Thou the pain of losing their daughter Barbara will never quite go away, Bruce and Betty Catchpole are healing, and helping other bereaved families along the way.
When people ask Betty Catchpole how many children she has, she replies, “I have two children and one has died.” Betty and Bruce Catchpole lost their daughter Barbara five years ago. She was 29 and happily married. Her death caught everyone by surprise.
As a toddler, Barbie was diagnosed with a kidney condition called Nephrotic Syndrome. She also had asthma. Continuous steroid therapy was started before she turned two, but the side-effects of the treatment were brittle bones and arrested growth. However, she made the most of her four feet, 10-and-a-half inches.
As Barbie could easily fracture a bone or go into shock following an accident, her mother, a nurse, would go on school trips and to Guide camp as an “extra pair of hands.” This way, Barbie could be one of the kids without appearing to be overly protected. Barbie grew up a happy child who read her Bible every night before turning off her light.
Barbie was best friends with her older sister, and when Brenda went to university, Barbie filled the void by having her friends over to the house. They baked so many chocolate chip cookies, it was not unusual to go though three packages of chocolate chips in a week.
Barbie excelled in life. She achieved her Canada Cord, the highest award in Guiding. She was student council president both at her junior high and later at A.Y. Jackson Collegiate in North York, Ont. An Ontario Scholar, she was also the collegiate’s valedictorian.
At Sir Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., Barbie would work out in the gym with the guys, and could bench press 100 pounds. After graduation, she worked successfully for several advertising firms.
She had to monitor her condition every day of her life, but her attitude was always, “If this is my last day, it’s going to be the very best.”
She was married for three and a half years when she died suddenly on March 18, 1994 of a pulmonary embolus, a blood clot in the lung. What caused the clot was never discovered. Although she had a chronic condition which could lead to death, everything had seemed under control.
Six hundred people attended Barbie’s funeral, but in the months afterwards, a number of relatives and friends of the Catchpoles never mentioned their daughter’s name or asked how they were doing. “After the funeral, people walk away,” says Bruce. “It was as though sending a card and attending the funeral was all that was required.”
A neighbour that had been close would disappear indoors if she caught sight of the Catchpoles. Betty finally confronted the woman who confessed that she didn’t know what to say. Betty told her, “Just say, ‘I’m sorry’ and be my friend.”
Some got it right. One neighbour embraced Bruce exclaiming, “I’m so sorry!” He clung to Bruce and sobbed for 20 minutes. Another neighbour who had not been on the best of terms with the Catchpoles brought over muffins. It was a simple way to say, “I care.” And then there were three couples who have stayed in touch with the Catchpoles on almost a weekly basis for the past five years.
After the first year, one friend thought Betty should simply “snap out” of her sorrow. But a nephew took Bruce aside and admitted, “I just haven’t any idea what you must be going though. I can only imagine. It must be terrible.”
“Don’t isolate us and don’t give us advice. We want recognition of our pain. Now we have nothing to show for all the nurturing and love – nothing but a hole,” says Betty.
The couple grieved in different ways. For the first month, Bruce felt as if his chest was bearing 15 pounds of lead. Even though he was usually reserved, Bruce got on the phone and told his story over and over.
Betty had been the extrovert, but now she withdrew and wanted just to hug Barbie’s picture and cry. She felt as if Bruce was smothering her. She was angry but had no place to put her anger. “I couldn’t make a decision to save my soul, which was totally out of character.”
“I’m more of a loner now, a much quieter person,” says Betty. “I think and read more. I don’t feel the joy I use to. Part of my life has gone. It is difficult to laugh, and when I first did after she died, I felt guilty. Yet if I can take what I’ve learned through Barbie’s death and put that to good use, then I feel she’s still there and very much alive and working through me. There’s got to be a purpose in her death.”
The Catchpoles no longer celebrate Christmas in their own home. Instead, they travel out to their other daughter’s home in Winnipeg. On Barbie’s birthday they bake a cake, and on the anniversary of her death they toast her memory with champagne. They have donated a humanitarian award to her high school in her name. Bruce gets choked up presenting the prize.
“The pain never goes away, but you learn to work with it,” says Bruce. “If I didn’t believe there’s a better life and we’d be together again, I’d be hard pressed to go on,” he admits. Bruce’s minister advised him to never stop asking God for an understanding of Barbie’s death.
“The death of your child will strengthen your faith or totally destroy it,” says Bruce. “I can now identify with Job and with Paul with his thorn in his flesh. It has made me more sensitive. We’re stronger Christians, a little more intuitive and more caring. We’ll be there now for other people.”
And they have been. A month after Barbie’s death, the Catchpoles felt called to help a friend who had only a year to live. Soon there was an aunt in Ottawa, and then Bruce’s sister. In fact, in the last five years, they have been “given” seven people in need of support during the process of dying.
Now the Catchpoles are involved in Bereaved Families of Ontario. Bruce has co-facilitated a group session for bereaved parents over a 12-week period. “The first night is the toughest, getting out the story of your child’s life and death,” he says. “The second session is almost as rough, telling about the funeral. Yet as painful as it is (talking of Barbie’s death), it keeps her alive.”
In later sessions, parents discuss how to get through the day, how to relate to a spouse, how siblings and the extended family are dealing with their grief, how to deal with anger, guilt and loneliness. They consider what to do with their child’s clothes and room – they’re advised not to turn it into a shrine – and how to make memories.
Bruce is amazed at the changes he has seen. “Parents who could hardly speak their child’s name in the first session, were open and supportive of others by the final session.”
Barbie’s friends rallied round the Catchpoles when Barbie died. Several from high school days still drop by occasionally with their own children or write. One told them recently, “I never make a decision without thinking of Barbie.” And her friends are happy to share their photographs and memories. “Do you remember the time when Barbie … ” they sometimes ask.
“Part of the joy is in remembering,” explains Betty, “because when we remember her, she still exists.”
Myth: A marriage will disintegrate following the death of a child
Reality: Fleming’s study indicates that the rate of divorce of seperation is not significantly higher among couples who have lost a child. Such a loss does indeed place tremendous strain on a couple, and if the relationship was unstable at the time of death, it likely won’t survive. But if the relationship is solid, it should survive.
Myth: If the child was older, the grief following the death is somehow easier to bear.
Reality: A child is a child is a child, whether that child was an infant or an adult.
Myth: If you are an older parent, it is easier to bear the death of your child.
Reality: It isn’t any easier losing a child, wwhether you are young or old. Our assumptions of the nature order – the parent should precede the child – are broken.
Myth: If you have a child with a long-term illness, you have time to prepare for the death.
Reality: You havn’t and you can’t.