Category Archives: Loss of a Teen

Close Encounters of the Connected Kind

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Close Encounters of the Connected Kind

Many will remember the 1977 science fiction film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by Steven Spielberg.  It tells the story of an ordinary man whose life changes in extraordinary ways after an encounter with an unidentified flying object.

Every parent who loses a child is catapulted from a hitherto ordinary to an extraordinary world – in the true sense of the word, and trying to acclimatise to the unwanted, unfamiliar planet of grief is a massive challenge.

Eleven years after losing James, my grief planet has become more like home.  I have learned to negotiate the terrain that at first looked like an alien, un-mapped space.  My grief Satnav has charted the blind alleys, the no through roads, the cul de sacs and finally the multi-lane highways with the occasional diversion that reflects a slipping back into distress; triggered by differing outside forces.

The storms that once blocked the routes have given way to sunshine, clouds, light breezes with the occasional shower, and many rainbows.

In Close Encounters, Richard Dreyfuss’s character feels a connection he cannot sever with the UFO. The subliminal images that plague him throughout the film remind me of how, in the early days of loss, memories play repeatedly across the mind’s eye like inescapable screensavers on an endless loop.  You can neither turn off your memories nor eliminate your shock at the fact that this person whom you love so much is no longer physically here, and what you have left is a flat line, static level of memories, like an album of images to which you cannot add.

Accepting that your life cannot have a neatly tied up ending like a fictional story or screenplay is tough.

For me, time has unfolded the gift that loss has gradually offered: it has led to numerous new connections which in turn form fresh memories that include James, albeit in a more ethereal sense.

I was recently asked to speak at a public event at the RNLI College, the organisation’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset. The event was a fish-themed fundraising evening hosted by the RNLI to launch the charity’s annual Fish Supper Campaign.

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My talks and presentations thus far have been based largely on living with bereavement and loss.  They have been tailored to groups who are either grieving or connected with the grieving.  This time, I was asked to engage with an audience of around 80 people, at a reasonably light-hearted social event.  Those attending were connected with the RNLI and also included members of the public who had purchased tickets for the advertised event.

I thought about the brief; it presented something of a challenge to ensure that I did not bring down the tone of what should be an enjoyable, relaxed evening.

I needed to tell James’s story in a way that would ultimately provide positive messages.

I decided to base my presentation around the theme of connections.  As readers of my blog know, my new connections started very soon after James died in 2005, through our work with Kingston council to institute safety measures at the riverside.  Our ultimately successful three year campaign was a gratifying legacy for James in its own right.  Through connections that I made over that time and beyond, I talked at CRUSE bereavement training days and co-presented workshops at the Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary with Linda Sewell, with whom I first connected through the bereavement organisation The Compassionate Friends. Connections with the US Based Drowning Support Network also led to more writing and friendships made across the water – and across the ether.

But it was not until 2014, with the publication of Into the Mourning Light, that my connection with the RNLI began, through the initial contact from Teddington helmsman Andy Butterfield, who read locally about my book.

He in turn connected me with RNLI Staff Guy Addington and Ross Macleod. I told James’s story for the Respect the Water campaign in 2014 and was heavily involved in the campaign that year, amongst other things in composing the text for the beer glasses supplied in local pubs and restaurants.

In 2015, I was invited by the RNLI to tell James’s story again and the copy was used as a case study in the initial strategy document for the newly formed National Water Safety Forum.  Attendance at the NWSF launch event in early 2016 led to even more new connections with Jackie Roberts (RLSS) and Dawn Whittaker (East Sussex Fire and Rescue) … of which more another time.

Thus I found I had no shortage of material and I structured my presentation around the connections I’ve made and the positive aspects of life after loss.  I illustrated the talk with slides which chronicled the key events.

At the event, the MC introduced me as an ‘Ambassador for the Respect the Water campaign’, an accolade which makes my heart swell with pride – naturally, on my son’s behalf.

When I choose to give voice to and share what has come from living with loss, it is always done from the heart and in loving memory of James.

I chose not to dwell on grief and loss per se, except for two key points which I hoped the audience would take home with them.

Firstly I asked that people do not turn away from the grieving because they ‘don’t know what to say’.  How much better it is … to say a few carefully chosen words than cross to the other side of the street in avoidance.

And I made the point that offering help should be tangible, rather than an open “let me know if there is anything I can do” which puts someone on the spot.  The newly bereaved are not good decision makers; it is as much as they can do to put one foot in front of the other.

Secondly, although it is your natural inclination to try, you should resist the urge to empathise.  It’s no use telling me that you understand how I feel because your pet was put down last week (yes that really did happen to me).  Better to say nothing at all!

I concluded my talk with a quote from Jimmy Carter, former President of the USA.  He was talking of his faith, but I paraphrased what he says and applied it to each and every person associated with the RNLI.  It also reflects my own mind set in dealing with grief:

I do whatever I can,

wherever I am,

whenever I can,

for as long as I can,

with whatever I have,

…  to try to make a difference.

Afterwards, two members of the audience came to me and thanked me personally for my words, telling me that something I said had struck a chord.  It is impossible to convey the wonderful feeling this gives me; being public in grief brings with it a vulnerability and the potential of being judged by my actions.  I am lucky that I meet largely with positive responses.

The fact is that the RNLI organisation recognises and understands connections.  Who better than the volunteers like Beth Wilkinson, who was also a guest speaker at the event, to know that life can indeed be lost in an instant? Beth spoke lightly of a day of missing her bacon sandwich because her pager kept going off, but she represents the sharp end of what this life-saving organisation actually do on a day to day basis.

None of us can never forget that tragic accidental loss of life impacts on and reverberates through many lives, whenever, however and wherever it happens.

Whatever I can do to help lessen these effects reflects my heartfelt desire to stress the importance of understanding how careful we must all be around water, however innocuous it may appear.

We must do this in order to prevent further traumatic loss to individuals, the emergency services, and ordinary families such as mine; who never wanted to be extraordinary.

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A Call to Action to Respect the Water

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My heart aches.

My heart is heavy with sadness for the losses around our coastline this summer, and particularly this week.

What can we do?

Now is not the time for the benefit of hindsight.

Now is the time to embrace foresight. 

Crucially, no-one who puts themselves unwittingly in a place of danger can have the knowledge of the extent of that danger before an accident happens.  This is why we need to take on the duty of holding much more awareness of our own frailty, our own vulnerability. We must take responsibility for our own safety in a sensible, measured, thoughtful way.  We must Respect the Water.

Don’t just read the words, Respect the Water; act on them, believe in them, live them.

Spread the word.

Share what you know about the inherent risks in water, not just at the coast, but in all leisure areas.

This is not being a killjoy; this is having a sensible and healthy Respect for the Water.

My drowning prevention support work continues under the marvellous umbrella of the collaborative organisations who are working so very hard to prevent loss of life through drowning.  I cannot praise highly enough the efforts of the RNLI, the RLSS, CFOA, CMA and all the other partners/contributing organisations who are working with the newly formed National Water Safety Forum.  And I applaud overseas organisations such as the Drowning Support Network who disseminate the information even further.

Why do you think I do this?  Why am I writing these hectoring words? Why do I feel so passionate about this issue? The primary reason is to try to spare other families the absolute awfulness and physically gut-wrenching loss that we have experienced and lived through, that of losing a much loved and wonderful young man in the summer of 2005.

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When we lose someone we love it affects an incredibly wide range of people: parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, partners, surviving children, cousins, peers, friends, teachers, employers, colleagues, tutors …. Each of us overlaps with so many other people in the tapestry of our lives.

Every individual will be affected in some way or another and have to assimilate the grief and loss associated with the death.

I am impotent in this fight except through contributing the power of my words: but my words are not empty.  They are fuelled and guided in an unerring faith that I am doing the right thing by continuing to share my grief publicly.  I totally support and applaud the preventive measures that include the raising of awareness of the dangers … particularly for young people; particularly for people in high spirits who have had a few drinks and think they are invincible.

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The RLSS also has a strong message:  Don’t drink and drown … it’s a hard hitting, tough message, but take it in.

I loathe the expression in the media when they report that someone was ‘pulled from the water’ …. But do you know what?  Those words have a huge meaning.  They mean that the water claimed that person’s life.  They mean we must Respect the Water.  We must respect its power, its unpredictability, and its strength.  We must Respect the Water’s ability to overcome us as much as we respect its ability to sustain us as in the water we drink.

Everything I write is in honour of the memory of James, whose life should not have been lost, indeed would not have been lost if only … If only …. If only …

I prefer not to dwell on retrospective regret but of course it galls me to this day, eleven years on, that James’ accident happened in an instant and in that instant, all our lives were irrevocably changed forever.

Please everyone, enjoy the sunshine this Bank Holiday and the remainder of the summer … enjoy visiting places where water is a feature, but above all, Respect the Water.

Look out for yourselves and for each other.

Be aware of the dangers … not afraid of them … but aware. Take care of yourself and those around you.  Know your limits.

Only by all of us doing so, can we reduce the incidence of these appalling accidents and personal tragedies that have a far-reaching effect on us all.

Please share the link to this post if you are minded to; thus spreading your Respect for the Water even further.  Thank you.

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Links

www.rnli.org.uk

www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Easter Reflection

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Touched by an Angel

 We, unaccustomed to courage

Exiles from delight

Live coiled in shells of loneliness

Until love leaves its high holy temple

and comes into our sight

To liberate us into life.

 

Love arrives

and in its train come ecstasies

Old memories of pleasure

Ancient histories of pain

Yet if we are bold,

Love strikes away the chains of fear

from our souls.

 

We are weaned from our timidity

in the flush of love’s light

We dare to be brave

and suddenly we see

That love costs all we are

And will ever be

Yet it is only love

which sets us free.

I was recently sent this poem, written by Maya Angelou, by someone I have never met.  She shared with me that she has experienced profound loss.  Of the poem, she wrote, “I hope you like it as it made a lot of sense to me as I finally came out of the long shadow of my husband’s death…….. the only thing that matters in the end is the love we have experienced and it does go on forever and maybe beyond …”

It is easy to forget the importance of love in our lives and how much it helps us to heal from the worst scenarios.  It seems appropriate to share the poem now, at this season of Easter.  Here we are again at the holiest and most profound time in the Faith calendar, reflecting as it does the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Love, whether personal, relational or divine, is at the root of all that is good in our lives. 

Over the course of writing this blog, I have not specifically described what happened to my son James in 2005, and the ways in which his passing spurred me into being a proactive griever and a prolific writer.   Some of my newer readers will be unfamiliar with the origins of the blog.  Writing is fundamental to me and expressing my emotions around our awful loss, with the aim of helping other people who are experiencing profound grief, is an unexpected gift born out of the tragic accident that befell James.  Completing and publishing Into the Mourning Light was just the beginning of sharing the story that continues and evolves in various forms, always fuelled by the love for, and memories of, my darling James.  The blog allows me to express personal views around loss and grief, and I hope it provides others with food for thought, a sense of the positive and optimism for the future.

Over time, bereaved parents become adept at telling the facts of the loss of their children with the minimum of emotion, so as to distress neither themselves nor their audience.  It is by far the easiest way to do it.              

I am replicating the text which appears in the newly launched strategy document of the National Water Safety Forum because it sums up the events, if not dispassionately, in a straightforward manner.

“James Clark, a happy-go-lucky 19-year-old Uni student, was out with his friends at a nightclub in Kingston-upon-Thames.  After a fun evening of socialising and drinking, in the early hours of the morning the friends left, split into two groups and went off to find taxis.  But neither group realised James wasn’t with them.  By the next afternoon, friends and family began wondering where he was. Maybe he’d stayed the night somewhere? Then, when he didn’t appear, and his mobile phone was not working, they were worried. They waited … and waited.

After three agonising days, the police arrived at the family’s door with the terrible news that James’ body had been found in the river. Among the emergency services called out was the RNLI.

Unbeknown to his friends, James had come out of the nightclub near the river Thames, stumbled in the dark and fallen into the water.

James drowned, probably as a result of cold water shock.  This was a shock in itself because he was normally a strong swimmer. It was a tragic irony that someone usually so at home in the water and a fearless swimmer should die that way.

It was a wonderfully promising life cut short. James was a lovable, popular young man studying to be a primary teacher. Suddenly he was gone. This terrible incident happened over 10 years ago in July 2005.

Almost immediately after his death, James’ mother Andrea campaigned hard with Kingston Council for barriers to be put up along that particular stretch of the Thames. Three years later they were installed. Additional safety measures in the form of better lighting and clearer delineation of the edge of the towpath were also incorporated, along with lifesaving skills training for bar and restaurant staff.

Andrea is now helping the RNLI’s Respect The Water campaign and told us: ‘It’s too late for James but not too late to make many other people think carefully about what they are doing and the inherent danger of water even to confident swimmers. The loss of James was a tragic accident, but better awareness of the dangers, particularly in the younger age group, will undoubtedly reduce the likelihood of future tragedies”.                                                      

 My own rebirth as a bereaved parent emerged from the depths of despair, but gradually that has become a wellspring of hope.  It is impossible to describe how truly dreadful were the early days of loss and I am grateful for all the support I had, both seen and unseen, that helped me through the darkest days and nights.                                                                     My focus on projects relating to water safety to prevent future tragedy helps immensely in trying to find some sense in, or divine reason for, what happened.  As time passes it encourages me that I can talk openly about grief and loss in ways that benefit others in getting a better understanding of the issues surrounding bereavement.

The coming together of life and death at Easter inspires me to look for balance between contemplative reflection and a sense of joyful hope for the future.  I have shared James’ story today in the spirit of rebirth that exemplifies Easter.

Happy Easter to all, when it comes!

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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

 dandelion

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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On reflection

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Can you tell if the image above is the right way up … or not? In fact I think the grasses in the top right hand corner are a giveaway, but I left them there intentionally to illustrate my point.

When I reflect on events over my lifetime, does the face I present to the world mirror my experiences?

I like to photograph the reflections in the canal when I am out running. Sometimes the water is so still as to produce a symmetrical mirrored effect which is quite beautiful. At other times, the raindrops cause little pools of reflection that break the surface of the water and remind me of the effect of loss, as its circles ripple out ever wider across family and friends.

The mirrored surface of the water may be broken by leaves and other debris and yet the whole remains complete. To me, this accords with the elements that contribute towards the life we live.

We are complete despite that which could have broken us.

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 At the hairdressers recently I looked up and fleetingly glimpsed my mother’s reflection in my face in the mirror. That’s a happening that many of us will recognise! – I welcome these glimpses as they feed my belief that I have gained the matriarchal knowledge that is the privilege of the mother as she ages, it becomes something not to fear or to dread. Rather, I embrace it, even though it appears along with the lines of the ageing process.

It feels to me as though the wisdom of mothers is something ancient and innate that women pass down generation on generation.

If someone holds a mirror up to me, do I see my true self or do I see the reflection that I am putting out to the world, perhaps the face that I want others to see, which express little of what is going on behind the façade?

It is very difficult to see ourselves as others see us.

Some people choose never to see themselves in the mirror; and that is fine too.

But if I do choose to see myself in the mirror that is held up to me, I see a woman who lives her experience.

I see a woman who wears some of her life on her countenance.

I see a woman who has known much joy and some sorrow.

The joys of my life outweigh the sorrows, even the greatest sorrow with which I live; the loss of my son.

The loss of my dear parents in 2001 and 2003 was significant.

The loss of my ex-husband in 2002 was significant.

But these losses do not compare with the loss of a life that ended at the ridiculously young age of 19, when James died in 2005.

Can I ever resume reflecting the face that I wore before? No, I cannot. I am not that woman any more, yet I retain my privileged roles as a mother, sister, daughter, wife. These are disparate elements which nonetheless meld together to produce the person I am.

The best reflection that I can share today is that of someone who manages her grief, who succeeds in presenting and projecting a face to the world which does not write the entire story in its expression. This is the face I wish everyone to see.

This is not the face of grief and loss, this is the face of a survivor of grief and loss. There is an important difference.

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