Guest post: "My partner drowned before my eyes - nothing can be said in the face of such tragedy"
Two years after her partner's death, and a year since her cancer diagnosis, Decca Aitkenhead says the most useful thing you can say to someone in a crisis is nothing
Journalist and author
Posted on: Mon 18-Apr-16 14:26:36
(24 comments )
It is almost two years now since my life went catastrophically wrong. In May 2014 my partner, Tony, and I were on holiday in Jamaica with our two young sons, then four and two. One morning our eldest boy was pulled out to sea by a riptide current. Tony swam out and managed to keep him afloat long enough for me to reach them and swim him back to shore. But Tony never made it back. By the time local fishermen could get to him, he had inhaled too much seawater. My son and I watched helplessly on the beach as he died in the water in their arms.
The following year was the darkest, loneliest time I thought we would ever know. But five days after the first anniversary of Tony's burial, I discovered I had breast cancer. Since then I have been through six months of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, and my children have had to survive with a mother who can't get out of bed, and a father they can visit only in our village cemetery.
We could never have got through this without the astonishing kindness and support of others. I have wondered a lot about whether, had the circumstances been reversed, I would have known how to be half as generous or useful. I worry that I might not. But I do know that I would have said most – maybe all – of the words many offered, when they were only trying to be helpful. I could not have known that these well-intended words would have the opposite effect.
Until the day my partner drowned before my eyes, I thought of myself as the sort of person who always knew what to say. This was, I have subsequently discovered, a wildly flattering self-delusion. If anything positive can be salvaged from these horrific two years, it is what I have learnt about what not to say to someone in a crisis.
Lots of people assured me that having survived Tony's death, I would be more than equal to beating cancer. They didn't understand that it was precisely because of what we had already been through that I had no fight left.
Any sentence that began, "What you should do..." or "Why don't you...?" filled me with panic. How the sentenced ended was irrelevant; in fact, the more brilliant the suggestion, the less welcome it was. There was already so much to do. As I hadn't the strength to manage any of it, their suggestions only compounded my sense of inadequacy. Dazed and unreachable in my despair, their solution-based thinking was so incomprehensible to me that they might as well have been talking in Chinese.
"You're so strong, you can cope," was similarly counter-productive. I had never felt weaker in my life, and knowing this was yet another expectation I was failing to meet only made me feel worse. Lots of people assured me that having survived Tony's death, I would be more than equal to beating cancer. They didn't understand that it was precisely because of what we had already been through that I had no fight left.
When I told people that I wished I was dead, they would practically shout: "You don’t mean that!" And who could blame them? But I did mean it. "You're just being negative," people told me. "You have to think positive." But if there has been a heartbroken human in history who cheered up because somebody told them to, I have yet to meet them. What was meant as encouragement just felt like chastisement.
I would hate this advice to be mistaken for a reproach. Nothing could be further from the truth. I offer it only because if someone you know is ever plunged into turmoil, you might just find it helpful.
We all worry so much about finding the right thing to say to someone in the face of tragedy. What actually helps are not ingenious suggestions or heartfelt exhortations or confident assurances. The most useful thing you can say is nothing. It was only when others stopped talking, and let me tell them how horrifyingly desperate I felt, that I realised I wanted to live. Until pain has been acknowledged, I do not think there is any other way to make it go away.
The funny thing is that I learnt something like this long before Tony died, when I read the old parenting classic How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. I read that if your child says, for instance, that he hates his grandmother, telling him he doesn't will be unlikely to help. I remember thinking how self-evident this simple truth was. It never occurred to me that the same would be just as true of adults.
All At Sea by Decca Aitkenhead is published by 4th Estate, price £16.99.
By Decca Aitkenhead
I'm sorry you have been through so much trauma Decca. All the best for the future
Thank you for your post.
Knowing how to help other people and what is not helpful is so important.
If only this were on the school curriculum - I believe that emotional literacy is just as importance as literal literacy and needs to be taught.
Bloody hell. That is awful. I am so sorry.
Thank you for posting Decca. I've often felt that the whole thinking positive(positively Ffs!) thing in the face of disaster was deluded crap. ^ '^ Brightsiding' is a good book on that theme. And I'll look out for yours
Thank you for the post. It is helpful to know that when you can't think of what to say, being there with no words is a help.
I read your article in the Guardian and was equally shocked and moved by it.
Best wishes for the future.
I also read the longer piece in the Guardian and found it v interesting and thought-provoking. Makes me wonder how we should better prepare our little ones.
I can't think of a thing to say Decca, just that my heart goes out to you and to your boys.
God, how awful.
Thanks for writing this. I've never been through anything comparable but in times of depression the least helpful conversations were the well meaning suggestions, tips and all round jollification. I hope people start to realise this from brilliant writing such as yours.
All the best to you and your family.
Wow - you poor thing.
I wish you well.
I read your brilliantly well written book in one sitting on Saturday night. Today in my bereavement support group we were talking about how people often said the wrong thing so I mentioned your book.
People are sometimes upset when people say nothing, or upset when they say the wrong thing. I agree that just being with someone is helpful.
Ps. If a billionaire asks how he can help, ywnbu to mention money...
I'm so sorry.
You're so right that we try to validate our DCs' feelings but then struggle to do the same with adults. It's something I will try to remember.
for you and your family.
I'm so sorry for your loss, what an awful, awful thing to happen. "Until pain has been acknowledged, I do not think there is any other way to make it go away." I couldn't agree more, people want us to be positive all the time but some things hurt too much for that and until the pain is acknowledged it's very hard not to be overwhelmed by that.
Decca I wish you and your children the best in the future, I'm so very saddened to read this
I'm so so sorry. I heard you on the radio the other day and was so sad for you and really moved by you and your words particularly about your amazing son.
Having been an older child in a situation similar to the the one you describe I learnt quickly how to deflect the 'how are you managing/coping/time will make it easier' type comments without much impact to me.
There were two unexpected people who really got through to my emotions. One was a family friend, an older women, whom I had worked with who I bumped into in town (something I dreaded-I couldn't emotionally prepare for unexpected meets) but touched my arm and said 'I won't say anything but you know we're thinking of you' and moved on. It said all she needed too, without dwelling, without seeming nosy or without risking upsetting me in a public place. To this day I still recall how I felt that day.
The other was an email which offered any practical advice and the person wisely suggested to me that there would be times when I be unexpectedly smacked in the face by what had happened, often when I would lease expect it. How true and wise those words were. Even now several years later something on TV or a conversation can evoke those strong memories and unexpectedly hit a pang of grief. It's certainly no longer that acute pain it once was. Being young and having someone warn you of this, was an act of kindness I will never forget.
Both of these woman may not even remember their words but there impact has continued to touch me. I hold them both in. Such great respect and always will. I have used variations of both in appropriate situations since and I hope it avoided the awkwardness or dread of a 'how are you' conversation.
My love goes out to you and your boys.
Thank you for this. I have been hit by a catastrophic event this year and today was my second day back at work. I have been feeling low and a bit desperate today. Thank you.
The poster who said someone had told them they will sometimes be smacked in the face by what happened: that's exactly how I have felt at a couple of points over the last few days.
I can genuinely think of nothing to say except that I am so sorry for your loss xx
I'm ironically reading that very book and thought of it half way through your post. You're very right, even as adults we often just need someone to hold our hand and acknowledge our feelings. What you've been through is inconceivable and I imagine the pain feels never ending. Thank you for being here to write this post. I hope and pray that your strength isn't tested any more now and you can grieve and heal as best as you can xxx