Clare Mackintosh – I Promise it Won’t Always Hurt Like This

In December 2006, my five-week-old son died. I was a police officer back then, calm in a crisis and hardened to tragedy. I had delivered bad news to more doorsteps than I could count; watched blood drain from faces as it sunk in.

Now it was my turn.

Alex’s death was a physical blow, winding me for weeks on end. Every breath was a struggle; every step as though I were dragging myself through thick mud. I felt my son’s absence like a black hole, consuming everything in its orbit. Life was almost unbearable. ‘Almost’, because Alex was one of twins. Having more than one child didn’t make it any easier to lose one, but it gave me a reason to get up each day. A reason to keep living.

A few weeks after Alex died, a woman I’d never met before knocked on my door. She brought me daffodils from her garden and a claim I found impossible to believe. ‘I promise it won’t always hurt like this,’ she said. She had lost a child herself, many years previously, and she assured me that there would come a time when I would breathe easily again; when it would not feel as though someone were sitting on my chest, crushing my lungs.

I cried so much that first year. The second year, too, and the third, and the fourth, and…

The pain eased without my noticing, the way a journey passes faster when you forget to count the miles. And on the fourteenth anniversary of Alex’s death, the day was already unfolding before I realised its significance. My first thought was guilt – how could I have forgotten? – but I also felt something akin to pride. I had survived. More than that: I had thrived. I thought of the daffodil woman’s promise, and I felt an urgent need to pay it forward.

I shared my thoughts online in a post that swiftly went viral. My inbox was flooded with messages from people all over the world, who wanted to reach out with their own stories of grief and hope. I tried to reply to them all, and when I couldn’t, I wrote a book.

I Promise it Won’t Always Hurt Like This is my journey through grief. It explores the way our symptoms evolve over time and offers a glimpse at a future where your loss will no longer consume your every waking thought. It’s a book for anyone who has experienced grief or wants to be prepared for future loss; a book to give to a friend when you don’t know what to say. It’s the book I wish I’d had when my son died.

We are very bad in this country, I think, at dealing with grief. We skirt around the subject of death and avoid conversations we feel are morbid. We find it uncomfortable when other people cry, and prefer it when mourners weep privately behind closed curtains. But hiding grief doesn’t make it go away. After Alex died, people crossed the road to avoid me, as though bereavement were contagious. I saw the relief on work colleagues’ faces when I changed the subject – something I did not because I wanted to, but in order to ease their obvious discomfort.

Not everyone behaved that way. There were friends who understood that I might start crying midway through a conversation, who knew what questions to ask. ‘What do you need?’ ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ ‘Shall I make tea or open the wine?’. But no-one can provide emotional support 24/7, which is just one of the reasons books are so very wonderful.

A book can be by your bed for the three-a.m. insomnia, providing solace when the world is asleep, and you are wracked with guilt and fear and pain. A book can be read over and over; marked in the margins when a passage seems to have been written just for you. I read so many books on grief after my son died, and given that I am a writer, it was perhaps inevitable that, one day, I would write my own.

Writing I Promise it Won’t Always Hurt Like This was very different to writing fiction. In my novels, the characters are made-up, but now I was referencing my family, my friends. I had to find the right balance between telling my own story while protecting theirs. I’m used to drawing on my emotions when I write, but this was nothing I’d experienced before – each chapter left me wrung out, as though I’d been through hours of therapy. And it was therapeutic, in the end. As I finished the manuscript and sent it to my editor, I felt lighter. It turns out my writing about grief wasn’t an obsession, simply a need to process my thoughts on it. It remains to be seen if I’ll return to grief in my fiction.

I Promise it Won’t Always Hurt Like This, by Clare Mackintosh, is published by Sphere, and is our Non Fiction Book of the Month for March.

Signed copies are available to order here.

  • Clare Mackintosh