Photo of my surviving kids, 27 July 2020, on what would have been their dad’s 57th birthday
I was on a call last night for a personal-professional (same-same) development programme. It was the fifth meeting of eight we are having as a learning cohort. The group of participants is not large. All our rectangular-shaped-zoom-faces fit easily on to one laptop screen. I learned everyone’s names within the first evening session. So no, we are not a big group. And yet, for some strange reason, the break-out pairings had not resulted in me working with one fellow learner – let’s call him Mark – when I had worked with each of the others – some, multiple times. But we did yesterday, and there was a magical moment that is so rare and precious, I think it might have been a first. And yet, I wondered afterwards, “Why does this not happen more often?”
During the breakout exercise, where we were doing some lovely reflective work on our gifts to the world, what we want to let go of and what we want to let come, I shared whatever it was I shared, some of which was about being loving. And as we were starting to wrap up, I clarified what I was talking about with an example. I said that it wasn’t about being more loving to myself or to others – most of the time I think I am pretty good at that. It’s more about enquiring more often, “what would love have me do?”, particularly when I am tired, triggered, irritable. I said something like:
“I have a family of Ukrainians living with me, and I don’t know how long for. Right now, my house is complete mayhem in a way that I am not used to anymore. My surviving kids have left home, and I am on my own with two pets. I am not used to having kids under the age of 10, running around, making noise, leaving crumbs and other stuff everywhere, the toilet seat up, dribbles of piss on the floor, and poo on the inside of the toilet bowl. My triggered response is, ‘I need to speak to the mum and ask her to manage her kids better’. But if I give myself a little space, I can quickly find a more loving response – which might simply be, “Emma – go and find a quieter space in the house to work in”. Or, “Leave the conversation till tomorrow when your day is less squished”.
We carried on to the close of our conversation, and then it was Mark’s turn. He’d listened, he’d managed the process, and then we swapped, and I got him started with some reflection questions. He talked for a while about his gifts to the world and what he wanted to let go of, and what he wanted to let come, and then stopped – choked – and suddenly asked, “Did I hear you right, earlier – did you say, “my surviving kids…”? I said “yes”. And he just said, “me too”.
We looked at one another. Across Zoom space. Our eyes welling up. Him more choked than me, I think, in that moment.
We were quiet for a while.
I said, “I am so sorry, Mark”.
We let more time go. The breakout room timing clicking down.
He took a deep breath and said, “People just don’t get it, do they?”
More time and space went by.
I don’t know what else we said. Not saying anything – or much – was the important thing. The only thing. We carried on with the breakout task.
We didn’t go into it. We didn’t go into our stories. I don’t know if he has lost one child or many. I don’t know if their child was pre-birth or post-birth. I don’t know if cause of death was suicide, a long illness or an accident. I don’t know anything more about who he has lost. And he doesn’t know more about who I have lost.
It doesn’t matter.
But what matters was that moment we had, of total and utter understanding and heartbreak.
Afterwards, and still now as I write this, I wonder, “Why does this not happen more often?” That someone might check back, even if later in the conversation so as not to interrupt the flow, “… did I hear you right – did you say, ‘my surviving children’?”
I use the phrase, “…my surviving children…” all the time. On purpose. Intentionally. I try NEVER to leave Julia out. Not because I am under some false illusion that she is still alive. I know she is not. But because she lived. Because she shaped me. Because she shaped life in this house.
Had Julia’s life not gone so irreparably downhill after Mike died, and were she still alive, she would most probably be gone from home this year for the first time anyway – in what should be her first year at university. And so, like Ben and Megan, I think of her when I reflect on how my life in this house has changed.
It’s changed because Mike died.
It’s changed because Julia died.
It’s changed because Ben and Megan finished school and went off to university.
And even Julia, if we lived in a world that is not upside down, would, most probably, be away from home, at university. Or at least not leaving poo stains in the loo.
And so I include her when I talk about my usual life in this house, contrasting it with how it is with four Ukrainians, two of which are under the age of 10. It’s more like a life I had 10 years ago or more. Mayhem. I am not used to it.
And that was the contrast I was making. With my throwaway – not throwaway – line that included the words, “…my surviving children…”. Which Mark picked up on.
Why don’t others?
Surely you don’t need to have lost a child (or a spouse, or a sibling or a parent or a pet) to hear those words. Do you?
So please, if ever you hear someone say, “my surviving xxx”, pick up on it. Whether it is a parent, a child, a sibling, a pet, or even a cactus plant. (Or a spouse! Why not?)
Then carry on.
There may be tears.
And that is okay.