Giving sorrow words
Parents of four Felicity and Paul de Fombelle lost their youngest son Etienne in June. He was five. Here, Felicity shares with the Catholic Voice some reflections on his death.
Almost three weeks after I went to wake my sleeping five year old son from a mid-morning nap and found him dead, I see my eldest son asleep on the couch, and I am afraid to approach.
What if 10-year-old Arnaud has died, as well as Etienne?
Fear grips me. Earlier that day, Arnaud had been unwell so my husband Paul had taken him to Canberra Hospital. We needed reassurance. While waiting at the hospital, Arnaud had asked Paul; “Am I going to die, Papa?”
Paul was in tears as he relayed the story to me.
Our lives changed the day Etienne died; on Sunday June 23, 2019.
Two nights ago, while putting the boys to bed, our nine year old son Eric said, “Maman, are you 100 per cent sure that Etienne is dead?” How I longed to say No.
Last night, while tucking Arnaud into bed, he started crying and said, “I’m scared of dying Maman”. Arnaud also remarked, “We know that Jesus is so loving Maman, so how come he took Etienne away from us?”
It is a question I am also wrestling with, so how to respond? Given we are yet to know anything about how Etienne died, I am conscious I need to move to a position where the answer might never come.
And it is dawning on me that, in life, often the answers do not come, because there is so much we simply don’t know.
I cannot even try to answer Arnaud’s question about why God ‘took’ Etienne, because I have no sense of that myself.
I can barely recall how I have got through these last few weeks, because it all seems so unreal. You never think about winning Tattslotto, because it will never happen to you. In the same way, you never think one of your children might die, because surely that would never happen to you.
That’s something you read in the newspapers, about other families – and how devastating it is.
Well, my youngest child Etienne died, and we buried him at Woden Cemetery on Monday July 1, after a beautiful Funeral Mass at St Peter Chanel’s in Yarralumla celebrated by Fr Tony Percy, along with Fr Andrew Lotton, Fr Trenton Van Reesch and Fr Frank Brennan. All such wonderful men who I respect and admire. Gosh we are blessed to have our priests.
Eric and our third son Thibault, 7, were altar servers at the Funeral Mass, as they usually are at the Saturday evening Mass we attend. Arnaud, who thrives on being an altar boy, decided not to serve.
I admired his maturity in making the decision. I expected Arnaud to sit between Paul and I in our usual spot in the first pew, but instead, he sat in front of us, next to four of his classmates. That felt right – Arnaud supported by his friends from school, which of course is such a big part of his life.
Etienne had made it to school, which is something I give thanks to God for. He was thriving in kinder, as any child should. Etienne caught the school bus with his three big brothers, who took it in turns each afternoon to fetch him from his classroom and walk him to the bus stop.
Earlier in the year he had joined the French-speaking scout group that his brothers attended. Etienne relished being a “Joey” – he’d been canoeing and rockclimbing, and had enjoyed his first Joey sleepover in the Ainslie scout hall, toasting marshmallows and making craft which he presented to me the next day for Mother’s Day.
Life now is hard and heavy. It feels a tested life. Earlier this week, I sat down with a trauma counsellor and spoke about the huge role that Etienne had played in my life, and in our family life.
Etienne was joy personified, and he lifted me – lifted me from the drudgery of parenting and housework. I needed him – his spirit – and now he has gone.
The counsellor told me that Etienne can, and must, continue to play that key role in my life. I nodded understanding but, to be honest, I do not feel that in my heart. And that worries me. My desperate hope and prayer is that, with time, Etienne will again play that role, and help me to see the joy and light.
I worry that my three boys will forget about their younger brother. Paul and I met a SIDS grief specialist this week, who told me in a confident tone that the boys would never forget Etienne. I have to take her word on that. The boys will see the grief specialist next week. She also gave me information about a ‘bereaved siblings’ group that they run. I feel I have entered another world – one that few enter, and no one would ever want to.
The other evening, Eric asked if he could use the computer to record a few memories of Etienne. My heart leapt – of course you can my darling. I will gently encourage his brothers to do the same.
Thibault sometimes covers his ears when we talk about Etienne. They are so young and tender; each processing a story about their brother’s death and seeking information to fill in the pieces.
At the cemetery, the three boys fired questions, walked around examining headstones and did everything short of jumping in the hole with their youngest brother. They were curious – “Who dug the hole?” “Where did the dirt come from?” and so on.
Fr Tony stepped in. He was terrific; asking people to move on so that he could stay with the boys, answering their questions and supporting them.
We come together in suffering – we reach out to those who are grieving and want to show our love and support. I have never been at ease with receiving, but receive I have, and I recognise in me an enormous growth in that respect. Just this evening at Mass, I broke down during the final hymn, Lord Be My Vision.
A parishioner moved forward to hold me, and we sang the last three verses together. This was my parish enveloping me, and my family. Last week, a parishioner approached me after Mass and said, “Etienne’s death has lifted this parish”.
I have learned that Etienne – in his short, five and a half years on Earth – had a tremendous impact on people. And as I write this, I realise how proud that makes me, as his mother. We can often underestimate that power. So while I grieve, and feel such emptiness, I also thank God for the gift of my son, who Paul and I treasured and who absolutely knew the depth of our love for him.
As much as I cannot understand or fathom Etienne’s death, in these darkest of days, I still strongly believe that God is in control, and that our God is a loving and gentle and compassionate God.
My prayer is for healing and comfort, along with gratitude for the joy of a boy named Etienne.