Thursday 5 October 2017


How can you grieve without language? It was a question we had to deal with even as we prepared to emigrate while Mageld was dying in April 2014.

We learned from the start that there was no point hiding things from the children. On the day she was diagnosed, 18 months earlier, Adam clung to her ferociously as she dropped him off at the school gates. She hadn't told him about the appointment, but he sensed an imbalance in his world. When she lost her hair to chemotherapy, Euan went through a routine of trying on her headscarves and rubbing her head when he came home in the afternoon. And when she learned the cancer was killing her, she sat down with them at the kitchen table and told them she couldn't be there for them in the future. 'But you're here now, mum,' Adam replied evenly.

When Euan started school he was assigned a play counsellor. She laid out games on the floor, gave him paper and crayons and tried to connect with him using the game as a prop. Euan scarcely responded. The language barrier, the strange surroundings and the unfamiliar routine left him emotionally paralysed. After a few weeks she delivered her report in which she said that he had little idea why he was in the Netherlands or where his mother was now. 'I asked him where she was and he said: “In the hospital”.' Yet we had made a point of taking the boys with us on every step of the journey, up to and including her death, and I couldn't recognise the description in the report with the boy who had clung to me at his mother's funeral and cried with anguish as the coffin retreated behind the curtain. Only now do I realise how Euan furled into himself in the months after Magteld died, as impenetrable as an armadillo in its shell.

To the outside world the boys seemed entirely unaffected by their mother's absence. A counsellor said to me: 'As long as they're not showing any signs of distress, don't worry.' If these words were meant to reassure me, they failed. It was inconceivable that they were unaffected by such a rupture in their lives, and the fact that they were unable to display or discuss it left me frustrated, alienated and anxious. The one time I managed to raise the subject at the dinner table Adam replied flatly: 'She died, and we don't want to talk about it any more.' Unable to tolerate my distress, Adam shut it out, sometimes literally: if he caught me sobbing he left the room and closed the door. We were like a dysfunctional version of the three monkeys: see no grief, hear no grief, speak no grief.

Three years later it remains a largely unspoken trauma, an absence of an absence. My efforts to incorporate anniversaries and memorials into our routine have fallen on stony ground. Pictures of her hang in every room, almost invisible. I feel as if I am carrying the burden of memory alone, though sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can goad them into recalling a favourite film or a place we visited together. At a castle in Sweden two years ago Adam reminded me how we had stayed in a castle with Magteld a few years earlier – a wretchedly cold, wet weekend during our last winter in Scotland that was nevertheless full of warmth and hope. A breakthrough of sorts came when Euan's carer managed to coax a few snippets of memory out of him, in the borrowed language that he uses to communicate: 'Euan is worried about his family. His mother is in the hospital. And that's how he is very very upset about his mother.' It was the first time that he expressed his feelings, even indirectly. But it was not so much a chink of light as the blur of the sun behind the clouds. Without language the grieving process is silent and turgid, like a solo pilgrimage.