When a child loses a brother or sister, we have to help them grieve.
Stuff.co.nz wrote a wonderful piece on the value of helping children to grieve and how a book like ‘Cleo & Rob’ can help with that process.
Columnist Helen Brown has a new children’s book coming out in October, based on her international bestselling book, CLEO. It’s the story of her son being hit by a car, and a small black cat called Cleo who helped heal the family, especially young Rob who witnessed the accident, during their intense grief.
OPINION: The electronic buzzer echoed across the netball courts. Children spilled out of classrooms. I scoured the stampede. Annie has sprouted since her ninth birthday, and the shape of Stella’s face has changed since her new front teeth grew in.
A pair of arms wrapped around my waist. Stella beamed up at me. Moments later, Annie sauntered toward us in an offhand, big sisterly way.
Much as I enjoy our Thursday afternoons, the girls squabble a bit. It’s natural when siblings are close in age, I suppose. Back in the early 1980s their dad, Rob, and his older brother, Sam, were no different.
“You’re lucky your house is so near school,” I said, taking Stella’s hand.
Annie sauntered ahead through the throng of bobbing heads. As she skipped toward the street corner, a surge of panic rose in my throat. I fought an urge to yell at her to stop and come back so I could grab her hand and weld it to mine.
The mind plays unnerving tricks. Sometimes, when I look at my granddaughters, I see Sam and Rob gazing up at me. This afternoon, as Annie ran toward the corner, I was suddenly back in Wellington on January 21, 1983, on Lenell Road, Wadestown, where Sam took the last steps of his short life.
The summer holidays were nearly over. We were just back from a memorable week with my parents in Hawke’s Bay. That lunchtime, the boys were playing in the back yard when they found a wounded pigeon lying under the clothesline. Sam, aged nine, was an ardent animal lover. He put the bird in a shoe box and persuaded their dad to let him and Rob take the bird down to the vet clinic by themselves.
They’d crossed Lenell Road on the way to and from school countless times before. But that had always been at pedestrian crossings further up the hill, and at times when drivers were on the lookout for youngsters.
During school holidays, however, people relax and slide out of routines. It’s easy for drivers to forget kids are out and about throughout the entire day. Likewise, children are inclined to forget road safety rules that have been drilled into them through the term and take risks in unfamiliar places.
Six year-old Rob followed his big brother across the footbridge that straddles Lennel Road.
When they reached the bottom of the steps on the other side, a bus pulled into a stop next to the bridge. There was no rush. The bus would soon be on its way up the hill. But Sam was on a mission.
Alarmed by the swarms of lunchtime traffic, Rob urged his brother to wait. But Sam’s attention was focussed on the bird. He told Rob to be quiet.
Rob watched in horror as Sam walked out from behind the bus. Sam was struck by a blue Ford Escort heading down the hill. He died almost instantly.
Our lives changed forever in that gut wrenching moment.
Speed wasn’t a factor. It wasn’t a hit and run. This was simply a combination of a distracted boy and terrible timing. One of those school holiday tragedies you read about, then try to forget seconds later.
I can’t begin to imagine the trauma Rob endured that day. He later said Sam looked like a cowboy lying on the road with a string of red wool trickling out of his mouth.
Rob refused to sleep in the room he’d shared with Sam. We moved his mattress to our bedroom floor, where he’d wake several times a night screaming a monster was chasing him. During daylight hours, he washed his hands till they were bleeding.
Rob is now a middle-aged man with a wonderful wife and family, and a successful engineering business. Yet I doubt he’ll ever fully “recover” from seeing his older brother killed on the road. Annie and Stella will never meet their uncle. I still have a habit of setting an extra place at the table.
Though our grief has softened through the decades, I shudder whenever I hear another young life has been snuffed out in a traffic accident. My heart aches for the parents, and for children who will never see their brother or sister grow up.
It’s been a terrible year for kids on New Zealand roads. By June this year, 19 children under the age of 15 had lost their lives in traffic accidents. That’s more than for the whole of 2018.
Every one of those deaths has shattered families and, like a rock dropping in a pool, created ripples of sorrow through schools and communities.
Parents, those legendry worriers, seem to have even more to fret over these days. However, I’m baffled the greatest threat to our children is so often sidelined. Road accidents are the leading killer of five to 29 year-olds, according to the World Health Organisation, taking more than 500 young lives a day. If this was war, our best scientists and humanitarians would be devoting their skills to ending it. Yet, aside from solemn little news announcements, the ongoing tragedy is barely acknowledged.
The mass denial of these sudden, brutal deaths of young people means there’s lack of open-ness and discussion around the topic. Those who are grieving often feel alienated, as if their loss was bad luck, or worse, contagious.
Since that ghastly day, I’ve had countless communications from parents understandably shattered after the death of a child. I’ve also heard from an unexpectedly large group of adults who feel their voices aren’t heard.
These are people who, like Rob, lost a sibling when they were younger. Many of them feel their grief was never addressed. No doubt, the adults around them at the time were too consumed by their own anguish to know where to begin.
But I believe it’s possible to approach childhood loss with greater wisdom and empathy.
For a start, there’s a lack of language to help kids whose brother or sister has died. They can’t call themselves orphans or widows, but their grief is equally intense. It might help if they had a title.
This linguistic avoidance probably stems back to society’s unwillingness to address the queasy subject of a small, white coffin. Tragically, children do die, however, and those who are suffering would manage better if people could speak more freely about it. Death is the thing that makes life precious, after all.
Sam’s still a big part of our lives. Birthdays and anniversaries are never forgotten. I hope Rob forgives me for being so poorly equipped to help him through that dreadful time. I was 28 years old and, apart from losing an 86 year-old nana in Hawera, it was my first experience of death.
Sam’s photo beams down at me as I write this. I often wonder what he’d look like today, what line of work he’d be doing and, if he’d provided cousins for Annie and Stella, what sort of father he’d be.
I hurried along the footpath, dragging Stella in my wake. To my relief, Annie was waiting at the corner. She swept a strand of hair from her face and took my free hand in hers. We looked both ways as my breathing returned to normal, then crossed.
My heart goes out to every New Zealander who loses a child on the road this year.