Your green eyes
are steady and clear.
So full of life.
Were you talking?
Did I stop listening?
What did I miss?
You are indescribably perfect.
My perfect, beautiful boy.
Why didn’t you tell me?
I write poetry to continue the bond with my son. I write to express the love and the hurt and the pain inside. Through writing, I try to find words that capture what I feel and what I think, because that verbal expression brings me a closer emotional connection to Anton. It gives me some small measure of relief and comfort. It also allows me to be honest, to say what's deep inside. To drop my mask for a little while.
Most of us have a tendency to idealise our lost loved ones after they die; any negative characteristics or unpleasant memories fade away, and we are left with only their more endearing qualities and the most positive elements of our relationships with them. And why not? Why wouldn't we do this? Who among us is flawless, that we may judge those who have left us and find them wanting? Happy memories are, after all, one of the few things we have left. Life is never perfect, and all relationships endure difficult times, or simply periods when we are less close to one another for any number of reasons. All those irritations, frustrations, grievances ceased to matter the moment we knew they were gone. When all else has been said or done, love is what remains.
I believe Freud (1917/1957) was quite wrong when he said "Mourning has quite a precise psychical task to perform: its function is to detach the survivor's hopes and memories from the dead"(1). As we now know, the attachment between two people who love one another does not simply disappear when one of them dies. Our love for them does not end with death; our memories do not die with them. In his book Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy (1983), J. William Worden described the final task of mourning as "withdrawing emotional energy from the deceased and reinvesting it in another relationship" (I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath from anyone, particularly a bereaved parent, reading this). But by the fourth edition (2010) he had amended this to: "to find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life"(2). Continuing Bonds captures the ways in which we remember our lost loved ones, bringing their essence through what remains of our own lives. Although I have felt abandoned by Anton, and at times very angry with him, I don't feel that his suicide has ruptured our relationship; the relationship endures beyond loss, and it will endure until I die.
We, the bereaved have myriad ways of continuing the bonds of love. Perhaps feeling the presence of our loved ones in certain circumstances; seeing signs of them in the sudden appearance of robins, butterflies or rainbows, feeling their warmth in the sun or the breeze on our face, and imagining that they are still nearby. We hold ongoing conversations with them; I constantly speak to Anton in my mind, and sometimes out loud too; and I have a long, one-sided conversation with him on my messages app. On good days I love to add to my store of memories of him by talking to others who knew him well. On bad days I tell him how much I miss him, I silently yell at him, I curse him. In keeping these conversations going as though he were still alive, I continue what we would be doing together if he were here with me. We would share all our news, argue about politics, laugh and hug, eat together, put the world to rights, and connect through our love for one another.
I've heard parents say they continue to write Christmas and birthday cards to their sons and daughters, and even buy them gifts. We create memory quilts and teddy bears designed and sewn from the clothes they wore. Beautiful jewellery made from their ashes is worn next to our hearts. Tattoos of their names adorn our bodies (Stef has Anton's name tattooed on his arm in Cyrillic). Social and legal changes have been effected by campaigns launched by grieving families and friends in memoriam. Charitable funds are created to help others in need; myriad activities and huge sums of money are raised and donated in their memory. Candles are lit and flowers placed carefully beside much-loved photos. Trees, roses, shrubs and other significant plants planted and nurtured; statues and sculptures bought or created. I think there's a rather special symbolism in allowing something of beauty to flourish from such agonising pain. We have a fabulous red Japanese Maple tree in our garden. We bought it as a symbol of our love for Anton, something we can continue to care for and cherish as we loved and cherished him when he was alive. We planted it in a huge pot, so that if we ever move house it will be easier to take it with us. Every year when it loses its beautiful leaves, a little something inside me dies, but each spring when the first signs of life appear, I tell myself that he lives. If only inside my heart.
Every evening when Alek and I sit down to supper we light a candle for Anton. It feels as though we are honouring him, inviting his memory to be a part of our evening together, just as in life we shared so many wonderful meals with him, full of love and laughter. For a while, if we were drinking a glass of wine with our food, we always toasted him, but this evolved into a painfully sad action for me. It just seemed to become a constant reminder of what we have lost, and raising a glass no longer feels right. Now we just light a candle, so he is always symbolically with us. For my 60th birthday, 16 months after we lost Anton, Stefan gave me a gold chain with the letter A. I have never taken it off. I like to think that I'm taking him everywhere I go; that he is always with me.
I bought a 48 aperture wooden photograph frame about 6 months after Anton died, and I filled it with pictures of him at different stages of his life, with all the people he loved best. His family, his friends. I included silly snaps of him pulling funny faces to try to capture some of his different moods and his playful character. He was always full of fun, messing around. Those days of fun and laughter feel such a long time ago now, and some days I am unable to look at the pictures in the frame; its just too hard. Likewise, we have many beautiful videos of Anton, both as a child and as an adult, but I cannot bear to watch them. Jack Jordan & Bob Baugher (3) suggest that the way we remember and what we remember may change over time, so that as we eventually become more able to experience pleasure again, we also develop the capacity to access happier memories of our lost loved ones without being floored by the sense of loss. I begin to feel whispers of that happening.
I recently read Michael Rosen's new book Getting Better (2023), and have listened to him discuss it in several interviews. As many of you will be aware, Michael's son Eddie died in 1999, aged 18, from meningitis. He has recently talked publicly about his inability to look at pictures of Eddie, even now, so many years after his death. For me, it was a good 6 months before I was able to look at pictures of Anton, and I still find it hard sometimes. The photo frame came about one afternoon. Stefan had bought one and I thought it was a wonderful idea. I just decided I would do it, and for many hours I pored over all the photographs on my computer and phone, as well as all the hard copies of those when Anton was a child, and asked Anton's friends to send me any they had. It was a true labour of love; taking a long time to choose the right ones, and then to reformat them to fit the frame. I did it between bouts of weeping, my stomach in knots. The frame now sits across the cupboard in our living room, where I can see it easily. My eyes often stray to meet his when something reminds me of him, or when I'm feeling very sad. I look over to all these images of him, and I breathe, and I hear him say "Hey Mama, I love you", and I tell myself its ok, I'm still surviving, day by day.
As time goes on we hold our loss differently. It may seem strange but I can recall thinking, in the first year after he died, that I would never be able to be thankful for the 32 years we had him in our lives, simply because the pain of the loss was too shockingly brutal for me to see beyond it to a state of acceptance and gratitude for his short life. Now, 3.5 years on, I can sometimes connect to that gratitude, and find some thankfulness that we had him as long as we did. This does not mean that the sense of loss is any less stark, but it has gradually softened sufficiently for me to remember some good times, and the things I loved (and still love) about him.
And of course, one of the main things I do in memory of Anton is to write this blog. It feels like a tribute to him, and it keeps him alive. I'm not sure what he would say about it, but he was a very loving and gentle soul who always tried to help others. I think he would approve. I think he'd be quite proud of the legacy he has left behind.
If you are newly bereaved, the idea of Continuing Bonds might feel too much to contemplate right now, or perhaps you are already finding connections that help you through the days. Either way, take your time to find what works for you; the intricate network of love and shared memories mean there will always be space and time to create special bonds with your loved one throughout the whole of your lifetime.
I trace each silvery line
into feet and elbows.
is your laughter.
beach or forest,
your cheeky face
1. Freud, S (1917/1957) Mourning and Melancholia. In J Strachey (Ed & Trans), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol.14, pp 237-260)
2. Worden, J William (2010) Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. 4th Ed. Routledge, East Sussex p.50
3. Jordan, Jack & Baugher, Bob (2016) After Suicide Loss: Coping with your Grief. 2nd Ed. p.86
Bibliography Jordan, Jack & Baugher, Bob (2016) After Suicide Loss: Coping with your Grief. 2nd Ed. Klass, D; Silverman P.R.; Nickman, S Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Taylor & Francis Philadelphia, 1996 Rosen, Michael (2023) Getting Better. Penguin, London
Worden, J William (2010) Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. 4th Ed. Routledge, East Sussex