Oh No, Not About New Normality Again …

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I recently changed the name of my blog from ‘Multilayered Musings of New Normality’ to ‘Multilayered Musings from the Mourning Light’.

This is not a thinly veiled marketing ploy for my book, Living in the Mourning Light (honestly!) but there is a significant contributing factor that led to the change.

First and foremost, I think that the phrase New Normality has become seriously overworked by the media to represent our post Covid life (whenever that should arrive). 

To any griever, new normality is the planet on which you find yourself after you lose a loved one. 

I had no need to notice or acknowledge the saying prior to losing James, but when I joined the Compassionate Friends, soon after his death in 2005, I realised that new normal was a common descriptor for the post loss arena in which the griever lives.

To a bereaved parent, new normality – certainly early on in grief, is all the following:

  • Waking every morning with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, wishing you could turn back the clock.  That is one of the hardest things to bear in early grief; the first few moments of waking when reality slams into your heart again and again with the knowledge that your beautiful child is gone.
  • A constant refrain running through your mind which may begin ‘If only … or why me … or, how could this have happened?
  • A feeling of emptiness that leaves your heart aching and your mind racing, or vice versa

However, there is better news to come.  As time passes, you realise that your new normal becomes your current normal and you can face the days with more action and fewer tears.

Your new normal becomes a mask that you put on the moment you wake.  In the early days, that mask used to slip on my way home from work.  I would drive home through a haze of crying and shouting to the world that what had happened was not fair.  But these incidences gradually lessened.  New normal morphs into current normal and ultimately to old normal.  You cannot change what has happened, so you have to adapt to what is happening today, tomorrow and the following days.

In Covid terms, new normality is already establishing itself in many respects, for example with the relative ease with which we have become accustomed to seeing others wearing masks.  The term social distancing has fallen into our everyday language.  I wish I had shares in Zoom! – for this is one of the platforms via which we have become adept at meeting with others, virtually.  It has become new normality to wish others to stay safe at the end of phone calls and emails.                                                                                                                      New normal is less face-to-face contact, less shopping, and worst of all, less hugs! 

We talk of tiers and tears in the same breath.  That’s not normal at all, whether new or old.

New normality will not be the same as old normality.  How can it be? when we are not the same people that we were before – and that applies to Covid as well as to grief and grieving. 

In the same way, the mourning light is not the same as the light in which I lived before loss.  However, the mourning light represents to me the absolute best that I can hope for, the best that I can BE, all the time whilst travelling through the grieving process, not just for James, but for those other family members and friends whom I have lost.

The positives of the mourning light are that it is a gentler place.  It is softer, kinder and more forgiving. 

Will that be the new normal of Covid when it is over and when some time has elapsed, as it has since we lost James?  This year is our sixteenth without him. 

How will we all feel, I wonder, when the Covid pandemic is a 16 year old memory?  It is impossible to contemplate and envisage now. 

In 2005 I found it impossible to contemplate and envisage life 16 years after loss.  And yet, here I am … proving it is possible to live a fulfilled, joyful, hopeful, optimistic and happy life in the mourning light.  I am thankful for the innate resilience which propels me forward on a daily basis. 

Perhaps we should name the post Covid times the extraordinary era.  Extraordinary is a word that fascinates; break it down and you have two words, extra and ordinary.  But the extra doesn’t mean an added bit of parmesan on your pasta or gravy on your roast dinner – rather it is meant to convey something outside, thus ‘outside of ordinary.’ That neatly sums up what has happened to our, previously taken for granted, ordinariness.

Something extraordinary goes above and beyond what is expected and this can be good or bad.  I think I will coin this term for future use: here we are, living in the mourning light, in the extraordinary post COVID-19 era. 

There you have it; my first 2021 multi-layered musing from the mourning light.  Hopefully it is extraordinary!

Goodbye 2020, Hello 2021

At the turn of the year, I generally write a blog post, reflecting on the year that has passed and heralding the new year ahead.  In a break with tradition, I thought instead I would produce a photo diary to mark 2020:  a year like no other.

It was difficult to choose just one photo from each month, but here they are, each with a few sentences to enliven them.  I hope you enjoy this pictorial calendar! I wish everyone a healthy and happy 2021 and thank you all for continuing to enrich my life, in whatever role you occupy.

January

A rainbow over Knightshayes illuminated one of our many walks there.   We are lucky to have this place almost on our doorstep, although we haven’t been able to visit as much this year, for obvious reasons.  Little did we know that when we saw this rainbow, all would be different in a matter of weeks.

February

Living in the Mourning Light was published this year, and an image similar to this forms part of the front cover.  This is a view on the road out of Bampton, where I drive on my way to work in the mornings.  When the mist sits in the valley below, I often feel compelled to stop and take some photos. 

This sums up living in the mourning light perfectly, a clear light which manages to include the veil of sadness represented by the mist. 

But it is a positive light, even in this rather monochrome view, as the sun is there too.

March

There are few places better than a harbour on a bright sunny day, and this is one of our favourite places to visit.  Minehead may not be top of the list compared with the open North Devon beaches, but it has its beauty nonetheless and I always feel as though I have been on holiday after a day trip to the Somerset coast.

April

I have always enjoyed watching birds in the garden, but never envisaged that a handsome male pheasant would become a regular visitor.  His plumage is iridescent in the sunshine and he does a good job of hoovering up the seeds that fall from the feeders.

May

This month saw us taking numerous walks from our front door as we were not permitted to do much else!  The swathes of wild garlic, photographed here a scant ten minutes away from home, scented the air with a pungent fragrance.  I have Riverford Organics to thank for some recipes – delicious pesto from the young leaves and cheese and garlic scones.  After the flowers die back, they are replaced by small round seed heads.  These were picked, brined and pickled to create wonderful, tiny garlic flavoured capers, a superb addition to fish and salad dishes.  I have only just finished the jar.

June

All these flowers grow naturally in the fields and hedgerows around us.  This is my go-to type of photography, when I can focus (literally) on these small, natural marvels and take solace from the beauty of  their form and colour.

July

This is such a special photo because it reflects one of the few times some of the family were all able to get together freely this year.  Stella, Pete, Charlie and Grace live about an hour away from this place, and so do we, in the opposite direction.  Thus it is a good halfway meeting point.  It is South West Lakes’ Roadford Lake, just off the A30.  We didn’t know that a wildflower meadow had been planted and arrived in glorious sunshine to see these lovely blooms. 

August

This is another favourite awayday viewpoint of ours; and it looks particularly beautiful on a hot August day.  The location is North Hill looking down overlooking the coast at Bossington and Porlock, Somerset.  The fragrance of the heather hung heavy in the warm air that day and we felt blessed to be enjoying such heavenly surroundings.

September

This month, I fulfilled my ambition to get out of bed early enough to see the sun rise on Exmoor.  This image also encapsulates the promise of the mourning light.  The gate is indicative of a way forward, and the rosy dawn holds promise for the day.  I remember my thoughts that day as I reflected on the restrictions of the pandemic, and felt heartened by the fact that however dark the night, the dawn still brings the light, day after day after day.  The stillness and peace of the morning were uplifting in the extreme.

October

Witnessing a roundup of the Exmoor ponies was another ambition this year, and Shaun and I were lucky enough to be able to photograph the Anchor herd.  The owners of the herd permitted the photographers to place themselves in some especially good locations and it was a thrilling experience to watch these wonderful, stocky, sturdy ponies gallop past us.  It is a tribute to the care and attention by such breeders as these that the bloodline of the species, unique to Exmoor, is able to continue.  We felt privileged to be part of the day and can’t wait to do it again next year.

November

November can be a drab month, but the autumn colours of the trees at Tarr steps seemed especially vibrant this year.  We had a wonderful morning’s walk in the golden light and felt thankful for the natural beauty and history of this place, which reflects Exmoor’s hills and valleys so well.

December

Since we moved to Devon I have dabbled in some artistic efforts.  The restrictions of Covid meant that my art classes stopped, but I was signposted to Belinda Reynell, a local artist offering art tuition online with Zoom classes and downloadable tutorials.  The classes are great fun, and most paintings are done using palette knives and scrapers, rather than brushes.  This loose form of artistic expression is surprisingly liberating, and I am quite fond of these snowy trees. I hope you like them, too!

The year in summary

From countryside to coast, we have been able to enjoy outings all year round.  I am especially pleased to share this image showing Shadow standing comfortably in the (rather soggy) woodland, as he had surgery on the tendons of his paw in April and is no longer troubled by the corn that made him lame.  So now, he can enjoy longer walks with us.  

Happy 2021 Everyone, from Beautiful Bampton!

Christmas Trees and Advent

How do you dress your Christmas tree? I am a traditionalist and enjoy decking the tree with tinsel, red, green and gold baubles and multi-coloured lights.  My oldest bauble dates back to 1981, and was sent to me by Stella, one of my school friends, when she and husband John were living in California.  They have moved back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times since then, but they came back to the UK for good in February.  Unfortunately, Stella has had a very rough ride with her health and they have been effectively locked down in Surrey throughout the pandemic, but excitingly, they are moving to Devon very soon.  We haven’t lived in the same county since our teens!

When Stella and James were little, I embroidered two small figures from kits, an angel for Stella and a robin for James; they must always be on the tree, too.  More recently, a friend sent me a felt bone with our rescue greyhound Shadow’s name on it and last year I gave Shaun a glass ornament featuring an Exmoor stag.  Another unusual decoration is a little Russian doll that was brought back for us from family friend Lucy’s visit to Moscow in 2008 (I think that was the year!)

Some years the tree has been artificial and others it has been real. This year we enjoyed choosing a Nordic tree that has been growing in Devon soil for seven years; it was freshly cut for us.  (Regrettably, Shadow feels he has a duty to ‘christen’ the tree, and experience has taught us that a few pieces of scrunched up silver foil on the floor seem to put him off that particular notion …)

There is something comforting about decorating the Christmas tree with the familiar memory laden objects which are carefully packed away into the loft each year.  There is a sense of anticipation when the boxes come down again in December and as I lift out the ornaments from their wrappings I am invariably revisited by a welter of feelings. 

When you have a family, adorning the tree is an exciting annual event.  It is lovely when children are old enough to help, though their enthusiasm generally outweighs their artistic talent, and a certain amount of judicious relocation of this bauble and that piece of tinsel may take place after bedtime.  Some years, an event around the tree passes into family folklore, such as the year the (then) kitten pulled it over at least twice, and another occasion when the cat scratched and scrabbled at all the wrapped presents, desperate to reach his catnip toy, producing a confetti of wrapping paper for Christmas morning.

There comes a time when children lose a bit of interest in the tree, or they want a trendy, lime green set of decorations (used once and still languishing in the box) and ultimately the tree decorating has reverted to being my pleasurable task, with Shaun patiently unravelling the lights and carefully placing them under my direction. 

Naturally, I think of Stella and James when I place their ornaments onto the tree. I feel the now familiar sense of the absence of James.  He loved Christmas and I don’t think there has been a single year without a tree, apart from 2005, the year we lost him.  That year, we went away to a hotel, being entirely unable to make any attempt to ‘do’ Christmas.  But as time has passed, despite the empty chair at the table, we have been able to pick up our traditions again and balance them against the poignancy of loss.

Last Sunday, I gave a short reflection on BBC Radio Devon which focused on the comfort and joy of Advent.  Since I joined the many Christians around the world who celebrate Christmas from a faith perspective as well as a secular viewpoint, I really enjoy the anticipation of the four weeks of Advent. 

I have missed going to Church this year and witnessing the lighting of the Advent candles, although I have been able to participate through watching online services.

I find that Advent is a period of waiting, wonder and anticipation, but this year, the year that has been like no other, it is difficult for me to feel those emotions to the degree that they would usually be present. It is hard to be contemplative with the level of worry engendered by the current situation, though I keep trying! I have a sense of trepidation about further difficult times ahead; my usual anticipation is necessarily tempered by well placed anxiety, not just for myself, but for everyone confronting this new and challenging world. 

Comfort and joy may seem in short supply, but we must take heart from the shift of the earth’s axis that comes again after the winter solstice and the knowledge that we will be pointing towards the light again.  Advent begins in the dark but points towards the light; the mourning light perhaps, and for more people than ever this year.

There is comfort in the traditional carols playing on the radio, and I know that there will be joy and radiance on children’s faces when they discover that Santa has paid a visit, socially distanced though we may be.

It is the time of year when I say a big “Thank you” to everyone who continues to read my blog, approaching its seventh year.

I wish you all a peaceful festive season and above all a healthy and safe time to come.

One of the Hardest Questions

Back in 2014, I was asked to contribute an article to a daily newspaper around the question,

“How many children do you have?”  This is invariably awkward to answer when you are a bereaved parent and indeed, it came up for discussion in the feedback session after my recent online talk to The Compassionate Friends.  So, I thought I would revisit the article’s content, six years on, and share my current thoughts around the topic.  Hopefully this input will be helpful to those who are more recently bereaved, or who are supporting families who have lost children.

If I am in a social situation and a stranger asks me, “How many children do you have?”  I usually make a quick assessment.  Should I deflect it?  Or answer it honestly and wait for the silence that will follow, as I am well aware that the enquirer will have no idea what to say.

Over the years, I have perfected a stock response, one that I feel comfortable with … most of the time. I avoid a direct answer because if I say, “I have two children, but one is ‘no longer with us/died/passed away’”, I know that the lightness of the mood will be lost.  So I say something like, “Well, we’re a bit of a blended family and the children and stepchildren are grown up with their own families now.  How about you?” I then get to hear all about this other person’s children.  It may be a bit of a cop out, but sometimes it is easier to deal with the opening gambit inviting you to tell them about your family, being turned around to hearing about theirs. 

Yet, part of me feels guilty about betraying James by denying his existence in this way.  I justify it with a silent apology to him in my mind. 

Bereaved parents constantly find themselves in this situation when they meet new people, whether at work or socially.  Perhaps an unexpected bonus of Covid restrictions is the limitation of social interaction and an avoidance of such circumstances this year.

If you do answer the question honestly, people are invariably shocked and upset.  Several people, intending to be kind, have applied the scenario to themselves.  “Oh, you poor thing, how dreadful!” they say. Then, “I couldn’t bear it if I lost one of my children … I would just die”.

In these cases, my internal voice asks, “How on earth do I respond to that?  Does it mean that because I am still here and I didn’t die from my grief, that I don’t love my child as much as you love yours?”

I have in the past said quietly, “No, you wouldn’t actually die, you would just carry on … because you have no choice”.

Of course, I want to keep the memory of James alive and I do so in a multitude of significant ways: by writing about grief; by campaigning for water safety, by public speaking and by saying his name and talking about him with friends and family.  But it saddens me that we have not yet evolved a way of talking about the children we have lost in casual everyday situations. 

I think I usually get it right these days, assessing whether it is a good time to share what happened to James, with a group of people whom I don’t know well.  After the initial stunned silence, I find that people take their lead from me, and if I can bring myself to talk easily and naturally about James, and other members of my family, then that makes it easier for them.  In the early days of loss, I would not have had nearly as much consideration as to how my bombshell of news would affect others, but the passage of time helps to put a more generous coating on the bitter pill of my personal tragedy.  Often, someone will share a confidence with me about their own loss, once they know about James, and that is encouraging.

One lesson you learn over time is that although your loss remains at the forefront of your memory ad infinitum, those around you can soon forget.  A few years after James died, a colleague who had attended his funeral, asked breezily if I was looking forward to Christmas.  “I’m sure I’ll get through it”, I replied, and when he asked why I was looking so gloomy I had to remind him that I’d lost my son.  “Oh yes, and I guess you still miss him”, he replied lightly, and the crass insensitivity of his remark, stunned me.  The implication that one day I may not think about James any more, particularly at Christmas, was deeply hurtful.    

I suppose that only parents who have lost a child can understand the profound depth of the grief; the sense that the natural order has been disrupted and life will never again resume its old course. 

In some ways it is liberating not to be pre-judged or made allowances for, because I own this particular status.  In certain scenarios, I am accepted simply as Andrea, not ‘Andrea, that poor lady who lost her son’.  And when we moved to Devon three years ago, it was a while before I shared my story with others, preferring to have that liberation in various situations until I felt comfortable with sharing. 

But not speaking of James feels wrong too and when I get the balance right between the telling and the not telling, that is when I feel I am progressing along the path of grieving under my own impetus and control.

During the course of 15 years I have encountered many responses to the telling of James’s death.  After the initial shock, fear is a prevalent reaction. I call it the contagion of bereavement.  People might think, “Oh my God, if it happened to her, it could happen to me”, and they figuratively step away, not wishing to know too much.

Others say, “I didn’t like to ask about James. I feared it would upset you”. They do not realise, though, that I have faced the worst a parent can endure.  Nothing can ever hurt me more than my son’s death.

Over the years I have thought long and hard about how best to find the right balance when having conversations about bereavement of all kinds.

In the case of child loss, I believe the best reaction is simple.  If a parent tells you their child has died, simply respond that you’re very sorry to hear it.  And if you want to know what happened, just ask them.  Know too that no offence will be taken if you don’t. 

But don’t be afraid to say their name in subsequent conversations.                          Please don’t flinch, when I say the name James.

Grief is a conversational minefield, but we should learn to negotiate it with tact and delicacy.   And the more open and uninhibited we can be about discussing it, the better it will be for all.

https://www.tcf.org.uk/news/tcf-news/hope-of-finding-the-mourning-light-through-the-mist/

Parrots and Ponds

Isn’t it interesting, the way something that you see and hardly notice at the time, can be a visual trigger for a cascade of memories?

During a recent Zoom meeting, I noted that one of the participants had a large bird cage in the background which I think contained a cockatiel, though I didn’t pay much attention.  Afterwards though,the visual prompt took me back down the years to childhood.

My dad’s friend, Tom, and his wife Jessie, lived in the Midlands They’d met when they were in the Army together.  Every so often we would be invited to stay for the weekend.  Dad, who was a bit of a speed freak, did his best to beat his own personal best time up the (then new) M1, so we always arrived somewhat frazzled.  I always felt I got one over on my brother Peter.  Due to my propensity to car sickness I was allowed to sit in the front.  Just imagine, the car had a full width bench seat, with no seat belts! – but to be fair, there were far fewer vehicles on the road.

Uncle Tom and Auntie Jessie lived in a pin-neat bungalow, but the suburban appearance of the outside belied the interior.  The kitchen was dominated by a large cage, in which resided a colourful (in language as well as plumage) Macaw parrot, rather splendid in her bright feathers.  Beady of eye and sharp of beak, Polly definitely ruled the roost, and there were frequent instances when she became so loud and unruly that a cloth had to be thrown over the cage to keep her quiet.  Uncle Tom thought it was a treat for we children, to have Polly alight on our gauntleted hands, but I never enjoyed it very much.  Polly looked to have a steely glint in her eye that might presage a peck and I was glad to hand her back.

Uncle Tom’s garden was a sight to behold.  The typical suburban lawn of the time had been given over to a series of interconnecting ponds.  These were linked by bridges and pathways and at their side sat fishing gnomes, ornaments, and even a small-scale wooden windmill, complete with motorised sails, that had been imported from Amsterdam.  Goldfish shimmered in the water by day and we couldn’t wait for dusk to fall so that we could enjoy the magical splendour of the lights glittering and flickering around the garden.  We clamoured to be the one chosen to flip on the switch.

Uncle Tom had also installed a shiny, mirror backed bar in his lounge.  It was of its time, (the 1960s) containing tipples such as Babycham, then considered a drink for ‘the ladies’,  Tizer for the children and an ice bucket shaped like a pineapple. Peter and I were strictly forbidden to go anywhere near the brightly lit edifice which of course attracted us like a magnet!

Even the resident dogs were colourful characters, being a pair of portly Pekingese, who were inclined to take a fit at the least provocation. They frightened the life out of me when they began writhing and frothing but seemingly took no ill effect and responded quickly to Jessie’s calming words.

When I was a bit older, I began to understand Tom and Jessie’s desire to surround themselves with glitter, colour and anything that diverted them from the everyday mundane.  My parents held low-voiced conversations about them on our return journeys and one day, mum told me that Jessie had a series of miscarriages and eventually had to have a hysterectomy while still young.  Sadly, Tom and Jessie could never have their own baby.  It was such a shame because they both loved children, and we were treated like their own.

As grievers, it is easy to understand our desire to displace the great gap that is left by loss and fill it with brightness and colour. Early grief is likely to put you in a place where you see only shades of grey and it takes time to reclaim the vibrancy that has been drained by your loss. 

We have an enormous void to fill and each will choose different ways to fill it.

During my recent talk to TCF, I described how, around two years after we lost James, I overheard colleagues describing me as ‘always dressed as though she’s going to a funeral’.  At the time, this brought me up short and I started to bring some colour back into my wardrobe.  My drab greys and browns gradually became replaced by clothes lifted by colourful accents – a pretty scarf perhaps, or patterns in material that lifted them out of dullness. I favour blues, mauves and pinks, never wear yellow, and rarely red. 

There are many representations of colour and light all around us, particularly in nature and during our changing seasons.  Rainbows are especially beautiful and invariably lift the spirits.  There has been much research done into the psychological effects of colour on our emotions, and if you find you are drawn to a particular shade or colour, there is probably a good reason for that, so don’t question it, but go with it.  If you want to use colour in practical ways, a simple adult colouring book can occupy your mind, and your hands, to create images that are calming and pleasing.

As I say in Living in the Mourning Light, “I write often of the grief journey being one of moving from darkness back into light; but it is not as simple as that.  It also encompasses the shift of focus from blurred to sharp again, and for the world we know and recognise to change from monochrome back to full glorious technicolour”.  

Though I am not about to acquire a parrot or sacrifice the garden lawn to illuminated ponds, I encourage anyone who is grieving to find whatever outlets they can to take back hold of colour into life.  Shades of nature, particularly blue skies, green fields and the golden foliage of Autumn, are among my favourite colours.  They are my happy place; the comforting lens through which I move forward, into the mourning light.   You too may be able to find yours through the rediscovery of the spectrum.

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https://www.tcf.org.uk/news/tcf-news/hope-of-finding-the-mourning-light-through-the-mist/

A Talk about Finding the Mourning Light after Loss

I recently wrote about the Zoom-based talk that I am giving for the Compassionate Friends this month, and this blog post is by way of a reminder if you wish to put the event into your diary:  Wednesday 11 November at 7.00pm 

The talk is primarily aimed at TCF members, who are bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings, but the event is open to all. 

It is free to register, but like all charities, TCF are having a really tough time in this Covid-19 period, and donations are welcome.

I have been shaping the talk over recent weeks and although as always, I will admit to a degree of pre-show nerves prior to the event, over the years that I have been giving talks and presentations about grief, loss and water safety advocacy, I have really learned the value of sharing James’s story.  It is a privilege to have a variety of ways in which to share the massive amount I have learned about forging a positive pathway through the grieving process. 

 I look forward to sharing my insights on how you can begin emerging from the darkness to start living in the mourning light after loss. Please join me if you wish!

https://www.tcf.org.uk/content/events/315-finding-the-mourning-light/

Of Goats and Tenacity

When I woke this morning, I found myself thinking about Welsh mountain goats.  How random! I hear you say.  Why on earth … Welsh mountain goats?   

When I was young, my Cardiff-born mum used the illustration of Welsh mountain goats to teach me about resilience.  She said, “They’re stocky, brave, hardy little things.  Out in all weather, sure-footed, they manage to live in the most inhospitable places and find enough food to keep them going.  When things are troubling you, just think about the tenacious Welsh mountain goats …” 

A quick Google search told me much about the herd of Kashmiri goats which live on the Great Orme headland in Wales.  They were introduced to the UK when Queen Victoria was gifted a pair of the goats, then prized for the quality of their cashmere.  In the late 1800’s Lord Mostyn acquired a pair and they were released onto the Great Orme, where they bred successfully and continue to live.  In fact, the goats achieved a certain notoriety during lockdown earlier this year when they meandered into the town of Llandudno, having become braver because the streets were quiet.  They obviously possess quite a bit of initiative too!

I continue to miss my mum’s wisdom; we are approaching the 19th anniversary of losing her. Early November is a challenging time in our family as we remember the loss of mum, my brother Peter and ex-husband Ken, all in the same week, though different years. 

Quite a lead up to my birthday on 10th … thus I gather round me thoughts of the resilience of the mountain goats to help me power on through.

I wonder what you find to draw on in these difficult and challenging times?  I think it is fair to say that we are all living in a type of grief mode.  We are mourning the loss of our previously less restricted lives. 

In respect of the pandemic, I find myself drawing upon the same tools and devices that I use for processing grief.  I hope that sharing some of my list will in turn help you to identify those things which support and sustain you. These are all simple, accessible ways to increase our resilience as we work towards moving into the light space of a Covid free existence:

  • Words – whether spoken, read or written, words are always an important ingredient in my life.  I can read wonderful stories, I can write out my angst and I can listen to others speak movingly and supportively on topics which appeal to me. Shaun will attest to my ability to talk! – but in the talks and presentations I give, I try to make my words count
  • Music – one of the things that I love about technology is the ease with which I can access any music that I feel like listening to, generally for free too. It is such a personal choice, isn’t it? – and we now have an unlimited library at our disposal.  I must mention here the glorious and beautiful voice of tenor Maurizio Marchini.  This tall, handsome Italian has generously shared his amazing voice throughout the pandemic.  He began by singing from his balcony regularly to his neighbours and his new off-stage following has grown into an international audience of which I am just one of many admiring fans.  Check him out on Youtube or Facebook!
  • Beauty in nature – a walk outside costs nothing and never fails to uplift.  Even if you live in a built-up area, you can appreciate birdsong and sunshine.  One of my favourite occupations is photographing my surroundings and if I am feeling low, looking through my archived photos of happy, sunny days never fails to cheer me. And even gentle exercise releases endorphins which help to lighten your mood.
  • Art – this follows on naturally from photography really; in the past two years I have made an attempt to paint and I really enjoy learning about colours and techniques.  The concentration that is required to create a painting suspends the intrusion of mind chatter very effectively, I find. I am sure this works equally well with any form of creative exercise
  • Visual media – we are surrounded by images these days and it is easy to become visually over stimulated.  I have learned to be selective in what I view and watch on television or my phone.  I avoid what I consider to be dark or negative as it brings me down.  Instead I look for the uplifting or humorous aspects of life. 

Anyone who reads my grief writing will know that I focus on the positive:  hope, light, faith, resilience, joy, transformation, love … any combination of the foregoing is necessary to us all to sustain and help us through the coming difficult days.  I often affirm that, as my book’s title suggests, I am living in the mourning light and all of us can do this going forward.               We need to call upon our innate positivity, resilience and tenacious characteristics of the Welsh mountain goats which my mum told me about, many years ago.

Go gently and stay safe, everyone.

A Future without Drowning

With Courage, Nothing is Impossible. Sir William Hillary, Founder of the RNLI

I am once again indebted to my colleagues and friends at the RNLI for including our story in the current issue of Lifeboat magazine, the quarterly publication that is sent out to supporters of the charity. 

It’s a hard read.  Fifteen years on, the pain of loss still has the power to floor me at times.  But it is difficult to imagine the empty feeling that an RNLI crew must have when a shout has resulted in loss of life to drowning.  As they themselves say in the article, “the reality is that despite our best efforts, we don’t always reach everyone in time.  To save everyone is an ambitious vision.  But one we all share.  Because drowning is preventable.  We all believe that even one person lost to drowning is one person too many”.

It is a sad fact that nothing could have been done to save James at the time.  Accidental drowning still accounts for a number of deaths in the UK and Ireland, though the number is steadily decreasing through the collaborative approach of all the relevant organisations who champion water safety. 

These all form part of the National Water Safety Forum which seeks to ‘reduce accidental drowning fatalities in the UK by 50% by 2026, and reduce risk amongst the highest risk populations, groups and communities’.

Over the years, I have learned much about the impact and value of continuing to relate what happened to James; my response to loss has been to throw my energies into a variety of activities all designed to highlight not only the effects of loss, but the potential for a positive path through grieving and the ability to move onward and forward into joyful living. 

All of us who knew him will live the rest of our lives with a James-shaped hole where he should be; that is fact.  But we can wrap our lives around that fact and be thankful for the wonderful times we had with him, when he was here with us.

Please support the RNLI if you can, and continue to highlight the inherent dangers of water. Innocuous looking or not, it can take life in an instant.

Have you Ever Wondered? All about the Mourning Light

In November, I am going to give a Zoom talk to The Compassionate Friends and although it is primarily aimed at TCF members, who are bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings, the event will be open to all.

My talk will focus on finding the mourning light after loss, and if you have ever wondered how and why the mourning light has become so important to me, this blog post (perhaps I should call it a prequel) will fill in some of the gaps.

Soon after James died in 2005, when I was avidly reading everything I could find about the loss of a child, to try to make some sense of what had happened, I came across a book by Carmella B’Hahn, called Mourning Has Broken.  Carmella’s son Benjaya was unusual in that he was one of the UK’s first planned ‘water birth’ babies in 1986.

Tragically, at the age of five, Benjaya lost his life to water, falling into a river near his home.

A great communicator, Carmella wrote about Benjaya’s life and passing and at the end of her first book, she wrote,

My son/sun is shining still as he did upon the earth, breaking the mourning with his light.

These words stayed with me and I was fortunate to meet Carmella on two occasions, attending her grief workshops, early in my own loss.  I held fast to the concept of light breaking through the mourning over the years and it is still a key ingredient in my personal recipe for living with grief.

As I headed towards publication of my first book in 2014, the title, Into the Mourning Light, kept coming to me.  It seemed wholly appropriate and I sought Carmella’s permission to take a slant on her words; fortunately she willingly gave me her blessing at the time. 

When I was finalising the second book, I had quite a debate with myself about the title, wondering whether I should choose something entirely different.  But the book, though not exactly a sequel to the first, continually affirms the message of being in the mourning light, so in the end, it was obvious to me that I should call it Living in the Mourning Light.

I wouldn’t say I have coined the expression the mourning light, but it is certainly my favourite descriptor for life after loss.  The analogy of the morning breaking after the darkness of the night is one we all recognise; but I wonder whether to challenge that by suggesting that perhaps the morning doesn’t break, but instead it gathers the light and that is what dispels the darkness.

The dusk and darkness fold themselves together like a cloak for the night, and when we wake in the pearly stillness of the dawn that always follows, maybe we should see that as the daily miracle that it is.

It is easy for me to summon up a list of the items that I carry in my grief toolbox which collectively support and sustain my life in the mourning light: but bear in mind that my list won’t be the same as your list.  The commonality of endorphin boosting activities and processes is a given, though the preferences of each of us will be different.  The individuality of grief is a given too; even between bereaved parents who have experienced similar loss and who tread similar recovery paths.  The darkness stays longer with some people than others.  The timeline for grieving is elastic.

Fifteen years since James died, I can still be broadsided by grief unexpectedly, though thankfully this is a rare occurrence now.

Once you have begun to emerge from the darkness of loss, once you have begun to unfurl, blinking in the light, like someone waking from a long sleep, you rarely go back to the black pit of despair where you started.  But, you and only you, have to take the first steps along the walk in the darkness, you have to be moving towards the light of hope and life and joy, before you can look back and say, I know this pain is easing, I know this hurt is gradually diminishing. You can choose to look forward towards the light, or backwards towards the agonising darkness from which you have come.  It is easy to say, Well it is obvious, I am always going to walk towards that light.  Why would I want to be in the dark?  But sometimes, you can feel that there is a need to sit in that dark place for a little while, to be fully in it, to realise how far you have come and how much further forward you can go.

And you know, we need not fear being totally alone in the darkness, ever.  For we are never truly alone. 

Whatever your spiritual beliefs, there is massive comfort in knowing that.  For myself, I am daily comforted by my faith and my conviction that those whom I have lost are not truly gone and we will be reunited one day.

Thank God/goodness/heavens for the human resilience with which we are gifted that sees our return to (almost) normal daily living after loss!  The mourning light can never be quite the same as pre-bereavement light; the dimming reflective of that of  the soul light of those whom we have lost, but nonetheless I still hold true to the following, which I wrote in Living in the Mourning Light:

Today, after these years of loss, I can share the optimism that comes from a life full of new connections, exciting beginnings and a truly positive thought process, all of which reflect how it is possible to come out of the darkest despondency of grief into the suffused brilliance and the quiet joy of the mourning light.

I hope these thoughts and feelings are those which I can express in the talk when the time comes.

https://www.tcf.org.uk/content/events/315-finding-the-mourning-light/

Not Changing the Title

I wrote about Covid New Normality in April, and I didn’t truly anticipate there being a postscript now, all these months later.  I have tried very hard not to keep writing about the pandemic but the Muse will out!

Back in 2014, after my first book, Into the Mourning Light, was published, I named my new blog ‘Multilayered Musings of New Normality’ as I felt the title was a good descriptor for the posts which I planned to write.  Little did I know then, that ‘new normality’ was going to pass into common usage to describe how we live our lives in, and most likely post, Covid. 

It is quite annoying, really.  New normality is a phrase beloved of we grievers, we people whom have lost someone dear to us, we people who come to know that we must find entirely innovative, different ways to lead our lives without those dearly loved family members, friends, colleagues and neighbours who previously populated our existence. 

To us, new normality is the place we are dumped into by loss. 

Our new normality, in the early stages, is waking with our first thoughts devoted to that person who is not here anymore. 

Our new normality is to present a face to the world to others, that is acceptably typical of us as we were before.

We are expected to assume new normality almost overnight. Those around us want to see us making progress, resuming our usual mantle and demeanour, often long before we are ready to do so.

So what is the new normal of Covid?

Is it the wearing of face masks, the lack of spontaneity in our lives, the anxiety of what may yet be to come?  Is it the restrictions that mean we cannot travel freely and socialise in the ways we used to?  Yes, it is all those things. 

But there is something extra, something positive that comes from the hijacking of the grievers’ favoured description.  As a result of Covid-19, there are many more people who have gained a better understanding of what it is like, to be thrust from one existence to another.  When the UK went into its first lockdown in March, we had our terms of reference stripped from us, overnight.  We were denied access to our family members.  We were effectively imprisoned in the cells of our homes, which quickly became places of refuge. We were suddenly bereft of the life we had known the day before when we moved around with ease, went shopping, went to places of worship, visited cinemas, pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, beaches, cafes, schools and workplaces … 

Our new normal started in lockdown, when those of us who are fit and mobile relearned to rely on our legs rather than our cars and suddenly discovered how enjoyable it can be to walk for an hour and get to know our locality, in ways we had not before. 

Our new normal became helping our neighbours; joining local online groups offering mutual support, shopping and prescription collections. 

Our new normal became spending more time focusing on what we do have rather than what we feel we must have. 

The NHS Clap for Carers on a Thursday evening allowed some of us to have socially distanced, loud conversations with our neighbours from our doorsteps and offered a welcome distraction from being indoors. 

We have quickly become accustomed to seeing face masks and queuing outside shops.  We rejoiced when we could go and get a haircut.  We counted the days we hadn’t been able to see our families and loved the time we could spend with them again, albeit without hugs. 

(From a personal perspective, it is definitely not normal, old or new, not to have hugs.  When will we be able to hug again?  I am sure I am not alone in having sneaked in a couple of ‘let’s both hold our breath’ hugs with family and friends?) 

But we have this lacy veil of fear overlaying everything we do, which is becoming tiresome and wearisome.  We have lost the ability to plan with certainty and that is unsettling in itself. 

Grievers, indeed anyone who has ever had issues with confidence, knows that anxiety feeds on itself and it can quickly become overwhelming.  Seeking out help and practising whichever mindful activities benefit and calm us, can be a great boon in these times of shifting goalposts. 

There should be no shame in admitting to worrying and feeling the physical manifestations of stress; no stigma to our saying that we need help, if that is the case. The many layers of grief within the pandemic, from the loss of connection with friends and family, to our inability to foretell the future, can feel like an overwhelming barrage of emotions.  When anxiety escalates, we become familiar with the fight or flight response, and this has an undesirable effect on our ability to function normally and cope with what is coming our way.

I believe that Covid-19, with all its ramifications, not only exacerbates grief in the griever, but concurrently provides a better understanding of loss and its myriad experiences to the non-griever, so it is not all bad …

In a spirit of optimism, I am not going to change the title of my blog.  New normality will always mean the same to me. It is the life I live in the mourning light, in the aftermath of loss.  It is my life that contains optimism and joy and love and faith and family and friends and above all, hope for the future. 

Hold on tight to whatever constitutes your own normality. Stay safe and take care, everyone.

Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark, born 35 years ago on 11 September, 1985. 

Always in our hearts, especially on your birthday. 

The Mourning Light