Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

A Time of Darkness: Surviving The Death of My Son (by Andrew)

As I mentioned in my last post, Andrew and I gave a talk at Nathaniel's old school (and what will no doubt be Benjamin's school when he grows up). We were invited to talk at their fundraising event dinner titled 'An evening of Inspiration'.

Benjamin came along with us, and was the only baby (only child actually) at the event and he was on his very best behaviour and was delightful. It was lovely to get a chance to see our old 'Natey community' again, including our dear Melinda (Natey's au-pair 'Minda'), all of whom have been so very supportive of us through the past year and a half, and well before that even.

The evening and the talks were held in the school hall which is where we held Nathaniel's memorial service, so it was very poignant and emotional to introduce Benjamin into the community in this way, and in the same place..... This is the talk Andrew gave:

A Time of Darkness:
Surviving The Death of My Son… My Life’s Greatest Disaster

Delivered at Alon Ashel pre-primary school (Seapoint, Cape Town), “An Evening of Inspiration” dinner
Andrew Canter, August 23, 2018

Jane and my little son -- our sparkling, intelligent, beautiful, fun Nathaniel -- died at the age of 28 months on December 30, 2016.  He had been a student* here during that year, and thus Alon Ashel touched our lives and his life touched the school community.

Many people here tonight have been friends and supporters during our happy times with Nathaniel, the dark time of his death, and now again the happy time of Benjamin’s new life (now 4 months).   

I want to thank you all – thank the Herzlia community – for all you’ve given us, and also for the opportunity tonight to tell part of our story.

We can all celebrate the new life of little Benjamin, but it would be false to avoid how we got to this point.   What looks like a short trip from the despair of our Natey’s death to the joy of Benjamin is really a long and continuing journey for us.  As much as many of our friends and family want to believe that having another baby is a sign that we are ‘healed’, that would be a misconception.  For example, because my brain is juggling past & present, regret & joy I’ll probably muddle Nathaniel’s and Benjamin’s names during this talk -- as I have many times in the past few months.   

What I want to share are some elements of our journey thus far -- and where we hope it’s going.

Navigating the Darkness
As a starting point, there will never be ‘closure’ on Nathaniel’s death.  Some say it’s like losing a limb: You can never regrow an arm, but you can get used to functioning without it.  For me it’s like being stabbed in the heart: At first there is blood, damage and sharp pain… it’s dramatic and acute… but over time, if you survive, it becomes a permanent dull-ache… scar tissue: Never fully healed, but a chronic impairment that you live with. 

The night Nathaniel died, I remember lying in bed with Jane and feeling my heart literally breaking.  I know there is scar tissue there, and I can feel it holds me back from complete immersion in love.  My goal is to fight that impairment, and throw myself into loving Benjamin the way he deserves. 

More broadly, we are on a journey from “anger” & “regret” to “acceptance” & “appreciation for what we had”… we are hoping to be able to think about Nathaniel with some happiness and not with sorrow.   We don’t pretend we are there yet – we are still on the road.   Our walk so far from “acute pain” to “chronic ache” has had several steps and survival strategies.

Nathaniel died on December 30, 2016, and for the first few months of 2017 we lived in a swirl. 

You spend a lot of time recounting all the tiny moments that led to disaster – knowing that the slightest change could have completely altered the outcome.  Along with that we faced guilt and shame: A parent’s first job is to keep your child alive, and we failed.  Generously, no one has imposed blame or guilt on us – but we both carry it in equal measure. 

Perhaps the first step – the most vital step -- to our survival was that between Jane and I -- in the moment of Natey’s death, in the intervening months, and now – there has been no blame, anger or recrimination for each other.  We know that what happened could have happened on either of our watches, that we were jointly responsible, and shared joint blame.  The gears meshed, the one-in-a-million event happened, and our little boy died.  If we’d had any sense of blaming each other, the entire rest of the story would have been radically different.  We were partners before, during, after… and now.

In addition to that, we found out we both dealt with the disaster in similar ways.

For a start, neither one of us hid from what happened: We watched the ambulance crew that night… we held his body at the hospital, escorted it to the morgue... and said a final goodbye at the morgue the next day.  We took pictures to cement the images, and as a final reminder of his beautiful face and hair.  Together, we looked death in the face – literally – and that made it real and undeniable.

The grieving books advise you to confront and accept your loss – because the shock is going to get you sooner or later.  That rings true as, in some ways I find it no easier to think about Nathaniel now than it was a year ago -- sometimes a photo just shakes me.  If we hadn’t continually confronted the pain when it was expected, then it would be harder to deal with months later when one would think the pain had faded.

Also, neither Jane nor I wanted to push Nathaniel out of sight: We have wilfully kept him close-by in our lives through, for example, our screen savers running his photo montage… our Facebook pages… his toys, art and pictures in the house... we made a “Natey place” in our bedroom… we light a memorial candle at family dinners… and we keep the little wooden box of his ashes in the dining room.  Poignantly, we also made “Natey Bear” – a stuffed bear that wears one of Nathaniel’s sleepy-suits -- that slept with us for many months.

For me, the most terrible thing has been that Nathaniel is drifting away – floating backward in time.  Jane and I can’t stop that drift – but we certainly don’t want to hasten that inexorable and sad fading of his life-force.  By now I can no longer conjure his touch, feel or smell… sometimes it feels like I’m grasping at smoke to hold onto him: The memories are all we have left.

Jane and I also coped similarly by sharing our stories: Jane wrote a moving blog about all the details of that last day of Nathaniel’s life – with all its happiness and fun… followed by his death.  I wrote and rewrote his eulogy and life story – jotting down every single memory I could muster – hoping, I guess, that it will help me re-capture Nathaniel in the years to come.  Jane and I both put all of these writings online for those who wanted to share our loss.

We also both spent time curating Nathaniel’s photos, videos, memories, documents… until, eventually, we realised we’d been through it all, and there were no more memories coming.

We followed the advice to “do what you can, when you can”.  We both went back to work within a couple weeks, but it’s fair to say our colleagues cut us quite a lot of slack: We were more “at work” than actually “working”.  At meetings I’d bring along my adult colouring books to help me stay both distracted and focussed (and, by adult, I mean ADULT!). 

As it turned out neither Jane nor I are “hide under the covers” kind of people:  While there were months where we had no interest in socialising, we remained engaged.  We tried to keep life moving forward professionally, personally, and we both continued to exercise and take on some challenges.  We had asked that mourners make donations to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, where eventually enough money was raised to buy two new blood-oxygen machines – and a lovely plaque was placed in their garden of remembrance. 

At some point, unconsciously, I guess we decided we couldn’t define our lives by our loss, but rather by the lives we continued to lead.  As Jane has observed, “you don't get to choose what will happen to you in your life, but you do get to choose how you'll respond.”

All along we have both remained open to our feelings, and honest about them:  When we had bad moments or bad-days we’d verbalise it… we’d send a Whatsapp saying “I’m having a bad Natey day” – and we both understood what that meant.  We made no effort – in private or public -- to pretend “everything is alright”. 

As months passed we might have some time when we’d forget we were supposed to be sad: But often people would ask, meaningfully, “How ARE you?”  One can’t say “I’m fine”, as the answer is always more nuanced.  Part of the journey is being pulled into the ‘role’ of the grieving parent… being reminded you are mourning. 

We came to realise we’d joined”the Club no one wants to belong to” -- parents who have lost children.  We heard many terrible stories… and we realised there are far more members of that club than one would expect.  We met other parents with equally sad (or worse) stories.  As we heard of others’ childrens’ deaths we felt it deeply and tearfully.  

I learned to live with “The Shark”:  He was always there, circling underneath me… sometimes coming up to take a bite out of me… to pull me down… without any warning.  Sometimes he still comes up for a bite… always a surprise, usually triggered by a photo, memory or thought.  But you find out you can struggle back to the surface and keep swimming.

Making New Memories
With Natey’s death my life’s plan was in tatters.  I had come to parenthood late in life… a new journey that was completely rewarding, exciting, and energizing.   That came to a crashing halt -- my parenting duties reduced to paying tribute, mourning and packing away my son’s life in a cardboard box and a hard drive.

Within days of Nathaniel’s death I knew that I wanted to have another child: Frankly – honestly -- without that direction, I would truly have been lost, aimless and demotivated.  I started that discussion with Jane far too soon… and it carried on for a while as we discussed our motives, aspirations and fears.  But in the end Jane and I agreed to re-embark on the journey… or, perhaps, to continue our journey together. 

That said, neither of us felt ready to quickly have another baby – it was too soon, it felt too raw and unsettled:  You never really can rush a pregnancy, and we didn’t want to try to force the issue when we were both – particularly Jane – stressed and unhappy. 

I remembered the scene from the book “Like Water for Chocolate” where Tita, the main character, sheds tears of sorrow into the batter of a wedding cake she is baking… with the result that all the guests at the wedding end up crying uncontrollably.  I didn’t want to imbue “Baby #2” with sadness… to mix our tears into his batter.

Benjamin was born a mere 16 months after Natey’s death.  That unduly short time was driven very much by our respective ages (43 and 55) and by a doctor’s forceful advice: “If you are going to do it, don’t waste time!”
In any case, knowing the path we were on gave me a timeline and the much-needed ability to make a plan.  We entered what I called “The Interregnum” -- that is defined as the period of time between the death of one monarch and installation of the next: In this case the Interregnum was the period between the death of the Prince (Nathaniel) and the birth of another Prince (Benjamin). 

We knew there was a danger of getting stuck in the past and stuck in sadness -- but we needed to find a path forward.  One of our better coping mechanisms -- which I take full credit for (you won’t find it in the grief guide-books) – was to try to “make new memories”. 

So, in April 2017 – four months after Nathaniel’s death – Jane, Griffin, Quinn and I – went on a trip to Egypt: Chosen intentionally as a challenging destination.  In Egypt you are either contemplating 5000 years of human history and civilisation, or you are dealing with the chaos of Egypt itself.  It ain’t a beach -- it’s hard work!  Being outside of our comfort zones, it helped bring us all together.  Of course Natey was in our minds… and I recall sitting on a stone in a 3500-year-old temple crying for him.

Continuing the idea of making new memories, in July 2017 Jane and I went to Iceland.  That turned out to be life-altering and I want to tell you a bit about it. 

In 2010 I’d planned a trek in Iceland that was cancelled by the eruption of the volcano Eyafjetlajokull (you remember, the one the grounded all flights in Europe).  The trek was on my bucket list, and the Interregnum was a good opportunity to fulfil the goal.  Also, one of Nathaniel’s middle names was “Thor”, named after the Norse god of thunder (in Hebrew  -- Ra’am – Thunder), and it seemed fitting to visit his “ancestral homeland”. 

The highlight of the trip was a 5 day, 90 kilometre trek across the wild and beautiful terrain.  Before going we had finally opened Nathaniel’s box of ashes and taken a tiny vial -- with the intent to spread them on the hike.  Thus, Natey was very much in our minds as we did the long trek across barren open spaces, volcanic ridges, glacial terrain and raging rivers: We were carrying Nathaniel emotionally and physically… toward the end of the group trek in a beautiful forested place called “Thorsmork” – Thor’s Forest. 

From there Jane and I left our group, and hiked alone up the slopes of the Eyafjetlajokull volcano.  As we climbed up and up we went above the snow line, into wind, rain, snow and fog… and there at the top of the pass, beside the two new volcanic vents – Magdi and Modi (named after Thor’s sons)… standing in the barren volcanic rock, ash and dirt we paused to spread the tiny bit of Nathaniel’s ashes.  I remember taking off my glove, pouring a bit of the ashes onto my palm and holding it out to the wind – hoping it would simply blow away without my having to do it: But making it harder, eventually I was forced to throw Nathaniel’s the ashes into the wind. 

As if that weren’t enough – we then had to continue to hike the final 30 km down to the coast… mostly in driving wind and rain – such that despite having fully waterproofed gear we were soaked through, frozen, muddy and sore.  The experience was nearly biblical in its enactment, and cathartic for us: It was a moment of being with Nathaniel as best we could, acceptance of his death, and a degree of letting go.  As we were leaving Iceland we stopped to put our first “Love Lock” for Nathaniel on a steel bridge… and then Jane threw away the key to that lock into the cold North Atlantic Ocean.

We knew this trip was emotional and an important moment, but we only realised later that the experience was a critical step in our journey.

Less than a week later Benjamin was conceived.

Compassion is one of those highfalutin words I hadn’t really thought too deeply about… it’s used by the likes of the Dalia Lama or Desmond Tutu.   But the past 20 months has taught us a lot about compassion: How the sharing of sorrow alleviates the burden… how the recognition and understanding of each other’s sorrow connects us and helps us carry the load.  Compassion is the sense of knowing “you are not alone”… and realising there is always someone suffering equally with, or more than, you… and that they are also not alone.  Everyone has grief in their life – whether in the acute or chronic stages – and we are part of the community of humans who will all suffer in our lives. Maybe to really understand compassion one has to suffer.

In the wake of Natey’s death we were flooded with compassionate love and support – much of from this community: And that was a great help during this tumultuous period. 

But importantly, that compassion went both ways: We tried to comfort others who also suffered Natey’s death – family, friends, his teachers, his loving nanny Xolisa, his loving au pair Melinda.  Also, we could see the sadness and uncertainty in visitors and supporters: “What do I say to someone who’s child has drowned? What shouldn’t I say?”  We really tried to make everyone comfortable expressing and sharing with us. 

Sometimes people said things we didn’t feel: “It’s God’s will”; “It was meant to be”;  “He’s in a better place”; or other thoughts that didn’t really work for us.  But we understood it all came from a place of love, and accepted the sentiments of support graciously.**  Any well-intentioned support or condolence was, and is, welcomed – particularly happy memories.
As a grieving parent one grants oneself some self-indulgence, but one of my regrets is that I didn’t realise the impact of Nathaniel’s death on my wider family.  We recently took Benjamin on his “baby tour” to the USA and in conversations came to realise how shattering his loss was.  For example, one of his cousins was so shaken as to have nearly dropped out of university for a semester.  Being self-absorbed in my grieving, this was a failure of compassion on my part.  Likewise, I’d been told that Natey’s death impacted on the entire Herzlia community, and I have come to a better understanding of that now.

The Interregnum
While I ambled through the Interregnum, Jane was hard at work being pregnant – she had a really difficult pregnancy with persistent nausea, fatigue and -- later -- pain and discomfort: There really was no easy time for her during that 9 months.  And while I eased back into work, Jane tackled her PGDip program at the UCT Graduate School of Business – quite an intense process to take-on during months 0-6 of her pregnancy (and her peak nausea)!  She suspended those studies during Benjamin’s final trimester… but has now gone back to finish the 2nd half of the program with Benjamin only 3 months old!

During Nathaniel’s life I had been writing him a letter about his story and my relationship with him.  I continued Nathaniel’s letter after his death -- but also started a letter to “Baby #2”.   

At first we wanted a clean break for a fresh-start -- and we hoped for a little girl.  But at the 11 week scan we found ourselves in the same clinic getting substantively the same news we’d had 3 years before: It was a healthy little boy with all signs and measurements being positive. 

As Baby #2 continued growing… got through his 20-week scan… and he began moving inside Jane…  I realised that pretty soon the “baby-to-be” had to overtake the “baby-that-had-been”: My Focus was going to be drawn forward.  I felt (and feel) guilt about that shift… as my writings to Nathaniel have had to peter-out into apologies, regrets and goodbyes.

Jane and I went to Thailand for a relaxed “baby moon” in December 2017 (5 months pregnant)… we lit a candle and shed some tears for Natey in a Buddhist temple, and we contemplated compassion and the Buddhist ideal of letting-go.  That learning experience was part of the inspiration for one of Benjamin’s middle names – “Bodhi”:  A Sanskrit name which means “enlightenment”… and you may recall that the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree.  In Hebrew this became “Meir” – “one who enlightens” or “bringer of light”.  We hope it imbues Benjamin Bodhi with compassion and enlightenment – and so far that seems to be the case, as he’s a very chilled baby.  His other middle name is “Achilles”, but we haven’t seen much of that part of his personality yet!

And now?
I commented earlier that we couldn’t “make new memories” with Nathaniel: But that’s apparently not true… we carried him our hearts to Egypt, Iceland, Thailand, and America.  We bought him a silver cartouche and a little white alabaster pyramid in Egypt (both now in his Natey-space).  We thought of him – and cried for him -- while we raced up Table Mountain***.  We spread some of his ashes on the volcano in Iceland and in a park in Chicago alongside some of my mother’s ashes.  We placed love-locks for him in Iceland and Paris.  We lit a memorial candle with him in Thailand.  And, strangely, unseen photos of Nathaniel continue to pop out of old cell phones, cloud storage, and friends’ archives.

While Nathaniel is always with us I find that more and more I have to make specific time to “be with Natey” – to listen to some of his music, quietly think about him, remember his laugh, and cry for his loss.  It’s not too hard really, if I just pause in my intentionally-over-busy life – to walk on the mountain or have a stretch – Nathaniel comes to mind.

As strangers see me with Benjamin there’s that awkward question: “Is this your only child?”  A simple “yes” would avoid the uncomfortable answers of “He’s my only surviving child” or “I had another boy, but he died”.  But to take the easy route would be to deny Nathaniel’s life, push him further away, and would feel like a betrayal.

Jane and I continue to seek that elusive state of “appreciating what we had while we had it” rather than “regretting the loss of what might have been”.   We still have a long walk to get there.

With Nathaniel we started out to build something permanent, but it got swept away and we had to restart.  While the standard rule of parenting is ‘don’t compare children’, one almost can’t help it.  Rationally I know Benjamin does not (cannot) replace Nathaniel – but I have occasional confusion: For example, I’ll think “It would be nice if he had Nathaniel’s beautiful red hair, but I’m really glad he doesn’t.”  In that sense, it’s a relief that Benjamin’s (mellow) personality is already visibly different than Nathaniel’s (energetic).  Perhaps we’ll be a little stuck in this comparison period until Benjamin has surpassed Nathaniel’s life span of 2½ years. 

As we set out on Benjamin’s journey I had fears of such comparisons: “Nathaniel was so perfect” I’d said “we’ll never get that lucky again”.  But a good friend and advisor said: “Don’t worry Andrew, every child is perfect in their own way.”

We will not imbue Benjamin with our prior hopes or expectations for Nathaniel.  Benjamin will have his own full life, he will be his own person.  But Jane and I cannot deny being changed -- we have innate fear and uncertainty now, and that fear is on several levels:
·       - First – obviously -- we see and think about more risks:  Life was always full of uncertainty, and we were – we thought – very aware and cautious.  Yet even though someone was within a few metres of Nathaniel for just about every minute of his 28 months (including the night he died) tragedy managed to find us.
·       - Nathaniel was so wonderful that I felt we’d “won the baby lottery”, and I expressed that feeling.  Now I hold back my positive judgement and enthusiasm about Benjamin as I’m afraid that I might ‘jinx’ his life.
·       - In some sense I struggle to see an unimpeded rosy, long-term future… somehow it seems shrouded in uncertainty… I have fears for what might happen.
·       - And, frankly, I also fear for self-esteem: Losing one child is a tragedy… losing two would be a clear sign of irresponsibility.

At Nathaniel’s memorial service – here, in this room – Cheryl Lazarus, speaking directly to the school’s parents, wisely urged them not to live in fear nor impair their childrens’ freedom and activities because of Nathaniel’s tragedy.  I thought it was a wise and bold leader’s statement, and something Jane and I now keep in mind as we move forward.

Without regard to whatever fears we have or healing we have to do, our goal will be raise Benjamin with all the security, love, and opportunity as we can – to make his life fun, free, and full of adventure and learning.

Another step in this long emotional journey will be enrolling Benjamin at Alon Ashel in January 2020:  We will see Natey’s track… and Natey’s plant… and Natey’s classroom… and Natey’s teachers.  It will be a little scary and difficult for us and all who knew him: But I have little doubt that Cheryl will have done her homework, and will be ready to prepare us all for that step with the same steady, sensible guidance with which she’s helped us cope with Nathaniel’s death.

Jane and I don’t feel inspirational – in part we feel like failed-parents trying to cope with a life-disaster as best we can.  But I am inspired by Jane – who has shown resilience, perseverance, and a remarkable willingness to help me through the darkness… and who has jumped back-in with love and commitment to bring light into my life.

Thank you all again for giving us the opportunity to share our story… for all the love, compassion, support and generosity over the past couple years… and for joining us in the celebration of the continuation of life -- particularly for little Benjamin.

*The magic, of course, is that Nathaniel didn’t know he was a ‘student’ -- he just thought it he was playing and having fun.

**Sometimes people would share their own grieving stories, and we tried to be as compassionate with them as they were being with us.  Others would offer unsolicited advice on grieving, mourning or coping and we’d generally take such advice in much the same way as one takes unsolicited parenting advice, graciously and with thanks.  Of course solicited advice (or advice from experience or knowledge) was always welcomed openly.

***Jane and I entered the Table Mountain Challenge in 2017 – a race which entails climbing up the mountain (and taking the cable car down) as many times as you can between sunrise and sunset.  We did 6 laps each.

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