The Mask That Hides the Truth
It was inevitable that people would not want to deal with it anymore. The text messages dried up and so did the phone calls.
Too much reality, violence, horror – at some point people just didn’t want to know. This was not a TV show with credits and ad breaks. Instead, it was absolutely the worse thing that could happen to a parent, or so I was told.
‘He was repeatedly beaten,’ wrote one journalist. ‘Different tools were used’, explained another. ‘The victim was still alive when the candle was rammed down his throat,’ read the headlines when the Press published the Indictment.
Friends who had offered support after the death of my child were now not able to cope. Kept in ignorance about the details of the homicide during the police investigation, many did not know what to say to me when the list of injuries inflicted on my son was made public. It was too harrowing and frightening.
Once they found out, words failed them. They turned away from the brutality and violence that my boy had suffered and left me alone with the truth.
I can’t say I blame them. If I could I too would leave my reality somewhere far away and take a break from it all. It’s a torture to imagine how he died: my son’s last terror-filled moments when all he knew was agony and asphyxiation. There’s no respite from that, none, not even now that his killer has been convicted. I am worn out.
It’s over two and a half years since Alex was killed, and people around me are suffering from homicide and grief fatigue. The truth of what happened to us as a family is impossible to fathom and they simply can’t or won’t deal with it anymore.
So, I can either continue as I am, casting an increasingly solitary shadow as acquaintances give me a wide berth, or I can pretend that much-needed healing has begun. It’s a lamentable result of my son’s brutal death that I now face this stark choice. Seeing as I am not a hermit and I do live and work in the real world, I opt for a mask that conveys the message ‘I’m fine, thanks’.
It takes weeks to look convincing; it’s harder than I first imagined. Day after day, I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and practice a fake smile, a charming wink, a raucous laugh.
Unsure whether my mask will veil my grief, I eventually step into the outside world like a mime artist on to the stage.
Overnight, friends and colleagues, who were showing worrisome signs of grief fatigue, begin to smile and laugh around me. Invitations to join them for lunch start popping up on my phone. I am tempted to say it’s miraculous, but it’s not – it is hard and I feel very lonely.
I continue on my errands, dispirited and tired. At the shops, I notice a distinct change in the check-out girl who gaily wishes me a wonderful afternoon. No one has done that since my son died. So ok, the mask stays on even as I feel even more exhausted than before.
A few days later I have a business meeting. Everyone attending knows how my son was killed. It’s not a place where I have ever shown my feelings, so I don’t expect the mask will make a difference. Wrong! The meeting starts in a buoyant swing of chatter and the Chairman even cracks a joke or two. At one point I feel the mask shrink on my face, and I begin to gag, but no one notices.
‘Have a great weekend!’ they say as I leave.
The minute I get in the car the mask comes off.
I sob in the parking lot, my chest heaving with squeezed grief. It comes out in huge gulps. Perhaps this wasn’t such great an idea after all but I decide to persevere. I understand that this is a survival skill I need to practice – like growing calluses it just takes time.
The final test comes that very weekend, yes, the one that I am meant to be having such a great time in. An old friend suggests we go for a drink, so I meet her in town.
‘So how’s things now the trial’s over?’ she asks, placing her hand gently on my forearm.
I immediately detect grief fatigue, so taking a deep breath I answer in my brightest voice,
‘So much better!’
Surprised, she asks again. This time I notice hope seep in.
‘Really? You’re better? Oh, I am so delighted to hear that!’ She hugs me and looks away. For a moment I think she is wiping away a tear, but no, she is trying to grab a waiter.
‘Champagne!’ she cries across the bar. ‘Two glasses!’
She turns to me, a huge smile across her face.
‘I can’t begin to tell you how worried I was! This is wonderful news. We must celebrate!’
And there you have it. Champagne and heartbreak, at a bar with a friend. If you had told me two years ago that I would be acting out this scene, I would have howled in terror, mortified at my own casual insanity.
And yet here I am telling you about it and willing to bet that I am not the only one who owns a mask for all seasons.
My friend sees a ‘me’ who is so much better, the ‘me’ who is drinking champagne. But that ‘me’ died along with my child and I have had to accept that fact even if my friend cannot.
Child loss is an unpalatable reality for people not directly affected by the loss of a child. Throw in homicide, and for most it becomes unbearable. The mask allows me to function amongst those who don’t want to face my loss, nothing more, nothing less. I’m resigned to the new normal where only a handful of people will ever get to meet the post-loss me, whilst the rest will see a bereaved mother who is moving on.
The fact is, some relationships will withstand this harsh test and others, most certainly, will not.