What Our Daughter’s Death Taught Us About Grief And Parenting After Tragedy

It’s been twelve years since Amelia’s death – but we never stop grieving for the child we lost, writes Dan Lipscombe.
Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

Reality only really set in when I read the local newspaper headline: “Amelia loses fight for life”.

Those words were printed on 9 February 2007, the day after my daughter died. She was three-years-old, and had been a passenger in a car accident. Before her death, she’d spent five days in Great Ormond Street Hospital, 40 miles from her home. By the last day of her hospital stay, a brain scan revealed she was brain dead – 80% of her brain cells could no longer be distinguished between the grey and white of a healthy brain – and our family, including my partner who was also injured in the accident, gathered around her bed to say goodbye. Life support was removed in the early evening as snow fell outside for the first time that winter. Four months later, our second daughter Isabelle was born, healthy and happy.

The coming years would prove to be difficult for all of us. Grieving for a lost child never ends, but life must carry on. Birthdays had to be celebrated, Christmas came around fast and brought the family together again, though there was now always a solemn, empty space at the dinner table. Two years later, Isabelle began to notice photos on the walls, and our visits to the cemetery became tangible. Our third daughter, Matilda, had since arrived and made Isabelle a big sister (which she relished) but she had begun to ask, in her own way, who the girl on the wall was. It was time to explain that she was a little sister to someone she would never meet.

“But I’m a big sister” she said to us. My wife and I tried to explain to her that she was both a big sister and a little sister. The middle child. Once the concept finally sunk in, the inevitable question arose: “where is Amelia?” How to answer a question so simply asked but almost impossible to reply? My wife, from a Christian upbringing, wanted to specify Amelia was in heaven. As an atheist I wasn’t so sure, but the concept of heaven worked in Isabelle’s two-year old mind; it gave her some guidance, but above all it gave her hope. We’d eventually have the same conversation with Matilda, this time with knowledge and an older Isabelle who chimed in at all the right times.

“Amelia's death gave us the chance to show her sisters that death was not the end – and teach them that a person can be remembered after they’ve gone.”

Amelia’s death brought a spectre into the household. She wasn’t only a constant shadow to us as parents, but it raised more questions as time went on. Profound questions philosophers have spent years trying to answer, such as “what is death?” and “where do we go when we die?” and “is it like sleeping?” These got easier to answer as time went on and our kids grew. Even today, aged twelve and ten, they talk about Amelia watching over them. Her death had become not exactly a positive, but a guiding light. She gave us the chance to show her sisters that death was not the end – and teach them that a person can be remembered after they’ve gone. This leant us some comfort too, in that we could share something which eased the pain.

Of course, this wasn’t like a grandparent passing on, where we could nudge them into remembering happy times. They’d never known Amelia. So, we had to build her as a person in their minds, someone real who moved, laughed and cried; someone who wasn’t just a static image on the bookcase. We told them stories of her antics, the ups and the downs, the holidays and her favourites – stuffed animals, TV shows, songs, but we had to be cautious also. We spoke to the girls’ teachers, introducing them to Amelia, because she might come up in conversation during class, or be drawn into a family portrait with blunted crayons.

We became cautious of anxiety, especially in Isabelle. As she grew older, she began to talk of “missing” Amelia. We didn’t want her to grow up in the shadow, fearful of what might happen to her, seeing as it so easily happened to her sibling. Isabelle became the ‘sensitive’ child, prone to worrying or fear of being called upon. Was it related to what she’d had to learn and perhaps be burdened with? Maybe we had guarded her a little too much against life? It’s hard to say. We did what we thought was best. We tried to turn grieving into celebration instead, making anniversaries a moment to reflect on the joy of that person having existed, rather than departed.

Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

As my girls have grown up and their learning has expanded, Amelia didn’t die from “banging her head in an accident”. Instead we were honest and told them about a car accident. Told them about the hospital. It was – and still is – hard; watching their faces contort as they try to imagine the unimaginable. We had to learn everything with them, we had to adapt as they did. We began to learn new ways to memorialise her and talking to them in time brought out the happier memories rather than the sad thoughts. The girls suggested ways we could remember her too – souvenirs bought on holiday to be taken to her grave. There was always a constant, though: Amelia was gone and wouldn’t come back. In this, I suppose our parenting changed. In essence, we were doing everything for the first time again.

With Amelia we learned a lot of ‘the firsts’ which then came naturally with the others – but we were extra fearful, constantly sat on the edge of our seats when they learned new things or physically explored their surroundings too. Sending them off to school is a nerve-wracking time as it is for every parent, but I, who was at work when the car accident happened, remember being a bundle of nerves. I hated not being present or for my partner, at least, to be there to protect them. I constantly worried, and still do now, that they will be taken from me too. Maybe this means I’ve ‘over-parented’ at times, halted progress in order to hold onto them. I needed to watch over them, regain some kind of control which would prevent tragedy.

I suppose this made us more responsive and reactive parents, hyper aware of scenarios which could pose a danger; triple checking seatbelts, locks, home safety. Not only this, but as my partner and I were becoming more aware of our own mental weaknesses, we looked for them in Isabelle and Matilda, providing different types of comfort, making sure to be there to talk through emotional problems.

“I often spend moments wondering how she would have grown, what kind of young lady she would be now. This is perhaps the rawest pain...”

Socially, life became much harder. Amelia hung over each new friendship like a cloud. Inevitably meeting new people comes round to conversations about how many kids you have – Do I say two and avoid the conversation? Or do I admit three and explain, which always brings on the head tilt and the apology, making me feel awkward? Of course, nobody knows what to say when I do bring it up, how would they? Even I don’t know what to think, still. As Isabelle grew up, there were talks between my partner and I, ‘should we mention Amelia?’. Thankfully taking Isabelle to pre-school was easier, Amelia had attended and, on her death, the teachers supported us, named a part of the school after her. We stuck to these easier scenarios, enrolling Isabelle in similar clubs and classes, saving us from the ‘conversation’.

Twelve years on, of course we still celebrate and talk about Amelia – what we think she would have been like, what kind of young woman she would have been, how she might have guided her sisters. This is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of Amelia’s death we’ve had to deal with – I often spend moments wondering how she would have grown, what kind of young lady she would be now. This is perhaps the rawest pain: nothing could ever provide an answer, and imagining her in scenarios we never got the chance to see only amplifies her loss.

When my partner went for the first antenatal scan, Amelia waited in the reception rooms outside eager for news. We came out, gave her a printed photo of the scan which she insisted on showing everyone, proud that she would have a younger sibling to coach and watch over. I think she still did that, but in a very unique way. We make sure to tell Isabelle and Matilda how proud she would be when they do well at something. They know her now, I think.

Despite all the pain and sadness, it’s in these conversations where happiness lies. They mention her, we smile and laugh, and we all remember Amelia as a wonderful moment in our lives, rather than a tragic event. This helps us heal, and that healing will carry on.

Dan Lipscombe is a video game journalist and father

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