Category Archives: heart

Seeking out the good stuff

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When I am getting ready for work in the morning, I often turn on the TV in the kitchen. Although I am not really watching it, it provides a backdrop to my breakfast preparation, loading the dishwasher etc, and I get to see the news headlines so I feel a bit more informed and connected with the outside world at the start of the day.

This morning, I noticed for the first time, that as I switch on the television, a message flashes up on the screen. It says Life’s Good ­ which is not so much a message aimed directly at me as the brand motto of LG, the company which made the TV.

But I prefer to think … how lovely it is that my electronic device is sending me a daily reminder, of something which it is all too easy to forget.

In particular at this time of year, the days are still short, grey and rather wet, and it is difficult to shrug off the need to follow new resolutions and to muster enthusiasm for whatever may lie ahead. I was further reminded of this when I attended a Cygnus café meeting at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary earlier this week. The presenter was Jan Dayton, a well-known and respected healer and medium. Jan’s theme was light, colour and rainbows. Through interactive discussion and guided meditation she reminded us of ways to find lightness in our lives, recapture the colour in our existence and to seek out the positive. All these admirable attributes enable us to move forward in our lives in a calmer, better balanced way and I subscribe wholeheartedly to the ethos, whilst accepting that putting it into practice can certainly be a challenge.

We all lead such full lives. It is easy to become blind to the signposts that exist all around us. We need to take time to reconnect, reflect and bring ourselves back into the moment that is now – not yesterday, not tomorrow, but the here and now which is our current place and state of being.

After my visit to the Sanctuary, I tasked myself with listing three things that gave me lightness and enhanced my day and thought of these just before I went to sleep. As Jan said, if we fill our minds with positivity at the end of the day, surely our nights’ rest and dream state will be better than if we spend time fretting about all the things that go wrong throughout the days.

For the record, my three things were

  • seeing daffodils in flower at the sanctuary
  • the view from the sanctuary of the mist lifting over the Surrey hills
  • an unexpected visit from a friend in the afternoon

This is an easy enough practice to adopt on a daily basis, it feels achievable and worthwhile. Why not give it a try?

Another signpost for optimism greeted me when I opened my diary today, in the form of a quote by author Louise May Alcott:

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.

Rather than trying to keep resolutions, this year I am going to focus on aspirations. Resolutions feel as though they set you up for failure and the potential to be hard on yourself if you do not succeed, whereas aspirations are to be sought and achieved, fulfilled and completed, which to me represents a far more positive and attainable route.

Here’s to a motivational, aspirational and inspirational 2016!

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Worldwide Candle Lighting Sunday 13 December 7pm

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A poem for the TCF Candle-Lighting

The candle is lit; see the light

Soft at first, then glowing bright

Like a beacon in the night

Bringing you to our mind’s sight.

Clever match with tiny spark

Dispels the fears held in the dark

On memory’s journey we can embark

Recalling how you left your mark.

The flame burns strong and tall and true

Spirited; reminding us of you

How wonderfully through our lives you blew

Our pride and hope and love you drew.

And if in sadness, our tears should flow

There is comfort in the candle’s glow

Solace and healing may be slow

But gradual joy we come to know.

We breathe in light in this special space

And feel soothed as darkness is displaced

Your love held close, never to replace

It stays as dear as your smiling face.

The candle is lit; see the light shine

The flame is upright and clear and fine

A symbol of peace; across the world we align

United in loss, be it yours or mine.

Adc/December2015

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Borrowing Keys

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

Do things for others

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

 

Connect with people

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

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

 

Take care of your body

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

 

Notice the world around you

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

 

Keep learning new things

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

 

Have goals to look forward to

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

 

Find ways to bounce back

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

 

Take a positive approach

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

 

Be comfortable with who you are

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

 

Be part of something bigger

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

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

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

www.tcf.org.uk

www.cruse.org.uk

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

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Out of the Fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home should not be where bad things happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflective Practice

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By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest”. Confucius.

I recently wrote about reflection in visual terms, examining various ways in which we reflect our life experiences and how they influence the way we display ourselves to the world.

Still on the topic of reflection, some years ago, I encountered the term “reflective practice” in the workplace and I believe that this kind of introspective examination may be applied to many everyday situations – including the grieving process.   Reflective practice is beneficial in increasing self-awareness, and this in turn expands one’s knowledge in how best to move forward in life.

But what exactly is reflective practice?

In its simplest form, reflective practice is mindfully considering the ways in which you react to a particular event.   There is a great difference between casually thinking about an occurrence and applying the principles of reflective practice to it.

Reflective practice is insightful; it is very beneficial in increasing self-awareness and through focused consideration, gaining a broader set of thinking skills. Whilst it is usually taught as part of a course or in the workplace by a suitably qualified professional, there is no reason why individuals cannot use the principles of reflective practice without supervision, adapting them to their own particular needs.

There are many reflective practice models easily accessed on the net.

Reflective practice is a common training tool – for example, when I was studying complementary therapies, I had to assess my progress as I worked through the numerous treatments given to my ‘guinea pig’ case studies.

After carrying out each reflexology treatment I had to consider a number of given points, such as: how effective was I as a practitioner, were there things I could have done better, was the client entirely satisfied with the treatment etc.

Reflective practice requires conscious effort to carefully consider events and develop your own insights into them. With training and practice it can become almost second nature to analyse your actions and reactions and it is a positive thing to do.

Thus it may not be surprising that having gained some experience in reflective practice for complementary therapies, I decided to adapt and apply the principles to the grieving process. I first did this around six years after losing James.

As an exercise, over a period of time, I considered the six suggested steps in Neil Thompson’s book, People Skills, which are:

  • Read
  • Ask
  • Watch
  • Feel
  • Talk
  • Think

The main conclusion I reached after exploring the grief journey in this way is that I could not have reached the point where I am today, without considerable interaction with others. I can read, feel and think in solitude, but the other three steps- ask, watch, talk require input with, to and from others. In particular, I feel that those who are treading the same path can make the most useful contribution to the expansion of understanding through reflecting on what has happened, ie in this case, our individual losses.

I would add a seventh and final step and that is to share because I believe that by sharing, we reciprocally teach each other much that is useful to apply in the future. The greatest pleasure in a learning experience is derived from sharing it with others. When I have learned something and I impart it, I feel satisfied to have passed it on; equally I hope the recipient then does the same; thus spreading knowledge and understanding. This element of reflective practice is a pleasingly altruistic activity.

I find it helpful to document my reflective practice, even if it is only in the form of short notes. That way, when I repeat the exercise, I can look back and see where I was then, compared to where I am now. This is a satisfying exercise in the main as progress can be seen.

Any form of journal keeping or diary writing is never wasted!

Overall, elements of reflective practice – as applied to grief – allow me to consciously, steadily and calmly evaluate and analyse my responses to my loss. This is something which would be very difficult to do rationally in the early days of grief, but I feel that the fulfilment of progress through my own reflective practice is something valuable which is cumulatively gained over time.

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Which Book are You?

ARENA

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors” – C.S. Lewis

Inspiration for today’s post came from a conversation I heard when catching up with BBC   Radio 2’s GMS programme when Ruth Scott was a guest on the show.

Ruth said,                                                                                                                                               “Before we were married, my husband and I were asked what book would best represent us before we met our partners – and I replied, ‘Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’, whilst Chris’s answer was ‘Charles Dickens’ Bleak House’. Ruth couldn’t come up with an appropriate book to represent their lives today, but I asked myself: which would be my book?

My book would have to be Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’. One of the first spiritual books I read, the magical story of Santiago’s travels teaches so much about the wisdom of listening to our instincts, learning to read the signs which are there before us, and above all following our dreams and truly believing that we will ultimately achieve and arrive at our goals.

I had never encountered a book which seemed to speak to me as this one did, and it really had a life-changing effect on me at the time I read it, and beyond.

The world of literature is a wonderful place to take us out of ourselves in whatever direction we choose. It teaches, inspires, amuses, provokes thought, uplifts, encourages, relaxes, opens up new avenues of exploration, and in equal measure can disturb, perturb, or enlighten.

Reading is learning, but that is not to say it is the only way to learn. It is a huge part of our life education and how we read is important in contributing to how we deal with what life throws at us. If we read with sorrow or anger, we will feel pain and negativity.

I accept it is a blinkered viewpoint, but I choose not to read fiction that is gruesome or distressing as I dislike the imprint on my mind that is left by the imagery. However, it is not the case that I only read light and fluffy fiction – but I balance my reading between, say, a good thriller or family saga, with a factual account – perhaps an autobiography. I go to the library regularly to feed my reading appetite and my choice is usually led by what I feel will tick the boxes of a good read; it is one’s personal and individual choice which is a great part of the delight of reading. Some books leave far more impression than others and this is true of factual writing as well as fiction.

More esoteric reading such as Paulo Coelho’s ‘Manual of the Warrior of Light’ is a great way to start the day and may provide a platform for contemplation and meditation. Even a brief ten minutes spent in this way at some point in the day is helpful in processing all the ‘stuff’ with which we are constantly bombarded.

If we can find books to read that offer hope, humour, love, empathy and wisdom, then we will expand our knowledge with very little effort, and enrich our lives in a dimension that endures.

The pleasure that comes from being totally lost in an interesting story is immense. Whether our choice is poetry or prose, literary fiction or historical fact, adventure, thriller, romance…. there will always be a book waiting for us to enjoy.

There’s an exercise I do from time to time that I think of as an emotional barometer. It is very simple … in my diary I write three words to describe how I am feeling that day… if I were doing the exercise today I would write ‘calm, relaxed, grounded’. A week or so later I repeat the exercise without looking at the previous words, which I will most likely have forgotten. Then I look back and compare the words. It is surprising how often the same words crop up (in my case, I frequently write ‘blessed’) and it is a heartening exercise to carry out. I always try to record positive words rather than negative …if the words were continually negative I think I would look for some help to turn that round to a more optimistic viewpoint. In itself, reading an uplifting account has the capability to change mood and outlook. Even individual short quotations have the ability to inspire a sense of optimism.

It therefore seems appropriate for me to end with a quote from another of my favourite authors, the late Maya Angelou:

“If I could give you one thought, it would be to lift someone up. Lift a stranger up–lift her up. I would ask you, mother and father, brother and sister, lovers, mother and daughter, father and son, lift someone. The very idea of lifting someone up will lift you, as well.”


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Rightness and brightness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.tcf.org.uk

www.facebook.com/drowningsupportnetwork

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

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