Why I no longer grieve for my autistic son

Four and a half years ago I wrote a blog titled ‘grieving for a child I haven’t lost’. It has been read over 100 thousand times since I wrote it and appeared in a number of books and on some popular websites. It’s been one of the most commented pieces I have written and evoked very strong feelings from people, both good and bad.

Time has passed and feelings change. Some advised me to delete that blog. But why would I be ashamed of how I truly felt at the time? You can’t eradicate history and it’s not healthy to pretend something wasn’t real when it was. I stand by every word I wrote back then and I know by being so brutally honest it has helped thousands of others feel less alone and more understood. Four and a half years ago my son was non verbal, smearing, screaming for hours, unable to read or write and needed 24 hour care. He was still in nappies at 6 and a half, having seizures, his behaviour was ‘challenging’ and every single day felt never ending.

He’s now 11. He’s still not toilet trained, still smears, now officially diagnosed epileptic, still has challenging behaviour and still non verbal. He still screams, he still can’t read or write or dress himself but something fundamental HAS changed: I no longer grieve for him.

I refuse to debate wether ‘grief’ is the right word to use for what I went through. I am the one that went through it and I know the intensity and depth of my feelings and the struggles both my son experienced, and in turn I felt as his mum and full time carer. The day I sat on that park bench and poured my heart onto paper was a day of truly understanding the reality of the pain, heartbreak and despair I felt. No-one has any right to undermine that unless they were living my life. My feelings and thoughts are not up for debate and never will be.

But things have changed now. A few days ago I took my son a trip to his favourite place. He now has a means of communication and I have learnt to listen. While he still can’t communicate verbally, after a lot of frustration and heartbreak, he found his own way of sharing his world through unconventional means. For him this is a unique combination of you tube, google street map, photos and using items of reference. He shows ingenuity and creativity daily as he tries to convey what he wants to wear, eat, and do. I have had, in turn, to be wiling to put my prejudices aside, be patient, and be willing to listen with more than just my ears.

Many misunderstood my grief as not loving my son. The opposite was in fact true. It was my intense love for him that made me grieve what I was missing as a parent and also the reality of what he will miss throughout his life.

But back to our trip and why I no longer grieve for my autistic son.:

He woke up on Saturday and made his way downstairs to ‘his’ chair. He pressed his iPads on (yes he has two!) and scrolled through his history of videos in YouTube until he found the one he wanted. He then used the other to go on google street map which is set to begin at his own home. Within minutes he had taken himself to the local train station on one iPad whilst watching local trains on the other.

I know my son and I know where he likes to go. Together we have a deep understanding now that has helped us both feel happier. He learnt that communication was worthwhile and I learnt the importance of allowing him to decide and control more about his life.

So I took him on a train to his favourite shopping centre to see lifts. On the train I watched as he flapped happily and looked out the window, holding his favourite teddy up so he could see too. He held my hand to get off the train and he took me to all his favourite lifts. We had lunch together in the food court and he dragged me by the hand and pointed to what he wanted. Then when he’d had enough we came home.

I’ve accepted that this is what makes him happy. He’s accepted that I actually have a use and by communicating other ways instead of screaming (which was his communication) he can achieve more.

I struggled but he struggled more.

Love helped us through. We both needed time.

In the four and a half years of us both needing time and changing I noticed something very important: attitudes to autistics are changing. We are much more accepting of difference now and the need to accommodate. Unfortunately though that acceptance still doesn’t seem to apply to parents as they journey through all the emotions involved in caring for, and living with their autistic children.

I am no longer grieving for my autistic son because I have come to accept and acknowledge that his life will always be different, as will mine, and that is OK. But it’s important that that is seen not as a ‘changing sides’ or ‘finally being positive’ but more about a natural journey of learning, patience and love. I haven’t suddenly become ‘accepting’ it was a process of coming to terms with the fact that my entire life will mean caring for my child and his entire life will involve others caring for him.

My son didn’t scream once on Saturday nor did he self harm or even show challenging behaviour. He was happy and so was I.

It’s still difficult at times, for both of us. But instead of sitting on that bench crying we now walk hand in hand past it as he flaps and laughs and drags me back to the car. He’d rather have fun at a lift or be eating lunch than walk around a park with his mum. That’s not something I grieve about now. It’s something I smile about instead.

Grieving for a child I haven’t lost

*Preface: I feel it is important to say that while I stand by every word of this blog I do not always feel this same intense grief at all times. If you can relate to this blog I want you to know two things: you are not alone, and it does get better. With love, Miriam *

As I sat on the bench in a public park the tears came easily. Watching little toddlers peddling trikes and mothers chatting to babies. Seeing pre-school children laughing and chatting as they wheeled around the water on their brightly coloured scooters.

It has been building for a while.

The night before last it was anger and hurt as a friend shared how her 14 month old was defiantly talking back when they were trying to get her to bed. I wanted to scream and say ‘but she understands! But she talks!’ Instead I mourned silently.

The world goes on while I grieve for a child I haven’t lost.

It is a very different pain to others. I know the pain of not having children. I know the pain of losing a yet-to-be-born baby. I know the pain of losing someone very close. I know that feeling of despair and anger and hopelessness. People understand when they know you have loved and lost.

But how do you explain you are grieving a child you have not lost?

I get to read to my son. I get to bathe him and dress him and kiss him. I hear him laugh when I tickle him and get to push him on the swings at the park. He goes to school. He will watch a video sometimes. And yet he is lost.

I have yet to hear his voice. I grieve for the conversations we will never have. I grieve the fact I will never hear him sing or shout or chat with friends like those little ones in the park. I grieve for the fact I will never hear him tell me a joke or talk to me about his day at school. I grieve for the loss of never hearing him whisper ‘I love you’. I can only dream about what his little voice may sound like, how it might have grown in depth and tone as he aged, what sort of accent he may have had or how he would pronounce names of people he knew. A part of him will never be. And I feel the loss and pain of that.

I grieve for all the milestones I have missed and may never have with him. As I watched a mum bend down to hold her son’s hand today to help him walk I thought about how much she takes for granted. Her little one was not much over a year old and yet he confidently held her hand to take some steps. By the time my child did anything like this he was tall enough that I had no need to bend and his hands were nothing like as tiny as her son’s. I have skipped the toilet training, the bike riding, the learning to read and write, the school plays, the attending clubs and the having friends. I have been robbed of things others take for granted and that should be part of normal childhood. There is a loss and a sadness for times that might have been but will never be.

There is sadness that I can not walk him to school or that he can not go to school with his twin sister. There is pain relying on others to tell me about his day when I should hear it from him. There is heartbreak watching the neighbours child of the same age jump on a trampoline and my son can not balance on one leg let alone jump. There is a lump in my throat when people ask what my child wants for Christmas and he still plays with baby toys at almost seven. We have never experienced the tooth fairy with him, he has no concept of Santa Claws and neither chooses his own clothes nor has the ability to dress himself. He has never said ‘mummy can I have’ or gone in a strop because he can not go out to play. He has no friends his own age and doesn’t get invited to parties.

He is here but to many he isn’t.

I have a son. He is my pride and joy. I am so proud of everything he does. But I still grieve for him, for the things he will never achieve and the experiences he will never have. And I grieve for myself as a parent when I see a world of parenting I can only ever dream about.

As I sat on a bench in a public park the tears came easily; tears of heartache and anger, tears of frustration and pain.

It is all part of the journey. Before I can move on I need to grieve for the loss. And grieving takes time.

So please forgive me and support me. Life goes on and I understand that. I have no bitterness at that.

But sometimes those tears are needed. Bear with me as I grieve for a child I haven’t lost.