‘Our children do not die. They live on in our hearts with wingbeats of memory’.
Ten years ago, on 28 July 2005, our world changed forever. The greatest fear of any parent became our reality. James went out for the evening and he never returned. He was not found for three days, after which time he was recovered from the river Thames at Kingston, his death a tragic accident.
I cannot easily bring myself to write the words his body was recovered because that would not convey the loss of the wonderful, individual being who was James: that handsome, bright, funny, vibrant, cheeky, boy; on the threshold of manhood, his future so full of promise. He was snatched from his life and our lives, in an instant.
And here we are. Suddenly it seems, the calendar tells us we are ten years on.
Battered, bruised but still standing.
Over the past decade, I have amassed an amazingly useful amount of first-hand knowledge of grief and the grieving process, primarily as it applies to my own situation.
Certain aspects of grief are common to all loss, but other features are entirely specific to child loss.
I have become a reluctant expert, first learning how to deal with my own feelings and then gradually realising an appreciation of how my loss affects others in the wider circle. Sharing my thoughts and emotions in writing is cathartic. It helps me to break down the enormity of loss into more palatable bite-size pieces.
I recently watched a clip on Youtube called “Put the Glass down: How long to hold on to grudges and trauma”
Paraphrased, it goes something like this:
A professor holds up a glass half full of water to his students, asking,
“How much does this weigh?”
The students guess at the weight. Prof says,
“Really my question is not so much how much it weighs, but what would happen if I held it up for some minutes … or an hour … or a day?”
The students’ reply was that sooner or later, he would have arm ache and muscle stress and the pain would become intolerable.
“Does the weight of the glass change?” asked the professor.
“No”, came the answer
“So, what causes the arm ache and muscle stress? What should I do to come out of pain?”
The answer is, of course, to put the glass down.
You need to put your ‘glass of grief’ down for relief. I have learned that both holding and putting down are possible, individually and concurrently. It’s a real mix.
The toxicity of holding on to negative emotions which are detrimental to the psyche is, I think, an important feature to consider. The longer you hold on to the worst aspects of loss, the greater is your pain, and you can find yourself paralysed by it. Mulling over of the worst aspects of loss and learning the techniques that allow you to put them down at will, can help bring perspective to the process.
For me, the only way to minimise the destructive elements of the trauma and grief I have experienced is to gradually examine and work through them at my own pace and in my own way. The learning curve is steep and signposts are helpful, but it is your own strength and resilience that win through in the end.
I still wish I could take away the pain of the loss of James, not just from myself but from the rest of the family, his friends, and all those people who knew him. Grief is indeed a heavy burden and it is a long process in the lightening. We all carry it in different ways and wish we could turn the clock back. The only aspect of acceptance in grief that I embrace is that it is, sadly, impossible to undo the events of the past.
Where do I stand at the close of ten years of loss? I can truthfully say I have integrated the loss of James into my life to a comfortable level, where I am able to stand back and look down the years with the satisfaction of knowing I have achieved progress along the way.
If you are analytical by nature, as I am, you may well find yourself challenging the commonly laid down grief stages which tend to favour a linear, progressive approach. These do not, for me, reflect the two steps forward, one back nature of my path as I am living it. Recently, my attention has been drawn to the 1995 paper by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut , called The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement. This theorises that if you are working through your grief, ie tackling it head on, you must also give yourself time off from the process in order to give yourself a break and to be able to move forward to the next stage in the assimilation procedure. This type of theorising resonates well with me. I tend to work on a chore and reward system, in any case. For example, my reward after the chore of cleaning the kitchen will be to watch some mindless TV, read a book or check my emails.
I think a chore and reward system can equally be applied to grieving.
The inevitable chore of opening the box of your difficult emotions, taking them out, examining them, putting them away again, will necessarily leave you feeling tired, sad and empty. So reward yourself with some leisure time; go for a run, bake a cake, do something creative; whatever makes you feel positive and happy again. This cycle undoubtedly becomes easier with repetition. Embracing a positive mindset, knowing that at the end of the task you will be doing something to make yourself feel better, seems to work well psychologically.
I like too the discussion of Stroebe and Schut around two types of stressors associated with grieving: loss orientation and restoration orientation. Both types require coping mechanisms, and breaks from these are also important.
Stroebe and Schut define loss orientation as emotion-focussed coping and processing loss, whilst restoration-oriented stressors relate more to having to compensate for the person who is no longer here. This may be more relevant to losing a spouse/sibling than a child, I feel, because the focus is on external adjustments following loss (for example, if your husband always looked after the household accounts, now you have to learn to do so). It is still an important concept to consider when thinking about what constitutes progress in your grief. Losing a child puts a burden on a parent to somehow be more than they were before. There is a need to fill the child-shaped hole with something that comes from within. This is a difficult concept. But I often feel I am trying hard to compensate for James no longer being here – and that is achieved by pushing myself further than I would have done before, right across the board. Time has become infinitely more precious, and I do not like to waste my days. I feel a need to keep driving myself forward as a coping mechanism.
There is no doubt that Stroebe and Schut have it right when they suggest we oscillate between confrontation and avoidance in processing loss. It is vital do to whichever feels right at the time. Avoidance or diversion gives the mind necessary breaks from the hard work and application that is required in grieving. I have noticed that most of the bereaved parents I have met are invariably very busy people, and in part this is perhaps our desire to fill our time with compensatory items to divert us from pain. This is not to deride our busyness, which is also very useful and productive.
All this is a somewhat dry theoretical discussion on what is actually my day to day living process. What has it to do with my traversing the rocky road of grief for the loss of James?
I think I can best illustrate my progress over the past decade by singling out a top ten of useful things I have learned inasmuch as they relate generally and also more specifically to my own situation. I hope others are able to apply them and be helped by them, in their own individual situations in bereavement.
Gathering a support network around you really helps
You may not be a ‘group person’ or a joiner – but there is help for bereaved parents (and of course other bereaved people). You can do as much or as little as you like in terms of seeking out support. The isolation of early grief leaves you fragile, vulnerable and lacking in confidence and often the first step in contacting a group is very hard, but ultimately worthwhile. You may find that sharing your experiences or being aware of others going through similar circumstances is immensely helpful. You may find newfound confidence – not in comparing your grief, which should never be competitive, but realising that you are coping in the best way possible for yourself. Grief is necessarily individual and self-absorbed, particularly in the early days for you are compelled to constantly review how you are coping, what you are managing, etc, etc. Your family and friends are naturally your main support but it is sometimes difficult to share your grief path with them and this is where outside support can be useful. You can feel that you are adding to the burden of other family members’ sense of loss by sharing your own and this heaps on the guilt that you may feel. It is difficult not to feel you have to be strong for everyone else around you, but initially at least, you must centre in on yourself to cope with the maelstrom of emotion to which you have to adjust. You are not only coping with new feelings but also likely to be dealing with the practicalities and officialdom surrounding a loss, which is daunting in itself. For myself, joining The Compassionate Friends and the Drowning Support Network provided a forum where I found empathy, understanding and support in equal measures. It is entirely true to say that no one else can truly understand what you are going through unless they have suffered similar loss. Knowing that others had gone through all the protocols and processes involved in the aftermath helped a little in minimising the hurdles to overcome.
- Find faith that it will get better
In early grief, you will feel cast adrift in new, dark world that does not come with a map. The darkness of the pit, black hole, cave, is absolute at first. An immense amount of personal strength and resilience is required for you to begin to approach the chinks of light which gradually appear. Embrace them.
I vividly remember contacting my TCF personal mentor very early on and asking him,
“Will I always feel as dreadful as this?” and his reply
“No, Andrea, you will gradually feel better as time passes”. I envied him his stance of being 12 years along the line at the time, and tried to believe his words, indeed I clung to them to give me hope for the future. At the beginning, I often sought out examples of people who were moving forward and coping with grief and loss to underline the affirmation that it was possible to do so. Reading and writing can be very helpful here and sharing my own expressed thoughts in writing to benefit others continues to help me along my own journey.
- Learn to accept offers of help gracefully
People really want to help in your loss and practical help in the form of cooking and household chores in the early days should be accepted without guilt, for you are allowing others to feel that they are helping you. Even the simple tasks like shopping are very difficult early on, especially as you are likely to bump into people you know in local stores. Although there is the option to shop on-line these days, the concentration required for this is likely to be beyond you at first. I found I drove miles to avoid my local shops for fear of having to face people whom I knew and who would invariably ask me about James.
My best help has always come from those who are prepared to listen if I wish to talk or sit quietly if I do not, who do not stand in judgement of ‘where I am’ in my grief, being those who empathise without trying to solve my problems (which of course they cannot). The best friend is one who sits with you regardless and accepts your febrile, inconsistent state without questioning it.
- Accept that other people do not understand
You may be surprised by the insensitivity you encounter around you. It is necessary to learn ways not to let this upset you. People really do not mean it but they cannot help trying to accommodate your loss by putting themselves in your shoes and offering reassurances, which always start with “I know how you feel because …” When clearly, they do not. Worse than that are the times when people assume a stricken expression and say, “Oh, you are SO brave! I am sure I would just fall to pieces” or similar, implying that you have some magical strength. This makes it very difficult to behave naturally with the other person and you find you need to assume a mask to conceal the feelings that you may have. Bravery is not something I have ever felt in terms of my loss.
I recall a conversation I was privy to not long after James died. One woman said, “Oh, I can’t wait for my kids to leave home, they are driving me mad. It wouldn’t bother me if I never saw them again!” I am afraid the nasty me wanted to say “Be careful what you wish for…” but I managed not to. There is a great deal of allowance-making for others that comes with the territory of grief – and it is tiring. I resented this greatly in the early days, but I am a little more sensitive now.
- Embrace new friendships; they are gifts
Early in your loss, your new friends are likely to be other bereaved people. These friendships are immensely special. They will endure and move beyond the initial awfulness which brought you together. But interestingly, I have found I have made other friendships, meeting people who are not bereaved parents but with whom I relate, and who have an understanding of loss because they themselves have experienced trauma of some kind. It is always difficult to know when to introduce the topic of loss to a new relationship because it is necessarily difficult and it is impossible to know how people will react. There is a certain level of stigmatisation that comes with the territory of being bereaved.
I have learned over the years that it is not always necessary to reveal my loss to others. At first, it feels as though it must be visible, that I have been marked in some way by my experience, but these days I realise this is not the case.
On holidays, for example, it can be a time of freedom to meet people and have discussions about children and family without revealing personal loss. I used to feel tremendously guilty about doing this but now I know it is a protective mechanism that is good for my emotional health.
I don’t need to tell everyone I meet that my son died. That is not to say I am denying his existence in any way; rather I am selective about the people with whom I share my experience.
My realisation over recent years has been quite an eye opener – that everyone has a story, and it may be not as bad or worse than mine, but we all have life events, stresses, traumas in which we can relate and help each other. I have met a great many people since losing James; paths have been crossed and events have happened which would not otherwise have occurred. I see all these new aspects to my life as gifts and welcome them as they happen; rather than constantly reverting to the reason why they happen.
- Don’t dismiss counselling
You may feel that counselling is not for you, and as a lay person it is difficult to judge how necessary it is in the grieving process. But being able to talk in a safe, supportive environment and express sentiments you may not be able to share with your nearest and dearest, to a listener who is trained to listen, can be very helpful. I can only speak from my own experience which was very positive. Informal counselling in the form of conversations with others going through loss is also immensely valuable. Anything that normalises your grieving process can only be good and healthy. My favourite form of informal counselling is to go for a long walk with another friend and talk out the emotions that need to be shared.
- Populate your own toolbox with positive elements
Amassing helpful items in your toolbox is a pleasurable task. You can choose whatever helps in your own particular circumstances and have a variety of different tools for varying situations. Your memories and the triggers for them are the most valuable things to treasure. Your immediate reaction to loss may be to get rid of reminders, clear rooms and wardrobes as soon as possible. But be careful! – once they are gone, you cannot recover the items. It is very diificult to face tangible reminders at first, and my advice would be to put them out of sight for the time being until they can be approached.
My toolbox began and indeed continues to have as its main feature, my love of words and writing. Even if you are not a writer, keeping a journal is very helpful. In particular, the new griever’s memory is notoriously poor and looking back on a journal is very helpful to demonstrate progress. I also populate my toolbox with the various projects in which I get involved, and it also contains my leisure time pleasures – exercise, spiritual nourishment, photography and so on.
- Appreciate the world around you and look to the light
The isolating nature of early grief means that you are so focussed on your self and your emotions that you miss what is happening around you. Although it is difficult when you are struggling to get through each day, it is important to plan future events to have something to look forward to. This brings huge guilt to begin with. You may ask yourself, “What right do I have to feel happy/enjoy myself?” but in fact it is far healthier and better to push yourself outside your comfort zone and learn to enjoy life again. have always found the cycle of the seasons comforting and to go out for a walk and literally ‘take time to smell the roses’ is very nourishing to the soul. Planning time away gives a sense of moving forward. Going away brings a measure of relief from the day to day grind of grieving. It can, however, be difficult to come home and takes time to restore a normal response in this regard. I used to dread coming home because walking in through the front door underlined the absence of James. But now I hold close his memories and imagine how pleased he would be that we are travelling and enjoying new experiences in different parts of the world. It has taken time to re-integrate ourselves into a social life with a degree of confidence. Equally, it has taken time for family and friends to realise that we are at ease with celebrations. It is a difficult concept to see your son’s peers moving forward into adult, settling down, having children – but how much worse to be excluded from their joys and triumphs for fear that you will be upset. People tend to tiptoe around the bereaved socially and this is something which I feel strongly should change with taking the taboo out of the subject – when appropriate.
- Accept that the process of consolidating grief is an individual journey
No single person can compare their grief journey to another’s. There are some common denominators, of course, but the sense of grief and loss you feel cannot be defined and comprehended except by yourself. The journey is long, hard and tortuous. But ultimately there is an element of satisfaction in realising that you may well in fact have experienced personal growth, strength and confidence arising from the travails of your loss. Personally I believe that all that I have learned about grief and loss over the past ten years, though I would never have chosen to embark on this particular learning curve, has made me a better-rounded and more compassionate person.
- Appreciate that full acceptance may never come
As a parent, I invariably ask the question: how is it possible to fully accept the loss of a child? However well you follow the tenets of the grieving process do you really accept the loss? You may (eventually) be able to accept the loss of your own parents, a sibling or peer, but there is no avoiding the fact that your children are not meant to die before you.
I prefer to use the words assimilation and integration to reflect my level of acceptance of my loss.
By integrating my loss, I can live meaningfully again.
I can fulfil my valued roles as a wife, mother, stepmother and grand-parent with joy tempered with poignancy that does not overwhelm or detract from our future happiness.
I can take up the baton that James should have carried, in the time I have left, and carry it for him.
I am gratified to be able to be involved in workshops, sharing grief resources and helping raise water safety awareness with bereavement organisations and the RNLI, with a remit that reflects my desire to share the positive aspects of grief work.
I feel thankful for the nineteen years that I was blessed to know my son.
I hope those close to me see that my loss lives alongside me in its rightful place rather than the loss defining who I am.
I feel a huge regret for all the years of life that are denied to James but I no longer mourn his loss in the way I did at the beginning. That level of traumatic distress becomes ultimately futile and damaging to the future not just for myself, but for those around me.
My remit remains to deal with my grief as positively and usefully as possible. I had no idea I would learn so much from it, nor be able to share it in helpful ways, and for these gifts in loss I am grateful.