Five Years – What Is so Different?
By Andrea Corrie
As I approach the fifth anniversary of the loss of my son, James Clark, I have come to realise that this time holds a special significance. It seems appropriate for me to include the words of those who have traversed this point and who, through their actions, their internet presence and their writing, have the ability to help, support, sustain and inspire other bereaved parents; indeed, not only parents but those who have loved and lost anyone dear to them. I am utilising my friends’ words to underline and expand upon my own thoughts, with their permission and my gratitude. Links to relevant resources are included where appropriate.
One of the most influential people to have come into my virtual circle of friends, since we lost James five years ago, is Nancy Rigg, the founder of the US based Yahoo groups, the Drowning Support Network and DSN Advocacy*. Nancy lost her fiancé, Earl Higgins, in 1980, when he was swept down the flood-swollen Los Angeles River, as he rescued a young boy. She says of that time, “Trauma lingers, and I was compelled to create change in the way flood and swiftwater rescues are prepared for, responded to, and prevented to begin with”.
I strongly believe that Nancy’s determination to effect change, which remains undimmed with time, helped her live through her grief for Earl and I have used as a role model her positive attitude to grief – and life in general – ever since I first found DSN on the internet. Nancy is wholly committed to her cause; she is a warm and eloquent writer who sustains and supports those who are living through loss.
We all grieve in different ways. It has taken me the past five years to really absorb the premise of grief as an utterly individual process.
So – what is different about the five year anniversary? Turning again to Nancy, she writes, “On the fifth anniversary of Earl’s death there was something so absolute, so non-negotiable about the reality of death. Earl wasn’t just ‘gone’; he was gone in an absolute way. He was irretrievably lost to me and the realisation of this opened my grieving process to a new and deeper level of profoundness”.
I agree entirely with Nancy’s words, and would put an additional spin on them too. In my own case, I feel that five years is too long a time to keep on pretending to myself that James is away somewhere (in some mythical remote far-flung corner of the world without phone or internet access – as if!) and I have by now steeled myself to accept that I will never again hear his tread on the path.
Five years is time to step up to the mark and wholly confront the reality of the finality of his passing. This is a lonely way station on the grief route and the acceptance of arriving at such a place is hard won. Assimilating the fact that you will never again speak your child’s name and get a direct response from him or her is one of the toughest boulders on the rocky road. As time passes, your child’s name is mentioned less and less by others and that is also a very hard concept to accept.
As other bereavement writers have done before me, notably American Mitch Carmody**, who lost his son Kelly to cancer in 1987, I draw parallels in the first five years of loss, to the first five years in a child’s life. The start is a blind, ignorant, fumbling, stumbling affair as one struggles to comprehend arriving into a jagged, noisy, discordant world.
In his writing, Mitch uses the baby/child model to good effect.
At the time of the child’s passing, he says of the parents, “Taken from a world that you knew and understood, a world of warmth and security, you find yourself head first in a cold painful world of the unknown. It’s hard to see, you are shaking, insecure and frightened of what’s ahead. Tears flow from your eyes, you feel cold and lost and just want someone to hold you and tell you it’s just a dream”.
He asks the reader whether he is describing a baby just being born into this world, or a parent just hearing the news of, or witnessing the death of their child. He goes on to answer, “It could be both since both describe being thrust into the unknown and faced with the continuing challenges of survival”.
But, somehow, survive we do. The first year passes, that crazy time of re-learning how to hold a cohesive thought, how to breathe and move and take baby steps to walk.
Personally, I found the second year of loss particularly difficult. Nature ensures we are cocooned in shock for quite some time, and for me it was during the second year that the reality of James’ passing was really slammed home.
This too was the year that I felt a great deal of guilt. Guilt that I couldn’t prevent my son’s death, couldn’t protect his life and his future. Guilt that my husband didn’t have the wife he signed up for (we were married just six weeks before James’ passing), and guilt that my lovely daughter had to move forward and cope with her life minus such a significant member of her family.
At first, the bereaved parent fails to realise how widespread is the ripple effect of their loss. This is something that I felt more in the second year as I was able to step back a little and review the way in which we were now relating to our family, extended family and friends. All our relationships have, to some degree, been irrevocably altered by our loss. There is a void that can never be filled, especially at significant times such as birthdays and Christmas. Holidays and special occasions are particularly difficult to acclimatise to without that special individual’s input. It is very hard to feel celebratory without concomitant guilt creeping into the occasion.
Just as a toddler evolves from the ‘terrible twos’ stage, I found the third year a gentler and more trusting year, and the fourth year definitely saw my psyche adapting to and accepting the new woman who walked in my shoes. In fact, I began to quite like the more forthright and compassionate individual whom I see reflected in the mirror.
I have challenged before, and continue to challenge, Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stage grief model – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This model was originally identified in her research about someone facing his or her own death, and in a way akin to Chinese whispers, her original tenets have been subtly altered over time so that they are perhaps more difficult to classify and delineate. I do not believe that, generally, we experience the stages of grief in a clear cut and distinct way. The boundaries blur, the stages overlap and as for ultimate acceptance – well, I would question whether one can ever fully accept the loss of their child.
Absorption is, to me, a more fitting word, and I believe that five years is really the earliest possible stage that absorption can be expected to happen.
Another bereaved parent who eloquently expresses her feelings and the lack of understanding of those who have not walked this particular path is my valued friend and correspondent, the writer Jan Andersen**. Jan lost her beloved son, Kristian, to suicide in 2002 and she has admirably turned her loss to the positive enlightenment of others through her writing.
She analyses the unpredictable passage of grief, saying, “There is always the assumption that the pain of losing a child, grandchild or sibling will lessen with time, that the second year will be easier than the first, the third easier than the second and so on. It doesn’t always happen in such a predictable fashion. When one loses a child, emotional triggers can bring an intense grief to the surface that is as raw and powerful as it was in the beginning, even years after the tragedy. How I wish the non-bereaved could comprehend that”.
When I first began to read of grief and grieving as a bereaved parent, I shied away from anything that spoke of the ‘gift’ of loss, or ‘choices to heal’, for I felt too raw and hurt to consider that anything positive could come out of such a sudden and tragic loss. I will admit to feeling resentful that such a loss had happened to me until I read of others saying, “Why not me?” instead of “Why me?”, and I began to believe that our paths are chosen for us at a level with which we can cope.
Over time, as I reviewed his nineteen years and how fully he lived them, I began to be able to see James’ life as a complete short story rather than an unfinished novel.
I have learned to have insight into my grief and to always try to turn it to the positive rather than the negative. I have learned to accept that the experience of grief will stay with me until I, too, pass to the next plane, wherever and whenever that may be.
Perhaps one of the most important insights I have taken on board in the past five years is that healing and recovery from such a traumatic loss require a conscious decision by us to actually want to recover. This may seem like an obvious statement, but without the will and desire to push forward, it is easy to stagnate and become stuck at a particular point in grieving. Indeed, the early months and years are populated by a succession of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ progressions. The grief rollercoaster’s swoops and turns only begin to level out with the passage of time.
There are times that one’s grief cries out to be revisited, and I liken this to taking it out of its box, examining it, wearing it, being with it in whatever way feels right, before putting it back again and moving forward. The box is constantly there, sitting peripherally, and I accept that it will always be there.
Jan Andersen’s outlook also resonates with mine when she speaks of the passage of time in ‘markers’, saying, “It’s strange how people tend to think of major milestones in terms of “fives”. By that I mean, five years, ten years, fifteen years and so on. For some reason, the fives seem to hold more significance than the in-between numbers. Is it because the human mind likes to round things up, because it’s easier to process time in that way? I don’t have the answer, but what I do know is that five years after the loss of my son was a major marker on the grieving journey. Five years is half a decade. Could it be possible that I had managed to survive for so long without my son’s physical presence in my life?
The only difference that five years made in my life as a grieving parent was in how I had channelled that grief into something positive; into a supportive website, a book and in helping other bereaved parents whose bereavement was newer than mine”.
Jan goes on to say, “In November this year, it will be eight years since I last saw my son. In two years’ time, it will be ten years – another major marker. My grief has not changed or diminished with time, but time has enabled me to accept this grief as a permanent part of my remaining life, with the distance between intense and overwhelming phases of agony becoming a little further apart with each passing year”.
Looking again at the bigger picture, rather than just my own loss, I asked my dear friend Karen in Australia, who lost her son Sam to the ocean five years ago in April, how she views this particular milestone.
She replied, “The five year thing got me musing about how far the world has travelled in that time. It is where his friends are up to in their lives, how grown-up they seem and of course, inevitably, the growing-up that he didn’t get to do. Also, technology! Mobile phone ads and the new iPad all make me so sad for what he missed out on. There is so much that I know he would have loved and embraced and I feel so angry about his future just not happening.”
I agree with her sentiments of anger entirely and it would be unrealistic not to feel angry at the injustice of untimely bereavement. But I have also voiced to Karen that it makes me cross when people speak of James’ passing being “such a waste”. The way I view it is that his time here with us was not wasted, not a second of it! – but what is wasted is his opportunity to have a future.
This viewpoint does not really resonate until further along the grief path, and Karen expresses the evolving emotion very well when she expresses it thus, “We are so consumed in those early years by the actual death and loss and horror of it all that it is not until the dust settles a little, so to speak, that we are more aware of what it actually means in terms of the lives they won’t get to live and things that they have missed out on. I don’t think early on, that we have room in our heads to actually take all that in and it is later – like now- that we are really hit with it.”
With all the evidence that I have gathered through my own passage along the grief path, through reading and communicating with other bereaved parents, it is an obvious conclusion that five years is indeed a significant milestone. A five year old child stands, walks, talks and reasons. A five year old child is capable of deep emotion, be it happy or sad, and a five year old child is learning about the passage of time and the anticipation of events. A five year old child possesses a degree of independence.
As a five year old bereaved parent, I can relate to all the above and would add that I feel as though I am achieving a degree of independence from my grief that I could not have envisaged at the outset.
The weight of the pain of loss does not diminish but it becomes an acceptably loaded burden to bear. The scale and enormity of loss does not change, but the way in which it can be absorbed into present and future life slowly and subtly alters in the course of time. I hope these positive affirmations offer a measure of optimism for the future to those who have only just embarked upon their grieving journey.
James Edward Clark. 11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005.
Loved, missed and always in our hearts.
Copyright – Andrea Corrie
Printed with permission
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