Loss and loneliness – more on “Aging without children”

This is a continuation of my previous post on the topic of aging without children, particularly as a result of bereavement, rather than through inability or lack of desire to have children.

From the time you conceive (with a plan to keep the child), you enter a new world. Prenatal care and preparation for childbirth is only part of it. There are all the practical preparations. I can still remember my first visit to a Mothercare shop, the first stroller I bought, the first baby bed, etc., etc. You meet other parents-to-be, you swap notes with other friends who have children or are expecting children. Your social life develops a new dimension.

And when baby arrives, that increases. You’re suddenly aware of waiting lists and finding good childcare, of living in the right spot for the right schools. Then there’s your child starting school, and parties and presents. You’re aware of the latest toy craze, of online safety, of nutrition. All along the way you’re meeting other parents, you’re part of that growing circle. You sign up for Netmums and before you know it, you’re having coffee with a friend on a Saturday morning, lamenting over your teenager’s latest antics and wondering how to respond.

It goes on and on. It’s your world; the world of the parent.

Then – in the context of this post – this world slowly unravels or suddenly ends, through illness, an accident or some other cause. The fear that every parent fears has come upon you. Your child is gone.

You’ve lost your child, you’ve lost the future you expected, your heart is broken, you fight with guilt and regret, you can hardly breathe. Those are part of the agony of the parent who has lost their child (and if you want to know more about how difficult it is to survive this type of bereavement, may I suggest you have a look at my book), but for the post I want to focus on the social aspect.

Because now that you are childless, all of a sudden you no longer belong in that “parenthood” world. You no longer need to follow the trends on Netmums, or pay attention to the latest toy craze. You aren’t preparing for Christmas in the same way, you don’t have to think about your child’s homework or what time they get home.

What happens when you meet up with your friend for coffee? Chances are, that won’t happen. Because he or she will talk about his teenager’s latest antics, and you have nothing to say. How you wish you had more antics to worry about. There are no more.

You won’t end up at any more children’s parties, chatting to the parents in the kitchen. You won’t be at the school play, or invited in to talk with the teachers. You won’t have any new super-cute pictures to post on Facebook. You won’t have any news.

And there is a strong possibility–unfortunately true–that many of your friends will avoid you. Perhaps not consciously, but you’re evidence of their worst nightmare. Every parent dreads losing a child for any cause; every parents hopes in their heart it could never happen to them; but you are the proof it can happen.

Your friends and family may rally round at the beginning, but as time passes, you sadly and painfully realise that the phone doesn’t ring as much. They don’t know what to say.

And when you do meet up, what do you talk about? They have news; you have none. What more is there to say?

If you’re reading this and wondering, “surely it’s not like that”, sadly I need to confirm that for many parents with no surviving children, this is their experience. I don’t think it’s because people are intentionally cruel, far from it, it’s just difficult to know how to support a grieving parent, and the fact that you have your own worries doesn’t always make it easier to communicate. And even when there are happy occasions, when your daughter gets her A level results, or when your son graduates, or your daughter gets a driving license, or your son gets married, or your daughter gets a big promotion… and maybe you can’t quite deal with the the shadow that will fall on your bereaved friend’s face, nor want to think about how their child was your son or daughter’s friend, and they will never ever ever have a piece of good news like that to share. And you’re kind of aware that they’re hurting, but you don’t know how to express your sympathy, and actually at this very moment, you’re feeling happy and you don’t want anything to spoil it. Perhaps your friend does smile and congratulate you, they may even show up at the wedding, but the fact is, their heart is broken inside. It could have been their son or daughter standing there; it should have been but it is not. 

And so the bereaved parent may find themselves slowly drifting away from their former social circle, finding it too full of painful memories. Why stay on Netmums if you’re not a mum? Why bake for the school’s Christmas fair if you have no child in school? Why wander into “Toys R Us” if you have no one to buy a toy for?

So that’s why being a bereaved parent puts another you in a slightly different place to other childless parents. You had a child, and were almost certainly part of a circle of people with children. Now you have no child, you have lost the most important feature you had in common.

Of course it’s not like this for every bereaved parent, but sadly, it is for too many.

The loss of “parent” status can mean loneliness; it can also mean the forging of new friendships amongst other bereaved parents or other new circles. Hopefully we do find our way through to a new type of living and the loss becomes more survivable. But it is not an easy road. Believe me–I’m on it.

Well, going back to the topic of aging without children, I think you can see that the breach in the social circle of bereaved parents adds another layer of difficulty.

But to finish on a more hopeful note; whether we’re bereaved or not, been a parent or still are one, we can be a friend to those who are struggling to survive their loss. We can pick up the phone, invite them for dinner, take some initiative to show that they haven’t lost their friends (or family) along with their child.

I was sitting in a pub in the pretty town of Stone (in Staffordshire), down the road from where I live, when I noticed a poem on a sign on the wall, attributed to the “Poet of Stone”. I copied it down and ended up using it as the introduction to the last section of my book, “Food for thought for friends and family of the bereaved” which is advice on how to be supportive. And I’ll end this post with the poem, because to me it sums up the essence of friendship:

He that is your friend indeed,

He will help you in your need:

If you sorrow, he will weep;

If you wake, he cannot sleep;

Thus of every grief in heart

He with you does bear a part.

Richard Barnfield (1574–1620)

 

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