Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: GRIEF

They say that grief is a very individual emotion. Most people, I have observed, when they suffer a devastating, sudden tragedy, want to make some good come from it. Want to ensure that a life lost, if that is the tragedy, will not be wasted. And so it was with me.

My baby son, William, died in February 1986, at the age of five weeks, from cot death, or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Nearly three decades later, I still cry when I think of him. It is strange, and a little confronting, to think my twins and my youngest child would not have been born if William had not died. It feels as if he gave up his life for them. But in 1986 all I felt was hideous, shuddering grief. Each Wednesday, the day he died, I would cry for hours. Sunday, the day he was born, brought more tears: this went on for months.

After a tragedy many people feel they can never again have a normal conversation with you. Guarded and careful becomes the new normal. In the end it is more comfortable for them to avoid you, to cross the road when they see you coming. And I behaved strangely at times. I found myself telling complete strangers in a supermarket that I had lost my baby son. I felt that I must look very odd, that I must be wearing my grief like a heavy winter overcoat. I felt the need to explain.

Some friends, however, asked how they could help. I decided I wanted to hold a ball to raise funds for research into this terrible mystery. So, with a small committee, I organised the ball that we called ‘A Summer Cotillion in the Gardens,’ held that November at the base of Sydney’s Fleet Steps, off Mrs Macquarie’s Road. It was the first event ever to be held at that fabulous site.

The city lights had not yet sprung to life when guests arrived, that night, on a red carpet that was scattered with rose petals. As the guests in their evening wear walked down the steps – or alighted from boats that moored at the sea wall - they were met by 20 waiters who lined the red carpet, each holding a tray of six half-filled flutes of Champagne. Each tray held a different brand of Champagne. As I was running The Champagne Information Centre on behalf of the Comite Interprofessionnel du Champagne (CIVC) - an account I held for 25 years, as part of my public relations business - the importers had generously donated the Champagne.

The band played as a vocalist crooned ‘My City of Sydney’ and as the sun set to the west of the city. Like a glistening, many-sailed ship, the Opera House opposite rose from the harbour, at the end of Bennelong Point.

Inside the marquee, which was swathed in softly draped silks in a rainbow of pastel tones – for the theme of the evening was ‘Over The Rainbow’ - the head waiter checked table settings. Tall glass cylinders (fashionable at the time) held cascades of blush pink and pale yellow roses, and trailing jasmine. Guests danced under the stars after a dinner prepared by three of Sydney’s leading chefs. It was a memorable night and I felt that I had done something positive to celebrate William’s little life.

I’ve been trying to find a place to relate a little tale that goes to the difference between French and Australian men. A chapter on Grief is hardly the correct spot, but, as I am speaking of Champagne, I am going to put it here. I read recently, “In France, seduction is a form of politeness and means no more than any other courtesy.” That explains a lot. It also brings to mind an experience I had many years ago.

I was at my annual meeting of the Champagne Public Relations executives, in Epernay, at the headquarters of the CIVC. At the morning coffee break the head of a major house – and in those days, when many of the houses were still owned by the original families, they all spoke beautiful English, and were all unfailingly polite, charming and oh, so elegant – asked me if I would like to have dinner with him in Paris. “Oh, yes, I’d love to meet your wife,” I replied brightly. He never repeated the invitation.

It was some years before I realised that I had misunderstood him: that he was not inviting me for a dinner en famille. And I wondered if he thought Aussie women were very adept at the elegant rebuff, or if he thought we were just charmingly naïve. If I could remember who it was, I might ask him. But how I wish some Australian wine men were so elegant: instead, they would turn into very unpleasant bullies when tactfully rebuffed. And their mates in the Australian wine industry would regard one as a bore and a nuisance for complaining loudly about appalling behaviour.

But back to my fund-raising ball for William. One guest wrote me a lovely letter after the event: “As I drove home I did reflect on the fact that William, in his short life, had accomplished, through you, rather more than most of us will in three score years and ten.” I carried that treasured note around with me for many years, tucked safely into my wallet. One evening I left my wallet on a train in London. Weeks later, the note was returned to me, at home in Sydney. I now keep it in a very safe place.

The year William died 500 babies and toddlers died from cot death. In 2011 that figure was 63. A great part of this reduction – while that was still too many, of course – can be put down to the Reduce the Risks campaign, funded by Red Nose Day, an annual campaign for which I conducted the public relations over almost a decade. With a small group of volunteers and professionals the campaign raised almost 50 million dollars throughout Australia.

The Reduce the Risks campaign recommended several things: no smoking, of course, and certainly not near the baby, and sleeping the baby on the back, rather than on the stomach, as had long been recommended. Also, not swaddling the baby and not surrounding the cot with thick ‘bumping’ that could restrict free air flow. Among the many theories as to the cause of cot death, this last was, I still believe, the cause of my William’s death. In the same sort of theory known as ‘the canary in the coalmine’ I believe some babies are vulnerable if they re-breath their own air.

I worry greatly when, today, I see young parents several generations on from mine pushing prams that are completely covered by a blanket or even by a light gauze sheet. I have also been horrified to see some prams with a zippered, closed plastic cover encasing the pram. I know these parents believe they are protecting their child from dust, pollution, wind or sun, but I shudder when I see it. What has happened to our successful Reduce the Risks campaign?

Grief has many stages and is helped by seeking to make a difference, I believe. People can hinder though: they often don’t know what to say and can sometimes make devastating comments. I remember that I was at the hairdresser three months after William’s death: I was crying. A woman I knew asked me what was wrong. When I told her, she said, in surprise, “But that was three months ago.” You never get over such a tragedy as losing a child: the best you can hope for is to learn to live with it.

Grief is a little like a lift ascending toward the light and then - often at the 16–week mark - collapsing to the dungeon. There were days when, in my glass-walled office, grief would overwhelm me and I would sit at my desk, sobbing. My staff, all young women who perhaps had no experience with loss, were wide eyed and alarmed, not knowing how to comfort me.

When I asked a doctor how long I would feel so desperately sad he replied it would be at least six months before I would feel any better. I thought I could not possibly survive with this grief for six months. I would die from a broken heart. I had to keep myself together for my elder child, who was just a toddler, however.

Then I became pregnant again. With twins. What a gift. After several years, when asked how I was, I was able, once again, to reply, “Wonderful.”