He did not say you will not be storm tossed, you will not be sore distressed, you will not be work weary. He said … you will not be overcome.
Julian of Norwich
It surprised me to learn when I referenced the above quote that Julian of Norwich was in fact a woman. She was an early Christian mystic, who lived a virtually hermitic life and wrote much about the privations and trials of life in the 14th century. Julian lived in a time of turmoil, but her theology was optimistic and this reflects in her writing. She promoted a message of hope and the certainty of being loved.
I was asked recently,
“How do you think your life would have differed had James not died eleven years ago?”
That is a very difficult question to answer, but one thing of which I am sure is that I would not have crossed paths with such an extraordinary number of inspiring, courageous people over the intervening years. Each and every one of them plays a part in contributing positively to my progress along the way.
The starting point on the road to my new normality was the initial contact that I made through various supportive organisations: The Compassionate Friends, Drowning Support Network, CRUSE Bereavement and ultimately the RNLI.
For the first three years of loss a great deal of my time and energy was focused on working with Kingston Council on our well documented, successful safety campaign. Today, the council still has a fully functional local authority River Safety Group which ensures there remains a high level of awareness of the issues in the area and which continues to grow and evolve.
You might think that once our campaign was ended, so too would our association, but I am still in contact with Gary Walsh, Head of Neighbourhood Services and other officers employed by the Council; we usually touch base around the anniversary time. Gary is kind enough to keep an eye on James’ memorial plaque at the riverside and he also makes sure I am apprised of any important changes in the area with regard to river safety.
I still meet regularly and/or keep in touch with friends whom I have met through TCF from the beginning. Most memorably in 2014, my Australian friend Karen, whom I met online through the DSN in 2006, came over from Melbourne, stayed with Shaun and I and also had the opportunity to meet some of my UK TCF friends. Karen and her husband Erik went on to meet other members of DSN elsewhere in the UK and Scotland. I also met with fellow author Jan Andersen, whom I originally connected with online several years earlier. The connections are truly amazing. The dots are joined in the most unexpected ways and places. I have longstanding contact with DSN founder Nancy Rigg in the USA and other far flung virtual friends whom I am unlikely to meet, but who all form part of this grief recovery jigsaw. I even have some Facebook friends who were James’ peers; I may have not met them but they have found me on social media, and it is a measure of the effect James had on those around him that they have reached out to me in this way. Their contact is much appreciated.
Along the way there have been courses in Reiki, holistic massage, and reflexology. I have also learned something of the value of complementary therapy and healing modalities such as spiritual healing, working with chakras, colour, meditation, sound and mandalas. I remain indebted to all my tutors who each enriched my knowledge base in their individual ways. Eleven years ago I know I would not have been so open to anything deemed ‘alternative’ and I believe that grief opens the mind to accommodate new signposting to routes that can help in these challenging times.
I don’t think that the introspection and self-examination which is often a feature of the newly bereaved is as closed as it might first appear. When I think back to the early days I can recall how desperate I was to find practical help and advice that would lead to my regaining some control and order to my chaotically disjointed thought processes. The challenge of concentrating and focusing on something other than grief can help surprisingly quickly.
There is not a single area in life that is not initially adversely affected by the enormity of grieving. Each of your senses, along with your appetite, heart, mind, body, soul and spirit, is jaded, knocked and battered to one degree or another.
Your relationships have to be redrawn overnight.
Your anxiety for the health and lifespan of everyone close to you is magnified out of all proportion.
You fear for your own health, wellbeing and sanity.
You may be numb or oversensitive; you may have periods of hysterical weeping or inappropriate laughter.
You are in a constant mode of adrenalin-rushing fight or flight.
You either cannot sleep or can’t wake up.
Your world is reduced to the all-consuming personal awfulness of your loss.
All your terms of reference disappear.
Is it any wonder you need help to normalise all these effects? And how do you ratify the regret for what you cannot have in the future with the sorrow for what you have lost?
There are many tools in the grief toolbox.
I have an ongoing association with the Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary and have presented two grief workshops with Linda Sewell who is a fellow bereaved parent, healer, friend and mentor.
Talking of how our lives have been shaped by the loss of our sons, Linda said to me,
“It is like BC and AD. I mean before the accident and after. There is simply no comparison”.
I agree that there is a distinct delineation and we constantly have to work extremely hard to get through loss positively. The early months of grief are dominated by the why and what if questions. It is quite exhausting (but I think inevitable) to frequently replay what has happened over and over again, trying to make some sense of it, which of course is impossible at the start.
The ultimate emergence from the dark places of grief is a slow and hard won process. It is a multi-faceted and highly individual process upon which it is impossible to pin either timescale or rules. There are no rules when it comes to how you decide to approach your loss. There may be similarities in experiences, but no two grief paths will be entirely parallel.
For six years I have belonged to a creative writing group which has brought confidence to my skills of expression, both written and oral. At first when I had to read out my ‘homework’ to the group, I was so nervous that I could feel my heart thumping. As time went on and I became accustomed to reading to an audience, this anxiety lessened and it has meant that the presentations and occasional interview I have done on radio and TV have not been quite so nerve wracking. When you have had to face traumatic loss and all that goes with it, once your innate confidence returns, anxiety-inducing situations do not score quite so highly.
The completion and publication in 2014 of Into the Mourning Light, which told James’ story and summarised the foregoing eight years of loss, marked a seminal point along my grief journey. I connected with so many people in the lead up to the publication, including just these few: Jan Andersen, Shahida Rahman, Jane Turnbull, Annie Broadbent, Peter Mott, Ann Hopkins, who each played a part in pulling together the strands which eventually led to publication. I must not omit the many contributors to the book, not only my steadfast family but also my friends and James’ friends. Some of the contributors were drawn from those people whom I met through TCF, CRUSE and DSN, organisations which I had either not heard of or had no need of prior to James’ passing. Their willingness to share and contribute was undoubtedly a great boost to the content of the book.
Those people who knew James throughout his life – family, colleagues, peers and friends – all recognise that I welcome mention of him and I reiterate that I am always happy to talk about him. I am so lucky to have loyal friends who understand much about my grief and continue to offer their unstinting support whenever it is needed.
I am now in the process of writing my second book. This is a great deal easier to tackle; after all I have done the hardest part in sharing what happened to James. The book therefore focuses not so much on individual loss but on the insights of recent years and its content is almost entirely positive. There will be chapters on hope, love, faith, resilience, and associated topics that many people will know are dear to my heart.
I hope that it will appeal to an even broader audience than Into the Mourning Light.
It is inevitable that I will not be able to continue regularly posting to the blog during the time I am working on the book, so this is likely to be my last post for some time but I will post occasional updates. Much of the material for the book is drawn from my last two years of blogging. Writing the blog allows me to express the emotions around processing loss and I know that I continually return to similar themes, which in themselves deserve further exploration, investigation and analysis. Hence I plan to collate the disparate parts into a cohesive whole …
As well as nurturing my soul and spirit through the early years, other things came along to enhance my level of fitness. I have learned throughout the process how important it is to boost endorphins through exercise. I did some walking challenges first and came late to running in around 2011. Perhaps that period accelerated the arthritis in my hips and knees, but I do not regret that through the activity I met my ‘running friend’ Carol; with her encouragement I participated several times in Parkrun. Following hip replacement last year I attend the gym and walk the canal towpath rather than run along it, but I am still aiming to boost the endorphins.
My association with the RNLI has been the most unexpected and public affiliation for me. Meeting Ross Macleod, the RNLI’s Coastal Safety Manager, marked a turning point, as becoming involved with such a high profile organisation took my personal grief story far wider than I could have imagined. I began to realise how much value there is in sharing what happened to James. In terms of prevention of future incidents my link with the Respect the Water campaign gives me deep personal satisfaction; this reflects James’ legacy at Kingston and additionally spreads the word far and wide. The Respect the Water campaign led to my contributing to the National Water safety forum earlier this year and here too I have met remarkable people doing remarkable things.
In 2014 Jackie Roberts’ daughter Megan suffered a similar fate to James. Jackie is already a courageous, tireless campaigner and she is now representing the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society) as their Drowning Prevention Liaison Officer.
Dawn Whittaker is Head of Fire and Rescue service in East Sussex and is also a passionate campaigner aiming to raise the profile even further in effective education and drowning prevention.
Such individuals make a lasting impression with their commitment and enthusiasm to make a difference individually and to make things better collectively.
I was very pleased to meet Andy and Jon this year, just two members of the team who volunteer at the RNLI Lifeboat station at Teddington. Their commitment to the future safety of river users through education and training is commendable.
Rather unexpectedly I was presented with a national RNLI Supporter Award by a member of the Royal family last year. I have also been filmed for a video, met a government minister and been interviewed by two high profile TV presenters over the past few years, none of which would have happened had I not been prepared to share our personal story under the caring umbrella of the RNLI.
I can’t help but wonder what James would have made of it all!
I wonder too whether Shaun and I would have had the idea to take in lodgers if it had not been for the loss of James? Despite visits from the family, we were rattling round in a house that was too large for us … and over the next several years we welcomed Lucy, followed by Jules and Kyle, and then Rachel until we were ready to downsize in 2012. Each of our lodgers brought many positive elements to our lives over that time and there was laughter in our home once again.
Lucy was already a family friend and she became the catalyst for our becoming more sociable in the ensuing weeks and months through her lively, warm presence in our home.
Grief is a confidence sapper and we needed the restorative presence of other people to relearn how to be more outgoing. Lucy started this process and when she moved on we were confident enough to advertise for lodgers whom we didn’t know; it was a rewarding experience to get acquainted with them.
I was very anxious about relocating to a new house before we moved to Knaphill in 2012. Having lived in Addlestone for many years, and been surrounded by my family memories on a daily basis, it was strange to think we would be in an area where we did not know anybody. Geographically our move was only eight miles but it took me out of all the attachments and comfort zones that I already knew. But I need not have worried – not least because there was a sense of bringing James with us even though he would not know our new home … one of the first things I did was to put up his photograph on the windowsill and it never felt strange that he has not lived here with us.
We quickly made friends through our local pub. I must stress that this is another really important development that comes with being further along the grief line. At first you are entirely closed in upon yourself and making new friends, unless they are fellow bereaved parents, seems too difficult a prospect. Gradually you begin to feel that you are shining a welcoming light again and the response is that people are once more drawn to you. It is a mirror effect that results from your body language, expression and general mien.
We have been very fortunate in recent years to meet with new friends whom, as they have come to know us better feel able to ask questions about James, empathise with us and not be made uncomfortable by our situation. They are not bereaved parents and never met James but they all have an understanding of trauma.
You learn that we each have our own story and it is easy to forget that other people go through ‘stuff’ too.
In return I think we have become more outgoing and appreciative of what is around us, living each day as fully as we can. I have a sense of living my days as usefully as I can manage. As my dad used to say of life, “This is the play, not the dress rehearsal”.
My job changes in the past couple of years have brought their own challenges. Each new place or experience, be it work or social, always brings with it the potential awkwardness of how, when and whether you are going to be sharing your story. I have to remind myself that I do not visibly wear my grief. Also, it is quite liberating to be in an environment where nobody knows what has happened. I always have to weigh up whether or not it is appropriate to bring my story to the table, as it were. The feeling that I might be judged or labelled by my tragedy, forever known as ‘that poor woman who lost her son’ is not a pleasant one. In social situations, the awkwardness created If I tell strangers what has happened, people’s inevitable shocked reaction and their ensuing questions, or the difficult silences that follow, make it an easier decision to say nothing, until or unless I am sufficiently comfortable in the environment and confident of the responses I may receive.
More recently I have started to explore the Christian faith, and I attended a local Alpha course in January. Alpha describes itself as ‘an evangelistic course which seeks to introduce the basics of the Christian faith through a series of talks and discussions’. The course was a revelation to me in more ways than one and I plan to take my learning further. I learned a little of how hope brings light, light brings faith, and faith brings love and strength in ways I had not hitherto imagined. I am excited about examining further an area which I had previously believed was ‘not for me’. I continue to learn much from others who are well versed in religious matters, particularly Sheridan Voysey whom I much admire for his particular take on faith and spirituality. Until I heard Sheridan’s talks on radio and I read his words, I did not know it was possible to put such a contemporary, sensible and logical twist on Christianity. He is undoubtedly a faith mentor for me.
I am always looking for new, different ways to process my sadness with a productive result that preferably benefits others as well as myself. It seems to me that learning, seeking out knowledge, the discipline of study and expanding education are some of the most helpful ways of processing grief.
I enjoy the resultant sharing of what I have learned, through the written and spoken word.
One advantage of having the distance of eleven years since James died is the renewed ability to relish happy events without feeling guilty. There is always a sense of wistful regret that he is not here to share our happy times, but it is possible now to accept the fact of his absence in a way that sits more comfortably.
Recently we have shared in our granddaughter’s sixth and our grandson’s second birthday celebrations. How good it felt! – to smile and laugh and watch the children playing together, the adults sharing conversation without feeling that they need to walk on eggshells around us or fearing they might say the wrong thing.
What a delight it is to be laying down new family memories that are evidenced by the joyful images and videos from our phones and cameras. We are secure enough with our memories to know that no-one has forgotten James. We can speak his name more freely without fear of upsetting ourselves or others. The poignancy of his absence is less painful.
I am happy for all our children and extended family that we can feel more relaxed about family conviviality these days.
I am happy that each of our children goes on with their productive lives without a constant cloud of distress hanging over them and we do not feel the need to keep going over the old ground, although we can talk about James when we want to.
We can say wistfully, “James would have loved this, James would have laughed at that …” without distress, rather with a deep sense of underlying sadness.
At first it is almost impossible not to be conscious of the absence of that person who should be there, but isn’t. It is unfair, unjust and untimely.
But it is what it is ….and accepting that which we cannot change is the hard part.
It is all too easy for me to imagine that people think to themselves, She must be over it by now, after all it is eleven years.
To those people, I say, I will never be over it.
I can never accept that my son died due to accident before he had a chance to live his adult life.
What I can accept however, is that James lived his allotted life span, he lived it to the full, his memory lives on in many, many minds, and I will never, ever regret having had the opportunity to be his mother for nineteen years and ten months ….
I regret for the future that he cannot have. I hold regret on behalf of all the members of our family and friends who love and miss him, but I do not regret the past, and all the memories it holds.
Today, after eleven years of loss, I can go to Kingston riverside with a great deal less pain than in earlier years. I will never feel happy and relaxed when I visit the area but I can take heart from seeing the enjoyment of people who are in the safer environment that reflects James’ legacy.
Today, after eleven 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. The mourning light may at first appear to be soft and gentle, but once you recognise its existence is pushing aside the dark shadows of your loss, you understand that the light holds tensile strength in its glow and reflectivity.
You learn that harnessing your mourning light empowers you to cope with so much more than you ever imagined.
Today, after eleven years of loss, I can say to James,
“My son, you are missed as much as ever. You are loved as greatly now as you were for all the days of your life.
But … I can tell you that I am thankful for all the good things that have happened, and continue to happen, as time passes.
I am thankful to be given the strength and confidence to do so much in your memory.
James. My James.
I say your name,
with joy, not regret,
with pride, not shame,
to remember, not to forget,
with laughter, not tears,
with thoughts of today, not yesterday,
with love for tomorrow and all our tomorrows”.
Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark
11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005
Always loved and missed. Forever in our hearts.