Category Archives: normality

Eleventh Anniversary of Loss

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He did not say you will not be storm tossed, you will not be sore distressed, you will not be work weary. He said … you will not be overcome.
Julian of Norwich

It surprised me to learn when I referenced the above quote that Julian of Norwich was in fact a woman.  She was an early Christian mystic, who lived a virtually hermitic life and wrote much about the privations and trials of life in the 14th century.  Julian lived in a time of turmoil, but her theology was optimistic and this reflects in her writing. She promoted a message of hope and the certainty of being loved.

I was asked recently,

“How do you think your life would have differed had James not died eleven years ago?” 

That is a very difficult question to answer, but one thing of which I am sure is that I would not have crossed paths with such an extraordinary number of inspiring, courageous people over the intervening years.  Each and every one of them plays a part in contributing positively to my progress along the way.

The starting point on the road to my new normality was the initial contact that I made through various supportive organisations: The Compassionate Friends, Drowning Support Network, CRUSE Bereavement and ultimately the RNLI.

For the first three years of loss a great deal of my time and energy was focused on working with Kingston Council on our well documented, successful safety campaign.  Today, the council still has a fully functional local authority River Safety Group which ensures there remains a high level of awareness of the issues in the area and which continues to grow and evolve.

You might think that once our campaign was ended, so too would our association, but I am still in contact with Gary Walsh, Head of Neighbourhood Services and other officers employed by the Council;  we usually touch base around the anniversary time.  Gary is kind enough to keep an eye on James’ memorial plaque at the riverside and he also makes sure I am apprised of any important changes in the area with regard to river safety.

I still meet regularly and/or keep in touch with friends whom I have met through TCF from the beginning. Most memorably in 2014, my Australian friend Karen, whom I met online through the DSN in 2006, came over from Melbourne, stayed with Shaun and I and also had the opportunity to meet some of my UK TCF friends.  Karen and her husband Erik went on to meet other members of DSN elsewhere in the UK and Scotland. I also met with fellow author Jan Andersen, whom I originally connected with online several years earlier.  The connections are truly amazing. The dots are joined in the most unexpected ways and places. I have longstanding contact with DSN founder Nancy Rigg in the USA and other far flung virtual friends whom I am unlikely to meet, but who all form part of this grief recovery jigsaw.  I even have some Facebook friends who were James’ peers; I may have not met them but they have found me on social media, and it is a measure of the effect James had on those around him that they have reached out to me in this way.  Their contact is much appreciated.

Along the way there have been courses in Reiki, holistic massage, and reflexology.  I have also learned something of the value of complementary therapy and healing modalities such as spiritual healing, working with chakras, colour, meditation, sound and mandalas.  I remain indebted to all my tutors who each enriched my knowledge base in their individual ways. Eleven years ago I know I would not have been so open to anything deemed ‘alternative’ and I believe that grief opens the mind to accommodate new signposting to routes that can help in these challenging times.

I don’t think that the introspection and self-examination which is often a feature of the newly bereaved is as closed as it might first appear.  When I think back to the early days I can recall how desperate I was to find practical help and advice that would lead to my regaining some control and order to my chaotically disjointed thought processes.   The challenge of concentrating and focusing on something other than grief can help surprisingly quickly.

There is not a single area in life that is not initially adversely affected by the enormity of grieving.  Each of your senses, along with your appetite, heart, mind, body, soul and spirit, is jaded, knocked and battered to one degree or another.

Your relationships have to be redrawn overnight.

Your anxiety for the health and lifespan of everyone close to you is magnified out of all proportion.

You fear for your own health, wellbeing and sanity.

You may be numb or oversensitive; you may have periods of hysterical weeping or inappropriate laughter.

You are in a constant mode of adrenalin-rushing fight or flight.

You either cannot sleep or can’t wake up.

Your world is reduced to the all-consuming personal awfulness of your loss.

All your terms of reference disappear.

Is it any wonder you need help to normalise all these effects?  And how do you ratify the regret for what you cannot have in the future with the sorrow for what you have lost?

There are many tools in the grief toolbox.

I have an ongoing association with the Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary and have presented two grief workshops with Linda Sewell who is a fellow bereaved parent, healer, friend and mentor.

Talking of how our lives have been shaped by the loss of our sons, Linda said to me,

“It is like BC and AD.  I mean before the accident and after.  There is simply no comparison”.

I agree that there is a distinct delineation and we constantly have to work extremely hard to get through loss positively.  The early months of grief are dominated by the why  and what if questions.  It is quite exhausting (but I think inevitable) to frequently replay what has happened over and over again, trying to make some sense of it, which of course is impossible at the start.

The ultimate emergence from the dark places of grief is a slow and hard won process. It is a multi-faceted and highly individual process upon which it is impossible to pin either timescale or rules.  There are no rules when it comes to how you decide to approach your loss.  There may be similarities in experiences, but no two grief paths will be entirely parallel.

For six years I have belonged to a creative writing group which has brought confidence to my skills of expression, both written and oral. At first when I had to read out my ‘homework’ to the group, I was so nervous that I could feel my heart thumping.  As time went on and I became accustomed to reading to an audience, this anxiety lessened and it has meant that the presentations and occasional interview I have done on radio and  TV have not been quite so nerve wracking.  When you have had to face traumatic loss and all that goes with it, once your innate confidence returns, anxiety-inducing situations do not score quite so highly.

The completion and publication in 2014 of Into the Mourning Light, which told James’ story and summarised the foregoing eight years of loss, marked a seminal point along my grief journey.  I connected with so many people in the lead up to the publication, including just these few:  Jan Andersen, Shahida Rahman, Jane Turnbull, Annie Broadbent, Peter Mott, Ann Hopkins, who each played a part in pulling together the strands which eventually led to publication.  I must not omit the many contributors to the book, not only my steadfast family but also my friends and James’ friends.   Some of the contributors were drawn from those people whom I met through TCF, CRUSE and DSN, organisations which I had either not heard of or had no need of prior to James’ passing.  Their willingness to share and contribute was undoubtedly a great boost to the content of the book.

Those people who knew James throughout his life – family, colleagues, peers and friends – all recognise that I welcome mention of him and I reiterate that I am always happy to talk about him.  I am so lucky to have loyal friends who understand much about my grief  and continue to offer their unstinting support whenever it is needed.

I am now in the process of writing my second book. This is a great deal easier to tackle; after all I have done the hardest part in sharing what happened to James.  The book therefore focuses not so much on individual loss but on the insights of recent years and its content is almost entirely positive. There will be chapters on hope, love, faith, resilience, and associated topics that many people will know are dear to my heart.

I hope that it will appeal to an even broader audience than Into the Mourning Light.

It is inevitable that I will not be able to continue regularly posting to the blog during the time I am working on the book, so this is likely to be my last post for some time but I will post occasional updates.  Much of the material for the book is drawn from my last two years of blogging. Writing the blog allows me to express the emotions around processing loss and I know that I continually return to similar themes, which in themselves deserve further exploration, investigation and analysis.  Hence I plan to collate the disparate parts into a cohesive whole …

As well as nurturing my soul and spirit through the early years, other things came along to enhance my level of fitness.  I have learned throughout the process how important it is to boost endorphins through exercise.  I did some walking challenges first and came late to running in around 2011. Perhaps that period accelerated the arthritis in my hips and knees, but I do not regret that through the activity I met my ‘running friend’ Carol; with her encouragement I participated several times in Parkrun.  Following hip replacement last year I attend the gym and walk the canal towpath rather than run along it, but I am still aiming to boost the endorphins.

My association with the RNLI has been the most unexpected and public affiliation for me.  Meeting Ross Macleod, the RNLI’s Coastal Safety Manager, marked a turning point, as becoming involved with such a high profile organisation took my personal grief story far wider than I could have imagined.  I began to realise how much value there is in sharing what happened to James. In terms of prevention of future incidents my link with the Respect the Water campaign gives me deep personal satisfaction; this reflects James’ legacy at Kingston and additionally spreads the word far and wide.  The Respect the Water campaign led to my contributing to the National Water safety forum earlier this year and here too I have met remarkable people doing remarkable things.

In 2014 Jackie Roberts’ daughter Megan suffered a similar fate to James.  Jackie is already a courageous, tireless campaigner and she is now representing the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society) as their Drowning Prevention Liaison Officer.

Dawn Whittaker is Head of Fire and Rescue service in East Sussex and is also a passionate campaigner aiming to raise the profile even further in effective education and drowning prevention.

Such individuals make a lasting impression with their commitment and enthusiasm to make a difference individually and to make things better collectively.

I was very pleased to meet Andy and Jon this year, just two members of the team who volunteer at the RNLI Lifeboat station at Teddington. Their commitment to the future safety of river users through education and training is commendable.

Rather unexpectedly I was presented with a national RNLI Supporter Award by a member of the Royal family last year.  I have also been filmed for a video, met a government minister and been interviewed by two high profile TV presenters over the past few years, none of which would have happened had I not been prepared to share our personal story under the caring umbrella of the RNLI.

I can’t help but wonder what James would have made of it all!

I wonder too whether Shaun and I would have had the idea to take in lodgers if it had not been for the loss of James?  Despite visits from the family, we were rattling round in a house that was too large for us … and over the next several years we welcomed Lucy, followed by Jules and Kyle, and then Rachel until we were ready to downsize in 2012.  Each of our lodgers brought many positive elements to our lives over that time and there was laughter in our home once again.

Lucy was already a family friend and she became the catalyst for our becoming more sociable in the ensuing weeks and months through her lively, warm presence in our home.

Grief is a confidence sapper and we needed the restorative presence of other people to relearn how to be more outgoing.  Lucy started this process and when she moved on we were confident enough to advertise for lodgers whom we didn’t know; it was a rewarding experience to get acquainted with them.

I was very anxious about relocating to a new house before we moved to Knaphill in 2012.  Having lived in Addlestone for many years, and been surrounded by my family memories on a daily basis, it was strange to think we would be in an area where we did not know anybody. Geographically our move was only eight miles but it took me out of all the attachments and comfort zones that I already knew.  But I need not have worried – not least because there was a sense of bringing James with us even though he would not know our new home … one of the first things I did was to put up his photograph on the windowsill and it never felt strange that he has not lived here with us.

We quickly made friends through our local pub.  I must stress that this is another really important development that comes with being further along the grief line.  At first you are entirely closed in upon yourself and making new friends, unless they are fellow bereaved parents, seems too difficult a prospect.  Gradually you begin to feel that you are shining a welcoming light again and the response is that people are once more drawn to you.  It is a mirror effect that results from your body language, expression and general mien.

We have been very fortunate in recent years to meet with new friends whom, as they have come to know us better feel able to ask questions about James, empathise with us and not be made uncomfortable by our situation. They are not bereaved parents and never met James but they all have an understanding of trauma.

You learn that we each have our own story and it is easy to forget that other people go through ‘stuff’ too.

In return I think we have become more outgoing and appreciative of what is around us, living each day as fully as we can. I have a sense of living my days as usefully as I can manage.  As my dad used to say of life, “This is the play, not the dress rehearsal”.

My job changes in the past couple of years have brought their own challenges.  Each new place or experience, be it work or social, always brings with it the potential awkwardness of how, when and whether you are going to be sharing your story.  I have to remind myself that I do not visibly wear my grief.  Also, it is quite liberating to be in an environment where nobody knows what has happened.  I always have to weigh up whether or not it is appropriate to bring my story to the table, as it were. The feeling that I might be judged or labelled by my tragedy, forever known as ‘that poor woman who lost her son’ is not a pleasant one.  In social situations, the awkwardness created If I tell strangers what has happened, people’s inevitable shocked reaction and their ensuing questions, or the difficult silences that follow, make it an easier decision to say nothing, until or unless I am sufficiently comfortable in the environment and confident of the responses I may receive.

More recently I have started to explore the Christian faith, and I attended a local Alpha course in January.  Alpha describes itself as ‘an evangelistic course which seeks to introduce the basics of the Christian faith through a series of talks and discussions’.  The course was a revelation to me in more ways than one and I plan to take my learning further. I learned a little of how hope brings light, light brings faith, and faith brings love and strength in ways I had not hitherto imagined.  I am excited about examining further an area which I had previously believed was ‘not for me’.  I continue to learn much from others who are well versed in religious matters, particularly Sheridan Voysey whom I much admire for his particular take on faith and spirituality. Until I heard Sheridan’s talks on radio and I read his words, I did not know it was possible to put such a contemporary, sensible and logical twist on Christianity.  He is undoubtedly a faith mentor for me.

I am always looking for new, different ways to process my sadness with a productive result that preferably benefits others as well as myself.   It seems to me that learning, seeking out knowledge, the discipline of study and expanding education are some of the most helpful ways of processing grief.

I enjoy the resultant sharing of what I have learned, through the written and spoken word.

One advantage of having the distance of eleven years since James died is the renewed ability to relish happy events without feeling guilty.  There is always a sense of wistful regret that he is not here to share our happy times, but it is possible now to accept the fact of his absence in a way that sits more comfortably.

Recently we have shared in our granddaughter’s sixth and our grandson’s second birthday celebrations.  How good it felt! –  to smile and laugh and watch the children playing together, the adults sharing conversation without feeling that they need to walk on eggshells around us or fearing they might say the wrong thing.

What a delight it is to be laying down new family memories that are evidenced by the joyful images and videos from our phones and cameras. We are secure enough with our memories to know that no-one has forgotten James.  We can speak his name more freely without fear of upsetting ourselves or others. The poignancy of his absence is less painful.

I am happy for all our children and extended family that we can feel more relaxed about family conviviality these days.

I am happy that each of our children goes on with their productive lives without a constant cloud of distress hanging over them and we do not feel the need to keep going over the old ground, although we can talk about James when we want to.

We can say wistfully, “James would have loved this, James would have laughed at that …”  without distress, rather with a deep sense of underlying sadness.

At first it is almost impossible not to be conscious of the absence of that person who should be there, but isn’t.  It is unfair, unjust and untimely.

But it is what it is ….and accepting that which we cannot change is the hard part.

It is all too easy for me to imagine that people think to themselves, She must be over it by now, after all it is eleven years.

To those people, I say, I will never be over it.

I can never accept that my son died due to accident before he had a chance to live his adult life.

What I can accept however, is that James lived his allotted life span, he lived it to the full, his memory lives on in many, many minds, and I will never, ever regret having had the opportunity to be his mother for nineteen years and ten months ….

I regret for the future that he cannot have.  I hold regret on behalf of all the members of our family and friends who love and miss him, but I do not regret the past, and all the memories it holds.

Today, after eleven years of loss, I can go to Kingston riverside with a great deal less pain than in earlier years.  I will never feel happy and relaxed when I visit the area but I can take heart from seeing the enjoyment of people who are in the safer environment that reflects James’ legacy.

Today, after eleven years of loss, I can share the optimism that comes from a life full of new connections, exciting beginnings and a truly positive thought process, all of which reflect how it is possible to come out of the darkest despondency of grief into the suffused brilliance and the quiet joy of the mourning light.  The mourning light may at first appear to be soft and gentle, but once you recognise its existence is pushing aside the dark shadows of your loss, you understand that the light holds tensile strength in its glow and reflectivity.

You learn that harnessing your mourning light empowers you to cope with so much more than you ever imagined.

Today, after eleven years of loss, I can say to James,

“My son, you are missed as much as ever.  You are loved as greatly now as you were for all the days of your life.

But … I can tell you that I am thankful for all the good things that have happened, and continue to happen, as time passes.

I am thankful to be given the strength and confidence to do so much in your memory.

James. My James.

I say your name,

with joy, not regret,

with pride, not shame,

to remember, not to forget,

with laughter, not tears,

with thoughts of today, not yesterday,

with love for tomorrow and all our tomorrows”.

 

sunnyjim

 

 Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Always loved and missed.  Forever in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s that time of year again!

 

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Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.           Anne Roiphe

It’s that time of year again! At every turn the media exhort us to be festively jolly as though there is no grief, sickness, sadness, terrorism or poverty in the world. The images of tables laden with festive fare, the millions of pounds spent on long and complex advertising stories, the endless articles of how to drop a dress size and look great this festive season … all these conspire to make us feel woefully inadequate if we are not joining in. Should we have the temerity to admit that we are not actually greeting the season with gleeful anticipation we are seen as killjoys.

And where, in all the bombardment of consumerism and materialism surrounding the yuletide season, is the celebration of new life that is the true message of Christmas? That is far too thorny an issue to embark on pondering here, for this post is intended to be a useful survival guide for anyone living through loss at this time of year.

For the bereaved, we have to accept that Christmas does come. It continues to happen as do all the other days of the year. We have to learn to cope in the best ways that we can find. We have to formulate a new, acceptable festive season that we can enjoy to whatever degree we feel is right for us to celebrate without our loved ones to share it with us.

This will be our eleventh festive season without James. I hold close the memories of how much he loved Christmas. I honour his memory by creating and building upon a new version of Christmas that is celebratory in its own way and at a level which I, and those around me, feel comfortable.

I offer below my own survival tips for the holidays. These are a combination of my own observations and those I have gleaned over the past decade that I think are helpful.

Accept that this time of year is especially bad for grief triggers. The time for avoidance of grief is not the festive season, and if you can embrace the concept and meet it head on rather than trying to sideline it, this will make it easier

Have a plan. Whatever you decide to do for the festive break, make sure you plan so that you are not left at a loose end.

Hold your old traditions and create new ones. Blending the present and the past creates a new normality that works effectively as a grief break.

Don’t expect others to mention your loved ones. They will think it upsets you to speak of them by name. This quote by Elizabeth Edwards sums it up perfectly: If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died–you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.

Be kind to yourself (1). Indulge in a treat you would not normally buy and don’t feel guilty for doing so.

Be kind to yourself (2). Listen to a favourite piece of music, watch a film, go for a walk/jog/run, meditate or pray … whatever will lift your spirits. Allow yourself to take time out from the frantic festive rushing around and just be with your own thoughts.

Do something to honour your loved one’s memory, such as buying an extra Christmas tree decoration each year.

Light a candle and reflect on what the season means to you, now as opposed to before your loss. Take heart from how far you have come year on year. Give yourself permission to grieve.

Have an exit strategy for social events so that if they become too much you can leave without causing offence. For example, you can tell your hosts on arrival that it is no reflection on them if you slip away before anyone else, and you will not then feel obliged to stay longer than you wish to.

Accept that socialising is stressful and plan what you will say if you are asked about your loved ones. Rehearse beforehand. Understand that the worst thing that can happen is that you may become tearful; no-one will hold it against you.

Spend time with family and friends and reminisce; but look forward too.

Instead of making meaningless New Year’s resolutions, start a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing down a daily positive thought, deed or step that you have taken.

Finally, know that you will survive. Just as others have done, so too can you. The firsts are always hard, but in time it does become easier to accept, and even enjoy, festive socialising.

We all have the ability to find peace even in the midst of grief. Look out for the signposts that point you along the way, and follow the path that is right for you.

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Colouring In

When I think of grief, I sense that the breaking of the mourning process and the drying of tears are as inevitable as the sun’s ascent and the evaporation of the morning dew – Carmella B’Hahn

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 Jogging along by the canal the other day, I was amazed by the speed at which the shades of the morning changed from bleak monochrome greyness to early spring colour. This led my train of thought to travel along a track of reminiscence, as so often happens when I am alone and have time to reflect.

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When I was writing my book, I wanted a title that would convey many things: a sense of hope, optimism and positivity, a title which transmitted the message that the springboard of the book was loss.

The title Into the Mourning Light came into being gradually.

It was heavily influenced by one of the first people I met after James died in 2005.

Carmella B’Hahn was a pioneer of water birth in the UK and her son Benjaya was one of the first babies to be born in water in 1986. Ironically, he died in a river drowning accident when he was only five years old. Carmella turned her grieving process in a proactive and positive direction, first writing Benjaya’s Gifts, which told her son’s story and the legacy of learning from her experiences. She subsequently wrote Mourning has Broken; Learning from the Wisdom of Adversity. This book is made up of interviews and offers the reader ‘keys’ to working through and managing grief and trauma, not only loss through bereavement.

I found Carmella’s work inspiring, and in the very early days of loss I attended one of the grief workshops that she ran at the time.

Dazed and anguished as I was, the day was hugely beneficial. Here for the first time I experienced the tool of guided meditation, and found that, in a safe and nurturing environment, I could examine the profound sadness at the very core of my being in a helpful way.

The day was both emotionally draining and positively uplifting. I am sure Carmella has no idea how much that workshop in 2006 coloured my attitude to grieving and how her compassion and knowledge of the matters of living and dying moved me into a more constructive direction.

Indirectly Carmella also contributed to my growing confidence in sharing James’s story, which has ultimately led to my public speaking presentations, work with the RNLI and co-presenting workshops for bereaved parents.

‘The use of colour in healing grief’ is in fact the theme of the second workshop for bereaved parents with which I am involved, to be held on Sunday 12 April 2015. We plan to provide a positive and uplifting day for our attendees. It is enormously beneficial to share personal stories with others who truly understand, but our day will be about more than this.

My co-presenters and I all agree how vital it is to be able to re-introduce colour into our personal worlds after the loss of a child – but how do we do this? There are many directions that such therapy can take and we will examine some of them over the course of the day.

Our surroundings are an undoubted boost, as the workshop will take place at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary in Shere, Surrey (we still have a few places left; if you are interested, please get in touch either directly or through the Sanctuary website/my email)

The title of my book is only one element in the all-important visual impact of its cover and I was glad to have the opportunity to work with the publishing company’s illustrators on its appearance.

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Firstly, the distant light spreading over the landscape is intended to convey a sense of moving forwards.

There is important symbolism in the presence of the butterfly, which represents change and transformation.

The path and the staggered gateway are key in conveying an uneven passage along a route which ultimately opens out into a wider vista (new normality) and of course the sunshine above is massively important in giving a sense of new days, dawning with hope and optimism.

I like the mist clinging to the hills which gives a sense of residual connections between the ethereal realm and the pragmatism of terra firma.

Finally, the trees in leaf provide a positive framework for the entire cover. I love trees and the way they change with the seasons. To me, trees symbolise strength, nature, nurture, and the ever constant sense of hope that comes with the turning of the seasons’ wheel.

Into the Mourning Light remains my most significant grief ‘achievement’ if it can be described in such a way, and it is a large facet in the colourful emotional mosaic that represents my path, and the telling of James’s story, since July 2005.

http://www.harryedwardshealingsanctuary.org.uk/events.html

Is it all in focus?

bflies1aAs an amateur digital photographer, I enjoy creating images and recording what’s around me. This week I went to see the tropical butterfly display in the glasshouse at Wisley. This has become an annual event at the gardens and is very popular with snappers and non-snappers alike. Photographing the butterflies is something of a challenge. Firstly the humidity in the glasshouse fogs the lens; though it will eventually clear. Butterflies are notoriously camera shy and will perch on a leaf just ever so slightly beyond your camera’s point of focus… but despite this, in the event I was pleased with my shots.

But it was a butterfly I saw outside that really caught my attention. It is most unusual to see one of our native butterflies in February, but it was a sunny day and I imagine this Red Admiral may have been fooled by thoughts of a false spring.

I realised as I photographed it that images could have a place as a representation of grief. Photographers learn about depth of field – particularly in close up shots. Depth of field is the area of sharpness (from near to far) within a photograph. With modern cameras and a little knowledge of their settings, it is possible to focus on the foreground and put the background out of focus, and vice versa. Selective focus sees a chosen part of the image thrown into sharp relief against a blurred background. In theory, a lens is able to focus on only one object at a time and I wonder if grieving is so very different. The early days of loss for me were like this image:

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I well remember that every single waking moment included something of James in it. Nothing else around me held any significance. I was not interested in what was going on around me. Local, national or international happenings blurred into the background – and that was entirely right for that period of mourning.

The ideal place to be in grieving is akin to the photograph that is a ‘storytelling exposure’ – an image that shows broad depth of field. The butterfly and the surrounding background are all in reasonable focus, balanced and equal.

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Every day my son walks with me in my mind and in my heart; almost ten years on, this is not to the exclusion of all other thought and/or activity.  I have not left him behind but the size of the place he takes up has changed. I recently heard Sarah, a bereaved mother who lost her son eleven years ago say that during sessions her well-meaning grief counsellor tried to get her to ‘leave her son behind’.   Like me, Sarah feels that her son comes with her, is part of her and is with her every day. I totally agree with her when she says, “He’s not here to live his life; I am.     And I owe it to him and to myself to enjoy life”.  

Perhaps only other bereaved parents can fully understand that our children remain part of our lives and that even though their lives with us are over, they remain as part of our present and indeed our future, to enable us to balance out our grieving whilst continuing to live meaningfully. Our grief evolves over time so that is not as desperate as it was early on, and it is a great relief to arrive at this more comfortable place. From the outset, we need to hear from others that there is hope of achieving a balanced existence again.

There are times though, when I find it difficult to focus on my grieving. This is happening to me at the moment. James feels a bit remote, a bit blurred in my mind. I need to be able to call him closer, to be able to throw him into sharp relief again. Perhaps it is nature’s way of giving respite from grieving; for grief is hard, wearying work. We live it all the time, and some days or weeks are more difficult than others. It is not always possible to work out why, but perhaps the passage of time is significant here. The spells of less intense grief seem to have increased over the past few years, which I take to be a healthy sign, not a sign that I am forgetting, but that I am moving forward.

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I took one of my favourite images of James when on a visit to Brighton where he was at Uni in 2004. This is definitely a storytelling exposure … the little boy in the background reminds me of James when he was young, and James looks so happy and relaxed. It was a lovely day that I hold close in my heart.

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 So … if my grief for my son is a bit blurry, perhaps I need to take the time to look at some photos, or recall in my mind some of our time together, to bring everything back into focus and relocate it to the ‘right’ place for my day to day life.

Which Book are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Rightness and brightness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.tcf.org.uk

www.facebook.com/drowningsupportnetwork

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

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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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