On Wednesday 28 July, it will be sixteen years since we lost James to a drowning accident in the river Thames at Kingston. On Sunday 25 July, I will go to Kingston to leave flowers at James’s memorial plaque at the riverside. It feels like rather strange timing that 25 July is also the World Health Organisation’s first International Drowning Prevention Day.
There can be few more terrible things to bear in life than the loss of a much loved, beautiful soul who left a legacy of fun and laughter in his wake. But in grieving, as in many life experiences we encounter, there are choices. Sixteen years on I can look back and know that I have used the ghastliest experience I have ever known to teach me some lessons: lessons I never anticipated having to learn.
There are numerous analogies for the progression of grief and its ever-changing shape. Today I am using the ‘ball in the box’ analogy, which was shared by Canadian Twitter user Lauren Herschel. It explains how grief changes over time and why it can still bubble up randomly. Her analogy — and the pictures she drew to explain it — have been retweeted many times since it was first shared in 2017. I have created my own version above.
Picture a square box with a ball inside. On the left side of the box is a red button. When grief is new, the ball takes up most of the box and any movement means it hits the button, which causes pain. The unrelenting pressure of grief at this time is huge, overwhelming and literally agonising. When you are a mother who loses a child, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that you experience a visceral reaction. Something in you dies at the same time, and you cannot ever truly retrieve it. I remember the pain of early grief with many descriptors: at times it was sharp, and barbed, or it could be a dull ache. Some of the worst pain was on waking. I would have a split second of being OK, then I’d remember what had happened to James and the pain literally slammed into me; body, mind and spirit.
Thankfully, over time, the ball in the box shrinks. But it develops the habit of hitting the button at random moments. The triggers for this are varied; for example, they may include hearing a piece of music or seeing an image that reminds you of whom you have lost. They can catch you out too, like the moments when a familiar song comes on the radio when you are driving and you suddenly realise that you are weeping.
The ball never completely disappears and it continues to occasionally hit the button. I think I experience this through what is termed ‘secondary grief’ – at events such as weddings, the birth of children, parties to celebrate birthdays … these times when you really feel the absence of the presence of that person who should be there celebrating with you.
Whilst I like the analogy of the ball in the box, and find it a useful descriptor for the evolution of grief, I prefer to think of my life being represented by the box growing in size around the ball, rather than the ball shrinking inside the box. The grief I feel for my son is the same size now as it was 16 years ago, but my life has grown and expanded with hope and joy, optimism and resilience to face the future, through dint of many supportive resources along the way.
Unexpected events contribute to this, too. Last month, I saw a post on Facebook by Gemma, one of James’s college friends, saying that she, partner David and her 7-year-old daughter Ruby were camping that weekend, just a few miles from where we live. (Gemma kindly wrote a piece for Living in the Mourning Light and we follow each other on social media).
Gemma and I exchanged messages and the family visited us for a cup of tea on the Sunday morning before they went out to lunch locally. Such a lovely experience! and all the better for being unexpected. It was so pleasant to chat with someone who knew James all that time ago.
Gemma has very happy memories of James as a college student.
She said, “James will never be forgotten,” and those are words that I treasure.
For anyone who is bereaved, fear of their loved ones being forgotten is a reality. It is a key reason why I constantly reinforce the message that talking about James won’t upset me, rather it is comforting and pleasing. Perhaps it isn’t the same for everyone but it is certainly true for me.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love says, ‘Deep grief is sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope’.
Today, I am in a place that allows me to bring that hope to others who may be at the beginning of the long challenge of grief.
Never give up hope that you will find, as I have, the mourning light.
It is there always, even when it is the tiniest glimmer in the darkness.
None of what I have done since James died, and continue to do in his name, would have come about were it not for the love and support of my family and friends who continue to be the rocks upon whom I lean. A huge thank you! to you all.
I will not flag in my efforts to keep the profile of drowning prevention and water safety high on my personal agenda, particularly since the recent heatwave has led to many more tragic losses.
James’s story, and our grief, loss and the absence of him are now 16 years old, but the message remains as new and valid today as it did in 2005. Please, everyone, take heed of all the advice, share it widely and always Respect the Water.