“We are all here for some special reason. Stop being a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your future”. Robin S Sharma, The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari
As we approach the fourteenth anniversary of losing James on 28 July (my heart skips a beat as I type those almost impossible to believe words!), my mind is preoccupied with the marking of this, the hardest date in my personal calendar.
In grief, there is no right, or wrong, way to grieve. If you want to have pilgrimages and rituals, you can have them. If you want to light memorial candles, you can go ahead and strike those matches. If you want to take a break; to travel far from home on significant dates, well, you can do that too.
Should you have the undesired status of being bereaved, who actually has any right whatsoever to tell you what to do and how to grieve?
In June I read some words by Sheridan Voysey, in a guest blog about ‘Father’s Day for the Non-Father’. He described how he and his wife have ‘grieved well and moved on’ (from their inability to have children) and I pondered this statement. I realise that I can understand the concept, which is one of progression, despite living with profound grief.
Before anyone throws up their hands in horror at the idea that I can have ‘moved on’ from losing a child, let me explain!
To me, grieving well is grieving positively and in the best ways I know, to honour not only the memory of my son, but the life he led in his 19 years. I want to honour the people he met and those whose lives he touched in any way. But it doesn’t end there, with his passing; it is a constant process which means that I bring something of James to each new encounter that I experience.
Moving on does not indicate that we have ‘got over it’ or ‘accepted it’, whatever the loss may be, merely that we are able to look forward instead of constantly harking back to what was, or that which cannot ever be.
Up until 2017, our personal observance of the anniversary date was largely driven by my impulse to mark the day with a visit to Kingston riverside where James lost his life, to place flowers by his memorial plaque and to spend the day quietly reflecting and taking soul nourishment from the many loving messages of support we invariably receive from family and friends.
As the years passed by, I realised I had inadvertently become bound by ritual, to a degree. The flowers had to be sunflowers, reflecting James’s sunny personality and his flamboyance. I felt compelled to put a short note into the bouquet, a few oblique words that would not mean much to anyone else who read them (though I would not mind if they did read them). Some years, as well as going to Kingston, we visited the plaque for James and his dad Ken at Woking Crematorium but this extra layer of sadness was hard to take.
I never knew in the run up to 28 July how I wanted the day to be, apart from these foregoing rituals. Shaun and I agree that July always feels like the longest month. And we invariably share a massive sense of relief as we leave Kingston riverside. We feel empty and hungry at the same time. I generally buy something, needing the comfort of retail therapy. (Most impressively, one year I bought the best car I ever had, my sports edition red Seat Leon, but other years I was more restrained, usually buying something pampering from Clarins or some new clothes).
My feelings began to change when we moved to Devon in 2017. Suddenly, our trip to Kingston became 150 miles instead of 15. The first time, we had barely unpacked our moving boxes before we were setting off on our M5/A303/M3 pilgrimage. We decided to go there and back in a day. That was a bad idea as it turned out, and we ended up spending around 12 hours in the car in total. It was University Graduation day in Kingston and everywhere we turned were smiling students wearing gown and mortar boards, accompanied by proud looking families. It was pretty hard to take. We scuttled back to Devon feeling drained and weary.
It was especially hard that year as we didn’t know anyone locally and at the time, it felt like we carried a weighty secret.
In 2018, just to further complicate the mix, we had the combined add-ons of a heatwave and the recent addition of our lovely dog, Shadow. Fortunately, my friend Linda and her husband kindly offered to let us stay with them for a couple of days in Surrey, and to look after Shadow whilst we went to Kingston. This worked well and it was brilliant to have such nurturing and supportive company for the time we were away.
However, a conversation at the dinner table whilst we were in Surrey stuck with me and it led me to significantly change my thinking.
Linda and her husband lost their son Tom in New Zealand 11 years ago and thus for them, like other friends who have lost children overseas or far from home, there is realistically no option for them to annually revisit the place where their children died.
And Linda and her husband asked us,
“Why do you want to go the place that holds such bad memories, on the day that the worst thing happened? Doesn’t it just heap on the pain and distress?
Wouldn’t it be better instead, to mark one of James’s happy days – for instance his birthday, and have a quiet, normal as possible day on the anniversary of your loss?”
After a great deal of thought about this, I finally arrived at the decision not to go to Kingston this year. I know that Shaun is as relieved as I am. I know too that I still want some flowers to be placed by the riverside on or around 28 July; I can’t relinquish that just yet. I have had a kind offer from Linda to do this and I am very grateful. And of course, anyone else in the vicinity at that time is welcome to add a tribute too.
The flowers by the plaque in James’s memory mark not just the date, but something else that is crucial. As many will know, we worked hard with Kingston Council for three years to effect the changes at the riverside: including the barriers and the improved safety and lighting that now make it a better place. These things would not have happened, but for the loss of James. Nor would my subsequent publication of Into the Mourning Light, which led to my involvement with the RNLI from 2014.
Just as flowers by the roadside inform us of remembrance following a tragic accident, so the flowers at the riverside may be enough to make people stop and think of the consequences if they do not Respect the Water. I have seen on previous visits that when we put our flowers by the plaque, people stop and register the fact that they are seeing a memorial to a lost young person.
I am quite sure that others who have lost someone they love are going to understand my reasoning about the observance of the anniversary.
The burden of a pilgrimage of loss need not be lived out with pain and sadness.
My pilgrim journey today, is very different to my pilgrim journey when James died in 2005. My burden is lighter though my sense of loss at his absence, and the absence of his future, remains the same. But the things lightening my burden do not come from ritual and sadness, they come through the positive movement of living life as meaningfully and joyfully as I can manage, despite the loss of my wonderful son.
This year on 28 July, we will set a new precedent. I suspect our day will include some quiet contemplation, perhaps going for a walk, and generally being kind to ourselves. I am confident that none of what we do on 28 July will be pressured. The day will not ask of us any more than we wish to give it, and I hope that this will make it easier.
Today, I can reflect on how much I have to be thankful for: my family and friends, the new connections we are making in Devon; living in beautiful surroundings.
I love the visits we make and having visitors who come to us.
Above all I have faith and trust in knowing that whatever I do, James would be proud and happy that we can delight in life, even though he is not here to share it.