Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Kindness of Strangers


Sometimes, significant moments arrive in your life when you least expect them. You may not even recognise them for what they are; small in themselves, these are acts of generosity of spirit that resonate deep within and leave a long-lasting impression.

One such pivotal moment – during my somewhat surreal day on 21 May 2015 – was not, as you might imagine, when I walked across the stage at London’s Barbican to receive an RNLI Individual Supporter award, presented by HRH the Duke of Kent.


Nor was it when the immensely professional and moving videos made by the RNLI were screened prior to the presentations.

It was not even when, earlier in the day, fellow awardee Victoria Milligan and I were interviewed on ITV’s Lorraine programme, though that was about as far away from my norm as I could get!

Neither was it the moment that I was amused (and impressed) to see that I had been allocated My Own Dressing Room at the Barbican. Imagine!

 No …the moment came as I rather shakily returned to my seat in the Barbican theatre, clutching the award, my heart pounding and throat tight with emotion.

I became aware of someone looking at me … a woman whom I didn’t know, seated a couple of rows away. Our eyes met and I guess she could see I was just about holding it together. She quickly moved across into the seat next to me and grasped my hand in both of hers.

You shouldn’t be on your own right now”, she whispered against the backdrop of commentary from the stage,                                                                                                                                             “Are you OK, is there anyone I can get for you?”                                                                               “I am all right”, I replied, “my husband is just over there. I’m fine, really!”

I don’t think she was convinced and she sat next to me, simply comforting me by her presence and continuing to hold tightly onto my hand.                                                                                             “I lost my brother a long time ago, when he was just 14”, she went on, “So I know a little of the emotion you must be feeling”.

We sat together for a little longer before this big-hearted RNLI volunteer, satisfied that I was going to be all right on my own, moved back to her seat.

The whole episode was over in a matter of minutes but it exemplifies the immense generosity of spirit and kindness that I have encountered, almost across the board, in the (nearly) ten years since James died. Naturally, people sincerely want to empathise; but they cannot possibly understand such traumatic loss unless they have walked a similar road, though the kindnesses I have received from those who try to help are immeasurable.

All my dealings with the RNLI have been marked by the compassion, thoughtfulness, empathy and professionalism of everyone involved. From the first contact with the helmsman at Teddington, through my dealings with Ross and his team on the Respect the Water campaign last summer, during my talk at the training day in Poole, to the making of the video film this year, everyone involved has been incredibly supportive and kind.

I do not think it is too implausible to view the work of the RNLI itself as made up of acts of kindness. After all, what could be a kinder act than to voluntarily put your life on the line to save someone else’s?

As we approach the tenth anniversary of our loss and I recall the years that have passed, I am struck anew by the sheer number of people who have engaged with me in some way or another since the beginning. I will write of this separately, but it is true to say that social media has played a great part in my being able to communicate with many more people than would ordinarily be possible.

I am often called ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ for all the work that I have done since James left us.

If strength is the inherent capacity to manifest energy, to endure and to resist, then my strength has grown over the years.

If bravery reflects courage and valour, then I possess a measure of this.

But whilst I am grateful for the accolades, I believe that I am lucky to have the resilience that allows me to channel my energies into the achievement of significant outcomes. I could not possibly have done any of this without the support of Shaun, my family and my friends, who provide unstinting backing and encouragement in all that I do.

Everything that I do in honour of James’ memory helps me to cope with the idea of his not being here anymore. Even after almost ten years, it feels improbable that we will never see him again, that his footfall will not be heard on the path nor his key in the front door.

The work that I do helps me keep the memory of James alive in many other people’s minds, not just my own. There are so many people who never met James, but now know of him and a little about him. The RNLI video has been viewed by many, many people – far more than I could possibly have achieved individually.

My book has shared our story with many people and when I am told that it brings comfort, I feel that is honouring James’ memory too. James was a great one for helping people, and he would be thrilled to know that he is giving comfort to those who need it. The knowledge that my words help others, uplifts me in turn and I am grateful for the gift of written expression.

Initially I was embarrassed by the thought of the RNLI award. I am not a centre stage player as a rule. But it was pointed out to me that this recognition reflects not only my contribution to the Respect the Water campaign, but also the impact of our three years of commitment to Kingston Council, that resulted in significant river safety improvements and a reduction in

the number of water-related incidents in the area.

This work continues in that the river safety issues are constantly reviewed with local authorities including the RNLI. Training programmes are also in place.

It is not often that individuals get to make a measurable difference to the wider population and the RNLI have my unending gratitude for profiling and recognising our achievements in memory of James.

rossWith Ross Macleod outside the Barbican on awards day


More about Snapshots

11206801_10206575359601626_4792430362063114779_o(1)Image by Ray Roberts

Following on from my last post related to photographs ….

Hands up if you have loads of images stored on your computer …

Yes, I thought so. Lots of hands.

Hands up if you back them up to external storage …

Ahh, I see less hands.

And there are so many choices! – pay sites such as Pbase, free sites such as Flickr, Snapfish etc. Or there is the option of ‘the cloud’ and, less recent but still valuable, external hard drive, memory stick and even CD.

What follows is not a lecture, but more of a salutary tale.

It is written in honour of the memory of Ray Roberts, whose funeral and service of reflection we were very sad to attend on 05 May.

 Ray was a long term BT colleague and friend of Shaun’s and it was obvious to anyone who attended his farewell that here was a man much loved by his family and friends. It is clear that the family’s faith sustained and supported them throughout Ray’s illness too.

Ray became a good virtual friend to me in recent years and we often swapped photo chat and messages on Facebook. He lived in Kingston all his life and was a staunch supporter of all our efforts at Kingston riverside. He was a keen (and very good) photographer with a great knowledge of technique and he possessed that special eye that sets great image makers apart. I will miss his pithy comments and his rapier wit. Ray was a man of massive character, humour and kindness.

The week before Ray’s service, I had a message from his wife, Elsa.

Can you help us?” she wrote, “we have a problem”.

I could not imagine how I would be able to help but when I spoke to Elsa, she explained that the family could not locate the lovely images from Ray and Elsa’s 25th anniversary wedding blessing in July 2008, on which occasion they renewed their vows and we all enjoyed a grand celebration. Kevin wanted to create a slideshow of images for Ray’s service but he was unable to access them on Ray’s PC.   They were undoubtedly there, somewhere.

Shaun, I and another mutual BT friend, Graham, had taken all the photos that day. Ray had asked Shaun and Graham to be the unofficial snappers to mark the occasion.

When I arrived home I immediately plugged in the (technically dated but efficient) external hard drive that we bought some time back; it is the size and weight of a hardback book. Luckily it was the work of a few moments to locate the files.

An hour or so and a few phone calls later, Ray’s son Kevin had installed the sharing program, Dropbox, on his computer and we were able to quickly and easily share the images – not only those that Shaun and I took but also Graham’s folder, which was also on our drive.

I will freely admit that I am somewhat pedantic about keeping my pc backed up – but most of us have had an occasion where we have lost work or images … and that particular disaster is so easy to avoid!

In themselves, images are transient. Each one represents just a moment. Just a fleeting expression, an imprint of that second of being that person in that place at that time.

Collectively, a group of images can tell the story of a day, a week, a month or a lifetime.

The sequence of images gives us the timetable of events, and provides a feel for both the people and the places.

Images are one dimensional, but the stories they tell are not.

By sending the images across to Ray’s family, I knew they would share both smiles and tears as they looked at moments of that special day. But the precious nature of such snapshots should be respected and they need to be cared for. Just like the memories they represent, if they are safely stored, they are with us for ever.

In a similar way we retain the imprint of the existence of those who have left us, and they live on in our hearts.


Ray and his family: Elsa, Karen and Kevin



I recently heard my friend Linda Sewell describe it as ‘being given gold’ when a friend of her son Tom sent her some images that she had not seen before.

I understand entirely what she means.

I treasure all the images of James that I have, and because like me, he was a keen photographer, there are boxes of them; some of which I have yet to scan in to keep on electronic file. Most of his photos were taken with a film camera, so they are hard copy rather than being on the computer, given that digital photography, online photo sharing and storage was in its infancy at the time he died.

I have many images of James stored in various places – a tribute gallery, on my hard drive, externally backed up … and in albums.

I love looking at the photos, but I need to be in the right mood so that they do not leave residual distress.

Naturally, I feel a deep sense of loss that there cannot be any new pictures… this is a facet of my grief that is hard to assimilate at times.

But … imagine my delight, when I was contacted on Facebook out of the blue a few months ago by Gemma, one of James’s college friends. She made some lovely comments, including,

“As so many others have said to you, James really did touch my life. I have some photos of him from those sixth form years …James always looked handsome and had a big grin on his face! … I treasure these … before the advent of the camera phone I am glad that I had at some point had an actual camera and taken actual films to the actual shop!”

 Best of all, Gemma sent me a number of images and I am sharing some of them today.


 What a gift! – seeing those happy, joyous moments of James’s life when he was simply sharing fun with a friend. Yes, it makes me sad to know that they were finite moments, but it is still a pleasure to see them and vicariously share in his happiness from the time they were taken.

Gemma also said, “James would have loved the selfie craze”. And I concur entirely with that. He would have been one of the first people to buy a selfie stick, definitely!

And I bless the fact that Gemma, like other of James’s friends, kept the photos because they still mean something to them and he was a part of their story too. Gemma was the third of James’s friends to contact me for the first time this year, and they all have my admiration for being brave enough to get in touch.

They must have been anxious that they might upset me. But it is true to say that any new reminders of James do not make me sad, rather they are like gifts dropped into my loss.

These contacts are like little nudges from James, virtual visits that bring warmth to my heart.

I think it is fair to say that bereaved parents develop an extreme sensitivity to emotion. Regardless of how we lost our child or children, our compassion to the newly bereaved becomes more evident as time goes on. We perhaps feel more able to reach out to others, rather than spending time introspectively processing our loss.

Maybe, we literally feel things differently because of whom we have lost and I think this applies to positive as well as negative emotions.

Our responses can be dampened down in the early shock of grief, but when they regrow, they generate in a slightly offbeat way, slightly out of kilter with those who, with the best will in the world, cannot walk our walk.

I know that my radar for others’ moods is greater than it used to be.

I can speak for Linda when I say I understand that her awareness of emotional distress is far greater than before.

We have learned, perhaps, the right things to say, through our own difficult lessons.

People usually worry that they will offend or distress the bereaved by mentioning the person who has died, but it is quite the opposite. I cannot envisage a time that I will not wish to remember James, to talk about him, to share reminiscences and anecdotes.

James was no saint – he could be immensely irritating, and I often laugh at those memories too. As a child he was a terrible screecher.

He was often in trouble at primary school, he was on report more than he was off it and I was frequently called in to see the Head, always with great trepidation as to what he had done.

One of his worst misdemeanours was to persuade one of his classmates to have his ear pierced. This event took place on a school trip! …. It may be funny in retrospect but it certainly was not at the time. In particular, because the child in question was under age, the school could have been held responsible. In the event, the offending ear-ring was removed, the child’s ear closed up and James was forgiven.

Just imagine if it had been a tattoo!

I like to eke out sharing my memories of James, so that I do not run out of them too soon. They are by their nature limited.

But the contributions of others, and things that might jog my own memory, are indeed like gold to me.

Keep them coming, please!

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A phone call



I thought I would give you a call, as it’s a while since we caught up.  What’s that you say?”

… I said, I’m always around

“Well, perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that I would rather you weren’t there. Let’s take a long, hard look at this relationship, shall we? I would be grateful if you could just listen.  And let me give you the lowdown on how I feel ”

… OK, if you must!

“Right; so let’s go back to the beginning.

You turned up uninvited, moved right in and tried to destroy me with your mind games”

… No, it was never the intention to destroy you. You had to learn to live with me.

“What? That sounds pretty unbalanced. Why did I have to learn to live with you?”

…Because it is true … I came in uninvited and out of the blue.

The day James died. I arrived.

And I will never forget how the world shifted on its axis when the Police came.

With their sombre demeanour and their officialdom.

I went down on my knees and cried,


And there you were. It felt like you laughed”.

… I didn’t laugh. I didn’t want to arrive. I had no choice.

I am telling you that is how it felt, almost ten years ago. The fates, grief, God, were all saying, Here you are. Another test. Let’s see how how you cope with this one!”

And by GOD I Coped.

I drank.

I smoked.

I cried.

I screamed.

I wailed.

I stamped my foot and shouted, IT IS NOT FAIR into the abyss of darkness.

But you were still there.

How long, after you arrived, do you think I realised … you were actually giving me things?”

… I gave you hope first. I gave you hope for a meaningful future with your husband.

With your family and the wider circle . A moving forward.

… I gave you the strength to fight for the campaign at Kingston that rendered the area safer, so no more lovely boys (or girls) should lose their lives as James did.

… Then I gave you compassion. Suddenly, you noticed others in grief. It took a while *because you don’t let people in easily!*

but you got to know people through the Compassionate Friends and the Drowning Support Network who are your friends and mutual support network to this day.

“It took me a while to realise that these were your gifts. But, reluctantly, I began to see that this was the way forward for me”.

… Then I gave you not one, but two, new voices. One for writing, one for speaking.

I think I am largely responsible for the publication of your book, *blushes modestly*

… I gave you new friends.

… I gave you new strengths

… I gave you the mad bits in the past decade like the one that made you jump off a cliff in Turkey strapped to a paraglider.  Or ride in a tuk tuk on the motorway in Sri Lanka in torrential rain.  And laugh whilst crossing yourself.


…Now you know. I am your friend and I walk with you alongside the spirit of those whom you have lost. I will be with you for the duration. No fair weather friend, me.

“Do you know what? I am really glad I have spoken to you tonight because I couldn’t see it before. Now I really get it.

I can’t ignore you, can’t sideline you, can’t get rid of you. I guess you can stay after all. Just be relatively quiet. OK?”.

… OK. Thanks. Good night.



A crafty toolbox


“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behoves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
Stephen King; On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Today I am writing about writing … and how, as time has passed, writing has become an integral part of the expression, not just of loss, but of my life generally.

I like the fact that this blog is evolving into something more rounded than ‘just’ a journal of grief. I hope my readers agree.

There was a time during my creation of “Into the Mourning Light” – in 2010 – when I fell prey to a severe case of writer’s block. I felt as though my creativity had deserted me, which was very concerning. I couldn’t write a word and I felt discouraged and disheartened.

For my birthday that year, Shaun paid for me to attend a ten week adult education course in creative writing called “Writing from Experience”. It was with great trepidation that I turned up to the first class, having no idea what to expect. My classmates were, in the main, attendees who had been coming to the class for some years and whose writing skills were well-honed through the learning process and practising the craft.

I soon learned that the core of longstanding class members provided a supportive and informed group to hold the writing hands of newcomers like myself.

During that first term (of many – we still meet informally) I learned a huge amount about different aspects of writing. The syllabus for each term covered aspects of writing such as:

  • autobiography
  • fiction
  • dialogue
  • characterisation
  • ‘show don’t tell’
  • ideas/inspiration
  • the five senses.

I was particularly struck by our tutor Jane’s comment in the first class:

“If you are writing autobiographically, the use of fictional techniques to produce a readable story can really help”.

It had not occurred to me that my grief book could be written like a story, but once I began to grasp the principles, I learned that fictional techniques enliven factual text to produce something much more readable. Simply including a small amount of dialogue enlivens text and breaks up swathes of narrative that without it, can become tedious.

Each week Jane set us a task and the following week (horror of horrors!) we had to read out our efforts for the class to discuss and gently critique.

I cannot tell you how nerve-wracking this was to start with!

My bête noir in writing terms remains the fictional short story. I have tried many times to produce a convincing tale with a beginning, middle and end in 850 words but success remains elusive.

However, not only did my efforts to write fiction provide important lessons in confidence in writing, but also in developing my individual writing ‘voice’. Reading out one’s own work to a group of people, in a safe and friendly environment, is an excellent aid to confidence in addressing an audience.

I find it interesting how writing comes to life when it is read out. It is so different to reading silently on the page.

These days when I draft a piece, I sometimes read it out to see how it sounds. I have even recorded my writing onto my phone and listened back to it.

Yes, I am tired of the sound of my own voice!

Through Jane’s classes I began learn the nuances in the skill of writing to hold readers’ interest.

I learned the subtleties of “show, don’t tell” – particularly useful when drawing a scene and encouraging the reader to use their imagination to visualise it.

For example:

Tell: The room was cold and damp

Show: The room had a chill to it which owed much to the condensation on the walls and a sense that some ancient water course might run underneath the very floor.

 Thus I began to build and create my own writing toolbox.

Now I have two toolboxes at my disposal: one for my grief and one for my writing.

Stephen King’s book is a particularly useful work for the aspiring writer.

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away”.

How I have blessed the day that Shaun thought to send me on the course! It didn’t just equip me to complete writing of “Into the Mourning Light” with considerably more expertise than I would otherwise have possessed.

The skills I developed at writing group also contributed to my being able to speak in public about my loss to CRUSE and the RNLI and ultimately to co-present bereavement workshops at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary.

The simple act of joining what I anticipated would be a one-off class has proved to be a very useful tool in far more ways than I could have imagined.

Stepping into the unknown really can bring unpredictably positive rewards.