A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
This is a guest post written by Bill Wright
In January 2013 Bill (37) and wife Mandy (36) were excitedly making plans to buy a bigger ‘forever’ house. They had just overcome the initial shock and worries of coping with three children, rather than the planned two, when their twins Ed and Anni were born in 2010 following Bella, born in 2007. Bill had never felt happier his whole life, but then Anni unexpectedly died without warning on 8 January 2013 from a brain tumour. Bill was initially drawn to my blog as I also have a two-year-old son, Jackson, who is grieving and confused. Bill later found out that Ed and Anni share the same birthday as Jackson and that, tragically, Anni died in the same hospital where Jackson was born.
Our two-year-old daughter, Anni, died unexpectedly from a brain tumour on Tuesday 8th January 2013 after we had taken her into hospital with flu type symptoms on Sunday 6th January. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her, but with it being the time of year when there are a host of bugs lurking around, they were confident that by hydrating her with an IV drip, she should make a full recovery within 24 hours. This was the typical scenario with the multitude of other children they would have treated over the winter.
When I left her and my wife at the hospital on the Sunday evening, to return home and care for Anni’s twin, Ed and older sister, Bella (5), I did so in the confidence that she was in good hands and once fully hydrated and with some antibiotics pumped into her system, I would be bringing her home the next day and maybe will even be able to fit in a few hours work from home.
That evening I was even able to relax enough to watch a bit of telly once the kids were tucked up in bed. I told myself that having children poorly in hospital was rites of passage for any parent. Bella had spent a night in hospital with asthma when she was the same age as Anni and that turned out ok. As I watched a lead character in the Danish political drama Borgen succumb to a brain aneurism and then Meryl Streep’s portrayal of a Margaret Thatcher, paralysed with grief, I thought only of the consummate dramatic performances I was witnessing and did not relate it to my daughter. At 10pm that night nobody had any idea that Anni was dying from a cancerous, bleeding brain tumour.
Then I got the call from my wife Mandy. Anni had suffered a large seizure. I had to wait twenty agonising minutes for my in laws to arrive to look after Bella and Ed so that I could get to the hospital. I’m amazed that I managed to safely navigate the twenty minute car journey to the hospital, I felt nauseous with foreboding and my whole body shook with fear the entire time. At this point I knew it was bad. Meningitis maybe, but I didn’t realise that the last time my daughter would look into my eyes, talk to me, cuddle up to me, was in the past.
I watched Anni like a hawk the whole time, carefully placing her foot back into the hospital bed when it got stuck in between the bars as she fidgeted. Even though she was heavily sedated to control the seizures, I like to think that she knew I was there for her. I can’t bear to think that she would not have known this. In the early hours of Monday morning she suffered a final, fateful fit and the hastily organised emergency CT scan confirmed she had a large brain tumour. We were rushed to King’s College Hospital in Camberwell for emergency brain surgery to relieve the swelling on Anni’s brain caused by the tumour and bleeding. At this point we were once again reassigning our expectations and targets, but we still hoped that Anni would wake up and we would be able to tackle the task of removing the tumour.
After speaking to the consultant a few hours after Anni’s surgery at 10am Monday morning, he told us that if it was you or me, it would already be over. Anni was not showing any vital signs of recovery and was being kept alive by machines to keep her vital organs and breathing going, but as children often demonstrate miraculous powers of recovery it was worth waiting for a day or two. We both knew it was not looking good. I tried to stay positive and think ahead to future required operations, radio, chemo, but in reality I knew all that mattered was Anni waking up.
At 11:21 on Tuesday morning, Anni was pronounced brain dead and time has stood still for me ever since. The initial feelings were a mixture of shock, disbelief, the most viscerally agonising pain. It felt like some surreal test of our strength, that we had to come through to prove ourselves and if we did, maybe it would be alright, maybe they had made a mistake and she would wake up? Surely this couldn’t happen to my Anni? Not my perfect little Annikins, who made my life feel complete and made my heart swell like no other. I had such high hopes for her. The narcissistic side of me saw her as ‘mini me’, but a much, much better version, who was going to be kinder, smarter, happier and more successful than me. Even as my wife and I cradled her, as they unclipped the tubes and we watched her take her last breath, I still couldn’t believe what was happening. Four months on, I sometimes still don’t quite believe it has happened, but then Anni’s twin Ed will say a new word or Bella will amaze me with the improvement of her handwriting and I realise that time hasn’t stood still. It just feels like it has.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen to people I know, let alone me. I have felt ill equipped to survive this and to be able to continue to fulfil my role as protector of my family, within the confines of our new circumstances. Anni was, undoubtedly, the star of the family. She was my best friend. She was everyone’s best friend; she was just that kind of person. She had an infectious charisma and aura of love and kindness that had her whole family enraptured with her. How could this have happened to her? How can my wife and I cope without her for the next 40, 50 years? Bella and Ed for the next 80, 90 years?
Anyone who has suffered bereavement will know that you ask yourself a lot of questions that you simply don’t have the answers for. Yet you keep asking the same questions. A lot of religious people turn their back on their faith and conversely, committed atheists find themselves embarrassingly grappling with a newly acquired, secret inquisitiveness of spirituality.
I’ve been an atheist since I was a teenager, the age when many of us begin to search for our own truths rather than just settle for conventional wisdoms, passed down like family heirlooms. Although I have nothing against the religious, religion is not for me. For the sake of my children though, Anni is in in ‘heaven’. All of us often look up into the starry night to tell Anni that we love her, that we miss her and this does provide a small comfort.
I have no plans to go all ‘Richard Dawkins’ on my children until they are at an age when they actively seek my opinions on such matters. Yet when I tell Bella, that Anni is being looked after by my favourite granddad, Jim, I realise a little piece of me desperately wants this to be true. I’ve found myself asking other bereaved parents about their interpretation of religion and heaven, despite still feeling totally unmoveable in my position on this subject.
One evening when I was grief surfing the net, I came across a story about George Bush Snr and Laura Bush, who lost a toddler in the 1950s. Laura said that they still talk about their little girl every day and that George Snr is convinced that when he enters the gates of heaven, the first person to greet him will be his little girl. It broke me. It’s such a lovely, comforting thought for those who have that faith and I guess that I’m envious. I’d give anything to have just one more minute with Anni, and to be able to ease the pain that my wife and children are suffering.
Whilst sitting in my first counselling session today, organised by CRUSE, in an old convent building next to a church, it was difficult to ignore the thought, that religion preaches kindness, compassion, love and understanding to those that are in most need of it. Even if you happen to believe that stories of gods belong in fairy tales and that organised religion has subjugated, divided and infantilised the masses, you still cannot deny the basic message of good will in all religions.
Whether or not, in the 21st century, man is more than capable of being ’good’ without religion is probably a question for a philosophical blog, rather than here. But right now, I suppose I am happy that religion does exist for those that need it, if it provides them with comfort. So long as they don’t tell me that Anni dying was God’s will, or that she is paying for being a bad person in a previous life.
I’ve resolved to no longer question my faith (or lack of) and to be more understanding and feel less militant towards those that do have it. I am repeating the mantra to myself, that has been there since day zero, that Anni lives on through those that love her, she is always here in our hearts.
We are only four months into our bereavement; I’m not qualified to offer advice to others who are also suffering. One of the main reasons I participate in this blog is to listen to others who are further down the bereavement road than me, so that I can absorb some of their painfully learned wisdoms.
However, what I can say to anyone who has recently been bereaved, is that when you are ready, be open to absolutely any offers of support that are out there. It might come in the form of previously perceived ‘B’ and ‘C’ list friends that surprise you and step forward to offer you an understanding ear. Or you might find yourself marvelling that as a committed atheist, you discover yourself sitting in a convent, gratefully receiving the kindness that is gracefully offered.