Tag Archives: drowning

Fire and Water

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When you are a young parent you are very aware of school years and ages.  It’s surprising how fast this fades and at the meeting I attended at the East Sussex Fire and Rescue HQ this week, I had to ask the age of children in years five and six, because I had forgotten. (It’s age 9-11, by the way).

In loss terms, this being the twelfth year since we lost James, I am a Year Twelve.  That equates to the age of 16/17; to all intents and purposes an age of discovery, development and burgeoning maturity.

Sitting in that meeting room in Eastbourne, I found myself wondering what, if I was truly a Year Twelve, I would see today that is different from what James saw when he himself was in Year Twelve, with regards to safety generally, and water safety specifically.

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The word cloud above, generated entirely from words I heard at Wednesday’s meeting, gives part of the answer.

I was invited to Sussex by Dawn Whittaker, Deputy Chief Fire Officer at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, following our meeting last February at the launch of the National Water Safety Forum’s Strategy. This in turn led to my involvement in the making of one of the ‘Beyond Blue Lights’ films for the Chief Fire Officers Association later in the year.

Wednesday’s meeting drew together representatives of community safety, serving firefighters/lifeguards, those involved in delivering the safety messages of fire, road and water and a representative from the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society).

The meeting was relatively informal; its purpose was to share  the details of the ESFRS Water Safety Strategic Aims and Action plan which is already under way and has been instituted by a focused team of individuals.  Dawn told me that all that was required from me was to feedback my views about what is planned and to highlight any areas in which I think I can contribute from my personal experience.

The ESFRS have the same aims and intention as the National Water Safety Forum: to halve the number of drownings which occur in waters in and around the UK, by 2026.

When you consider that around 400 people lose their life to drowning each year, and it is the third most common cause of death amongst young people aged 10-18, this represents a significant target.

Drowning accounts for more accidental fatalities every year than fire deaths in the home or cyclist deaths on the road.

From this it can be seen how relevant is the involvement of the Fire and Rescue service alongside those organisations more easily identifiable as being involved with water safety, such as the RNLI, the RLSS and HM Coastguard..

The key strategies and intentions of the ESFRS Action Plan are

  • Delivery of water safety message through a more cohesive and collaborative approach including via nominated Water Safety Champions
  • Working supportively with other agencies : RNLI, HM Coastguard, RLSS, RosPA, local authorities, ASA and other Life Savers such as leisure centre lifeguards
  • Involvement with the four major national annual water safety campaigns with CFOA, RLSS Don’t Drink and Drown and RNLI Respect the Water
  • Undertaking to educate all children and young people about the dangers of entering open water
  • Collaboration with local authorities and Pub Watch schemes to achieve a reduction in alcohol related drowning

I was immensely struck on Wednesday by the commitment and energy of each individual to the cause of making this huge difference.  Each are working closely together to bring the safety messages to the community in many forms.  For example, we heard that members of the team have spent several weekends patrolling nightclubs in Brighton late at night, directly taking the message about the foolhardiness of a late night dip to the students in the town.

The introduction of Water Safety Champions, those individuals who have a particular passion for a specific area brings different resources to the table, too. The Education team goes into schools on a regular basis to spread the safety word.

The most striking thing about the meeting was that, like my experiences with the RNLI, there is an obvious willingness to share together and pull with cohesion in the same direction.  Everyone is  inclusive; no one is trying to be possessive or exclusive or to take ownership of specific areas.

This is undoubtedly where the strength of a cohesive, collaborative team approach is going to win the day. 

Dawn asked me to share what is important to me.  My view, strengthened over the past     11 ½ years, is that drowning prevention must begin with education, and a heightened awareness by every young person that they must look out for their own and their peers’ safety, with diligence.

Safety education is going to start more vigorously in primary schools, rather than just secondary schools, which is a very good initiative.

Every child will ultimately have the opportunity to learn to swim.  It is important (if obvious) to note that being able to swim does not preclude drowning, as we know to our cost.

In fact, as Dawn pointed out, it is more likely that you would choose to avoid water if you cannot swim, something that had not occurred to me before.

I also feel very strongly, a growing sense that up until recently, organisations have been lax in recognising the needs of their own staff, who are working ‘at the sharp end’ and dealing with very traumatic circumstances,   To this end, I always advocate that people seek their own avenues of grief support and trauma support after incidents.  We had some discussion about bereavement support organisations such as The Compassionate Friends, CRUSE, the Drowning Support Network and SOBS to name but a few,  and the need to have these easily accessible to operational staff as well as families at the appropriate time through the available links.

As a Year Twelve, I see that my role in water safety has gradually become twofold.  Firstly, I understand the importance of telling James’ story – not to sensationalise, but to personalise, the reality of living the life of a bereaved parent, also how that impacts on the family and beyond.  My work with Kingston Council, my writing and my subsequent involvement with the RNLI and other organisations are all key to sharing very important messages around the matters of water safety.
Secondly, I feel it is vital to share and talk about the issues surrounding trauma, grief and loss, for our own health and wellbeing.  It is well recognised that acquiring a grief toolbox is key to getting through the worst of times and remaining relatively sane!  I welcome the chance to share these aspects of grieving whenever possible, through writing, presentations and workshops.

Having said that, articulating my thoughts at such a meeting of professionals is an opportunity I never imagined I would have and I am grateful to Dawn for her invitation.

Such events are emotionally draining and I was very glad to have Shaun with me, who gamely drove us there and back and sat in on the meeting; his presence was appreciated, as always.

Finally, I share a comment by David Kemp, Head of Community Safety, who said,

“We do no harm, we only do good”.  That strikes me as a good ethos for ESFRS to have, and I wish them every success in achieving the aims of this most important strategy.

 

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A Call to Action to Respect the Water

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My heart aches.

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

What can we do?

Now is not the time for the benefit of hindsight.

Now is the time to embrace foresight. 

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

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

Spread the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look out for yourselves and for each other.

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

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

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

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Links

www.rnli.org.uk

www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk

Eleventh Anniversary of Loss

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

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

I was asked recently,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your relationships have to be redrawn overnight.

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

You fear for your own health, wellbeing and sanity.

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

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

You either cannot sleep or can’t wake up.

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

All your terms of reference disappear.

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

There are many tools in the grief toolbox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James. My James.

I say your name,

with joy, not regret,

with pride, not shame,

to remember, not to forget,

with laughter, not tears,

with thoughts of today, not yesterday,

with love for tomorrow and all our tomorrows”.

 

sunnyjim

 

 Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Always loved and missed.  Forever in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

The RNLI on the River

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You may think that not much happens on the Thames around Teddington.

You might think that the RNLI don’t even have a presence on the Thames.

You would be wrong on both counts …

Since 2002, the RNLI has had four lifeboat stations on the River Thames:

Tower at Victoria Embankment (consistently one of the Charity’s busiest)

Chiswick

Gravesend in Kent

and Teddington in Middlesex. Teddington is the only lifeboat station that is manned entirely by volunteer crew.

In 2014, when Into the Mourning Light was published, I was contacted by Teddington helm, Andy Butterfield.  His email included, “I saw your story in the Richmond and Twickenham Times on Friday. It was very sad to read your story and so I wanted to write just to let you know of some of the success the RNLI are having on the riverThe Teddington RNLI have started training riverside bar staff initially in Kingston, but now also Richmond in the use of throw lines and providing basic first aid”. 

In response, I contacted Andy to learn more about what was happening.  To put it into perspective, the time scale was nine years after James’ passing; and some six years since we completed our campaign with Kingston Council for safety improvements along the Kingston stretch of the river.

Andy was my introduction, initially to the work of the RNLI on the Thames.  Through Andy, and RNLI colleagues Guy Addington, John Soones and Ross Macleod, to name just a few, I was to become involved in the coastal/tidal Respect the Water campaign, and ultimately also the National Water Safety Forum, my most recent written input being in their Strategy document.

Throughout the time of my involvement with the RNLI, Andy and I never actually met and our paths did not cross at the various RNLI events I attended.  We have kept in contact though, and a couple of weeks ago we finally met at the Teddington Lifeboat station on a chilly Sunday morning.

Shaun and I were treated to a personal VIP tour of the lifeboat station with Andy and his colleague Jon Barker.

We saw the two D Class inshore lifeboats which have been generously donated by local residents, the first named in memory of Hilary Saw’s parents, and the new boat, which is to be officially launched in May, named for Hilary’s late husband Peter.

We learned much of what happens on a ‘shout’ and how quickly everyone responds and reacts.  The timings are crucial and therefore it is imperative that volunteers live very close to the station and are quickly able to respond should their pagers go off.  A lifeboat can be launched in five minutes. The waterproofs the volunteers wear are incredibly heavy and must be very hot in summer.

Jon talked of the training he does with local schools and scout groups. It is obvious by his enthusiasm that he and his fellow volunteers are able to provide youngsters with the knowledge they need to stay safe around water and also to inspire them by sharing the work of the RNLI.

 It seems to me that there has been a shift within the RNLI and today, their aim is, through their training work, to raise awareness across the board to help people understand how to stay safe around all areas of open water. 

Andy drives the training initiatives along the riverside bars and restaurants. There is tremendous personal poignancy in this image from one of last summer’s training exercises in Kingston, with James’ memorial plaque visible in the background.

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In February 2016 Andy coordinated an extensive mass casualty training exercise which mocked up a pleasure boat being run aground with numerous casualties on board, who had to be safely evacuated.

The RNLI joined forces with a local company, Turks Launches, to produce the scenario-based training.   The casualties were in full moulage (mock injuries for the purpose of training) and ranged from completely unresponsive casualties to the walking wounded.  Both Teddington lifeboats were launched.

In the press report of the event, I read that Andy was first on the scene.  He said, “I had three things running through my mind at all times.  Firstly, what is the risk to my crew and the casualties?  Secondly, how many casualties are there and what is their condition? And thirdly, how do I get them all to safety?”

The helmsman of the second Teddington lifeboat was tasked with ‘walking the floor’ of the vessel to ensure that everyone was accounted for.  An evacuation plan was formed with the crew on the vessel and all the casualties were eventually safely removed from the boat.

After what was a very successful collaborative exercise, Andy said, “Scenario-based training like this is crucial to the development of our skills as RNLI crew.  It is also in our interest to collaborate while training with fellow river users as it helps to prevent future incidents and their feedback is useful for improvements”.  The collaborative exercise was a great success.

However, despite the best efforts of the RNLI and other organisations, accidental drownings still happen, sadly in Kingston as well as elsewhere. But the good news is that along the Kingston stretch of the river, we know that lives have been saved by individuals working at the pubs and restaurants.  They have been trained following our loss in 2005, subsequent campaign for improved river safety and the access to training facilitated by the RNLI.  This fact alone is incredibly gratifying for us, as naturally, we view the loss of James in 2005 as a significant catalyst for change in the area.  Our campaign with Kingston Council proved to be just the start of positive forward moves in river safety.

Andy is responsible for the introduction of throw bag training, first aid and recovery sessions along the stretch of the Thames between Molesey Lock and Putney Bridge, particularly focusing on the busiest sections around Richmond and Kingston.

I am grateful to him and his co-trainers for their efforts.  Having met Andy and Jon I am even more impressed by their dedication to voluntary service, underpinned by their commitment to saving lives.  Andy and Jon reflect the ethos of every single person whom I have met who is involved with the RNLI:  a sincere desire to improve water safety universally and to prevent unnecessary loss of life. 

These men and women of the RNLI leave their egos outside the door and concentrate on the tasks they face in an utterly commendable way, often in challenging and perilous circumstances.

I wonder whether the RNLI should no longer be viewed just as ‘the charity that saves lives at sea’ but as the charity ‘that saves lives at sea and also prevents loss of life, at sea and on inland waterways and rivers’. 

I hope I have managed to inform that plenty happens on the river around Teddington and the RNLI are indeed a great presence on the Thames.

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A Special Invitation

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A few weeks ago I received a faintly mysterious email from Ross at the RNLI.

“Are you free on the evening of Monday 29 February?” he asked.

“Nothing that can’t be changed”, I replied, wondering what it was all about, but he wouldn’t be drawn on what he told me would be a surprise …

Following on from my work with the Respect the Water campaign last year, Ross put me in contact with Megan, who in turn is involved with a new collaborative drowning prevention initiative via the National Water Safety Forum. I was asked if I was willing to share what happened to James as a Case Study within the strategy document that was being prepared by the RNLI and other contributory organisations. I agreed to this and over the months received updates from Megan as to how the initiative was progressing through the consultation process.

A couple of days after I heard from Ross, an email from Megan popped into my inbox. To my great surprise, it contained a rather special invitation.  We were invited by Government Minister for Transport, Robert Goodwill MP,  to “an Evening Reception to launch the National Strategy for Drowning Prevention on behalf of the National Water Safety Forum” ….and that is how Shaun and I found ourselves in esteemed company at the House of Commons last night.

I couldn’t help but think how James would react – would “Wow, mum!” cover it?

When we arrived in the wonderful historic surroundings of Parliament, we passed through the airport style security and as we were early, we were invited to go into the House of Lords to observe the debate from the public gallery for a short while, a fascinating experience in itself.

At 7pm around 60 people gathered together on the Pavilion Terrace, overlooking the Thames and we were offered drinks and canapes. Megan introduced us to various people and it was great to re-establish contact with some of the RNLI staff whom I have met before as well as meeting representatives from organisations including the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Amateur Swimming Association, RoSPA, RLSS and the Fire and Rescue Service to name but a few.

The formal part of the launch reception consisted of three speeches. George Rawlinson, Operations Director of the RNLI and Chair of the Forum shared the shocking statistic that 400 people drown in the UK each year and a further 200 take their own lives on our waters. This was given further perspective when we were told that the number is higher than deaths occurring as a result of house fires or cycling accidents. George gave a passionate, inspiring talk and delivered it with real empathy for those who have been affected by water-related issues. He emphasised how valuable is a collaborative approach if the NWSF is to achieve its objective of a future without drowning. The key aim is to halve the number of drownings by 2026 through better prevention, education, targeting specific groups and reducing risks to the community.

.The launch of the strategy is undoubtedly a strong call to action – a call to make contributing to national goals a local priority.

Dr David Meddings, representing the World Health Organisation adopts a humanitarian approach to the problem and his vision is to see an NWSF plan being adopted in every country, aiming to reduce the global problem.

Finally we heard from Minister Robert Goodwill, the Minister for Transport and MP for Scarborough and Whitby. He emphasised that the NWSF has the support and financial backing of the government and he applauded the efforts of the entire organisation both individually and collectively in the work that they are doing. He told the audience that through his ministerial role, he has been able to award almost £1 million of government funds to 51 UK charities to support water rescue services in local communities.

The government scheme gives voluntary groups crucial funding for new equipment and training to support their rescue efforts on and around inland and inshore waterways.

The formalities over, there was more time to chat and meet the individuals involved. The most surreal moment for me was when I was asked by George Rawlinson whether I would like a photograph with the Minister! This ranks as something I could never imagine happening! And Shaun’s surreal moment was perhaps talking about rescues with Mr Keith Oliver OBE, Chief Coastguard of the MCA. We were indeed in eminent company.

On a more serious note, I feel blessed to have come within the radar of the RNLI, and to be given repeated opportunities to share the positive and far-reaching outcomes that have resulted from the dreadful catalyst of losing James. The impact of the constructive changes that have been made at Kingston riverside continues to echo ever wider which is something I did not anticipate at the time we completed our campaign.

I am honoured and privileged to be able to communicate with a far broader audience than would ever have been possible for me as an individual.

The RNLI and all the other organisations involved in this strategy represent an instrument for change through collaborative strength, drive, commitment and power.                                                        I applaud them all the way.

 The aim of the National Water Safety Forum Strategy is:

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

The initial targets over the next 36 months are:

  • Every child should have the opportunity to learn to swim and receive water safety education at primary school and where required at Key Stage 3
  • Every community with water risks should have a community-level risk assessment and water safety plan
  • To better understand water-related self-harm
  • Increase awareness of everyday risks in, on and around the water
  • All recreational activity organisations should have a clear strategic risk assessment and plans that address key risks

More information can be found here:

http://nationalwatersafety.org.uk/

The NWSF strategy page and document can be viewed here: http://www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk/strategy/

Download PDF The UK Drowning Prevention Strategy 2016-2026.                                              (The Case Study relating to James is on page 14)

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The Kindness of Strangers

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Sometimes, significant moments arrive in your life when you least expect them. You may not even recognise them for what they are; small in themselves, these are acts of generosity of spirit that resonate deep within and leave a long-lasting impression.

One such pivotal moment – during my somewhat surreal day on 21 May 2015 – was not, as you might imagine, when I walked across the stage at London’s Barbican to receive an RNLI Individual Supporter award, presented by HRH the Duke of Kent.

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Nor was it when the immensely professional and moving videos made by the RNLI were screened prior to the presentations.

It was not even when, earlier in the day, fellow awardee Victoria Milligan and I were interviewed on ITV’s Lorraine programme, though that was about as far away from my norm as I could get!

Neither was it the moment that I was amused (and impressed) to see that I had been allocated My Own Dressing Room at the Barbican. Imagine!

 No …the moment came as I rather shakily returned to my seat in the Barbican theatre, clutching the award, my heart pounding and throat tight with emotion.

I became aware of someone looking at me … a woman whom I didn’t know, seated a couple of rows away. Our eyes met and I guess she could see I was just about holding it together. She quickly moved across into the seat next to me and grasped my hand in both of hers.

You shouldn’t be on your own right now”, she whispered against the backdrop of commentary from the stage,                                                                                                                                             “Are you OK, is there anyone I can get for you?”                                                                               “I am all right”, I replied, “my husband is just over there. I’m fine, really!”

I don’t think she was convinced and she sat next to me, simply comforting me by her presence and continuing to hold tightly onto my hand.                                                                                             “I lost my brother a long time ago, when he was just 14”, she went on, “So I know a little of the emotion you must be feeling”.

We sat together for a little longer before this big-hearted RNLI volunteer, satisfied that I was going to be all right on my own, moved back to her seat.

The whole episode was over in a matter of minutes but it exemplifies the immense generosity of spirit and kindness that I have encountered, almost across the board, in the (nearly) ten years since James died. Naturally, people sincerely want to empathise; but they cannot possibly understand such traumatic loss unless they have walked a similar road, though the kindnesses I have received from those who try to help are immeasurable.

All my dealings with the RNLI have been marked by the compassion, thoughtfulness, empathy and professionalism of everyone involved. From the first contact with the helmsman at Teddington, through my dealings with Ross and his team on the Respect the Water campaign last summer, during my talk at the training day in Poole, to the making of the video film this year, everyone involved has been incredibly supportive and kind.

I do not think it is too implausible to view the work of the RNLI itself as made up of acts of kindness. After all, what could be a kinder act than to voluntarily put your life on the line to save someone else’s?

As we approach the tenth anniversary of our loss and I recall the years that have passed, I am struck anew by the sheer number of people who have engaged with me in some way or another since the beginning. I will write of this separately, but it is true to say that social media has played a great part in my being able to communicate with many more people than would ordinarily be possible.

I am often called ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ for all the work that I have done since James left us.

If strength is the inherent capacity to manifest energy, to endure and to resist, then my strength has grown over the years.

If bravery reflects courage and valour, then I possess a measure of this.

But whilst I am grateful for the accolades, I believe that I am lucky to have the resilience that allows me to channel my energies into the achievement of significant outcomes. I could not possibly have done any of this without the support of Shaun, my family and my friends, who provide unstinting backing and encouragement in all that I do.

Everything that I do in honour of James’ memory helps me to cope with the idea of his not being here anymore. Even after almost ten years, it feels improbable that we will never see him again, that his footfall will not be heard on the path nor his key in the front door.

The work that I do helps me keep the memory of James alive in many other people’s minds, not just my own. There are so many people who never met James, but now know of him and a little about him. The RNLI video has been viewed by many, many people – far more than I could possibly have achieved individually.

My book has shared our story with many people and when I am told that it brings comfort, I feel that is honouring James’ memory too. James was a great one for helping people, and he would be thrilled to know that he is giving comfort to those who need it. The knowledge that my words help others, uplifts me in turn and I am grateful for the gift of written expression.

Initially I was embarrassed by the thought of the RNLI award. I am not a centre stage player as a rule. But it was pointed out to me that this recognition reflects not only my contribution to the Respect the Water campaign, but also the impact of our three years of commitment to Kingston Council, that resulted in significant river safety improvements and a reduction in

the number of water-related incidents in the area.

This work continues in that the river safety issues are constantly reviewed with local authorities including the RNLI. Training programmes are also in place.

It is not often that individuals get to make a measurable difference to the wider population and the RNLI have my unending gratitude for profiling and recognising our achievements in memory of James.

rossWith Ross Macleod outside the Barbican on awards day

 www.rnli.org.uk

A phone call

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“Hello!

I thought I would give you a call, as it’s a while since we caught up.  What’s that you say?”

… I said, I’m always around

“Well, perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that I would rather you weren’t there. Let’s take a long, hard look at this relationship, shall we? I would be grateful if you could just listen.  And let me give you the lowdown on how I feel ”

… OK, if you must!

“Right; so let’s go back to the beginning.

You turned up uninvited, moved right in and tried to destroy me with your mind games”

… No, it was never the intention to destroy you. You had to learn to live with me.

“What? That sounds pretty unbalanced. Why did I have to learn to live with you?”

…Because it is true … I came in uninvited and out of the blue.

The day James died. I arrived.

And I will never forget how the world shifted on its axis when the Police came.

With their sombre demeanour and their officialdom.

I went down on my knees and cried,

NO! NOT MY BEAUTIFUL BOY!

And there you were. It felt like you laughed”.

… I didn’t laugh. I didn’t want to arrive. I had no choice.

I am telling you that is how it felt, almost ten years ago. The fates, grief, God, were all saying, Here you are. Another test. Let’s see how how you cope with this one!”

And by GOD I Coped.

I drank.

I smoked.

I cried.

I screamed.

I wailed.

I stamped my foot and shouted, IT IS NOT FAIR into the abyss of darkness.

But you were still there.

How long, after you arrived, do you think I realised … you were actually giving me things?”

… I gave you hope first. I gave you hope for a meaningful future with your husband.

With your family and the wider circle . A moving forward.

… I gave you the strength to fight for the campaign at Kingston that rendered the area safer, so no more lovely boys (or girls) should lose their lives as James did.

… Then I gave you compassion. Suddenly, you noticed others in grief. It took a while *because you don’t let people in easily!*

but you got to know people through the Compassionate Friends and the Drowning Support Network who are your friends and mutual support network to this day.

“It took me a while to realise that these were your gifts. But, reluctantly, I began to see that this was the way forward for me”.

… Then I gave you not one, but two, new voices. One for writing, one for speaking.

I think I am largely responsible for the publication of your book, *blushes modestly*

… I gave you new friends.

… I gave you new strengths

… I gave you the mad bits in the past decade like the one that made you jump off a cliff in Turkey strapped to a paraglider.  Or ride in a tuk tuk on the motorway in Sri Lanka in torrential rain.  And laugh whilst crossing yourself.

… I AM YOUR GRIEF BUT I AM ALSO YOUR PAST, PRESENT AND YOUR FUTURE

…Now you know. I am your friend and I walk with you alongside the spirit of those whom you have lost. I will be with you for the duration. No fair weather friend, me.

“Do you know what? I am really glad I have spoken to you tonight because I couldn’t see it before. Now I really get it.

I can’t ignore you, can’t sideline you, can’t get rid of you. I guess you can stay after all. Just be relatively quiet. OK?”.

… OK. Thanks. Good night.

jamesandtom