Last year was Marjolein’s first full year without her son Max (22). He passed away on 11 May 2020 while surfing with a group of boys in Scheveningen. It doesn’t matter whether someone dies suddenly or is ill for a while and then dies, according to Marjolein. “Someone is no longer there.” She wrote the book Raw, in which she describes how she experienced the year after his death.
Her world came crashing down on the night of May 11 when she learned that her son was one of five surfers who died. Her only focus in that moment was making it into the evening. She gave herself tasks to sustain herself. “I washed and ironed all of Max’s clothes. That was completely unnecessary, but at the time I thought it made a lot of sense. Then I went to fix up the shed, where I put all his stuff. Then I sat with my hands in my hair. What now?”
“Writing kept me going for the first year”
She came up with the idea for her daughter Ivy, who was then seven, to write letters. “I wanted her to get to know her brother better. But gradually they were no longer letters, it became a story. I also found the letters too non-committal, because when they are finished, I have nothing. A book goes on and on. In addition, writing gave me a sense of time.” Some of the letters did end up in the book. “The advantage of writing is that you have to think about what you put on paper. All those thoughts, fantasies and feelings must be given structure. It has helped me to find order in the chaos. Writing kept me going for the first year.”
According to her, the book is different from other books about the loss of a child and mourning. “Most books were written after a few years, I started writing six weeks after Max’s death. It is in the moment, without a filter. Everything came in tight. When I was angry, I was really angry. I was in the middle of it.”
This section is called the final stage of life. You have not experienced such a phase with Max, because he passed away suddenly. How did you experience that?
“My father was shot and killed during a gunfire in our cigar shop in East Amsterdam. I was nineteen then. My mother died of cancer. She did have a sick bed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s fast or slow. When you’re in it, you can get angry, but you have to accept it. It’s about someone being gone. How someone died is more of a thing to the outside world. People are still talking about the fact that my father was shot. I’m not dealing with that. And as for Max, I don’t have a son anymore. How he died is not something I think about. But you don’t want to think about that either.”
How are you now?
“Today I’m fine, December was my worst month, the second Christmas without Max. I found both December months very difficult. You can only play for so long. At some point the rack is gone, but then you have to continue. Then I’ll walk on my gums. People wish each other happy new year. It won’t be a happy year for me.”
How was your relationship with Max?
“Very good, he officially lived in Delft, where Max lived in rooms. He was at my house most weekends. In between he sometimes worked in the cigar shop with me. Max and I understood each other. We didn’t need many words. We had the same kind of humor. And Max was easy going. He was just a nice boy.”
You sometimes hear it said that the death of a child is the worst thing that can happen to you as a parent. “Yes, that’s right, it’s the worst thing there is. There’s nothing like that and I’ve been through everything. When your parents die, you know it’s coming. Everyone loses their parents, that’s normal. You know they die. But your child will not die. You don’t think about that. That’s so unnatural. I didn’t think about that for a moment. As a result, the most obvious is no longer self-evident. If that can happen, what else can happen? I think the death of your parent is more in your head. The death of your child is in every fiber of your body. Losing your child, there is nothing beautiful about that and it is not easy to talk about. It is the superlative of sadness. And from day one you know: this is not going to go away.”
Did you gain any insights from writing the book?
“His death is a given and you have to find yourself again. Everything is new and you have to discover everything again. That’s nice when you’re in puberty, but not at my age. I have to discover what my standards and values are, and what I think is important and what is not. What I do, I do to survive. It’s not an option to get out. I have another daughter. I hold on to my work, my home, friends.”
What were the reactions of those around you to Max’s death?
“People find that difficult. They have no idea how to deal with it. No one wants to think about their child dying. People feel powerless, and sometimes they avoid you, or pretend not to see you. I don’t see most of the people around me anymore. They just fall off. Then they say: I’ll leave you alone for a while. But for whom are they doing this, for me or for themselves? People can’t take away my grief, but they can help me make it through the night. When you’re in so much pain, a few people aren’t enough.”
What would you like to say?
“Doing nothing is not an option. You must do something if something like this affects your neighbor. The closer you are, the more it is expected. Do what you can and show that you care. Send a card, a text, put food in front of the door, do something. It’s not too soon. It is actually always too little.”
Do you feel that something is after death?
“No, I never believed that. I’ve never been involved with it either, because I can’t figure it out anyway. You really want your child to be in a better place and to see him again someday. In addition, I think life is special enough to occupy myself with that.”
You still want to be here? “No I do not want that. I don’t have anything fun ahead of me. I have no hope. This will hurt me for the rest of my life, that’s quite a nice prospect. I live in the moment and try to be a good mother to Ivy.”
Marjolein has enough beautiful memories of Max. They laughed a lot together and had good conversations. She last saw Max the Sunday before his death. “A few months before his death, Max had almost finished his technical studies in Delft. He was going to go to Amsterdam to get a master’s degree there. Why do you want that, I asked him. Simply, because it is possible, and it is the most difficult study, he replied. And then Max? And then another study, he said. He was incredibly smart. He liked to see what he could do. And maybe he wanted to come and work with me in the cigar shop.”
Do you still speak to his friends?
“Tonight one of his friends is coming for dinner. They come by often. They talk very easily about Max. We reminisce and those are little gifts for me.”
On the first day of his death, Marjolein went to Scheveningen. There were many people on the beach. She doesn’t know if she’s going again this year. “I have never been to Scheveningen with Max. That was his thing. When I’m home, I feel more connected to him.” She hopes that after reading her book, people will become aware that life is not all fun. “Sometimes we have to look down from our mountain to experience that the valley can also be very deep. And if it’s someone close to you that something like this happens to, what are you going to do? It’s not about whether you’re going to do something, but what are you going to do? Doing nothing is not an option. And I would like it if people after reading the book think: I wish I had known Max. He was a really nice boy.”
“Your child is not going to die. You don’t think about that. It’s so unnatural”
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