Death… it’s one of those taboo subjects that is rarely talked about. Definitely not in polite conversation. It makes us uncomfortable. And yet it is the one certainty we are all born with. We’re all gonna die…
My mum had a fear of a long, drawn-out, agonising departure – as many of us do – and the messages I recieved as a child were that it is something terribly malicious because it cannot be controlled (or just maybe it can…). You could say that death has a life unto itself, if you will please excuse the terrible pun.
It took me a while, and plenty of talking with (or rather, at) my psychologist (yes, I had a psychologist), to realise that in the past five years almost all my closest family members have had near brushes with death. Each one took its toll on me and the sum total – among other things – led to my fall from grace (read, a long time off work with mental health issues).
However, I’ve been thinking. Was it the near-deaths which sent me over the edge? Or was it how I reacted? In every single case I felt a huge amount of responsibility and that somehow it was my fault my loved one was at risk of death. And I felt this weight of having to keep them alive, and that somehow I had to make the right choices to do that.
Crazy when I put it like that! I’ll try to explain.
When your mother becomes ill
The first near-death was that of my mother. When I was just past the (tender?) age of 40, my mum (a very strong and independent woman) moved over the drive from us here in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
She had already been successfully treated for cancer back in the UK.
All of a sudden, she became very ill again, and nobody could tell us what was wrong until frightening blood test results revealed a probable stage 4 liver cancer (despite the fact that she didn’t drink). The GP told me, in French, to ‘prepare for the worst’.
I tried to look after her and explain everything. Her French was quite basic as she hadn’t been in the country for long (she has improved hugely since then through her admirable efforts to learn the language) and she is hard of hearing. There were many, many hospital and doctor appointments.
But thankfully, she got better, and was given the all-clear.
What those blood test results really meant, we will never know, although Mum did her research and now suspects some possibly-slightly-past-it mushrooms she consumed to be the culprits.
But my point is that I felt responsible. It lay to me to tell her to expect the worst – or to choose not to. I told her not to worry (I was doing plenty of that for both of us). I’d look after her. She’d be okay. And here’s the thing. Afterwards, she was okay. So I (subconsciously) felt that I must have done things right.
The near-death of your child
Then there was my seven-year-old son’s brush with death.
Many parents will empathise with feeling guilty for going to work (when you could be at home with your kids). And guilty for being with your kids (when you could be working).
My boy had a tummy ache and the doctor came (we get home visits here in rural Belgium – yey!). I wasn’t concentrating because I was, myself, off work sick with a sore throat. Was my throat really so bad as to need the antibiotics I’d been prescribed? My boy wasn’t too poorly really, so I wasn’t overly worried about him. I was in that zone where you don’t do anything properly.
So when the doctor mentioned that the medicine smelled a bit minty (and he did a sniffing mime to make us laugh), I smiled along without really hearing.
I picked up the medicine from the pharmacy for my little boy myself. And I gave him his first pill.
I didn’t check the packet. I didn’t smell the tablets.
Something didn’t feel right. I chose to ignore the feeling.
Then I drove to work.
Although I was far from 100%, I wanted to go in, particularly as the following day I was attending a course which I’d been enjoying. It was really taking me out of the routine and opening my eyes to other possibilities. My job had become frustrating since changes meant I no longer had any control over my work. Any connection I’d previously felt towards my job had been taken away. I was sleeping over, close to my office, as it was a good trek from home.
My sister was staying with us at the time so I had no worries about someone looking after my son.
The phone call you never want to receive
The next day though, when I was driving home from work, she called me. That, in itself, was strange. When I answered, I heard those words that you never want to hear. And you certainly never want to hear them as a parent, ‘Don’t worry but…’
There was a slight waver in her voice.
‘Don’t worry but… you need to go to the hospital.’My sister
A few minutes later, as I was screaming a strange cry out loud in the car, and driving faster than I ever have done before and hopefully ever will do again, she called again.
‘Eilidh, you need to get there fast.’My sister
It makes me cry, even now, to remember the remainder of that journey.
The downside of those wonderful home visits from the doctor I just raved about is that sometimes the pharmacist might not be able to read the doctor’s writing. The prescription wasn’t neatly printed out, but quickly scrawled onto the paper.
Instead of herbal tummy ache pills, our little boy had been given high doses of adult-strength epilepsy medication for two days.
He’d been practically comatose when my sister realised there was something wrong and he was sleeping too heavily on the sofa. She couldn’t wake him up.
Partly thanks to her training in childcare, she knew what to do, and tried her best to stand him up, walk him around. She did skin to skin so he could feel her heartbeat. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t see. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. Then he started to projectile vomit.
She’d called his dad who had raced home and careered him to A&E – probably even faster than I was driving. All the time, my mum was on the back seat with him, propping him up as best she could and making sure his air passages stayed open. The doctors had been warned ahead and were waiting for him.
Thankfully my sister had also thought to pass all his medication on to his dad, just in case, so the hospital staff were quickly able to see what the problem was.
Our son was far from okay when I arrived at the hospital. Tubes were inserted into his pale body. He was unconscious. But there were staff all around who were busily making sure he didn’t die.
But luckily (that word – luckily – doesn’t even come close), it didn’t take long for a full recovery.
I felt responsible. I’d given him the first pill. I hadn’t checked the packet. I’d gone to work, rushing out the door (with a sore throat and some pain killers) so as not to be thought of as a skiver. More interested in keeping up appearances than in being present in the times I had with my child.
I hadn’t paid attention!
I was his Mum!
He was all right thanks to my sister realising there was a problem in time. Thanks to her presence of mind in an emergency and her knowledge of what to do. Thanks to his dad’s quick reaction and speedy trip to the hospital. And of course, thanks to the competent hospital staff.
But he quite easily might not have been.
Images of him remaining in such a deep sleep that he choked on his own vomit will haunt me forever.
When he came home from hospital, I think we all expected a celebratory feeling. There wasn’t one. There was relief, of course. But there was also a weight of guilt and the shock and realisation of having almost lost our child.
Shortly after this event, came the fear of the ‘risk of serious injury or death’ of two close family members.
This is official terminology the Police use when giving advice to people they believe are in danger but are not able to protect legally (by incarcerating the person who is deemed dangerous). They strongly advise people – almost always women, often with children – to move from their home, flee, become anonymous and seek refuge – in the hope that the dangerous ex-partner won’t find them and hurt or kill them.
…but not mine to tell
I won’t write any more about this here. There is too much at stake, not least the emotions. It’s not my story to tell.
But just… this affected (and still affects) me hugely. I wanted to be able to look after the people involved, to make things right. To guarantee their safety.
The Police – let’s face it, an authority – had said my loved ones were at risk of death. Them’s are big words!
But I could do nothing.
When you don’t know whether your partner will make it (but you have to believe they will)
A life (or death) changer
And then finally, in August 2015, my partner was hospitalised, out of the blue, and given a 5% chance of survival. He did pull through – after a month in Intensive Care followed by another month in a different ward.
I suspected I was on the verge of a breakdown just before and had planned to remap my future during that fateful summer in the hope of avoiding just that.
It certainly wasn’t me who designed the contours, but life surely did take on a whole new shape for us both from the moment of his collapse.
During that time, my soul priority was to look after him.
Over that period, all I could manage were the absolute basics. I woke up, phoned the hospital, checked in with the kids, drove to hospital and spent the day there. I wasn’t comfortable when I was anywhere else except by his bedside.
I soaked towels in water and put them on his feverish body and cooled his burning face with sopping paper towels. I listened to his hallucinations, reassured him, whispered to him while he slept (or was unconscious). I wondered whether he’d ever be okay again, while at the same time, never doubting that he would get better. When he did recover though, would he be the same man? (I certainly changed during this period of his, of our, life.)
I spent a lot of time in the corridor outside his bedroom, his cubicle. Waiting for nurses to turn him over, check his vitals. And later on, to help him to learn to walk again.
He’s a good man. More importantly in this case, he’s a strong man. He’s a fighter and his strength of character and complete determination got him through.
Maybe I helped a little bit too.
Every decision I took was based on his survival
When I was worrying about a (relatively small) decision I had to make which affected my home life, I confided in a friend who supported us both through that time (Casper, I am eternally grateful to you and Catherine).
He offered me the following advice:
With every decision you make, all you have to do is ask yourself, ‘Will this help Gus get better?’Casper – an amazing friend
Our friend knew how extremely depleted my energy levels were. He could see there was no way I could take on any extra stress.
His advice gave me the strength to put my needs first in a way, even if he was advising me to put Gus’s needs first. My job was to look after myself so that I could help Gus. This could have been the first time I really understood – and put into practice – putting my own oxygen mask on first (as in when the aeroplane crashes!).
It was necessary advice, but it also reinforced my ‘job’ of keeping him alive.
Again, when he finally came home, there was no celebration. Or if there was, it was short-lived, and it was an effort. Instead, we had to begin to remap our lives from a place of extreme exhaustion: physically, emotionally, mentally.
I’ve almost finished my novel which was inspired from a diary I began to write during this intensive period (pun intended).
If you’re already struggling, how can you cope with the huge extra pressure of the prospect of death?
During these near-death or brushes-with-death or petrifying-fear-of-death experiences, I was looking after two young children, commuting for one-and-a-half hours to and from a job I had begun to find pointless and boring (although this stopped abruptly when my partner was hospitalised), and trying to support my partner’s independent business while living in the countryside in a foreign country where I have never really felt ‘at home’. (I’d never had time to.) Among other things.
Juggling fire balls.
You always have choices
My life had spun out of control. I realise now, that all of this was my choice. That we always have choices. But at the time, I felt I had no choice.
People die. It’s the one certainty we are all born with.
‘Au revoir’ to an old love who passed away… too soon, too young
Going backwards, to what feels like a lifetime ago…
…my ex-boyfriend died, years after we’d split.
We’d been together for seven years, so he is a significant part of my own story. But you’re not really allowed to truly grieve for somebody from your past. It’s something you do secretly and quietly.
A friend once said to me, months after he’d died. ‘It’s not your fault.’
That gave me a start. Why would she ever think that I would take responsibility for his death? But then I realised that on a subconscious level, there was an enormous amount of guilt involved – buried deep.
Apart from feeling so sad, I also felt guilty that he had ‘wasted’ so much time with me when we weren’t right for each other. And what if the stress of being in a disfunctional relationship had affected his health?
But what pointless thoughts! How is that helpful to anyone? And how is it honouring his memory?
I try to remember instead… we loved each other once. So when I see a stranger who reminds me of him (and anybody who has lost somebody close must know that feeling), I remember the happier times rather than… anything else. He remains in my heart… forever young.
Death – the taboo subject, and yet it’s our one certainty… We’re all gonna die!
I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m responsible for nobody but myself (and for keeping my kids safe, of course). We can move forwards through life caring for others as best we can but we must begin by caring for ourselves.
If somebody close to you has died, I am so very sorry for your loss.
We do what we can. We can only do our best.
Look after yourself with love and kindness. If you do this first, it really does help you to help others.
But realise this, ‘We’re all gonna die and it’s not your fault’.
I would like to wear a bracelet crafted from silver with those words upon it. In remembrance.
Please do share my blog if you think somebody might like to read it. And I welcome your thoughts…