Alton Towers, the famous theme part is about 10 miles from my home, but more importantly (to me) is it is just about 1 mile from the charming village of Alton, perched on a Staffordshire hillside. Alton has some nice pubs, a castle and several old churches – some of these structures being works by Augustus Pugin, the 19th century architect, designer and theorist, aka “God’s architect” who “changed the face of England,” as well as being responsible for the interior design of the Palace of Westminster.
But I digress. Alton also possesses a small municipal cemetery. This is the spot where my daughter is laid to rest, with the double headstone including her brother. For this reason, I am quite attached to Alton. The bus from Stoke-on-Trent passes by Alton Towers, so Alton Towers is also in my sights.
Alton Towers hit the headlines earlier this year with a horrific accident involving the “Smiler” rollercoaster ride. As the news unfolded, it became evident that several of the victims had suffered “life-changing injuries.” Now in the last few days, Leah Washington, one of the two girls who lost a leg in the crash, has spoken about her experience. One of her comments brings home about just how life-changing this has been:
It hasn’t really sunk in yet but I’m nervous for the future because I’ll have a different path and a different life.
I’m always going to have to put my leg on in the morning or use crutches.
(If Leah happens to read this, I wish her and her family all the best. And on a side note, a shout-out here is needed for the NHS workers who fought to save Leah’s life, along with the other victims, and the excellent care she has been given at Royal Stoke University Hospital.)
You might wonder what this has to do with bereavement, as thankfully none of the accident victims lost their lives. The answer is that it is not the incident itself, but the concept of “life-changing loss.”
I fractured my arm some years ago. It was in a cast for a few weeks, the injury healed, I did some physio, and then recovered completely. Nowadays that injury is all but forgotten. It wasn’t life-changing — completely different to what Leah and Vicky are going through. They have to make do with a missing limb. They have to relearn mobility. As Leah said, they will “have a different life”.
Likewise, some bereavements have a bigger impact on us than others. Awhile back I wrote about difficult bereavements, exploring the idea that our relationship to the person who dies, the manner of their death, and whether it was in the “natural order” (older people dying before the young) makes a big difference to what happens to us next.
“Auntie Rosie has died. She was 89 and lived in a nursing home.” We aren’t that surprised by the death of an elderly relative who we saw once in a blue moon. There were virtually no inter-dependencies. Auntie didn’t require daily visits from us; we didn’t particularly notice that she wasn’t there at Christmas, because she had her own family to spend time with. The news of her passing might cause some sadness, some reflection on her life, some reminiscing about family gatherings in our childhood, but it does not have a lasting, major impact. It’s a bit like my fractured arm. It becomes a memory, rarely thought on.
The loss of a life partner or a close friend in a completely different category, as is the loss of a child or someone else who was significant in our daily life. A child or teenager losing a parent also fits this picture. Whoever it was, we cared for them, and/or they cared for us. There were countless inter-dependencies. Their departure hurts in a way that is hard to describe. We know we need to keep on living…but things will never ever be the same again. We have to adjust our life’s expectations. Some plans will have to be abandoned; other new ones may take shape. Every day, in every way, we will be reminded of our loss. Someone who has lost a limb has to learn to manage with crutches, a prosthetic or wheelchair; their leg cannot grow back. Our loved one cannot return. We have to live life as best we can, but the pain of loss is with us daily. He or she is missing. There is a vacant place.
Living with life-changing loss is like going through life with a limb missing. The nightmare became reality, and the loss is ever constant. We manage the best we can, but part of us is gone and can never be restored. Yes, we will find our crutches that help us get around, and gradually we will get accustomed to what once was unthinkable. Life is not as we expected or hoped. Still, we find a way, step by step.
This is an important point: finding a way. In some respects, we each find our own. In others, we learn from each other. That’s why there are so many support groups, and I would say, if you’re struggling after a life-changing loss, then try contacting one of the support groups listed here, or seek out something locally. It is too easy to feel isolated in grief but there are others like us.
Grief is survivable, although this doesn’t always feel desirable. There is still a future for us, however altered it may be.