Shock, grief, anger, emptiness - Sue Kennedy-Branford discusses her reactions to the death of a beloved sister, then the birth of son, when what should have been joy seemed cloaked in more pain.
Early in June 1999, my 26 year old sister’s death notice appeared in The Advertiser. She had died as a result of some complications with her treatment for cancer. Her long-term prognosis had not been good, but the family didn’t expect her to die during this treatment and was left shell shocked. The day she died, the whole family gathered at our house, including her husband and two sons who were 6 and 4 at the time. As we all sat red eyed, crying over cups of coffee in the kitchen, Cameron, the 4 year old, came in and perched on my Mum’s knee, looked into her eyes and said, "Nanna, why is everyone crying?" Mum whispered, "We’re all very sad because Mummy has died." Without batting an eyelid or hesitating, the reply came, "Well, you can’t do much about it!" and off he went outside to kick the football.
He may have been right – he was right – but I chose not to accept his young wisdom, and did two important things. The first was on the day after Louise’s funeral. I had lunch with my parents and then bid them a safe journey home to their farm in the South East. As I stood on the footpath in silence, I pondered on the sometimes unfair nature of life and decided to do something radical. Radical for me, anyway.
I got in the car and drove into Rundle Street. I walked tentatively into the tattoo shop and observed the many weird and wonderful designs on display on the walls. It was Fran the Dragon Lady I spoke with. Dragon Lady, because they were her specialty. I asked if she had any pictures of chooks. She looked slightly surprised but delved into a book of animal designs and found a fine looking black hen. We discussed cost, time needed and pain threshold required before I sat in the chair and removed my shirt. Shortly after, the tattooist went to work on my right shoulder and reproduced the handsome hen. "Why a hen?" she asked.
When Louise was a child (the youngest of four), she developed capitalist tendencies at an early age in the form of a roaring egg business. She had several chickens which she knew by name and would even nurse them from time to time. I figured a chicken tattoo was a fitting memorial to my little sister whom I loved dearly and would miss enormously.
The second thing I did after my sister’s death was to become very angry. I don’t think sadness was an emotion I felt much. I was just plain angry, and because there was no one around me to blame, I blamed God.
I stopped praying, I didn’t attend Mass for many weeks and when I did, I still felt angry. I’d look around the Church and expect some kind of sign, or message that Louise was at peace and that everything would be all right. Nothing came.
I’d phoned the Parish office to request that her name be transferred from the prayers for the sick to those recently deceased – the person who took the call didn’t recognise who I was, and so no one knew that the name I gave was my sister. I don’t know what I expected from people in the Parish, but because I wasn’t attending Mass, and when I did, was still harbouring the anger, I just couldn’t tell anyone – I’d let it go on festering too long, and embarrassment had joined the anger.
Some eighteen months later, this birth notice appeared in The Advertiser:
2lb 3oz lightweight enters the ring – with Mum Sue out for the count and Dad Richard reaching for the smelling salts, Jack William Kennedy Branford decided after 28.5 weeks in utero, he’d had enough time on the inside. He was born November 1 and has embarked on a hefty body building regime.
Jack is my son and was born 11½ weeks premature. Throughout the pregnancy, he developed well and was a healthy foetus. Unfortunately for him, I developed something called HELLP Syndrome, a rare form of toxaemia which affects blood pressure, kidneys, liver and blood platelets. When I was admitted to hospital on October 24th, we were told it would be a matter of days before our baby would be born. The medical staff would try and stabilise me for as long as they could, inject me with steroids to boost the baby’s lung development and try and get the platelet count back up to a normal level.
I managed to last eight days before delivery which was a bonus as far as Jack’s development went. In that week and a day, I had a lot of time to reflect on life. Although there was only a slight possibility I might die, there were risks for the baby born at such a young stage, and my husband was worried.
On the third night in hospital at about 3.00am I couldn’t sleep. I got up and made an entry in my journal titled ‘Adventure vs Ordeal’ where I reflected on how I could tackle this dilemma without dropping my bundle. I had decided that it was an adventure, I didn’t have much control over proceedings and so I needed to be philosophical about it all and use my energy in a positive way.
Then it struck me that Louise, a fantastic mother and lover of children, was watching over Jack and providing a loving, nurturing embrace for him while I battled with my body’s physical condition. Then it was that I started to pray.
Jack was born and spent the first two months of his life in the neonatal unit at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. On January 6th, we were delighted to take him home for the first time.
When I consider these events in my life – the premature death of my sister and the premature birth of my son, I think I’ve lived my own Resurrection story. My "Easter Saturday" has been a pretty long one.
Just recently, my son has begun looking into my eyes and focussing on me – that for me is true Resurrection! I stare at my little boy at length and marvel at the miracle Richard and I have brought into the world. And each time I do this, I feel some of my anger begin to melt away.
It will take some time, but I sense that I have turned the corner, begun some sort of reconciliation with God and can get on with life as the mother of this miracle.
Sue Kennedy Branford