That is the question that has followed me throughout all aspects of my life. First, as an eight year old girl, it was among the most prominent of things asked whilst playing bulldog on the field; direct and blunt. As an older teen, it’s one of the earliest to pop up once the bereavement has become common knowledge-usually with more sensitivity, more awkwardness and bumbling-but accompanied by a reassuring hug or pat on the shoulder; a sign of developed empathy.
In a sentence, it sums up my adolescence. Not-as you might expect-because of what it asks of me to articulate and express to others: but because of what it forces me to ask and comprehend of myself.
In all truthfulness, losing a parent as a child is a headfuck-there’s no simpler or more eloquent way of putting it.
Because, as a child, your parents and your home setting, however diverse and unconventional these may be, are most likely all you’ve ever known, have ever trusted and have ever deemed to be “right”. When that reality gets torn apart by the seams, the fragments of what you perceive to be the world shatter around you-they become unsettled, floating, out of place. And then, when everything appears to have calmed, they pick themselves back off of the ground and flake down, just as disorderly, just as unexpectedly, as before: like the pieces inside a snowglobe, shaken every once in a while before being laid down to rest again.
Grief waxes and wanes, undulating without pause. It’s hard to comprehend-particularly as a child-the laws (or more accurately, non-laws) of bereavement. How can you grasp-or even begin to understand-what’ s going on inside of you, and in the vastness of life beyond you?
That doesn’t mean that young people who are experiencing a similar loss to the one I faced are unfixable; quite the opposite. Nonetheless, it’s not an easy journey-and an often isolating one, at that. From the time leading up to the passing, to the day it happens and the months and years that follow after, there are things that I wish that I’d known, things that I wish I’d been old enough to take on board that would have helped heal the hurt. Then again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and retrospect can only be gained with time.
If I could sumn up-just for a moment, just in part-the pain of childhood grief, I wouldn’t be sat here babbling on and you wouldn’t be sat here reading an artistically lost person’s words. But it’s hard to sumn up eight years of complex emotions.
The hardest part-for me, at least-was being an adult forced into a child’s world of teddybear picnics and happily ever afters. I think, when you experience the death of a parent, childhood almost imminently draws to an end. Sure, there may be occasional moments of innocence and naivety, but the sad truth is that beyond that, you’re trapped within the confines of the real world. Worse still, those who were your greatest childhood friends are on another planet altogether, seemingly happy and carefree.
I experienced the death of my dad as a younger child at the age of 8. What I’ve come to realise, over many years of reflection, is just how profound the effect of a loss to a young person is- inevitably, you become accustomed to the idea that this misery and unsettlement is all there is to life-because, logically, that’s all you’ve ever known. And all you’ve ever grown to expect. It seems obvious, when you think about it.
Then comes the pathological fear of everything. The cough of a summer cold, the chill of a winter’s day, the falling of trees in an Autumnal gail; all posing as threats. The vastness of the sky is shaded in with an old HB pencil, the corners folded over, asymmetrical and unto laws of their own. Wanting to control the world from your bedroom window, but barely having a say in what’s for tea.
You can’t take in death as a child; not really. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t understand or comprehend the enormity of the loss-but the emotional process in itself is one that many adults never manage to get their heads around.
But experiencing all of that as a child allows you the life skills to go on and built something better for yourself-somewhat of a first aid kit for the future. And I suppose that’s just it, really: in the short term, it will hurt like hell-but on the flip side, there are lessons to be learned.
As for the question that seems to follow in my shadow-well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s unanswerable. I wish it was rephrased as “if you had the chance, what would you say to young people going through the same thing?”, but in the real world, people don’t speak like that.
If they did,though, I think I’d answer something along the lines of how loss never fades completely–but that you learn to live alongside it. That it’s okay to feel all the sadness in the world, and equally acceptable to experience none at all. That life isn’t always cruel; it has it’s high moments, its confetti outside churches as wedding bells ring, its screams of laughter as you sit with loved ones whilst the sun goes down, and rises again in the hours that follow. Its icecream on the beach as the tide draws itself back up the shore.
But more than anything? I’d pass on the knowledge, the absolute faith, that damaged and hurt children have the potential to learn how to, and eventually, with great strength and determination, become, the most incredible and ground-breaking adults alive.