Our son, Matthew, died in April 2001 from a heroin overdose. He was thirty years old. He was the middle one of three boys and he had begun experimenting with drugs and alcohol probably in his early teens. His behaviour changed drastically then, but it can be hard to know the difference between "normal" teenage behaviour and drug use. And he was the last child one would imagine to try drugs – he loved sport, had lots of friends, detested people smoking and knew about the dangers.
So all through the long years of Matthew's addiction to drugs there was the hope that one day, eventually, he would - he must - recover. It seemed impossible that the son who had been the most beautiful and loving of children could be lost forever to the nightmare world that he - and we - now inhabited.
When he died it was the end of that hope, and more devastating than I could ever have imagined. For of course I had imagined and dreaded it, had lived with that fear for nearly fifteen years, but the reality, the absolute finality, was beyond any imagining.
I'd always thought I would be one of the parents who wrote publicly about their child, campaigned against drugs, raised money to help others. In fact I did none of these things. I struggled with the most mundane everyday tasks – it took all my energy simply to get through each day. So Matthew's death rocked my own self-image – I wasn't the person I'd imagined myself to be, and I no longer had the purpose which had driven me for so many years.
During those terrible early months I was helped more than anything by the love and support of our other sons and their partners, as well as my sisters – they all loved Matthew too. We all needed to stay strong and caring for his daughter, who was only eight years old. There was also Matthew's dog! I certainly didn't want a dog at the time, but after three months, when no-one else could care for her, she came to us, and having to go out twice a day for long country walks probably did more than anything else to calm me.
Later on, around the end of the first year, I found help from The Compassionate Friends, a most wonderful organisation for bereaved parents. Not through their support groups, but through the website and "meeting" other parents there. I think the reason I didn't want to attend a group was mainly because of the way Matthew died. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it could be hard for parents who had lost a child through illness or accident to empathise with the loss of a child through drugs. I think I myself might have felt this way in the past. And I didn't want to feel ashamed of Matthew – that was the last thing I needed. Through the TCF website I found parents with the same experience, and many, many others whose children had died in different circumstances, but who were still able to reach out to me with compassion and understanding. It's been wonderful to actually meet and talk with some of these friends during the years since.
One of the postings which most resonated with me was a description of "The Circle of Grief". It describes a mother's perception of the way her life was and has become since her child died.
"The woman's child had died some years before. At this time, she said, grief consumed her totally, filling every part of her life, awake or asleep.
She drew a picture with a circle to represent her life, and shading to represent her grief. (The circle is completely shaded). She had imagined that as time went by the grief would shrink, and become neatly encapsulated in her life, in a smaller and more manageable way; she was realistic enough to assume that it would never go away completely. (The second circle is drawn with a far smaller area of shading to illustrate grief as smaller).
But what happened was different. The grief stayed just as big but her life grew around it. (The third illustration shows the grief as the original size but a far bigger circle, unshaded, had grown around it). There were particular times, dates, or moments which reminded her of her child, when she operated entirely out of the shaded circle in her life and her grief felt just as intense as it ever had. But increasingly she was able to experience life in the larger circle".
The description continues: "This model relieves the expectation that the grief should largely go away. It explains the dark days and also explains the richness and depth that the experience of grief had given to the woman's life".
Almost fifteen years on this has proved true for me at any rate. Life does continue, with other joys and sadnesses. There is no recovery from losing Matthew, but there is a need to keep his memory alive and perhaps help or influence others in however small a way.
I've stopped looking for reasons as I did continually in the early days, the thoughts and questions going round and round in my mind, with no resolution or relief. I've stopped trying to make sense of it all because there isn't any. He was a child, and his brain was still forming, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time in his life. He wasn't abandoned by his family – he was loved and cared about, but still it happened. He experimented, as many teenagers do, and he could never have expected that taking those stupid risks would lead to such a terrible end. It was an accident, like taking the wrong turn on a mountain top or diving into shallow water.
The death of a child changes one's life as profoundly as their birth and we can never be the person we once were. There is no escape from the grief – it is still often overwhelming – but there is no option but to live with it, and so it becomes part of life. In the words of another dear friend: "The yearning comes and goes, and I expect it now, like the tides".