"While life continues on the outside, our life as we knew it has ceased."
How to deal with the loss of a family member or someone you loved. Some helpful tips on how to navigate through life when you loose someone close to you.
My first Mother’s Day without my youngest son, Cooper, came around far too quickly, only months after his passing. I was not in any way ready to confront the 'Hallmark' hype of this day, and I was certainly not ready to face the reality of my worst fear – that with each passing day, my proximity to my son was fading.
The anxiety of permanent separation from a child who dies is palpable. It is the single most destructive force in a process literally filled with destruction.
When a parent loses a child , dates and milestones on each calendar year can elicit the strongest of feelings. Birthdays, Christmas, Mother's Day and Father’s Day , and the day their child was taken from their side forever, yield a myriad of emotion. For weeks, sometimes months prior to these key dates, tangible angst builds.
Tania and with her beautiful boys. Image: Supplied
Coping mechanisms to combat the rampant emotions that day can bring range from cramming as much into a day to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, exercising (or exorcising) the demons within, to the extent which would see you prepared for the London Marathon, completely retreating from the world and, more often than not, going to great lengths not to reveal that pain that never subsides, to the outside world.
Now, as May approaches so too does an all too familiar feeling of consuming dread. Each passing day marks another day closer to Mother’s Day - a day where motherhood is celebrated. It is a bittersweet day. On one hand is the unbridled joy attached to spending time with my eldest son, the ethereal memories of Mother’s Days past, and on the other hand is that stark reminder of what will never be again.
Get kids moving. The latest research shows that brain development in young children may be linked to their activity level. Place your baby on her tummy several times during the day, let your toddler walk instead of ride in her stroller, and create opportunities for your older child to get plenty of exercise.
Gorgeous little Cooper. Image: Supplied
Parents who suffer the agonising loss of a child quickly master the art of ‘benign duplicity’. We often appear ‘together’ from the outside, and that’s the way we want it. The stark reality is, most of us live parallel lives. There is the composed and outwardly coping public self. Conversely there is the private self, which is rarely revealed to anyone, including family or close friends, where the heart silently screams out in pain.
The relationship between parent and child is arguably the most intense of any relationship parents encounter in life, and when you are robbed of your ability to be a mother or indeed a parent to the child you have lost, there is a sense of violation, of what is commonly acknowledged to be the ‘rules of life’ as we know it.
Parents living with the loss of a child shun sympathy, and loathe making people awkward, and yet we do. To be clear, no one truly knows what to say to a parent whose child no longer walks beside them. I, for one, still don’t. I have learned there simply are no words.
'My eldest son and my husband are a blessing.' Image: Supplied
We often exist in a bubble, and while life continues on the outside, our life as we knew it has ceased. Life goes on, but it will be forever in a highly- altered state. We lose friendships, we often lose our identity as a ‘mother”, we may be perceived as socially awkward, we are at high risk of relationship breakdowns, serious health conditions, associated mental health issues, and we face the real possibility of finding crutches in an array of alternative measures, in an effort to numb the pain.
Put simply, each of us who has lost a child live in a state of highly elevated risk yet we are often oblivious. Or could it be we simply do not care?
You not only cope with the absence of your deceased child’s physical and spiritual presence, your existence becomes a somewhat surreal form of survival. Sleep becomes an escape, and for a fleeting moment each morning, there is a split second where there is joy and life is back to normal. Then the reality rapidly sets in, and the terror and angst of months/years of separation are once more all-consuming.
Sleep was an escape, until it became agony. Image: Supplied
I am asked daily, sometimes many times a day – ‘How am I ? ‘ and ‘How am I doing? ‘ I admit I have little to no idea. I simply go through the motions. I laugh, I cry, I feel frustration, angst, joy and everything in between, however these emotions are now vastly different. They are hollow, and most often without soul.
The only way I have found to truly articulate how it feels to lose a child, is to call on those who are parents, to picture that brief but unplanned separation from your child in a department store, in the street, or indeed in any populated and public place. Your child leaves your side, in that blink of an eye when you looked just the second before, and they were there.
Don't try to fix everything. Give young kids a chance to find their own solutions. When you lovingly acknowledge a child's minor frustrations without immediately rushing in to save her, you teach her self-reliance and resilience.
It is only a parent who can identify with that swift and unrelenting feeling of all consuming terror. The nagging pit in the stomach. The unfiltered fear. The heart that beats out of the chest. The pure angst which brings with it an inability to breathe, and the cold sweat – those physical manifestations are often what remains with the parent forever separated from their child.
Losing a child is every parent's worse fear. Image: Supplied
Losing Cooper has personally left me devoid of any ability to self-assess. In fact, Cooper’s passing has stripped me bare of emotion as I once knew it. Each day is simply survival, and with it, a thinly veiled attempt at making every day count as Coop always did, despite the appalling hand of cards dealt to him. I never lose sight of the immense blessing I have in my eldest son, Mitch, and my husband, Colin, who are the only ones that truly understand the depth of this pain, that rarely eases and never leaves. I am all too aware there are those forced to walk this road alone.
Through Cooper’s 18 month medical treatment process, I was privileged to be afforded the time to spend each day with Cooper, and every night in hospital in a chair by his side. Granted, this is more time than any teenager wants to spend with his mother - ever. There were many tears, many disagreements, laughter in abundance and many beautiful memories made.
As precious as these tragic memories are they will never be able to mask the fact I was fundamentally unable to control Cooper’s cancer. We as parents are fixers. This particularly applies to mothers. From the moment we hold our newborns in our arms for the very first time, the instinct to protect and fix is ever present. When the moment comes when we cannot fix something for our children, extreme angst, guilt, sadness and frustration result.
Tania will always be grateful for the time she had with her son. Image: Supplied
Each day I wonder what I missed, or I what could have done better. I continue to ask myself why I could not find the answers? In my mind, I failed in the most important role of my life – that of being a mother. I was simply unable to fix.
Cooper’s passing took our breath away. There are days where we still feel it is nigh on impossible to breath, and panic attacks are common. It is that moment that can strike anywhere. Unpredictable, and without notice or prejudice, it can hit hard.
Stages of Estrangement: Maintenance
As with every parent, my greatest fear in life was, and remains, that of losing a child. Facing that unspeakable reality, and navigating life without our precious son/brother is something my husband, my son and I struggle with daily and I suspect we always will.
The absence of Cooper’s larger-than-life presence, his courage and the very essence of who he was has created an enormous void for those who loved him so very much. It is a void that can never be filled.
Continuing Cooper’s legacy of raising funding and awareness for the cancer that savagely took his life, in an effort to prevent other young people suffering as he did, provides me with immense purpose. Cooper had a vision to change the trajectory of sarcoma, and to improve survival outcomes and treatment options for young patients globally, all the while acknowledging his work was unlikely to benefit him personally.
Remember: Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment. But some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying, or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag that hints at trouble ahead. Parents must observe carefully their children's behaviors and, if needed, enlist supportive professional help, including the family pediatrician.
It will forever be my passion to honour Cooper’s legacy and in doing so, to prevent other patients and families from suffering the living hell that is a sarcoma diagnosis .
Mother’s Day will always serve as a reminder of all I once had, what I am so very blessed to still have, and the prophetic reality of a quote which resonated with me so many years ago:
“Our children are only ever lent to us. We never know how long we will be able to keep them for. So kiss them, cuddle them, praise them and hold them tightly. But most of all ... tell them you love them everyday.” – Anon.