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Living a Double Life

Keren DavidFilmed at JDOV Live with the JC and JW3

How do you mourn someone you never knew? This was the challenge that Keren David and her family faced when their second child, Daniel was stillborn a week before his due date in February 1998, an unexplained, mysterious death. Keren framed this talk as the barmitzvah speech that she never got to give for Daniel, because it was a way to reflect on the positive ways in which he changed them and the world. When Daniel died the pain was so acute that she really could not imagine how one goes on living with such a burden of grief. Camille Compton from the Jewish Baby Bereavement group gave her the inspiration to keep going. Keren's hope is that her talk will reach other parents struggling with the loss of a baby. This talk is dedicated to Daniel Moss, to Daisy Compton and to James Valentine Peake. Never forgotten, always with us, written on our hands.

Keren David started in journalism as a teenager when she got a job as an editorial assistant at the Jewish Chronicle. She turned down a place at university to remain at the JC, training as a reporter, and then worked for many papers in London and Scotland before becoming a news editor at the Independent. She lived in Amsterdam for eight years, where she studied History of Art and worked for a photojournalism agency. She re-joined the JC earlier this year as Features Editor. She is the award-winning author of seven Young Adult books. She is adapting her book Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery into a musical. She is also a Visiting Lecturer at City University on the MA in Creative Writing and Publishing. Keren lives in north London with her husband and two children.

So, yesterday, I was in the car with my son, who is 16, and I said, I’m really worried about this speech that I have to make, it’s tomorrow, I haven’t really planned it, I haven’t really written it. And he went, ah don’t worry, Mum, he said, you’ll be fine. I said, no I won’t be fine, there are a lot of important people there, it’s a very strong subject that I want to write about. And he said, no, it’ll be fine, remember my bar-mitzvah, he said, you hadn’t written your speech the morning of the party, you wrote a few notes, you got up, you gave a good speech and I was very happy with it. And I thought, fantastic, not only has he schmoozed me really really well, so I feel really good, but also he’s given me the idea of how I’m going to frame the speech that I’m making now. So he went off to play football, and I sat down and wrote this speech.

I thought about the speech that I should have made five years ago, because my second child, my oldest son never got a bar-mitzvah speech. And so, Daniel, this is your speech. If you’d had your bar-mitzvah you would have got many presents. We only gave you two things. The first was your name. The second was your gravestone.

What do you write on the stone of someone who died a week before he was due to be born? We found you a verse from the book of Isaiah. It’s a metaphor, Daniel, it’s about God’s love for the Jewish people, which is quite a complicated relationship. Your dad studied literature, your mum is a journalist. We like metaphors. Your sister and brother, not so much. So, bear with us. The whole verse was this:

Shall a woman forget her sucking child, have no compassion for the child of her womb? They too shall forget, but I will not forget you. I have written your name on the palms of my hands, your walls are always before me.

The walls are a bit of a puzzle, I know, a rapid change of metaphor there, I think Isaiah needed an editor, but anyway, we chose for your stone the line: ‘I have written your name on the palms of my hands’ because we knew that we would never forget you, and we liked the idea of doing something or making something in your name. To live for you the life that you would never have. To live – if you like – a double life. We just didn’t know how to do that. But we hoped we would find out.

There is compassion as well as memory in that verse, and one of the first gifts that you gave us was that of empathy. It’s difficult to understand really terrible loss until you experience it yourself. And it’s hard to move beyond that pain, when pain is all you have, there are no memories to find comfort in. And when a death is as mysterious as yours – no explanation, no sign of anything wrong – there is no comfort either in feeling that suffering has been avoided. But the gift of empathy, of compassion and above all of resilience – we, your parents, thank you for that. It helped us rebuild our lives, and it helped us through other challenges, because nothing was ever going to be as bad as losing you.

At first, Daniel, I have to admit that my energy was all taken up with just surviving. I was too sad and exhausted to live a double life. I was trying to unravel and understand the emotions involved. Being a parent to your wonderful sister, Phoebe, who wasn’t yet two, helped us so much. And finding the courage – like your namesake, the biblical Daniel – to step into the lion’s den that another pregnancy had become. And we did, and your brother was born. And we thought about calling him Zachary, which means memory, but in the end we decided we wanted to look forward, rather than back, so we chose the name Judah.

(And it’s a good thing that we did, because almost all his friends are called Zachary!)

Judah means praise, and we felt that one important lesson that you had taught us, Daniel, was how precious life is. And how much there is to praise. And later on, when Judah was seven and Phoebe was 11, we took them travelling, to Singapore and Australia, to Cambodia and Thailand, so we would share an experience as a family that none of us would ever forget. To see some wonders of the world, enjoy each other’s company, and remember that life is for enjoying as well as grieving. You didn’t get to come on that holiday, but you inspired it.

But before that, you achieved something all by yourself. And we only found out because there was a big scandal at a hospital called Alder Hey in Liverpool, when parents discovered that the hospital had kept organs from their children after their death, and this was quite common practice in the NHS.

So, I wrote to the hospital which carried out your post-mortem, and asked them. And they wrote back and apologised, and said yes, for three whole years you had been helping them with their research. And I was upset, that we hadn’t been asked, or even told, because this was so important. You, Daniel, play a role in finding out why young children develop kidney disease. You could be saving lives. And that’s quite remarkably comforting in a situation where you have to find your comfort where you can.

The next thing you helped me with was comforting friends whose babies had died like you. Old friends, and some new friends who came to me because of you. You gave me strength and insight and understanding. Thank you, Daniel, for that.

It took ten years to really get my act together and make something in your name. I suspected that thing would be writing, because that’s what I do, and I always thought I might write a book, but somehow I wonder if I would have done it without the urge to make our double life really count. I suspect not. You gave me the inspiration to start writing, the tenacity to finish and the courage to risk rejection. And there was a lot of rejection.

When I started writing, I hadn’t expected that the voice I would find for my first book would be that of a teenage boy. Somehow though, it was, and the book got published and since then I have had six more books published, all for young adults. Next year, I should have two more.

And people tell me, Daniel, that my books are very different, but they are wrong. Almost all my books share one theme at least, and that is, lost boys. Boys who are finding out about their identity, their families, their sexuality.

I’ve just written one about a compulsive liar. And my books are – very often – read by boys. I get emails from boys who say ‘I don’t really like reading, but I like your books.’ Two librarians from separate Youth Offender Institutes have told me that my first book is the most stolen from their library! Lost boys read books, because of you. And reading one book can open someone’s life to an entire library, an education and a new way of understanding the world.

Girls read my books too. I heard from a librarian last week, about a girl who loved one of my books so much that she carried it everywhere with her, and when she was involved in a fight she was utterly distraught, because the book had been damaged – and so could I send a new copy to the school. Another reader had a line from my book tattooed on her arm. And another wrote to me, “it’s funny how comforting a book can me, much more than a person.’

I’m not telling you things to show off – well, maybe a bit. But I mention them because I don’t think they would have happened without you.

And because of my books various things have happened. Your impact has been even stronger. Some examples: I teach creative writing, I mentor students, some of them have gone on to have their books published too. I am adapting one of my books into a musical. It’s quite unusual among musicals because it has a lot of parts for young women. So, young actresses will have chance to shine and build their careers.

And I’ve made lots of new friends, many of them authors. A group of us ran an auction for victims of the typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2013. We made £57,000. And it’s all in your name.

You would have turned 18 last February. It was a difficult birthday. And we’ve had other difficult birthdays – 13 was a difficult birthday. But 18, I wondered so much about what you would be doing, watching your contemporaries making plans for gap years and universities. And at every stage of your life – of your life that you didn’t have – I’ve had to remind myself that I have no idea what you might have been doing, this one was hard.

When I was 18, I started work at the Jewish Chronicle, and that’s how I became a journalist. And last year, a few months after your birthday, I was offered a job there. So 18 years after your birth, I get to go back to the place where I worked when I was 18, with all the experience that I’ve picked up since then. With everything that you have given me.

And, because I am working at the Jewish Chronicle, I got asked to give this speech today. I hope that other parents of lost children like you will watch it and see that it is possible to survive – to more than survive – such a tremendous loss.

Losing you was the worst thing ever to happen to us, but having you was one of the best. 18 years – 18 is such an auspicious number in Jewish tradition – it translates numerically as ‘life’. Your short life, Daniel, continues to impact mine every day. There is a saying: “each life, no matter how short, changes the world forever.” Your short life, Daniel, changed mine forever. And for that reason I live a double life, yours and mine.

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