The guilt – and bittersweet relief – of forgetting the anniversary of my teenage son’s death
Clearing out a cupboard in my writing shed, I pulled out a shoebox filled with old photographs and began sifting through them. One — of my son, Jamie, aged about four having his face painted at a fair —stopped me in my tracks. But then pictures of him always do.
Whenever I see my boy’s beautiful face it triggers thoughts of the child I carry in my heart, but whom I’ve learnt not to allow to live in my head. Otherwise, I risk being paralysed by memories.
Jamie died almost 38 years ago. But I’ve been journeying through the grief of that terrible loss ever since. As I remembered him that day, as pain and love jostled for position, I suddenly thought: ‘What day is it?’
Grabbing my phone, I saw that it was, unbelievably, the day after the anniversary of Jamie’s death at 14. For the first time, I had forgotten it. I froze to the spot, shocked it was even possible I could have done that. It isn’t that I make a big thing of marking the day Jamie died, or make a point of remembering his birthday — it’s just that I instinctively know when these dates come around and feel the inevitable pangs of sadness and loss.
Hardly believing I could have missed this one, I thought back to the previous day. I’d gone out for coffee with some author friends, then returned home to write before listening to an audiobook in the afternoon.
British author Dinah Jeffries opens up about dealing with grief over time as she reflects on losing her son Jamie nearly 38 years ago. Both pictured when Jamie was 13
In other words, the day had gone by and it had been a good one.
I went inside to make a cup of tea feeling disorientated, the same words going round in circles inside my head: ‘Oh my goodness, that was yesterday, and I was out, and I didn’t remember.’ While the kettle boiled I went on Twitter, posting the picture of Jamie that had triggered my memory in the first place. Underneath it, I wrote: ‘Yesterday — the anniversary of my 14-year-old son’s death. Yesterday — the day I had coffee with writer friends. Yesterday — the first time I forgot what day it was. Is that good or bad?’
That question was purely rhetorical. I wasn’t looking for an answer. I just wanted to mark what had happened and, in the moment, posting my thoughts into cyberspace was all I could think to do.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the many kind comments I got back, including a suggestion that my forgetting could be seen as a gift from my son. I went back to my shed comforted by that idea. Jamie was such a generous soul, so very loving, he would have hated the idea of me being dragged down by the anniversary of his death.
Returning to the shoebox, some pieces of broken pottery caught my eye. They’d once been an ornament Jamie had made for me at school aged eight — a half-moon shaped out of clay with a man set into it.
For years, both before and after Jamie died, this ornament had sat on a shelf wherever I lived, most recently in the home I now share with my second husband, Richard. But we were burgled while away on holiday in 2000. I found it smashed on the floor when we arrived home.
I remember gathering up the pieces and weeping, utterly distraught. I didn’t care about the cameras, CDs and various other bits of tech that had been taken — they were just ‘things’ that could be replaced.
But that ornament had come from Jamie’s hands. Bereft, I’d put it, broken as it was, inside that shoebox to keep it safe.
Dinah revealed how it felt to have forgotten her son’s death anniversary for the first time after 38 years. Jamie pictured shortly before his 14th birthday
Dinah, pictured, says that at first the grief of Jamie’s death destroyed her, admitting that ‘everything hurt, physically and emotionally’
But now here I was, 23 years later, looking at those pieces of pottery again and asking myself: ‘Why are you keeping this, Dinah?
‘Your son died. This ornament doesn’t mean anything. It can’t bring him back. It isn’t him.’
A toothy grin, a little wave and my talented, clever boy was gone
Finally, 37 years and a day after his death, I felt ready to consider letting that broken pot go. Jamie died in a terrible accident on a sunny Saturday. Five days earlier, we had been celebrating my daughter’s 11th birthday at an adventure park. Before, we were a normal enough and very happy family.
I had separated from my first husband, Jon, a couple of years earlier. The split had been amicable and our children saw their father as often as possible.
Jamie had met up with friends in the grounds of the local private school and got onto an older boy’s motorbike. He’d never ridden one before; he lost control and smashed through a glass door, severing a carotid artery in his neck. He died at the scene.
That same morning, I’d opened a letter saying Jamie had won a scholarship to the school where the accident happened. He’d been a pupil there until a few months earlier, but had to leave because I could no longer afford the fees.
He was quietly doing his comprehensive school homework in bed as I read this letter out to him.
I remember he flung his school books to the floor then picked up his guitar to play one of his favourite John Lennon songs. Jubilant, he hugged me and said: ‘This is the happiest day of my life.’
I drove Jamie to the school so he could celebrate with his friends. I watched him go to them without the faintest idea it would be the last time I would see him alive. A turn of his head, a toothy grin, a little wave and my talented, clever boy was gone. All those years of loving and caring for him were over, and I didn’t even know it yet. There was no chance to say a proper goodbye, or tell him how much I loved him.
For months afterwards, I relived that last image of my beloved son, scrutinising it for non-existent clues that might hint at what lay ahead.
It tormented me almost as much as the other wretched one I also now had of him — laid out in a hospital mortuary, his skin waxen and an unearthly white, not looking a bit like himself.
At first the grief of Jamie’s death destroyed me. Pain cut through the shock of what had happened — of him being here one minute, gone the next. Everything hurt, physically and emotionally. I felt like I’d been through a war; like the stuffing had been knocked out of me. The sense of loss was profound. Happiness became a concept I couldn’t grasp.
I kept seeing Jamie as an incredibly detailed and moving image in my mind. His hands, the look on his face, the way his hair was, the colour of his eyes, his skin — it was almost as real as if he was standing before me. Except now he had gone.
Thankfully, I was mentally quite a strong person and still am. That doesn’t mean my mental health wasn’t affected — it was. I just have a level of bloody-mindedness and resilience that kept me going; that gave me the strength to limp through the early years, hollow, but living.
Dinah explains that the experience of losing Jamie has inspired her writing ever since. ‘Before he died I wasn’t as compassionate,’ she says
But that’s only because I had to. I still had my daughter, who needed me, because she’d lost the brother she deeply loved, too. I felt grateful that through it all I still had her warm body to hold.
Grief isn’t linear and when people talk about the five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — they oversimplify a process that is profoundly different for everyone who experiences it. For me, there was no denial. I saw Jamie’s broken body after I got called to the school; I saw the blood. There was no bargaining to be done either. My boy had gone and no pleading would bring him back.
But anger, well, there was plenty of that. A terrible rage burned inside of me. I railed against God, against the world, against the universe that took my child, who I loved more than I ever knew it was possible to love —and even then, that wasn’t enough.
I could still conjure up that agony of loss at any moment
And depression, too. There were dark days when I didn’t want to go on. Sometimes, I think back to that time and I’ve no idea how I’m still here, breathing. Except I had my daughter and I had to go on for her. But I was destroyed — and that’s an understatement.
Finally, there was acceptance — something I soon discovered you’re forced to renew daily, starting the very first time you wake up after they’ve gone.
Every morning, even years later, the first thing I did was remember what had happened and then I would have to accept that fact all over again before I could even get out of bed.
Sometimes, even now, I go through the same process. In the end, though, I discovered that time passes and you learn to live with the grief of losing your child — that’s it, that’s the bottom line, your child has gone and somehow you just have to carry on.
That’s not to say it stops hurting, it’s just that the pain changes and becomes more manageable. At first, for me anyway, and for many months, it was just all so ghastly all of the time. I fought the pain, until I realised it’s much better to let it happen because you cry, you feel bad for however long it takes and then you feel a little bit better.
Over time, the pain remained excruciating, but it came and then it went. As the years passed, I found it eased a little, but I seemed to carry it with me all the time. Now, though, it’s hardly ever painful at all. But it still can be: I could conjure up that agony of loss at any moment if I wanted to.
But I don’t want to, if it’s going to damage the present — because, as forgetting Jamie’s anniversary surely showed, that’s where I’ve learnt to live. Years ago, I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to be pitied, seen forever as the woman whose son died and who never got over it.
I can’t say when that happened — grief turns the past into a blur. I just know that I didn’t want to feel broken my whole life.
Writing — being creative, making something from the intangible ideas in my head — was the answer for me. At first I used it as a form of therapy, spewing out my feelings onto the page. Then, nearly 15 years ago, I took control and began writing fiction.
Discovering the joy of creativity, losing myself in the process, I realised that was what I was meant to do. The experience of losing Jamie has inspired my writing ever since. Before he died I wasn’t as compassionate; I had none of the sensitivity or awareness of human suffering that I do now. His death turned me into a better person.
My first novel, The Separation, was published in 2014, which gave me confidence in myself again. After all, my child had died — I was supposed to look after him and make sure he survived, and yet I didn’t manage to do that so, in my eyes, I was a failure.
My latest novel, The Hidden Palace, an historical novel set in Malta during the Second World War, is my ninth. Writing my books, connecting with my readers, has become something else to live for outside of my precious family — a final gift from Jamie. I could, of course, have glued that ornament he made back together. Instead, I decided to let it go.
Putting those broken pieces into a bin bag, knowing that I would never see them again, brought it home to me that nothing can change what happened to Jamie, but neither can anything take him away from me now.
These years of grieving have given him back to me, because now he lives in my heart. He’s in the bones of me and I can bring him to mind any time I choose.
That doesn’t mean my journey through grief has ended. I expect I’ll continue walking that path for the rest of my life. But right now I have reached a place of peace, which is the best place any grieving parent can ever hope to be.
Night Train To Marrakech, the third in Dinah’s Daughters Of War trilogy, will be published by HarperCollins in September.
Interview: RACHEL HALLIWELL