Category Archives: optimism

Look around, look up and look forward

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There are a number of traffic diversions in place locally at the moment, the main one being due to planned major works in the centre of town.  Two other unanticipated events (a burst water main and a sudden sinkhole) have temporarily closed local roads.  This is inevitably causing havoc and adding significantly to overall journey times.  Although I know our area quite well, I have been surprised to find that the diversion routes quickly take me into unfamiliar territory.

There is a need to trust in each diversion route and know that it will eventually get me to my destination.

This is an example of faith in action that I am happy to embrace.  It reminds me that at times, you have to be able to trust in that which you cannot see to achieve whatever you have set out to do.

During the week I thought I would try to figure out my own route to work avoiding the worst of the traffic.  But by turning left instead of right at an unfamiliar junction, I soon found myself going in the wrong direction.  I felt rather silly; how could I get lost on my way to work?!  – but I trusted my internal Satnav’s sense of direction, found the right road and was back on track again.

Once again, I was guided by something I could not see but I knew was there.

Tying in with this, I recently heard an inspirational talk on ‘looking around, looking up and looking forward’.  The premise of this was to show how, even when we think we are entirely alone, if we seek and ask for help, we will be aided in times of hardship, and  also rewarded in ways that we cannot anticipate.

As an example of looking forward, if you are running a marathon, your aim is to reach the finishing line.  As you approach the final straight you will see and hear all the spectators urging you on, willing you to do your very best to get to the end, within the time parameters that you are likely to have set yourself.  How encouraging they are!

But try to look beyond the finishing line.  Think about how much has been contributed to your taking part in that race in the first place.  You will have been driven by your own ambition and commitment to training, but generally speaking, no-one enters a marathon purely for themselves.  You will have been inspired by something or someone – to run with perseverance, to look forward and be uplifted and supported from beyond the finishing line.

Allowing yourself to have both vision and trust means that you can tap into what is ‘out there’ if you look for it.

Returning to the diversion theme, I had a horrible situation a few days ago when I was driving home in Shaun’s car, which is larger than my own.  Traffic was diverted away from a roundabout I would usually cross, sending me along a relatively narrow road.  As I approached a bend, I encountered a large articulated lorry coming the other way.  We both slowed down our vehicles, but as the driver tried to bring the lorry past me, we realised that the narrowest point and angle of the bend would not allow his long vehicle to pass.  I tried to pull up onto the verge on the left, but this was made difficult by the presence of bollards and there was not enough space to manoeuvre.

The lorry inched forward and the angle meant it was getting closer and closer to my car until it was almost touching my wing mirror.

I felt entirely trapped, unable to go forward or backwards.

We had reached an impasse.

I felt as though I was in the eye of a storm as other cars backed up in both directions, waiting for someone to move.  The lead car from the other direction was behind the lorry and unable to see the situation that existed on the bend.

I looked upwards to the heavens for inspiration. 

I looked all around me for a way round the problem, but found nothing. 

I tried to visualise looking forward beyond the finish line.

Strangely, I felt calm enough; I was not panicking but could not imagine how the situation could be resolved.  I opened the car window and called out,

“Can someone please help me?  I just don’t know what to do”.

Nothing happened.  I could hear vehicle horns as people became impatient, but I could not do anything.  I sat and waited for something … anything. … to happen.

A few moments later a cyclist came into view from the opposite direction.  He quickly summed up what had happened and called out to me,

“Don’t worry, I will guide you forward”.  I was so relieved!

I kept my eyes firmly on the cyclist, watching and trusting his judgement as he assessed the width of the space available on either side of the car, and he waved me forward.  Eventually, (although it felt like ages, it was probably only a minute or so), my car was clear of the lorry.  I thanked my Good Samaritan, a charming gentleman, whom had appeared just at the right time.  He agreed with me that the lorry driver should have stopped before the bend to let my car pass.  This would have entirely avoided the incident.

I drove off, shaken by the unpleasantly close shave but so grateful for the manifestation of this particular guardian angel, just at the right time in the right place, and in answer to my prayer for help.

Perhaps diversions that result in proof of the power of looking around, upwards and forwards, are not so bad, after all.

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Eleventh Anniversary of Loss

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

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

I was asked recently,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your relationships have to be redrawn overnight.

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

You fear for your own health, wellbeing and sanity.

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

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

You either cannot sleep or can’t wake up.

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

All your terms of reference disappear.

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

There are many tools in the grief toolbox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James. My James.

I say your name,

with joy, not regret,

with pride, not shame,

to remember, not to forget,

with laughter, not tears,

with thoughts of today, not yesterday,

with love for tomorrow and all our tomorrows”.

 

sunnyjim

 

 Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Always loved and missed.  Forever in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

Permission to Grieve

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I recently gave an informal talk on the topic of healing grief at a Cygnus Community Café event at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary in Shere, Surrey.  The Sanctuary is a favourite place of spiritual nourishment for me; the environment is tranquil and welcoming.  The whole feel of the place is geared towards one’s temporary removal from all the cares and worries of everyday life.  It is always an uplifting place to visit.

After my initial talk when I described my own strategies for dealing with the issues surrounding grief and loss, we became a more interactive group with consideration of questions that were put forward for discussion.

One of the audience, who is a healer at the Sanctuary, said,

In my healing sessions, I often come across people who are bereaved and grieving.  They are trying to carry on as normally as possible, and they will tell me they are struggling with their losses.  Do you think it is a good idea to tell them that they can give themselves permission to grieve?”

Needing permission to grieve may seem an odd concept, but in fact it makes sense.

When we are grieving, we become very adept at hiding it from the outside world.  To a certain extent, we need to do this to be able to function usefully in the workplace and in our activities of daily life.  After all, we are not much use to ourselves or anyone else if we are constantly dissolving into tears and generally being unable to get through the days.           But …. There is an inherent danger in being too buttoned up in the face we show to the world.  If we are not careful we can lose the ability to feel the emotions that we need to feel in order to move forward in our grief.  Someone once said to me that we are meant to feel pain when we grieve, otherwise it would not hold meaning. Harsh, but true.

So, to return to the original question, if someone said to me, “OK Andrea, I give you permission to grieve.  Go off and do it …”  What would I do?

I think I would be allowing myself some time to sit quietly and reflect on the years of loss, to think about James and remember him with the joy that he brought … but also to recall the agony of the early days which seemed utterly insurmountable at the time.  By revisiting the darkest of places it is possible to simultaneously look back at the monochrome days and look forward to the bright colourful future.  I have learned to do this in a  controlled way through learning visualisation and meditation techniques which are very helpful. Giving myself permission to grieve also means that I can allow myself to cry, though this happens less these days. Sometimes to go off into a quiet space and have a good weep is a very therapeutic way to move forward in grieving.

Naturally, the urge for me would be to share … I feel very strongly about expressing grief through writing and talking about it, as openly as possible.

Stoicism can be your worst enemy.  When you are grieving and feeling like you want to grieve actively, involving others in your grief rather than holding it to yourself, you need people who will empathise with you, tolerate your pain themselves without flinching, and just be present in the moment with you. That really is all you need.

Grief is a jumble, it is so many things – a tangled ball of wool, an onion with many layers, a set of stairs, a big black hole, a spiral, a rock, a mountain … the list is endless and the path along it is individual to each person who is coping with his or her loss.  It is not worth your while to try to defer or deflect it, which will simply prolong the agony.  You have to accept that the unpredictability of grief and its non-linear journey of recovery will be strewn with obstacles, but with will, determination and a degree of stubbornness they can be overcome. Eventually.

This week I read some truly insightful words by Thomas Cohen, who was married to the late Peaches Geldof.  He said,

“The thing that really had the greatest impact on me and the entire situation was the realisation that if you aren’t going to love yourself, if you’re not going to take care of yourself, if you’re not going to take yourself to every single place you need to go in order to heal yourself, then you’re not going to get through the grieving process”.                                                                                                           What a brilliant example of someone who has given himself permission to grieve.

Links:  http://www.harryedwardshealingsanctuary.org    http://www.cygnusreview.com

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Five Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For the New Year

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As 2015 slips inexorably towards the uncharted territory of a new year, it is difficult not to be caught up in the endless reviews of this year, resolutions for the next twelve months and all the hype that accompanies what is really just another day. But … there is something about moving into a new year that can renew your sense of optimism and hope, although this will undoubtedly be dimmed if you have recently lost a loved one.

If that is the case, then you will find that passing from an old year into a new year is incredibly difficult as you are moving into a new time and space that lacks the presence of the person or people you have lost.

It is a time which underlines loss and that can be particularly tough.

I wrote this poem as we approached 2006, the first New Year after losing James, when the raw loss was felt so acutely, and his presence in my thoughts at that time brought me great comfort.

Wishing everyone a healthy and peaceful 2016.

 

Step bravely forward into the New Year

Shrug off grief’s grey mantle of fear

Know that I shadow your every tread

Helping you to face whatever lies ahead

 

Hovering at the periphery of your sight

I am just out of view, a star in the dark night

Feel my breath in the sigh of the breeze

Learn that I am your mind’s true ease

 

Let sunlight brush the clouds from your vision

Place my thoughts into your daily decisions

Open the box of all our sweet memories

Listen to others when they share my stories

 

As you forge a path through complex days

Believe that I grow, in a safe, free place

My life is no more on this earth plane

Yet my soul lives on, to ease your pain.

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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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A decade achieved

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‘Our children do not die. They live on in our hearts with wingbeats of memory’.

Ten years ago, on 28 July 2005, our world changed forever. The greatest fear of any parent became our reality. James went out for the evening and he never returned. He was not found for three days, after which time he was recovered from the river Thames at Kingston, his death a tragic accident.

I cannot easily bring myself to write the words his body was recovered because that would not convey the loss of the wonderful, individual being who was James: that handsome, bright, funny, vibrant, cheeky, boy; on the threshold of manhood, his future so full of promise. He was snatched from his life and our lives, in an instant.

And here we are. Suddenly it seems, the calendar tells us we are ten years on.

Battered, bruised but still standing.

Over the past decade, I have amassed an amazingly useful amount of first-hand knowledge of grief and the grieving process, primarily as it applies to my own situation.

Certain aspects of grief are common to all loss, but other features are entirely specific to child loss.

I have become a reluctant expert, first learning how to deal with my own feelings and then gradually realising an appreciation of how my loss affects others in the wider circle. Sharing my thoughts and emotions in writing is cathartic. It helps me to break down the enormity of loss into more palatable bite-size pieces.

I recently watched a clip on Youtube called “Put the Glass down: How long to hold on to grudges and trauma”

Paraphrased, it goes something like this:

A professor holds up a glass half full of water to his students, asking,

“How much does this weigh?”

The students guess at the weight. Prof says,

“Really my question is not so much how much it weighs, but what would happen if I held it up for some minutes … or an hour … or a day?”

The students’ reply was that sooner or later, he would have arm ache and muscle stress and the pain would become intolerable.

“Does the weight of the glass change?” asked the professor.

“No”, came the answer

“So, what causes the arm ache and muscle stress? What should I do to come out of pain?”

The answer is, of course, to put the glass down.

You need to put your ‘glass of grief’ down for relief. I have learned that both holding and putting down are possible, individually and concurrently. It’s a real mix.

The toxicity of holding on to negative emotions which are detrimental to the psyche is, I think, an important feature to consider. The longer you hold on to the worst aspects of loss, the greater is your pain, and you can find yourself paralysed by it. Mulling over of the worst aspects of loss and learning the techniques that allow you to put them down at will, can help bring perspective to the process.

For me, the only way to minimise the destructive elements of the trauma and grief I have experienced is to gradually examine and work through them at my own pace and in my own way. The learning curve is steep and signposts are helpful, but it is your own strength and resilience that win through in the end.

I still wish I could take away the pain of the loss of James, not just from myself but from the rest of the family, his friends, and all those people who knew him. Grief is indeed a heavy burden and it is a long process in the lightening. We all carry it in different ways and wish we could turn the clock back. The only aspect of acceptance in grief that I embrace is that it is, sadly, impossible to undo the events of the past.

Where do I stand at the close of ten years of loss? I can truthfully say I have integrated the loss of James into my life to a comfortable level, where I am able to stand back and look down the years with the satisfaction of knowing I have achieved progress along the way.

If you are analytical by nature, as I am, you may well find yourself challenging the commonly laid down grief stages which tend to favour a linear, progressive approach. These do not, for me, reflect the two steps forward, one back nature of my path as I am living it. Recently, my attention has been drawn to the 1995 paper by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut , called The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement. This theorises that if you are working through your grief, ie tackling it head on, you must also give yourself time off from the process in order to give yourself a break and to be able to move forward to the next stage in the assimilation procedure. This type of theorising resonates well with me. I tend to work on a chore and reward system, in any case. For example, my reward after the chore of cleaning the kitchen will be to watch some mindless TV, read a book or check my emails.

I think a chore and reward system can equally be applied to grieving.

The inevitable chore of opening the box of your difficult emotions, taking them out, examining them, putting them away again, will necessarily leave you feeling tired, sad and empty. So reward yourself with some leisure time; go for a run, bake a cake, do something creative; whatever makes you feel positive and happy again. This cycle undoubtedly becomes easier with repetition. Embracing a positive mindset, knowing that at the end of the task you will be doing something to make yourself feel better, seems to work well psychologically.

I like too the discussion of Stroebe and Schut around two types of stressors associated with grieving: loss orientation and restoration orientation. Both types require coping mechanisms, and breaks from these are also important.

Stroebe and Schut define loss orientation as emotion-focussed coping and processing loss, whilst restoration-oriented stressors relate more to having to compensate for the person who is no longer here. This may be more relevant to losing a spouse/sibling than a child, I feel, because the focus is on external adjustments following loss (for example, if your husband always looked after the household accounts, now you have to learn to do so). It is still an important concept to consider when thinking about what constitutes progress in your grief. Losing a child puts a burden on a parent to somehow be more than they were before. There is a need to fill the child-shaped hole with something that comes from within. This is a difficult concept. But I often feel I am trying hard to compensate for James no longer being here – and that is achieved by pushing myself further than I would have done before, right across the board. Time has become infinitely more precious, and I do not like to waste my days. I feel a need to keep driving myself forward as a coping mechanism.

There is no doubt that Stroebe and Schut have it right when they suggest we oscillate between confrontation and avoidance in processing loss. It is vital do to whichever feels right at the time. Avoidance or diversion gives the mind necessary breaks from the hard work and application that is required in grieving. I have noticed that most of the bereaved parents I have met are invariably very busy people, and in part this is perhaps our desire to fill our time with compensatory items to divert us from pain. This is not to deride our busyness, which is also very useful and productive.

All this is a somewhat dry theoretical discussion on what is actually my day to day living process. What has it to do with my traversing the rocky road of grief for the loss of James?

I think I can best illustrate my progress over the past decade by singling out a top ten of useful things I have learned inasmuch as they relate generally and also more specifically to my own situation. I hope others are able to apply them and be helped by them, in their own individual situations in bereavement.

Gathering a support network around you really helps

You may not be a ‘group person’ or a joiner – but there is help for bereaved parents (and of course other bereaved people). You can do as much or as little as you like in terms of seeking out support. The isolation of early grief leaves you fragile, vulnerable and lacking in confidence and often the first step in contacting a group is very hard, but ultimately worthwhile. You may find that sharing your experiences or being aware of others going through similar circumstances is immensely helpful. You may find newfound confidence – not in comparing your grief, which should never be competitive, but realising that you are coping in the best way possible for yourself. Grief is necessarily individual and self-absorbed, particularly in the early days for you are compelled to constantly review how you are coping, what you are managing, etc, etc. Your family and friends are naturally your main support but it is sometimes difficult to share your grief path with them and this is where outside support can be useful. You can feel that you are adding to the burden of other family members’ sense of loss by sharing your own and this heaps on the guilt that you may feel. It is difficult not to feel you have to be strong for everyone else around you, but initially at least, you must centre in on yourself to cope with the maelstrom of emotion to which you have to adjust. You are not only coping with new feelings but also likely to be dealing with the practicalities and officialdom surrounding a loss, which is daunting in itself. For myself, joining The Compassionate Friends and the Drowning Support Network provided a forum where I found empathy, understanding and support in equal measures. It is entirely true to say that no one else can truly understand what you are going through unless they have suffered similar loss. Knowing that others had gone through all the protocols and processes involved in the aftermath helped a little in minimising the hurdles to overcome.

  • Find faith that it will get better

In early grief, you will feel cast adrift in new, dark world that does not come with a map. The darkness of the pit, black hole, cave, is absolute at first. An immense amount of personal strength and resilience is required for you to begin to approach the chinks of light which gradually appear. Embrace them.

I vividly remember contacting my TCF personal mentor very early on and asking him,

“Will I always feel as dreadful as this?” and his reply

“No, Andrea, you will gradually feel better as time passes”. I envied him his stance of being 12 years along the line at the time, and tried to believe his words, indeed I clung to them to give me hope for the future. At the beginning, I often sought out examples of people who were moving forward and coping with grief and loss to underline the affirmation that it was possible to do so. Reading and writing can be very helpful here and sharing my own expressed thoughts in writing to benefit others continues to help me along my own journey.

  • Learn to accept offers of help gracefully

People really want to help in your loss and practical help in the form of cooking and household chores in the early days should be accepted without guilt, for you are allowing others to feel that they are helping you. Even the simple tasks like shopping are very difficult early on, especially as you are likely to bump into people you know in local stores. Although there is the option to shop on-line these days, the concentration required for this is likely to be beyond you at first. I found I drove miles to avoid my local shops for fear of having to face people whom I knew and who would invariably ask me about James.

My best help has always come from those who are prepared to listen if I wish to talk or sit quietly if I do not, who do not stand in judgement of ‘where I am’ in my grief, being those who empathise without trying to solve my problems (which of course they cannot). The best friend is one who sits with you regardless and accepts your febrile, inconsistent state without questioning it.

  • Accept that other people do not understand

You may be surprised by the insensitivity you encounter around you. It is necessary to learn ways not to let this upset you. People really do not mean it but they cannot help trying to accommodate your loss by putting themselves in your shoes and offering reassurances, which always start with “I know how you feel because …” When clearly, they do not. Worse than that are the times when people assume a stricken expression and say, “Oh, you are SO brave! I am sure I would just fall to pieces” or similar, implying that you have some magical strength. This makes it very difficult to behave naturally with the other person and you find you need to assume a mask to conceal the feelings that you may have. Bravery is not something I have ever felt in terms of my loss.

I recall a conversation I was privy to not long after James died. One woman said, “Oh, I can’t wait for my kids to leave home, they are driving me mad. It wouldn’t bother me if I never saw them again!” I am afraid the nasty me wanted to say “Be careful what you wish for…” but I managed not to. There is a great deal of allowance-making for others that comes with the territory of grief – and it is tiring. I resented this greatly in the early days, but I am a little more sensitive now.

  • Embrace new friendships; they are gifts

Early in your loss, your new friends are likely to be other bereaved people. These friendships are immensely special. They will endure and move beyond the initial awfulness which brought you together. But interestingly, I have found I have made other friendships, meeting people who are not bereaved parents but with whom I relate, and who have an understanding of loss because they themselves have experienced trauma of some kind. It is always difficult to know when to introduce the topic of loss to a new relationship because it is necessarily difficult and it is impossible to know how people will react. There is a certain level of stigmatisation that comes with the territory of being bereaved.

I have learned over the years that it is not always necessary to reveal my loss to others. At first, it feels as though it must be visible, that I have been marked in some way by my experience, but these days I realise this is not the case.

On holidays, for example, it can be a time of freedom to meet people and have discussions about children and family without revealing personal loss. I used to feel tremendously guilty about doing this but now I know it is a protective mechanism that is good for my emotional health.

I don’t need to tell everyone I meet that my son died. That is not to say I am denying his existence in any way; rather I am selective about the people with whom I share my experience.

My realisation over recent years has been quite an eye opener – that everyone has a story, and it may be not as bad or worse than mine, but we all have life events, stresses, traumas in which we can relate and help each other. I have met a great many people since losing James; paths have been crossed and events have happened which would not otherwise have occurred. I see all these new aspects to my life as gifts and welcome them as they happen; rather than constantly reverting to the reason why they happen.

  • Don’t dismiss counselling

You may feel that counselling is not for you, and as a lay person it is difficult to judge how necessary it is in the grieving process. But being able to talk in a safe, supportive environment and express sentiments you may not be able to share with your nearest and dearest, to a listener who is trained to listen, can be very helpful. I can only speak from my own experience which was very positive. Informal counselling in the form of conversations with others going through loss is also immensely valuable. Anything that normalises your grieving process can only be good and healthy. My favourite form of informal counselling is to go for a long walk with another friend and talk out the emotions that need to be shared.

  • Populate your own toolbox with positive elements

Amassing helpful items in your toolbox is a pleasurable task. You can choose whatever helps in your own particular circumstances and have a variety of different tools for varying situations. Your memories and the triggers for them are the most valuable things to treasure. Your immediate reaction to loss may be to get rid of reminders, clear rooms and wardrobes as soon as possible. But be careful! – once they are gone, you cannot recover the items. It is very diificult to face tangible reminders at first, and my advice would be to put them out of sight for the time being until they can be approached.

My toolbox began and indeed continues to have as its main feature, my love of words and writing. Even if you are not a writer, keeping a journal is very helpful. In particular, the new griever’s memory is notoriously poor and looking back on a journal is very helpful to demonstrate progress. I also populate my toolbox with the various projects in which I get involved, and it also contains my leisure time pleasures – exercise, spiritual nourishment, photography and so on.

  • Appreciate the world around you and look to the light

The isolating nature of early grief means that you are so focussed on your self and your emotions that you miss what is happening around you. Although it is difficult when you are struggling to get through each day, it is important to plan future events to have something to look forward to. This brings huge guilt to begin with. You may ask yourself, “What right do I have to feel happy/enjoy myself?” but in fact it is far healthier and better to push yourself outside your comfort zone and learn to enjoy life again. have always found the cycle of the seasons comforting and to go out for a walk and literally ‘take time to smell the roses’ is very nourishing to the soul. Planning time away gives a sense of moving forward. Going away brings a measure of relief from the day to day grind of grieving. It can, however, be difficult to come home and takes time to restore a normal response in this regard. I used to dread coming home because walking in through the front door underlined the absence of James. But now I hold close his memories and imagine how pleased he would be that we are travelling and enjoying new experiences in different parts of the world. It has taken time to re-integrate ourselves into a social life with a degree of confidence. Equally, it has taken time for family and friends to realise that we are at ease with celebrations.   It is a difficult concept to see your son’s peers moving forward into adult, settling down, having children – but how much worse to be excluded from their joys and triumphs for fear that you will be upset. People tend to tiptoe around the bereaved socially and this is something which I feel strongly should change with taking the taboo out of the subject – when appropriate.

  • Accept that the process of consolidating grief is an individual journey

No single person can compare their grief journey to another’s. There are some common denominators, of course, but the sense of grief and loss you feel cannot be defined and comprehended except by yourself. The journey is long, hard and tortuous. But ultimately there is an element of satisfaction in realising that you may well in fact have experienced personal growth, strength and confidence arising from the travails of your loss. Personally I believe that all that I have learned about grief and loss over the past ten years, though I would never have chosen to embark on this particular learning curve, has made me a better-rounded and more compassionate person.

  • Appreciate that full acceptance may never come

As a parent, I invariably ask the question: how is it possible to fully accept the loss of a child? However well you follow the tenets of the grieving process do you really accept the loss? You may (eventually) be able to accept the loss of your own parents, a sibling or peer, but there is no avoiding the fact that your children are not meant to die before you.

I prefer to use the words assimilation and integration to reflect my level of acceptance of my loss.

By integrating my loss, I can live meaningfully again.

I can fulfil my valued roles as a wife, mother, stepmother and grand-parent with joy tempered with poignancy that does not overwhelm or detract from our future happiness.

I can take up the baton that James should have carried, in the time I have left, and carry it for him.

I am gratified to be able to be involved in workshops, sharing grief resources and helping raise water safety awareness with bereavement organisations and the RNLI, with a remit that reflects my desire to share the positive aspects of grief work.

I feel thankful for the nineteen years that I was blessed to know my son.

I hope those close to me see that my loss lives alongside me in its rightful place rather than the loss defining who I am.

I feel a huge regret for all the years of life that are denied to James but I no longer mourn his loss in the way I did at the beginning. That level of traumatic distress becomes ultimately futile and damaging to the future not just for myself, but for those around me.

My remit remains to deal with my grief as positively and usefully as possible. I had no idea I would learn so much from it, nor be able to share it in helpful ways, and for these gifts in loss I am grateful.

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