Hazel McHaffie

bereaved parents

Children – ill, abandoned, adopted, murdered, massacred

‘It’s not fair!’

How often have we all heard that lament? Especially from children. If a sibling gets a bigger slice of cake; if a schoolmate gets them into trouble; if a parent doesn’t humour them … But there can surely be few scenarios more legitimately unjust than a baby having cancer.

Olivia Stanca who died this past week in a rooftop hospital garden in London after her life support machine was switched off, was born with adrenal cancer. How cruel, how unfair, is that? It spread to her liver. She was just one year old when she died.

In her short life she had survived two rounds of chemotherapy but was very vulnerable to infections. Having pulled out all the stops, in the end the medical staff at Great Ormond Street regretfully said there was nothing more they could do for her. Olivia’s story reached the papers only because her parents fought against medical opinion for her to be kept alive, desperately wanting to hang on to their little girl, but eventually this past week even they bravely conceded that it was simply not possible. As their lawyer said, there are no winners in this tragic scenario. Indeed.

But thinking about this little family and all they’ve endured made me reflect on books I’ve read recently about children. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on three of them as my little tribute to all families everywhere, like the Stancas, who are grieving today. Three books moreover by the same author, herself a mum, which I read consecutively – a useful way of getting a feel for a particular person’s writing … if you don’t get too jaded by the third one, that is!

Gudenkauf novelsIn previous posts I’ve shared with you my enjoyment of several writers who tackle challenging issues similar to the ones I dabble in – Jodi Picoult, Diane Chamberlain, Lisa Genova. This time it’s Heather Gudenkauf who gets the ‘fans of Jodi Picoult will devour this‘ sticker. She’s a classroom teacher living in Iowa, who tucks writing novels into free moments between work life and bringing up three children of her own. Already I’m impressed.

These Things Hidden tells the story of three girls bound together by circumstance and horror, of a prison sentence, of a childless couple whose lives are transformed when a baby is abandoned in a fire station and becomes theirs to adopt. These Things HiddenParental love swells as little Joshua grows up, overcomes his phobias and tantrums, and takes his place in the swell of children starting school.  But all is not what it seems. Gradually a back history emerges … mental instability, fractured relationships, murder and intrigue … that keeps the pages turning from beginning to end and the brain whirring. What makes a good parent? How much should any one person be asked to sacrifice for their nearest and dearest?

A school shooting forms the core of One Breath Away (definitely shades of Jodi P here!)  Parents are waiting at the gates in agony, news of what’s going on inside patchy and conflicting – parents with unresolved issues, parents who didn’t say proper goodbyes, who are not dressed for publicity. And then – horrors – there’s the mother who thinks the gunman could be her son. Inside, the lone gunman is holding a classroom full of 8-year-olds at gunpoint. One Breath AwayIntrepid teacher, Mrs Oliver, tries to bargain with him: if she correctly guesses why he is there will he let the children go free? ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘and for each wrong answer I get to shoot one.‘ But the blame, the gunman says, will lie not with the teacher but with a single police officer: ‘you get to live with the knowledge that the death of these kids and their teacher is all because of you.‘ Gudenkauf maintains the suspense through short sharp chapters to the very end. We’re left wondering how such tragedies can happen. How would we respond if our child/grandchild was held hostage by a madman? How would we weigh the lives of other people’s children against the welfare of our own families? It’s a bit like the question: should we ever pay ransoms to terrorists? Would you pay up if your son/daughter was the one held hostage? … isn’t it?

In The Weight of Silence two six year old girls go missing. One of them, Callie, has selective mutism, Petra is her best friend and her voice. Her mother Toni grows increasingly frustrated … and scared. The Weight of SilenceSuspicion mounts. Her brutal husband seems to be missing; the man she has loved since childhood is behaving oddly; her son is convinced his sister is in the woods; there are two sets of footprints in newly raked soil but one of them is made by a man’s boot. The whole neighbourhood is on the alert. And then suddenly mute Callie rushes out of the trees, alone, and utters just one word, a word that conjures up a scenario too appalling to contemplate. Just how far would any of us go to protect our families? How loyal would you be to your abusive partner?  Who would you believe?

As with all Jodi Picoult lookalikes, Gudenkauf’s novels are the staple diet of book clubs. Meaty topics, haunting questions, a tense plot, literary challenges. Plenty to get your teeth into. But it’s all just fiction. The last thought must be with real live parents who really are enduring loss or life-or-death struggles with their children. My heart goes out to them.

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Forgotten Voices

In the welter of Christmas Fayres and concerts, charity fundraisers, shopping, wrapping, writing, cooking, I’m very conscious of the many folk out there for whom this whole season is a nightmare – the bereaved, the lonely, the sick, the burdened. A frightening number of my own friends and relations fall into the special-card-category this year. No mention of ‘merry’, or ‘happy’, or ‘festive’. Perhaps a wish for peace. Or blank for my own message.

Thinking such sombre thoughts brings me to a book I read a while ago that gave me cause for some deep reflection.

In a former life I was Deputy Director of Research in the Institute of Medical Ethics, and for many years I studied the issues around the treatment of tiny and sick infants born at the very edges of viability. Mortality and morbidity statistics for this group of children are high, and sometimes difficult questions have to be asked about whether it’s wise and morally right to offer, or to continue, treatment. Crucial Decisions at the Beginning of LifeMy research involved listening to the firsthand experiences and opinions of 109 bereaved parents in these kind of circumstances.

What a privilege. Interviews lasted anything up to five and a quarter hours at a sitting – sometimes well into the night – and I subsequently went over and over the recorded interviews in order to analyse and report their stories faithfully.

Now, you can’t immerse yourself in profound human misery of this calibre for many years without being affected in some way, and the effect of this accumulated heartbreak has remained with me ever since. It has changed my tolerance levels, it has altered my perspective on life in many ways.

So I was predisposed to respect the writing of Lyn Smith who spent 25 years recording the experiences of Holocaust survivors for the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. Her burden is immeasurably heavier than mine. But like me she has chosen to share these stories so that others might know and understand better. She’s used interviews with over 100 contributors to assemble a powerful oral history of the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime in Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust.

The book is carefully structured, covering the changes before the war when persecution began, the creation of the ghettos, the inhumane treatment of the concentration and death camps, the resistance movement, death marches, liberation, and the trauma of the aftermath. It begins rather mildly and somehow the evil creeps up on you, devastating in the power of first person accounts, even though the essential stories are well known. And I was totally unprepared for the horrors that continued after repatriation.

As Laurence Rees says in his foreword, ‘This book will trouble you deeply.’ It will. I’m not going to attempt to give you a flavour of it. You need to hear the voices of Kitty, Joseph, Rena, Roman, Alicia, Maria, Charles, and their fellow-sufferers for yourself. And you need to build up to the unbelievable treatment they endured simply because they were Jews or gypsies or Poles, or Jehovah’s Witnesses or homosexuals or some other so-called ‘subhuman’ species deemed unworthy of life.

This is not a book for the faint-heated – no surprises there. Tales of persecution, torture, murder, rape, make discomforting reading, and these personal but stark, unembellished accounts describe a depth of depravity grotesque beyond words. And yet these people survived, against the odds. What’s more they found the courage to relive the horror, the words to capture the pictures and emotions, the spirit to go on. And sometimes even to forgive.

Nor is it unmitigated darkness and despair. Despite the brutality and degradation, the fear and nightmares, the stories are lightened by flashes of humour, by memories of astonishing and inexplicable acts of kindness, by glimpses of dignity and compassion, by a remarkable lack of vengeance, by amazing demonstrations of courage.

Lyn Smith expresses the hope that ‘Gathered together … this mosaic of voices gives access to the complexity and human reality behind the abstract statistics of extermination and allows readers to see beyond the stereotypes of what constitutes a “victim”.’ I believe it does.

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A plague on platitudes!

Crucial Decisions at the Beginning of LifeIn my former life as a researcher at Edinburgh University, before I became a novelist, I spent a number of years with bereaved parents. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anything much more harrowing than watching your child die.

And yet I heard first hand from these grieving men and women that a large number of their relatives, friends and acquaintances churned out platitudes like: ‘He was only a baby, you didn’t really know him’, ‘At least you can have another one’, ‘You’ve still got John and Polly.’ In effect saying: You have no right to grieve. It’s no big deal.

Those parents changed me forever. I’ve never quite regained my tolerance for those who make heavy weather of trivial burdens and moan about their lot.

A similar (though far less damaging) experience is coming my way at the moment. I’m being told to count my blessings in one form or another, or I’m being told what I must be feeling. I have visions of carrying a placard:
I KNOW she’s at peace; I KNOW she lived a full life; but SHE WAS MY MUM. I really, really, really don’t need you to diminish my loss.

I felt the iniquity of these kind of platitudes acutely some years ago when I was inside the skin of one of my characters, Adam O’Neill. He’s a young journalist, Right to Dieat the peak of his potential when he develops Motor Neurone Disease in Right to Die. He’s facing an early death. He’s fully aware that though his body will disintegrate inexorably, his mind will still be functioning normally, totally conscious of the gathering horror. Imagine that kind of living death … if you dare.

I’m going to reproduce his reflections on how people reacted to him in full, because he sums up the iniquity of denying someone else in dire trouble the right to feel lousy and sad and angry.

While other people are writing Christmas lists, I’ve started to compile a glossary of things people say alongside my private responses. Outwardly, I’m afraid, I’m still locked into the hypocrisy of polite social exchanges.

‘You can still lead a full life.’
Being in a wheelchair, struggling for breath, may seem full to you, pal, but I’ve known better and by my yardstick it stinks.

‘Your attitude will make all the difference.’
Why do people put the onus on me? If I deteriorate quickly, will that be a comment on my approach to life? If it’s legitimate for you to be fed up with trivia, why can’t I be frustrated by this major disaster?

‘Try not to worry about the future, we none of us know what it holds anyway.’
Maybe, but I know pretty much what mine looks like; you can still believe that on the law of averages you’ll have a reasonable lifespan and kids and a career and a pension.

‘Enjoy today. Think positively about what you can do, not what you can’t do.’
I’d like the feel of that if I said it myself; I hate it when other people in perfect health slug it to me.

‘Channel your energy into creating the best quality of life you can.’
Ditto.

‘It’s a good thing you don’t have kids.’
Now that is below the belt. I’d give a king’s ransom to have the assurance that something of me lived on after my death.

‘At least Naomi’s still young enough to start again.’
Start what? D’you think I haven’t recognised the fact that she’s young and attractive and desirable and ready for the next stage in her hormonal life? Do you have to tell me she’ll probably have kids with some other bloke? Do you?! Damn it, I want her to be happy with me! Have kids with me!

‘Live positively with MND.’
That’s one of the most patronising comments to date. It conjures up those Pollyannas who are paralysed from the neck down, or whose families are wiped out by a senseless act of terrorism, who go on record as saying they’re a better person for having tribulations in their lives. Ergo, they’re glad they’ve had these things happen to them. Give me a break! Goodness thrust upon you can’t be the same value as goodness you chose to cultivate, can it?

‘I see you’ve kept your sense of humour – that makes all the difference.’
I’m sure it helps you, but remember it costs me. Just because I’m poking fun at my own inebriated gait or my drunken slurring doesn’t mean I’m laughing on the inside. Sometimes it’s just a cover to defend myself from pity, or ridicule, or too much sympathy. Or it’s because if I don’t laugh I’ll slip below the surface and in all likelihood never come up for air again.

On a good day I can tell myself most of these things but if there’s one piece of advice I’d give to everybody about dealing with folk in trouble, it’s this: Never ever count their blessings for them, or exhort them to count them themselves. Contrarily I know if someone else commiserates with my plight, my instinctive response is along the lines of: Things could be a lot worse; and to focus on what I can do. But that’s my prerogative, no one else’s.

I leave the last word on the subject with him.

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