You can’t avoid it, the world is full of proud parents and grandparents. Everywhere you go, every dinner party, at work, on the train, in the park. There they all are. The lucky ones, the ones that have living breathing children who are passing milestones. First day at school, GCSEs, University, girlfriends and boyfriends, jobs, marriage, foreign holidays. And every one reminds us of a milestone we have had and many more we will miss.
Out of all my friends and Facebook friends I can think of only 3 who don’t have children. I realise some choose to be child free and for some it just didn’t happen, but the majority of people in my age group do have families and now grandchildren too.
I love hearing about people’s families and seeing their happy pictures, but each one is a harsh reminder to a bereaved parent of what they are missing, what they have lost. It can open up the hole inside and turn the dull daily ache of loss into a raging knife-twisting wound that makes you howl like an injured animal for your child. How many times do you hear of a child’s achievements, ‘Oh you must be so proud’ they say to the parent. But what if you can’t be proud?
Even before Toby did the dreaded deed that changed my life forever, he found life challenging. He was intelligent but struggled with motivation and fitting into the mould that society expected of him. He didn’t want to go to school, he wanted to play World of Warcraft, he dropped out of everything; work experience, Saturday jobs, University – he seemed to stick two fingers up at every opportunity that came his way and even when he was alive I found it hard being in the company of gloating parents. ‘My son has got a job in marketing’ a friend would say, ‘Oh that’s great – you must be so proud, yes you must be doing something right’.
I would sit there and think ‘How can I say – oh yes and my son has dropped out of University – again’ – what would they say to that ‘Oh – well you must be a crap parent then’. Of course they wouldn’t but what about all parents whose children don’t excel at everything.
What kind of world is it where parents bang on about achievements; you must go to school, get loads of A stars, go to University, find a girl, get a ‘good’ job, buy a house, get a mortgage, have a nice car. Is that how we rate success? What about all the kids that struggle at school and don’t leave with a bunch of A stars, what about the youngsters who don’t know what they want to do, they don’t know what they are good at and despite encouragement just don’t achieve what our society has deemed to be ‘success’.
My brother has three boys, one is now 36, the second 34 and the youngest 26. Toby would be 28 now, so he fitted in the 8-year gap. My sister-in-law looked after Toby after school from the age of 2 when Matthew the youngest one had just been born and Toby went on to go the same school as Matthew and they were very close. Matthew often had sleep overs at our house and I took them to the Zoo and to castles and mazes.
Matthew got married last weekend and I went to the wedding. I am not close to my brother and now live 350 miles away so don’t see them very often. The older two nephews are both already married and have 5 children between them. All 3 nephews have excelled in their chosen professions and they all live in leafy suburbs and drive nice cars like Audi Quattros. On the face of it they have it all, and I look at my brother with his 3 lovely, successful boys and his 5 beautiful grandchildren and I wonder why his life turned out how it did and why I had failed marriages and only one child who stumbled and failed in life and then killed himself.
Of course I was delighted to share the happy day with my nephew and his family but I was not prepared for the gut wrenching grief that I felt thinking about Toby, and the fact that he should have been there with his girlfriend and he should be planning his future instead of being ashes in the ground.
Toby was not a follower, he was his own person and despite what he thought I was immensely proud of him and the person he was inside. I tried so hard to lead him and guide him and help him but it didn’t work, and in the end I couldn’t fix whatever was wrong inside and he decided that life was too painful for him. As I watched my nephew marry I realised that I couldn’t visualise Toby having a conventional life, he was a free spirit and I don’t think he would have survived in a 9-5 job. I hoped he would find his way, he was so intelligent and had so much potential but sometimes I wonder if this world we have created puts so much pressure on young people and maybe that is part of the reason so many take their own lives.
When I got home from the wedding, after a period of weeping and feeling very emotional I realised that this is just how it is for me. Not everyone can have seemingly perfect lives and happy families but it doesn’t mean they can’t find meaning in their lives.
The wedding was amazing, a fantastic event including fireworks, a casino, a live band, disco – all in a fancy hotel – the works. Toby would probably have been bored stiff. On the table in the reception room there was a glass frame with a slot at the top and a stack of little wooden hearts where you were supposed to write your name and drop it in the slot. I wrote ‘Toby Thorn’ on one and dropped it in because he should have been there.