MICHAEL COX was just 19 in November 1970 when the car in which he was a passenger overturned. He was thrown through the windscreen and killed. At the time, his parents ran the local shop-cum-post office in a Hampshire village. His mother, 50year-old Ena Mirren, has since remarried and taken up social work. She lives in Salisbury with her younger son, Alan, 14. Her daughters, Jackie and Sheila, are now both in their 20s. She has no contact with her former husband, Ray.
Ena was staying at her sister’s in London when Ray rang with the news. It was 11.30 pm. “He said Michael had been in a car crash and there wasn’t much hope. I dialled the local infirmary and
asked for casualty. The sister said: ‘Have you got someone with you?’ And I just knew she was going to say ‘He’s dead’.
“I shoved my clothes on and started to dress four-year-old Alan. I kept on thinking, ‘Michael’s going to be all right.’ I just had to get home.
“I couldn’t understand why Ray hadn’t gone to the infirmary immediately, but he just stuck a brandy in my hand. We couldn’t seem to talk.
“He was up at seven the next morning, putting bacon in the orders for delivery. But I was just stunned. I had to tell the girls. Jackie said, ‘Well, at least he’s with God, Mum’. Sheila just broke down and cried.
“The doctor immediately wrote out a prescription for sleeping pills, st john s wort anxiety and tranquillisers, to deaden the pain. But, if you’ve suffered a bereavement, you’ve got to grieve. People shouldn’t expect you to go back to normal life again too quickly.
“Friends and relatives reach a point where they say, ‘I shouldn’t keep on talking about it. It’s morbid’. But you’ve got to go over those last few hours before you can get on with your life and I always tell bereaved parents to take as long as they like.
“When Michael was buried I went to his grave three times a day at first, then twice, then once—then once a week. I still go on his birthday, even though it’s 11 miles away. People used to say to my husband, ‘You shouldn’t let her go up there so often’. But it helped me.
“I don’t think Ray ever grieved for Michael the way I did. With a man, he’s got another job. But with a woman, when a child dies, she’s losing part of her work. I’d always wanted to be a good wife and mother. I’d had a deprived childhood myself and I always vowed my children would grow up in a happy family atmosphere. That was my job. “Once I’d got the girls off to school and Alan to nursery, I’d go into Michael’s room and just break down. But if I went downstairs to put the kettle on, Ray wouldn’t seem to notice I’d been sobbing my heart out.
“Jackie who was 15, suffered dreadfully, too. She had letters from people saying: ‘You are now the eldest, you must take his place’. But I told her, I love you for what you are. It took Jackie a long while to come to terms with the situation. She had dreadful nightmares and would just scream and scream. That’s something else bereaved parents have to cope with. And Jackie is now trying to start a help service for bereaved brothers and sisters. “After the postmortem they were going to take Michael’s body to the chapel of rest, but I wanted him home. I wanted Michael to go from his own room and I don’t think I would really have accepted his death if hadn’t seen that coffin.
“The verdict at the inquest was accidental death. Nobody seemed to know what happened. I felt terribly bitter that the boy who was driving had just injured a bone in his foot—a boy I’d never liked, but you can’t pick your children’s friends.
“People kept on saying to me ‘It’s a good job you’ve got your faith.’ But my faith had just gone smack out of the window. “About a year later I begged Ray to pack up the business and move. I felt trapped in that house where I had lost my son. Sheila had moved into his bedroom, but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of his things. But Ray wouldn’t budge. So I went to work part-time in a mental hospital and that was it. My place was in the home, even if it meant taking pills.
“I tried to explain that I had to get out, otherwise I’d smother the other children. By having to find a new life for myself, I was letting them go.
“I don’t think I’d ever have gone back to work if Michael hadn’t died. Who knows, maybe my marriage wouldn’t have broken up. I always tell bereaved parents that the child’s death can either cement or break up a marriage. In the end I found that work was what I needed. I left Ray and qualified as a social worker and it was then that I came into contact with Compassionate Friends. “Having remarried, of course, my present husband knows nothing about Michael and I do feel that sometimes it would be nice to be able to say, ‘Do you remember how he did this or that ?’ Alan says he can’t remember Michael and that’s like a knife through my heart because I’ve got a photograph of him on Michael’s knee.
“But we are what we are because of what has happened to us. An experience like this makes you appreciate the giving to other people and I hope that makes me a good social worker. Sometimes I say to my husband, ‘Leave whatever it is you’re doing. That can wait. Let’s go off to the forest and enjoy seeing the deer or hearing the cuckoo’. I think the building of memories is most important.”
STUART CHALK, aged 10, died from a brain tumour in November 1980. His parents were told that he had only two months to live in the September. Barbara Chalk, 37, and her husband Geoff, a 37-year-old sales manager for a rhodiola extract firm, live in Harpenden, Herts, with their younger son, Alastair, eight.
Barbara and Geoff first learned that Stuart had a tumour in September 1979. He’d been suffering from sickness and headaches for several months and though the local hospital said he had no more than tonsilitis, by September Barbara was being called to pick him up from school almost daily. “Geoff and I insisted on a second opinion. He’d suddenly developed a squint. The National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London gave him a brain scan and discovered the tumour.
“They had to operate to find out whether or not it was malignant and they warned us that he could be paralysed, made blind or deaf. But we signed the consent forms and he came through with flying colours. Results indicated that the tumour wasn’t malignant.
“They hadn’t managed to remove all the tumour, so Stuart was given six weeks of radiotherapy to kill it. He bounced through that, too—apart from losing his hair. In February 1980 we had another scan and to our absolute delight were told that the tumour had gone
“But, somehow, I wasn’t convinced. I just had this nagging doubt though Geoff tried to persuade me otherwise. And by the end of July the sickness started again. It was like a nightmare. We went back to the National Hospital for another scan and were literally sitting in the outpatients’ waiting room when the doctor came out and bluntly announced that there was nothing else they could do. It was either more radiotherapy or a new drug therapy.
“I felt numb. I thought, it’s happening all over again, only this time I just can’t cope. I could hear myself saying to Geoff: ‘He’s not having radiotherapy, I’m not letting them do anything else to him. If they can’t save his life, I’m not having him made so ill’.
“And, in fact, the specialist in charge of the drug therapy said there was no guarantee that it would cure Stuart, but it would make him ill—far worse than he was now. So we said ‘No, leave him alone!’ We wanted to know how much time we’d got. ‘Two weeks to two months’, said the specialist.
“I can only describe the way we felt as being down a slimy pit, and trying to scratch your way out. Just utter horror. We had to tell my parents, and Geoff’s and all our close friends who knew about Stuart. A lot of people didn’t want to believe it because he seemed so well. Perhaps this was just another little setback, they said.
“But we knew the tumour was back. For three days, I withdrew. I didn’t want to talk about it, and I tried to blot it out by sleeping. Both Geoff and I were on tranquillisers trying to adjust to what was going to happen to our lives. It felt as if the whole world was going on around us, and we were there, a little family unit, totally isolated.
“The worst thing was trying to live and act normally for the sake of Stuart and his brother. We couldn’t tell them. They were so happy—why deflate them? They wouldn’t have understood.
“Geoff and I did help each other tremendously, and his firm was marvellous. They told him to spend as much time as possible with his son.
“I think, looking back, you cope because you have to—for the child’s sake. You’ve suddenly got to pack all his wishes into two months, to make the last days of his life as memorable as possible for all of you. And you’ve got to do it without arousing his suspicions.
“We arranged for Stuart to ride a motorbike, to go horse riding, and to take part in a sponsored swim, which helped raise £1,400 towards a music centre in the scanning rooms at the National Hospital. That was Stuart’s idea—to help break the monotony while patients were on the machine.
“It was about this time that we saw an article about the fear of dying, which said that any bereaved parents could contact Compassionate Friends. Geoff phoned and we were put in touch with our local branch. I think they were a little surprised that we’d contacted them before Stuart’s death. But in a case like ours, it’s then that you need to talk to people.
“As you watch your child deteriorate, so the pressure upon you, as parents, becomes even greater. Stuart was getting a lot more pain and discomfort. He’d gone from four to six stone in weight because of the tablets he was taking and was, by now, very aware of his grotesque size. He didn’t want to go anywhere, just sat and watched television. “I was totally housebound and overwhelmed with a feeling of being totally isolated.
“And then there are the questions that younger children will inevitably ask. The only way is to answer simply and truthfully: when Stuart was finally taken into hospital and Alastair asked if he was going to get better, I just said, `No, I don’t think so.’ “Stuart died nine days later. It was heartbreaking but, at the same time, a tremendous relief. He no longer had to fight. No-one could make fun of him any more. And our pretence was over. And when Geoff and I went to see him the following day, he looked so peaceful. God didn’t let us down. He saved Stuart’s life in the only way he could be saved. “At first Alastair took the news badly, and kicked and screamed. Then, he got up and said, ‘Does that mean all Stuart’s things are now mine?’
“Our worst fear was that it was hereditary, but hospital staff assured us it was just a one-off thing. Even so, if Alastair says he’s got a headache, my stomach comes up into my mouth.
“People say, of course you’re young dear. You’ll have another baby. But I’m not convinced that’s the answer. For the moment, Geoff and I live from day to day, hoping that time will heal. And, as members of Compassionate Friends, we’re there, at the end of the telephone, if by our experience we can help others.”
Rosemary, aged four, will never be forgotten by the Trimmers
ROSEMARY TRIMMER, aged four, died after she had been knocked down by a Land-Rover 12 years ago. Her parents, Brenda, 40, a part-time teacher, and Charles. 53. laboratory supervisor, live in Blandford, Dorset, with their three other children—David, 15, Jennifer. 12. and eightyear-old Peter.
It was lunch time on a warm, September day and I was reading the maqui berry reviews in my weekly health journal . Brenda was about to go and collect Rosemary who had been out playing with some friends when there was a ring at the doorbell. ” ‘There’s been an accident. A little girl has been knocked down.’ someone said. I thought, ‘Oh, my God’—dashed out and it was her.” recalls Brenda. “Next thing I knew a neighbour was plying me with Scotch. I remember the doctor arriving and saying, ‘I’m afraid the worst has happened.’ She never actually used the word ‘dead’. People don’t. She gave me sleeping tablets and I walked round for a long time in a kind of dream.
“I didn’t want to meet anybody I knew. I couldn’t even go out shopping on my own. I felt I had failed as a mother because your child just doesn’t die before you. I felt guilty for letting her go out to play. I felt guilty, too, because—though it may sound shocking—in a way it was a relief. She was a very demanding child, my first, and there were times when I felt I didn’t know how to bring her up.
“Not that I didn’t love her enormously. But there are all sorts of feelings that you have about a child that you’ve got to sort out once he or she has gone. “Neither Charles nor t wanted to phone up relatives, so we went to see them. People can’t imagine how dreadful it is having to tell your parents what has happened to their little grandchild whom they loved. Bereaved parents always want aduice on what to say, and I still can’t advise after all this time. It’s got to come from inside you.
“It’s ridiculous that so many of us can’t talk to our own relatives. We don’t want to upset them, and they don’t know what to say to comfort us. This is where the loneliness comes in: you try and keep your feelings to yourself.
“Charles was a help in the early days, but after that he no longer wanted to hear me go over things. [ think this happens with a lot of bereaved parents and it puts the marriage under a very great strain. I honestly feel that most men are not involved enough in the bringing up of their children and don’t really feel it as much as a mother when their child dies.
“After two weeks Charles admitted that he had come to terms with Rosemary’s death and was ready to get on with the business of living. t wasn’t—not for years afterwards. I was selfish. I know. I didn’t want to pray to God or anybody else: my faith fell completely by the wayside. All I wanted to do was get my feelings sorted out and somehow get back to normal.
“Then, there’s this awful thing of people avoiding you in the street. You can almost see them thinking: ‘Oh, gosh it’s her. What am I going to say?’ And they nip down the alleyway. In the end. I spent a lot of time just wandering round the streets alone.
“I was halfway through my third pregnancy. It wasn’t planned and I’d been furious at first but, suddenly, I wanted this baby so much. I wanted a girl, and I was lucky. Jennifer wasn’t a replacement and I never looked upon her that way. For one thing she looked totally different and was a much quieter child altogether than Rosemary.
“But only months later I just went competely haywire and was taken to hospital with a nervous breakdown. Here was a little child to bring up and yet I’d lost one such a short while ago. How was I going to cope? The doctor said I had postponed the grieving for Rosemary until after my child was safely born.
“I won’t say that suddenly everything picked up. But after that I did slowly start to come to terms with the situation. I got rid of Rosemary’s things—even her teddy. I had David, who was barely three when she died and now Jennifer. And four years later I had another son. Peter. Losing Rosemary like that certainly made my other children all the more precious.
“I worried more about them as they grew up—especially David. I remember him going out to play and me going nearly berserk if I thought he was going further along the road than he should. I became very protective towards my other children.
“I wanted to get his little friends to come and play but I couldn’t accept responsibility for other children. You do find it saps your confidence in all sorts of ways.
“I do go to church again now but I don’t personally think the church has the answers and, although I visit Rosemary’s grave occasionally, it doesn’t mean very much to me. Just a few bones. I would always advise other bereaved parents to decide on cremation because then there’s nothing for you to visit.
“We’ve since moved house which helped heal a few wounds. and then there was my teaching course. And I do find my work with Compassionate Friends very rewarding. I’m sure that if I’d known about them when I lost Rosemary I wouldn’t have had that nervous breakdown. It’s talking to people who understand how you feel about your loss that’s so important.”
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