The grief of losing a child: How my daughter’s difficult yet magical life inspired me to write children’s books
Monday 20 April 2015
Two weeks ago, I emerged from Waitrose, rather pleased with my purchase of reduced edamame beans and a jar of artichoke hearts, when my eyes locked on to a Citroën Berlingo in the car park and I started to sob uncontrollably. I’m not normally one to cry so easily, particularly at the sight of a green leisure activity vehicle, but that’s how grief attacks you – it swallows you up in the most unexpected places, at the most inopportune times; without warning you are suddenly awash with the hollow, helpless, desperate feeling of losing someone, missing someone, loving someone who is no longer there.
My 10-year-old daughter Clementine is that someone. She had cerebral palsy and was officially termed “life-limited”, but she was always surprisingly healthy and we had thought she would be with us for many more years. We were wrong. Early on 8 December last year I came downstairs to get my toddler son his milk. While it was warming, I went into my daughter’s bedroom, and as I bent down to kiss her, a sickening shiver ran up my spine as I realised that she wasn’t breathing. I remember the rest of the morning only as a foggy nightmare – screaming to my husband, calling 999, doing chest compressions on my little girl although I knew she had already left her broken body, trying to keep our two young sons calm; ambulances, teams of doctors making frantic, futile efforts, a nurse’s voice saying, “we’re sorry for your loss” before I’d even processed just what I had lost, and then a hospital room with just me clinging on to the still-warm body of my darling Clementine.
I am not an attractive crier. Some folk can shed beautiful, delicate tears. I, on the other had, gurn horribly, my mouth widening like an Aardman character, my eyes disappearing into my blotchy cheeks, snot dripping from my scrunched-up nose. So at the supermarket that day, I quickly retreated to my car, hiding this weeping monstrosity from the world, and by the time I got home all I was thinking about was why I had spent so much money on an edible thistle.
And that’s how it is. Despite our horrendous loss, aside from the odd unexpected bout of car-park crying, we superficially revert back alarmingly quickly to our normal selves. We laugh and cook and shop and get drunk and make stupid jokes, just weeks after this enormous juggernaut has crashed into our lives. Yet underneath it all remains this dark, visceral thing we call “grief”. And we don’t know how to deal with it.
In some societies, grief is embraced, encouraged even, but in ours it is most often avoided; our apparent return to normality is taken as a sign that we are over it, nothing more to be said. Just two or three weeks after she died, most people stopped talking to us about Clemmie. Good friends don’t ask us how we are any more; and I don’t know if it stems from the thought that we don’t want it brought up, the fear that we may break down, or whether they think that we’re fine now so why bring it up. Either way, I know it comes from love. But it is always there for us, at the back of our minds, whatever we do, however jovial an evening we are having, and sometimes it would be nice just to be asked the question, “How are you?”, even though we will probably answer, “Fine, thanks”, happy just to have it acknowledged that we’re still going through something huge and devastating.
And the truth is that even we who are in the eye of the storm don’t know how to deal with it. In the first couple of months, crying became a guilt-laden competitive sport between my husband and me. “Have you cried today?” “No, have you?” “Yeah, really went for it this morning.” “You lucky thing.” You want to cry all the time, but you physically can’t. We make jokes and then feel guilty for laughing; we worry that we’re talking to our sons about Clemmie too much, or not enough; we worry that we look too upset, or not upset enough; and when a new mum at the toddler group asks how many children I have, I am totally thrown. I have just met her and don’t feel it’s really fair to her to say, “Well, my daughter died last month” – I mean, what’s she supposed to do with that?
But I can’t bring myself to just tell her I have two sons – it would feel like I was writing Clemmie out of our history, and most likely she would follow that up with questions like, “Did you ever want a daughter?”, which would result in an ever increasing web of macabre lies. So instead I mumble and stutter an answer which probably makes no sense and leaves the poor woman perplexed as to why I was vague about the number of children I had.
So why can’t we talk about it? I don’t mean in a “let’s all get our feelings out in the open and really emote this thing out” kind of way, but rather in an everyday way? In a “how’s it going?” way? In a way that understands that while grief lasts a lifetime and not just until after the funeral, we learn to live with it not by ignoring it but by being able to talk about the person we have lost without it being a big embarrassing deal for everyone involved in the conversation.
Why is it that death is such an awkward taboo, when it is something we will all, without exception, have to deal with at some point in our lives? I can’t help but think that if we learnt from a young age that death is sad but is also something that can be talked about, we might not have such a problem with it in adulthood. I am no child psychologist, but as a writer and illustrator, I do know children’s books; and I know that for the most part, Western children’s books cover little more than bears and mice having a cuddle.
As well they should, of course. But surely, alongside the cuddly reads, children’s books can also deal with more interesting issues? Children are naturally inquisitive and accepting. This is the perfect time to talk about disability, adoption, different family set-ups, different coloured skin, bullying and, yes, even death. If gently introduced, these topics can be raised in a way that allows questions to be asked, and what better way to do that than through picture books?
I have long thought that children as young as three or four are not only capable of enjoying stories that cover meaningful issues, but are actually eager for them as long as it is done in a funny, enjoyable way. I have been lucky enough to find a publisher who has encouraged me to include such issues; disability in Just Because, illness and hospitals in Sometimes, adoption in Zoo Girl, the arrival of a new sibling in Mr Super Poopy Pants, and death in my latest book, Missing Jack. I should point out, however, that Missing Jack is about the death of a cat, which is clearly utterly incomparable to the death of a person. But I hope it at least introduces the ideas of loss, grief and moving on to little ones who will inevitably experience these things at some time, be it a goldfish or a grandparent. The book was written before Clemmie left us, but it feels right that it should come out now.
As for me, I have spent the past 10 years being inspired by my daughter, who did nothing, said nothing, and yet had such a huge, calming, joyful effect on everyone who met her. She will continue to inspire everything I do. And perhaps eventually I will be able to look a Citroën Berlingo in the eye without gurning like a snotty tree frog as I remember our many family trips in Clemmie’s motability model. My husband trying in vain to listen to a Radio 4 programme, Benjy in the back shouting “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, Toby listing all the Lego sets we simply must buy him, while Clemmie sits serenely in her wheelchair, the boys holding her hands, just the five of us. Always the five of us.
‘Missing Jack’ by Rebecca Elliott (Lion Children’s Books, £9.99) is out now