Childhood Grief: A Life's Journey
My brother, Peter, died at ten.
I know he’ll never live again.
I wrote this line forty years ago when I was fifteen. Seven years earlier, my brother, Peter, died of leukaemia at the age of ten, and it obviously took a while for the reality to set in for me. I was eight at the time of his death, so I have no knowledge of the science behind his cancer story other than to remember that it was a battle which lasted approximately two years. I have no qualification or training in the field of childhood grief, but I have lived it for the best part of a human life. Only now, as I enter my own cancer battlefield for the second time, do I feel entitled to tell my story. I don’t know why I never told it before. The only explanation I can think of is that I always felt my younger sister and I were less affected by Peter’s death than our parents were. And to state the obvious, I knew the person who bore the greatest cost was Peter himself.
I’m having chemo for the second time now and it’s not pleasant. It must have been horrendous back in the nineteen seventies without the modern steroids and nausea drugs to help alleviate the side effects. And I shudder to think about all that poison going through the body of a young boy who just wanted to be outside playing sport and laughing with his friends. But there’s more to it than that. Peter never got to grow up, go to parties and concerts, get a job, fall in love, have kids, or any of the other things which most of us take for granted.
So, what right to those of us who are still alive have to complain? I still don’t know exactly where my grief fitted into the whole scheme of things, but if I don’t try to explain it now and get a well-rounded understanding of it, I may never get the chance.
My wife initially urged me to talk about my experience in a short story, which later grew into a semi-fictional novel called The Frog Bridge. The motivation was a hope that some other grieving child or their parents may one day benefit from knowing how I felt, and how my family coped in the immediate weeks after Peter died. In truth, I have been confused about how I was supposed to feel about it for most of my life. But as someone who has lived through that trauma and confusion, maybe I can break down some barriers. Maybe my story could facilitate an extremely difficult topic to being discussed in an open and meaningful way.
I remember when one of my daughters turned ten, and I told my father that to imagine her dying was the first time I had any real perception of what he and Mum had been through. The thought was unbearable. It was unfair. It went entirely against the natural order. We all know that one of the most difficult and painful things any human can endure is to lose their child. I will always respect my parents for managing to hold our family together as well as they did. Things weren’t perfect, but how could they have been.
In time, I came to appreciate how much my parents suffered—as I’m sure all parents do in that situation—but I always felt an awkward silence hanging around the issue of how the death of a child affects their siblings. There may be an explanation for that in academic terms, such as not wanting to compound the trauma. Or it could simply be that there is no universally acceptable answer that children can understand. One that will hold them to a relatively normal life through their teens. I certainly hope the counselling situation has improved since I was a kid because we got nothing.
Whatever the reason, my sister and I now realise that we were left to work it out for ourselves. Our parents were struggling, and nobody else sat at our dinner table to see how much. We were vulnerable, with no possible way of understanding what had happened or how it would unravel over the coming years. Some adults who were connected to our family’s world seemed to have an appreciation for our ongoing grief. Some adults didn’t. But no kids had any appreciation at all. I think it’s fair to say that kids are oblivious to most life experiences until they are affected by it themselves. I was—and often still am—guilty of that myself. Who isn’t?
Even now, I have many friends in their fifties who still haven’t lost a parent. But over the years, I have watched many others struggle with that overwhelming grief when they experience it for the first time. You can see something about them change. Something in their eyes. They are struck by a realisation that they and their family members are not immortal. What they learn after that is how the way their family functions between all its individual members will change. In some cases, that’s a good thing. In other cases, not.
Whatever comes from a family’s grief and the changes that come with it, losing our parents and grandparents is a natural part of life. But not brothers or sisters when they are just children. No wonder I felt so alone with my childhood grief. Most people my age understood nothing of the weight I was carrying, and that isolation lasted for decades. I convinced myself that I was weak for not being able to just let go of it like my father appeared to have done. And I repeat, ‘appeared to have done’. I couldn’t just let it roll off my shoulders and walk around uninhibited like so many of my peers. But now I see that everyone ends up carrying that weight, or some other equivalent weight. Most people just don’t have to carry it as children.
Which is why I think of childhood grief as a life’s journey. My sister and I—who have both fought unrelated cancers of our own and sat with both our parents as they died of other unrelated cancers—are still learning. So, it seems a waste to not share something of what we’ve learnt along the way with other families who may be going through it now. Or families who may have been through it twenty years ago and are still learning.
After forty-seven years, I haven’t forgotten how much it hurt when Peter died, or the struggles that followed. The worst thing is knowing that other kids are, and always will be, experiencing those same confused emotions and mind games. I hope my story can help unload another person’s weight, young or old. Because it never really goes away.