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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 November 2007, 10:13 GMT
Facing life after losing your son
By Paul Clabburn
BBC News

Tom Clabburn
Still mad about the boy - my son Tom
Today should have been my son's 15th birthday. Instead I am writing about life after Tom.

Tom died in his sleep in October this year of an undiagnosed heart-related condition.

He had been fit, active, healthy, doing well at school, bright and happy. We were not, in any way, prepared.

This is not about my wife or my daughter.

Other than saying that they will always be everything to me, their story is for them.

This is about me and Tom. It is about the living and the dead.

For at this moment, the two are wrapped around each other in an embrace that is tight and total and painful. I would not have it any other way.

Dreaded event

The event that I most dreaded has happened and there are no words to describe how I feel.

It's like a tsunami of the soul, a huge destructive overwhelming force that leaves nothing good in its wake

That, though, has never defeated any hack worth their salt.

So here goes. How do I feel? It's like a tsunami of the soul, a huge destructive overwhelming force that leaves nothing good in its wake and whose ripples surge outwards to touch all those who are near you.

Life's landscape changes irrevocably, yet the painfully familiar remains as a reminder of what was.

Somehow, in all the devastation, there are tiny patches of upland on which to rebuild.

Not quickly, not easily, but you can rebuild. I cling to that thought.

I can no longer control tears, sadness, anger.

Tom Clabburn
Tom on stage during a theatre production

A word, a gesture, a sound, a fragment of a memory that spins off to replay endlessly, anything and everything can trigger the most abrupt change.

At its worst, it is a physical event, a spasm of bleakness, a feeling of sickness deep in my gut.

Not easy to laugh

At its best, even in the midst of all this, there is laughter too, often centred on my joker son.

Laughter, of course, is no longer straightforward.

I am part of a club I never wanted to join

Happiness and sadness co-exist in the same moment, cradling the same memory in a way I never thought possible.

Boundaries no longer matter.

Suddenly, every story about someone who has lost a child, whatever the age of parent and whether by bomb or bullet, accident or ill-health, in this country or elsewhere, takes on a different complexion.

Where once I could feel only sympathy, now, to a degree, I can empathise.

I have a link. I, like all those others, am part of a club I never wanted to join.

There are no rules on how I make use of my membership, no handy guides. It's just me.

Natural order

If you're living, as I do in London, or any part of the affluent West, you "know" that children do not die before their parents.

My Mum died in 2005 and my Dad in 2006. They were of the wartime generation, an evacuee and a Normandy veteran, straight out of the school of hard knocks.

On the afternoon of Tom's funeral, I drank more than I've done in decades - I didn't feel a thing

I grieved long and hard for what I'd lost.

Yet they were old and Tom was young. Their deaths were the natural order. His was not.

But children do die. Although the specific cause of Tom's death is comparatively rare, the fact of his passing is not.

As a parent, I mostly chose to stay away from this inconvenient fact on the basis that if I thought too hard about such things, I wouldn't be capable of much else. It wasn't something I wanted to think about.

In the immediate days after Tom's death, shock took over.

Shock helps. Shock protects. On the afternoon of Tom's funeral, I drank more than I've done in decades, by my standards enough to sink a battleship.

I didn't feel a thing. Next day I had no hangover, total recall and an overpowering sense of "What next?". The rest of my life was the answer.

Too many questions

Shock has been replaced over the following weeks by endless questions revolving around "What if?" and "If only?". It is draining.

It is only by physically putting one foot in front of the other, walking and talking with my wife, that I can start another day and head to work

I struggle to get out of bed. I make myself do so because it is only by physically putting one foot in front of the other, walking and talking with my wife, that I can start another day and head to work.

I try to confront as much as I can, go to the places he and I used to go, watch what we used to watch together.

It is a battle and I am fighting it as aggressively as I am able. Anger, I'm told, is natural at this time.

Ever eaten a fried egg in a fury? Tom liked fried eggs. So do I, yet I wasn't sure I could face one.

The first time I did, I did so because I am not going to give up what he or I enjoyed. I forced it down. It was a small victory.

Nobody to blame

So anger can help, it can help me to push back against fate, to tell myself that however low I go, I will not stay down, I will look the world in the eye and to hell with anyone who doesn't want to look back.

I can honestly say I'm not angry at any individual.

Tom Clabburn
The football fan at an England game

There is nobody to blame for Tom's death, for which I am grateful. My rage is at the unfairness and it means I do not always cope as I should.

Sadness, though, is the predominant emotion and I have my own strategies for self-preservation. I've gone to counselling for the first time and found it useful.

I've always enjoyed a beer, now I've cut right back because just one occasion so far was enough to show that grief and too much alcohol doesn't work for me.

So no booze and a shrink is the answer? Whatever works is the answer.

Being prepared is also part of my self-preservation.

The perfectly normal question "How are you?" can throw me completely.

Now, I have my honest, autopilot replies of "It's hour by hour" or "Ask me in 10 years".

If you're really lucky, I might give both replies, or I might take you through things. I simply don't know.

What can people say?

Therein is a huge issue. Not only is there no guidebook for me - well, there are a few and I'm reading them - there're also no guides for friends or colleagues.

People are unsure about the approach to take. Do they say too little or too much? Do they acknowledge or do they ignore? Do they talk about their children or not?

I don't trust another person's protective instincts

It's therefore not only about when I am ready to speak to people, it's also about when they are ready to speak to me.

I try to keep in mind that, even when I've been asked a truly insensitive question or had to listen to someone muse on how they might feel in similar circumstances, they're trying to reach out.

We're all walking on eggshells which break without warning.

The absolute truth about how I feel remains within me, within my family and with my closest friends.

Upon them rests the dubious distinction of me admitting if I feel terrible.

I'm not going to dwell on it any more than I can help, neither am I going to say I'm okay if I'm not.

If they feel terrible, they tell me, or at least they claim they do. I don't trust another person's protective instincts.

I can't see any other way other than such honesty if relationships are not to fracture under the weight of tip-toeing around the big bastard elephant in the corner.

Many tributes

Our friends are mourning our son and trying to support us.

They are doing a magnificent job and I do not under-estimate the cost.

This is just about the most public way I know of saying: "Thank you - and look out for yourselves."

I acknowledge, too, that so many people have shown a huge generosity of spirit, cooking food, running errands, putting time and effort into showing they care.

Tom's own friends have posted all sorts of tributes on the net and I take strength from what I see.

Type in "RIP Tom" on You Tube and my son appears alongside others who have died too young. There, that link, again.

The kindness of strangers is also remarkable.

People have shared what they had previously kept hidden - their own similar experiences as parents or siblings.

One person confided that they were an alcoholic in an effort to steer me clear of seeing drink as the answer.

I want to thank them all: from the bloke who installed our boiler to the builders working on our house; from the people at Cardiac Risk in the Young to the journalist Matthew Engel, who responded to my wife's ad hoc letter.

Take a look at the links on this page if you have time.

No closure

After so many words, I think what I've written is an aide memoire.

I've loved my son and daughter equally, learned from both equally and will continue to both love and learn from them.

I'm not looking for "closure", I'm looking for Tom to stay with me in a way that allows me to smile as well as mourn.

It's a different journey from the one I wanted, no doubt with many missed turnings and steep hills along the way.

However, it is a journey that I hope I - and we as a family - will continue to go on.

And we will make it.

Your comments:

We know how you feel, we lost our 11 year old daughter in tragic accident on holiday in June 07. Thank you for writing. Just to know we are not alone helps a little but it is going to be a long tough journey for us all. Take care. Lindsey, Rob and Laura(8).
Lindsey King,

Dear Paul, You will make it, I lost my son in a car accident and he was 22 years old. My wife had a break-down and I felt the same as you feel now, the sickness deep inside. Nick died in 1999 and he was living with his older brother in Dubai and we live in Yorkshire. We couldn't get there to help his older brother (Jonathan) cope with what was happening.

It's a long story but I would like you to know that it will get better, it will take time but when I think of Nick now - it's all good thoughts because of the love we had for him is never ending. I hope this may help you and your family.
John Goodwin, Bigley, West Yorkshire

Thank you so much for putting into words so many thoughts and feelings I have been unable to express myself. Our daughter died in her sleep in November this year - just three weeks ago. We have no explanation at all - they tell us we may never know why it happened. There are no words to 'make it easier' and we wouldn't want that anyway, but it is some comfort to know our daughter touched so many lives and was loved and will be missed by so many people.
Jon Cooper, Camborne, Cornwall

Almost thirty years after losing my brother, aged 19, Paul's article still strikes a chord. Many of his emotions are familiar to all of us who have been through such loss. Although it won't mean much just now, Paul, be assured that the emotion which lasts longest and shines brightest is love.
Terry MacCallum, Barry, Angus

My parents lost their nearly five-year-old son, my brother in 1975 - he had a brain haemorrhage. They suffered, just like Paul, with the "what ifs" and the horror of having to carry on with your life after burying your child. Although they never got over his death in some ways, they managed to stay together.

My mother found a good deal of support through the organisation "The Compassionate Friends" as you can only really empathise if you've been through a similar situation. She ended up doing some peer counselling, and I am sure that this helped. My prayers are with you, and I admire your bravery in sharing this story in such a public way as I am sure it will help others in the same situation as you are.
Nichola Vincendeau, Cranbrook, UK

Your story is heartbreaking I lost my Dad to tragic circumstances last year i have found the following website a great help maybe it will help you:

Elizabeth, Greenfield

One of the most moving and honest pieces I've ever read. Having lost both my parents and elder brother by the age of 22 I can understand your range of emotions. You managed to express the inexpressible, it's incredibly hard for 'non members' to understand and for those 'members' to express their emotions.
Nathaniel Wilde, London

Re: "ask me in 10 years". As one of the 'Club' of people who joined through the loss of a son (child). I can reassure you that it (the pain) does ease. After 10 years I still miss him - but, well, you just get used to it...
john Stevens, Coggeshall

Truly sad story, but long live Tom's memory. Fantastically written. I feel for you, and it is an unimaginable situation to be in, but it is great you can explain to others how you feel. The most important thing is that you all remember him forever.
Gary Berendt, Poole, Dorset

This is for Paul. I don't know you, or your family. I'm not even from your country, and I am too young to be a parent. I don't know why I am writing this really, but I wanted to say something to you. I won't go into how I can empathize with your situation because that doesn't do anything. And I won't tell you how to grieve or deal with anything. But once, when I was grieving, a friend told me to read something and it helped me a little. Emily Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers." I am praying for you and your son.
Carolyn Smith, Philadelphia, USA

Dear Paul,

Death is cruel and I fear it. But don't hold tom's soul back let his soul go.

A child is like a borrowed move. The most unfortunate thing is that we don't know when the owner will need it back. Usually he comes at unexpected time. Sometimes he comes when you have almost finished watching the move, sometimes when you are just in the middle of watching it, the worst is when you have just started watching it, like in the case of Tom.

May Tom's soul rest in peace and may god guide and comfort you and your family during this trying times.
A Banda, Blantyre, Malawi

Paul - cry all you want, but I hope and pray that soon you'll learn to smile and laugh again. I am certain that in a special way, Tom will always be with you. Being a father myself, all I can do is to pray for you, so here it goes. I wish you "peace".
Mujahid Khan, NJ, USA

I am so sorry for your loss, I was going through the BBC web site and found your article. I really pray you find peace deep inside your heart and soul and that peace will give you the strength to move on in a realistic manner. Death is a reality and so is life, we all have to face it alone one day. As we came into in this world so will we be leaving it alone. All my prayers are with you and your family. I hope God gives you the courage and strength to overcome this great loss. I feel your pain though I have no kids.
Maryam, Pakistan

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