Category Archives: hope

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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Fire and Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key strategies and intentions of the ESFRS Action Plan are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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”.

 

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 Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Always loved and missed.  Forever in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

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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Five Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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