Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Grief Climate

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Grief … you tread on it, stamp on it, walk on it, tiptoe round it

You are buffeted by it, you are sheltered by it

You see it, you taste it, and you grow it.

You smell it, taste it, feel it, hear it, and finally you Throw It.

 We have had some hard frosts this week.  Each morning, the roofs have been iced in white and I have had to run the car engine for a while to de-ice the windscreen.  As I watch from inside the warmth of the house, a tiny gap appears in the centre of the screen, slowly expanding and melting, spreading across the glass until eventually the ice turns to slush, easily cleared by the windscreen wipers.

The frosty mornings put me in mind of the climate of early grief, when you feel as though your emotions are cast in frozen stillness.  Numb with shock, you can hardly move to put one foot in front of the other.

The thaw comes very slowly.

It is notable that in compensation for these cold, frosty mornings we have had stunningly colourful sunrise and sunsets.  Late in the afternoon, planes leave raspberry pink vapour trails across the darkening sky, and the sun is a glowing orb that sinks slowly below the horizon.

Early grief is a cold and exhausting climate.  But eventually the clouds separate, the sun shines and the rainbows arrive.

At night, the sky is clear and full of stars.  The newest star is yours.  And the moon shines her benevolence upon you.

Comparing grief to how the weather behaves I suppose to be a reasonable enough concept, and perhaps it can be applied to our senses.

If you could see it, how would your grief look?

You might think that grief would be unremittingly ugly, like a warty old crone face.  You can picture early grief looking like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, with an unutterably horrified expression.

But grief’s face does evolve.

You begin to see a gentler, calmer, visage.

When your grief is new, your face carries a hunted, pinched expression.  This is particularly evident when you look back at photos when you thought you looked ‘normal’.  Eventually the face you see in the mirror has absorbed the hurt and pain in its planes and lines and what reflects back is the familiar look that you know is your new normality.

If you were to hear your grief, at first it might be a senselessly discordant shrieking, wailing sound; your own silent scream.  You hear it in your head much of the time.  Sometimes it drowns out the rest of the world around you.  Sometimes you need to vocalise it.

Tinnitus is an aggravating, ever present ringing, a whistling, white noise mix of sound that is like the second stage of grief’s orchestra.  It stays.  You get so accustomed to it you don’t notice it any more.  Perhaps it never really goes.

You can try to balance it out through listening to music, something that was impossible to do in the beginning.  Every song was a memory.

On the plate, grief has its own flavour that kills the appetite and does not nourish you.  It’s bitter; sharp like a bad wine, or bland and beige like an overcooked dinner. To work through grief, you need to find stimulants to whet your appetite, which are beneficial and flavoursome and will awaken your taste buds again.

Early grief does not want to eat.

Early grief loses the pleasure in food.

But appetite will return and it needs tempting back with appealing foods.

Given that you are what you eat, when you are grieving and surviving on tea and toast, it is no wonder that you do not necessarily possess the strength to deal with all that surrounds your loss.

 The touch of grief is far from tender.  You may recognise the feeling of sensitivity when you have a fever, when your scalp is so sore it hurts to brush your hair.  Your skin is dry with an underlying itch that you cannot scratch.  Your throat is raw from weeping.  Your eyes are red and they burn with lack of sleep.

You have to get past this.  You must shower, dress, put on your armour for the day and push yourself back into life.

You might equate early grief to walking along a rock strewn path wearing unsuitable thin-soled sandals. You can feel the roughness beneath your feet and you are lucky if you don’t turn your ankle or slip on the scree-like slopes.

One of the best things about the evolution of grief into a gentler incarnation is being able to enjoy simple pleasures like buying and wearing a new outfit.  It will come.

The garden of grief might contain some kind of hybrid mix of cactus, gorse bush and nettle in its first year.

Later on you may have a plump cushion of soft geranium with pink blooms and lemon scented leaves.  Or you could brush against a thyme plant on a warm, sunny day, and enjoy the resinous fragrance that drifts upon the breeze. The beauty and perfume of a rose will lift your spirits.

Finally, the sheer weight of grief is hard to carry.  It’s hard to determine whether you carry it on your back or your front.  Perhaps it is seated in your heart.

Slowly but surely the weight diminishes.  Eventually you may be holding onto something as light as a tennis ball.   It’s a useful mind exercise to practise throwing it away …

 

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What’s in a Murmuration?

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Following my talk at the launch of the RNLI Fish Supper charity fundraiser last October, I was honoured to be invited to pay a return visit to the College in Poole on 10 January and give another presentation, this time at a training event.

I was told that currently, there is something of a sea change (couldn’t resist that one) in the management structure of the RNLI to better integrate the management functions for rescue (lifeboats), supervision (lifeguards) and prevention (Respect the Water, education and community awareness).  To this end, there is a new grouping of operational RNLI Managers with specific responsibilities covering the entire coast, including Irish waters and the River Thames.  My brief was to address this group of men and women who together have an enormous amount of knowledge and experience within their specific fields.

Prior to the presentation, which was to be at 5pm, Shaun and I were sitting with a cup of tea in the Slipway café bar at the RNLI college, watching through the window a group of starlings, known as a murmuration.  We marvelled at their airborne acrobatics as they gracefully swirled, swooped and dipped, forming wonderful shapes which morphed and changed with smooth fluidity in the sky above the water in the bay.  Their synchrony and grace were a delight, and we felt privileged to be watching their spectacular pre-roost show, as the light was fading fast.

There seems a curious synchronicity at work, in that when I looked for an image of starlings to illustrate this post, I saw that the RNLI’s Ross Macleod had posted some pictures of starlings in Studland Bay, Dorset and he kindly allowed me to share one here.

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One theory of such murmurations is that they are to do with defence, representing distraction and safety in numbers; the group behaving with a single purpose, and in the starlings’ case, to avoid predators.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the birds’ behaviour in formation is that the group responds as one and although they are separate, uniquely individual characters, they move collectively, forming their shapes in shared commonality.

As I come to know better the men and women associated with the RNLI, whether they are volunteers or staff, it is not too fanciful to think that collectively they behave much like a murmuration.  Apart from the fact that they are not in danger from marauding raiders – although of course they do experience negativity from a few detractors – their underlying aim and remit is single-mindedly purposeful and can be summed up in their intrinsic desire to make our waters safe for everyone.

They are entirely impartial, proactive, positive personalities whose aims and aspirations I cannot praise highly enough.

They are vocational and often generational, many of them having fathers and grandfathers who served the RNLI.  The water is in their blood and it shows in their passionate commitment to make a difference for anyone and everyone.

What could I, as an individual, tell them that would impact on the group?

I felt the most value I could give to the presentation would be to share my own reality of ‘What Happens Next’; by which I mean … how do you live your life after the crushing loss of a beloved son to drowning?  It is only through my dealings with the RNLI since 2014 that I have come to understand how important it is to keep telling our personal story.  This is because the ways in which sharing some of James, and our life as it has evolved since his loss, provide helpful insights into life as a bereaved parent.

I found this group an ideal audience also to hear some of what I have learned about grief and loss in the past 11 ½ years – not only to help them with their work when they are involved in incidents with the worst possible outcome, but also in their personal lives.

They are all people with families and friends like any other group and inevitably, most of them will experience the loss of someone close to them at some time or another.  I was glad to mention the loss-specific organisations that have been so much help to me: The Compassionate Friends, the Drowning Support Network and CRUSE Bereavement Care.

I always feel it is worth sharing too the assorted elements that come to form the grief toolbox … in my case the above organisations, our work with Kingston Council, my writing, to name but a few.

I also thought it would be beneficial to summarise some of the Do’s and Don’ts that I have learned in the past 11 years.  These I have published in full before, but I feel they are worth sharing again:

Top Do’s and Don’ts in dealing with Bereaved families:

  • Don’t tell them that such tragedies happen to only those who are strong enough to survive them
  • Don’t change the subject when they mention their lost loved one
  • Don’t stop mentioning their lost relative’s name because you are scared of reminding them; you cannot upset them any more than they have already been upset
  • Don’t presume to understand their grief because you have experienced the death of an elderly relative or even a pet
  • Don’t remind parents that they have other children or could have another child
  • Don’t say “I don’t know how you cope; I couldn’t.” The bereaved have no choice in the matter.

 

  • Do be as normal as possible with them; talking about ordinary things and even sitting in silence, can be comforting
  • Do answer questions honestly and understand that some people have a need to know small details, others will only want the wider picture
  • Do ask how they are feeling, but only if you are prepared to listen to the answer
  • Do express your own sadness about what has happened, and encourage them to talk about him or her as often as they want
  • Do remember the needs of the wider family who may all need support and ask you questions that they cannot ask the most directly affected family members
  • Do remember that you must protect yourself from being drained by the needs of the bereaved family – who heals the healer?

The things we do as we go through our lives can outlast our own mortality.

The things we do today and tomorrow are stepping stones, building for the future.

Sharing our memories and our present and our future provides unexpected legacies in memory of those whom we have lost.

I am indebted to the RNLI for allowing me to continue telling the story.

There is a naturalness in the murmurations of the starlings.

There is a naturalness in the ebb and flow of our seas and waterways which commands us to remain vigilant … and always to continue to Respect the Water. 

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