A little girl, sweet, bright-eyed, sidles over to me. Her mum kindly lets me know that she wants to say hello to the baby. Thankfully, Trispop is a friendly chap and reciprocates shyly. They smile at each other for a few moments, then the little girl merrily glides back to her mother.
A pretty, athletic older girl in skinny jeans and trainers, 12 or 13 maybe, long hair down her back, animatedly chatting to her mum.
Two siblings in the playground, attempting the slide that’s intended for the oldest visitors… no words are needed, only a glance of “come on, let’s do it!” and they are off together. Moments later, the younger is hurtling down the slide followed quickly by the elder. They run off, giggling, a little knot of sisters together.
For a moment, each time, I see Cleo. The lift of joy once so often experienced by her presence is replaced by a sad smile. And then, beyond my control, I wish so much for each family I see that it won’t be them, it could be them, it might be her next, little do they know…
This sequence happens often.
My inner drive to fundraise is then reinforced. We just have to keep trying. Her daddy Alex and I have put on a few online Facebook live concerts recently, during the pandemic-related lockdown. It’s been really nice to have something creative and purposeful to work on, though each performance really knocks us out emotionally. I mean, why wouldn’t it? We’re performing… to raise money… in… the name of… our daughter, who died. That’s… that’s… big. Our hearts are invested in each note we play, we dig deep and we play for her, for every child, each family, and we hope beyond desperate reason that the money we raise might help… might make a difference. I don’t want anyone else to be next.
We miss Cleo’s presence so very much. But what is it that’s missed? It’s not just the individual, or the future once anticipated, that is lost. Loved ones are part of the very fabric of our lives, leaving a hole that can’t be darned or repaired. The whole structure of my family has changed, the dynamics between us all. Cleo was the mediator, the glue between her siblings. They’re doing so well to forge a new way of being together, but the edges are still sharp when they squabble without her soft moderating kindness. Not that she didn’t take sides, she did, but Cleo instinctively knew who was most in need of her defence.
As with the ‘custard cream’ transformation, I recognise that I am now transformed. Sadness is part of me. My emotional responses are numbed. Tragedies happen, and I am no longer moved like I once was. I notice it. Listening to my emotional responses no longer tells me anything new – I feel nothing more, only consciously. Conscious mind, informing me that I should feel something, but I don’t. I laugh and smile and I do take pleasure in my life, while hurting constantly. The metaphorical bucket is full and I feel emotionally colder now, but it is possible to simultaneously both live and suffer.
Dr Lois Tonkin’s ‘growing around grief’ is a psychological model of grieving that I find helpful. Once, I used to teach it from a theoretical perspective. Now, I teach it from lived experience. It is a tool for talking about the ways in which grief is not something we get over, or something that diminishes with time, but rather something that our life grows around. Why would we want our grief to go anywhere? It contains our memories, our experiences, our love. I don’t want to lose that grief, but I do want to go on living. As Dr Tonkin explains, “living with the losses of life is not so much about getting ‘over’ them, as finding ways to live with them, and live a happy and full life that includes them. Grieving is an experience of making sense of our losses, of getting adjusted to a different life and different expectations; of growing around them.” I relate to this so well, and it helps me to sustain a healthy perspective. We are fortunate beyond words to have our baby – he is a beam of twinkling fun and happiness in our lives and has helped us to cope and to reconfigure our family, while ensuring Cleo remains alive in all our hearts. We talk to him about her. He knows her face in photos now, even those he hasn’t seen before. He will grow up to love her and to wish she was here, just as we do. He calls her ‘Kylo’; custard creams are ‘Kylo Cookies’. Who could resist smiling, even if their heart is still sad?