Embrace your grief, for there your soul will grow. Carl Jung
Have you watched a BBC TV programme called The Repair Shop? This lovely series, broadcast from the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex, describes itself as an antidote to throwaway culture. The premise of the programme is simple: viewers apply to the show to take along family heirlooms that are damaged or broken, and the skilled craftspeople on the team lovingly repair them, restoring them to their former glory. The items don’t necessarily have monetary value; they are precious because of the memories and back stories associated with them.
There is much to admire about the programme. It is gentle and heart-warming. The care and attention lavished on these invaluable pieces of family history is amazing; the skill of the menders inspiring. The experts are specialists in their fields, such as Steve the horologist and his sister Suzie, who is proficient in repairing leather items. As the programme rolls along, we see the objects gradually coming back to life and we hear the reasons why they mean so much to their owners. Ultimately the owners return looking excited and nervous. They anxiously count the moments until the Big Reveal. The repaired item is concealed under a cover of some sort and it is wonderful to see the joyful expressions on everyone’s face when the cover is taken off. Often the owners are overwhelmed by emotion and I find it hard not to cry myself, witnessing the reaction that is engendered by the end result. The object’s owners are invariably full of gratitude for what these incredibly skilled individuals have achieved for them.
The key word here is transformation. Transformation magic has been performed on an item that was damaged and worn; now restored to a reasonable facsimile of the original – it has not been made into something new and shiny, for that would be wrong. The knocks of time, surface dents and superficial scratches are left untouched to reflect the passage of the years and the history of the object.
I pondered why I am so affected by the programme. I feel emotional along with the participants, and I think it is because there is a striking correlation between what is achieved in the Repair Shop, and what we can achieve in processing grief, in the longer term.
In the early days of loss, we feel broken, as though we can never be whole again. A part of us has been torn away, leaving a raw area that hurts to touch. We don’t function properly; we lose confidence and we are hesitant in moving forward. We may overwork feverishly or get stuck in inertia, or vacillate between the two, like a clock that needs mending.
What helps us to recover, to begin to transform ourselves back to a semblance of normality?
We accumulate tools that help to support us and sustain a form of directional progression along the grief road, although it is often of the ‘two steps forward and one back’ variety. We have good days and rubbish days, but as time passes the rubbish days happen less and are not so acute. We may find that grief softens over time, allowing us less regret for the past and greater anticipation for the future.
In the Repair Shop, some objects’ owners express that they feel guilty for neglecting the possessions and letting them fall into disrepair.
There is tremendous guilt and regret in grief, too. “If only I had, I only I could …” will be familiar thoughts, particularly in early grief, but we must let that guilt go; for it serves no purpose in moving us forward. Like the edges of torn material in the Repair Shop, gradually our fragmented thoughts come together, not perfectly, but in better harmony than before. Being present in our own grief, allowing ourselves to experience and accept the raw emotions that it produces, allows us, eventually, to experience a transformative process that is healing in itself. Love is pain, is healing, is love: round and round it goes.
During various creative writing courses, I learned that the construction of a successful short fiction story (the writing of which continues to be my nemesis!) relies upon a given formula. That is to say, the lead character is introduced with a problem to be solved. As the story unfolds, there is inevitably a turning point, when everything changes. This creates the drama of the story and prevents it being a tale that my tutor would describe as a “So what?” story – in other words it is uninteresting, not worthy of reading. This is another great correlation with the grieving process.
The problem is clear – it is the death of a loved one. The turning point is less obvious. I would find it very difficult to pinpoint with accuracy the time that I felt a turn in my grief for James; truthfully, it evolves day by day.
But looking back down the time that has passed, I can chart progression with certain key milestones. The achievement of publishing Into the Mourning Light in 2014 and Living in the Mourning Light in 2020, mark significant headway, along with my association with the RNLI and other organisations, none of which would have been possible earlier in my loss.
The catharsis of writing and speaking about grief and loss is personally vital to me on my individual pathway; from the start I knew that I had to find a focus that would allow me to try to make some sense of the senseless tragedy that is the loss of James. Being associated with The Compassionate Friends, one of the charities offering support to bereaved parents, allowed me opportunities to connect with others who really understand the issues around child loss. I have often said that there is no substitute for being with someone who has experienced similar loss and with whom you can share the broad spectrum of emotions that assail you.
Over time, as I have learned to process the specific grief that comes with being a bereaved parent, I have gained a broader understanding of how we respond to other losses in our lives, too. Each loss is different, yet there are similarities which we come to recognise as inevitable. Just as the items in the Repair Shop are unique, so too are our emotions and stories bound up with our genetics and individual family history.
On 28 July it will be fifteen years since we lost James. Fifteen years! And if I were to lay my early grief before you, represented by a hole in my life, that hole would be a certain diameter and an infinite, immeasurable depth.
Now I lay before you my life; as it is today. My life surrounds the grief hole. My life is filled with a myriad of different things that sustain and fulfil me, from family and friends, to work and leisure, to writing, and my hobbies of photography and art, to walking the dog and exploring the beautiful place where we live.
The grief hole is still the same diameter. Its depth is still infinite and immeasurable. But 15 full and fulfilling years of life have been lived around that hole of grief and loss. When the turning point in my grieving process came, well, it doesn’t really matter. But it is fact.
As for transformation, our faith and spiritual beliefs may offer a little insight into the mystery that is this human life, and what happens when it ends for us on this plane. Spiritual support ideally needs to be holistic, uplifting us mentally, physically and emotionally.
When we lose a loved one, our grief never stops. Loss becomes a permanent part of us, but at the same time it can activate new pathways: affecting us in mind, body and spirit; transforming us into survivors of loss with a new strength of purpose, resilience and empathy.
Never is the saying of carpe diem more appropriate, than when it is applied to those who have loved and lost.
Seize the day. Live as full a life as you can, and make your life extraordinary.
Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark (11.09.1985 – 28.07.2005)
Always loved and missed. Forever in our hearts.