About three weeks after the death of my husband, my best friend gave birth to a baby girl. I say friend, but to me she is a sister. We have known each other for over thirty years. She dropped everything to be with me in the hours after he died, while heavily pregnant, and has continued to be there for me since. She worried about not being with me at the funeral, as it was so close to her due date. Even with her own busy life, she continues to make it a point to tell me when she thinks of Matty or cries for him. That others miss and grieve for him, is incredibly important to me. I count myself as fortunate to have a group of friends such as this. They are my extended family and went through the sadness and loss alongside me.
The symbolism of this new life was obvious and a welcome joy. I was later asked to be the babies godparent. Inevitably, just being asked made me emotional, not least because I knew my friend understood implicitly, my need to feel capable and whole without my husband with me to share in that responsibility and privilege. Reflecting on it now, what I see from a wider perspective, is that in my life I am lucky enough to have a very tangible sense of belonging within friendships and family. This was such a protective factor for me after what happened, as everyone rallied around me. I felt connected, secure and loved. I can only imagine what the experience of losing a spouse would feel like, without that safety net. It allowed me to fall down sometimes and trust that I would be held up.
A sense of belonging to place and person is such an important part of individual identify and psyche. Those who feel disconnected and alone, are often at greatest risk of mental ill health. It would seem no coincidence to me, during a time when human connection is so limited, that anecdotally mental health services appear to be at their most stretched. Connection to others is intrinsic to human survival and yet we are more than ever living digitally and online. Attachment to others was never meant to be this way.
There is an African proverb that says ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Currently, we are denied access to our village. As a parent living with five children, I can become overwhelmed with the responsibility of child-rearing and am unable to seek as much support as I once took for granted. Our identities and membership of wider contextual groups within work, friendships and families has been compromised. We can develop our sense of belonging in so many ways, but human connection is critical. To maintain our mental wellbeing, it is imperative that we remember to prioritise it. This might mean acknowledging things are less than ideal in our current situation, but nevertheless embracing digital connection in lieu of physical closeness. I’m sure many of you will feel as I do. Please consider how connected to others you feel and if you don’t, do something to change that.
In the two years since that first new baby, another three close family babies have been born. In fact, one made his arrival just this week, a brother for the first little one. My friend cannot have access to the village she needs just now. One that provides her with a group that is going through what she is, as a new mum again. We cannot visit, hug her close and hold that little baby. I wish for her to feel as I did back then, when she was there for me; connected, secure and loved. One day, it will be easier and I hope to be able to fulfil this role, both for her and for each of these new babies too. They are the future and if they feel they belong as I do, they will be very fortunate indeed.