Category Archives: anticipation

It’s that time of year again!

 

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Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.           Anne Roiphe

It’s that time of year again! At every turn the media exhort us to be festively jolly as though there is no grief, sickness, sadness, terrorism or poverty in the world. The images of tables laden with festive fare, the millions of pounds spent on long and complex advertising stories, the endless articles of how to drop a dress size and look great this festive season … all these conspire to make us feel woefully inadequate if we are not joining in. Should we have the temerity to admit that we are not actually greeting the season with gleeful anticipation we are seen as killjoys.

And where, in all the bombardment of consumerism and materialism surrounding the yuletide season, is the celebration of new life that is the true message of Christmas? That is far too thorny an issue to embark on pondering here, for this post is intended to be a useful survival guide for anyone living through loss at this time of year.

For the bereaved, we have to accept that Christmas does come. It continues to happen as do all the other days of the year. We have to learn to cope in the best ways that we can find. We have to formulate a new, acceptable festive season that we can enjoy to whatever degree we feel is right for us to celebrate without our loved ones to share it with us.

This will be our eleventh festive season without James. I hold close the memories of how much he loved Christmas. I honour his memory by creating and building upon a new version of Christmas that is celebratory in its own way and at a level which I, and those around me, feel comfortable.

I offer below my own survival tips for the holidays. These are a combination of my own observations and those I have gleaned over the past decade that I think are helpful.

Accept that this time of year is especially bad for grief triggers. The time for avoidance of grief is not the festive season, and if you can embrace the concept and meet it head on rather than trying to sideline it, this will make it easier

Have a plan. Whatever you decide to do for the festive break, make sure you plan so that you are not left at a loose end.

Hold your old traditions and create new ones. Blending the present and the past creates a new normality that works effectively as a grief break.

Don’t expect others to mention your loved ones. They will think it upsets you to speak of them by name. This quote by Elizabeth Edwards sums it up perfectly: If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died–you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.

Be kind to yourself (1). Indulge in a treat you would not normally buy and don’t feel guilty for doing so.

Be kind to yourself (2). Listen to a favourite piece of music, watch a film, go for a walk/jog/run, meditate or pray … whatever will lift your spirits. Allow yourself to take time out from the frantic festive rushing around and just be with your own thoughts.

Do something to honour your loved one’s memory, such as buying an extra Christmas tree decoration each year.

Light a candle and reflect on what the season means to you, now as opposed to before your loss. Take heart from how far you have come year on year. Give yourself permission to grieve.

Have an exit strategy for social events so that if they become too much you can leave without causing offence. For example, you can tell your hosts on arrival that it is no reflection on them if you slip away before anyone else, and you will not then feel obliged to stay longer than you wish to.

Accept that socialising is stressful and plan what you will say if you are asked about your loved ones. Rehearse beforehand. Understand that the worst thing that can happen is that you may become tearful; no-one will hold it against you.

Spend time with family and friends and reminisce; but look forward too.

Instead of making meaningless New Year’s resolutions, start a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing down a daily positive thought, deed or step that you have taken.

Finally, know that you will survive. Just as others have done, so too can you. The firsts are always hard, but in time it does become easier to accept, and even enjoy, festive socialising.

We all have the ability to find peace even in the midst of grief. Look out for the signposts that point you along the way, and follow the path that is right for you.

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Easter musing

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When I am thanked for providing food for thought in my writing, I am delighted!

Today’s blog may initially appear negative, but in it I am sharing a story of love, faith and devotion that ultimately brought great reward.

The lead up to Easter and the festival itself has always struck me as a time for introspective reflection which is eventually uplifted by the joyful theme of resurrection and the symbolism of rebirth. There is no other time in the calendar when the coming together of life and death is so vividly illustrated.

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 When we lose a child, in an instant we lose the self that we were, before that loss.

We are reborn as different people who have no choice but to live the remainder of our lives breathing our loss with every breath.

But …there are parallels to resurrection in the means by which we rise phoenix-like from the ashes of our despair.

My mother was Welsh – which in faith terms when she was growing up meant ‘church’ or ‘chapel’. She was chapel raised and in her early twenties she was introduced to my father by his sister. It was love at first sight; my father always told anyone who would listen that he knew he would marry mum the moment he met her. But they had the obstacle of faith standing in their way. I do not know today’s rules, but as a Jewish man at the time my father was warned against marrying a gentile as it would mean he could no longer practise Orthodox Judaism. However, he did not have to relinquish his faith altogether; he could follow the less restrictive form, known as Reform Judaism.

My parents were so keen to be Mr and Mrs that they went ahead anyway with a secret Register Office ceremony, but despite being married they continued to live apart, dad still with his family and mum close to her work in a rented flat. In order for their union to be officially sanctioned by the synagogue, it was necessary for my mother to study Judaism under the tutelage of a rabbi, with examinations at the end, both written and oral. She also had to learn some of the Hebrew language and be prepared to observe Kosher rules in the home.

Eventually, after a year or so’s intensive study, mum was deemed to have passed muster to join the Jewish faith and she and dad’s second, official wedding took place in a London synagogue, I imagine to the joy of both their families.

I am daily impressed by the love, faith, commitment and devotion that my mother showed in what she did. How amazing! – to love someone so much that you are prepared to convert your belief system and learn how to live according to the tenets of a different faith.

 The parallel that I draw from my mother’s example to my grieving process is this:

I have the love and faith of my family and friends that sustains me through my grief and gives me the strength and ability to face learning how to forge ahead in my ‘new normal’ in a positive fashion.

Nearly ten years on from losing James, I feel loved and supported by something greater ‘out there’. I am only just beginning to explore what this something may be; spirituality, healing, an emergence of new faith perhaps… I am still searching and I feel as though this is a time of grace and exploration for me.

As things turned out, my childhood upbringing was not very religious overall so I am not confined to bias in any particular faith or belief system.

Somewhere along the line though, I have acquired an unshakeable conviction that the privations of loss and grief are pointing me towards a stronger, soul nourishing and rewarding place; I am just not sure where it is yet!

I am my mother’s daughter in terms of sheer tenacity and I apply that tenacity to the best of my ability, in this as in other areas of my life.

Happy Easter to all, when it comes….!

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Borrowing Keys

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The concept of today’s post is not original. I lifted the Ten Keys for Happier Living from the Action for Happiness website, and put my own spin on them to relate them to the grieving process… I hope they are helpful.

Do things for others

Grief, particularly soon after loss, is both solitary and introspective. The act of reaching out is not easily achievable. However, simply sharing as much of our own story that we wish to reveal with others in a similar situation is mutually therapeutic. We do not need to do things for others in the form of charitable acts, but simply communicate as best we can. Simple exchanges create positive outcomes for both parties.

 

Connect with people

When trauma strikes, we sometimes have to reassess our needs and accept interventions that we would otherwise reject.

I don’t know where I would be today if it were not for the other bereaved parents whom I met, vritually and in reality, through The Compassionate Friends and Drowning Support Network. Both organisations provided a safe haven for me to share and explore my emotions from the early days, nearly ten years ago. I also received support from CRUSE and whilst I was initially very defensive about ‘talking therapy’ for my loss, as time passed I realised its benefit to my overall sense of wellbeing.

 

Take care of your body

Actually I would extend this to say ‘take care of your body and your mind’ because a holistic approach encompassing mind, body and spirit is the most beneficial way to make ourselves feel better about what has happened to us. If we are as fit as we are able to be, we are stronger and better placed to begin to shape a better future. Physical activity produces endorphins (the feel good hormone) which in turn can boost immunity as well as lifting our spirits.

 

Notice the world around you

We are all so busy these days rushing from one point to another that it is easy to fail to take time to smell the roses. If we utilise all our senses when we take a walk, it is virtually impossible not to feel uplifted by the world around us and take pleasure in, for example, the changing of the seasons. Buying fresh flowers for the kitchen windowsill is a simple way to introduce some everyday colour to our lives and to bring to notice the natural world.

 

Keep learning new things

The thirst for knowledge can never be quenched. In experiencing loss, we may discover a very strong need to learn more about grief to try to understand how best to process it. Reading is one of the best tools for expanding knowledge. But we should not limit our learning to the topics closest to us. Sometimes it is helpful to learn something entirely outside our comfort zone to stimulate our interest, which then has a tangential knock on effect in making familiar targets seem more achievable, and easier.

 

Have goals to look forward to

In early grief the smallest aims seem insurmountable. Getting through a day hour by hour seems impossible at first. But slowly and surely we come to realise that with each day that passes we feel minutely better. Goals such as being able to enjoy ourselves without feeling guilty do not happen overnight – but they are achievable. Today my goals relate to living mindfully, joyfully and meaningfully in spite of my loss.

 

Find ways to bounce back

It is true to say that we all have a story. Few of us swan through life without experiencing trauma, loss or sadness. But we all possess untapped reserves of optimism and strength that together provide us with the resilience to manage tough times. By focussing on what we actually can achieve, rather than having unrealistic expectations, we can grow stronger. Putting together a toolbox to manage adversity is a useful device. My own toolbox contains: mindfulness, writing, reading, talking, running, spiritual nourishment, amongst other things…

 

Take a positive approach

The concept of looking for anything positive in loss seems counterproductive. However, our efforts to be proactive in grieving pay massive dividends in providing a positive platform from which to launch our future. Losing my son is the worst thing to happen in my life. Yet I am still here, still standing, still upright and still making a useful contribution to life. It is only by constantly focussing on the positive aspects of my life – my loving husband, family and friends that I am able to put into perspective the tragic loss we have experienced. Turning negativity into positivity means looking for the light that comes after the darkness. And it does come … in the way that day follows night.

 

Be comfortable with who you are

When we are young, we are inclined to measure ourselves against others and find ourselves wanting in some way or another – that’s human nature. But maturity brings with it a certain degree of self acceptance. We must not beat ourselves up over things that have happened in the past and which we cannot change. A level of self assurance is undoubtedly helpful in traversing the grief road. Experiencing loss gives us a greater ability to present a face to the world that says, take me as I am. This is who I am today.                                                                             I am (finally) comfortable in my own skin.

 

Be part of something bigger

As individual human beings we are all part of the something bigger that is humanity, but it is within the bounds of our circle of family, friends, work and the community to which we belong that we tread our own paths. Making a difference as an individual can appear difficult to achieve but we only have to look at the efforts, say, of a fund-raiser running a marathon for a given charity, to see that we all have it in us, in some form or another, to be part of something bigger. Any creative strength and spreading the word, through writing blogs such as this, creates a sense of being part of a wider community and adding to the knowledge base of others. For myself, the satisfaction of being part of something bigger – in grief terms – is being able to share the path of my sorrow with an ever widening audience and at the same time as helping others in grief and loss, help myself towards a better understanding and assimilation of loss.

We all need to feel that we are here for a purpose. Sometimes it is hard to see exactly what that purpose is, and anything that helps towards clarity is a useful tool, not just in grieving but in our day to day living.

http://www.actionforhappiness.org/10-keys

www.tcf.org.uk

www.cruse.org.uk

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/DrowningSupportNetwork/info

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Out of the Fog

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At the risk of overworking an already overused expression, today I am sharing how my drive back from Cornwall last week became ‘a journey’ – in more ways than one.

Soon after I set off, I drove into thick fog on the A30 – an open, windswept road that can appear bleak in all but the best of weathers. Immediately, all terms of reference for everything around me disappeared; my world was reduced to the cocooning surround of the car and my focus was limited entirely to the road ahead. It was scary. Vehicles travelling in the opposite direction loomed eerily out of the half-light and my gaze became fixed on the red lights of the vehicles ahead, which were the only beacons I could follow. Every so often, there were little pockets of clarity in the gloom, which threw objects into sharp relief against the shrouding mist … here was a farmhouse set back from the road, there was a sign for riding stables. But these side issues failed to make any impact on me, such was the need for my concentration on the road ahead.

I could not help but draw a parallel with how life is changed by loss; in an instant one is thrown into an abyss of confusion, despair and despondency that feels like a claustrophobic corridor. We cannot turn back, but must face forward and fix our gaze upon what lies ahead. What has gone before impedes progress but we learn that we must move forward. The issues around us barely impinge on our consciousness; such is our single-minded attention to the overwhelming demands of grief.

As I simultaneously drove along, listened to the radio, concentrated on the cars in front of me, and thought myriad thoughts, I considered how amazingly adept we are at being able to divaricate our minds when we have to. Hence, even in the early stages of loss and grieving, we are able to continue to function on an ordinary level somehow – sleeping, waking, shopping, cooking, cleaning, driving, walking, working …. All the time processing and working through what has happened to us. We truly can, and do, multi-task.

I have driven along the same stretch of the A30 many times and it is a familiar route to me; yet when the fog descended I felt as though I had no idea where I had come from, or where I was going. I felt invisible and as though my confidence had been pulled like a rug from beneath my feet. I was frightened and had to quell a growing sense of panic, reassuring myself that it would not be long until I came out the other side of the fog.

I longed for the familiarity of home and began to count the hours and minutes until I reached that safe haven. I visualised arriving home and being welcomed back by Shaun, making a cup of tea and unpacking my case – all the normal, ordinary things that we do when we get home after a spell away.

However, in early grief, even the place we call home can lose its status as our secure and safe place to be… I remember feeling this very strongly because home is where I learned of James’s death, and home suddenly became an alien environment filled with memories of him, rather than his presence.

Home should not be where bad things happen.

It was very difficult to learn to dissociate home from what had happened and it took a long time. There was a kind of traumatic residue that never really disappeared for the remainder of the time we lived in the property. Little wisps of it remained like mist that failed to dissipate.

I write often of the grief journey being one of moving from darkness back into light; but it is not as simple as that. It also encompasses the shift of focus from blurred to sharp again, and for the world we know and recognise to change from monochrome to full glorious technicolour.

Even in the stultifying presence of the fog, I felt that there was an important sequence  playing out in my mind during this journey and I tried to accommodate it. There is something quite liberating about making a long car journey on your own – I find it therapeutic in the sense that I can give my emotional brain free rein; that part of my mind which is not concentrating on driving from A to B can flit about, wherever it chooses.

There is a great deal to be said for uninterrupted solitude when it is chosen.

I like the juxtaposition of the monotony of the road and the unexpected twists and turns of my thought processes; often a whole train of thought can be sparked by the name on the side of a lorry, or a village shop that I pass … all manner of things can be triggers.

I drove out of the fog suddenly, after about sixty miles, and it was like driving into a different day. The sun shone out of a cerulean sky and houses, trees, fields … all looked especially vibrant and colourful.

My spirits were lifted by the beauty of the surroundings and the horrors of the fog receded with each passing mile.

If I learned a lesson on my journey home it was this: to visit what I fear and embrace it reduces its ability to overwhelm me…

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Rightness and brightness

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“Words are tears that have been written down. Tears are words that need to be shed. Without them, joy loses all its brilliance and sadness has no end.” Paulo Coelho

It is nearly a month since the Daily Mail published my article on the etiquette of grief. I am immensely touched and uplifted by the responses I have received. Many people from the UK and abroad have contacted me via social media, this blog and email, and their wonderful comments inspire and comfort me. I hope I have not omitted to respond to anyone. I have already made new ‘virtual’ friends in correspondence. Naturally the majority of the respondents are bereaved parents, though not all. I am very pleased that more people have found “Into the Mourning Light” through the article; it is good to know that the book is helping people. The most gratifying feedback for me as a writer is to be told that my words relate to what others are feeling; I feel blessed to be able to use the gift of expression.

I was particularly touched to hear from two young friends of James who were on his course at Brighton Uni in 2004. The first wrote to say that James most definitely isn’t forgotten and he is remembered with ‘such fondness’.   I think it is fair to say that all bereaved parents have the recurring nightmare that their child will be forgotten, and to be told this is not the case by someone who only knew James for the year he was at University is immensely helpful.

I am replicating the lovely message I received from Kim, with her permission:

“Hi Andrea. I just read your article in the daily mail and shed a tear as memories came flooding back. James was at Brighton university studying the same course as me. Our paths would have crossed more as the degree continued and I am sad I did not get to spend more time with him. When I turned the page of the daily mail and saw his photo on Brighton seafront, the memories of that era came back.

The children in my class will always know about water safety and be reminded of how precious life is.

I cannot imagine your loss. James was a credit to you and your family and I agree he would have made a wonderful teacher. Sorry to have rambled on to you, but reading your article has given me an outlet and some perspective. I wish you and your family a happy new year”.

This wonderful message carries its own amazing legacy from James. Now and in the future, more young people will be aware of the dangers of water, thanks to Kim’s compassion and the fact that she knew James. It is so very heartening; thank you, Kim.

Some bereaved parents expressed to me their sense of isolation. When I sought out support in 2005, the options, certainly via the internet, appeared to be limited. It is a shame that this does not seem to have greatly improved (though bereavement support agencies may disagree). Thus I think it is worth my while sharing a little about the two organisations that have been an immense help to me, and remain so, though I am not such an active participant these days.

The Compassionate Friends is an international organisation run by bereaved parents for bereaved parents. This means that from your very first contact, whether it is phoning the helpline, or joining the online forum, you will encounter other bereaved parents, and the strong sense of understanding and empathy this brings cannot be over stated. I have made some wonderful friends through TCF and even if you are not one for group therapy or joining in with things, it is most probable you will find at least one like mind through membership. There is no substitute for sharing your particular story with another parent who truly understands where you are coming from and what you are going through.

As the TCF creed states: We need not walk alone. We are the Compassionate Friends.

I was guided to the Drowning Support Network via a member of TCF; and once again I found a place that offered me a level of understanding and support that I could not possibly find elsewhere. DSN is based in the US and run by Nancy Rigg, who is a tremendous force for good in water safety in America. Nancy welcomes requests to join DSN from anyone who has lost a loved one to water, whether it is inland waterway, pond, river, lake, or ocean ….

DSN is the forum where I met my dear friend Karen, who lives in Melbourne. We emailed each other for eight years before she and her husband made a European trip and we were able to meet – pen friends with a difference!

As I am replicating the link to the daily mail article below I will touch upon the negative comments which (anonymous) people felt it necessary to post on the DM site. I only read a few of the comments and was advised against continuing. Perhaps the title of the article (the only part over which I had no control) was intended to invite a degree of controversy; that does not matter, either.  I am aware that some kind folk stood my corner and I am grateful for that. But I have to say that the negative comments are entirely unimportant in the face of the wonderful responses I have received, and continue to receive, which affirm that I did absolutely the right thing in sharing our story. I have a voice [in grief] which feels as though it has important things to say and it will certainly not be silenced by any ignorant opposition!

James’s light shines on brightly and I will continue to share that with anyone who is happy to stand in its beam.

www.tcf.org.uk

www.facebook.com/drowningsupportnetwork

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2889539/Why-children-CRUEL-question-s-classic-New-Year-party-chit-chat-heart-jolting-emotion-bereaved-mother-explains.html

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Time and Date

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Yesterday’s date was 28 December 2014. The date is probably not significant to anyone else, but it marks precisely nine and half years since James died. That is half his life span of nineteen years (for the pedantic, it is not exactly half his life as he was only two months short of twenty when he died) ….. but the point is, we have now lived almost half his life span without his being here.

How incredible! – when at the beginning, time alternately seemed to creep by or race past at an unquantifiable rate, the days blurring into weeks and months of grey sadness; when living without James’ lively presence seemed an impossibility.

Yet somehow, we managed.

We got up each morning, we went to work, we shopped, cooked, drove, walked, went out, stayed in, watched TV, did all the ‘normal’ things that we take for granted.

But the timescale in those early months seemed distorted. I felt slightly out of step with the calendar and often had to check what day of the week it was. The autumn and winter of the year James died passed me by almost unnoticed. The first year of loss became punctuated by thoughts invariably prefaced by “This time last year, James was …..” and this made the year feel exceptionally long.

Today, I recognise that time feels as though it is passing normally for me again. I often write of the return of anticipation, and thinking about pleasant events to come has undoubtedly moved me forward in this respect.

As a family we have been fortunate to have weddings and births to look forward to and there is no doubt that these events, though invariably tinged with the poignancy of the absence of James, have been another saving grace.

In the early years, I found it easy to go away for breaks or holidays – being in different surroundings made for some respite from grief. On holiday I did not wear the  ‘bereaved parent’ badge in the same way as I did at home, with those who know me. It was easy to be with strangers – or not – as we chose, and the breaks were beneficial for our relationship. They represented the ordinariness we craved at the time.

Moving house two years ago probably set the seal on the recognition of my new normality; I was ready to move away from the last home James shared with us. My fears that he would not ‘come with us’ were unfounded; the memories moved in with us and in fact I find it easier to live in an area that is not invariably associated with his early years, as was our previous home.

I lived nearly thirty years of my life before James was born, had him for nearly twenty years, and have now lived almost another ten without him. Knowing we are approaching the decade anniversary of his death is indeed a strange feeling….

 

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