Monthly Archives: January 2015

On reflection


Can you tell if the image above is the right way up … or not? In fact I think the grasses in the top right hand corner are a giveaway, but I left them there intentionally to illustrate my point.

When I reflect on events over my lifetime, does the face I present to the world mirror my experiences?

I like to photograph the reflections in the canal when I am out running. Sometimes the water is so still as to produce a symmetrical mirrored effect which is quite beautiful. At other times, the raindrops cause little pools of reflection that break the surface of the water and remind me of the effect of loss, as its circles ripple out ever wider across family and friends.

The mirrored surface of the water may be broken by leaves and other debris and yet the whole remains complete. To me, this accords with the elements that contribute towards the life we live.

We are complete despite that which could have broken us.


 At the hairdressers recently I looked up and fleetingly glimpsed my mother’s reflection in my face in the mirror. That’s a happening that many of us will recognise! – I welcome these glimpses as they feed my belief that I have gained the matriarchal knowledge that is the privilege of the mother as she ages, it becomes something not to fear or to dread. Rather, I embrace it, even though it appears along with the lines of the ageing process.

It feels to me as though the wisdom of mothers is something ancient and innate that women pass down generation on generation.

If someone holds a mirror up to me, do I see my true self or do I see the reflection that I am putting out to the world, perhaps the face that I want others to see, which express little of what is going on behind the façade?

It is very difficult to see ourselves as others see us.

Some people choose never to see themselves in the mirror; and that is fine too.

But if I do choose to see myself in the mirror that is held up to me, I see a woman who lives her experience.

I see a woman who wears some of her life on her countenance.

I see a woman who has known much joy and some sorrow.

The joys of my life outweigh the sorrows, even the greatest sorrow with which I live; the loss of my son.

The loss of my dear parents in 2001 and 2003 was significant.

The loss of my ex-husband in 2002 was significant.

But these losses do not compare with the loss of a life that ended at the ridiculously young age of 19, when James died in 2005.

Can I ever resume reflecting the face that I wore before? No, I cannot. I am not that woman any more, yet I retain my privileged roles as a mother, sister, daughter, wife. These are disparate elements which nonetheless meld together to produce the person I am.

The best reflection that I can share today is that of someone who manages her grief, who succeeds in presenting and projecting a face to the world which does not write the entire story in its expression. This is the face I wish everyone to see.

This is not the face of grief and loss, this is the face of a survivor of grief and loss. There is an important difference.



Rightness and brightness


“Words are tears that have been written down. Tears are words that need to be shed. Without them, joy loses all its brilliance and sadness has no end.” Paulo Coelho

It is nearly a month since the Daily Mail published my article on the etiquette of grief. I am immensely touched and uplifted by the responses I have received. Many people from the UK and abroad have contacted me via social media, this blog and email, and their wonderful comments inspire and comfort me. I hope I have not omitted to respond to anyone. I have already made new ‘virtual’ friends in correspondence. Naturally the majority of the respondents are bereaved parents, though not all. I am very pleased that more people have found “Into the Mourning Light” through the article; it is good to know that the book is helping people. The most gratifying feedback for me as a writer is to be told that my words relate to what others are feeling; I feel blessed to be able to use the gift of expression.

I was particularly touched to hear from two young friends of James who were on his course at Brighton Uni in 2004. The first wrote to say that James most definitely isn’t forgotten and he is remembered with ‘such fondness’.   I think it is fair to say that all bereaved parents have the recurring nightmare that their child will be forgotten, and to be told this is not the case by someone who only knew James for the year he was at University is immensely helpful.

I am replicating the lovely message I received from Kim, with her permission:

“Hi Andrea. I just read your article in the daily mail and shed a tear as memories came flooding back. James was at Brighton university studying the same course as me. Our paths would have crossed more as the degree continued and I am sad I did not get to spend more time with him. When I turned the page of the daily mail and saw his photo on Brighton seafront, the memories of that era came back.

The children in my class will always know about water safety and be reminded of how precious life is.

I cannot imagine your loss. James was a credit to you and your family and I agree he would have made a wonderful teacher. Sorry to have rambled on to you, but reading your article has given me an outlet and some perspective. I wish you and your family a happy new year”.

This wonderful message carries its own amazing legacy from James. Now and in the future, more young people will be aware of the dangers of water, thanks to Kim’s compassion and the fact that she knew James. It is so very heartening; thank you, Kim.

Some bereaved parents expressed to me their sense of isolation. When I sought out support in 2005, the options, certainly via the internet, appeared to be limited. It is a shame that this does not seem to have greatly improved (though bereavement support agencies may disagree). Thus I think it is worth my while sharing a little about the two organisations that have been an immense help to me, and remain so, though I am not such an active participant these days.

The Compassionate Friends is an international organisation run by bereaved parents for bereaved parents. This means that from your very first contact, whether it is phoning the helpline, or joining the online forum, you will encounter other bereaved parents, and the strong sense of understanding and empathy this brings cannot be over stated. I have made some wonderful friends through TCF and even if you are not one for group therapy or joining in with things, it is most probable you will find at least one like mind through membership. There is no substitute for sharing your particular story with another parent who truly understands where you are coming from and what you are going through.

As the TCF creed states: We need not walk alone. We are the Compassionate Friends.

I was guided to the Drowning Support Network via a member of TCF; and once again I found a place that offered me a level of understanding and support that I could not possibly find elsewhere. DSN is based in the US and run by Nancy Rigg, who is a tremendous force for good in water safety in America. Nancy welcomes requests to join DSN from anyone who has lost a loved one to water, whether it is inland waterway, pond, river, lake, or ocean ….

DSN is the forum where I met my dear friend Karen, who lives in Melbourne. We emailed each other for eight years before she and her husband made a European trip and we were able to meet – pen friends with a difference!

As I am replicating the link to the daily mail article below I will touch upon the negative comments which (anonymous) people felt it necessary to post on the DM site. I only read a few of the comments and was advised against continuing. Perhaps the title of the article (the only part over which I had no control) was intended to invite a degree of controversy; that does not matter, either.  I am aware that some kind folk stood my corner and I am grateful for that. But I have to say that the negative comments are entirely unimportant in the face of the wonderful responses I have received, and continue to receive, which affirm that I did absolutely the right thing in sharing our story. I have a voice [in grief] which feels as though it has important things to say and it will certainly not be silenced by any ignorant opposition!

James’s light shines on brightly and I will continue to share that with anyone who is happy to stand in its beam.


Talking of Elephants


Hands up! – everyone who knows that ‘elephant in the room’ scenario.

It sits implacably, a topic to avoid, something not to be talked about, even though we all know it is there and we displace it by talking about the weather, our lives, the garden, anything other than the elephant. The elephant can turn up in many different situations, but here I am referring to the thorny conversational arena of grief. Experience tells me that the elephant does disappear, eventually. And this seems to happen regardless of whether it is discussed, or not. But I figure it diminishes and reduces less painfully, the more often it is addressed. So, if you should find yourself in the situation where you can sense an elephant in the room – my advice would be to tackle it head on. Don’t be afraid to open the subject that you know is waiting to be talked about, for the chances are your efforts will be appreciated. We are all guilty of pussy-footing around our friends and family, being too frightened of causing offence or upsetting people by our words. Even if, by confronting the elephant, you open floodgates of emotion in the conversation, this should be seen as a good thing, rather than bad.

One of the most important things I have learned through loss is that talking is one of the greatest healers, along with, of course, the passage of time. Telling our loved ones’ stories keeps them alive in hearts and minds.

I was reminded of all this by a dream I had a few nights ago. In the way of dreams it seemed to go on and on for a long time, and after I woke and thought about it, I realised it had sent me very clear messages.

In the dream, I walked into our lounge to be confronted by an extremely large box, which was as tall as I am. It was constructed of hardboard or similar, and was solid, heavy and immoveable. Even putting my shoulder against it and pushing hard failed to budge it by an inch. I figured I had no choice but to squeeze past this obstacle to get in or out of the room. It did not have any obvious lid or opening, and was entirely smooth.

Time seemed to pass, Shaun arrived home and he also found he could not move the box. The box’s height kept changing, though not its girth, so sometimes we were pushing past it up to our shoulders, and at others we were skirting round it at waist height. At times, we could step over it. Twice, we laid it like a dinner table, though it was not comfortable to sit at the first time as there were no knee holes, and we had to angle ourselves side on to it. The second time, we could tuck our legs under neatly which was much more pleasant. We were chatting and laughing as we ate, with a real sense of contentment. Once, the top of the box was strewn with flowers. At times I could sense it was open though I could not see where, but it appeared to be less substantial. Words floated up out of it, in long streams that dissipated like steam.

All through this time of the dream, I kept looking at the screen of my phone (not unusual in real time!) – but the display itself was unusual. An indistinct face appeared again and again, but frustratingly, it faded away every time I looked closely at it. Like a faint skype image, eventually I realised I was seeing James’s face and he was smiling and nodding as if he approved of what I was doing; the image strengthened into sharp clarity and colour just once, then disappeared.

Finally in the dream, my phone showed there was a new text message, with no identifiable sender. The text simply said, “Love you mum, all is well”. In the dream I knew it had not come from Stella and I awoke feeling amazingly uplifted that I had received a message from James.

My vision of the box re-affirms my beliefs about working through grief. We cannot ignore it; we have to work around, up, under, over, next to and from end to end of it to successfully reduce it to a manageable size. This takes time, effort and commitment and a certain amount of bravery in confronting something with which we are not naturally comfortable.

Did you put your hand up at the start? OK. Now put your hands together for opening the box and tackling those elephants!


It’s still beating


What do we have that still works when it is broken?

What do we have that is shattered, yet carries on behaving the same way as before?

What remains open and functioning, despite the pain of loss?

I speak of the heart, the powerhouse pump on which we all rely for every moment of our lives. And even before our lives have fully begun, our hearts beat secure in our mothers’ wombs, with tiny, fluttering movements that gradually strengthen in readiness for our arrival in the world.

Is it really any wonder then, that each time we lose a loved one we feel we have lost a portion of our own heart?

In the case of losing a child, we have been irrevocably separated from the individual for whom we would unconditionally lay down our own life.

What could cause a greater trauma to the heart, than that?

Losing a parent, spouse, sibling, peer, grandparent, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend, colleague, neighbour … all these cause appalling jolts to the heart – and yet on it beats, uncaring, oblivious to our plight, autonomously working to move the blood around our bodies to keep us going for another second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year … and so it goes.  From that dark, mad place of early loss we have to keep our hearts open despite the pain, and seek out the sanity of living in the light again.

When James died, the knowledge rushed in and thumped my heart like a physical punch; more accurately, I felt as though I had been hit in the solar plexus and all the breath had been knocked out of me. That deflated feeling stayed with me for some while, but today, nine and a half years later, I can joyously fill my lungs properly with air, and take nourishing, deep breaths.

I maintain that the bereaved lose the ability to breathe fully whilst their hardworking, stunned hearts are trying to mend.

It is true that a broken heart aches, throbs with loss, trembles with fear and skips beats with anxiety. All those things I have felt in the pain of bereavement.

The writer Ann Lamott says,

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

 Learning to live with loss is vital to any form of progress or recovery … I hesitate to use the word ‘acceptance’ as I do not believe it ever applies to child loss. I prefer to say that assimilation is key to moving forward. Each of my losses, but especially losing James, stretched the endurance of my human spirit to its limit; nothing will ever challenge me more, physically or mentally but my remarkable heart still beats steadily. That is a massive tribute to the heart’s indomitability and I should thank it for not letting me down.

We associate the heart less prosaically with its ability to maintain life than we do romantically with love, in particular with Saint Valentine. Much myth and legend surrounds this sanctified priest, who was martyred at Rome centuries ago. It is said that on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to his jailer’s daughter, signing it “from your Valentine”. One can imagine then, that this young girl lived with the heartache of loss too, for the remainder of her life.

There is nothing new in the profound insult to the heart that comes with the loss of someone beloved.

If my heart could speak, I wonder what it would say?… perhaps,

“I hurt when you hurt. I cried when you cried. I railed at the fates and despaired in the darkness.          I lay down on the earth with you and felt your pain and anguish.                                                               I shared your fear that this could defeat you, if you allowed it to.

Yet… after a time of grieving, I saw you get up and choose to walk forward. You rightly hold your head high in pride that you are surviving this; you are living with it and you are sharing it and you are bearing it and you are feeling it. You can breathe and laugh and feel love and joy and friendship again. You can rejoice in the light of the days of your life.  You are strong and powerful and resilient and I will not fail you”.

Thank you, heart.


New year thinking


It’s here….. Like it or not, the clock slipped us round into 2015 and a new year lies before us, bright and shiny with promise like a newly minted coin (perhaps)… though are we ever really ready for whatever triumphs and disasters the world has in store?

The last time the year’s date had a number five in it was 2005, the year James died. I cannot forget the turn of that year into 2006. Part of me did not want to relinquish the last year in which my son lived. Instead of saying, ‘he died this year’, I would have to start saying, ‘he died last year’, which only served to emphasis the finality of our loss.

The expression ‘that’s so last year’ indicates that something has passed, that it has already begun to fade into obscurity, and no bereaved person ever wants to feel like that.

Only yesterday, my friend Karen wrote of her feelings at new year; she too lost a beloved son in 2005 and told me how in the early years, when writing the date she had to constantly think of the right year, as she always wanted to default to 2005. I totally get that.

And now, time takes us towards the July anniversary that will mark a decade of living with the loss of James.

I am so grateful not to be subsumed by grief.

Grief for James no longer defines my waking moments, it does not overshadow my life to the extent that I cannot live meaningfully and happily with the remainder of my family and friends. My grief is calm and quiet these days (though not always!)

One of the greatest lessons I have learned is to treat myself with grace, to go gently and allow my emotions not to get the better of me, but to help to make me live better.

I have learned to buff off the sharp edges of my expectations when I need to. A system of chore and reward has always worked for me. If I clean the kitchen, then I can write for an hour…. Figuratively speaking that is how I work with my emotions. Analogies for this are difficult to express, but perhaps along the lines of ….Open the box of the dark side of grief; sit with it, hold it, talk with it, mourn it, put it away again ….. and the reward is to come back into the light. Make myself a cuppa and eat a cake, hell, eat two cakes! I deserve them.

So here is my resolution for 2015…. rather than dwelling on the decade of life that I can (ungrammatically) call James’ un-lived time, instead I shall hold dear and treasure the memories of the 19 years that he lived.  Then I will square my shoulders, breathe deeply and step forward into the unknown that marks ten years of living this new normal life.

Welcome, 2015!