On the Death of a Child & Trigger Warnings


A while ago I wrote about a piece called, On Being Questioned Over the Death of a Child about the death of my daughter Zuzu. It included details about the police presence, the later police interviews, and it provided some background to Zuzu’s disability and the circumstances of her death. I was intending to write part two fairly quickly afterwards but for a variety of reasons I didn’t. I’d like to consider this as part two.

The inspirational kick I needed in order to return to the memory of walking into Zuzu’s bedroom and finding her dead (she was eight years and ten months old give or take a few days) that mild winter July morning in Sydney came from the mass media. The first – and main motor – was an article written by Rebecca Elliott. Rebecca, who also writes and illustrates children’s books, for The Independent newspaper about how she and her husband Matthew dealt with the death of their daughter Clementine. (you can read it here). Rebecca had previously written movingly and constructively about how living with Clemmie was as profoundly positive as the little girl’s disabilities were profoundly debilitating. The article, called Profoundly disabled: ‘We wouldn’t have her any other way’ is available to read here.

I hadn’t read the first article, written in 2010. It probably got lost in internet noise. It may have slipped my reading list because I didn’t want to read it. It didn’t make any impact on my life which was changing for the better for the first time since Zuzu’s death in 2004.

The second piece of current news came from the radio, morning radio on BBC Radio 4 but I’m sure that the story made the rounds of all the outlets. It’s a good story during an election period where the majority of people either feign disdain or are genuinely not interested in who will govern them, and why and how that will happen. The story concerns what the BBC website calls: Newborn baby Teddy was UK’s youngest ever organ donor and you can read it here. Teddy Houlston died on April 22nd he was a few hours old and a twin. His brother survived. The BBC reports that:

His parents, Mike Houlston and Jess Evans, from Cardiff, say they want people to know his story and see his face, saying: “We are so proud of him”.

Frankly, I try to avoid sentimentality, I would vastly prefer to praise Mike and Jess for their courage. Teddy’s kidneys were donated and used to save the life of a man in Leeds. Teddy had anencephaly, a rare and lethal abnormality which prevents the brain and skull from developing. Zuzu had a condition called Holoprosencephaly which meant that the hemispheres of her brain had not developed and both the parietal and temporal lobes were obviously traumatised. We donated her brain to the New South Wales medical establishment.

It’s strange that two stories concerning profound medical conditions such as extreme forms of Cerebral Palsy crop up in the mainstream media and it was the second paragraph of Rebecca’s article about the death of Clementine that triggered this article. It read in part:

She had cerebral palsy and was officially termed “life-limited”, but she was always surprisingly healthy and we had thought she would be with us for many more years. We were wrong. Early on 8 December last year I came downstairs to get my toddler son his milk. While it was warming, I went into my daughter’s bedroom, and as I bent down to kiss her, a sickening shiver ran up my spine as I realised that she wasn’t breathing. I remember the rest of the morning only as a foggy nightmare – screaming to my husband, calling 999, doing chest compressions on my little girl…

I remember giving those chest compressions as the emergency services operator tried calmly to give me something to do while she set the paramedics and police actions in motion. The police came as an automatic function, part of the Australian civic machine, a force dealing with what they explained to me was a ‘suspicious death at home’. They brought the Crime Scene Services Branch (CSSB) and Scene of Crimes officer along, but that was later. I was giving chest compression to Zuzu to have something to do. But even as I was doing this makework, it had been very obvious that she was dead. She had no colour except on her back. That colour was a dark, dark almost blue-black red that I immediately thought was a bruise. It was the pooling of blood that happened because Zuzu had been dead for some hours. I learned this later when I was taking in details at the Sydney morgue.

I knew about the colour, the ‘bruise’ because I had picked her up at first, before I called the emergency services. I had cradled her in my arms, I had spoken quietly to her. Her mother was still asleep in the next room. I wanted to wake Zuzu. I craved her being awake, and at the same time I dreaded her mother waking to the news. Something had felt wrong before the futility of the chest compressions but the reality hadn’t registered. Why would it have? Why would my well formed brain allow that?

I am telling this story because relating it to an audience of potentially one or two other anonymous passing readers is cathartic and I am fine with that. It’s been a long battle against memory and its loss or distortion. But this is not entirely the point of this article in fact. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly is part of a wider point in my realisation that the terrible, traumatic morning with its pointless chest compressions, its pooled blood, its abiding frozen bone cold and its loss was that: a terrible morning. Zuzu’s memory were ruined by it for quite some time. That’s not an outcome that is acceptable to me any longer. But it’s not the central point of this specific article. That is closely knitted with the acts of reading the articles and listening to the radio.

Trigger Warnings The central point of this article is that, having accidentally having read the Houlstons’ story and the Elliotts’ too, I find trigger warnings problematic, even damaging and certainly judgemental. If I am honest with myself here, rather than read articles or look at news stories, blog posts or other media that could have enabled me to go beyond that bedroom on that July morning, the phrase “Trigger Warning” would have been a convenient way of not having to deal with my own mind.

For me, memories can and often have become corrupted and distorted as much by leaving them be as by confronting and discussing them, even if that discussion is sometimes a lonely one. Externalising a memory’s narrative, sober without the excuse of intoxicants to fall back on the next day, is useful. Sharing someone else’s experience does not double the pain. Sheltering the pain enables it. At least that’s my conclusion at the moment given that I would have avoided the stories I am quoting here had they been Trigger Warning’d. As it is, I’ve benefited.

Does this mean that everybody who has had a traumatic experience will feel the same? How on earth would I know that answer? I wouldn’t. That question produces as pointless discourse that deals in the kind of power relationship to others that assumes that there is a definite answer that can be produced on demand and will cleanse and clarify all traumatic positions. Nobody knows. What we can safely assume, however, is that deleting the act of decision from the traumatised reader or viewer does nothing to provide them with the emotional energy that they require for a return to happiness; and that’s what we’re after: happiness, contentment, joy. Our dead are dead, their memories live on with us.

The phrase ‘Trigger Warning’ before or after a headline or strap that reads: “Bad Thing ‘Z’ Happens in this Story to Good People Y via the Medium of Violence/Rape/Death/Disaster/Pictures of Gluten or Cow” serves no possible, practical purpose other than to connote a greater potential for reliving pain rather than experiencing hope and escape. The phrase itself is a self-asserting trigger. It distracts from health and diminishes actual experience; it acts to separate the damaged people unable to take part in an expression of a traumatic and damaging experience from those who can: the weak from the strong as arbitrated by the writer or creator.

For me, the problem with Trigger Warnings is that they often exacerbate the pain that they seek to protect us from. They also propose a world where healing from many different traumas is homogenised into a synthetic mass agreement as to what constitutes pain, damage, confrontation or peace. The synthesis is too simplistic and is in fact more demagogic than pedagogic: it speaks to a mass lie of consensus rather than enabling people to learn their way through their horrors. Trigger Warnings want to encounter a world in which nothing painful comes without an answer even if that answer is just not to look and not to see and not to find happiness again. Trigger Warnings, can also be seen as authoritarian emotional redactions.

We are, I would hope, far better emblazoning the head of our articles with: “Discuss this with your best friends and other people who had similar experiences, you might feel better” rather than, “Trigger Warning – this will definitely make you feel much, much worse so how about you just imagine what’s in it… alone”, and thereby helping us to form a society that enables collaboration in help rather than in the patronisation of the traumatised and the reinforcement of their – or in this case my – pain.

As ever, I’m open to discussion.

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