Monthly Archives: September 2015

Hippy Birthday

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11 September is a sad anniversary for many. On a personal level, it was a particularly significant day for us this year as it marked James’ thirtieth birthday; it seems impossible that we have lived through eleven birthdays without him being here to share them. The birthday date each year brings to mind happier times and it is undoubtedly a much easier day to get through than the July anniversary of his passing.

It was a strange day this time round, as I was in hospital on the first postoperative day after a total hip replacement. Any of the usual small rituals associated with James’ birthday, such as lighting a candle for him, were not easily achievable. Instead, when I was not focusing on clearing the post-operative brain fog and processing my feelings around the procedure I had just undergone, I dipped in and out of Facebook on my phone. A few days earlier, I uploaded a series of photos of James taken over the years and it was heartening and comforting to read people’s kind comments and good wishes, both for his birthday and my recovery.

I began to consider whether there were parallels between my surgery and the grief path, which sounds rather indiscriminate, but it is a favourite game of mine to play ‘match up’.

Measuring other events against loss and grief can often offer a new perspective for processing them.

Breaking it down to the simplest level, both the loss of James and my hip replacement mean that something has been taken away from me, to be replaced by something else.                                  In the case of my hip, a part of my self has been taken out and discarded as no longer functional. It has been exchanged for something new and shiny that works properly.

Can the same be said of the loss of my son?                                                                                   No, of course not! – there is no comparison.

A part of my self was indeed lost the day that James died, but with what has it been replaced?

We can never replace lost children.

BUT the gap left by his no longer being here has gradually been filled, over time, with a new sense of being, a new sense of hope, a new sense of living and a new sense of purpose. To this end, I ‘work properly’, albeit in a different way.

An enormous difference between my hip replacement and the loss of James is that my surgery was planned and anticipated, his passing was most certainly not.                                                             Thus the shock and trauma of loss is an element which has no comparison with planned surgery.

I turned to word clouds to better express the links between the two concepts: there is great

fun to be had at www.wordle.net if you are minded to play around with the written word.

This is not an exhaustive list, but all the same it can be seen that most of the words appear in both HIP and GRIEF word clouds. The exceptions relate to the unexpected nature and timing of loss, which is neither chosen nor controlled.

wordle2hip     griefwordle1

Anticipated events can be prepared for and researched. Fear of the unknown may be reduced with the acquisition of knowledge and an idea of what is to come. This cannot be said of sudden loss – by its nature it will instil a deeply profound, traumatic shock to the system, and even after a decade of living with that shock, I am still aware of its reverberations if something happens to trigger memories of the early days of grief.

The regret associated with loss is permanent; whereas the regret I felt for the necessity for surgery has been transient.

Control is an important concept to me. I enjoy an orderly existence and prefer to plan for events. When they are thrust upon me, this engenders a certain level of fear and uncertainty – hence I dreaded my spinal anaesthetic prior to surgery but in reality it was better than anticipated. The uncontrolled nature of loss and grief, when all my terms of reference were swept away from me in an instant, means that a long recovery road followed for me to be able to get back on track and feel as though I was in relative control of all aspects of my life. I am often reminded of C S Lewis’ quote from A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”. Being forced to get to know grief when it is thrust upon you does have the effect of reducing the fear.

Pain is difficult to quantify as we all live with degrees of physical, mental and emotional pain. For me, the removal of the physical pain associated with my hip has been miraculous and instant, a real life-changer for the better. The same cannot be said of the pain associated with grief and loss. This is an underlying, permanent, pervasive level of pain, with which anyone who is bereaved has to learn to live.

When I was in hospital, the medical staff were fond of asking, “How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten?” My scale did not rise above a seven, and painkillers were appropriately issued to keep me comfortable during the early recovery phase. But when it comes to grief, the pain score will be right off the scale at first, and today I would rate my grief pain score at two to three. This reduction has been a slow, gradual process, and it has been aided not by physical painkillers, but by the positive attributes in my word clouds. Accepting the presence of a constant low level of pain as a given has become almost second nature.

It is clear to me that having faith in my own ability to heal both physically and mentally – with a great deal of help from outside my self – is a massive stride towards a proactive recovery whether it is from loss, or surgery, or a combination of both.

It is achievable, yes, but no one ever said it would be easy!

Conversationally speaking

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If we love someone we need to converse with them, listening as well as speaking and best of all, just being silently aware of their presence.

This thought-provoking quote comes from a book – the late James More-Molyneux’s The Loseley Challenge which describes, as he puts it, the story of half a century’s stewardship of an historic estate.

I bought the book when we visited the gardens at Loseley, Guildford, recently and wanted to know more of the history of the house, which has been in the Molyneux family’s ownership for hundreds of years. James More-Molyneux was a committed Christian and his book tells how his growing beliefs were intertwined with his restoration of the house. He says of the quote above, this is what I have come to know as prayer. I can get what he means to an extent, although the primary thought that came to mind when I read his words was that conversations do not necessarily need to be two way, and of course this applies in particular to our lost loved ones. I often converse with James, even though he cannot physically reply, but in a sense, though he is outside our everyday norm and realm, this does not actually matter.

James is particularly in the forefront of my thoughts at the moment as we approach the date of his 30th birthday, 11 September. I do not want to mourn the sadness of his being absent for his last ten birthdays; rather I hold close the gladness of the nineteen birthdays that we shared.

I felt myself to be in something of a dilemma earlier this year, when we were considering whether or not to mark James’ thirtieth birthday in some way. At first, I felt it was a good idea, and began to plan a gathering, but as the days passed, I started to have doubts that it was right to have a celebration with the key celebrant absent. Hence I decided that the day should pass quietly after all, however we chose to fill the hours. And it is so strange how things turned out, because at the time we were planning a celebration I had no idea that I would end up having hip replacement surgery scheduled for 10 September, the day before James’ birthday. A strange synchronicity indeed!

I have spoken to James about this in my mind and feel particularly loved and supported at present, knowing too that family and friends wish me well at this time, both for James’ birthday and my surgery.

I am living James More-Molyneux’s words: being silently aware of their presence and will draw on this for strength.

When James’ birthday arrives, I will say to him, Happy birthday James … comforted in my belief that somewhere, just beyond us, he is having a party.

When I became a bereaved parent ten years ago, I soon learned that one of the most life-changing aspects is just how many dates in the calendar year suddenly become significant. Arguably the worst date is the anniversary of loss, representing as it does the passing of another year without the living presence of James and the regret that he is not here to share things with us. But other times – Christmas, Easter, Mothers Day, my birthday, his birthday, family birthdays, weddings, parties, funerals – all bring their own unique challenges. In fact, James’ birthday has always passed reasonably easily for me, perhaps because I am able to draw on many lovely memories from his birthdays down the years. I invariably relive the joyful day of his birth. It was the hottest day of that particular year – 1985 – and my labour was short and sharp. James arrived fast into the world and never really slackened his pace to live everything as quickly and fully as he could.

I always start the day by remembering that amazing birth-day.

We toast him later in the day and light a candle for him – simple rituals that help soften the sadness.

Photographs, anecdotes and places are all comforting reminders of our lost children if we can bear to approach them. Recently I decided to open a box of James’ photos that I had not really studied since his passing. I have tried to look at them a few time before, but the act has been too painful, so I put them away again. This time though, I found I could study them, and enjoy the memories balanced by a sense of loss that has settled to become a gentle sadness rather than the roaring beast of grief of the early days. I wanted to scan and share some images, and it was a true pleasure to be able to do this without tears.

The passage of grief and the lessening of its intensity may be made easier by avoidance: by which I mean having the strength to put the lid back on the box of photos, recognising that the time has not yet arrived where grief’s kick will not be quite so hefty. But often, the time does eventually come..

The memories engendered by photos are poignantly wonderful and I can be instantly transported back down the timeline, talking with James in my mind and recollecting the happy times which are captured in the images.

I love to be told anecdotes by those who knew James all his years and equally by those who knew James for a few of his years. The comfort of others’ happy memories is immense and it doesn’t matter how often the stories are told, they bring solace anew each time.

Places are emotive and there are times when I find specific areas too sensitive to revisit, physically as well as mentally. I have written before that I find it much easier to live in a place where James did not, as we moved house almost three years ago. That may sound selfish, but for years I continued to drive the same roads, walk the same pavements and shop in the same shops where James was brought up and I found it at times too painful to be constantly reminded of his absent presence. It could feel like constantly re-opening a wound that had just started to heal over.  I like to have the control in my own mind of choosing when and where to visit, both in person and mentally. I have over these ten years desensitised myself when visiting Kingston, where James lost his life, but I will always experience a feeling of anxiety and dread as the car approaches the town, and that is the time when I am most likely to be holding a mental conversation with James, for protection and the strength to revisit the place where he died. I can do it, but it is never easy.

I have read recently of people who do not possess a ‘mind’s eye’ to visualise physicality in their imagination. Visualisation is the result of the activity in certain areas of the brain, providing pictures based on our memories of how things or people look. It must be a dreadful lack to be unable to do this. In my mind, I often converse with my loved ones. I can conjure up their dear faces. I can recall their individual scent. I can picture their expressions and imaginatively hear their responses. True to say, I can if I so wish tailor their answers to what I need to hear, which is an extra bonus. The power of positive thought, visualisation and imaginative interaction is worthwhile exploring …and if this is prayer, as James More-Molyneux suggests, then I am thankful for the ability to do it.

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