The first word Ashton learnt to write was his own name. The second was his brother’s.  I had no idea he could write it until a remembrance event where he showed me the bamboo candle boat he decorated with Elliott’s name on it.

“That’s so beautiful darling, who helped you with his name?”, I asked.

He told me, “No one mummy, I did it all by myself. I’ve been practising”. Unbeknownst to me he must have been copying Elliott’s name from some of his things at home. Of all the words in the world, of all the things he could have taught himself, it was how to write the name of his brother. It was important to him to be able to do so and since then writes his name all the time, usually together with his own.

16 months after Elliott’s death Ashton still holds him firmly in his heart. 16 months on we are still dealing (and often struggling) with the heaviness and complexities of his grief. A few months ago out of the blue while waiting to see a movie he became upset and said to me

“I just wanted to hold Elliott”.

I spoke to him how he held him lots when we were in hospital but he said,

“Yes, but i wanted to hold him forever”

Every one of these moments, especially when they come unexpected, make me want to curl in a ball and cry for days. Every one breaks a part of me a little bit more and after every single one i have to force myself to continue to stand. I can manage to hold my own grief but so often i struggle to hold his.

Things have been compounded with my husband going back to FIFO work. 12 months since he started back it’s only become harder. He doesn’t trust that his daddy will come back, no matter what we both say and do to try and calm his fears. Every night before he leaves he won’t go to sleep and wakes up through the night in a panic to check Adam is still here. When he wakes to him being gone he lays on me and cries until he falls back asleep. Last week he couldn’t remember Adam giving him a kiss goodbye so he cried over and over again,

“Daddy didn’t even say goodbye to me”, like he was never going to see him again.

He says to me most days he’s gone,

“I hope daddy will come home”, worried that somehow he won’t.

He knows first-hand that life is not permanent and cannot be predicted. His sense of security in life has been completely destroyed and we now have to spend an incredible amount of work and effort in rebuilding that.

Over time we’ve noticed that every time Ashton feels his loss at a peak his behaviour is at its worse as he struggles to place his emotions. One difficult day involving out of control behaviour and pushing every button he could, he kept asking to hold Elliott’s urn. At one point through the day I noticed him standing by Elliott’s things and heard him whispering

“I really wish you were here buddy”.

As it normally does, his behavioural issues escalated until they resulted in an epic meltdown (during which I’m always worried i’ll get a knock on the door from child services) followed by an acknowledgement of his feelings and a disclosure of his thoughts. After I finally got him to calm down he sobbed into me and said he hates this world, it’s scary and wishes he lived in another world. It rips my heart wide open to hear these things come from him. I wanted to magically make everything better but all I could do was hug him and tell him how much we love him and will always do whatever we can to keep him safe. These meltdowns seem to be a needed release for him and then things cool off for a while.

Parenting through these escalations is a struggle as I often become his emotional punching bag with all his anger, sadness and confusion released onto me especially when Adam is away. While it can often be clear to why he behaves in certain ways and it breaks my heart to see how much he’s hurting, it doesn’t make it easier to deal with at the time. I use every tool, tactic and strategy I have, implement everything I’ve researched and been taught but so often it’s just not enough. I have to balance between understanding and not allowing really unacceptable behaviour to be accepted. I have to balance helping him identify where his emotions are coming from and not highlighting them or allowing Elliott to become an easy excuse out of bad behaviour. It’s like I’m living on a tightrope and no matter what, end up feeling like a failure on so many levels. I’ve been pushed until I end up losing my shit which then adds a great deal of guilt to the mix keeping me up at night wishing I did things differently.

Last week we faced something new in Ashton’s journey. I picked him up from school and was advised he had cut his shirt. When I saw him it wasn’t the big slices made by scissors all over his new shirt that struck me, it was his necklace he was wearing- one we bought him over a year ago when he wanted a star necklace to represent his baby brother. I can’t remember the last time he wore it and he didn’t have it on in the morning when I dropped him off. I knew he must have hid it in his bag and my instincts told me it was no coincidence that he was wearing it on the same day he cut his shirt up. His teacher told me she thinks he didn’t know why he did it and instantly looked like he just wanted to undo what he had done.

Later I asked him why he cut his shirt but he said he didn’t know. I asked him what he was feeling at the time and he yelled at me “I was just upset!” but wouldn’t tell me why. I asked if there was a reason why he was wearing the necklace today and he yelled at me “because I miss Elliott, OK?!”. He hugged me and told me

“I wanted to wear it so I don’t forget him. Sometimes I don’t think about him mummy”.

My poor big-hearted boy, only 5 years old and feeling guilt for having days where he no longer has his baby brother on his mind.

As an adult and Elliott’s mother I have wrestled with my own guilt when the rawness eases and an increasing amount of light returns. I have to remind myself often that this doesn’t mean he’s not loved and missed as much and that having good days doesn’t take away how devastating his loss is. I have to make myself understand that my love doesn’t have to always hold pain and I can honour him with joy as well. This is my burden to carry, not my 5 year old’s. The fact that he does breaks my heart even more. His grief easing is supposed to make things better, easier, calmer. And yet it just caused a different set of issues and set the cycle off all over again.

I told him it’s ok. I told him that Elliott will never be forgotten and that he doesn’t have to think about him all the time to remember him. I told him it’s ok to be sad and upset but it’s also ok to not be sad or upset and that doesn’t mean that he loves him any less. That afternoon he picked up a baby doll at my parent’s place and told me he wanted to take it with him because he just wished Elliott was here.

That night once the children were asleep I sat in bed and cried. I feel so heartbroken that after all this time he still hurts so much. I feel so helpless that I can’t make it stop. I’m exhausted and beaten and want to know when things will get dramatically easier. I’m just so angry that this has been done to him. It’s not fair, this is not how a 5 year old should be feeling. I know him better than anyone else in this world but even I never thought he would grieve like this, or for this long. I knew he would be the best big brother, but I didn’t understand that he would continue to carry all the loyalty, dedication and love for him in exactly the same way as if his brother had survived. He maintains his relationship with his brother on his own accord; not for me, not for his dad or sister, but for him and Elliott.

The next day as soon as he woke up he asked to go to Elliott’s beach. As I watched Ashton play and saw that the weight had lifted from him for the moment, I noticed a heart shaped cloud, like Elliott was looking over his big brother. I felt comfort as if it was nature’s (or perhaps Elliott’s) way to remind me that one day things will be ok for him. A reminder that he carries a very special love with him. A reassurance that in the times where it all just feels too much, when I’m helpless and feel like I’m failing, when I question if I’m doing the right things or enough, that no matter what, I give my children love and I hope that is enough.

So for now I wait for things to have longer stretches where it’s easier and in the mean time simply continue to allow him to do what he needs to do, which is be a big brother and all that might entail for him.

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One thought on “A brother’s grief, 16 months on

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I also have two children, older sisters to our Elliot who died nine months ago. My 5-year-old’s reaction was initially the strongest and broke my heart into a million pieces, just like you mentioned. But it’s been my 3 1/2-year-old who talks about Elliot every day, cries for him, hugs his bear, names her dolls after him. You’re right-the relationships our living children have with their siblings who’ve died is their own. It makes my heart ache at the same time it is life-giving. My Elliot and your Elliott have some special older siblings who are showing just what it means to love. Much love to you and your family in this most painful of journeys.

    Liked by 1 person

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