If I am honest, I tend to avoid thinking too deeply about the grief and hurt that Leo’s death caused in those closest to us. It still is a really challenging thing to hold alongside my own grief. When Leo died, we first told our parents, who told our respective sisters. It was all just surreal, but everyone who could, came and met him. I’ll always cherish those memories and the photos (even if they are the most painful to see) because its evidence of the love and life that Leo had. The anticipation that was felt by all of our family – from the youngest, to the eldest. The wider family isn’t heard a great deal within the loss community, and certainly not outside it. Whilst that voice may be quieter, it doesn’t change the depths and breadths that grief, loss and trauma reaches. And whilst that breaks me, when you see it in black and white, I’m delighted to have a place on this series for other people who have met, and will continue to love, Leo.
Please welcome my sister, Amy, and Leo’s cousin, Maddie to the #DiversityInLoss series…
Madeline, my daughter and Leo’s cousin, was 9 when he was born. We have said always that she has an old head on her shoulders, showing a maturity beyond her years.
In the days after Leo’s birth, she proved this to be true is many ways.
In the aftermath I wrestled with how to tell the children that their much longed for cousin was going to be born asleep. It turned out, picking them up from school in a somewhat distressed state led Maddie to guess what had happened after she had ruled out it wasn’t anything to do with her dad (who was on a tour of duty in Iraq at the time). Initially, there were no tears, they both sat with the weight of what they had found out whilst we drove home. Maddie’s first words were “Will Jess be okay?”. I didn’t have the answers to any of her other questions, but she wasn’t shying away from the situation, she dove in head first.
During this time, we were trying to navigate a tumultuous time with Maddie’s mental health – specifically an anxiety disorder that was, we now know, going to be quite a life limiting challenge for several years to come. My instinct was to protect her from this, how responsible would it be to allow her to be involved in everything when her emotional state was so fragile? But I also knew that she (just as I would have done at her age) would not take being side-lined well. It was at this time, whilst I was having this internal struggle, that Maddie’s wonderful teacher stepped in and gave the advice that, to this day, changed the course of events for Maddie; I owe her a debt of gratitude for her wisdom. She said, “You can keep her away from it all, it absolutely seems like the right thing to do as no child should have to deal with this. But what I can tell you for certain, the story she will make up will be worse than the reality.”
When we don’t know enough about a situation we all create our own narrative to try and make sense of a situation. As a teacher and a parent, I know that children will only ask about what they are ready to cope with or can try to understand. I knew then that the best decision I could make was to let Maddie be as involved as she needed to be.
During the Saturday, whilst we were waiting to hear of news of Leo’s birth, Maddie busied herself making bracelets for Leo, Jess and Nat. She wanted them all to have something they could share, for Jess and Nat to have something that would always with them and with him. I was at a loss as to how her heart could be so big. Once we knew that Leo was here and I told her we could meet him the next day, she didn’t hesitate in telling me she was coming with me because she needed to make sure that Jess and Nat were okay. Because she didn’t want me to have to do it on my own. She never stopped thinking about other people.
“When I look back on that day I just feel like it was when everything became real. Up until that day I had a little bit of hope that it might be different. Walking into that room I realised that he really had been born asleep. There was everything going on and nothing going on all at the same time, I found it easier to distract myself with making sure that everyone else was okay. It was worth it for the memories.”
Maddie dealt with the day with unbelievable empathy. She handled the reality with grace and maturity. What would my advice to anyone wondering how to help a grieving child be? Let them lead ‘their’ way and be prepared for them to surprise you.
Maddie’s memories will always be far more cherished than any story she could ever have made up.
For support for siblings and children affected by loss, please explore the services offered by The JOEL Package, Child Bereavement UK and Winston’s Wish and the wonderful children’s book, These Precious Little People by Frankie Bunker.