I can't think of many things more heart-rending than an empty hoody that used to be worn by my son.
Almost 3 years after Anton died the three of us felt as ready as we were ever going to be, to sort through the boxes of stuff he had left behind. There were 8 boxes, hurriedly packed by most of Anton and Stefan's close friends when they lovingly cleared his flat. Stef had driven the boxes to his house and stored them there. When he and his fiancée bought their own home, they moved there with them, where they stayed in cupboards. Waiting for this day.
As the morning arrived all of us were feeling highly anxious and emotionally fragile. Stef drove to us with the boxes, and though we had little appetite we ate lunch together before starting to unpack them. We agreed that above all else, we would be extra kind and gentle to ourselves and to one another on this day.
Why we weren't quite prepared for the enormity of it, I don't completely understand. But as we opened the very first box there was a sudden, synchronous intake of breath as raw, visceral grief hit us all like an express train. We were immediately flooded with Anton-shaped memories. It was almost as though he appeared in the room, as large as life.
His shirts, some unwashed, still bearing the creases of him. His shoes, with the imprint of his size 10 feet (he had beautiful feet). The jacket he had worn at his friend's wedding. The hoodies whose softness we had hugged and snuggled against, and which still suggested the shape of his torso. The house was suddenly filled with Anton's personality, Anton's smell, Anton's laughter, Anton's voice, Anton's body. Images of Anton filled our minds.
I watched in horror as Alek and Stef's faces turned grey and crumpled just like the unwashed shirts we unpacked. Cries of anguish escaped from us all as we held up items that we last remembered on Anton's body, that we last felt covering his frame as we hugged him. That we last saw on his feet. It was unbearable.
I will never, ever forget the sight of Stef sitting in my grandmother's chair, the one that Anton always used. Tears coursing down his face, head down, hands shoved in pockets, he looked just like the little boy he once was. As his mum, my heart breaks all over again when I think about the enormous loss he is suffering. He had never known a world without his big brother in it, never imagined a life without his lifelong best friend. Anton had been moving to live with him in Brighton, and Stef was going to look after him, just as he had always taken care of Stef over the years. It wasn't meant to be like this.
I'm sharply aware too, that in losing Anton, Stef has also lost a part of us, his parents. We are none of us the people we once were. We are broken, damaged versions of our former selves. Since they were babies, the impact of my children's cries has formed a primeval pull to provide the comfort and love that would stop their pain. Not being able to say or do anything whatsoever that would console or comfort him in that moment of loss was utterly heart breaking.
This was never going to be an easy task, but it turned out to be far harder than any of us had imagined. It made me realise just how much of our pain is pushed out of view, tucked into cavernous pockets that enable us to live each day without him. Since there is no cure for our distress, we protect ourselves and one another by curating it so carefully; trying to be strong for those we love. Throughout the ebbing and flowing of deepest sadness we choose life simply in order to survive for one another.