Coming to Lent 2016: Friendship after Loss

It’s a fine line sometimes to find friends when we’ve experienced loss.

I’ve recently started to unpack some baggage I stored away in 1985 when my younger brother died. Revisiting those emotions and trying to finally after 31 years to heal what turn out to be very raw wounds has been harrowing to say the least.

At time of writing I am committed to seeing someone to help me through this over the next few weeks. He thinks we can work through a lot in six sessions. Given the intensity of the sessions already past I think it could go either way.

Here’s what insight I’m learning about myself and how God is working into the centre of the pain now that I’m finally letting Him. The next few weeks will probably see more entries in this vein as I explore my past and what I’ve allowed it to turn me into today.

I’m angry.

In fact, I passed angry many years ago and moved into rage. Furious and uncontrolled rage. I thought it gave me power and drive. I used it to keep myself going when I felt like quitting as a teenager after Robin’s death.

Let me tell the story…

February 1985 was cold. I was busy with growing up in a town in England called Stamford. It’s in the East Midlands near Peterborough and Leicester. Robin and I were just starting to move from the “constant bickering” phase of childhood brothers into the “friendship” phase that (usually) continues throughout adult life. We were beginning to do things together that didn’t involve “accidentally” turning off his computer game as he was about to set a high score or outpacing him so I could be on my own.

I was going to be 13 in the April and Robin would be 10 at the end of March. I remember that I remembered how I felt the night before m 10th birthday. The reality that the next time there would be a change in the number of numbers in my age would only happen in 2072 held me with awe. I had no doubt that I would reach 100 years old, but wasn’t sure what I’d do until then. Robin had asked me what it was like to enter “double figures”. I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know. I just did it, like everyone does.

Snow fell at the start of half term break. Robin was in bed having had an operation to expose permanent teeth the previous week. The Wednesday would be Ash Wednesday, which meant on Tuesday we got pancakes!

On the Wednesday Robin would be allowed to go outside for the first time since the operation. His mouth had healed enough that the cold air wouldn’t give him pain in the wound. I was going for a walk with a friend from school – this is long before Facebook or Twitter. Back then we actually went out and did things like walking and cycling as kids. Robin pestered me to come along but I wanted some time with one of the few friends I had without him tagging along. A typical argument with flared tempers and he went off on his own and I went off with Marc.

My memories of that day are very clear. February 20th 1985. I have almost no memory of before that day. My entire childhood blanked out before that day. Remembering was too painful. It is still excruciating for me to even try to remember. Sometimes something will slip back in that I know is a memory because it’s something I never told anyone about, so they couldn’t tell me the story so many times I didn’t know if it was a memory or not. But some of it is very present. Moments with him. The gradual change from hostility to friendship between brothers and the forming of a life-long bond.

Marc called for me around 9:30. The argument with Robin ensued and ended with words spoken in anger by me. He went his way and I went mine with Marc.

We walked miles through the wintry countryside. Stamford is more built up now than it was back then. The housing estate was big then and had more than doubled in size last time I visited the town about 8 years ago – it’s about 6000 miles from Cape Town so I don’t get back very often. We talked about stuff 12 year old boys were interested in. Guns, school, teachers, the relief of being off for a week. Our brothers. Marc had a younger brother too, but he and Robin didn’t know one another. We talked about flying as we both wanted to be in the Air Force. Normal boys stuff.

On the way home we went past my dad’s old boss’s house. Mr Walker was out in his garden and we stopped and chatted. He was very fond of Robin. George Walker was retired and I knew him independently of my dad as one of the bass singers in the church choir. Robin had just joined alongside me as a treble. He had a beautiful voice. I was the head chorister and soloist, but it was obvious that the solos would not be mine once Robin hit his stride as a singer. As head chorister I got to mentor him a little bit. I was proud to. It was a part of the whole friends bit we were growing into.

I got a chill through me while we were talking to Mr Walker and we went back to Marc’s home to play in the snow. It was about 12:30 now. We’d been playing for a while when Marc’s mum leaned out of the window. My dad had just called to ask them to send me home as Robin had been in a slight accident and may have to go to the hospital. I ran home – it wasn’t too far for a 12 year old to run – and was laughing at the thought of teasing Robin over having a plaster-cast like I’d had the previous year as I opened the gate.

In front of me was what was left of Robin’s bike.

It had been mine originally. Bright red with “Snipe” written down the frame. I’d traded up for a more adult bike and Robin had inherited this one, although his new more adult bike was in the shed. He hadn’t used it much as it was still a bit too large for him, but the speed he was growing it wouldn’t be long.

Now the red bike was buckled in half and twisted in a grotesque shape, the back wheel no longer vertical to the front and even if it had been it would only have gone in circles.

I can still feel the knot in my stomach as dad opened the back door.

I was sent to quickly run – not allowed to use my bike – anywhere I knew Robin might have gone. It was normal for us to let other kids we were friends with use our bikes and us use theirs. I went looking, but I already knew I wouldn’t find him. Not after dad told me where they found the bike.

1pm I was back from my search. The police were there now waiting for me to arrive to take us to Peterborough Hospital. That meant it was serious. Stamford Hospital couldn’t handle major cases so they got sent to Peterborough. Flashing blue lights at 100 mph to Peterborough. 15 miles in about 8 minutes. We got there and mum and dad were asked to identify the boy in intensive care. I was shown to a side room and given a cup of tea. With about 8 spoons of sugar in it.

2pm. It was Robin. He was on a ventilator but hadn’t stabilised from the trauma yet. the next few hours would be critical. He was not showing any higher brain function. I remember them saying that but not really understanding what it meant. They said “coma” and “persistent vegetative state”. I knew what that meant.

They arranged a taxi to take us back to Stamford. I threw up about a mile from home so dad and I walked from there. Mum went back in the car.

2:30pm We got back and mum was calling the family to tell them what had happened. Dad took over.

2:45pm So much was happening it didn’t feel real. I expected to wake up any second.

3pm The phone rang – an incoming call. Dad answered I think. “We’re very sorry to tell you…”

Robin’s heart had stopped at 2:55pm and they felt given the extent of brain damage he had suffered that trying to restart it would not be in his or our best interests. That was when I learned he was actually “living dead” when we’d gone to the hospital. No higher brain activity meant brain-death had occurred.

The doctor arrived to treat us for shock and we had to get her a cup of tea to steady her nerves when we told her Robin had died.

The vicar, John, arrived at some point and tried to comfort us. It didn’t feel real. I felt like the victim of the sickest joke ever.

5:30pm I was allowed to call Marc. All I got out was “He’s dead. Robin’s dead” before I broke down and so did he. Our dad’s took the phones from us and my dad explained to his what had happened.

6pm I was sent to a friend and neighbour’s house while mum and dad went back to the hospital. Originally I was to sleep there as they were going to sit by his bedside. There wasn’t any point now.

Sometime later that night I was collected and taken home. I didn’t sleep that night. I just lay awake staring at the ceiling.

I remember dad washing the coat Robin had been wearing by hand. Blood in the water. Blood on his hands. Robin’s blood. Tears on his cheeks.

Then I lost him. I began to shut down the memory of having Robin in my life.

My friends Marc and Kevin (whose family I’d gone to when mum and dad went back to the hospital) supported me as best they could. I’d known Kevin my whole life. We’d grown up together. Marc had been a good friend despite peer pressure at school to distance from me. I really appreciated that. We’d been friends for about a year having only met at secondary school.

Time passed. At some point that week I went and visited Robin’s body at the funeral home. He was so cold. I didn’t know a person could feel that cold. The funeral was a week to the day after the accident. During that week I don’t think we had a full hour to ourselves. Friends and neighbours couldn’t visit enough to check on us.

Thursday 28th February 1985. The day after the funeral.

I don’t remember a single call or knock on the door that day. Or the next. Or the next.

For everyone else it was over.

Marc and Kev were better. They knew him and we talked about it. But after a few weeks they didn’t want to talk any more either. I don’t blame them now (I did then).

I was utterly alone. I felt I had no friends to turn to and couldn’t talk to mum and dad about it.

I felt abandoned.

Over time – which hardens a person, it doesn’t heal – I learned to fake it. I put on a face for the World like Eleanor Rigby. There were a few people who I let my guard down with though. As a dancer at a boy’s school I’d had it tough finding anything in common with most of my peers, but there was one person at the dancing school who I let myself open up with. We were friends by default initially, then later there was a real friendship. She was the first person I truly cared about after Robin’s death. I never got a chance to tell her as she changed class and I was too insecure to call her. The friendship gave me hope (although a joke played by some of the boys at school unwittingly damaged it – the guys in question I’m certain would not have done what they did had they realised what I’d go through as a result). But hope remained as I knew I could feel something other than pain.

I made a lot of mistakes because of the anger I felt. I got involved with a girl I shouldn’t have simply because she was interested in me. I didn’t know who I was inside at that point and we both ended up hurt because of it.

It was incredibly difficult to find real friendships after losing Robin because of the pain of losing him. Even today, 31 years later, my friends are few, and all significantly younger than me. Partly this is circumstances as I studied as a mature student, but partly it was “safe” for me – I could keep a distance. But it’s a lonely way to live.

Friendships change over time, and especially over distance. Emigration to South Africa in 2003 caused me to lose touch with many people who were very dear to me. Facebook has helped me get back in touch with some of them, but some things pass for ever.

Loss of that nature takes a toll on any friendship. I never imagined growing up that there would be a time when I could say it was over 20 years since I’d had contact with Marc or Kevin, but that day came and went almost 5 years ago now. The friend I had at dancing I’ve lost touch with, although I’m in touch with one or two others from the class.

It’s about trust. Friendship after loss is about trust even more than before. Losing Robin made me face mortality too soon. I didn’t trust people (except one or two) to live long enough to be friends and not cause me pain, and I didn’t trust myself to be able to not cause them that pain either.

That was, and is, the hardest thing.

Trusting yourself again.

This has been a rather long entry to get to this point, but this is the most important thing I’ve learned in the last 30 years:

Loss is part of living. So is friendship.

Central to truly Living is Faith. Through my Faith I have been able to connect with a handful of people over the years by trusting God had put them in my life.

Trusting God was the key. It allowed me to trust myself enough to risk developing friendships I didn’t control. I let Him control them.

And loss still happens. At any given time in the last 25 years there have been a core of about 4 or 5 people at most I would be able to completely drop my guard with at any given time. They saw behind the mask.

Through this season building up to Easter 2016 I’m going to be visiting places inside myself and recording them as testimony here of how God is at work in me. It probably won’t be short entries, and they almost certainly won’t be pretty, but they’ll be real.

Revelation tells us we overcome the enemy by the Blood of the Lamb and the Word of our Testimony “ And they overcame and conquered him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, for they did not love their life and renounce their faith even when faced with death.” (Revelation 12:11)

So that’s what Lent is going to be about. A raw testimony of what God is doing in me as it happens. What it means will probably change over time, but I’ll be open and blunt in these entries. My guide will be John 14-16 for the most part.

My dearest friend who has never let me down has been with me since November 1985 inside me since I gave Him my life. My Jesus, My Saviour.

Fully knowing this may get me classified as overly religious I say this: I give Him all honour and Glory and Praise for what He has done and continues to do in and for me. I don’t care what the critics may say. I will not be silent. He has been the truest friend any of us could have, and I’ve met many people who only found that friendship in it’s fullness the way I did.

Friendship after Great Loss…

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