Parents united by grief
DESPITE the occasional smiles and bouts of laughter, the tears are never very far from the surface.
The grief is something they have had to learn to live with since their daughters and son became part of a roll call that is every parents’ worst nightmare:
DUGGAN, Lucy Grace. Wall. Tragically on August 25, 2013, aged 18 years.
GUMBLEY, Freya Camilla. Hexham. Tragically passed away aged seven years on Wednesday, January 7, 2015.
RIDLEY, Stuart John. Wark. Peacefully at home on July 14, 2015, aged 25 years.
What Barbara Duggan, Freya’s mum Julie Forster and Celia Ridley still can’t get over is how their families’ lives changed in an instant.
Lucy’s life was snuffed out by a boy-racer, doing speeds of up to 130mph, smashing into another car head-on after he lost control going over the little stone bridge at Dilston Haugh.
Freya, a pupil at Beaufront First School, was suddenly taken ill during a school swimming lesson at the Wentworth Centre.
The best efforts of pool-side staff and the Great North Air Ambulance proved no match for the burst brain aneurysm that took her.
And Stuart was preparing to go off on holiday with friends when he developed a headache so bad he asked his mother to take him to hospital. It was the first sign of the brain tumour that killed him just five months later.
But what also binds their mothers together today is the alienation their grief has imposed. It has driven a wedge between them and some of those who should be closest to them, whether that be family and/or friends.
A Hexham-based support group, Parents Forever, launched with the help of bereavement counsellor the Rev. Janet Jackson is the reason the women are speaking out now.
They are keen to promote the fact that if you are in the same boat, you are not alone.
“Janet said ‘you think of a name’, so I called it Parents Forever because you are still a parent,” said Barbara.
“You are still that child’s parent, even though they aren’t alive any more, and I think lots of people forget that.”
A second Parents Forever group will start in September.
The idea is that each new group will run for a year, with meetings programmed in, after which the members will go forward as a group of friends.
Thirteen members joined last year’s group and nine or 10 regularly attended the meetings. That sense of alienation was a common thread.
“My life just changed overnight,” said Julie. “One day I was in the school yard and then I never was again.
“Freya was my only child and all my friends were Freya’s friends’ mothers, and this awkwardness creeps in, where you and they see their children passing milestones Freya never will.
“It’s like you just suddenly go to another world. I attended a group called Compassionate Friends in Newcastle for a little while and they call it planet mourning.”
Barbara puts it even more bluntly: “It’s four years since I lost Lucy and there’s none of the friends I had beforehand left in my life now.
“My friends couldn’t deal with it and just peeled away. Society wants you to put a mask on and make out you’re alright when you aren’t, or they want to fix you, but it can’t ever be fixed.
“What you need are people to walk beside you while you go through the storm.”
Celia said her thoughts were so often with Stuart, the youngest of her three sons, that she found it hard to concentrate on everyday tasks. The family’s farm, near Wark, is miles from anywhere, but she finds the thinking time driving inflicts on her the worst of all.
“That’s when my thoughts start to stray,” she said. “Music can be a killer too. I can hear just a few words that fit ... last Christmas it was ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ and that was it, I sobbed all the way to Hexham.”
For Celia, the year-long flurry of activity that came with the Stay Strong Stu fund-raising campaign helped enormously. Not only did it fill her time, but it kept him alive for that bit longer.
“It helped to know he wasn’t just dead and put in the ground and forgotten,” she said.
But everyone reacts differently and Celia is the first to acknowledge that. “Members of my family would have liked to have gone away to cope in a dark corner.”
Barbara’s reaction was to withdraw from the world, and she speaks with raw honesty when she says the different ways in which those closest to her have dealt with it has taken a toll on relationships.
“People say ‘you have a strong marriage’, but it’s not like that – you are just living in your own alien world,” she said. “You deal with things differently.”
While she was quite simply numb with grief those first few weeks and months, her husband and son were angry, and particularly so when the case reached court.
Barbara said: “The police kept in touch with us throughout the court case until, in the end, I couldn’t answer the phone. Then there was the appeal, which happened on the Friday, but we weren’t told about it until the following week.
“He got his prison sentence halved (from eight years to four) and his driving ban halved too.
“The victim seems to count for nothing. We were left feeling like the driver has all these rights and we don’t seem to have any.”
Christmas, what would have been their son and daughters’ birthdays and the anniversary of their deaths are unbearably painful.
August 25 has assumed a terrible poignancy for the three mums in that it was both Stuart and Freya’s birthdays and the date on which Lucy died.
Julie said: “I thought I was the only person who hated Christmas and the school holidays before I joined this group – you just feel the hole that’s there.”
And all three of them wrestle with the question that Julie had been asked again that morning.
“I’ve just been to Slimming World and the lady sat next to me said ‘Do you have any kids?’
“How do you answer that? I just said no, but then I spent the rest of the day picking over it. Was that being disrespectful to Freya?”
In sparing the blushes of others, they had all experienced the pain of feeling they had denied their children who have gone.
Julie is still Freya’s mother, Barbara is still Lucy’s and Celia is the mother of three sons, not two.
Anyone who would like to know more about Forever Parents and the new group that starts in September can contact Janet Jackson via email: email@example.com.
It is for bereaved parents no matter what age their offspring when they died nor how long ago.