I grew up in the era of Friends: Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross and Joey were aspirational to me. Not just because they had amazing wardrobes and apartments but didn’t seem to do much work, but because they had elevated friendship to the level of family.
I love my family, all the different strands of it, but my friends are just as important to me.
For Ethan, having a large support network was invaluable after Mark died. I’ve spoken before about the “People who love Ethan” list that we compiled after he got a bit anxious about me dying too. A whole A3 page filled with names people who cared for him, and would look after him and support him in any way they could. The exercise was abstract, but the ways in which this support was shown were anything but.
My friends took time off work and came to help me with funeral arrangements. They sat with me while I tried to work out who I needed to call first. The loft room was a revolving door of my favourite people coming to stay for a few days so that I wasn’t alone and so that Ethan knew his world was not small. People dropped everything so that the two of us would feel loved.
My 22 year old brother took the train and went with Ethan to his Dad’s@Nursery day so that he wasn’t the only one without a person.
At Christmas I realised I’d have to buy the tree by myself. And I wasn’t sure how I was going to get it, and a 2 year old, into or out of the car, let alone put it up in the house by myself without burying us both under pine needles. So Susie and John arrived. Not only did they makes sure that I wasn’t found under a fallen tree the next morning, but they made the whole experience more fun for Ethan (and for me) with carols and giggles and mince pies.
Ali and Bekka came to stay for New Year, and they helped me take the tree and the decorations down, Ali ending up with half of the tree in her hair in the process.
Susan drove across the country with 2 month old Ben in the car, so that Ethan and I could meet him, and see our circle of people get bigger.
Sam and Sarah and Susie and Cath stepped in as Ethan-sitters so I could go to work, or have a night off with other friends. They allowed me breathing room from being in sole charge all the time.
My sister came and baked with Ethan, patiently helping him make a mess and turn it into something tasty.
One Easter, when I faced another 2 week stretch of trying to occupy a 3 year old by myself, Ali and Bekka offered to take him for a whole week, and planned the most action-packed, child-focused holiday ever with day trips galore. I got to clear my head for a bit, and Ethan got to have lots of fun.
Daniel and Bryan came to stay, throwing Ethan up onto their shoulders in a way I wasn’t able to anymore and whisking him around the Common to the sound of giggling.
I could go on and on (and I’ve missed loads of lovely people, but it’s quite early in the morning so I hope they won’t be offended!).
The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is well worn and often seems a little cliched. But my village is large in number, widespread geographically, and varied in age, background and interests. They are the perfect community within which to raise a son, and now a daughter too.
My ideal child-rearing scenario is living in the same street with as many of my friends and their children as possible, doors always open, kids hopping in and out of each other’s back yards. People taking it in turns to do the school run, or walks to the park, or running an impromptu football match. Massive BBQs, handing babies around when they won’t go to sleep. Parents and Grandparents close by to join in. Essentially I want to live in a commune, I just have to convince everyone else to move to one with me!
Life is easier when you’re not trying to do it alone. And when you’re a parent you’re basically modelling to your child every day how to do life. To me it makes more sense to show them that life is at it’s best when it’s a communal experience, and that is harder to do when you are suddenly a solo parent. It also helps the feeling of uncertainty and anxiety that children have after a parent or sibling dies: they feel as if anyone in their lives could disappear at any moment. Visibly filling the room, and your lives, with all the people you are connected to won’t replace the person who has been lost, but it will reinforce that they are not alone – that they are loved and protected.
It helps to show them that grief is a collective experience, that should be dealt with in a community, not alone. Its important to me that Ethan spends time with people who knew Mark (and who knew me with Mark) and also people who have only ever known us with Nick. It is important that he sees people grieve and remember in different ways. That he can talk to people about different facets of Mark’s character.
At the funeral I asked people to write down their memories of Mark so that, when he was older, Ethan could have a record of the sort of person his father was. Some people even wrote letters to Ethan, talking about how proud Mark was to be a father and how much fun they had had together. I will treasure these forever, and one day soon we will get them out and read them properly, now he’s a bit more grown up. And Ethan will discover how his Daddy made everyone laugh, was the life and soul of every party, would do anything for you, and loved his little boy to the ends of the earth.
Gather as many people around you as possible. They will be your lifeline.