Tag Archives: bereavement

The View from the Window – 12th Anniversary of Loss

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The View from the Window –  the 12th Anniversary of Loss

During class at the creative writing group I attended for some years, our tutor was fond of challenging us with ‘on the spot’ writing exercises.  One of her favourites was to give us the title The View from the Window.  The view we wrote about could be real or imaginary and we would have five minutes to write on the topic.  That doesn’t sound very long but you would be surprised how easily creativity can flow under pressure.  This technique is sometimes also known as writing from the wrist … allowing the creative side of the brain to entirely dictate what flows from the pen.  It is also a good way to release writer’s block.  Faced with an empty page or blank screen, simply looking out of the window and recording what you see is rewarding to do.  It doesn’t matter whether you end up with a piece that flows like well-ordered prose, or a prosaic list of items that you observe, the important thing is that you have allowed your mind the freedom to wander without constraint.  I am no painterly artist, but I guess it is similar to being faced with a blank canvas and applying the first strokes that will evolve into an artwork.  Confidence comes with practice.

I believe that in my own experience, the ever changing ‘view from the window’ correlates well to the way grief evolves over time.

Next week it will be twelve years since my son James died, and my window view today is substantially different from that at the beginning.

Today I can look out and see sunshine, blue skies, and the rich colours of nature.

Twelve years ago I saw only storm clouds and darkness.

In reality, too, my view from the window has substantially changed twice since James died, in the form of two house moves.  Our first move, in 2012, took us eight miles from Addlestone to Knaphill near Woking in Surrey, and it was a big leap in that I was moving out of the area where my children were born, schooled, and raised.  At the time, I wrote that I was anxious about moving to a house where James had not lived, but I need not have had concerns as I quickly understood the crucial fact that he comes everywhere with me in spirit.

It may reassure others to know that your memories do indeed move with you, wherever you are.  I also felt a certain degree of relief that I was living in an area where I was not constantly reminded of James; for example on a daily basis I saw children in the same school uniform that he wore, and they walked the pavements where he had walked; that was hard, but I didn’t necessarily appreciate so at the time.

There is an element of freedom that comes with being a bereaved parent living in a place where no-one knows your story, and as time goes on, you have a choice whether or not to share it. In early grief you may well have an irresistible urge to tell practically everyone you meet what has happened, but this tends to fade and I have definitely become more selective about the circumstances in which I share James, certainly in social situations where I may only meet people once.

Our second  move is very recent; at the end of June we transported our goods, chattels and two cats to our new home in Bampton, Devon … it is a massive change of pace and environment.  It’s an exciting, if slightly daunting, prospect to know that we have to start from scratch in getting ourselves established in a new area, but we are confident that family and friends will visit regularly and we will become involved in the local community as we get more settled in this new phase of our lives.

When we moved three weeks ago from Knaphill, the family photographs were almost the last thing I packed.  They travelled in the car with me and were one of the first items to be placed in the lounge.  This felt very important to my wellbeing.

As for leaving James behind … The couple who bought our house in Knaphill are called James and Vicky and the middle name of the seller of our new home is James.  I was also amused when our next door neighbour introduced himself … “Hello”,  he said, “I am Jim”,  I assume this to be a diminutive of James.  … thus I have complete confidence in James’s nudges, reminding us he is around!

It is now three years since the publication of Into the Mourning Light and I am still working on my second grief support book; it is coming together slowly.  However, as any writer knows, you have to be in the right frame of mind to write consistently, and planning and achieving a move are mentally draining, so the project remains a rather slow work in progress!

My involvement with the RNLI and the Respect the Water campaign continues and last week I was invited to the RNLI College in Poole to talk to a group of 45 mainly community based RNLI staff and volunteers who were attending a training course.  How different it was go to go Poole from Devon … a similar distance to before but a more scenic route, certainly.

It is hard to express how comforted I am by the RNLI’s continued support for our particular circumstances.  I have chosen to share our James in a way that brings home the ramifications of personal tragedy through accidental loss, but importantly, I am able to give hope and reassurance that life can and does get better after the kind of trauma we experienced.

This time round I called my presentation ‘Making Waves’ as I feel the RNLI certainly makes waves in its continued determination to reduce and prevent drowning tragedies.  The ongoing scenario is a positive and collaborative approach with all the other organisations that make up the National Water Safety Forum, each working hard to drive their initiatives forward.

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(Photo Credit, Nathan Williams, RNLI, May 2017)

In my own way, I am proud to be a wave maker too.  It is immensely gratifying to be able to share what I have learned over the past twelve years with audiences who can positively use some of the tools of working with grief and loss.  These apply equally to both work and personal life situations.

I couldn’t resist finishing my talk with a ‘water’ analogy … can’t get away from them! ….Every individual is contributing to the collective effect and every ripple is part of the wave that eventually breaks and spreads across the shore.

Twelve years of loss can perhaps be equated also to a twelve month turn of the calendar.

In grief terms, year one (January) looks entirely different to year twelve (December).  January is almost invariably a dark and long month, despite its being the first month of a new year.  When you are in early grief, going into a new year without your loved one is a difficult concept to assimilate.  I remember the first New Year without James felt all wrong; to be going into a year that did not have his living presence in it was a tremendous struggle.

Spring time and Easter hold a greater resonance for me today than they did twelve years ago, too.  I can reflect fondly on James’s younger years when he was involved with the Easter celebrations at school that led to the hasty last-minute creation of elaborate miniature Easter gardens and/or decorated Easter hats; Stella was always super organised with her contributions but James would invariably have a rush job on …

The Christian symbolism of Easter also reminds us that life continues, despite loss and heartache.

July remains a difficult month and always feels as though it drags.  This year it has felt very different because of our house move.  I cannot imagine a time when I will not need to place some flowers at James’s plaque at Kingston riverside on the anniversary of his passing.

We will be going to Kingston next Friday as we usually do on 28 July.

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I have always loved the colours of autumn, and the gentleness of that season soothes the spirit.  I find it a pleasantly reflective time now, though I recall well that the year James died, I was dismayed by the passage of time and wrote, “The days – and nights – dragged that summer, yet suddenly we were in late September and I had no real sense of how time had passed”.  Time passing ‘normally’ takes a while to resume.

When the turn of the year’s circle brings us round to Christmas again I can say that I have reached a point where I am able to reflect on how we have managed over the years and as I have said before, though we are without James’s physical presence, “Here we are, still standing, still living, still counting blessings for the life we now have.  The newest generation in our families give the continuum for our future and bring much joy”.

The passage of time has allowed my loss to become woven into this life’s fabric with gentle poignancy, the sweetest of memories and love without end.

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Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Loved and missed, always in our hearts

 

 

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Close Encounters of the Connected Kind

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Close Encounters of the Connected Kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do whatever I can,

wherever I am,

whenever I can,

for as long as I can,

with whatever I have,

…  to try to make a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

A Letter

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Dear Andrea

Someone suggested to me the other day that I write you a letter.  It would be a ‘good thing’, they said, and you would definitely benefit from it.  Well, I know you pretty well, and suggesting that anything is a ‘good thing’ is sufficient to put you off, but I am hoping that you will stick with me and read to the end.

This won’t be a letter of mincing words, of pussy-footing around the truth.  No, it is going to be frank and hard-hitting as words on the page sometimes need to be, to get to the nub of it all.

So, Andrea, how are you doing?

No, I don’t mean to you to look at me with a half-smile and say, “Oh, I am just fine …”

I am asking you to truly tell me, honestly, how you are doing.

You may wonder why I ask.  It is because I really want to know how you are living with your undesired status of bereaved parent.

There’s no point dressing this up, you’ll say.

At the start, you will tell me it is Hideous with a capital H.

It is unimaginably traumatic.

It is truly a living nightmare when your heart feels as though it has shattered into a million pieces, you might add.

It does not matter how your child lost his or her life, what age he or she was, what the particular circumstances were; All you want to do is wail and turn back to the clock to the time before it happened.

But you can’t.

But what you can do, and what I know you have learned as you have gone along, may surprise some people.  You have found, like others before you that if you take it one step at a time and if you hold close the belief that you will survive what is arguably the greatest loss of all; you will garner the strength and motivation to move forward and emerge a stronger, more compassionate person. 

I was pretty impressed, Andrea, with how you handled it to start with and how you have continued to handle it.

You have grown in empathy, soul and spirit in the (almost) eleven years since that truly terrible late July day.

How have you managed to do it?

From the outside looking in, I see someone who is brave and strong.  But you hate being called brave … and I know that is because you say, “No, I am not brave.  I had no choice but to get on with it after James died, trying at the same time to absorb this massive shock to the system.”

Other people’s expectations can be a pressure in themselves and I recognise that you had to learn to side-line what everyone else wanted or needed you to do in favour of what your own instinct was telling you to do.

Parenting doesn’t come with a rule book, nor does living in a world that has tilted on its axis.  How are you expected to react?

I remember you saying, a while after James died,

“I can’t walk down the high street smiling, you know.  Because, people will think, ‘There goes that woman whose son died.  What can she be smiling about?’  So you see, I have to adopt this neutral kind of mask, because it is what is expected of me.  Friends and colleagues are always on tenterhooks.  There’s a certain kind of wary look they give you in case you start crying.  So they don’t really ask you any more how you are feeling, how you are coping.  They just find it easier to pretend you are the same as you were before, very quickly after loss, and sometimes it is just simpler to take your lead from them.  But I know that made me seem cold and defensive”.

Well, you say that, but you had to protect yourself while the grief was still that sharp jagged thing digging into you all the time like a stitch.

How else could you cope?

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that you can see how ‘difficult’ you were to be around.  It is only now, too, that people are brave enough to tell you how awkward you were.  But you shouldn’t need to apologise for being in a place that is so difficult to negotiate.

One of the problems you faced when you presented your mask of neutrality to the world is that you still had to deal with the turbulent emotions.  It is all very well to pack your grief into a box and clamp it shut, but you learned the hard way that you have to take off the lid sometimes, lest the sorrow seeps out, or worse, bursts out when you least expect it.

You were ultimately quite sensible with this, and found safe, controlled way to visit and share your grief through examining it and talking about it.

You guarded against getting stuck in negativity by consciously seeking out the positives wherever you could find them.

You haven’t run out of words yet, have you?  You know you are lucky to have the gift of expression and that can be utilised to help others.  The creativity is in part fuelled by the appreciation of those who read your words and benefit from them.

The publication of Into the Mourning Light was the culmination of eight years of gathering together many helpful and uplifting words.

Now you have started work on your second book.

You tell me how much easier it is now to write of your loss, because you have told the most personal of stories and the grief has softened to a more malleable and manageable level.

Your writing is an ongoing legacy for James and it gives purpose, meaning and reason to sharing and analysing common thoughts around the issues of loss and mourning.

And your voice, well! –  how that has developed. You have always been a thinker and a talker, though never such a public one, and when opportunities arise for you to speak of your mourning path you take to them with a new confidence.

You are a grief achiever.

I know too, that all the things you do to share your mourning are in honour of your son’s memory.  Of course!  All you ever want as a parent is to be proud of your children and for them to be proud of you.  Why shouldn’t that pride still be there and grow?

I appreciate that you still have times of self doubt.  I sense that in the dark hours you long for someone to come and take that terrible pain of loss away and you weep for the future that James cannot have, all that promise of his life gone in an instant.

You have cried out at the unfairness of it, the injustice of his lost future, to faith, to spirit, to God. These days, I think, you begin to understand a little more that the elements of hope, love, light, faith and resilience are sustaining you in ways you never imagined.

In regard to how your grief has evolved, you say this,

“I had this horrible inner rage that had to be balanced out by seeking out something positive to come from my loss, despite my heartfelt longing not to have to make this constant effort, this searching all the time, for meaning and sense from what has happened.  Working through grief on my own terms is key to my being able to share how I have done it.  I am not saying my way is the best way, or the only way, just that it works for me and if it helps others along similar routes,  that is a source of joy.”

 So there you are, Andrea.   I believe this letter has turned out to be a ‘good thing’ after all, charting as it does the progress you have made and continue to make along a route which was never planned.

Keep on keeping on and I will write again soon …

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Respect the Water

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The 2016 National RNLI Respect the Water campaign launched on Thursday 09 June and it will run through until September.  Look out for the publicity in your area.

Ross Macleod, the RNLI’s Community Safety Manager who heads up the ever expanding RTW team says, Respect the Water puts drowning prevention at the heart of everything (the RNLI) do.

Paraphrasing the campaign message, it is clear to see that there is an underlying need for people to take responsibility for their actions around water.  This applies equally to inland water as well as coastal regions.

The main RTW safety messages inform people about the highest risks:

“British and Irish waters are dangerously unpredictable.  The main risks that catch people out are:  

  • Unexpected entry – around half the people who drown slip, trip or fall into the water. They don’t expect to get wet.
  • Cold water shock – triggered in water temperatures lower than 15⁰C (the average temperature of UK waters is 12⁰C) it can steal the air from your lungs and leave you helpless in seconds.
  • Rip currents and waves – rip currents can travel up to the same speed as an Olympic swimmer (4.5mph) and can pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea. Unexpected waves can quickly knock people off their feet”.

Who knew that long after our three year campaign with Kingston Council for improved safety measures at the riverside where James died, that the RNLI would pick up on my involvement following publication of Into the Mourning light?  The domino effect is quite amazing.

You might think that a little while after James’ story had been told, the dust would figuratively settle and nothing else would ensue.  But this is not the case and the opportunities for me to carry on with involvement in drowning prevention, and to talk therapeutically about the grieving process from the perspective of a bereaved parent, continue.

I am proud to be associated with Ross, and the many other RNLI individuals whom I have met since 2014.  The RNLI facilitates the sharing of our story with many more people than would otherwise be the case and this is an amazing privilege for me.

Last week I went public with a capital P.  At very short notice, I was asked by Ross to appear on the Sunrise Sky TV News programme, hosted by Eamonn Holmes.  There was a short interview about my involvement with Respect the Water.  Eamonn Holmes showed great empathy and kindness towards me and I know that my appearance on the programme was appreciated.  I was asked to talk about what happened to James, our campaign with Kingston Council and my involvement with Respect the Water.

I was glad to talk about the pint beer glasses that are used in the Respect the Water campaign.  One of the most poignant and difficult things I have done was to encapsulate what happened to James in a few lines of text for the glasses used in the Thames region two years ago. The focus groups who analyse such things pronounced the personal story to be very effective and this is gratifying.  If, through sharing what happened to James, we can make people think about the consequences of their actions and take just a little more care,how great a legacy is that …

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I am always touched by the empathy and kindness I am shown by media people and it makes it far easier to share such an emotive topic.

Sometimes there is a relief in being anonymous; that is to say that there are times when I do not wish to so obviously carry the label which all bereaved parents will recognise.  But the knowledge that so many people appreciate my efforts in whatever way, through reading my blog, or seeing my involvement with the RNLI and other organisations, goes some way towards normalising my experience.

I no longer feel guilty if I meet people and do not tell them about James straight away.  That is one great advantage of moving on in the grieving process.   This I do not consider as a sin of omission, rather it is a protective mechanism and allows me the choice of whether to tell, or not.

As I have said before, it is too late for James, but it is not too late for many other people to think what they are doing and ensure they take just that little bit more care around water.  Only then can the RNLI and the other contributing organisations of the National Water Safety Forum achieve their call to action and their ultimate aim:

To reduce accidental drowning fatalities in the UK by 50% by 2026, and reduce risk amongst the highest risk populations, groups and communities.

When you go out to enjoy the sunshine and if you are near water, whether inland or on the coast, remember the RNLI’s key message, and please, Respect The Water.

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http://rnli.org/safety/respect-the-water/Pages/Safety.aspx

http://nationalwatersafety.org.uk/

#RespectTheWater

Easter Reflection

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Touched by an Angel

 We, unaccustomed to courage

Exiles from delight

Live coiled in shells of loneliness

Until love leaves its high holy temple

and comes into our sight

To liberate us into life.

 

Love arrives

and in its train come ecstasies

Old memories of pleasure

Ancient histories of pain

Yet if we are bold,

Love strikes away the chains of fear

from our souls.

 

We are weaned from our timidity

in the flush of love’s light

We dare to be brave

and suddenly we see

That love costs all we are

And will ever be

Yet it is only love

which sets us free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter to all, when it comes!

sunnyjim

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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