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When Nicola Streeten began writing a graphic novel about her grief at losing her two-year-old son, there was one question everyone asked her – was it cathartic?
»When Nicola Streeten began writing a graphic novel about her grief at losing her two-year-old son, there was one question everyone asked her – was it cathartic?
It was 12 years since Billy had died from heart complications when she began writing and, as Streeten movingly relates in her new book, she and her husband John had struggled with the anger, sorrow and frustration that his death inflicted on them.
But a decade on, the book was never intended as a form of therapy. Instead it is a poignant, and at times darkly funny, look at how we deal with loss.
“If I’d have written it at the time then it would have been a type of therapy, but because it was 12 years on – and 16 years ago now – it is reflective,” explains Streeten.
“It is about churning up the emotions of your audience, using my experience to draw it out as a wider narrative so that they can understand what I went through.”
It was 16 years ago that Billy died. Doctors at the Whittington Hospital had been unable to diagnose a shadow on his lung for a year. He was referred to the Royal Brompton, where he died after an operation to address his heart problems.
Streeten and her husband John, who lived in Crouch End at the time, was thrown into the depths of despair.
She went from being a mother, with all the responsibility and tactile companionship that brings, to being childless.
Passing women with their young children in the street brings bouts of anxiety, while dinner party conversations with expectant mothers bring the dreaded question – do you have a child?
At the time of Billy’s death, Streeten kept diaries detailing her grief. It took 12 years before she felt able to return to these notes, and out of them grew her book, Billy, Me and You.
In it she narrates the sadness, anger and moments of dark humour that were all part of the grieving process.
Told through rough, jagged sketches interspersed with photographs, the book’s illustrations reflect this variability of emotions.
“It is wobbly and uncomfortable for the reader,” says Streeten. “I want the reader to feel moments of extraordinary discomfort and to be brought to tears, but on the next page to smile or laugh.
“That is what the grief was like. It flickered. One moment you are crying. The next you are laughing. Everything was very heightened and extreme. At times this grief could be angry and arrogant. Streeten felt that she was entitled to define and dictate how people should mourn for her dead child and those who did not co-operate could be angrily dismissed.
“We felt it was all about us. If our friends didn’t grieve the way that we grieved, we lost our temper with them,” she said.
In one scene in the book, Streeten erupts at her close friend for suggesting they put up a memorial bench for Billy.
Depicting herself steaming with rage, Streeten writes: “A bench in the park? So I can watch everyone else’s alive children? Are you completely insensitive or just an idiot?”
In another, Streeten silently grades people’s responses. A woman who replies by saying “Oh, my friend’s baby died – in fact I helped her through it”, gets minus 20 out of 10.
The simple words “I am so sorry” get 10 out of 10.
As well as being an incredibly moving tale of a woman coming to terms with her grief, Billy, Me and You is an important contribution to the growing genre of the “serious” graphic novel.
n Billy, Me and You: A memoir of grief and recovery is published by Myriad Editions, £12.99