'Fifty years after losing my wife and child, the pain truly hit me'

Losing a child may well be the ultimate violation of the rules of life. Photo: Pixabay

The date was November 21, 1967, and, would you believe, just six days before John Farnham released the hit song ‘Sadie’, the number that would set him on a path to vocal fame. It was a Tuesday, a day that was to become special, but for perhaps the worst reason any parent can imagine – and so shattering it was some months before ‘Sadie’ even managed to enter my consciousness.

That Tuesday was the day my wife and daughter died in a faultless accident, but no less hurtful for that. A runaway truck had landed on their car as they came to see me at work, bringing lunch for us to share. My life split asunder as the young police sergeant – close to tears himself – brought me the news.

On that day I lost the love of my life, the girl I married. I eventually found a new companion and remarried a dozen years later, till death did us part this time, due to ill health after 33 wonderful years. Isla, my first born and only child, the image of her mother, was something else again. I was never graced with another child. Over the years – and, as you will note, 50 have now passed – I have become inured to the fact, effectively anaesthetised, in a way. It hasn’t always been easy.

Initially, I was in a state of shock, Mother Nature’s way of protecting her own, and came through the first few weeks dulled by the experience. The prevalent sensations through that early period were disbelief, the injustice of it all, and an all-pervading sense of guilt: What could I have done to prevent it happening?

As the depth of loss dawned on me and I worked to regain my place in society, it was with the realisation I was now saddled with others’ expectations of how I should appear or how I should act. There was too great an emphasis on treating me with kid gloves. Empathetic, certainly, but entirely unnecessary and, in its own way, managing to exacerbate my innate guilt, something that took years to overcome.

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Perhaps the strangest aspect was that, if you reacted differently to how others expected, you’d be shunned, would lose their sympathy. There’d be nothing spoken but relationships would change, and not for the better. All of a sudden you’d no longer find yourself welcomed into mixed company, or be invited to a Saturday night barbecue, or have Wendy or Shirley try to match you up with a cousin or a friend.

A fresh start seemed necessary, so I sold up and moved interstate, settling into a new life in a new society in which nobody knew my immediate background. I made the most of my altered circumstances and, as mentioned, eventually found ‘the one’, someone who accepted me for whom and for what I was, and remarried. The three decades that followed were a panacea, modified only by my new bride’s long, slow death to an incurable disease. Caring for her over her last decade as life slowly ebbed from her was therapeutic and one of the most defining experiences of my time on earth.

In the meantime, I’ve come through five further anniversaries of my earlier loss, coping well. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, came the day five decades after that dreadful occurrence when I hit a brick wall.

Although I spend much of my life helping others, I found my creative side had dried up. That was three months ago and I am only now coming back out of the fog that descended on me. It didn’t seem a matter of melancholic self-pity or depression so much as a sorrowful recall of the pretty little four-year-old who never had the chance to grow and to bear children of her own, let alone feel the joy of holding her first grandchild…

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Then came the realisation: I was substituting her for me. Whether or not I was prepared to accept the soubriquet I was, after all, wallowing in self-pity in my recall of Isla’s death. I’m coming out of it and know the strength that’s kept me going this past half-century will see me through whatever years of life I have ahead.

Losing a child may well be the ultimate violation of the rules of life, but there is no reason for it to cause, in itself, an end to otherwise productive life.

Can you relate to this story?There are many organisations available to help those who suffer loss of any sort or who find themselves depressed, some under the heading Support Groups, but two may be of immediate help:

Compassionate Friends Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14