Liani came to Vienna in 2016 with her new husband who was contracted by the IAEA, and her two sons, aged 16 and 20, joining her 6 months after. With no job at hand, she embarked on a difficult journey to learn German to become part of her new home country. Within a couple of months, she received a job offer at an international university. In 2018 her work phone rang.
On the 8th of May 2018, the principal of her son’s university called to give her the worst news a mother could get. Julian, her eldest while abroad on an exchange semester, drowned in Hua Hin, Thailand. “My initial reaction was disbelief, and a whole range of emotions came out. I screamed that the principal was lying, I threw my phone against the wall and as people came rushing into my office, I just kept saying he is lying, he is lying.” Next came the intense time of going to Thailand, arranging a cremation of her own child, trying to make sense of what happened. “Julian passed away in Thailand. He went for a walk in the night and his body was found two days later onshore.”
As a mother you keep thinking, “How did this happen? Not just the apparent drowning, but how is it even possible for a mother to outlive her child?” After the initial shock subsided, and with a whirlwind of things to arrange, Liani found herself at home beginning to sort out Julian’s belongings.
When someone dies, you are not only dealing with your own emotions but also with the people around you who all have their own coping mechanisms. “I was lucky enough to have an amazing support structure in my family, my group of friends in Vienna and Julian’s friends that since then have become my ‘adopted’ children.” But there were other reactions too. Some people started to avoid her.
“One of my neighbours literally ran away from me when he saw me, not knowing what to say after Julian’s passing,” tells Liani with a wry smile. One of the most excruciating things she found was hearing the phrase: “You have to move on.” Liani: “It was not about moving on. I will never ‘move on’ from my son. I needed to find a way to rearrange my life with him there but not being there.”
In her grief, she yearned not for words of comfort because there are no words of comfort when a mother loses her child, just a space to be heard, a space to process, a space to be accepted for whatever emotional place she found herself in on that particular day. “When you lose a child, everything you have ever believed in up until that point, vanishes in a second, everything has to be rebuilt. How does a mother’s brain understand the sorrow and loneliness of losing her first born son?”
The Journey of DevaJu
Fall 2018, the grieving mother was desperate to find someone who could sew a keepsakes teddy bear with her son’s clothes. Even though she sewed herself, she never attempted stuffed animals but not being successful in her search, she brought together her sewing gear and fabricated a gorgeous teddy bear made from African shweshwe.
All the love, the thoughts and the sadness were poured into the process where she captured the essence of someone, she considered not only her son but an exemplary young adult. “Julian was a thoughtful and kind boy. I know all mothers say that about their son, but in this case, I can say it is true,” says Liani. She continues: “I was in a very abusive marriage with his father. After five years I was able to walk away. And my son was the reason for this strength. I did not want him to grow up and think it was ‘just ok’ to beat up a woman because she is ‘out of control’ or ‘crazy’.”
The kind nature of her son, who brought sunshine wherever he went, inspires her to tell his story and within no time she gets responses from grievers all around the world for whom she makes a stuffed animal as a remembrance. “I feel honoured when people send me clothes of their loved ones. It is a piece of someone so close to them and must be respected. When I cut out the pieces, I light a candle in memory of the loved one and stay mindful of their lives and those who are left behind.”
To spread Julian’s memory, she adds a little emblem in all the bunnies, bears, unicorns and dragons she makes. “The label is DevaJu. Deva for angel in Sanskrit as my son was very spiritual. Ju simple for Julian.”
Not long after, she received a request from her youngest son’s school for collections for an orphanage in Romania. She thought of making little stuffed bunnies to celebrate Julian’s first angelversary and deliver them to the school. She recruited some helpers in a women’s group on Facebook. After an overwhelming response, the women set off to fabricate 50 little bunnies. All stamped, DevaJu. Liani also started to make more teddy bears with a little note about Julian and DevaJu, leaving them behind in the city. And she received a response!
“One evening I was really struggling with the grief when I received a message from a boy who found the unicorn in Neubaugasse, a picture with him and his brightly coloured unicorn. Realizing that my own journey to find healing can impact others played an incredible part of my journey.” Liani is yet to make a DevaJu of the clothes of Julian for herself.
The Impact of a Global Pandemic
Then 2020 started with a threat of a global pandemic, causing much fear for the unknown. How will this affect our lives? Many people were forced to deal with their underlying emotions and troubles alone behind closed doors during the last year. For Liani Drury it was one of her best years. “The social distancing created a space for reflection,” she explains, as she was forced to go deep-end into her grief.
There were many similar feelings around the consequences of lockdown and restrictions of COVID-19 and the loss of her child, planning and a sense of safety disappeared for many, as we were all forced to live in the present, as the future was so uncertain. The depression of the COVID-19 lockdown and isolation she felt would pass again one day.
But her grief will always be with her. “It is not comparable but on the other hand it is,” explains Liani, “The last year made me realize I need to live for myself, not for my husband or my children or my grief. I need to transform into the human being I can be, reaching into the power of my inner self.”
Liani concludes: “I hope when my son sees me, he will be proud of the person I have become. I am living for myself now and for what I have to contribute to the world. Coming to this point of my journey has been hard, messy, full of tears and laughter but with an inner happiness I could not have imagined a year ago to find.”
Recognizing loss as a universal experience, Liani Drury hopes that “if we can start to understand the true nature of grief and loss and show understanding to each other, we can have a more helpful, loving, supportive collective culture.”