Category Archives: healing

Letting Go is Not the Same as Forgetting

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I don’t know why, but today feels like a day for remembering.  It’s not an anniversary, or a birthday, or a special day for any particular reason.  But I feel like I’ve been so caught up in the here and now, so busy assimilating all the new experiences of our first Spring living in the Devon countryside, that somehow my remembrance of James has slipped down the page.

How’s that for an admission?  I can almost hear a sharp intake of breath from the recently bereaved.

“What did you say?  You can’t be a very good mother.  How can you possibly forget?  How can you not be thinking of your son every waking moment?” 

Well, hang on a moment, don’t get too carried away.   Is it so wrong after nearly thirteen years, to allow myself to shrug off the mantle of grief now and then? Is it wrong not to feel guilty for doing so? Letting go is not the same as forgetting.

Perhaps it’s time for a chat with James to clarify things.

“Gee, thanks, Mum, nice of you to tell the world you’re forgetting all about me”.

“Now, I didn’t say that, did I?”

“No, but you implied it. Are you, as they say, ‘over it’?”

“Never, James.  I can never be ‘over it’.

Let me tell you how it is.

How could I forget 19, nearly twenty years of your life with us?  Those 19 years still underpin everything I see and do.  Trust me James, I don’t waste my days, and do you know why I don’t waste my days?”

“Is it because you feel you’re always having to make up for me not being there, or is that too vain?”

“Very mature observation, son.  You’ve obviously grown more sensible now that you are in your thirties!

No … I don’t feel that I have to make up for your not being here, in the same way I don’t want anyone else who knows and loves you to feel that.

But, and it is a big but, any parent who has lost a child, indeed anyone who has lost anyone close, will live differently to a new default setting.  We must value the life we have left, for none of us knows how long that may be …

After all, we have a better understanding of how life can be snatched away in an instant”.

“I think I get that mum.  Are you happy these days, would you say?”

“Yes, son, I can truly say I have attained proper happiness again.  It has taken a long time.  It has taken a lot of working through the trauma, distress, shock and pain of grief.  But the joys in life seem heightened when I allow myself to really embrace them”.

“How have you arrived at that point, mum?”

“Wow, James it has taken so many different directions to reach the place that is comfortable, it would take an age to list them all.

But most importantly, I have had to learn to trust in the renewal of optimism and positivity.

I have had to learn to have faith that things will get better.

I have learned that I can step out of the darkness, into the mourning light”.

“Do you still see things that jog you into memories of me, Mum?”

“Yes, of course I do.  Why only today, I was in a shop and I saw one of those wooden artist’s mannequins, you remember you had one?  You can pose it into different positions and draw it …Something like that takes me back instantly to remembering you.  Whatever else might change, those memory jogs certainly don’t.  And of course, some music always takes me back immediately.”

“Ok, you’re beginning to convince me”.

 “It’s simple, really.  I know that by remembering you, you are with me always.  But like I don’t need to be in a Church in order to pray, I don’t need to be remembering you every moment in obvious ways …”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if I am out walking, I will see something that makes me think of you and smile.  You know we moved to Devon last year and the road we use most frequently takes us through a place village called Bolham.  I can imagine you … you would have called it Gollum, or Bottom, just to make me laugh.  I can picture that.  Those sorts of personal memories are very special”.

“I’m glad you are happy, mum.  I’m sorry not to be there to share more stuff with you but I am pleased that you can enjoy life in a new way.  Does anyone in Devon know about me, by the way?”

“Ah, that’s an interesting question.  You will recall that at the start, I wanted to tell anybody and everybody.  These days I am more selective and I choose whom to share you with.

I’ve made a new friend, and I told her recently, because I knew she wouldn’t react negatively … some people can’t handle others’ ‘stuff’ – but she gets it.  And that’s comforting.  I will always need a variety of go-to people, and what is interesting that many of them never met you, but they all feel they know you!”

“That’s good to hear, mum.  I am glad I left my mark”.

“James, you have no idea. Sometimes on a clear night I look up to the skies and marvel at the stars.  You are one of those stars, and your light shines brightly in all those whom you left behind, with love, and optimism.

My appreciation for your life, transforms the years since your passing into something bearable.  I hold what was so precious and special in the past as treasure deep within my heart and soul.

This is my truth and certainty at today’s point in the process of living with loss. So, even if you aren’t top of my ‘to do’ list every day, rest assured you’ll never be forgotten.  Got the picture?”

“I get that Mum, thanks for checking in with me.  Talk again soon.  Love you”.

“Love you all the world, James”.

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Easter Thoughts

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We are approaching Easter; the time of year that brings the message of rebirth and regeneration which is one of divine, inborn hope.  But before the rejoicing on Easter day, comes the despairing anguish of loss.

Thinking of this, I found myself reflecting on a quote from a poem by Pablo Neruda,           “my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping but I shall go on living”.                         It put me in mind of the early phase of grieving, when you are so traumatised, so utterly shocked by loss, both physically and mentally, that you are torn between a desire to be with your lost loved one, or to carry on with life.  It is fair to say that for a while, you will be an observer of life.  You cannot fully participate in anything when the enormity of your personal tragedy subsumes everything that you try to do.  Thank God that this phase passes! – the tragedy, the enormity of your loss does not diminish, but your reaction to it does.  You cannot resurrect the person who has left you but you can lovingly remember them and they live on in your heart.

Although James is no longer physically here, I feel that even now, as we approach thirteen years since his passing, that he is in my heart, my soul, my very breath.  He walks with me, beside me and in my shadow.  I know that I will ultimately be reunited with him.  This belief comforts me.

When I wrote Into the Mourning Light four years ago, in hindsight I believe that I was only just beginning to live in the mourning light.  I now I have a better understanding of that particular place.  It has a parallel with Easter because it is a resurrection of sorts. The dawning of mourning light is only possible after the darkest of darkness …it is the obverse side to despair and its light grows bright and true.

The mourning light reflects a commitment to having the strength to embrace life again.

The mourning light represents my renewal of myself.  I am a new and different human being, necessarily changed by the loss of James.  Other losses also changed me, but none have been so profound.

I knew my son; after all we shared a body for nine months before he was born! – and I know that even now, part of him resides within me.

It is the part that is love borne from grief; the deep well of emotion engendered by mourning that is not diminished by time.

It is the part that brings me renewed joy in life.

It is the part that guides my hands to typing, writing, gardening, cooking.

It is the part that encourages me to be the best possible version of myself that I can be.

It is the part that fires my creative inspiration.

It is the part that fuels my evolving spirituality and religious beliefs.

It is the part that drives me to keep on learning, keep on exploring.

And perhaps most importantly it is the part that ensures that I engage fully with family and friends, sharing mutual love and support. 

 I know that I benefit from all the loving support that comes to me.  My inner senses such as intuition, compassion and empathy, are heightened since James died and I am sure this is due to my exploration of the many ways I can learn more about, and live with, grief.

I am very grateful to each of the many contributors who generously continue to shape my new life in the mourning light.

As Winter slowly gives way to spring, bringing a renewal of hope in the greening of the trees, whatever your belief, you can share in the joy of Easter, if only through a surfeit of chocolate!  The underlying message is one of rebirth.  It is perhaps a good time to reflect on the messages in your own life that enrich, sustain and drive you forward.

Happy Easter!

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Moving Forward with Purpose

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When I was a very small girl at my first school, I remember being in a class called Transition.  It was never fully explained why this class was so named, nor did I have any idea of what I was in transit from, or indeed to.  I think the class was probably a bridge from nursery to junior school.

But it occurs to me now, that much of adult life is spent in transition of one kind or another.

For instance, when you become a parent, you must adapt and adjust to a completely new way of life.   Probably excited, anxious and sleep deprived in equal measure, you are expected to slot into an entirely new way of living with the additional responsibility for a small, demanding human being whom is entirely dependent upon you for all his or her needs.  Casting my mind back, I remember the sense of panic I felt during the early weeks and months of transition from being a wife to becoming a mother, too.  There was no time to analyse my feelings then, it was a case of having to get on with it.  Suddenly, I had to be a fully paid up member of the adult community, and it was not the smoothest of transitions.  The transition to maturity is a long, slow process.

The loss of a child instantly throws you into a new, unwanted transition that co-exists with a sense of suspended animation.

James died in July 2005.

I was thinking about the early days of loss recently and revisited what I wrote then in Into the Mourning Light

“In the early days, weeks and months following loss, time took on a strange quality. 

The days – and nights – dragged that summer, yet suddenly we were in late September and I had no real sense of how time had passed.

One Saturday, Shaun and I went to the RHS gardens at Wisley.  This has long been a favourite place that we visit through the seasons.  I had last been there shortly before James’s death.

We followed our usual route, which took in the main avenue of summer borders – twin, large borders either side of a grassy pathway, which are always splendid in summer.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed, dismayed. “How did that happen? All the flowers have gone over.”

I was so upset to see that the buds, which I had seen shortly before James’s death, were now gone, spent and brown, dried and desiccated on their stems with the onset of early autumn. I felt cheated, deprived of my customary sense of the progression of the seasons.

“Is this how it is going to be, then?” I demanded of Shaun, “Not noticing what is around us because of what has happened to us personally?  It is awful, dreadful, unbearable…”                                    

I remember this as one of the lowest moments I experienced and it emphasised how different life would be for us now”.

Being in a state of transition can be negative, but it was also protective for me at that time.  The profound shock of the early grief state necessitates the donning of armour against the outside world.  My oblivion to the changing seasons was hardly surprising. Every day events did not impinge on my consciousness because my mind was entirely taken up with coping with grief.

If change is a wall to get over, then transition can be seen as a gate in that wall.

In grief terms, you might think to yourself, “What will it take for me to get over this?” but it is not a case of getting over; rather it is a case of passing through the gate, to the path of transition.  In tandem with this is recognition that it is time to let go of what is holding you back. It takes a while to learn that letting go of the past does not negate its existence, rather that doing so can help you along on your transitory journey.

In my case, it took me a long time to understand that constantly asking the question “Why?” brought me no nearer to the answers to my losses. Leaving behind the question, whilst it always remains unanswered, gradually brings a measure of peace.

You may think you are going through a transitory state alone, but you will be guided, supported and helped by whatever you reach out to, whether it is spiritual, emotional or physical.  Much can happen to you that is inexplicable or seemingly random, but you may learn to accept rather than question change, as you move in transition from one stage to the next.

In particular, the sorrow of grief is unique.  It forces transition when you cannot bear to stand in that darkest of dark places any longer.  You need to move forward in hope of finding an easier, lighter place to be.

Fortunately, transition is more often than not a constructive state.  Transition is not exactly transformation or metamorphosis.  It’s not the caterpillar or the butterfly; it is the chrysalis, experiencing a lengthy and lonely transit time to attain its wings. 

Transition is progression rather than regression, advancement rather than impediment.  Transition is a reorientation to the self that you already know and an orientation to the added dimensions of the self you are becoming.

Successfully completing transition means accepting a need for change, and acting upon it.

But transition’s progress can be impeded by the side swipes in life that catch you out, such as sudden loss and fast-altering circumstances.

The past year has seen great adjustment for me in my personal and professional life.  I have nominally retired from work; that is to say, I am no longer in paid employment, but I do not feel ready to say I have fully retired.

Shaun and I moved from Surrey to Devon at the end of June last year and we feel we are still undergoing a process of transition.  This is undoubtedly positive, reflecting as it does our acclimatisation to a less hectic pace of life in more scenic surroundings.  The differences in our new life are significant.  Everything is novel and altered; and settling into our new location is a transition that is gradually becoming more established.

The desired end result from transition arrives on that happy day when you can look back and say that you have moved comfortably into your new state and place. 

That day may be a while coming.

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Pleasure and Joy

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I enjoyed some simple pleasures last week.  Getting outside and walking in bluebell-clad woodland, a fascinating talk by a medical herbalist at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary and a tasty lunch shared afterwards with a friend.

A creative writing exercise commonly asks for a piece that incorporates the description of how something affects all our senses. Thus my opening sentences could achieve this – the sight of the trees and flowers, the light fragrance of the bluebells, the sound of the breeze in the trees and the taste of the soup I enjoyed for lunch (celeriac, cumin and coconut – lovely!)

But what is missing is how to convey the sense of well-being that has its roots in our innermost soul, at the very heart of us.  This is the nebulous sense of joy that does not come from external stimuli, or our daily circumstances, but is an inbuilt emotion that we can draw upon if we are lucky enough to be able to recognise, identify and embrace it.  My joy on the visit to the sanctuary came not just via the enjoyment and relaxation of the surroundings, but also from seeing my friend Alison’s pleased reaction to  her first visit there.

The bluebells in the woodland are like a reflection of the blue sky above, so pleasing to the senses that they cannot help but bring a sense of joy.  Learning about them too, is a happy and interesting experience.  Knowledge in itself often brings joyful exclamation;   “I never knew that!” you say, as you learn something new … like the facts about the native English bluebell versus the Spanish garden escaper:

“True English bluebells have stems that droop, whilst the Spanish are straight.  In the English bluebell the petal tips are curly and just visible are the stamens with white, creamy pollen, rather than the Spanish blue or pale green innards”.

I wonder what it is about this magical seeming flower that sends us into joyful ecstasies?  They are certainly a challenge to the camera lens, their particular shade of blue/mauve being a difficult colour to capture.  If they are in sunlight, they bleach out and look a pale depiction of their colourful selves.

Too little light, and they are a dull facsimile of their perfect best.

But get it right, achieve that balance of the light-just-right and the colour true and there you have it.  A joyful experience indeed!

A return to joy from the depths of grieving is a hard won and long struggle that remains a work in progress.  I am lucky to possess a degree of innate resilience, but this on its own would not have been sufficient to bring joy back into my life.

The return of joy after loss takes makes me think of approaching a building project, brick by brick.   It starts small, with the foundation level being the first instance when you recognise an awareness of positive emotion affecting how you feel.

You feel happy.

You don’t feel guilty about feeling happy.

You hold on to the feeling, drinking in the emotion that surrounds you and fold it into your heart.

You have one of those light-bulb moments.  This can be built on!

Gradually the bricks mould into something more substantial. Events which please, be they small or significant, begin to form something solid on which to lean, a structure that becomes denser and supportive so that you not only feel joy, you have the confidence and assurance to begin to give out that joy to others.

The conviction that life is getting better and growing happier again, despite what you have lost, is a source of ever strengthening joy.  It is supported by the love of those around you.  As you give out the light of your joy, so it is reflected back to you.

Joy is often bittersweet because you need to have known pain to recognise the beauty that lies within the joy which comes later.  Each of us knows this in very disparate ways.  For myself, I think that joy comes most from the knowledge that I am loved.  I believe that in my insignificance as just another human being on the planet, somewhere in the massive universe, I actually matter.

And that faith brings its own form of un-diminishable joy; it is the joy that makes me want to keep on living, keep on learning and keep on exploring life’s great adventure.  It’s an extension, an elaboration and a significantly deep addition to the first-glance pleasure of seeing a carpet of bluebells softly flowing across the forest floor.

And experiencing such moments with friends is part of the glue that holds pleasure, joy – and indeed life – together.

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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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Hug a Tree in 2017

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I bet no-one ever took me for a tree-hugger, did they?

And yet … as I reflect on the nationally trying (Election/Brexit) and loss-filled (too many to mention) year of 2016 that we are shortly to be leaving behind, I realise there is a great and simple truth to trees.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whatever human frailties we have, through all our joys and sorrows, trees stand steadfast.  Whatever havoc we may create around ourselves, the roots of trees reach further down beneath the ground and their branches stretch their fingers higher towards the sky.

They bend with the wind, they do not break.

They can withstand either scorching or freezing extremes of temperature.

The cycle of leaf, blossom, fruit, continues unabated and the sap circulates in trees’ systems like our lifeblood circulates in us, bending to the rhythm of the seasons.

Trees are life givers that can feed the world.

Trees provide fuel and shelter when we need it. 

Trees can be anything from spindly to magnificent. 

Trees can be in a copse, a coppice, a thicket, a plantation, a glade, wood, a forest, an orchard, a jungle, a weald; they can stand proudly alone or be in massed company.

The cycle of the deciduous tree’s life repeated year on year has a structure that reflects the human condition from birth to passing.  In spring, the sap rises.  The tree begins to green up. The leaves and blooms unfurl, fresh and new.  The tree’s energy is growing and strong.  In summer, the tree stands tall and proud in its gown of green, embracing the warmth of the sunshine.  The autumn brings mellow colour and as the sap falls back to the heart of the tree, the leaves fall gently away, leaving the tree stark but strong against the ravages of winter.

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It may look as though the tree is dormant, yet deep within its kernel heart it absorbs the sugar of the seasons, creating a rich residue, ready to come to life again in the spring.

We repeat such patterns many times throughout the living of our days.

When a tree dies, its life is revealed in the whorls of its bark and the rings of its trunk.  Every circle tells a story, each notch on the bark is an event in the life of the tree.

Some trees are really special.  When you stand beneath the shelter of their branches you feel they can help you to safely let go of troubled, chaotic thoughts.  They nurture and support in silent empathy.  They are living, breathing beings.

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Two trees either side of a path can reach out like arms across a sacred space, drawing you to their embrace.  It feels as though they are acting as a channel that reaches high above the planet to draw down comfort, particularly at times of trouble, loss and grief.  Twice in my life I have experienced an amazing release of emotion, standing in this ancient energy and letting the trees take my sadness and absorb it into their primordial wisdom, leaving me comforted and calm. 

There is an undeniable truth to trees.  You know where you are with trees; they will never deceive.  Their wisdom is pure.

Listen to the trees.  They whisper in the summer breeze that rustles their leaves, and yet they whistle and howl through winter gales. Their moods are many and capricious, just like ours.

Do the trees mourn?  What can be sadder than a dripping, dark yew in the graveyard?  Yes, the trees can mourn.  But the beauty of trees in bloom in the early spring is a matter for deep joy.

Trees care not for politics or religion, though they are God-given.  The Tree of Life represents the first true human temptation; the mighty oak tree symbolises the stolid strength of faith.

Collectively, trees represent strength, resilience and solidarity.

A stand of trees high on a hill looks glorious.

A single small sapling reaches for the sky with optimism and conviction that it will one day be great and strong.

You may feel that you are separate from the trees, that they mean nothing to you. But we are all connected.                                                                                                                                             C S Lewis said, “Human beings look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different. For there was a time when every man was part of his mother, and (earlier still) part of his father as well, and when they were part of his grandparents. If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing–rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.”

I send love and good wishes to everyone for a peaceful and healthy 2017. 

Stay connected with each other, value your friends and your family … and if you feel so moved, go out and hug a tree …

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.