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The Unforgettable Thing a Stranger Said When I Lost My Child

It stung in the moment but came true with the gift of time.


By Clare Mackintosh

Published: Mar 19, 2024 




I couldn’t tell you what month it was, but there were daffodils, so it must have been spring. A few weeks after Alex died, I suppose. Two months at most. The heads of the daffodils were heavy with rain, their stems wrapped in damp paper towels and aluminum foil. Attached to the flowers was a woman.


“How are you?” she asked.


How was I?


I was dying. My heartbeat was erratic, a pulse thrumming in my ears like an overhead jet. My skin hurt as though I had the flu, so sensitive to touch I could only wear the softest clothes—clothes that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine for a week or more. My husband was at work, and our surviving twin still in intensive care, so the woman must have caught me in a rare moment at home. I wondered if she’d come by at other times, if the daffodils were on their second or third outing.


“I’m okay,” I said. Because that’s the script, isn’t it? I imagine you’ve said it, too, standing upright, shoulders back and chin raised to hide the fact that, inside, you’re disappearing. Or would like to. You tilt your head to match theirs.


“I doubt that,” said the daffodil woman. “May I come in?”


I shuffled aside. The woman was a stranger, but that in itself had ceased to be strange. The weeks had been full of uninvited guests: doctors, funeral directors, bereavement counselors, and once, a priest sent at the request of a family friend in another town. I didn’t ask for any of them. I didn’t want any of them. None of us does, yet grief brings them all to our door.


Our house at the time was tall and thin. There was a tiny walled garden at the front, where the cat slept in a flower bed and the gate banged in the wind when the postman left it open. I was the local police sergeant, and my commute to work was from one end of the street to the other. I hadn’t been at work for a long time, and I couldn’t foresee a time when I would go back.


“I’m so sorry your son died,” the woman said when we were sitting down. I might have offered her a cup of tea; she might have accepted. I was staring at the daffodils, at the tiny fruit flies crawling out of them, but at the sound of her words, I looked up.


Whoever this woman was, she’d lost someone, too.


You can tell, don’t you think? Sometimes, it’s in the way people hold themselves, the direct smile that doesn’t slide away in the way so many well-meaning gazes do, as though it hurts to see our pain. But mostly, it’s the way they speak. Statements of fact instead of euphemisms. Direct. Almost blunt. This is what’s happened. It’s awful, but there it is. Unavoidable. Someone died.


“What was his name?” she asked.


I believe this to be the single most important question you can ask someone grieving, yet I can count on one hand the number of people who have asked it. They ask, instead, “How did he die?” as though the cause were more important than the life it took.


My son’s name was Alex. We chose Alexander, knowing it was too big a name for such a small boy. When he was born, I placed my little finger into the curl of his hand and imagined the man he would one day become.


So much of grief is about absence, isn’t it? Not only the absence of the one we love, but the stealing of memories not yet created. The opportunities missed. The father who doesn’t get to walk his daughter down the aisle; the grandmother who misses out on holding her first grandchild. Alex, who never grew into his name.


I wish I could remember the daffodil woman’s name. I wish I remembered the name of the child she’d lost. She stayed for an hour or so, and all the time I clutched the flowers she’d brought and stared at those tiny flies. She had picked them from her garden, I suppose. Taken the time to collect them, wrap them in damp paper, and bring them to the door of a stranger who couldn’t even make eye contact. It remains one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me.


“I promise it won’t always hurt like this,” the woman said. Her own grief had been unbearable, she said, in the beginning. She had thought she would die from the pain. She had been unable to speak, to move, to function. She told me about her son, and how he’d died all those years ago. I listened to her voice, matter-of-fact and calm, and for a million pounds I would never have shared the thought in my head as she spoke.


I’ll tell you, though.


I thought: “You can’t have really loved him.”


I’m not proud of it, but grief isn’t all soft-focus walks through graveyards and quiet sobbing over kitchen tables. Grief isn’t romantic; it’s painful and ugly, as often filled with anger and bitterness as love. If the daffodil woman had truly loved her son, I reasoned, she wouldn’t be able to talk about him so easily. Look at you, I thought, properly dressed, with a job, a family, a life. I will never be like that again. My son has died, and I will never, ever get over it.


“It’s very early days for you,” the woman said. “But I promise it will get easier.”


Afterward, I stood in the kitchen and cried until I couldn’t breathe.


Things would not get easier.


Whatever grief my unexpected visitor had endured was nothing compared to mine. My own grief was real. It was raw and agonizing, and it was going to destroy me. In years to come, I would not speak about my son with composure, I would not turn up at a stranger’s door with daffodils and comfort, because I would still be broken myself.


My grief was different.


As I write this, it is February. Still winter, technically, but there are signs of spring everywhere I look, and morning frosts give way to blue skies on enough days to hint at better times ahead. Our new house has a garden—a long, wide lawn stretching toward fields—and dozens of daffodils are waiting to flower through the grass beneath the trees. I plant dozens more every autumn, burying them beneath the peeled-back turf like treasure. The thought of them carries me through the winter. I can’t see them, but I know they are there: promises of spring, riding out the dark days until it is time.


In the supermarket, buckets of daffodils sit by the cash registers, rubber-banded and quiet in bud. I take a bunch every week, dripping water over my shopping. The flowers open two days later, sunny and smiling, and every time I see them, I think of my boy.


I prefer to leave my garden daffs in the ground—it seems unfair to uproot them when they’ve worked so hard to flower where they stand—but sometimes I snip a few long stems for a vase.


“What’s that weird smell?” asks a teenager, drifting into my study. That same teenager who all those years ago was still in intensive care. That same teenager who lost a twin brother the day I lost a child.


“It’s spring,” I say, but he’s already gone in search of something more interesting than his mother and a vase of lopsided flowers. My fingers hover over my keyboard. I’ve lost my thread. A tiny insect climbs out from the trumpet of a daffodil before picking its way around its frilly edges, each undulation a miniature mountain to climb.


It will get easier, the woman said. Not better, but easier.


And it has.


Excerpted from I Promise It Won’t Always Hurt Like This, by Clare Mackintosh. © 2024 by Clare Mackintosh. Published in “Oprah Daily.” https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/health/a46353059/grief-losing-a-child/


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4 Comments


So beautiful and so true!

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Beautifully written, I can totally relate to grief “isn’t romantic, it’s painful and ugly” but encouraging to know that it does become capable of being endured. Thank you.

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Thank you for sharing.😢 easier not better.

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