A few days after the loss of my 17-year-old son by suicide, I remember saying to my partner of six years: “Do you think we’ll get through this together?” He replied that he wasn’t sure, a response that was probably more honest than I needed at the time. I knew anecdotally that the incidence of couples splitting after the loss of a child is high, quoted as anything up to 80% in some articles.
Would it be different for us? Samuel wasn’t his child; he came into Samuel’s life when he was 12 and life was relatively stable. However, within a year of our relationship starting, Samuel was in the grip of mental health challenges and self-harm. As things escalated, my partner was unable to detach the anger and resentment he felt towards Samuel (for causing me huge upset) from supporting me through the worsening situation. It was to be the pattern for the next four years.
It’s only with hindsight that I can appreciate the complexity of our situation and what led to the ultimate breakdown of our relationship within a year of my son’s death.
My experience showed me that the role each parent or significant person plays in a child’s life becomes magnified in their death. My partner was not Samuel’s dad, nor stepfather figure. They weren’t friends, just tolerating each other, mainly for my benefit. I was often caught in the middle of their conflicts, trying to keep everyone happy and failing miserably, regularly. Subsequently, my partner lacked a clear role in Samuel’s death. He felt overlooked, lacking influence and ultimately distanced himself from our family in the aftermath.
My partner did grieve for Samuel but in a very different way to me, creating tensions which were to intensify. He was logical and analytical in nature, focusing on ‘fixing’ issues. I needed a soft empathetic approach, validation of my grief and a kind, listening ear. It’s only been through reviewing my journals from this time that I realised that my children were fulfilling this role. They didn’t live with us, so this support was often intermittent and, when visiting, their presence in the house was met with ambivalence by my partner. Yet again, I was caught in the middle, while being in the midst of grief this time.
Ultimately, we grieved and coped separately. We pulled in different directions; he couldn’t cope with my grief. We sat in different rooms, our communication stilted, and we drifted apart. Three months after Samuel’s death he chose to spend Christmas with his parents. This decision, which he was later to admit was taken in anger, became a defining moment. I knew the writing was on the wall for us.
Huge losses can be a catalyst to re-evaluate your life, recognise who has been there for you, assess who will continue to have your back and explore what you want from the future. I knew I needed and deserved better than I had received in the aftermath of Samuel’s death and then the loss of both of my parents shortly after.
What also haunted me was the last conversation between Samuel and my partner. Samuel was on speakerphone in the car chatting to me and he asked after my partner in derogatory terms. My partner responded angrily to this, and the call ended with both of them shouting obscenities at each other and me trying, but failing, to cut the call and end this horrible ongoing conflict. It was sickening, and a situation that was becoming increasingly common. I do, however, reflect that in this situation, like numerous others, one person was a responsible adult and the other a highly vulnerable young person.
Looking to the future after undergoing such life-changing events, my long-term vision was different. I wanted a new life, to start afresh from the trauma of the past four years. My partner wanted the old me back and to continue in the same vein. I knew the old me was gone forever and there was no reconciling the two. Gradually, I started to plan for my future, aiming to retire in two years and make choices as life evolved. However, the toxicity of our home environment escalated rapidly, and I knew I needed to accelerate my plans for the sake of my mental health.
I drove away from our joint home of three years, a little over a year after Samuel’s death. The last item I placed in the car for the 300-mile journey were Samuel’s ashes. The tears streamed down my face as I pulled away, not for my relationship but for the child that I was transporting to my new life in a cardboard box. It doesn’t get sadder than that.
It’s only now, six months down the line from my mammoth move, that I’ve started to unpick the demise of my relationship. I have learned that in grief the cracks and flaws in your existing relationships are magnified. It’s not to say we didn’t have good times, because we had some unforgettable experiences. We went to the Russia World Cup, Wimbledon tennis final, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National. Fabulous holidays in South Africa and Thailand, to name a few. However, these were against a backdrop of trauma, heartache and sheer terror that my child was increasingly at risk. Bar a couple of occasions, I dealt with Samuel’s situation alone. Phone calls in the middle of the night had me racing to get clothed, rushing to support my son whilst my partner pulled the covers up and went back to sleep.
I was explaining our relationship to a newfound friend in Newcastle. I spoke of how he enjoyed the high points, the special experiences, holidays and events. But he failed to be there for the hardest times, was missing in action when I needed him most. She commented that anyone can be there for the good times but it’s only in the hard times that you find out the true character of someone. Such a simple reflection did make me sit up, think and completely validate my decision.
The question then arose of whether I stayed in touch following the break-up. Is it different post grief and why? For me it did feel entirely different and evoked some difficult emotions. My partner was a key part of the saddest moments in time. He was there when the police came to break the news, he came to the funeral home to say goodbye, sat next to me in the hearse and placed a white rose on Samuel’s coffin. It doesn’t get more personal than that.
I felt angry that I had let him hold such a privileged position in our close family unit and he had subsequently moved on in his new life with rapid speed. I initially found it difficult to reconcile the two. I think I actually felt envy that he could leave the sadness and trauma behind, return to the fun events like the past seven years hadn’t happened. Sadly, this isn’t possible for me, I’m left to navigate this new world with a legacy of trauma, death and grief.
I know that I have made the right choices and building a new life of independence is the right path. I’ve ticked off nearly every major life event in the past 20 months, bar having a baby! But I did become a grandmother. It will take time, patience and a whole lot of individual work to process all that has happened. I know I have the understanding and support of my family who validate me, champion me and appreciate the enormity of our joint losses.
Ultimately, when I consider what my life now looks like I know the most important person in all this will be delighted with my life choices. Samuel will be cheering me on with the biggest, cheekiest grin and declaring his mum the bravest of all.