It’s almost a year since I last wrote about the challenges of returning to work after my son died. As always, I hope that what follows is helpful for anyone else on a similar journey and friends who just want to know how life is.
You don’t stop grieving for a child, you just learn how to manage it. The key is to work with it rather than be controlled by it, which is why I stopped my regular blogging. I had become stuck in a constant negative cycle of writing continuously about how shit it was.
Returning to work has been more difficult than I expected. In some ways the personal impact has been easier to handle. You expect to be distraught if your child dies. It’s awful but natural, whereas going back to work has often felt anything but.
I’m self employed which allowed me to take time off, but when I did finally return I found that I’d lost my discipline and ambition. It had been easy before Edward died. I picked up work regularly but afterwards I could hardly find any. On the few occasions I did I couldn’t focus. It all felt pointless.
Financial stress is not something you think of as a consequence of grief but, as the work disappeared, so did the money. In the end we had to live off savings but at least we had some. I’d saved up a decent amount for a deposit on a house after Edward’s operation to be closer to my wife’s parents in Yorkshire. We knew we would need help as he grew up and it made sense to be nearer to them. It was all part of Plan A to get Edward to adulthood and a possible heart transplant, but when he died all that went out of the window. And I didn’t have a Plan B.
Today those savings are almost gone. I can either feel sorry for myself or be grateful that we had them. I have to chose the latter because the former is self-pity which will achieve nothing. And that’s what this post is about – choice. The path out of the darkness of child loss is about choosing to take it. Sure it needs time – and I’m still on the journey – but it’s there when you’re ready, even if the world at the end of it is different from the one you knew before.
I reasoned that some decent work would eventually turn up, that we’d had our run of bad luck and I’d get a break soon. A sort of natural justice. But nature is indifferent; it doesn’t judge or care. We weren’t in this position because we deserved it but because shit happens. I finally accepted this when a sobering look at our finances revealed that we had virtually nothing left.
There’s nothing quite like the fear of making your family being homeless for motivation. I started networking furiously, met up with old contacts and told everybody that I was back and ready. I applied for the role of MD of an ad agency and quickly ended up on the final shortlist of two candidates. I didn’t get it but it was just the confidence boost I needed. Encouraged, I embarked on a hectic schedule of more meetings and interviews, almost all of which got to the final stage – more than 30 interviews in total.
But I didn’t get a single offer. As each one reached its inevitable conclusion, I started to sink again. I had always been good at interviews and had stuck to the formula that had worked so many times before. But I wasn’t the same person anymore. I was pretending and everybody could see through the act.
The feedback was indicative. One said I had all the skills they needed, but was constantly distracted. Another that I was a great fit but didn’t believe that I actually wanted the job. One remarked that I ‘was there, but not there’. Another felt I was too intense and a little desperate. He was right. The final and most telling blow was an interview with an ad agency CEO and his board. It was a train wreck. I was rude and aggressive. Their feedback was scathing and they questioned whether I had any of the skills or experience that appeared on my CV at all.
Looking back it’s easy to see what was going wrong. I was expecting people to make allowances for what had happened. I would bring up Edward’s death, almost casually, in conversation, trying to make it sound matter-of-fact when all it did was make everyone feel uncomfortable. I had lost my sense of self-awareness and perspective. I was basically saying ‘Hey, my son died but I’m fine, honest, even though I keep talking about it. Can I have a job now please?’ It’s not a great strategy.
Fast forward a few months and I am now contracting with a great bunch of guys at a smart management consultancy in Cheltenham that I discovered by chance. I haven’t caused any arguments or insulted anyone so I’d like to think that the changes I’ve made have worked. I also haven’t told any clients about Edward yet, just my colleagues. I don’t feel the need to anymore, which is progress. I know some of them will read this and find out, but that’s ok, they’ve got to know me first.
Perhaps the timing was right – the opportunity appeared just as I sorted out my head and the money ran out. In fact, three jobs turned up at the same time and, unlike me, I chose the one with the least money but felt right. Progress again. I feel like saying something profound about never giving up and the meaning of life, but it’s just about learning how to manage your grief. I still have my moments. Occasionally things get on top of me or something triggers a difficult memory but I go for a walk and clear my head. My confidence is slowly returning and I’m starting to deliver decent work again. Who knows where it will lead, but it’s good to be here after all that’s happened.
What changed? Well, the most significant moment came courtesy of my GP. I’d been feeling unwell. Nothing specific, just low, physically and mentally. Grief, I guess. I had been sleeping 2-3 hours a night for more than 6 months and was exhausted. I didn’t like sleep because I hated the quietness and sadness that came with it.
I was expecting him to give me a pep talk. I’d heard it all before but this time he said something that stuck.
“You need to stop fighting. There’s no enemy. There’s no one to fight except yourself.”
Suddenly it all became clear. Since the moment we had been told that Edward was going to die I had been consumed with a determination to fight. He was the ultimate fighter to me, an unbeatable one. He had dealt with everything life had thrown at him. I felt that it was my duty to fight with him and then for him when he couldn’t. And then, when he lost his battle, I began to fight everything in disbelief and anger.
Fighting got me through the early days but it evolved into something else – rage. Rage about the delayed procedures that might have saved his life, the failure to spot the infection, the operation’s 97% success rate, the pain he was in, the fear on his face, making the decision to turn off his life support, his death, our grief, my inability to find work and the financial struggle. None of this was my fault, so it had to be somebody else’s, perhaps everybody else’s. Right? Wrong.
I wanted to fight everyone and anything. I regularly punched walls, leaving my bruised hands hidden in my pockets. Alone in the car I’d shout and swear, stopping occasionally to get out and kick the shit out anything I could find – a tree, a road sign, the ground. I have never been suicidal, but I often thought about ramming the car into a tree on the ridiculous assumption that the moment of impact would somehow be gratifying. All of this was interspersed with incredible moments of peace, tranquility and a new found appreciation of love which I would tell everyone about rather than the anger, which I found embarrassing. It was a period of incredible highs and lows and very confusing.
And then the doctor said one more thing. Something that anyone who has read my piece on what not to say to a bereaved parent knows could have set off a mental hand grenade.
“Edward wouldn’t want this. He’d want his dad to be happy.”
I wanted to pick the doctor up and throw him out of the window but he was right, again. It was time to stop.
I still have low periods and flashbacks that stop me in my tracks but I accept them rather than fight. I still throw punches and shout, but mostly metaphorically, as anyone who reads my posts on social media will know. I set aside time to grieve, knowing that it serves a purpose. I’ll watch a video of Edward, look at some pictures and think about him. It’s exactly what another bereaved parent told me they do and I’ve found that it works for me. It’s a strategy for life. There are many things that other parents have told me that turned out to be true. If there is one piece of advice I have for anyone else who loses a child it would be to speak to others who have gone through something similar. They’ve been there, done that and are still standing. They can help you.
One of my oldest friends lost a child before me and has been instrumental in getting me through this. He’s listened when I’ve needed it, made me go out and have a drink when I’m being miserable, told me when I’m being too self-indulgent and lifted me when I’ve felt that I can’t cope. Sometimes, he’s just been there. Occasionally I’ve wanted to punch him too, but he’s 6 foot 3 and could beat the shit out of me. It’s easier to love him, which I told him after several pints a few weeks ago. Poor bloke.
If I have any regrets, they are about not confronting the anger earlier but I probably had to go through it to get to where I am today. They say you have to hit the bottom first. I have, to my shame, shouted at my children. I have shut people out and been rude, for which I am sorry, but it is what it is.
It’s a shame about the money but that’s life. In a way, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was millions of pounds. Edward was priceless. I have my wife, my children and my family. My wife, especially, has shouldered so much whilst I’ve been off fighting an imaginary war. She and the children are irreplaceable, whereas I can always rebuild a bank balance and try to buy a house another day.
I will always miss Edward but the grief is now just a part of me rather than the whole of me. It doesn’t define me anymore. I’ve got a new normal and it’s ok. The tears and anger still come, and they can be brutal, but I don’t go looking for them now. They’re good enough at finding me on their own. Edward makes me smile when I think of his beautiful little face, the joy and pride he brought into our lives and his cheeky sense of humour. I still say good morning to him first thing, blow him a kiss every night and talk to him every day. I tell him how much I love him and that will never, ever change.