On the loss of a child and the kindness of strangers

Thirty years ago, on a bright, blue, cold winter’s morning, I walked out of the maternity hospital in the city where we live, and headed towards the registry office in the centre of town. I went there to register the birth, and death, of our first child, a baby boy who had been born and who had died a few hours previously. I had to be there in order to complete the paperwork that would allow us to bury him within 24 hours according to Jewish custom.

I remember, in that rather dark, forbidding wood-panelled waiting room, sitting next to a happy young couple who had come to register the birth of their new baby, who lay sleeping happily in his mother’s arms, and opposite a family, all dressed in black, grieving for a close and dear relative. I also remember, with immense gratitude, the kindness of the official who carefully and sympathetically took down all the necessary details. She was only doing her job but doing it in a way which make me feel – for the moment at least – a little bit easier with myself and with the world.

Now, thirty years later, though the number of years is wholly immaterial, amidst the hurly burly and complex logistics of daily life – juggling home, work, family, friends – rarely does a day go by without something or someone causing me to think back to that cold, blue morning.

The death of our child made me acutely aware of just how thin and fragile is the surface covering everyday normality, and how easily the fabric of that covering can be torn and ruptured…sometimes in seconds.

In particular I’ve come to understand the real importance of small acts of kindness. Those spontaneous, generous, unselfish acts that help to maintain that fragile fabric. I’ve learned – though sometimes it’s still a struggle – to give people the benefit of the doubt, to try and be more tolerant, to try and listen more. I’ve learned that others, too, may have large cracks and holes in their lives, and they – like me sometimes – are relying on that fabric not being torn in order to just get them through the day. The smile, the greeting, the welcome, the thank you, the helping hand, the small talk before getting down to business are all, in their way, small acts of kindness that bind us together and strengthen the fabric of our lives.

But before I am accused, in the face of a harsh and sometimes brutal world, of a utopian let’s-just-all-be-nice-to-each-other idealism, our baby’s death, conversely, made me less tolerant…of arrogance, ignorance, triviality and sheer stupidity. If there’s one quality we need, sometimes desperately, to develop, it is an active, rigorous tolerance, which is not the same as prejudiced silence or passive indifference. Understanding and respect for others grows out of a willingness to engage actively with the world. But it also means knowing, recognising and, importantly, doing something positive about not only those things that will make the world a better, happier place but acting to prevent those things that make it worse.

May the support of friends and family, and the kindness of strangers bring some comfort to you at this sad time.

(This is an adaptation of a piece written for BBC Radio and first broadcast in 2000. At the time we received wonderful support from Sands – the UK charity that provides support for bereaved parents and their families, which we now, in turn, support.)