Tom Clabburn

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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? 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.

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.

Paul Clabburn