Trying to understand grief?

‘You don’t know how much one life can alter your entire existence until you’ve had to bury your child.’

Ruqayya Gibson

February 2019 – 18 weeks without Ben.

This journal is long and disjointed. It’s an overview of the past eighteen weeks since Ben died. Rambled dark confused thoughts take me into unchartered territory as I try to get to grips with understanding how this grief thing works. I’m not doing well. The tragic loss of a child – any child – makes no sense. But this is my child – not any child and the incompleteness of life without him is more than I can bear.

Trying to live without my darling boy is impossible! It’s hard to call it living – I’m going through the motions of existing; just about getting through the hours from morning to night. Sleep doesn’t bring release – morning inevitably comes and with it the dread of having to live through another day. I’m now so used to crying that I hardly notice tears running down my face. The physical pain in my gut is constant.

People say I’m strong but I know I’m not. The other day a friend actually suggested that I should try to think about happy memories of Ben instead of the fact that he’s not here. I was so taken aback! She was trying to be helpful but all her children are alive – she has no idea. I guess it’s something you can’t understand until it happens to you and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone!!

Other people suggest I should take medication – not sure how that is going to fix anything! I’d eventually have to wake up to the harsh reality. Time intensifies his absence and every day is taking me further away from the beautiful normal complete family we were. My longing for Ben and our old life feels like someone is twisting a knife in my stomach.

I honestly wish people would stop trying to fix me. I just need time to grieve! Nothing can take this pain and sadness away.

Paul and I went to register his death last week. It was surreal and traumatic. The silent corridors and soft voices felt patronising and mocking. The words on the top of the coroner’s letter screamed out – Ben McDonald deceased! I hate the word ‘deceased’ – it makes it sound like our beautiful precious boy has just ceased to exist! They even referred to my child as ‘The Deceased’. How dare they?!

We came out clutching an envelope containing his birth certificate and death certificate – twenty five years crammed into a big brown envelope. How is this possible? He had so much more to give.

‘The Death of a Child…

It’s like losing your breath and never catching it again.

It’s a forever panic attack as your soul is screaming for them.

It’s feeling your heart dying as you continue to lose your mind.’

– author unknown

The author really knows! The continuous panic attacks, not being able to breathe properly; feeling like you’re losing your mind. That’s exactly it!

So I put my mask on and pretend to live. I can even appear quite rational and normal. I can smile and chat but all I’m doing is suppressing the constant ache in my heart – numbing myself for a few more minutes from the awful gut wrenching truth.

I’m trying to write about what grief is like but can’t find the words. I want others to know how unbelievably horrific this is but how can I possibly describe something that I don’t understand. I honestly think I could be going crazy. There is no way to articulate what’s going on in my head. My emotions are stretched out like an elastic band and I’m scared I could suddenly snap at any moment!

“Normal was destroyed the moment my child died”


My tolerance for the inane things people say is wearing thin. I find mindless chatter futile and empty. I’ve never realised how self-consumed our culture is about the most unimportant things. I know it’s not a competition about whose life is the hardest but surely there can’t be much worse than losing a child? To my self-indulgent self-pitying brain, everything else pales into significance.

It’s not that I’m not interested in other people’s lives – I actually am – I just struggle with the priority some people place on minor inconveniences. I hear people describing a bad day at work or getting stuck in a traffic jam or missing a train as their ‘worst nightmare’ and I just want to scream.

They need to save that expression for when it actually is!

I’m eternally grateful for the gift of amazing, long suffering, committed, die hard friends who are sticking with me through all my weirdness. People who genuinely seem to understand how impossible this grief is. I know I’m not great company and probably make everyone feel uncomfortable; but I need friends more than ever.

‘Friendship is not about who you’ve known the longest, it’s about who walked into your life, said ‘I’m here for you and proved it’!

– author unknown

Those brave people may never really know how invaluable their support is. They are the silver linings that give me hope.

Over the years I’ve lived through some difficult times; periods of sadness, loss, worry, fear, disappointment, anxiety, heartache, (although back then I didn’t have any idea what heartache really was!) BUT nothing has ever even come close to what I’m feeling now. It’s so far removed from anything I have known that I can’t adequately explain or describe it. Words aren’t enough – they just sound hollow and empty.

But incredibly I do have periods when I’m distracted by keeping busy. I never forget about Ben for one second but my subconscious mind numbs me into thinking he’s just away travelling. Loving life!

I put on my normal face – smile – chat – work – go to meetings – shop – cook – clean. I almost convince myself I’m a normal mum – momentarily! Then I remember I’m not normal any more. Normal families don’t have a dead child. I can only assume that most of the time I must be in total denial because my brain can’t even comprehend this abhorrent abnormality.

Another wave hits. My breathing changes and panic strikes. I can’t breathe properly. I want to scream. It feels like I’m going to explode. My heart and brain struggle to grasp the horror that Ben is really dead. I can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it.

My brain flits erratically between images of his beautiful animated laughing face to the horror and disbelief of touching and kissing his handsome motionless face on that terrible nightmarish day. I don’t want to go back to that place but it’s only in remembering that I can actually accept the grim and painful reality.

Depending on where I am when this happens I either cry, or put my mask back on, do some funny things with my face, hold my breath, and ride it out … until I’m back in denial and can carry on pretending to live in a normal abnormal kind of way.

I’ve been wearing this mask for almost five months now and I’m tired. It’s exhausting and I’m weary. I sometimes daydream that I’m at the beach, walking through the waves out into the ocean in the hope that I’ll meet Ben and be free from all this sadness.

I’m not actually suicidal but I have irrational thoughts because life is too difficult. The prospect of existing like this forever is terrifying! I’m trapped in a cycle of grief that is heavy and burdensome and I’m just worn out. My husband Paul intuitively remarked the other day that we’re always just one thought away from tears.

“I feel so lost and alone even when I have people around me. Amidst the laughter and conversations, does anyone pause for a moment to realise that I am tired from the weight of this mask that I put on each morning. Smiling and pretending to be fine when deep down I know I am completely shattered.”

⁃ Narin Grewal

I don’t want my other three incredible children to think I don’t love them. I adore them and love them so much it hurts. But they’re hurting too and that adds to my pain. Part of my panic and fear is that I’ll lose them as well. If it can happen once – what’s to stop it happening again? I don’t love Ben more because he’s gone – each one is beautiful and precious and different. Children are the most wonderful gifts ever and losing one is more than I can bear. It’s just so unbelievably cruel.

In my tribute to Ben at the celebration of his beautiful life, I wrote that even though I wanted to feel angry with God for not keeping him alive, I couldn’t. All I could feel was thankful that he gave him to us in the first place. I meant it then and I still mean it now. When I said I’d rather have had only twenty five years with our awesome boy, than never to have had him at all – I meant that too. He was such a beautiful human being and our lives are so much richer for having known him.

But I don’t understand it. I want this knowledge to bring me comfort but all I can feel is indescribable wretched pain and crushing sadness. The heartache seems to be getting worse and the anger more intense

My family has been taking part in various heart screening tests and the cardiac specialists haven’t found anything wrong with any of our hearts. The coroner has concluded that Ben died of SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome) which in lay man’s terms is described as ‘natural causes’. Natural. The word itself is a linguistic nuance – there is nothing natural about dying suddenly at the age of twenty five when you’re fit and healthy! It just makes no sense and leaves me feeling more confused than ever.

I can only conclude that we live in a world where bad things happen. Children get sick and die, people get cancer, tragedies and natural disasters kill hundreds and thousands of people. There is pain, injustice and unfairness. All this is beyond my understanding and my brain is exhausted from trying to figure it out.

I have no answers but I will keep searching. I must find purpose and hope or I may as well die.

One of my little indulgent comforts is to imagine Ben in heaven exploring the galaxies and discovering some of the mysteries of the universe – free and happy. I allow myself to enjoy beautiful images that are not rooted in fact but that give me a snapshot of what heaven could be like. This is a welcome distraction from the dark thoughts and morbid pictures of his beautiful body lying in the cold ground. I have to force myself to focus on beautiful things. It helps momentarily!

Picturing Ben in a happy place brings little snippets of peace but it doesn’t make accepting his absence any easier. My heart is breaking because I simply miss him so much. The days, weeks and months are starting to merge into one long empty chasm of pain. Part of me died with him. I will never be the person I once was. There is no fixing this; there is no easy way to come to terms with the loss of a child. Every family gathering just highlights the fact that he is missing and the cycle of panic starts again.

‘Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?’

⁃ C S Lewis

That pretty much sums it up. I’ll just keep on existing until one day I may subconsciously realise I’ve actually slipped into living and maybe even finding purpose in my pain. I know that’s what Ben would want. There must be a way to live a fulfilled life whilst still carrying this burden of sadness. Others have managed and emerged stronger. With the help of God and those who believe in me, I’ll keep trying!

Grief is love – but I had no idea it would feel like this!