Someone suggested to me the other day that I write you a letter. It would be a ‘good thing’, they said, and you would definitely benefit from it. Well, I know you pretty well, and suggesting that anything is a ‘good thing’ is sufficient to put you off, but I am hoping that you will stick with me and read to the end.
This won’t be a letter of mincing words, of pussy-footing around the truth. No, it is going to be frank and hard-hitting as words on the page sometimes need to be, to get to the nub of it all.
So, Andrea, how are you doing?
No, I don’t mean to you to look at me with a half-smile and say, “Oh, I am just fine …”
I am asking you to truly tell me, honestly, how you are doing.
You may wonder why I ask. It is because I really want to know how you are living with your undesired status of bereaved parent.
There’s no point dressing this up, you’ll say.
At the start, you will tell me it is Hideous with a capital H.
It is unimaginably traumatic.
It is truly a living nightmare when your heart feels as though it has shattered into a million pieces, you might add.
It does not matter how your child lost his or her life, what age he or she was, what the particular circumstances were; All you want to do is wail and turn back to the clock to the time before it happened.
But you can’t.
But what you can do, and what I know you have learned as you have gone along, may surprise some people. You have found, like others before you that if you take it one step at a time and if you hold close the belief that you will survive what is arguably the greatest loss of all; you will garner the strength and motivation to move forward and emerge a stronger, more compassionate person.
I was pretty impressed, Andrea, with how you handled it to start with and how you have continued to handle it.
You have grown in empathy, soul and spirit in the (almost) eleven years since that truly terrible late July day.
How have you managed to do it?
From the outside looking in, I see someone who is brave and strong. But you hate being called brave … and I know that is because you say, “No, I am not brave. I had no choice but to get on with it after James died, trying at the same time to absorb this massive shock to the system.”
Other people’s expectations can be a pressure in themselves and I recognise that you had to learn to side-line what everyone else wanted or needed you to do in favour of what your own instinct was telling you to do.
Parenting doesn’t come with a rule book, nor does living in a world that has tilted on its axis. How are you expected to react?
I remember you saying, a while after James died,
“I can’t walk down the high street smiling, you know. Because, people will think, ‘There goes that woman whose son died. What can she be smiling about?’ So you see, I have to adopt this neutral kind of mask, because it is what is expected of me. Friends and colleagues are always on tenterhooks. There’s a certain kind of wary look they give you in case you start crying. So they don’t really ask you any more how you are feeling, how you are coping. They just find it easier to pretend you are the same as you were before, very quickly after loss, and sometimes it is just simpler to take your lead from them. But I know that made me seem cold and defensive”.
Well, you say that, but you had to protect yourself while the grief was still that sharp jagged thing digging into you all the time like a stitch.
How else could you cope?
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that you can see how ‘difficult’ you were to be around. It is only now, too, that people are brave enough to tell you how awkward you were. But you shouldn’t need to apologise for being in a place that is so difficult to negotiate.
One of the problems you faced when you presented your mask of neutrality to the world is that you still had to deal with the turbulent emotions. It is all very well to pack your grief into a box and clamp it shut, but you learned the hard way that you have to take off the lid sometimes, lest the sorrow seeps out, or worse, bursts out when you least expect it.
You were ultimately quite sensible with this, and found safe, controlled way to visit and share your grief through examining it and talking about it.
You guarded against getting stuck in negativity by consciously seeking out the positives wherever you could find them.
You haven’t run out of words yet, have you? You know you are lucky to have the gift of expression and that can be utilised to help others. The creativity is in part fuelled by the appreciation of those who read your words and benefit from them.
The publication of Into the Mourning Light was the culmination of eight years of gathering together many helpful and uplifting words.
Now you have started work on your second book.
You tell me how much easier it is now to write of your loss, because you have told the most personal of stories and the grief has softened to a more malleable and manageable level.
Your writing is an ongoing legacy for James and it gives purpose, meaning and reason to sharing and analysing common thoughts around the issues of loss and mourning.
And your voice, well! – how that has developed. You have always been a thinker and a talker, though never such a public one, and when opportunities arise for you to speak of your mourning path you take to them with a new confidence.
You are a grief achiever.
I know too, that all the things you do to share your mourning are in honour of your son’s memory. Of course! All you ever want as a parent is to be proud of your children and for them to be proud of you. Why shouldn’t that pride still be there and grow?
I appreciate that you still have times of self doubt. I sense that in the dark hours you long for someone to come and take that terrible pain of loss away and you weep for the future that James cannot have, all that promise of his life gone in an instant.
You have cried out at the unfairness of it, the injustice of his lost future, to faith, to spirit, to God. These days, I think, you begin to understand a little more that the elements of hope, love, light, faith and resilience are sustaining you in ways you never imagined.
In regard to how your grief has evolved, you say this,
“I had this horrible inner rage that had to be balanced out by seeking out something positive to come from my loss, despite my heartfelt longing not to have to make this constant effort, this searching all the time, for meaning and sense from what has happened. Working through grief on my own terms is key to my being able to share how I have done it. I am not saying my way is the best way, or the only way, just that it works for me and if it helps others along similar routes, that is a source of joy.”
So there you are, Andrea. I believe this letter has turned out to be a ‘good thing’ after all, charting as it does the progress you have made and continue to make along a route which was never planned.
Keep on keeping on and I will write again soon …