view of life, the universe and just about everything else. And it keeps happening – it hasn’t stopped, their absence is felt in every second of every minute of every day in everything we do because they should be here.
The fact is they aren’t. I wish we weren’t bereaved parents but we are. I wish no one was a bereaved parent but they are, they exist and many of them I am proud and incredibly lucky to call my friends – the best people I wish I had never met. Having connected with bereaved parents online, my good friend Katherine Lazar (who I cannot believe I haven’t ever met in real life) told me it would be very different meeting bereaved parents in person – she was right, we met some people on our New Zealand trip who are friends for life and more since returning. Despite our differing experiences there exists a knowing and mutual understanding between us all.
I am often told by people outside of this community that they simply couldn’t survive losses like I have – well I have no choice and unless you find yourself on this awful side of fate, no one truly knows how they would cope. I am devastated, heartbroken and gutwrenchingly sad all of the time AND I am able to feel joy, I love adventures, dogs, bikes and special people in my life. You see, bereaved parents are not sad characters crying in the corner (sometimes we are) but since Lenny died and later since Bhai died we have: met and connected with lots of new people, set up the charity, Roy has set up a new business, puppy Mac came to live with us, flown to the other side of the world cycled the length of NZ and filmed the adventure, shared our experiences through blogs and podcasts , created resources, been on many adventures including walking up various hills and mountains locally and further afield, attended weddings and birthday celebrations, been out for meals, both become physically stronger than we have ever been through the help of our incredible personal trainer and friend and loved each other more and more each day. None of this, ‘makes up’ for the fact our sons died. That is not what I am saying. My point is that even in the depths of despair we have managed to start to get to know ourselves as the new Roy and Mim, as parents to Lenny and Bhai and we have found some tiny cracks of light and fragments of joy.
I am not silverlining anything. I am not saying that people have learned lessons. Or grown from their losses. I am not saying anything to remotely make it ok that children have died. I am saying that in my experience, bereaved parents have to find a way to integrate these tragic losses into their lives, alongside the beautiful and precious memories of their children. Through doing this, I think it is necessary that people adapt and change. As much as I wish none of you were here, I have had so many interesting and special conversations with bereaved parents. I love hearing about peoples’ precious children first and foremost. But also hearing peoples’ perspectives on everything really – life, loss, love and how they choose to honour their children. Some of my biggest laughs in the past 18 months have come from this community – sometimes in the form of dark humour, sometimes totally unrelated things. There is a good amount of dog appreciation – which I appreciate. I am always in absolute awe of the courage and grace that people live their lives – how they choose to share about their children, and their generosity of spirit in sharing with others. Our experiences are widely varied but we tend to have some similarities in our feelings, there is certainly (and sadly) more that unites than divides us. This is a community which I wish never existed, but one that is full of love, compassion and kindness.
If you are a bereaved parent and you are reading this – I am so sorry you are here and this is your reality – I hope you find some small degree of comfort in our charity and in this community. If you are not a bereaved parent and you are reading this (and you have made it this far) then reach out to bereaved parents that you know – today and this month. No matter how long it has been, no matter the circumstances, this is still their painful reality. Maybe check in or arrange to meet up, ask them if they would like to talk about their children, acknowledge that you are aware of this month or this day and that you are thinking of them. It is an isolating experience but the reality is that bereaved parents aren’t only bereaved parents – there is more to their being and their identity. They will probably be more open than most to trying new things, spending time in nature or going on an adventure – once your universe has been smashed to smithereens tiny bits of uncertainty are no longer scary. My experience also is that they have bags and bags of compassion and usually a decent sense of humour has helped their survival. Worried about what to say? Just speak to them like you would anyone else, ask questions rather than make assumptions and if you mess up – apologise. Trust me – they’re more scared of you than you are of them.
The most special thing about bereaved parents is they are incredibly loving – they have so much love to give but their children aren’t physically here. It is that love that keeps them alive. It is that love that means they are able to keep standing. It is that love that allows them to create a fulfilling life despite devastating loss. So, if you are a parent, I don’t believe you when you tell me that you couldn’t survive the death of your child. I believe you could because I believe the love is that powerful. I just don’t believe you should have to. I don’t believe that any of us should have to survive the death of a child or children. But here we are.