Category Archives: counselling

A decade achieved

sunnyjim

‘Our children do not die. They live on in our hearts with wingbeats of memory’.

Ten years ago, on 28 July 2005, our world changed forever. The greatest fear of any parent became our reality. James went out for the evening and he never returned. He was not found for three days, after which time he was recovered from the river Thames at Kingston, his death a tragic accident.

I cannot easily bring myself to write the words his body was recovered because that would not convey the loss of the wonderful, individual being who was James: that handsome, bright, funny, vibrant, cheeky, boy; on the threshold of manhood, his future so full of promise. He was snatched from his life and our lives, in an instant.

And here we are. Suddenly it seems, the calendar tells us we are ten years on.

Battered, bruised but still standing.

Over the past decade, I have amassed an amazingly useful amount of first-hand knowledge of grief and the grieving process, primarily as it applies to my own situation.

Certain aspects of grief are common to all loss, but other features are entirely specific to child loss.

I have become a reluctant expert, first learning how to deal with my own feelings and then gradually realising an appreciation of how my loss affects others in the wider circle. Sharing my thoughts and emotions in writing is cathartic. It helps me to break down the enormity of loss into more palatable bite-size pieces.

I recently watched a clip on Youtube called “Put the Glass down: How long to hold on to grudges and trauma”

Paraphrased, it goes something like this:

A professor holds up a glass half full of water to his students, asking,

“How much does this weigh?”

The students guess at the weight. Prof says,

“Really my question is not so much how much it weighs, but what would happen if I held it up for some minutes … or an hour … or a day?”

The students’ reply was that sooner or later, he would have arm ache and muscle stress and the pain would become intolerable.

“Does the weight of the glass change?” asked the professor.

“No”, came the answer

“So, what causes the arm ache and muscle stress? What should I do to come out of pain?”

The answer is, of course, to put the glass down.

You need to put your ‘glass of grief’ down for relief. I have learned that both holding and putting down are possible, individually and concurrently. It’s a real mix.

The toxicity of holding on to negative emotions which are detrimental to the psyche is, I think, an important feature to consider. The longer you hold on to the worst aspects of loss, the greater is your pain, and you can find yourself paralysed by it. Mulling over of the worst aspects of loss and learning the techniques that allow you to put them down at will, can help bring perspective to the process.

For me, the only way to minimise the destructive elements of the trauma and grief I have experienced is to gradually examine and work through them at my own pace and in my own way. The learning curve is steep and signposts are helpful, but it is your own strength and resilience that win through in the end.

I still wish I could take away the pain of the loss of James, not just from myself but from the rest of the family, his friends, and all those people who knew him. Grief is indeed a heavy burden and it is a long process in the lightening. We all carry it in different ways and wish we could turn the clock back. The only aspect of acceptance in grief that I embrace is that it is, sadly, impossible to undo the events of the past.

Where do I stand at the close of ten years of loss? I can truthfully say I have integrated the loss of James into my life to a comfortable level, where I am able to stand back and look down the years with the satisfaction of knowing I have achieved progress along the way.

If you are analytical by nature, as I am, you may well find yourself challenging the commonly laid down grief stages which tend to favour a linear, progressive approach. These do not, for me, reflect the two steps forward, one back nature of my path as I am living it. Recently, my attention has been drawn to the 1995 paper by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut , called The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement. This theorises that if you are working through your grief, ie tackling it head on, you must also give yourself time off from the process in order to give yourself a break and to be able to move forward to the next stage in the assimilation procedure. This type of theorising resonates well with me. I tend to work on a chore and reward system, in any case. For example, my reward after the chore of cleaning the kitchen will be to watch some mindless TV, read a book or check my emails.

I think a chore and reward system can equally be applied to grieving.

The inevitable chore of opening the box of your difficult emotions, taking them out, examining them, putting them away again, will necessarily leave you feeling tired, sad and empty. So reward yourself with some leisure time; go for a run, bake a cake, do something creative; whatever makes you feel positive and happy again. This cycle undoubtedly becomes easier with repetition. Embracing a positive mindset, knowing that at the end of the task you will be doing something to make yourself feel better, seems to work well psychologically.

I like too the discussion of Stroebe and Schut around two types of stressors associated with grieving: loss orientation and restoration orientation. Both types require coping mechanisms, and breaks from these are also important.

Stroebe and Schut define loss orientation as emotion-focussed coping and processing loss, whilst restoration-oriented stressors relate more to having to compensate for the person who is no longer here. This may be more relevant to losing a spouse/sibling than a child, I feel, because the focus is on external adjustments following loss (for example, if your husband always looked after the household accounts, now you have to learn to do so). It is still an important concept to consider when thinking about what constitutes progress in your grief. Losing a child puts a burden on a parent to somehow be more than they were before. There is a need to fill the child-shaped hole with something that comes from within. This is a difficult concept. But I often feel I am trying hard to compensate for James no longer being here – and that is achieved by pushing myself further than I would have done before, right across the board. Time has become infinitely more precious, and I do not like to waste my days. I feel a need to keep driving myself forward as a coping mechanism.

There is no doubt that Stroebe and Schut have it right when they suggest we oscillate between confrontation and avoidance in processing loss. It is vital do to whichever feels right at the time. Avoidance or diversion gives the mind necessary breaks from the hard work and application that is required in grieving. I have noticed that most of the bereaved parents I have met are invariably very busy people, and in part this is perhaps our desire to fill our time with compensatory items to divert us from pain. This is not to deride our busyness, which is also very useful and productive.

All this is a somewhat dry theoretical discussion on what is actually my day to day living process. What has it to do with my traversing the rocky road of grief for the loss of James?

I think I can best illustrate my progress over the past decade by singling out a top ten of useful things I have learned inasmuch as they relate generally and also more specifically to my own situation. I hope others are able to apply them and be helped by them, in their own individual situations in bereavement.

Gathering a support network around you really helps

You may not be a ‘group person’ or a joiner – but there is help for bereaved parents (and of course other bereaved people). You can do as much or as little as you like in terms of seeking out support. The isolation of early grief leaves you fragile, vulnerable and lacking in confidence and often the first step in contacting a group is very hard, but ultimately worthwhile. You may find that sharing your experiences or being aware of others going through similar circumstances is immensely helpful. You may find newfound confidence – not in comparing your grief, which should never be competitive, but realising that you are coping in the best way possible for yourself. Grief is necessarily individual and self-absorbed, particularly in the early days for you are compelled to constantly review how you are coping, what you are managing, etc, etc. Your family and friends are naturally your main support but it is sometimes difficult to share your grief path with them and this is where outside support can be useful. You can feel that you are adding to the burden of other family members’ sense of loss by sharing your own and this heaps on the guilt that you may feel. It is difficult not to feel you have to be strong for everyone else around you, but initially at least, you must centre in on yourself to cope with the maelstrom of emotion to which you have to adjust. You are not only coping with new feelings but also likely to be dealing with the practicalities and officialdom surrounding a loss, which is daunting in itself. For myself, joining The Compassionate Friends and the Drowning Support Network provided a forum where I found empathy, understanding and support in equal measures. It is entirely true to say that no one else can truly understand what you are going through unless they have suffered similar loss. Knowing that others had gone through all the protocols and processes involved in the aftermath helped a little in minimising the hurdles to overcome.

  • Find faith that it will get better

In early grief, you will feel cast adrift in new, dark world that does not come with a map. The darkness of the pit, black hole, cave, is absolute at first. An immense amount of personal strength and resilience is required for you to begin to approach the chinks of light which gradually appear. Embrace them.

I vividly remember contacting my TCF personal mentor very early on and asking him,

“Will I always feel as dreadful as this?” and his reply

“No, Andrea, you will gradually feel better as time passes”. I envied him his stance of being 12 years along the line at the time, and tried to believe his words, indeed I clung to them to give me hope for the future. At the beginning, I often sought out examples of people who were moving forward and coping with grief and loss to underline the affirmation that it was possible to do so. Reading and writing can be very helpful here and sharing my own expressed thoughts in writing to benefit others continues to help me along my own journey.

  • Learn to accept offers of help gracefully

People really want to help in your loss and practical help in the form of cooking and household chores in the early days should be accepted without guilt, for you are allowing others to feel that they are helping you. Even the simple tasks like shopping are very difficult early on, especially as you are likely to bump into people you know in local stores. Although there is the option to shop on-line these days, the concentration required for this is likely to be beyond you at first. I found I drove miles to avoid my local shops for fear of having to face people whom I knew and who would invariably ask me about James.

My best help has always come from those who are prepared to listen if I wish to talk or sit quietly if I do not, who do not stand in judgement of ‘where I am’ in my grief, being those who empathise without trying to solve my problems (which of course they cannot). The best friend is one who sits with you regardless and accepts your febrile, inconsistent state without questioning it.

  • Accept that other people do not understand

You may be surprised by the insensitivity you encounter around you. It is necessary to learn ways not to let this upset you. People really do not mean it but they cannot help trying to accommodate your loss by putting themselves in your shoes and offering reassurances, which always start with “I know how you feel because …” When clearly, they do not. Worse than that are the times when people assume a stricken expression and say, “Oh, you are SO brave! I am sure I would just fall to pieces” or similar, implying that you have some magical strength. This makes it very difficult to behave naturally with the other person and you find you need to assume a mask to conceal the feelings that you may have. Bravery is not something I have ever felt in terms of my loss.

I recall a conversation I was privy to not long after James died. One woman said, “Oh, I can’t wait for my kids to leave home, they are driving me mad. It wouldn’t bother me if I never saw them again!” I am afraid the nasty me wanted to say “Be careful what you wish for…” but I managed not to. There is a great deal of allowance-making for others that comes with the territory of grief – and it is tiring. I resented this greatly in the early days, but I am a little more sensitive now.

  • Embrace new friendships; they are gifts

Early in your loss, your new friends are likely to be other bereaved people. These friendships are immensely special. They will endure and move beyond the initial awfulness which brought you together. But interestingly, I have found I have made other friendships, meeting people who are not bereaved parents but with whom I relate, and who have an understanding of loss because they themselves have experienced trauma of some kind. It is always difficult to know when to introduce the topic of loss to a new relationship because it is necessarily difficult and it is impossible to know how people will react. There is a certain level of stigmatisation that comes with the territory of being bereaved.

I have learned over the years that it is not always necessary to reveal my loss to others. At first, it feels as though it must be visible, that I have been marked in some way by my experience, but these days I realise this is not the case.

On holidays, for example, it can be a time of freedom to meet people and have discussions about children and family without revealing personal loss. I used to feel tremendously guilty about doing this but now I know it is a protective mechanism that is good for my emotional health.

I don’t need to tell everyone I meet that my son died. That is not to say I am denying his existence in any way; rather I am selective about the people with whom I share my experience.

My realisation over recent years has been quite an eye opener – that everyone has a story, and it may be not as bad or worse than mine, but we all have life events, stresses, traumas in which we can relate and help each other. I have met a great many people since losing James; paths have been crossed and events have happened which would not otherwise have occurred. I see all these new aspects to my life as gifts and welcome them as they happen; rather than constantly reverting to the reason why they happen.

  • Don’t dismiss counselling

You may feel that counselling is not for you, and as a lay person it is difficult to judge how necessary it is in the grieving process. But being able to talk in a safe, supportive environment and express sentiments you may not be able to share with your nearest and dearest, to a listener who is trained to listen, can be very helpful. I can only speak from my own experience which was very positive. Informal counselling in the form of conversations with others going through loss is also immensely valuable. Anything that normalises your grieving process can only be good and healthy. My favourite form of informal counselling is to go for a long walk with another friend and talk out the emotions that need to be shared.

  • Populate your own toolbox with positive elements

Amassing helpful items in your toolbox is a pleasurable task. You can choose whatever helps in your own particular circumstances and have a variety of different tools for varying situations. Your memories and the triggers for them are the most valuable things to treasure. Your immediate reaction to loss may be to get rid of reminders, clear rooms and wardrobes as soon as possible. But be careful! – once they are gone, you cannot recover the items. It is very diificult to face tangible reminders at first, and my advice would be to put them out of sight for the time being until they can be approached.

My toolbox began and indeed continues to have as its main feature, my love of words and writing. Even if you are not a writer, keeping a journal is very helpful. In particular, the new griever’s memory is notoriously poor and looking back on a journal is very helpful to demonstrate progress. I also populate my toolbox with the various projects in which I get involved, and it also contains my leisure time pleasures – exercise, spiritual nourishment, photography and so on.

  • Appreciate the world around you and look to the light

The isolating nature of early grief means that you are so focussed on your self and your emotions that you miss what is happening around you. Although it is difficult when you are struggling to get through each day, it is important to plan future events to have something to look forward to. This brings huge guilt to begin with. You may ask yourself, “What right do I have to feel happy/enjoy myself?” but in fact it is far healthier and better to push yourself outside your comfort zone and learn to enjoy life again. have always found the cycle of the seasons comforting and to go out for a walk and literally ‘take time to smell the roses’ is very nourishing to the soul. Planning time away gives a sense of moving forward. Going away brings a measure of relief from the day to day grind of grieving. It can, however, be difficult to come home and takes time to restore a normal response in this regard. I used to dread coming home because walking in through the front door underlined the absence of James. But now I hold close his memories and imagine how pleased he would be that we are travelling and enjoying new experiences in different parts of the world. It has taken time to re-integrate ourselves into a social life with a degree of confidence. Equally, it has taken time for family and friends to realise that we are at ease with celebrations.   It is a difficult concept to see your son’s peers moving forward into adult, settling down, having children – but how much worse to be excluded from their joys and triumphs for fear that you will be upset. People tend to tiptoe around the bereaved socially and this is something which I feel strongly should change with taking the taboo out of the subject – when appropriate.

  • Accept that the process of consolidating grief is an individual journey

No single person can compare their grief journey to another’s. There are some common denominators, of course, but the sense of grief and loss you feel cannot be defined and comprehended except by yourself. The journey is long, hard and tortuous. But ultimately there is an element of satisfaction in realising that you may well in fact have experienced personal growth, strength and confidence arising from the travails of your loss. Personally I believe that all that I have learned about grief and loss over the past ten years, though I would never have chosen to embark on this particular learning curve, has made me a better-rounded and more compassionate person.

  • Appreciate that full acceptance may never come

As a parent, I invariably ask the question: how is it possible to fully accept the loss of a child? However well you follow the tenets of the grieving process do you really accept the loss? You may (eventually) be able to accept the loss of your own parents, a sibling or peer, but there is no avoiding the fact that your children are not meant to die before you.

I prefer to use the words assimilation and integration to reflect my level of acceptance of my loss.

By integrating my loss, I can live meaningfully again.

I can fulfil my valued roles as a wife, mother, stepmother and grand-parent with joy tempered with poignancy that does not overwhelm or detract from our future happiness.

I can take up the baton that James should have carried, in the time I have left, and carry it for him.

I am gratified to be able to be involved in workshops, sharing grief resources and helping raise water safety awareness with bereavement organisations and the RNLI, with a remit that reflects my desire to share the positive aspects of grief work.

I feel thankful for the nineteen years that I was blessed to know my son.

I hope those close to me see that my loss lives alongside me in its rightful place rather than the loss defining who I am.

I feel a huge regret for all the years of life that are denied to James but I no longer mourn his loss in the way I did at the beginning. That level of traumatic distress becomes ultimately futile and damaging to the future not just for myself, but for those around me.

My remit remains to deal with my grief as positively and usefully as possible. I had no idea I would learn so much from it, nor be able to share it in helpful ways, and for these gifts in loss I am grateful.

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Borrowing Keys

dicentra

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

 dandelion

Colouring In

When I think of grief, I sense that the breaking of the mourning process and the drying of tears are as inevitable as the sun’s ascent and the evaporation of the morning dew – Carmella B’Hahn

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 Jogging along by the canal the other day, I was amazed by the speed at which the shades of the morning changed from bleak monochrome greyness to early spring colour. This led my train of thought to travel along a track of reminiscence, as so often happens when I am alone and have time to reflect.

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When I was writing my book, I wanted a title that would convey many things: a sense of hope, optimism and positivity, a title which transmitted the message that the springboard of the book was loss.

The title Into the Mourning Light came into being gradually.

It was heavily influenced by one of the first people I met after James died in 2005.

Carmella B’Hahn was a pioneer of water birth in the UK and her son Benjaya was one of the first babies to be born in water in 1986. Ironically, he died in a river drowning accident when he was only five years old. Carmella turned her grieving process in a proactive and positive direction, first writing Benjaya’s Gifts, which told her son’s story and the legacy of learning from her experiences. She subsequently wrote Mourning has Broken; Learning from the Wisdom of Adversity. This book is made up of interviews and offers the reader ‘keys’ to working through and managing grief and trauma, not only loss through bereavement.

I found Carmella’s work inspiring, and in the very early days of loss I attended one of the grief workshops that she ran at the time.

Dazed and anguished as I was, the day was hugely beneficial. Here for the first time I experienced the tool of guided meditation, and found that, in a safe and nurturing environment, I could examine the profound sadness at the very core of my being in a helpful way.

The day was both emotionally draining and positively uplifting. I am sure Carmella has no idea how much that workshop in 2006 coloured my attitude to grieving and how her compassion and knowledge of the matters of living and dying moved me into a more constructive direction.

Indirectly Carmella also contributed to my growing confidence in sharing James’s story, which has ultimately led to my public speaking presentations, work with the RNLI and co-presenting workshops for bereaved parents.

‘The use of colour in healing grief’ is in fact the theme of the second workshop for bereaved parents with which I am involved, to be held on Sunday 12 April 2015. We plan to provide a positive and uplifting day for our attendees. It is enormously beneficial to share personal stories with others who truly understand, but our day will be about more than this.

My co-presenters and I all agree how vital it is to be able to re-introduce colour into our personal worlds after the loss of a child – but how do we do this? There are many directions that such therapy can take and we will examine some of them over the course of the day.

Our surroundings are an undoubted boost, as the workshop will take place at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary in Shere, Surrey (we still have a few places left; if you are interested, please get in touch either directly or through the Sanctuary website/my email)

The title of my book is only one element in the all-important visual impact of its cover and I was glad to have the opportunity to work with the publishing company’s illustrators on its appearance.

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Firstly, the distant light spreading over the landscape is intended to convey a sense of moving forwards.

There is important symbolism in the presence of the butterfly, which represents change and transformation.

The path and the staggered gateway are key in conveying an uneven passage along a route which ultimately opens out into a wider vista (new normality) and of course the sunshine above is massively important in giving a sense of new days, dawning with hope and optimism.

I like the mist clinging to the hills which gives a sense of residual connections between the ethereal realm and the pragmatism of terra firma.

Finally, the trees in leaf provide a positive framework for the entire cover. I love trees and the way they change with the seasons. To me, trees symbolise strength, nature, nurture, and the ever constant sense of hope that comes with the turning of the seasons’ wheel.

Into the Mourning Light remains my most significant grief ‘achievement’ if it can be described in such a way, and it is a large facet in the colourful emotional mosaic that represents my path, and the telling of James’s story, since July 2005.

http://www.harryedwardshealingsanctuary.org.uk/events.html

Is it all in focus?

bflies1aAs an amateur digital photographer, I enjoy creating images and recording what’s around me. This week I went to see the tropical butterfly display in the glasshouse at Wisley. This has become an annual event at the gardens and is very popular with snappers and non-snappers alike. Photographing the butterflies is something of a challenge. Firstly the humidity in the glasshouse fogs the lens; though it will eventually clear. Butterflies are notoriously camera shy and will perch on a leaf just ever so slightly beyond your camera’s point of focus… but despite this, in the event I was pleased with my shots.

But it was a butterfly I saw outside that really caught my attention. It is most unusual to see one of our native butterflies in February, but it was a sunny day and I imagine this Red Admiral may have been fooled by thoughts of a false spring.

I realised as I photographed it that images could have a place as a representation of grief. Photographers learn about depth of field – particularly in close up shots. Depth of field is the area of sharpness (from near to far) within a photograph. With modern cameras and a little knowledge of their settings, it is possible to focus on the foreground and put the background out of focus, and vice versa. Selective focus sees a chosen part of the image thrown into sharp relief against a blurred background. In theory, a lens is able to focus on only one object at a time and I wonder if grieving is so very different. The early days of loss for me were like this image:

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I well remember that every single waking moment included something of James in it. Nothing else around me held any significance. I was not interested in what was going on around me. Local, national or international happenings blurred into the background – and that was entirely right for that period of mourning.

The ideal place to be in grieving is akin to the photograph that is a ‘storytelling exposure’ – an image that shows broad depth of field. The butterfly and the surrounding background are all in reasonable focus, balanced and equal.

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Every day my son walks with me in my mind and in my heart; almost ten years on, this is not to the exclusion of all other thought and/or activity.  I have not left him behind but the size of the place he takes up has changed. I recently heard Sarah, a bereaved mother who lost her son eleven years ago say that during sessions her well-meaning grief counsellor tried to get her to ‘leave her son behind’.   Like me, Sarah feels that her son comes with her, is part of her and is with her every day. I totally agree with her when she says, “He’s not here to live his life; I am.     And I owe it to him and to myself to enjoy life”.  

Perhaps only other bereaved parents can fully understand that our children remain part of our lives and that even though their lives with us are over, they remain as part of our present and indeed our future, to enable us to balance out our grieving whilst continuing to live meaningfully. Our grief evolves over time so that is not as desperate as it was early on, and it is a great relief to arrive at this more comfortable place. From the outset, we need to hear from others that there is hope of achieving a balanced existence again.

There are times though, when I find it difficult to focus on my grieving. This is happening to me at the moment. James feels a bit remote, a bit blurred in my mind. I need to be able to call him closer, to be able to throw him into sharp relief again. Perhaps it is nature’s way of giving respite from grieving; for grief is hard, wearying work. We live it all the time, and some days or weeks are more difficult than others. It is not always possible to work out why, but perhaps the passage of time is significant here. The spells of less intense grief seem to have increased over the past few years, which I take to be a healthy sign, not a sign that I am forgetting, but that I am moving forward.

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I took one of my favourite images of James when on a visit to Brighton where he was at Uni in 2004. This is definitely a storytelling exposure … the little boy in the background reminds me of James when he was young, and James looks so happy and relaxed. It was a lovely day that I hold close in my heart.

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 So … if my grief for my son is a bit blurry, perhaps I need to take the time to look at some photos, or recall in my mind some of our time together, to bring everything back into focus and relocate it to the ‘right’ place for my day to day life.

Up against the wall

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The inspiration to write is a curious thing. At times, my mind teems with ideas and I wake up with a complete piece in my mind, at others there is an utter block and I fear that my creative spring has dried up. Fortunately, this never happens in the long term. But at such times, the inspiration to write may come from an image.

For anyone who wants to write, look at an image and allow your mind free rein to produce words to describe it. Even if you think you can’t write, at worst you will produce a list, and at best something lyrical.

The image above is a Cornish dry stone wall, or Cornish hedge as it is locally known. I took the picture when I was visiting my family in Perranporth earlier this year; the wall is just a few minutes’ walk from Stella and Pete’s house, up on the coast path above the bay.

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When I consider the image now, I see the large rainbow hued rock just left of centre as the heart of the picture. The irregular stones around it, which slot together in a form that holds and connects, could represent the rocky road of grief and loss. I wonder which stone started the wall. Was it the very bottom one? Logic says a wall can only be built upwards. So we grieve – onwards and upwards, creating a solid foundation before we can move to the next level.

The bottom layer of stones is standing end-on. They need to support what comes above so must be strong and straight. Thus it is with the strength we have to find to move forward and build up our lives again after the trauma of loss.

The next layer is smoother and looks rather more balanced, although there is a gap at the right hand end which gives the effect of two steps forward, one step back. Above the gap are two stones leaning in to each other; these look to me like angel wings, protecting what lies below.

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The third level up is definitely the heart of the wall. It could not exist without the base foundation and it is large and smooth and even. My eye is constantly drawn back to the wonderful rainbow hued heart stone. I love the little tangle of lichen which caresses its base. Somehow a small interruption to its perfection seems quite appropriate.,

The fourth layer sits confident, smooth and stable atop the rest. It puts me in mind of the level of acceptance of loss that is only arrived at after a considerable passage of time. The layer is even and without any jagged edges. There is a small stone that sits quite differently to all the rest, tucked in just on top of the heart stone, which perhaps represents something new to be cherished. The shapes, textures and colours of the rocks in this row are amazingly varied. They suggest the return of an appreciation of the beauty that is all around us.

The fifth row echoes the second row in its neat, level formation, and I imagine this row lends strength to the wall’s structure. It says little to me other than ‘I am here and I am strong. I stand upon a foundation that will not crumble.’

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The final layer looks almost casual in its construction. It sits loosely atop the rest but in itself it provides a base for the sturdy, wind resistant plants that cling tenaciously to it. I love that in moorland plants. No one puts them there, they simply arrive on the wind, on the sea air, through the birds that fly above. They ask nothing; they clothe the rocks with colour and softness. They look soft, yes, but they are hard and tough, much like the indomitable human spirit.

Keats wrote odes to nightingales and Grecian urns but I don’t think he ever wrote one to rocks – perhaps he should have done. Why should we not be stirred by what we see as inanimate objects when put together in a form such as this, taking on a life and beauty all their own?

Next time you look at such a wall – really observe it, and see if it speaks to you as this one speaks to me. Who knew a Cornish hedge has a voice?

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The Power of Pointing

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 In October 2010, five years after James died, I was asked to talk to a group of 20 or so CRUSE bereavement care volunteers, consisting of trained and trainee counsellors. It was my first public speaking event, and at that time my presentation consisted of around 20 minutes of talking about loss, with index cue cards, on which I had written some prompts lest I forget to make a vital point.

It was a nerve-racking experience but I can’t have done too badly as I was asked to pay a return visit to a regional CRUSE training day last weekend. This time, my brief was to present to the 40 attendees for the afternoon, from 1300 to 1530, with a tea break at  around 1400.

I realised that a few cue cards were not going to cut it this time, and set about finding out how best to prepare a Powerpoint presentation. My first port of call was Ross Macleod at the RNLI whose PPT presentation so impressed me the first time we met. He gave me some helpful advice and warned me against using too many slides.

I avoided the articles on the net headed ‘Death by Powerpoint’ but found some really useful information on the University of Leicester website, which contains several clearly written and informative articles – all for free! Thank you Uni of Leicester, for your succinct summary:

“A effective presentation makes the best use of the relationship between the presenter and the audience. It takes full consideration of the audience’s needs in order to capture their interest, develop their understanding, inspire their confidence and achieve the presenter’s objectives”

It was not long before I had put together some slides, images with minimal text, to illustrate my talk, appropriate to:

  • What happened to James
  • Our successful campaign to institute safety improvements at Kingston riverside
  • The Toolbox of grief – what helps/has helped me
  • The writing of my book “Into the Mourning Light”
  • The RNLI and their Respect the Water campaign
  • My involvement in bereavement workshops at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary
  • What to say/what not to say to bereaved parents

When the time came, once I had gone beyond my (unfounded) fear that the files wouldn’t open from the memory stick, I felt well prepared and presented my slides and talk across an hour before the break.

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The second part of the afternoon saw the 40 attendees divided into groups to discuss various aspects of counselling bereaved families; we ended with a question and answer session.

I’ve never imagined myself as a front of house player, rather I am someone who prefers to be in the wings. Losing James and the resultant learning curve of living with loss has given me a new voice that I hope will grow in confidence with each presentation.

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Links:

www2.le.ac.uk

http://www.cruse.org.uk

http://www.rnli.org.uk

http://www.harryedwardshealingsanctuary.co.uk