When my daughter Juliette died, I started writing. It was a diary at first, and I began it the day my husband went back to work. Here I spilled the thoughts and feelings I had, raged and mourned my loss in a place that was safe. I felt like I was going mad, but filling the blank pages allowed me to do this in private.
After a while, my feelings changed. I wanted to tell Juliette’s story, beginning with the diagnosis of leukaemia when she was three, and her death, nineteen months later. I needed to do it, afraid that my memories of her would vanish like smoke, just as she had.
I wrote for myself, but I also wrote for our other children who were too young at the time to absorb the details of their sister’s life that I felt were important. I wanted to paint Juliette in all her glorious colours - show my love, and the love she inspired in so many others. I recorded moments of happiness and laughter; how the disease never took these from her, even when she was in the bitter grip of chemotherapy.
When I typed the final words however, I realised that there was more to say. Losing Juliette had radically altered the journey of our family but after six years, we were still together and moving forward. What had we done right after Juliette’s death that we were able to laugh, feel the joy of being a family again, yet without her physical presence? Was it something that I would have wanted to hear six years earlier, that I could now pass on?
Most parents in our situation feel terribly alone in grief at one stage or other. That young people don’t usually die is of course good, but it can make those of us who have lost a child feel isolated. Why us? Why our child? Usually there aren’t many in our acquaintance who can tell us whether we will be able to get up tomorrow morning, let alone survive the experience. To survive was what I wanted for my family, but grief is a maze of contradictions. When Juliette first died, a big part of me expected that the feeling my heart had been ripped out to last forever, and I would not have wanted it otherwise. The rest of me craved the reassurance that no matter how I felt at the time, one day we would heal.
With shaky intention I started to put into words how our journey continued after Juliette left us. I talked about what I was doing, and friends who hadn’t lost children wondered whether the experience of writing it all down was cathartic. I suppose in some ways it was, although recalling feelings and events felt sometimes like tearing at a barely closed wound. Often months would pass before I could bear to click on the icon that blinked reproachfully on my computer desktop.
At some point in the third year of writing however, I was suddenly driven by the idea of turning it into something publishable. I poured all the energy I could spare into it, and probably some I could not. The book became the focus and flame of my grief – the “something good” that would come out of my daughter’s death. I wrote from the heart. There are passages in the book I can’t read without feeling again the searing pain of my raw grief when Juliette died, but at the time I needed resolution; an ending. I worked at drawing the frayed ends of my emotions together on the page. Neatly framed I could cope with them; they made sense to me there. I hoped others would see their own pain in mine and together we could race to a happy ending.
Of course, really, there is no happy ending. I wanted it to be so, but my grief did not obligingly burn itself out when I typed “The End.” Life is still as terrible and as beautiful at times as it always was. I realise now that on some level I believed that the pages of my book would contain in all senses, my loss. Safe on a shelf, I could get on with the rest of my life.
Watching Petals Fall is for now still in manuscript form, and with all I have realised recently I’m glad about this. A year and a bit of publishers’ rejections (albeit mostly very kind ones) has allowed me the time to reflect on what I wrote, and in a wider sense consider what the book means to me.
There’s no question that I want Juliette’s life and death to have significance that lasts, and not just for me and others who loved her. I want to fill the ephemeral hole she once occupied with something solid. I know now that I may never be able to do that. Money raised for charity is spent, and books published are in the end only paper. It’s enough that I was her Mummy, that I had Juliette to hold for the time I did. Her love is the memorial that lasts forever.
Having said that, I’m not giving up with the book. What I will do however is re-write the ending. This is because despite my best efforts to control it, I’ve learned that grief is messy, unwieldy and unpredictable. I think the denial of this has brought me to where I am now, and I’m humbled. I blame my pride in “doing bereavement” perfectly, because there is no such thing. My beautiful daughter died, and the aftershocks continue through my life. Did I expect, or even want them not to? I loved her so much and as you love, so you lose. You can’t choose the highs without risking the devastating pain of loss. And yet I love her still as I do my other children, and I’m not afraid.
I have been told recently that I am suffering from depression, complicated by grief. The diagnosis that I baulked against at first has in fact allowed me the freedom to stop denying the impact that losing my daughter has had on my life. I’m a human being; a mother who loved her child and had to watch her die. It is futile to continue painting the experience with colours that are not always there. It’s a little frightening to have no idea of how losing Juliette will continue to affect me and our family, but I feel relieved to be admitting this at last. To omit what I’ve learned in the book I hope one day will be published, feels to me dishonest.
I do believe that tragedy in life awakens many things within us however, not least an awareness of the sufferings of others. I think that a glimpse of the utter despair wrought on us when we lose a child makes us uniquely placed to reach out at a later stage to those that are experiencing something similar. As well as this, the good and the blessings in our lives are all the more precious and golden for what we have suffered, and the realisation of this for me at least has been no bad thing.
I’m convinced once this tricky period ends as I know it shall, that I’ll emerge stronger than before, ready to rejoice again at my luck for having had such a special little girl in my life at all.