Chapter 2: Grief

Date: Fri, 28 Sep 2007

Fresher’s week has left my body feeling less like a temple and more like a cess pit….

Miss you guys a lot,
Love Jack xx

It is around two in the morning. Jack has just died. We stand outside the hospital, gazing out into the night. Rain is falling steadily. Two ambulances are docked at the bay to the Accident & Emergency department. Their blue lights are on, and as they flash into the darkness they pick out individual drops of rain, making freezeframes of suspended sapphires, human distress crystallised. ‘I suppose that’s the image we’ll always remember,’ says Rosie. Blue is the deepest colour. And the coldest.

Jack’s friend Eveline is at the hospital. She has an old-school camcorder and has recently been filming fellow students, including Jack. She gives us a USB stick of six videos. Back home we play the clips on a laptop. We hadn’t seen Jack in three months, but here he is just three days before the accident, joking around, large as life. He’s easy and funny, the effortless centre of every scene. He radiates happiness. At one point he takes over the camcorder from Eveline and asks her to say something. ‘Hi mum,’ waves Eveline, ‘I love you!’ Jack turns the camera on himself and looks straight into the lens. ‘I love you too mum,’ he says. His voice is unsentimental. He’s stating a fact. He is certain Deb will never see the clip. I turn to Deb. Jack’s words have left her stunned, almost concussed. It’s too much. But in time she will treasure this message.

In the days that followed Jack’s death I felt like one of those Old Testament characters who wake to find they have been struck blind. The world had gone dark black. I could see, but my brain was so submersed in sorrow it had no capacity to process or organise visual information. I could see that there was a door to the room I was sitting in, but the four walls that made up that space were indistinct. To leave the room I had to feel my way, touching the wall, not so much for support, more to locate exactly where the wall stood and find where it met the doorway.

My gaze would settle on anything that lay between me and the horizon. I was indifferent to the object; it might be the TV, a tree, a picture on a wall or a boat on the sea. My eyes were open, so objects occupied my visual field, but I had no use for the images that reached the back of my brain. They hung there unattended, like a film playing in an empty cinema.

Closed to the external world, my mind turned in on itself, registering all its suffering and calculating how much more pain it could take. At one point I realised that I had been staring at a light switch for more than quarter of an hour. I was prepared to keep gazing at it indefinitely. There was nothing interesting about the switch, but I kept looking at it anyway. I could do this because the switch had changed in its physical make-up. It was still real but had lost its solidity. It was both there and not there. I was in a dreamworld, a baddreamworld.

Looking into Debbie and Rosie’s eyes I could see levels of pain I’d never seen before. They were tormented. In what the poet Michael Rosen calls ‘those first, worst days’ we clung to each other like orphans, moving from one room to another together, fearing that if one of us were left out of sight, they might, like Jack, simply vanish. A thought settled in my mind: if four of you decide never to leave a room, one day that room will be empty. One by one, all of you must go; it’s only a matter of time. I’m amazed and grateful I’d not had this thought earlier in my life.

It’s likely there’s no pain greater than the pain of losing someone you have always loved. It is absolute. This is an imperfect world; we look for perfection while knowing that it’s a fool’s errand. The perfect job, perfect partner, perfect holiday destination, perfect home. Yet suddenly here it was: perfection. Free of all impurity, distilled to its absolute essence, 100 per cent perfect pain. It had an almost beautiful simplicity. Agony, unadulterated, unlimited, remorseless, inescapable.

Waking up each morning, I imagined I knew how victims of torture felt: I’m conscious, so I’m in agony, again. Except, unlike the imprisoned torture victim, I could escape. I could stop all the pain in its tracks by simply quitting this world. At times during the day I would picture lifting a gun, putting its heavy barrel to the roof of my mouth and pulling the trigger. Like my sister Elizabeth, I wouldn’t have to suffer any longer. In truth, it was only a consoling fantasy. I didn’t even know where to get a gun; I’m not from Texas. Yet I wanted to die. The future stretched out in front of me like an endless pan-flat desert. Before Jack died I had worried that my time was running away. I had turned 50 and the months seemed to be flashing past in a blur of work and weekends. Seasons and even years seemed to be tumbling by. If I wasn’t careful, it would all be over very soon. Time just kept accelerating.

And then it stopped. Suddenly I was adrift on an ocean of time. I could sense the grinding progress of each second. One hour lasted a day. I could no longer rely on time to turn the clock; it would be down to me to move from one moment to the next. I realised that I would have to walk through the limitless weeks and months that were to comprise the rest of my life.

But time had leapt as well as stopped: over the course of only a few weeks Debbie and I felt ten years older. We hadn’t aged physically, but in ourselves, our core, we had been fast-forwarded a decade. People who were our seniors by some years suddenly seemed younger than us, less knowing. By the same token, our former selves were gone forever. We were always a jokey family, poking fun at the world and each other. With Jack’s death, a crevasse had opened between people we had been and our new selves. The former us were left stranded on the opposite edge of a great divide, lifeless as waxworks.

I’d always known what I wanted to do: get a job, buy a motorbike, leave home, rent a flat, find a girl, go to America. Now I didn’t have a clue. Every day, every hour, I was muttering to myself, ‘What am I going to do next? What am I going to do next?’ I had no answer. I was lost. I knew I couldn’t remain where I was: I was in too much pain. But I couldn’t think of a move to make. Standing barefoot on hot coals, I hadn’t the wit to jump out the fire. I’d lost the instinct to live.

Jack was dead, and with him part of me had died. In addition to Jack, I was mourning the loss of a former unbroken self. I imagined that this was how someone who is suddenly wheelchair-bound must feel. Except it was my heart, not my spinal cord, damaged beyond repair. For the rest of my life I would be emotionally disabled: I was never going to get over this; Jack was never coming back; my heart was never going to mend. In the days that followed Jack’s death I could feel the damage there, a burrowing pain in the middle of my chest. Debbie’s heart hurt so much that at moments she would stop breathing. We were experiencing what is known as broken heart syndrome. Extreme grief weakens the heart’s muscle, causing one of its chambers to swell out of shape. This gives the sufferer the sensation of mild heart attack. Broken heart syndrome is the body’s way of protecting itself, stretching the heart so that the tidal wave of adrenaline that grief launches does not stop it beating. The heart breaks so that its owner doesn’t die.

In those first black days I would weep and then stop, stare off into space, start to prepare some food, then weep again. At one point I caught myself in the mirror. My face red and wet with tears. I was appalled. I looked pathetic.

The mayor’s office in Palermo could give us no firm date when Jack’s body would be released for repatriation. There would have to be a post mortem and, as Jack had been hit by a speeding motorist on a zebra crossing, there was the possibility of a manslaughter charge. Cramped into a tiny hotel room, desperate and at the limit of endurable pain, Rosie, Debbie and I couldn’t face even the briefest interaction with people back home. In the meantime, I had Consular officials, lawyers, hospital managers, flight companies and funeral directors to deal with. Rather than call me again, I asked my mum and dad to wait until they heard from me. I told them I would be in touch as soon as I had Jack’s body back home and we had a date set for his funeral. For reasons that are still unclear to me, my dad was unable to comply with my request, and after 72 hours he sent me an email urging me to hurry up with arrangements. It was punctuated with censorious exclamation marks, finding fault with the way I was handling the death of my only son. His words stabbed at my heart. Livid, I phoned him up and unleashed a torrent of fury. I told him he and mum were not to contact me again, but I would let him know when the funeral was set. It took another week to get a date and I kept my word, but I resented them for making me feel worse at the lowest point of my life.

I was polite to them at the funeral – I was so dazed that day I was inoculated against any emotion, even grief – but the next morning my pain and anger towards them came scorching back. Maddened by grief, I felt like setting fire to their house. We met for a coffee after three months. They offered apologies for the email, but I think they were bemused by how badly Debbie and I had taken it. I figured that if they couldn’t see that they’d done much wrong, they were highly likely to blunder into some other thoughtless act. It was nothing personal, but Debbie and I were teetering on the edge of despair. As things stood, we both wanted to die, and I felt that any further hurtful acts might tip us into suicide. I listened to the apologies but experienced both my parents as a danger. I couldn’t bear to stay in their company and left the café.

It sounds crazy, but I blamed Adolf Hitler for the row; Piet had been so traumatised by his experience of fighting in the second world war that anyone dead had to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Or perhaps Jack’s death had stirred too many banished feelings around my sister Elizabeth’s death. Either way, Piet’s instinct to control his offspring rebounded so badly that our relationship was all but destroyed. I was very close to permanently quitting the Marteau family. I stayed out of contact for two years. Piet and I were reconciled before his death, but something had been damaged that we could never really repair: trust.

Jack’s death had exploded our lives and there were others caught up in the blast. Two long-standing friendships ended. We had received kindness where we’d least expected it, from people we hadn’t known particularly long or well; but we found to our confusion and dismay that some old friends weren’t moved to help us very much at all. We reasoned that if a friend couldn’t give you a hand when you most need it, the relationship had failed a fundamental stress-test. We stopped all communication with them, and if they persisted in getting in touch, we simply told them we never wanted to see them again. They were deeply hurt, but we didn’t care. We couldn’t like them anymore, so we couldn’t be friends anymore. Such is the logic of grief. I feel neither good nor bad about this. I’d imagined that grief would change me as a person, but I hadn’t thought it would make me worse. People talk about ‘growing spiritually’ after facing up to tragedy, but spiritual shrinkage seemed to be my fate. Interest rates can go down as well as up.

We held Jack’s funeral on 21st December. Fitting that we honoured his short life on the shortest day. Christmas Day came and went. We had a sandwich I think.
Four days into the New Year Debbie and I drove through a near blizzard to Cornwall. We had rented the only house in an isolated cove, right by the ocean. More snow fell, and we were trapped, just the two of us and the foaming sea. Temperatures were at their lowest for twenty years. It felt about right. Every evening we would battle halfway up the steep icy track that served the cove, to catch a mobile signal and phone Rosie. ‘Are you OK? Yes, we’re OK.’ None of us were OK, but the words were immaterial. It was contact.
After we got back to Dorset there was nothing for it – I had to go back to work. The work itself didn’t daunt me, but I dreaded having to mix with so many people who would have no insight into my emotional state. I was right to be uneasy; within two hours of my return one colleague, Phil, told me that he was finding my talk of grief depressing. I solved this in part by (a) never troubling myself to speak to Phil again; and (b) spending most of the day in the deserted basement, from where I could still make calls and send emails.

A survey by the stillbirth and neonatal death (SANDS) charity found that nearly half of 2,700 people reported that no one talked to them about the death of their baby when they returned to work. My experience was very close to this, but my loss was acknowledged by a handful of kind workmates. To physically express their sympathy two colleagues actually hugged me: Eamonn, an Irishman, and Kamlesh, an English Asian. My entire being drank in their sympathy. The Anglo Saxons didn’t touch me. Not that they were all unfeeling; Mike Trace, someone I rarely saw eye-to-eye with, went out of his way to offer words of kindness.

For the next two years I acted as a living cliché, burying myself in work. I dived deep into it, like some obsessive submariner, but as soon as I resurfaced, the sorrows of loss would crowd in on me. Being at home was becoming less bearable for Debbie and me, and unbearable for Rosie; she couldn’t bring herself to come there and so we had to meet her on common ground, usually her Auntie Denny’s. By springtime Deb and I decided enough was enough, and out of instinct and desperation we bought a two-room tent, a gas stove and some pots, and drove off to Cornwall to live by the beach. We’d return to Dorset for a bit, then head off for the coast again: Devon or Norfolk, wherever the map showed a big sandy bay. We kept mainly to ourselves, living like emotional refugees. I’d commute from the tent to wherever I had to get to for work. Being by the sea soothed us. We shed our tears and absorbed our seismic waves of grief without going under. The tent was a fitting home for two people beset by a storm – a canvas-thin barricade against roaring winds and freezing night air. A shelter as temporary and vulnerable as existence itself.

It’s August 2010 and we drive with Rosie to Brecon. The weather’s unreliable, but we set off anyway to walk up one of the peaks. As we approach the summit the clouds come down, shrinking visibility to a couple of meters. We are on a narrow ridge with a steep escarpment – a lethal drop – immediately to our right. The fog thickens, and both the huge drop and the way ahead vanish from sight. We are in danger. ‘We need to stop,’ I say. Panic grows in me that only nine months after Jack’s death, a second family disaster is about to strike. Rosie is unfazed. She’s a rock-climber and an experienced sky-diver, and easy with risk. Debbie, on the other hand, has a lifelong dread of heights. She can’t bring herself to look down from a third-storey window. But today, raging with grief, she embraces altitude. ‘This is great!’ she laughs, walking on into the invisible. Tormented and amused, she goads the grim reaper: ‘With any luck, we’ll die.’ The cloud lifts for just a moment, revealing the horrible precipice beside us, and then all is white mist again. Debbie, indifferent, strides on. Even Rosie is moving more cautiously than her mum. Finally, we make safer ground. I’m furious with Deb for having put herself in jeopardy. ‘Anything could have happened!’ I rant. ’Good. I wish it had. Why should I care if I live or die?’ I can’t offer an answer. The matchless grief of a mother gives her the right to Russian roulette.

A new life is marked by a clutch of anniversaries: first tooth, first smile, first word, first steps, first haircut, first birthday. Equally, with a new death comes a sequence of milestones, each a sickening appointment with pain: first birthday after death, first Christmas, first anniversary of being last seen alive. Some of these dates fall so close they merge and entwine into a poisoned arbour, a gauntlet that every bereft parent must force themselves through every year. Horror began to build as we approached each first anniversary: 13th September marked the day we’d said goodbye to Jack at the airport, the 16th September was Jack’s birthday. By now we’d packed the tent away for the year and moved back home. In a panic, we drove off to South Wales. It was the weekend and all but the most depressing places were booked up. We drove around Glamorgan for hours, in search of a room, fuelled by our own frenzied disturbance. In the end we pointed the car home, getting back around midnight. We were bleak and distraught. More anniversaries followed. 30th October was Debbie’s birthday and one year, to the day, from her last phone conversation with Jack. December 5th was the day his life support was switched off, the 21st marked the anniversary of his funeral. Christmas, Jack’s absolute favourite day, was horrible. I don’t drink, so to escape all the ghosts of Christmas past, I downed several cups of high-octane Javan coffee for breakfast. I felt no different, just more nauseated.
January, usually a depressing month, arrived like a life raft, and to this day it stands as my favourite month of year. I spend it and the rest of the new year reading any and every book I can find on death. I’m desperate to know how others, across the years, have coped with grief.


for other extracts go to: