Grief and the loss of a child
Personal Stories | May 21, 2021 | Micheline Ralet
Grief is a topic that is often overlooked or neglected, yet grief is an experience that impacts people in a myriad of ways. As part of our mission which aims to advocate, educate, and support, we have identified the need for public education surrounding the grief experience. Several storytellers have shared their lived experience with grief for our blog – this is Micheline’s story.
My son Fred, age 35, was the apple of my eye. He was so sociable and unconditionally loving that it became a real inspiration for me and others to learn to be more like him. We tend to live with restrictions; he deleted those and dealt with people with joy, laughter and kindness. Fred was diagnosed with melanoma cancer in July 2014 and passed on May 1, 2016.
For 21 months from diagnosis, Fred was convinced he was going to win over the cancer at each of the eight different therapies. There was always a percentage chance of success. He lived on that. On April 15, 2016, his oncologist, one of the top Canadian authorities in melanoma, told him there was nothing more he could do for him. Fred’s face turned into an unhappy face for the first time in his life. He hesitated for a moment, got up, smiled, and shook the doctor’s hand thanking him for all he had done. The doctor was nonplussed. We had all noticed clear signs of progressive weakening since Christmas 2015. So, it was not unexpected. However, Fred having been so hopeful and so positive, we all bought into the hope that something would work and reverse the process. Yes! Despite the weakening we all noticed, it still came as a nasty surprise, a milder form than shock, when it did happen. When the oncologist “gave up” and passed the file on to local Palliative Care, it felt like the hammer of judgment, the final decision had come down. There was no escape. I kept saying “I am so sorry. I am so sorry”. So sorry he had to go through this. Why him and not me? Why him and not his 92-year-old grandmother who had declined over the last 5 years and was now totally dependent on care? Even she asked why? It felt so unfair that this bright young man should go before me. But that is one of those unexplained mysteries in life. Since his passing, I have met ever so many parents who have lost a child. I am one of many.
Fred asked that I do palliative care for him at home. The local CLSC, the local community service center for healthcare in Quebec facilitated that. It was really difficult for me as his mother to give him palliative care. I knew that the alternative was that a CLSC nurse would come every 4 hours to give him the injection(s). It was far more peaceful for both of us if I gave him the care he needed and have his friends visit rather than having a stranger traipse in and out of the apartment all day. In those moments however, I had to become objective and functional. During those last 14 days, I oscillated between objective in care and subjective with the friends visiting, answering calls and text messages. Friends wanted to melt into tears by his bedside. I asked them to stay cheerful and not cry beside him as he would not have wanted that. Oh! so many friends came to be with him right up to the end. In that last week, he couldn’t talk any more, but he smiled at us and we just kept the environment quiet and peaceful for him while friends still came to sit with him. On the last Wednesday, I asked two close friends to join me in forming a circle of love around Fred, telling him how much we loved him and telling him he could go at the time of his choosing. I was so grateful that the CLSC had sent a night nurse to sit with him. A lovely Moroccan lady who dedicated her work to being with patients in their last phase of life. Early Sunday morning, she had called out my name and said “Come quickly. This is the end.” His passing was so peaceful! So quiet! I could hardly believe he was gone. Expected and still a surprise. His heart stayed warm as his body cooled off over the next 8 hours he stayed at home. I kept hugging him, telling him I loved him and appreciating the last of his warm heart while I could.
From the moment he passed away, I felt his presence so strongly that it was as if he was in the room with me. After making those most important calls to family and friends, three of his closest came to spend the day with me. As the word spread, the Facebook posts exploded. It was as if the friends rallied around him in cyberspace. The memorial was a wonderful gathering of family and friends who came together to support each other in this loss. There were smiles. There was laughter. Because that is who my son had been. I felt his presence strongly for a full 10 months. Then, all of a sudden, as I felt it wane, I cried solidly for three weeks. Fred left me an incredible legacy – that of the support of his friends who have been incredibly kind to me. That was/is still such a great gift that he left me. I have remained in close contact with many of them, despite the pandemic and its restrictions. I am still amazed how his love and kindness towards me has translated into love and kindness his friends show me.
One year after his passing, I called a grief counsellor with NOVA. “I need help.” She listened and gave me an appointment for the next day. We met once a week for four weeks. She had me talking a lot, doing artwork at home, colouring mandalas while thinking of him. That was very helpful. I started attending Death Café meetings led by a wonderful lady moderator. It is designed to be a group discussion on some aspect of death, it is not designed as a grieving platform. Talking about death really helped me a lot and I continue to attend Death Café meetings quite willingly especially if it is with a group of young people. Two years later, I asked my son’s friends if they would be willing to meet with me to tell me their stories so I could include them in a book. I had numerous 2–3-hour interviews with oh! so many of them. We had a wonderful time remembering stories. I transcribed the recordings to keep the authenticity of each individual. I did all of the writing, editing and publishing while respecting their forms of expression, their ideas and the information they gave me. I did a limited-edition publication of the book and had a private catered launch party for 25 or so in my home in June 2019. I am currently in the process of rewriting the book as a memoir. Over time, I have found there is greater clarity in meaning, even if some of the details are lost. Writing a book was a wonderful way to learn more about my son and to spend time thinking about him. I treasure that. Writing this story has been another opportunity to share his story. Thank you for this opportunity!
I am far more sensitive to everything than I used to be. I tear up easily hearing people’s stories of hardships, watching movies or reading a book. I am far more touched by other people’s loneliness. I felt particularly sad for Queen Elizabeth at Prince Philip’s funeral, all alone in such a large empty stone building; no friend or relative sitting next to her, no-one to hold her hand, or support her arm while walking. Such a dramatic loneliness! Such solitude! I wish to be there for others whenever I can to support them in their own difficulties, health challenges, etc. especially now in this time of COVID. I try to have fun and celebrate whatever with another within these pandemic restrictions.
What saved me was my belief that life is eternal, in one form or another. What was helpful was the presence and support of my brother and a cousin for the first 2 weeks and the support of all of my son’s friends with their presence, meals together, pictures, music, etc. which lasts till today, five years later. They are the greatest. I had asked the minister who was well known to my family (brother’s wedding, father’s funeral, church minister) to lead the memorial service. He very kindly took a lot of time to prepare for the ceremony, asking what the belief system was of those who would be attending, what mood did we want to create. It turned out to be a “fun” event commemorating all the good things about my son and how they interacted. Over 250 attended. The young lady at Mount Royal Cemetery walked me through all of the aspects with great care and patience.
Life is precious. We should not take it for granted or expect to live a long life. Let’s enjoy each day in each other’s company.
Was there any type of support that you found unhelpful after your loved one died?
Shortly after my four weeks of consultation with the grief counsellor, she formed a group of four women who had each lost a son at about the same time. Unfortunately, we did not gel and when the counsellor had her own challenges to deal with the group ceased meeting. I was a single mom, they were/had been married. They had other children/grandchildren, alive and well, with whom to share their grieving process but also share activities and get back to reality. My support system was with Fred’s friends… to whom I am eternally grateful. They too had their own grieving to go through and it was difficult for me to provide them with the support they needed because they wanted to be strong for me.
Did your feelings change as time passed? If so, how?
About six months after Fred’s passing, I received a message from him through a channeller. “Mom, I had to go. I had a contract.” The information, though brief, was SO helpful that it gave me a great deal of peace. Over the next two years, I received more messages that have reassured me that Fred is not dead. He is in a non-tangible form. “There is no more pain. I am in peace as I have never known it. I miss you. I miss Anne. I miss my friends. I miss the wind in my hair, the rain on my face.” Over these past five years, I have met ever so many parents who have lost a child that I now know this happens far more often than we think. It is something we just don’t plan for or expect to happen. I am ever so grateful I had had Fred as a child. Life was a lot of fun with him around. We could laugh and do things we liked at the drop of a hat. I am so sorry he had to go first. I know he would have enjoyed all of the phases of life. And, as I write this, I willingly acknowledge that I am in total denial about lacking support in my old age. I hope to follow Fred’s example: smile till the end, be peaceful and quiet and ready to let go of this life and move into the next phase with ease and grace.