Category Archives: light

Toutes Directions

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Toutes Directions

“3rd exit on roundabout

Slight left

Slight left

Turn right

Turn left

Turn right

Turn left

2nd exit on roundabout

Slight right

Turn left

Turn right

Slight left”

These directions represent a mere 4.7 miles worth of instructions from Google maps for the unknown part of a journey I made the other day, after I had exited the M25 at Junction 8. Thankfully I was able to avail myself of the use of a Satnav, in which I placed my implicit trust and I found my destination without any difficulty – which would certainly not have been the case had I been trying, on my own, to follow said instructions on a map or my phone. I suspect I would still have been driving round in circles!

This week turned out to be one of elucidation on a variety of levels. The difference between floundering around with a set of largely useless directions and being guided by the accuracy of the Satnav reflects in some respects the utterly confusing journey of grief. So many twists and turns! – backwards and forwards your emotions run in the early days. How do you find a straight road through the mire of confusion and uncertainty that exists, seemingly to thwart you and send you into blind corner after blind corner? It is only the passage of time that reveals a route which becomes largely forward-facing, although even after many years, the occasional U-turn will be experienced. And who is the Satnav that guides you through the whole process? He, or collectively they, will be made up of many navigators to show the safest and least painful way to traverse this new territory. The signposts for the grief road are many and varied. There is no right or wrong route, but in my experience it is not a linear journey from point A to point B: that would be far too simple.

I frequently refer to Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as they are recognised as a benchmark for the grieving process, but they are not as neatly packaged as one might expect, or indeed hope. And I will always challenge the notion of the final stage, acceptance, in relation to the loss of a child.

I was further reminded of grief’s progress when I collected a new pair of glasses this week. I have suddenly acquired an almost startling clarity of vision with my new specs. In fact it has led to an unusual enthusiasm for cleaning dusty corners, for with my improved visual acuity, I can see the dust that passed unnoticed before. And suddenly, it feels as though not only has everything been brought into sharp focus, but the time is right for it to be so. I am ready for the scales to fall from my eyes and to face the permanent reality of my loss; a loss which is now over ten years old.

It really has taken me this long to reach the point where I can say, “I feel comfortable living with this grief”.

I have not given up on the grief journey, nor will I, for it is not a finite thing. I am constantly seeking out new ways to explore the ability to live with and comprehend the process and that has not changed. But what is changing, is my level of vision; a vision that no longer feels clouded by the rawness of early loss, and today I feel I have sufficient strength to examine my feelings and emotions without being dragged back downwards to the blind alleys.

It would appear that all my senses are being tweaked at present. I like to listen to the radio on ‘catch up’ on a tablet device, but the sound quality is not very good A friend recommended an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker and it is a brilliant piece of kit – producing a sound that is rich, true and well-rounded. Bluetooth is a bit like magic, to my non-technical mind. How is it that there are no wires or cables and the speaker can be placed some distance from the tablet, and yet the sound comes across, clear and true?

Perhaps this is another reminder that just because we cannot see our loved ones, does not mean that they are not there, we just can’t see the connections …

So … in a week that felt as though not very much happened, suddenly my senses have been awakened in unexpected ways. I find myself being guided along new pathways, able to see more clearly and hear more acutely. Not a bad week after all!

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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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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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It’s still beating

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What do we have that still works when it is broken?

What do we have that is shattered, yet carries on behaving the same way as before?

What remains open and functioning, despite the pain of loss?

I speak of the heart, the powerhouse pump on which we all rely for every moment of our lives. And even before our lives have fully begun, our hearts beat secure in our mothers’ wombs, with tiny, fluttering movements that gradually strengthen in readiness for our arrival in the world.

Is it really any wonder then, that each time we lose a loved one we feel we have lost a portion of our own heart?

In the case of losing a child, we have been irrevocably separated from the individual for whom we would unconditionally lay down our own life.

What could cause a greater trauma to the heart, than that?

Losing a parent, spouse, sibling, peer, grandparent, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend, colleague, neighbour … all these cause appalling jolts to the heart – and yet on it beats, uncaring, oblivious to our plight, autonomously working to move the blood around our bodies to keep us going for another second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year … and so it goes.  From that dark, mad place of early loss we have to keep our hearts open despite the pain, and seek out the sanity of living in the light again.

When James died, the knowledge rushed in and thumped my heart like a physical punch; more accurately, I felt as though I had been hit in the solar plexus and all the breath had been knocked out of me. That deflated feeling stayed with me for some while, but today, nine and a half years later, I can joyously fill my lungs properly with air, and take nourishing, deep breaths.

I maintain that the bereaved lose the ability to breathe fully whilst their hardworking, stunned hearts are trying to mend.

It is true that a broken heart aches, throbs with loss, trembles with fear and skips beats with anxiety. All those things I have felt in the pain of bereavement.

The writer Ann Lamott says,

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

 Learning to live with loss is vital to any form of progress or recovery … I hesitate to use the word ‘acceptance’ as I do not believe it ever applies to child loss. I prefer to say that assimilation is key to moving forward. Each of my losses, but especially losing James, stretched the endurance of my human spirit to its limit; nothing will ever challenge me more, physically or mentally but my remarkable heart still beats steadily. That is a massive tribute to the heart’s indomitability and I should thank it for not letting me down.

We associate the heart less prosaically with its ability to maintain life than we do romantically with love, in particular with Saint Valentine. Much myth and legend surrounds this sanctified priest, who was martyred at Rome centuries ago. It is said that on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to his jailer’s daughter, signing it “from your Valentine”. One can imagine then, that this young girl lived with the heartache of loss too, for the remainder of her life.

There is nothing new in the profound insult to the heart that comes with the loss of someone beloved.

If my heart could speak, I wonder what it would say?… perhaps,

“I hurt when you hurt. I cried when you cried. I railed at the fates and despaired in the darkness.          I lay down on the earth with you and felt your pain and anguish.                                                               I shared your fear that this could defeat you, if you allowed it to.

Yet… after a time of grieving, I saw you get up and choose to walk forward. You rightly hold your head high in pride that you are surviving this; you are living with it and you are sharing it and you are bearing it and you are feeling it. You can breathe and laugh and feel love and joy and friendship again. You can rejoice in the light of the days of your life.  You are strong and powerful and resilient and I will not fail you”.

Thank you, heart.

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New year thinking

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It’s here….. Like it or not, the clock slipped us round into 2015 and a new year lies before us, bright and shiny with promise like a newly minted coin (perhaps)… though are we ever really ready for whatever triumphs and disasters the world has in store?

The last time the year’s date had a number five in it was 2005, the year James died. I cannot forget the turn of that year into 2006. Part of me did not want to relinquish the last year in which my son lived. Instead of saying, ‘he died this year’, I would have to start saying, ‘he died last year’, which only served to emphasis the finality of our loss.

The expression ‘that’s so last year’ indicates that something has passed, that it has already begun to fade into obscurity, and no bereaved person ever wants to feel like that.

Only yesterday, my friend Karen wrote of her feelings at new year; she too lost a beloved son in 2005 and told me how in the early years, when writing the date she had to constantly think of the right year, as she always wanted to default to 2005. I totally get that.

And now, time takes us towards the July anniversary that will mark a decade of living with the loss of James.

I am so grateful not to be subsumed by grief.

Grief for James no longer defines my waking moments, it does not overshadow my life to the extent that I cannot live meaningfully and happily with the remainder of my family and friends. My grief is calm and quiet these days (though not always!)

One of the greatest lessons I have learned is to treat myself with grace, to go gently and allow my emotions not to get the better of me, but to help to make me live better.

I have learned to buff off the sharp edges of my expectations when I need to. A system of chore and reward has always worked for me. If I clean the kitchen, then I can write for an hour…. Figuratively speaking that is how I work with my emotions. Analogies for this are difficult to express, but perhaps along the lines of ….Open the box of the dark side of grief; sit with it, hold it, talk with it, mourn it, put it away again ….. and the reward is to come back into the light. Make myself a cuppa and eat a cake, hell, eat two cakes! I deserve them.

So here is my resolution for 2015…. rather than dwelling on the decade of life that I can (ungrammatically) call James’ un-lived time, instead I shall hold dear and treasure the memories of the 19 years that he lived.  Then I will square my shoulders, breathe deeply and step forward into the unknown that marks ten years of living this new normal life.

Welcome, 2015!

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