The pain of outliving your child

OUTLIVING your own child is a nightmare which dozens of parents in Suffolk are forced to confront each year. Devastated mothers Val Oakes and Sarah Wright would gladly swap their own lives to bring back their sons.

OUTLIVING your own child is a nightmare which dozens of parents in Suffolk are forced to confront each year. Devastated mothers Val Oakes and Sarah Wright would gladly swap their own lives to bring back their sons. REBECCA LEFORT asks how they cope.

NOBODY expects their child to die before them - it's just not the natural order of life.

But statistics show that one Suffolk family every week is forced to grapple with a changed and darker reality, after losing a child.

And as Suffolk mums Val Oakes and Sarah Wright both know, such tragedy means nothing will ever be the same again.

The two women lost their sons in dramatically different circumstances, one recently and one two years ago, yet they both share many of the same emotions. Every day they feel grief, guilt, despair, anxiety, shock, physical pain, and a still overwhelming love for their child.

Mrs Oakes knew months before Brendan died that she would have to say goodbye to her eldest child, so she cherished every moment with him and grew exceptionally close to the 15-year-old.

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Mrs Wright only realised for sure that her baby son Samuel was about to die, just hours before she lost him forever.

Both women agree that when it comes to losing a child nothing, even prior knowledge, can really be of any consolation, it is like trying to make sense of nonsense.

Even once the rawness of the absolute pain begins to slowly subside it is impossible to put a time limit on grief, it will live with the mothers forever.

In 2005, 52 youngsters aged 0 to 19 died in Suffolk.

Anjula Sharma, who works for bereavement charity Cruse, said: “I think it's harder if a child dies because it is considered unnatural.

“The life has been cut short so parents do talk about swapping over - why should the children suffer or die, they should be enjoying themselves. The parents should die before the children, not the other way round. Do parents ever get over the death? is a question often asked and for a lot of people the answer is 'no'.”

Have you lost a child? How has it affected your life? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail

If you are a parents affected by the loss of a child you can call The Child Death Helpline on 0800282986.

VAL and Mark Oakes had a long time to come to terms with the awful truth that their first-born child was going to die.

But although Mrs Oakes, of Stockton Close, Hadleigh, said this time was enormously welcome, nothing could ever truly dull the pain of losing Brendan.

“You expect to outlive your children - never to bury them,” she said. “Even now I'm not over it, more than two years on. I wonder what Brendan would have been, what he would have done. Thinking about him never goes away. There are certain times you don't think about him because you're busy but everything can remind you.

“My daughter still talks about him like he's still with us. It's a good thing actually; you don't want to shut him out, you have to try to remain positive.

“On his birthday I always buy some flowers, red and white because he was mad on Liverpool. When he was born we bought a bottle of port to open on his 18th and we will drink it on that day.

“I think about him all the time and I still think perhaps I could have done things slightly differently even though it's not logical. I even think 'did I give him the wrong milk'?”

But there was nothing anyone in the family, including Brendan's younger siblings, Christopher and Heather, could have done, because in June 2002 he was diagnosed with bone cancer osteosarcoma. And in 2004 the deadly disease spread to his lungs.

Mrs Oakes said: “I knew Brendan was going to die, I was almost prepared for it.

“I remember being told there was nothing more they could do for him, though they didn't know how long it would take. I just went 'oh, okay' and walked away. Our reactions slowed down - it didn't hit us. It wasn't until the following day that it sunk in.

“We didn't tell him. I felt as parents we couldn't protect him from cancer but we could protect him from the knowledge. We didn't want a death sentence hanging over him. We wanted a sense of normality and to give him as much fun as possible.”

From then on the Oakeses spent all the money they could afford on taking Brendan everywhere he dreamed of and having a wonderful time. However in the back of her mind Mrs Oakes always knew the terrible truth that was eventually going to face all the family.

She said: “I used to find myself staring at him. It was a bit of an act to be happy sometimes but we couldn't have wished to have more fun and I got even closer with Brendan.

“Eventually he asked me if he was going to die and I said 'yes', there was nothing else I could manage to say.”

Then the inevitable finally happened and in May 2005 Brendan died at his Hadleigh home.

“I felt dumb - but also so many emotions. It is impossible to describe,” Mrs Oakes said, with tears running down her face.

Once the reality sank in, Mrs Oakes said she found herself comforting others more than getting support herself, as nobody had any idea what to say to her.

She said: “All I wanted to do was to talk about Brendan and concentrate on the positives.

“But I don't think there is anything worse that can happen to a parent than losing a child, except losing two I suppose.

“I'm not particularly religious but I do hope to see him again one day. It there is a God I'm going to have a lot of questions I want answered though, because what happened was so unfair.”

EVEN though Sarah Wright's son Samuel was just three-and-a-half weeks old when he died in her arms, he was already the light of her life.

She and her husband Colin, had been trying desperately for their first child for more than two years, so to lose Samuel so soon left her feeling like she had lost everything she ever dreamed of.

Mrs Wright, 28, of High View Road, Ipswich, has not had long to come to terms with the sudden death in March, but she bravely spoke candidly about her feelings to The Evening Star.

She said: “I've never had to deal with this sort of grief before.

“I've had grandparents die when I was 12 but it is not in the same league. It's never fair to lose a child - it's not right that a child should go before a parent.

“Now I'm angry and bitter as well as being upset. I see people with babies and I think it's not fair.

“There are mothers who drink and take drugs and they have perfectly healthy children - but I don't want to feel bitter.”

And it is not just other people she feels angry with. Mrs Wright, who is still fighting to discover if Samuel could have been saved, often blames herself for the tragedy.

“I feel guilty a lot and I blame myself,” she said. “The three weeks we had him were the happiest weeks of my life. I would have done anything to save him.

“At the time I just felt shock - you know it's happened and you sort of accept the fact but it's not real - it's like a dream.

“The funeral was when it really hit me, that was two weeks after he died.

“It gets worse, I'm getting worse. First of all I wanted another baby straight away but then I realised I just wanted Sam back and another baby wouldn't bring him back.”

Since the death Mrs Wright has felt very alone, and said it was hard to find people who truly understood what she was going through.

She added: “I had nobody around me, I couldn't face them. They all wanted to be here but that would have been too much. I couldn't speak on the phone without really crying.

“When I'm with other people they say 'how are you' and I say 'I'm fine' - but I'm not.

“I go to the cemetery and cry afterwards. But it is helpful to talk about it sometimes.

“I've been quite spiritual since it happened; a woman said to me Samuel was a warm spirit which was nice to hear. I have planted a rose tree in garden as a memorial. I've found being by myself and having time to reflect quite helpful.

“There's nothing you can do, I've never in my life felt so helpless before.”