Category Archives: Grief

Eulogy for a dear Friend

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Over the course of the past week, the element of water in various guises has played a significant part in my waking hours.  I have been close to the ocean in Cornwall and Dorset, I’ve sat beside a lake at a National Trust property in Surrey, and walked along the towpath in one of my favourite locations, the Basingstoke canal.

Firstly, I enjoyed a truly delightful walk on the coastal path that hugs the headland near Crantock in Cornwall.  I was with my daughter Stella and my four month old grand-daughter, Grace.  The sun shone from a cloudless blue sky, and we heard skylarks high above.  The sweet, high piping sound of the larks took me back to my childhood.  I told Stella,

“When we were young, mum and dad used to pack up a picnic, and we would head off to a field close to the old airfield at Wisley.  I remember the sunshine, the larks, and picking little  bunches of wildflowers for mum.  She taught me their names – ragged robin, star of bethlehem, bird’s foot trefoil and so on”.

As we walked it struck me how quickly the years have passed.  It’s a long time since I was the young mum of two children; I guess I am now a matriarch, enjoying my own daughter being the young mum of two children.

Life experience allows that I have apparently arrived at a position of maturity and wisdom!

There was a special kind of joy as we walked along in the spring sunshine; three females at entirely different stages of life, embracing our femininity, our maternal joys and trials and in Grace’s case, simply enjoying being carried in a sling, close to her mum’s heart.

Acquired wisdom is not confined to me however, for during our walk Stella told me something I didn’t know before, that the origin of the dandelion’s name comes from French;

‘Dent-de-lion’ means ‘tooth of the lion’, reflecting the jagged shape of the plant’s leaf.  Thank you, Stella.  You underlined nicely that your mum is never too old to learn!

You also told me that as a mum you feel that you are simultaneously a ‘carer, protector, shield and warrior’ – a very good way to describe motherhood.

As we rounded the headland we looked down on a cerulean blue sea that shone and sparkled in the sunlight below us, foamy white waves hitting the rugged Cornish rocks below us.  It was quite magnificent, elemental and an illustration of natural power at its finest.

A couple of days later found Shaun and I arriving in Lyme Regis in Dorset.  We joined a gathering to commemorate the passing of my dear friend Sylvi; an informal ceremony that saw her daughters, sisters and husband committing her ashes to the ocean.  Sylvi  and her husband Tim lived in France where she sadly passed away last Autumn. Her funeral had taken place in France but her wishes were that she would be brought to Lyme Regis. This was one of her favourite places, significantly for Christmas morning picnics with the family, regardless of the weather.

We drew together from near and far; family, colleagues and friends each holding our own memories of Sylvi as mother, grandmother, sister, wife, friend.  We walked and  talked together as we navigated the very uneven pebbly beach, gravitating to a quiet spot that Tim chose as the place where our informal committal would attract least notice.

Again we were immensely fortunate with the weather and the sun shone brightly, glittering off the sea.

We gathered round the family and stood at a respectful distance as Lucy read some well-constructed words and we were handed yellow roses  to throw into the water.

Lucy, Hollie, Tim, Sylvi’s sisters Hazel and Annie each took a turn to commit some ashes to the sea.

This started off with sombre decorum, but before long Lucy and Hollie kicked off their shoes and braved the undoubtedly cold water to lovingly send off their mum.

There was something incredibly, powerfully, touching about watching these two strong, beautiful young women standing in the shallows and little by little, saying such a personal and utterly connected goodbye to the mum they so dearly loved. The ebb and flow of the tide would carry her away gently and silently.

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Afterwards, Hollie wrote (and I share with her permission)

“Holding my mother in ashes in my own palm was a strange but unique feeling; she had held my hand, held me and held my heart more times than is possible to count and today was our turn to hold her and let her go.

… My lesson from today for myself and others is enjoy every minute with your loved ones, make the effort, say how you feel and don’t be afraid to say or show it”.

Water gives life, it sustains life, and in this case, it absorbed the last remnants of a life in a spiritually uplifting, natural way.  It was so good to see the repression usually associated with modern grief being cast aside in favour of such a memorable and simple committal to nature.

Throwing our roses into the sea allowed us to share in the precious and unique event and send our messages to Sylvi’s waterborne spirit.

Afterwards we all walked along the seafront, threading our way through the Easter holiday makers to reach the pub where a room had been set aside for the 35 or so of us who had gathered.  We gradually relaxed and reminisced, sharing our favourite recollections of such a very special lady.

The day’s individual setting and sequence of events typified Sylvi, who always cared about the impression she left, with everyone who knew her.

Sylvi’s wishes were not to leave anyone mourning gloomily with dark thoughts of the three years she lived with cancer.  Rather, she wanted those who love her to remember her with fondness, joy, laughter and compassion, which is what we achieved on the day and will sustain us all, as we go forward with our lives.

Sylvi was an exceptional woman who instilled in all who knew her an appreciation of making the most of life, whatever the circumstances.

The following day, I felt in reflective mood and had a need to connect with nature again.

We went to Hatchlands, a local National Trust property, and enjoyed a long walk.  There is a small lake in the grounds and Shaun and I sat on a bench watching the breeze ruffling the water.  All we could hear was the sound of the wind in the reeds at the edge of the lake, and the birdsong in the hedgerows.  I found myself praying for Sylvi and her family, and hoping that they all feel, as I do, a sense of having commemorated her life and her passing in the most positive way possible.

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Anyone who knows me will be familiar with my love for the stretch of the Basingstoke canal that is near our home.   I find my walks along the towpath healing and restorative.  There is something about being close to the water that is nurturing and peace-inducing in equal measure.  I walked there again the day after Hatchlands and felt that I was casting away the cobwebs of sadness at the loss of my friend.

Over time I have gradually learned important lessons about the nature of water.  We cannot live without it; indeed our bodies are made up of 50-60% of water.

It is a life giver as well as a life taker.

It sustains, it restores, it calms, it balances.

It supports life for every species.

It blesses with baptism, and curses with torrents and drought.

We cannot survive without its provision for our most basic needs.

We need to respect the water in all its many forms.

The four environments – ocean in Cornwall and Dorset, lake and canal in Surrey are entirely separate and diverse but they all provide the same sense of being at one with nature.  Each experience of these four very different days has underlined for me our human need to love and be loved, and to learn from every single life lesson that we are lucky enough to be taught.

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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

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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Hey – go and clean that bathroom!

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Have you ever noticed the way that repetitive, non-cerebral activities such as household chores free up your creative brain?  This blog post literally has its genesis in a swish and rinse round the bath, continues with a buffing of the taps and ends with a swirl of bleach down the toilet.

Distraction techniques, or focusing on an undemanding practicality, seem to allow the inventive, imaginative part of the mind to run at full tilt.

A similar thing happens, albeit via a different route, through meditative practice when you are mentally and mindfully taking yourself to a different place, clearing the mind and allowing whatever wishes to present itself, to draw across your mind’s eye.

This reminds me of a guided meditation in which I took part recently, based on the Buddhist principles of loving kindness. The foundation of this is that we should learn to practise loving kindness towards ourselves as well as others.

A friendship demands little but gives much. 

It expects no more than acknowledgement of its existence. 

There is a true grace in friendship which we should encompass and convert to give loving kindness to ourselves. It is all too easy to forget that our friends like us, despite our perceived shortcomings.

You first have to learn to be your own best friend … something that is easier said than done.

During the meditation, we were asked to think of ten attributes about ourselves that we like.  Now, how is that for a tall order? – I arrived at three or four before giving up.

Afterwards I thought about why this was so difficult.  And I think it is because generally we are conditioned to be self-critical, judgemental and constantly aware of our failings/shortcomings. It becomes an alien notion to like ourselves.

So … I am getting better at saying to myself, “Stop! – step back from a commitment or two and give yourself time for you – for your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual nourishment”.

When I have managed to do this, I definitely feel better for it.  This is a good example of how loving kindness towards self is achievable.

If someone asks me, “do you believe you are loved and supported?” Then I do not find it difficult to answer “yes”.  And that means that I know in my heart that I am worthy of being loved, something else that is all too easy to forget.

My family and friends affirm to me that I am loved, through their constant support, their many kindnesses to me and their constancy.  Surely then, it should not be too difficult to remind myself of the positives in my life. The lesson lies in believing and having faith in the fact that I am loved equally by those whom I can see and those whom I cannot…

Those who are living with grief and loss can operate at essentially a polar opposite.  They constantly use distraction techniques and general busyness to avoid visiting their grief and perhaps to evade the sorrow that accompanies introspective grieving. I often think that bereaved parents work overly hard to fill in the gaps left by their loss and they are not practising sufficient loving kindness to themselves.  Over time, loving kindness really can help to process loss in a gentle way.

It is really important to find ways that work for you to achieve the balance that enables you to choose how to process your sadness.  This is a steep learning curve.

If, like me, you operate on a chore/reward system, you will be well placed to practise these techniques.  For me, reward equates to having time to write, meditate, or examine how my emotions are balancing out in the now..  First of all I must get the boring jobs out of the way and whilst I am occupied doing these, I am setting myself up to for my chosen reward.  It works! – for me anyway.

So next time you pull on your Marigolds to tackle the regular dull chores … choose your reward first.  You won’t even notice the tedium …

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Permission to Grieve

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I recently gave an informal talk on the topic of healing grief at a Cygnus Community Café event at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary in Shere, Surrey.  The Sanctuary is a favourite place of spiritual nourishment for me; the environment is tranquil and welcoming.  The whole feel of the place is geared towards one’s temporary removal from all the cares and worries of everyday life.  It is always an uplifting place to visit.

After my initial talk when I described my own strategies for dealing with the issues surrounding grief and loss, we became a more interactive group with consideration of questions that were put forward for discussion.

One of the audience, who is a healer at the Sanctuary, said,

In my healing sessions, I often come across people who are bereaved and grieving.  They are trying to carry on as normally as possible, and they will tell me they are struggling with their losses.  Do you think it is a good idea to tell them that they can give themselves permission to grieve?”

Needing permission to grieve may seem an odd concept, but in fact it makes sense.

When we are grieving, we become very adept at hiding it from the outside world.  To a certain extent, we need to do this to be able to function usefully in the workplace and in our activities of daily life.  After all, we are not much use to ourselves or anyone else if we are constantly dissolving into tears and generally being unable to get through the days.           But …. There is an inherent danger in being too buttoned up in the face we show to the world.  If we are not careful we can lose the ability to feel the emotions that we need to feel in order to move forward in our grief.  Someone once said to me that we are meant to feel pain when we grieve, otherwise it would not hold meaning. Harsh, but true.

So, to return to the original question, if someone said to me, “OK Andrea, I give you permission to grieve.  Go off and do it …”  What would I do?

I think I would be allowing myself some time to sit quietly and reflect on the years of loss, to think about James and remember him with the joy that he brought … but also to recall the agony of the early days which seemed utterly insurmountable at the time.  By revisiting the darkest of places it is possible to simultaneously look back at the monochrome days and look forward to the bright colourful future.  I have learned to do this in a  controlled way through learning visualisation and meditation techniques which are very helpful. Giving myself permission to grieve also means that I can allow myself to cry, though this happens less these days. Sometimes to go off into a quiet space and have a good weep is a very therapeutic way to move forward in grieving.

Naturally, the urge for me would be to share … I feel very strongly about expressing grief through writing and talking about it, as openly as possible.

Stoicism can be your worst enemy.  When you are grieving and feeling like you want to grieve actively, involving others in your grief rather than holding it to yourself, you need people who will empathise with you, tolerate your pain themselves without flinching, and just be present in the moment with you. That really is all you need.

Grief is a jumble, it is so many things – a tangled ball of wool, an onion with many layers, a set of stairs, a big black hole, a spiral, a rock, a mountain … the list is endless and the path along it is individual to each person who is coping with his or her loss.  It is not worth your while to try to defer or deflect it, which will simply prolong the agony.  You have to accept that the unpredictability of grief and its non-linear journey of recovery will be strewn with obstacles, but with will, determination and a degree of stubbornness they can be overcome. Eventually.

This week I read some truly insightful words by Thomas Cohen, who was married to the late Peaches Geldof.  He said,

“The thing that really had the greatest impact on me and the entire situation was the realisation that if you aren’t going to love yourself, if you’re not going to take care of yourself, if you’re not going to take yourself to every single place you need to go in order to heal yourself, then you’re not going to get through the grieving process”.                                                                                                           What a brilliant example of someone who has given himself permission to grieve.

Links:  http://www.harryedwardshealingsanctuary.org    http://www.cygnusreview.com

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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!

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A Special Invitation

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A few weeks ago I received a faintly mysterious email from Ross at the RNLI.

“Are you free on the evening of Monday 29 February?” he asked.

“Nothing that can’t be changed”, I replied, wondering what it was all about, but he wouldn’t be drawn on what he told me would be a surprise …

Following on from my work with the Respect the Water campaign last year, Ross put me in contact with Megan, who in turn is involved with a new collaborative drowning prevention initiative via the National Water Safety Forum. I was asked if I was willing to share what happened to James as a Case Study within the strategy document that was being prepared by the RNLI and other contributory organisations. I agreed to this and over the months received updates from Megan as to how the initiative was progressing through the consultation process.

A couple of days after I heard from Ross, an email from Megan popped into my inbox. To my great surprise, it contained a rather special invitation.  We were invited by Government Minister for Transport, Robert Goodwill MP,  to “an Evening Reception to launch the National Strategy for Drowning Prevention on behalf of the National Water Safety Forum” ….and that is how Shaun and I found ourselves in esteemed company at the House of Commons last night.

I couldn’t help but think how James would react – would “Wow, mum!” cover it?

When we arrived in the wonderful historic surroundings of Parliament, we passed through the airport style security and as we were early, we were invited to go into the House of Lords to observe the debate from the public gallery for a short while, a fascinating experience in itself.

At 7pm around 60 people gathered together on the Pavilion Terrace, overlooking the Thames and we were offered drinks and canapes. Megan introduced us to various people and it was great to re-establish contact with some of the RNLI staff whom I have met before as well as meeting representatives from organisations including the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Amateur Swimming Association, RoSPA, RLSS and the Fire and Rescue Service to name but a few.

The formal part of the launch reception consisted of three speeches. George Rawlinson, Operations Director of the RNLI and Chair of the Forum shared the shocking statistic that 400 people drown in the UK each year and a further 200 take their own lives on our waters. This was given further perspective when we were told that the number is higher than deaths occurring as a result of house fires or cycling accidents. George gave a passionate, inspiring talk and delivered it with real empathy for those who have been affected by water-related issues. He emphasised how valuable is a collaborative approach if the NWSF is to achieve its objective of a future without drowning. The key aim is to halve the number of drownings by 2026 through better prevention, education, targeting specific groups and reducing risks to the community.

.The launch of the strategy is undoubtedly a strong call to action – a call to make contributing to national goals a local priority.

Dr David Meddings, representing the World Health Organisation adopts a humanitarian approach to the problem and his vision is to see an NWSF plan being adopted in every country, aiming to reduce the global problem.

Finally we heard from Minister Robert Goodwill, the Minister for Transport and MP for Scarborough and Whitby. He emphasised that the NWSF has the support and financial backing of the government and he applauded the efforts of the entire organisation both individually and collectively in the work that they are doing. He told the audience that through his ministerial role, he has been able to award almost £1 million of government funds to 51 UK charities to support water rescue services in local communities.

The government scheme gives voluntary groups crucial funding for new equipment and training to support their rescue efforts on and around inland and inshore waterways.

The formalities over, there was more time to chat and meet the individuals involved. The most surreal moment for me was when I was asked by George Rawlinson whether I would like a photograph with the Minister! This ranks as something I could never imagine happening! And Shaun’s surreal moment was perhaps talking about rescues with Mr Keith Oliver OBE, Chief Coastguard of the MCA. We were indeed in eminent company.

On a more serious note, I feel blessed to have come within the radar of the RNLI, and to be given repeated opportunities to share the positive and far-reaching outcomes that have resulted from the dreadful catalyst of losing James. The impact of the constructive changes that have been made at Kingston riverside continues to echo ever wider which is something I did not anticipate at the time we completed our campaign.

I am honoured and privileged to be able to communicate with a far broader audience than would ever have been possible for me as an individual.

The RNLI and all the other organisations involved in this strategy represent an instrument for change through collaborative strength, drive, commitment and power.                                                        I applaud them all the way.

 The aim of the National Water Safety Forum Strategy is:

To reduce accidental drowning fatalities in the UK by 50% by 2026, and reduce risk amongst the highest risk populations, groups and communities.

The initial targets over the next 36 months are:

  • Every child should have the opportunity to learn to swim and receive water safety education at primary school and where required at Key Stage 3
  • Every community with water risks should have a community-level risk assessment and water safety plan
  • To better understand water-related self-harm
  • Increase awareness of everyday risks in, on and around the water
  • All recreational activity organisations should have a clear strategic risk assessment and plans that address key risks

More information can be found here:

http://nationalwatersafety.org.uk/

The NWSF strategy page and document can be viewed here: http://www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk/strategy/

Download PDF The UK Drowning Prevention Strategy 2016-2026.                                              (The Case Study relating to James is on page 14)

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