Category Archives: Bereaved parent

Fire and Water

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When you are a young parent you are very aware of school years and ages.  It’s surprising how fast this fades and at the meeting I attended at the East Sussex Fire and Rescue HQ this week, I had to ask the age of children in years five and six, because I had forgotten. (It’s age 9-11, by the way).

In loss terms, this being the twelfth year since we lost James, I am a Year Twelve.  That equates to the age of 16/17; to all intents and purposes an age of discovery, development and burgeoning maturity.

Sitting in that meeting room in Eastbourne, I found myself wondering what, if I was truly a Year Twelve, I would see today that is different from what James saw when he himself was in Year Twelve, with regards to safety generally, and water safety specifically.

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The word cloud above, generated entirely from words I heard at Wednesday’s meeting, gives part of the answer.

I was invited to Sussex by Dawn Whittaker, Deputy Chief Fire Officer at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, following our meeting last February at the launch of the National Water Safety Forum’s Strategy. This in turn led to my involvement in the making of one of the ‘Beyond Blue Lights’ films for the Chief Fire Officers Association later in the year.

Wednesday’s meeting drew together representatives of community safety, serving firefighters/lifeguards, those involved in delivering the safety messages of fire, road and water and a representative from the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society).

The meeting was relatively informal; its purpose was to share  the details of the ESFRS Water Safety Strategic Aims and Action plan which is already under way and has been instituted by a focused team of individuals.  Dawn told me that all that was required from me was to feedback my views about what is planned and to highlight any areas in which I think I can contribute from my personal experience.

The ESFRS have the same aims and intention as the National Water Safety Forum: to halve the number of drownings which occur in waters in and around the UK, by 2026.

When you consider that around 400 people lose their life to drowning each year, and it is the third most common cause of death amongst young people aged 10-18, this represents a significant target.

Drowning accounts for more accidental fatalities every year than fire deaths in the home or cyclist deaths on the road.

From this it can be seen how relevant is the involvement of the Fire and Rescue service alongside those organisations more easily identifiable as being involved with water safety, such as the RNLI, the RLSS and HM Coastguard..

The key strategies and intentions of the ESFRS Action Plan are

  • Delivery of water safety message through a more cohesive and collaborative approach including via nominated Water Safety Champions
  • Working supportively with other agencies : RNLI, HM Coastguard, RLSS, RosPA, local authorities, ASA and other Life Savers such as leisure centre lifeguards
  • Involvement with the four major national annual water safety campaigns with CFOA, RLSS Don’t Drink and Drown and RNLI Respect the Water
  • Undertaking to educate all children and young people about the dangers of entering open water
  • Collaboration with local authorities and Pub Watch schemes to achieve a reduction in alcohol related drowning

I was immensely struck on Wednesday by the commitment and energy of each individual to the cause of making this huge difference.  Each are working closely together to bring the safety messages to the community in many forms.  For example, we heard that members of the team have spent several weekends patrolling nightclubs in Brighton late at night, directly taking the message about the foolhardiness of a late night dip to the students in the town.

The introduction of Water Safety Champions, those individuals who have a particular passion for a specific area brings different resources to the table, too. The Education team goes into schools on a regular basis to spread the safety word.

The most striking thing about the meeting was that, like my experiences with the RNLI, there is an obvious willingness to share together and pull with cohesion in the same direction.  Everyone is  inclusive; no one is trying to be possessive or exclusive or to take ownership of specific areas.

This is undoubtedly where the strength of a cohesive, collaborative team approach is going to win the day. 

Dawn asked me to share what is important to me.  My view, strengthened over the past     11 ½ years, is that drowning prevention must begin with education, and a heightened awareness by every young person that they must look out for their own and their peers’ safety, with diligence.

Safety education is going to start more vigorously in primary schools, rather than just secondary schools, which is a very good initiative.

Every child will ultimately have the opportunity to learn to swim.  It is important (if obvious) to note that being able to swim does not preclude drowning, as we know to our cost.

In fact, as Dawn pointed out, it is more likely that you would choose to avoid water if you cannot swim, something that had not occurred to me before.

I also feel very strongly, a growing sense that up until recently, organisations have been lax in recognising the needs of their own staff, who are working ‘at the sharp end’ and dealing with very traumatic circumstances,   To this end, I always advocate that people seek their own avenues of grief support and trauma support after incidents.  We had some discussion about bereavement support organisations such as The Compassionate Friends, CRUSE, the Drowning Support Network and SOBS to name but a few,  and the need to have these easily accessible to operational staff as well as families at the appropriate time through the available links.

As a Year Twelve, I see that my role in water safety has gradually become twofold.  Firstly, I understand the importance of telling James’ story – not to sensationalise, but to personalise, the reality of living the life of a bereaved parent, also how that impacts on the family and beyond.  My work with Kingston Council, my writing and my subsequent involvement with the RNLI and other organisations are all key to sharing very important messages around the matters of water safety.
Secondly, I feel it is vital to share and talk about the issues surrounding trauma, grief and loss, for our own health and wellbeing.  It is well recognised that acquiring a grief toolbox is key to getting through the worst of times and remaining relatively sane!  I welcome the chance to share these aspects of grieving whenever possible, through writing, presentations and workshops.

Having said that, articulating my thoughts at such a meeting of professionals is an opportunity I never imagined I would have and I am grateful to Dawn for her invitation.

Such events are emotionally draining and I was very glad to have Shaun with me, who gamely drove us there and back and sat in on the meeting; his presence was appreciated, as always.

Finally, I share a comment by David Kemp, Head of Community Safety, who said,

“We do no harm, we only do good”.  That strikes me as a good ethos for ESFRS to have, and I wish them every success in achieving the aims of this most important strategy.

 

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What’s in a Murmuration?

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Following my talk at the launch of the RNLI Fish Supper charity fundraiser last October, I was honoured to be invited to pay a return visit to the College in Poole on 10 January and give another presentation, this time at a training event.

I was told that currently, there is something of a sea change (couldn’t resist that one) in the management structure of the RNLI to better integrate the management functions for rescue (lifeboats), supervision (lifeguards) and prevention (Respect the Water, education and community awareness).  To this end, there is a new grouping of operational RNLI Managers with specific responsibilities covering the entire coast, including Irish waters and the River Thames.  My brief was to address this group of men and women who together have an enormous amount of knowledge and experience within their specific fields.

Prior to the presentation, which was to be at 5pm, Shaun and I were sitting with a cup of tea in the Slipway café bar at the RNLI college, watching through the window a group of starlings, known as a murmuration.  We marvelled at their airborne acrobatics as they gracefully swirled, swooped and dipped, forming wonderful shapes which morphed and changed with smooth fluidity in the sky above the water in the bay.  Their synchrony and grace were a delight, and we felt privileged to be watching their spectacular pre-roost show, as the light was fading fast.

There seems a curious synchronicity at work, in that when I looked for an image of starlings to illustrate this post, I saw that the RNLI’s Ross Macleod had posted some pictures of starlings in Studland Bay, Dorset and he kindly allowed me to share one here.

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One theory of such murmurations is that they are to do with defence, representing distraction and safety in numbers; the group behaving with a single purpose, and in the starlings’ case, to avoid predators.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the birds’ behaviour in formation is that the group responds as one and although they are separate, uniquely individual characters, they move collectively, forming their shapes in shared commonality.

As I come to know better the men and women associated with the RNLI, whether they are volunteers or staff, it is not too fanciful to think that collectively they behave much like a murmuration.  Apart from the fact that they are not in danger from marauding raiders – although of course they do experience negativity from a few detractors – their underlying aim and remit is single-mindedly purposeful and can be summed up in their intrinsic desire to make our waters safe for everyone.

They are entirely impartial, proactive, positive personalities whose aims and aspirations I cannot praise highly enough.

They are vocational and often generational, many of them having fathers and grandfathers who served the RNLI.  The water is in their blood and it shows in their passionate commitment to make a difference for anyone and everyone.

What could I, as an individual, tell them that would impact on the group?

I felt the most value I could give to the presentation would be to share my own reality of ‘What Happens Next’; by which I mean … how do you live your life after the crushing loss of a beloved son to drowning?  It is only through my dealings with the RNLI since 2014 that I have come to understand how important it is to keep telling our personal story.  This is because the ways in which sharing some of James, and our life as it has evolved since his loss, provide helpful insights into life as a bereaved parent.

I found this group an ideal audience also to hear some of what I have learned about grief and loss in the past 11 ½ years – not only to help them with their work when they are involved in incidents with the worst possible outcome, but also in their personal lives.

They are all people with families and friends like any other group and inevitably, most of them will experience the loss of someone close to them at some time or another.  I was glad to mention the loss-specific organisations that have been so much help to me: The Compassionate Friends, the Drowning Support Network and CRUSE Bereavement Care.

I always feel it is worth sharing too the assorted elements that come to form the grief toolbox … in my case the above organisations, our work with Kingston Council, my writing, to name but a few.

I also thought it would be beneficial to summarise some of the Do’s and Don’ts that I have learned in the past 11 years.  These I have published in full before, but I feel they are worth sharing again:

Top Do’s and Don’ts in dealing with Bereaved families:

  • Don’t tell them that such tragedies happen to only those who are strong enough to survive them
  • Don’t change the subject when they mention their lost loved one
  • Don’t stop mentioning their lost relative’s name because you are scared of reminding them; you cannot upset them any more than they have already been upset
  • Don’t presume to understand their grief because you have experienced the death of an elderly relative or even a pet
  • Don’t remind parents that they have other children or could have another child
  • Don’t say “I don’t know how you cope; I couldn’t.” The bereaved have no choice in the matter.

 

  • Do be as normal as possible with them; talking about ordinary things and even sitting in silence, can be comforting
  • Do answer questions honestly and understand that some people have a need to know small details, others will only want the wider picture
  • Do ask how they are feeling, but only if you are prepared to listen to the answer
  • Do express your own sadness about what has happened, and encourage them to talk about him or her as often as they want
  • Do remember the needs of the wider family who may all need support and ask you questions that they cannot ask the most directly affected family members
  • Do remember that you must protect yourself from being drained by the needs of the bereaved family – who heals the healer?

The things we do as we go through our lives can outlast our own mortality.

The things we do today and tomorrow are stepping stones, building for the future.

Sharing our memories and our present and our future provides unexpected legacies in memory of those whom we have lost.

I am indebted to the RNLI for allowing me to continue telling the story.

There is a naturalness in the murmurations of the starlings.

There is a naturalness in the ebb and flow of our seas and waterways which commands us to remain vigilant … and always to continue to Respect the Water. 

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A Call to Action to Respect the Water

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My heart aches.

My heart is heavy with sadness for the losses around our coastline this summer, and particularly this week.

What can we do?

Now is not the time for the benefit of hindsight.

Now is the time to embrace foresight. 

Crucially, no-one who puts themselves unwittingly in a place of danger can have the knowledge of the extent of that danger before an accident happens.  This is why we need to take on the duty of holding much more awareness of our own frailty, our own vulnerability. We must take responsibility for our own safety in a sensible, measured, thoughtful way.  We must Respect the Water.

Don’t just read the words, Respect the Water; act on them, believe in them, live them.

Spread the word.

Share what you know about the inherent risks in water, not just at the coast, but in all leisure areas.

This is not being a killjoy; this is having a sensible and healthy Respect for the Water.

My drowning prevention support work continues under the marvellous umbrella of the collaborative organisations who are working so very hard to prevent loss of life through drowning.  I cannot praise highly enough the efforts of the RNLI, the RLSS, CFOA, CMA and all the other partners/contributing organisations who are working with the newly formed National Water Safety Forum.  And I applaud overseas organisations such as the Drowning Support Network who disseminate the information even further.

Why do you think I do this?  Why am I writing these hectoring words? Why do I feel so passionate about this issue? The primary reason is to try to spare other families the absolute awfulness and physically gut-wrenching loss that we have experienced and lived through, that of losing a much loved and wonderful young man in the summer of 2005.

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When we lose someone we love it affects an incredibly wide range of people: parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, partners, surviving children, cousins, peers, friends, teachers, employers, colleagues, tutors …. Each of us overlaps with so many other people in the tapestry of our lives.

Every individual will be affected in some way or another and have to assimilate the grief and loss associated with the death.

I am impotent in this fight except through contributing the power of my words: but my words are not empty.  They are fuelled and guided in an unerring faith that I am doing the right thing by continuing to share my grief publicly.  I totally support and applaud the preventive measures that include the raising of awareness of the dangers … particularly for young people; particularly for people in high spirits who have had a few drinks and think they are invincible.

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The RLSS also has a strong message:  Don’t drink and drown … it’s a hard hitting, tough message, but take it in.

I loathe the expression in the media when they report that someone was ‘pulled from the water’ …. But do you know what?  Those words have a huge meaning.  They mean that the water claimed that person’s life.  They mean we must Respect the Water.  We must respect its power, its unpredictability, and its strength.  We must Respect the Water’s ability to overcome us as much as we respect its ability to sustain us as in the water we drink.

Everything I write is in honour of the memory of James, whose life should not have been lost, indeed would not have been lost if only … If only …. If only …

I prefer not to dwell on retrospective regret but of course it galls me to this day, eleven years on, that James’ accident happened in an instant and in that instant, all our lives were irrevocably changed forever.

Please everyone, enjoy the sunshine this Bank Holiday and the remainder of the summer … enjoy visiting places where water is a feature, but above all, Respect the Water.

Look out for yourselves and for each other.

Be aware of the dangers … not afraid of them … but aware. Take care of yourself and those around you.  Know your limits.

Only by all of us doing so, can we reduce the incidence of these appalling accidents and personal tragedies that have a far-reaching effect on us all.

Please share the link to this post if you are minded to; thus spreading your Respect for the Water even further.  Thank you.

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Links

www.rnli.org.uk

www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk

Eleventh Anniversary of Loss

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He did not say you will not be storm tossed, you will not be sore distressed, you will not be work weary. He said … you will not be overcome.
Julian of Norwich

It surprised me to learn when I referenced the above quote that Julian of Norwich was in fact a woman.  She was an early Christian mystic, who lived a virtually hermitic life and wrote much about the privations and trials of life in the 14th century.  Julian lived in a time of turmoil, but her theology was optimistic and this reflects in her writing. She promoted a message of hope and the certainty of being loved.

I was asked recently,

“How do you think your life would have differed had James not died eleven years ago?” 

That is a very difficult question to answer, but one thing of which I am sure is that I would not have crossed paths with such an extraordinary number of inspiring, courageous people over the intervening years.  Each and every one of them plays a part in contributing positively to my progress along the way.

The starting point on the road to my new normality was the initial contact that I made through various supportive organisations: The Compassionate Friends, Drowning Support Network, CRUSE Bereavement and ultimately the RNLI.

For the first three years of loss a great deal of my time and energy was focused on working with Kingston Council on our well documented, successful safety campaign.  Today, the council still has a fully functional local authority River Safety Group which ensures there remains a high level of awareness of the issues in the area and which continues to grow and evolve.

You might think that once our campaign was ended, so too would our association, but I am still in contact with Gary Walsh, Head of Neighbourhood Services and other officers employed by the Council;  we usually touch base around the anniversary time.  Gary is kind enough to keep an eye on James’ memorial plaque at the riverside and he also makes sure I am apprised of any important changes in the area with regard to river safety.

I still meet regularly and/or keep in touch with friends whom I have met through TCF from the beginning. Most memorably in 2014, my Australian friend Karen, whom I met online through the DSN in 2006, came over from Melbourne, stayed with Shaun and I and also had the opportunity to meet some of my UK TCF friends.  Karen and her husband Erik went on to meet other members of DSN elsewhere in the UK and Scotland. I also met with fellow author Jan Andersen, whom I originally connected with online several years earlier.  The connections are truly amazing. The dots are joined in the most unexpected ways and places. I have longstanding contact with DSN founder Nancy Rigg in the USA and other far flung virtual friends whom I am unlikely to meet, but who all form part of this grief recovery jigsaw.  I even have some Facebook friends who were James’ peers; I may have not met them but they have found me on social media, and it is a measure of the effect James had on those around him that they have reached out to me in this way.  Their contact is much appreciated.

Along the way there have been courses in Reiki, holistic massage, and reflexology.  I have also learned something of the value of complementary therapy and healing modalities such as spiritual healing, working with chakras, colour, meditation, sound and mandalas.  I remain indebted to all my tutors who each enriched my knowledge base in their individual ways. Eleven years ago I know I would not have been so open to anything deemed ‘alternative’ and I believe that grief opens the mind to accommodate new signposting to routes that can help in these challenging times.

I don’t think that the introspection and self-examination which is often a feature of the newly bereaved is as closed as it might first appear.  When I think back to the early days I can recall how desperate I was to find practical help and advice that would lead to my regaining some control and order to my chaotically disjointed thought processes.   The challenge of concentrating and focusing on something other than grief can help surprisingly quickly.

There is not a single area in life that is not initially adversely affected by the enormity of grieving.  Each of your senses, along with your appetite, heart, mind, body, soul and spirit, is jaded, knocked and battered to one degree or another.

Your relationships have to be redrawn overnight.

Your anxiety for the health and lifespan of everyone close to you is magnified out of all proportion.

You fear for your own health, wellbeing and sanity.

You may be numb or oversensitive; you may have periods of hysterical weeping or inappropriate laughter.

You are in a constant mode of adrenalin-rushing fight or flight.

You either cannot sleep or can’t wake up.

Your world is reduced to the all-consuming personal awfulness of your loss.

All your terms of reference disappear.

Is it any wonder you need help to normalise all these effects?  And how do you ratify the regret for what you cannot have in the future with the sorrow for what you have lost?

There are many tools in the grief toolbox.

I have an ongoing association with the Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary and have presented two grief workshops with Linda Sewell who is a fellow bereaved parent, healer, friend and mentor.

Talking of how our lives have been shaped by the loss of our sons, Linda said to me,

“It is like BC and AD.  I mean before the accident and after.  There is simply no comparison”.

I agree that there is a distinct delineation and we constantly have to work extremely hard to get through loss positively.  The early months of grief are dominated by the why  and what if questions.  It is quite exhausting (but I think inevitable) to frequently replay what has happened over and over again, trying to make some sense of it, which of course is impossible at the start.

The ultimate emergence from the dark places of grief is a slow and hard won process. It is a multi-faceted and highly individual process upon which it is impossible to pin either timescale or rules.  There are no rules when it comes to how you decide to approach your loss.  There may be similarities in experiences, but no two grief paths will be entirely parallel.

For six years I have belonged to a creative writing group which has brought confidence to my skills of expression, both written and oral. At first when I had to read out my ‘homework’ to the group, I was so nervous that I could feel my heart thumping.  As time went on and I became accustomed to reading to an audience, this anxiety lessened and it has meant that the presentations and occasional interview I have done on radio and  TV have not been quite so nerve wracking.  When you have had to face traumatic loss and all that goes with it, once your innate confidence returns, anxiety-inducing situations do not score quite so highly.

The completion and publication in 2014 of Into the Mourning Light, which told James’ story and summarised the foregoing eight years of loss, marked a seminal point along my grief journey.  I connected with so many people in the lead up to the publication, including just these few:  Jan Andersen, Shahida Rahman, Jane Turnbull, Annie Broadbent, Peter Mott, Ann Hopkins, who each played a part in pulling together the strands which eventually led to publication.  I must not omit the many contributors to the book, not only my steadfast family but also my friends and James’ friends.   Some of the contributors were drawn from those people whom I met through TCF, CRUSE and DSN, organisations which I had either not heard of or had no need of prior to James’ passing.  Their willingness to share and contribute was undoubtedly a great boost to the content of the book.

Those people who knew James throughout his life – family, colleagues, peers and friends – all recognise that I welcome mention of him and I reiterate that I am always happy to talk about him.  I am so lucky to have loyal friends who understand much about my grief  and continue to offer their unstinting support whenever it is needed.

I am now in the process of writing my second book. This is a great deal easier to tackle; after all I have done the hardest part in sharing what happened to James.  The book therefore focuses not so much on individual loss but on the insights of recent years and its content is almost entirely positive. There will be chapters on hope, love, faith, resilience, and associated topics that many people will know are dear to my heart.

I hope that it will appeal to an even broader audience than Into the Mourning Light.

It is inevitable that I will not be able to continue regularly posting to the blog during the time I am working on the book, so this is likely to be my last post for some time but I will post occasional updates.  Much of the material for the book is drawn from my last two years of blogging. Writing the blog allows me to express the emotions around processing loss and I know that I continually return to similar themes, which in themselves deserve further exploration, investigation and analysis.  Hence I plan to collate the disparate parts into a cohesive whole …

As well as nurturing my soul and spirit through the early years, other things came along to enhance my level of fitness.  I have learned throughout the process how important it is to boost endorphins through exercise.  I did some walking challenges first and came late to running in around 2011. Perhaps that period accelerated the arthritis in my hips and knees, but I do not regret that through the activity I met my ‘running friend’ Carol; with her encouragement I participated several times in Parkrun.  Following hip replacement last year I attend the gym and walk the canal towpath rather than run along it, but I am still aiming to boost the endorphins.

My association with the RNLI has been the most unexpected and public affiliation for me.  Meeting Ross Macleod, the RNLI’s Coastal Safety Manager, marked a turning point, as becoming involved with such a high profile organisation took my personal grief story far wider than I could have imagined.  I began to realise how much value there is in sharing what happened to James. In terms of prevention of future incidents my link with the Respect the Water campaign gives me deep personal satisfaction; this reflects James’ legacy at Kingston and additionally spreads the word far and wide.  The Respect the Water campaign led to my contributing to the National Water safety forum earlier this year and here too I have met remarkable people doing remarkable things.

In 2014 Jackie Roberts’ daughter Megan suffered a similar fate to James.  Jackie is already a courageous, tireless campaigner and she is now representing the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society) as their Drowning Prevention Liaison Officer.

Dawn Whittaker is Head of Fire and Rescue service in East Sussex and is also a passionate campaigner aiming to raise the profile even further in effective education and drowning prevention.

Such individuals make a lasting impression with their commitment and enthusiasm to make a difference individually and to make things better collectively.

I was very pleased to meet Andy and Jon this year, just two members of the team who volunteer at the RNLI Lifeboat station at Teddington. Their commitment to the future safety of river users through education and training is commendable.

Rather unexpectedly I was presented with a national RNLI Supporter Award by a member of the Royal family last year.  I have also been filmed for a video, met a government minister and been interviewed by two high profile TV presenters over the past few years, none of which would have happened had I not been prepared to share our personal story under the caring umbrella of the RNLI.

I can’t help but wonder what James would have made of it all!

I wonder too whether Shaun and I would have had the idea to take in lodgers if it had not been for the loss of James?  Despite visits from the family, we were rattling round in a house that was too large for us … and over the next several years we welcomed Lucy, followed by Jules and Kyle, and then Rachel until we were ready to downsize in 2012.  Each of our lodgers brought many positive elements to our lives over that time and there was laughter in our home once again.

Lucy was already a family friend and she became the catalyst for our becoming more sociable in the ensuing weeks and months through her lively, warm presence in our home.

Grief is a confidence sapper and we needed the restorative presence of other people to relearn how to be more outgoing.  Lucy started this process and when she moved on we were confident enough to advertise for lodgers whom we didn’t know; it was a rewarding experience to get acquainted with them.

I was very anxious about relocating to a new house before we moved to Knaphill in 2012.  Having lived in Addlestone for many years, and been surrounded by my family memories on a daily basis, it was strange to think we would be in an area where we did not know anybody. Geographically our move was only eight miles but it took me out of all the attachments and comfort zones that I already knew.  But I need not have worried – not least because there was a sense of bringing James with us even though he would not know our new home … one of the first things I did was to put up his photograph on the windowsill and it never felt strange that he has not lived here with us.

We quickly made friends through our local pub.  I must stress that this is another really important development that comes with being further along the grief line.  At first you are entirely closed in upon yourself and making new friends, unless they are fellow bereaved parents, seems too difficult a prospect.  Gradually you begin to feel that you are shining a welcoming light again and the response is that people are once more drawn to you.  It is a mirror effect that results from your body language, expression and general mien.

We have been very fortunate in recent years to meet with new friends whom, as they have come to know us better feel able to ask questions about James, empathise with us and not be made uncomfortable by our situation. They are not bereaved parents and never met James but they all have an understanding of trauma.

You learn that we each have our own story and it is easy to forget that other people go through ‘stuff’ too.

In return I think we have become more outgoing and appreciative of what is around us, living each day as fully as we can. I have a sense of living my days as usefully as I can manage.  As my dad used to say of life, “This is the play, not the dress rehearsal”.

My job changes in the past couple of years have brought their own challenges.  Each new place or experience, be it work or social, always brings with it the potential awkwardness of how, when and whether you are going to be sharing your story.  I have to remind myself that I do not visibly wear my grief.  Also, it is quite liberating to be in an environment where nobody knows what has happened.  I always have to weigh up whether or not it is appropriate to bring my story to the table, as it were. The feeling that I might be judged or labelled by my tragedy, forever known as ‘that poor woman who lost her son’ is not a pleasant one.  In social situations, the awkwardness created If I tell strangers what has happened, people’s inevitable shocked reaction and their ensuing questions, or the difficult silences that follow, make it an easier decision to say nothing, until or unless I am sufficiently comfortable in the environment and confident of the responses I may receive.

More recently I have started to explore the Christian faith, and I attended a local Alpha course in January.  Alpha describes itself as ‘an evangelistic course which seeks to introduce the basics of the Christian faith through a series of talks and discussions’.  The course was a revelation to me in more ways than one and I plan to take my learning further. I learned a little of how hope brings light, light brings faith, and faith brings love and strength in ways I had not hitherto imagined.  I am excited about examining further an area which I had previously believed was ‘not for me’.  I continue to learn much from others who are well versed in religious matters, particularly Sheridan Voysey whom I much admire for his particular take on faith and spirituality. Until I heard Sheridan’s talks on radio and I read his words, I did not know it was possible to put such a contemporary, sensible and logical twist on Christianity.  He is undoubtedly a faith mentor for me.

I am always looking for new, different ways to process my sadness with a productive result that preferably benefits others as well as myself.   It seems to me that learning, seeking out knowledge, the discipline of study and expanding education are some of the most helpful ways of processing grief.

I enjoy the resultant sharing of what I have learned, through the written and spoken word.

One advantage of having the distance of eleven years since James died is the renewed ability to relish happy events without feeling guilty.  There is always a sense of wistful regret that he is not here to share our happy times, but it is possible now to accept the fact of his absence in a way that sits more comfortably.

Recently we have shared in our granddaughter’s sixth and our grandson’s second birthday celebrations.  How good it felt! –  to smile and laugh and watch the children playing together, the adults sharing conversation without feeling that they need to walk on eggshells around us or fearing they might say the wrong thing.

What a delight it is to be laying down new family memories that are evidenced by the joyful images and videos from our phones and cameras. We are secure enough with our memories to know that no-one has forgotten James.  We can speak his name more freely without fear of upsetting ourselves or others. The poignancy of his absence is less painful.

I am happy for all our children and extended family that we can feel more relaxed about family conviviality these days.

I am happy that each of our children goes on with their productive lives without a constant cloud of distress hanging over them and we do not feel the need to keep going over the old ground, although we can talk about James when we want to.

We can say wistfully, “James would have loved this, James would have laughed at that …”  without distress, rather with a deep sense of underlying sadness.

At first it is almost impossible not to be conscious of the absence of that person who should be there, but isn’t.  It is unfair, unjust and untimely.

But it is what it is ….and accepting that which we cannot change is the hard part.

It is all too easy for me to imagine that people think to themselves, She must be over it by now, after all it is eleven years.

To those people, I say, I will never be over it.

I can never accept that my son died due to accident before he had a chance to live his adult life.

What I can accept however, is that James lived his allotted life span, he lived it to the full, his memory lives on in many, many minds, and I will never, ever regret having had the opportunity to be his mother for nineteen years and ten months ….

I regret for the future that he cannot have.  I hold regret on behalf of all the members of our family and friends who love and miss him, but I do not regret the past, and all the memories it holds.

Today, after eleven years of loss, I can go to Kingston riverside with a great deal less pain than in earlier years.  I will never feel happy and relaxed when I visit the area but I can take heart from seeing the enjoyment of people who are in the safer environment that reflects James’ legacy.

Today, after eleven years of loss, I can share the optimism that comes from a life full of new connections, exciting beginnings and a truly positive thought process, all of which reflect how it is possible to come out of the darkest despondency of grief into the suffused brilliance and the quiet joy of the mourning light.  The mourning light may at first appear to be soft and gentle, but once you recognise its existence is pushing aside the dark shadows of your loss, you understand that the light holds tensile strength in its glow and reflectivity.

You learn that harnessing your mourning light empowers you to cope with so much more than you ever imagined.

Today, after eleven years of loss, I can say to James,

“My son, you are missed as much as ever.  You are loved as greatly now as you were for all the days of your life.

But … I can tell you that I am thankful for all the good things that have happened, and continue to happen, as time passes.

I am thankful to be given the strength and confidence to do so much in your memory.

James. My James.

I say your name,

with joy, not regret,

with pride, not shame,

to remember, not to forget,

with laughter, not tears,

with thoughts of today, not yesterday,

with love for tomorrow and all our tomorrows”.

 

sunnyjim

 

 Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Always loved and missed.  Forever in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

A Letter

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Dear Andrea

Someone suggested to me the other day that I write you a letter.  It would be a ‘good thing’, they said, and you would definitely benefit from it.  Well, I know you pretty well, and suggesting that anything is a ‘good thing’ is sufficient to put you off, but I am hoping that you will stick with me and read to the end.

This won’t be a letter of mincing words, of pussy-footing around the truth.  No, it is going to be frank and hard-hitting as words on the page sometimes need to be, to get to the nub of it all.

So, Andrea, how are you doing?

No, I don’t mean to you to look at me with a half-smile and say, “Oh, I am just fine …”

I am asking you to truly tell me, honestly, how you are doing.

You may wonder why I ask.  It is because I really want to know how you are living with your undesired status of bereaved parent.

There’s no point dressing this up, you’ll say.

At the start, you will tell me it is Hideous with a capital H.

It is unimaginably traumatic.

It is truly a living nightmare when your heart feels as though it has shattered into a million pieces, you might add.

It does not matter how your child lost his or her life, what age he or she was, what the particular circumstances were; All you want to do is wail and turn back to the clock to the time before it happened.

But you can’t.

But what you can do, and what I know you have learned as you have gone along, may surprise some people.  You have found, like others before you that if you take it one step at a time and if you hold close the belief that you will survive what is arguably the greatest loss of all; you will garner the strength and motivation to move forward and emerge a stronger, more compassionate person. 

I was pretty impressed, Andrea, with how you handled it to start with and how you have continued to handle it.

You have grown in empathy, soul and spirit in the (almost) eleven years since that truly terrible late July day.

How have you managed to do it?

From the outside looking in, I see someone who is brave and strong.  But you hate being called brave … and I know that is because you say, “No, I am not brave.  I had no choice but to get on with it after James died, trying at the same time to absorb this massive shock to the system.”

Other people’s expectations can be a pressure in themselves and I recognise that you had to learn to side-line what everyone else wanted or needed you to do in favour of what your own instinct was telling you to do.

Parenting doesn’t come with a rule book, nor does living in a world that has tilted on its axis.  How are you expected to react?

I remember you saying, a while after James died,

“I can’t walk down the high street smiling, you know.  Because, people will think, ‘There goes that woman whose son died.  What can she be smiling about?’  So you see, I have to adopt this neutral kind of mask, because it is what is expected of me.  Friends and colleagues are always on tenterhooks.  There’s a certain kind of wary look they give you in case you start crying.  So they don’t really ask you any more how you are feeling, how you are coping.  They just find it easier to pretend you are the same as you were before, very quickly after loss, and sometimes it is just simpler to take your lead from them.  But I know that made me seem cold and defensive”.

Well, you say that, but you had to protect yourself while the grief was still that sharp jagged thing digging into you all the time like a stitch.

How else could you cope?

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that you can see how ‘difficult’ you were to be around.  It is only now, too, that people are brave enough to tell you how awkward you were.  But you shouldn’t need to apologise for being in a place that is so difficult to negotiate.

One of the problems you faced when you presented your mask of neutrality to the world is that you still had to deal with the turbulent emotions.  It is all very well to pack your grief into a box and clamp it shut, but you learned the hard way that you have to take off the lid sometimes, lest the sorrow seeps out, or worse, bursts out when you least expect it.

You were ultimately quite sensible with this, and found safe, controlled way to visit and share your grief through examining it and talking about it.

You guarded against getting stuck in negativity by consciously seeking out the positives wherever you could find them.

You haven’t run out of words yet, have you?  You know you are lucky to have the gift of expression and that can be utilised to help others.  The creativity is in part fuelled by the appreciation of those who read your words and benefit from them.

The publication of Into the Mourning Light was the culmination of eight years of gathering together many helpful and uplifting words.

Now you have started work on your second book.

You tell me how much easier it is now to write of your loss, because you have told the most personal of stories and the grief has softened to a more malleable and manageable level.

Your writing is an ongoing legacy for James and it gives purpose, meaning and reason to sharing and analysing common thoughts around the issues of loss and mourning.

And your voice, well! –  how that has developed. You have always been a thinker and a talker, though never such a public one, and when opportunities arise for you to speak of your mourning path you take to them with a new confidence.

You are a grief achiever.

I know too, that all the things you do to share your mourning are in honour of your son’s memory.  Of course!  All you ever want as a parent is to be proud of your children and for them to be proud of you.  Why shouldn’t that pride still be there and grow?

I appreciate that you still have times of self doubt.  I sense that in the dark hours you long for someone to come and take that terrible pain of loss away and you weep for the future that James cannot have, all that promise of his life gone in an instant.

You have cried out at the unfairness of it, the injustice of his lost future, to faith, to spirit, to God. These days, I think, you begin to understand a little more that the elements of hope, love, light, faith and resilience are sustaining you in ways you never imagined.

In regard to how your grief has evolved, you say this,

“I had this horrible inner rage that had to be balanced out by seeking out something positive to come from my loss, despite my heartfelt longing not to have to make this constant effort, this searching all the time, for meaning and sense from what has happened.  Working through grief on my own terms is key to my being able to share how I have done it.  I am not saying my way is the best way, or the only way, just that it works for me and if it helps others along similar routes,  that is a source of joy.”

 So there you are, Andrea.   I believe this letter has turned out to be a ‘good thing’ after all, charting as it does the progress you have made and continue to make along a route which was never planned.

Keep on keeping on and I will write again soon …

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Easter Reflection

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Touched by an Angel

 We, unaccustomed to courage

Exiles from delight

Live coiled in shells of loneliness

Until love leaves its high holy temple

and comes into our sight

To liberate us into life.

 

Love arrives

and in its train come ecstasies

Old memories of pleasure

Ancient histories of pain

Yet if we are bold,

Love strikes away the chains of fear

from our souls.

 

We are weaned from our timidity

in the flush of love’s light

We dare to be brave

and suddenly we see

That love costs all we are

And will ever be

Yet it is only love

which sets us free.

I was recently sent this poem, written by Maya Angelou, by someone I have never met.  She shared with me that she has experienced profound loss.  Of the poem, she wrote, “I hope you like it as it made a lot of sense to me as I finally came out of the long shadow of my husband’s death…….. the only thing that matters in the end is the love we have experienced and it does go on forever and maybe beyond …”

It is easy to forget the importance of love in our lives and how much it helps us to heal from the worst scenarios.  It seems appropriate to share the poem now, at this season of Easter.  Here we are again at the holiest and most profound time in the Faith calendar, reflecting as it does the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Love, whether personal, relational or divine, is at the root of all that is good in our lives. 

Over the course of writing this blog, I have not specifically described what happened to my son James in 2005, and the ways in which his passing spurred me into being a proactive griever and a prolific writer.   Some of my newer readers will be unfamiliar with the origins of the blog.  Writing is fundamental to me and expressing my emotions around our awful loss, with the aim of helping other people who are experiencing profound grief, is an unexpected gift born out of the tragic accident that befell James.  Completing and publishing Into the Mourning Light was just the beginning of sharing the story that continues and evolves in various forms, always fuelled by the love for, and memories of, my darling James.  The blog allows me to express personal views around loss and grief, and I hope it provides others with food for thought, a sense of the positive and optimism for the future.

Over time, bereaved parents become adept at telling the facts of the loss of their children with the minimum of emotion, so as to distress neither themselves nor their audience.  It is by far the easiest way to do it.              

I am replicating the text which appears in the newly launched strategy document of the National Water Safety Forum because it sums up the events, if not dispassionately, in a straightforward manner.

“James Clark, a happy-go-lucky 19-year-old Uni student, was out with his friends at a nightclub in Kingston-upon-Thames.  After a fun evening of socialising and drinking, in the early hours of the morning the friends left, split into two groups and went off to find taxis.  But neither group realised James wasn’t with them.  By the next afternoon, friends and family began wondering where he was. Maybe he’d stayed the night somewhere? Then, when he didn’t appear, and his mobile phone was not working, they were worried. They waited … and waited.

After three agonising days, the police arrived at the family’s door with the terrible news that James’ body had been found in the river. Among the emergency services called out was the RNLI.

Unbeknown to his friends, James had come out of the nightclub near the river Thames, stumbled in the dark and fallen into the water.

James drowned, probably as a result of cold water shock.  This was a shock in itself because he was normally a strong swimmer. It was a tragic irony that someone usually so at home in the water and a fearless swimmer should die that way.

It was a wonderfully promising life cut short. James was a lovable, popular young man studying to be a primary teacher. Suddenly he was gone. This terrible incident happened over 10 years ago in July 2005.

Almost immediately after his death, James’ mother Andrea campaigned hard with Kingston Council for barriers to be put up along that particular stretch of the Thames. Three years later they were installed. Additional safety measures in the form of better lighting and clearer delineation of the edge of the towpath were also incorporated, along with lifesaving skills training for bar and restaurant staff.

Andrea is now helping the RNLI’s Respect The Water campaign and told us: ‘It’s too late for James but not too late to make many other people think carefully about what they are doing and the inherent danger of water even to confident swimmers. The loss of James was a tragic accident, but better awareness of the dangers, particularly in the younger age group, will undoubtedly reduce the likelihood of future tragedies”.                                                      

 My own rebirth as a bereaved parent emerged from the depths of despair, but gradually that has become a wellspring of hope.  It is impossible to describe how truly dreadful were the early days of loss and I am grateful for all the support I had, both seen and unseen, that helped me through the darkest days and nights.                                                                     My focus on projects relating to water safety to prevent future tragedy helps immensely in trying to find some sense in, or divine reason for, what happened.  As time passes it encourages me that I can talk openly about grief and loss in ways that benefit others in getting a better understanding of the issues surrounding bereavement.

The coming together of life and death at Easter inspires me to look for balance between contemplative reflection and a sense of joyful hope for the future.  I have shared James’ story today in the spirit of rebirth that exemplifies Easter.

Happy Easter to all, when it comes!

sunnyjim

Five Keys

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You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her book You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life in 1960 and I am borrowing her idea of keys for this post, though for brevity, my keys will number five rather than eleven. I would say there are a finite number of keys to living with loss and these, my own observations, are but a sample.

Strength is inherent in us, but it is undoubtedly fed by our life experiences. My mother used to say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and although that is a rather extreme example, I believe that strength and resilience in the face of adversity help you to cope with whatever has happened in the past, what you are going through now, and what lies ahead. I find that conserving strength by taking a step back from difficulties seems to consolidate innate strength into something even more powerful. Grief, guilt and loss sap strength on a daily basis and it is tiring work. It is important to be kind to yourself when you are feeling feeble to empower yourself to carry on. And being kind to yourself can take many forms – from simply indulging in your favourite chocolate to going on a meditative retreat (for example).

When my son James died in July 2005, at first I prayed simply for the strength to breathe, to continue to put one foot in front of the other and to keep on going. I am still standing – but it is not just strength that is responsible …

Courage and bravery go hand in hand.                                                                                                     Is courage the same as bravery? I don’t particularly like being called brave.                                I do not think I am especially brave. I do however think that I have the quality of spirit to face difficulties without feeling afraid of the consequences. I used to think that I was either rewarded or punished for how I live my life, but my faith and convictions have changed over the years so that I am closer to understanding how, although it can appear to be the case at times, no-one is singled out for specific joys or tragedies in life.

My courage allows me to speak out, to write, to share James with an ever widening audience to bring awareness not only of the dangers inherent in water, but also the consequences of living with tragic loss. It is courage that allows me to confront the stark fact of loss, not to let it get the upper hand. I confess that I often see grief as an adversary to be beaten down and pummelled into submission, even though I am a pacifist at heart!

Confidence I never believed I had the confidence to address Kingston Council on the topic of river safety. I never believed I had the confidence to write and publish Into the Mourning Light. I never believed I had the confidence to share my personal story in presentations and with the media. I never believed I had the confidence to pitch articles to magazines or to write a regular blog.

All these things I have done and I stand tall and proud of these achievements, which have emerged in spite of what is arguably the worst confidence sapper on earth.

Confidence feeds on itself and I am certain that outward confidence reflects the strength and courage that lie within.

Exploration Where does exploration fit here? By exploration, I mean investigating outside your comfort zone. In the early days of grief, the world is a dark and lonely place. But gradually … as you poke your head above the parapet you begin to get back your human urge to explore new horizons, and investigate new directions. Embrace it, welcome it and use it. If you are drawn to do something reckless, as long as it is not overtly life-threatening, do it!

My favourite personal example of this is the irresistible urge I had to go paragliding when I was on holiday in Turkey in 2007. Jumping off that high point and taking flight was one of the greatest adrenaline rushes ever, and I felt closer to Heaven and James than ever before, whilst also having the courage to place my confidence in the ability of the paraglider pilot to keep us safe. I enjoyed the experience so much I repeated it in the second week of our holiday.

Exploration also encompasses learning and there is nothing quite like learning a new skill or acquiring a new qualification for boosting courage, confidence, strength and a sense of self worth. Be selective and do what you want to do once in a while. It is innate in us to please others but sometimes it is ok to be selfish rather than selfless and most importantly, not to feel guilty about it.

Exploration happens when you can haul yourself out of the dark places and kick out apathy and passivity. Taking control is empowering in itself.

Hope When everything is dark and sad, when all seems to be conspiring against you to challenge, weaken, and destroy you …. How then, do you find hope?

The enemy of hope is fear, and there is no more fearful place than early grief. The action of conquering fear and anxiety – which takes time and effort, motivates our hope for the future.   Roosevelt’s suggestion for overcoming fear is self-discipline–once you have faced certain fears, the strength and confidence gained from those experiences foster the overcoming of new fears.

Hope will be realised when the fear of failure, or of not being good enough, are removed. This is not something that anyone else can do for you. You have to tackle it yourself. But the sense of achievement when you realise you have overcome your fear is the reward.

My own return to hope came when I recognised that taking a proactive approach to grief worked far better for me than allowing myself to become mired in hopeless negatively. It was so hard in the beginning but the hopefulness that I began to feel, and the uplifting responses to my early writing efforts made me realise that I could do this dreadful thing and by sharing my story and James’s story, feed on the hope and positive outcome from our personal tragedy. My hope reflects a degree of interdependence, it is not just mine, and the more I share my hope, the greater my understanding that we need empathy, support, faith and understanding to move forward.

The return of hope to your life after loss and trauma is represented by a new sense of optimism and certainty that things WILL improve, that you CAN cope and you HAVE the ability to live life meaningfully again. You have to work at it, pray for it, and greet it with gratitude when it arrives. To go from hopeless to hopeful is a result of much hard work and diligent application. It remains a work in progress on a daily basis. Being filled with hope is akin to convalescing from an illness, day by day you realise you are a little stronger and a a little better able to confront obstacles.

There is too a kind of symmetry and balance in hope that is well illustrated by author and broadcaster Sheridan Voysey’s view (via Martin Seligman) that if we are emotionally fit, we have ‘the ability to amplify positive emotions like peace, gratitude, hope or love, while managing negative ones like bitterness, sadness or anger.

Motivation, positivity, courage, confidence, strength, faith, love, exploration, learning … ALL these stimulate HOPE which is perhaps the ultimate element in learning to live with loss.

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