The Ripple Effect of Grief
TW: this piece discusses the death of a young baby, and the impact of grief.
As I draw closer to the couple walking ahead, they seem familiar. I realize how I recognize them and my heart sinks. I hold back, to allow them space. They appear to be shadows of their former selves and move in a manner that looks heavy and requires effort. They do not hold hands or connect physically, have they become disconnected?
We all grieve in different ways, Tom Bekker wrote about gender differences in the grieving process, which can sometimes create a chasm between us.
A lady walks hurriedly past the couple and continues in my direction. I wonder if she sees the haunted expressions on their faces and if she can sense their emptiness. It may be a cliche, but we truly have no idea what people around us are going through.
I peel off and walk along a different street, I feel strangely out of place; an intruder in their wake. I certainly don’t want them to see me, for fear of stirring up their memory, of when our worlds collided.
A life lost
“We have been instructed by the court, to obtain full statements from both of you, I appreciate this is an extremely difficult time, we can come back tomorrow if you would rather? Please be assured you are under no suspicion, and there is nothing you could have done, which would have changed the outcome.” As I speak, I see the knuckles of their clasped hands whiten, gripping onto each other for reassurance and security. They both focus on my face. Sarah watches my lips as if she can’t quite comprehend what I am saying. I can sense the chaos of their minds, and the numbness and shock emanating from them, after all, they are still in the very first stage of grief.
I am an experienced officer. I’m no stranger to death, but I am not hardened by the things I’ve seen or experienced. Rather, I have learned how precarious and precious life is. However, even as a professional, my coping methods aren’t as effective when children or babies are involved. The tragedy of such an event is impalpable. As a childfree female, there is sometimes an assumption that we (the childfree) are less compassionate or empathetic. From my experience, in my workplace, there is a tendency to direct those who are not parents, to deal with cases involving the death of a baby; perhaps there’s an assumption that it is less traumatizing for us. Both of these notions are false, even more so — as an empath — I feel the pain and suffering of others as if it were my own.
Before I meet Sarah and Ross, my Inspector provides a briefing to me and my colleagues, I learn of the living nightmare they are enduring. I have a creeping sense this case is going to stir up my soul and spit it out, not only have they had long-standing fertility issues but not long after Sarah fell pregnant, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Throughout their pregnancy, they have to balance Sarah’s own medical needs with the impact on the development of their baby.
Baby Sophie was born three weeks prematurely. A first pregnancy is such a special and understandably terrifying time for new parents. Sarah and Ross were dealt an extra dose of terrifying, and their special moments were stolen from them; to say life can be cruel is an understatement.
Life turned upside down
When I first meet Sarah and Ross, I’m taken aback at an overwhelming sense of familiarity. If we met in any other circumstances, I feel we would enjoy each other's company and have a lot to talk about. I feel I am in the presence of friends, and this penetrates my armor.
sharing the stories of our late loved ones helps keep their memory alive.
Given the circumstances, I need to strike a balance between being professional and being human. I spend six hours with Sarah, listening to her story of baby Sophie. I encourage her to take her time, taking breaks as and when she needs them, I hope she doesn't notice me wiping away my tears as she is almost convulsing from her own. Every inch of my body wants to hold Sarah in my arms, take away her pain, and reassure her, that eventually, everything will be ok. But I know hugging her will be overstepping the professionalism mark, I also know that nothing is going to be the same ever again, things will not be ok any time soon.
Stories of late loved ones
I learn of the sheer joy Sarah experienced when she discovered she was pregnant, I listen as she tells me how she felt during her pregnancy and the journey with her illness. I learn about Sophie’s birth, and her feeding and sleeping routine. I learn which songs Sophie listened to and what teddy bears she slept with. I learn what Sophie was dressed in each day of her life, and what noises she made. I learn about when and why and how often Sophie cried.
I feel goosebumps prickling my arms. Just listening to the anecdotes of love, I can hear how desperately wanted little baby Sophie was, and of the crushing heartbreak that is now diminishing her parents. Sarah shows me photos of Sophie, we laugh at her expression in some, we marvel at her outfits in others. I am acutely aware their Sophie stories, and photos are finite. I encourage Sarah to share her Sophie stories with me and to keep telling friends and family these stories, sharing the stories of our late loved ones helps keep their memory alive.
On the edges of grief
That evening, I feel emotionally drained. I take my dogs for a walk by the river where I sit on the edge and watch the water flow. All I can think of is little baby Sophie, my tears fall freely. I chastise myself, why am I crying? I am merely on the fringes of grief, this is not my grief to work through. How dare I steal the grief of near strangers. But the tears continue, tears of empathy, tears of pain for the suffering I was exposed to. My thoughts skirt around the notion of how unfair life is and I ask myself, why do bad things happen to good people?
Grief is complex, the process can be painful yet cathartic, as challenging as it is, we must do our best not to lose ourselves permanently in its depths.
One aspect of this line of work, which can be particularly difficult, is the lack of closure. We don’t hear the end of the story, it’s almost as if, we stop reading a book halfway through. We see mayhem and carnage, chaos and destruction and then we leave; our involvement is no longer required. We do not see the rebuilding process, nor do we witness the healing effects of time. On this occasion, by some coincidental twist of fate, I have learned that Sarah and Ross are now parents to a healthy baby boy. Whilst I’m sure Sophie is not far from their thoughts, and I suspect they experience difficult days, it seems they have found happiness again.
Transcendence of grief
In her book, The Gift, Doctor Edith Eger, an acclaimed psychologist, author, and Holocaust survivor, speaks empathetically about the process of grief. The long-term effects of grief can be crippling, for those struggling with ongoing grief, she suggests taking time each day to be present with the grief, this can take any form; reading old letters, looking at photos or simply just sitting peacefully and revisiting memories in your mind. Dr. Eger also stresses, once a set time period is complete (she suggests half an hour), we actively step away from nurturing our grief for the day and give our attention and time to the living.
Grief is complex, the process can be painful yet cathartic, as challenging as it is, we must do our best not to lose ourselves permanently in its depths. We must not feel guilty for feeling joy again, we are not dishonoring the dead by living in our present and for our future.
I often wonder whether happiness is the ultimate goal of life, it can seem so haphazard and elusive. Our encounters with death and grief can, at times, make us strangers to happiness. The story of Sarah and Ross has renewed my faith. I believe we can get through our darkest days, and with the healing power of time, we can learn to live and love again, we can reacquaint ourselves with joy and experience all that it means to be human.
Identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.