Grieving in our own way

Awful drive. Lorries kept holding us up on narrow roads. Got to hospital. Ambulance went to wrong entrance. Backed out. Arrived. Young doctor in charge. Mervyn and he gave her 3mg sodium amatol. I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room. Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said. They had tapped her spine. Not meningitis. It’s encephalitis. Mervyn left in my car. I stayed. Pat arrived and went in to see Olivia. Kissed her. Spoke to her. Still unconscious. I went in. I said, “Olivia… Olivia.” She raised her head slightly off pillow. Sister said don’t. I went out. We drank whiskey. I told doctor to consult experts. Call anyone. He called a man in Oxford. I listened. Instructions were given. Not much could be done. I first said I would stay on. Then I said I’d go back with Pat. Went. Arrived home. Called Philip Evans. He called hospital. Called me back. “Shall I come?” “Yes please.” I said I’d tell hospital he was coming. I called. Doc thought I was Evans. He said I’m afraid she’s worse. I got in the car. Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. “She is warm.” I said to doctors in hall, “Why is she so warm?” “Of course,” he said. I left.

~ Roald Dahl describing his eldest daughter Olivia’s death at age seven (taken from a new biography by Donald Sturrock)

Dahl’s detailed description of Olivia’s last day was found 28 years later, after he died. He’d written it in note form in a green exercise book with only his daughter’s name on the cover and hidden it away. His biographer wonders why he did it.

Perhaps someone who hasn’t lost a child would wonder why – why relive the tragedy, why write it down in such meticulous detail, why not allow your memory to blur and soften what happened?

Sometimes memories are all we have to hang on to. We may have photographs and other momentos, but memories have more life. In my memories I can still feel and smell Sofia.

While the accounts we have of Sofia’s death are quite cold and emotionless (the hospital’s investigation and the coroner’s report), their detail is strangely comforting. Even only a few months after Sofia died, I asked Roberto ‘But did that really happen?’ about a few details I read because I had no recollection of them.

Some of you may say it’s better to have good memories, to remember the happier moments rather than the saddest. I want to remember the whole of my child’s life; her death was a part of her life. I want to remember all the details of her death, as well as of her brief life, for as long as possible.


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