Recently, my friend Linda, knowing I am a lover of idiomatic, if not obscure, expressions, asked me if I had heard of a monkey’s wedding.
“A monkey’s wedding? Whatever does that mean?” I asked.
“It describes the sun shining at the same time as it is raining,” she told me. “It’s also known as a sun shower.”
It is difficult to establish the origins of the saying, but it appears to have its roots in South Africa and to have many variations around the world, with the animal getting married sometimes being a fox, rat, jackal or tiger.
Regardless of the actual description, Linda and I agreed that the sun shower is a perfect analogy for the way we live with grief, as we simultaneously experience the joy of our lives being tempered by the sadness of our loss.
I had an opportunity to use this analogy when I was invited to give a presentation at the RNLI College in Poole, during a conference for the charity’s Media Engagement team. Twice a year, members of the team have an opportunity to get together, coming from all corners of the UK and Ireland.
The initial email I received from Media Manager Laura, contained the brief: “In terms of content, we’re looking for advice for working with bereaved people – understanding their perspective, things to say, things not to say, how to recognise if we are asking too much of them …”
By the nature of their work, members of the media team of the RNLI frequently have occasion to engage with family members about drowning or near drowning incidents, fatalities and rescues around the shoreline and on the River Thames. This is never going to be an easy thing to do, and I applaud the fact that the RNLI acknowledge that they have a specific duty of care to the people they are dealing with. They don’t only Respect the Water, they Respect the People who become adversely involved with water in so many different ways.
Ross Macleod kindly offered to come along and introduce my talk; an offer which I gratefully accepted.
In any presentation, first and foremost it is paramount for me to introduce James to the audience, who may or may not know about him.
I always describe the events surrounding his passing. That is invariably the hardest part of my talk. I then move on to describe our successful river safety campaign with Kingston Council and include mention of the publication of Into the Mourning Light (and now the upcoming Living in the Mourning Light) because it was the launch of my book that first signposted the RNLI to me, back in 2014.
For this particular presentation, I weighted it to accord with the brief.
I included references to The Compassionate Friends (TCF) the charity run by bereaved parents, for bereaved parents; the USA based Drowning Support Network, and CRUSE bereavement counselling. I touched on the fact that there are today many more targeted counselling agencies available than there were when James died 14 years ago. I also mentioned that mental health support such as talking therapies and CBT are accessible without requiring GP referral, in many areas.
Today, there is far more awareness of the likelihood of post-traumatic stress after bereavement and I reiterated what I have said before; that I believe every parent experiences an element of PTSD – for what could be more stressful and traumatic than losing a child?
I stressed how hard it is to resist the temptation to try to emphasise, for example by saying, “I know how you feel because …” and suggested that if you don’t know what to say, actually saying to someone “I am sorry, I don’t know what to say”, is the best thing you can say.
It must be very difficult to judge how to deal with people when you do not know them or their family dynamic, and to hit upon the right way to do it; the effects of grief can render the bereaved incredibly voluble or entirely mute, and all the variations in between.
I emphasised how important it is not to focus just on the key family member but to remember siblings and the wider family too.
I ended the presentation with a few words about how grief evolves with time and the premise that you don’t get over loss, but you do learn to live with it.
After the talk, one of the delegates asked me how long I thought I would continue giving such presentations; whether I anticipated I would reach a point of drawing a line in the sand – and stop. It is an interesting question.
To be honest, I have never thought of a timeline. Although we are in the fifteenth year since losing James, my memories of July 2005 remain as clear and sharp as ever. It is only by having some distance from that time, that I am able to talk about it usefully and calmly; minus the rollercoaster effect of early grief plunging me into the darkest of places.
In effect, I don’t see a cut off point to my talks but I hope I will recognise it to be appropriate if and when that time comes. As long as I am able to help others learn about the smoothest path possible through loss, then I am glad to share my thoughts and experiences.
Afterwards, when I was reflecting on the audience, it occurred to me that the word media sits right in the middle of immediate, and immediacy. For people with these roles, they are very much living and working in the moment, whereas I have had a considerable amount of time to learn how to deal with my grief and loss.
I am glad I am not at the sharp end of immediacy!
Everyone I spoke to expressed their desire to deal with traumatised people in the most sensitive way they can with knowledge and guidance; they were far removed from some of the examples of intrusive journalism that I have seen and heard about over the years.
Every time I attend an RNLI event I meet another group of people who strike me with their commitment to trying to get things right, for the benefit of everyone with whom they come into contact.
I am grateful to the RNLI for giving me another opportunity to share a little of James. It is good to share that we live joyfully with the input of our family and friends, despite the loss we have been forced to confront. We are indeed living life like a monkey’s wedding!