reflections: five voices from the family

This month on Glow in the Woods, we are examining family relationships--both our family of origin and the one we create on our life's journey. We want to look at how those relationships change after the death of our child(ren)--how they grow, how they suffer, how our parents and siblings grieve, and how they bear witness to our suffering. Today, we asked the family members of our regular contributors to talk about their grief, the death of their grandchildren, nephew, and niece, and the experience of bearing witness to our grief. We are honored to have them sharing their voices here.


jess' father, tauny.

Debbie and I knew her birth date in advance.  We had no hesitation in enjoying another day cycling in the Pyrenees with our friends, secure in the knowledge that the day was already special.  The route up Port de Bales was challenging, exhausting but exciting, all the more so because of the impending delivery which we chatted and laughed about with our other cycling friends – “How old are you, Granddad?”  “Come on Granddad, keep up” – the usual banter.  

At the end of the afternoon, we were about to head down to the evening meal with the group when the anticipated call came... and our lives changed irrevocably.  Debbie took the call from Jessica, expecting happiness but instead receiving the worst possible news from our distraught daughter – Iris was a stillbirth.  We were stunned.  Telling our friends, packing the bikes, hastily arranging flights back to the UK and driving into hospital was a soft, grey canvass smeared by a casual hand stroke.  Meeting Iris and sharing our grief with Jessica, her husband David and rest of the family will remain a jagged and sharply etched memory.

It was not the first time I had experienced severe illness in children, death in childhood, or even still births.  As a paediatrician of twenty-five years, I had “been there, done that” many times in the role of a caring but detached health professional.  My role was to diagnose and treat children, to alleviate suffering, to prevent the consequences of illness and to counsel affected families with warm, wise words.  I was told I was good at my job, and prided myself in my knowledge, my skill and my empathy.  

My experience was no preparation for dealing with Iris.  Intellectually, I could comprehend her death, but emotionally, as a father and grandfather, I was raw, blind and helpless. It was not possible to reconcile professional and family roles and the conflict was devastating.  Even now, several years and many distressing discussions later, there has been little resolution and thoughts of Iris jangle discordantly at work and at home.   

There is a little hole in our lives, and I can’t heal it.

catherine w.'s mother, cynthia.

The consultant who delivered the twins described the survivor as ‘an innocent bystander’, for although she was intimately bound up with her twin sister and with her underwent their extremely premature birth, she did not play an active part in the events preceding and following their birth. Held in her own membrane and nourished by her own placenta, she simply slipped out after her slightly larger sister and in turn was scooped up and cared for by professionals. And at once she was a ‘bystander’ no longer, for all passivity and inaction were gone as she in turn embarked on her struggle to survive.

The dictionary definition of the word ‘bystander’ is as follows: ‘A person who is standing by; a passive witness; a spectator.’  All of which shows what an odd sort of word it is, because what is being described is in effect someone who simply happens to be present, someone who is not a participant but could give an account of what they have seen, and someone who has stayed to look on. A number of other words, some pejorative, could be used to describe such a one, for what right thinking person would choose to be a bystander? In normal circumstances I would certainly not stand by. If I could be of no help, I would leave so that others could get on with doing what they need to. And yet, when my daughter’s twin girls were born, I could not tear myself away even though I could do nothing more than stand by, and be a passive witness, a spectator. Hard as it was to see our tiny grandchildren fighting to stay alive, I would not have been anywhere else, and painful as the whole experience was, it was also a privilege to witness their struggle. Twin 1, as she was styled by the hospital, lived for four days. She fought so hard and rallied time and again, exceeding expectation time and again. Knowing that she would be left with less and less each time she refused to submit, I could not find it in me to exhort her to fight harder or to hope that her life could be prolonged beyond what she could bear, certainly not for our sake, the sake of the living.  

She died in the afternoon, in the arms of her mother and with her father by her. Unable to hold her until there was no hope for her, they gently tended to their little girl until she died and then prepared her little body for the morgue. Her life was so short and yet complete. She was brave and dignified. She certainly taught me as much in the few hours I had with her as those who have shared many years with me. I am deeply grateful for her life and for the kindness and generosity of my daughter and her husband for allowing their respective birth families to ‘stand by’. We could do so little to help and I for one was keenly aware that I was very much on the outside looking in as I witnessed my daughter and her husband go through something I had never experienced with courage, fortitude and dignity.

chris' brothers, mark and michael.


I remember the day I drove home from work shouting and screaming with tears running down my face.  I remember the mad dash to get things in order and get down to Connecticut.  

A deep, profound sadness cut into me and spread like cancer the day Silas died.  I also remember seeing the small divide between my older brother me that had slowly transformed into a canyon as days and weeks turned into month and years start to diminish. The tragic event that transformed all of us also built an unbreakable bridge between two disconnected brothers. It draws us closer to each other every day.  

I'll never say anything good has come from all of this, but I will say ONE thing has changed for the better.


This horrific situation brought us closer together as brothers.  I stayed at the house for a couple weeks after the tragic event and although it was horrible to deal with such raw emotions, I knew I needed to be there. It reinforced how strong our brotherly bond truly was.  

Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with difficult family situations having dealt with a mother battling MS my entire life.  It seemed very natural to just drop everything and be there in any and all ways I could for as long as I was needed.  As time passed, however, it became more difficult to know exactly how much support I should be giving and how much support my brother needed.  I tried to make sure I was there as a shoulder to lean on, but sometimes felt like maybe I was coming up short.  

As years passed, I was able to make some peace with the situation, but I knew those emotions were still very raw for my brother and sister-in-law.  It was very difficult to see my brother in such anguish and not be able to do anything to help him.  The only silver lining in this situation is that Silas has brought us closer together and has made me appreciate how great it is to have the brothers that I have.


angie's twin sister, kellyann.

I held on to my niece as I cried.  She was already asleep, and snoring in that way that little children do.  She just lost her sister, her “almost” twin, and she had no idea of what she has even lost.  This is not happening.  It’s a mistake.  Some stupid horrible mistake that we will never think is funny.  I walked down the stairs of my sister’s house, staring at their beautiful life; and then my eyes stopped at the Christmas tree.  This is a just a bad dream.  I’m going to wake up and it’ll all be gone.

People often ask me what it’s like to be a twin, which is a hard question to answer when it’s all you’ve ever been.  I can tell you that when I wake up in the morning she is the first person I call, and when I have news about anything, she is the first and sometimes only person I tell.  She celebrates with me when I am triumphant; she holds me when I am sad; and she tells me I am being an ass when I am being an ass.  My children call her their “other Mama”.  She brings me coffee, love, crafts, stories and joy in the middle of the afternoon for no reason at all.  She is quite simply my very best friend of thirty-seven years.

The next morning I arrived at the hospital, and quickly found my sister and her husband.  They looked tired, puffy-eyed, and both forced a smile.  I hugged them and cried, and my natural instinct to make sad people happy starting wrestling against my tears.  Wake up, Kelly.  Wake the hell up.  I still remember turning on the tv to some inane comedy thing just to help us forget where we were, why we were there and what this means for our family.

I not only lost a niece that day, but also my very best friend lost her daughter in the cruelest way I could imagine.  My niece lost her sister.  My children lost their cousin.  My mother and father lost their granddaughter.  My brother-in-law, who is like a brother, also lost his daughter.  My husband lost his niece.  And when she was born, she was perfect, beautiful.  She looked just like Snow White with her red lips and pale skin, dark hair and delicate features.  She looked just like we imagined.  

We.  It has always been the two of us.  It’s hard to always think of yourself as two sometimes.  Especially when the pain overwhelmed me.  Us.   And so in that way, I felt my uterus contracting as I watched my sister cry and labor Lucy in a darkened, nearly silent room, where the only sounds were her cries and our sniffles.  And for the months after Lucy’s birth and death, I felt my sister’s heartbreak in small and big ways whenever someone asked about the baby, whenever someone didn’t and even when she watched our girls play together.  I listened to her rage and her sadness and her guilt.  She said aloud the things I felt as I looked into her eyes, as I held her hands and drank coffee with her.  

My own grief was often pushed aside to sit with hers.  I think I swallowed it down so I could answer the questions when someone asked about Angie.  I still don’t resent it, if that is what you are wondering.  It helped me function.  I cried when I sat with her.  And watching her so open with her grief taught me so much.  That we all grieve in our own ways.  For me it was crying as I sewed, as I sang along to Nick Drake and washed the dishes, as I held my own children and let them ask me those painfully honest questions that only children can ask.  One of my sister’s favorite quotes is from some bicyclist that I can’t remember, but I do remember the quote.  “It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.”  And I feel the same way with my grief, it doesn’t get easier, you just get better at dealing with it.

It took me months to accept that it had really happened.  I remember calling Angie and crying.  “I can’t believe this happened to us.”

“I know, sister, I know.”

If you are a family member to a grieving mother or father, what has your grief looked like? What is the experience of bearing witness to your child's or sister/brother's grief?

If your child or children have died, what was it like to bear witness to the grief of your immediate family? What do you think their grief experience was like? Did it draw you closer, or push you further apart?