Tag Archives: grief

Eulogy for a dear Friend

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Over the course of the past week, the element of water in various guises has played a significant part in my waking hours.  I have been close to the ocean in Cornwall and Dorset, I’ve sat beside a lake at a National Trust property in Surrey, and walked along the towpath in one of my favourite locations, the Basingstoke canal.

Firstly, I enjoyed a truly delightful walk on the coastal path that hugs the headland near Crantock in Cornwall.  I was with my daughter Stella and my four month old grand-daughter, Grace.  The sun shone from a cloudless blue sky, and we heard skylarks high above.  The sweet, high piping sound of the larks took me back to my childhood.  I told Stella,

“When we were young, mum and dad used to pack up a picnic, and we would head off to a field close to the old airfield at Wisley.  I remember the sunshine, the larks, and picking little  bunches of wildflowers for mum.  She taught me their names – ragged robin, star of bethlehem, bird’s foot trefoil and so on”.

As we walked it struck me how quickly the years have passed.  It’s a long time since I was the young mum of two children; I guess I am now a matriarch, enjoying my own daughter being the young mum of two children.

Life experience allows that I have apparently arrived at a position of maturity and wisdom!

There was a special kind of joy as we walked along in the spring sunshine; three females at entirely different stages of life, embracing our femininity, our maternal joys and trials and in Grace’s case, simply enjoying being carried in a sling, close to her mum’s heart.

Acquired wisdom is not confined to me however, for during our walk Stella told me something I didn’t know before, that the origin of the dandelion’s name comes from French;

‘Dent-de-lion’ means ‘tooth of the lion’, reflecting the jagged shape of the plant’s leaf.  Thank you, Stella.  You underlined nicely that your mum is never too old to learn!

You also told me that as a mum you feel that you are simultaneously a ‘carer, protector, shield and warrior’ – a very good way to describe motherhood.

As we rounded the headland we looked down on a cerulean blue sea that shone and sparkled in the sunlight below us, foamy white waves hitting the rugged Cornish rocks below us.  It was quite magnificent, elemental and an illustration of natural power at its finest.

A couple of days later found Shaun and I arriving in Lyme Regis in Dorset.  We joined a gathering to commemorate the passing of my dear friend Sylvi; an informal ceremony that saw her daughters, sisters and husband committing her ashes to the ocean.  Sylvi  and her husband Tim lived in France where she sadly passed away last Autumn. Her funeral had taken place in France but her wishes were that she would be brought to Lyme Regis. This was one of her favourite places, significantly for Christmas morning picnics with the family, regardless of the weather.

We drew together from near and far; family, colleagues and friends each holding our own memories of Sylvi as mother, grandmother, sister, wife, friend.  We walked and  talked together as we navigated the very uneven pebbly beach, gravitating to a quiet spot that Tim chose as the place where our informal committal would attract least notice.

Again we were immensely fortunate with the weather and the sun shone brightly, glittering off the sea.

We gathered round the family and stood at a respectful distance as Lucy read some well-constructed words and we were handed yellow roses  to throw into the water.

Lucy, Hollie, Tim, Sylvi’s sisters Hazel and Annie each took a turn to commit some ashes to the sea.

This started off with sombre decorum, but before long Lucy and Hollie kicked off their shoes and braved the undoubtedly cold water to lovingly send off their mum.

There was something incredibly, powerfully, touching about watching these two strong, beautiful young women standing in the shallows and little by little, saying such a personal and utterly connected goodbye to the mum they so dearly loved. The ebb and flow of the tide would carry her away gently and silently.

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Afterwards, Hollie wrote (and I share with her permission)

“Holding my mother in ashes in my own palm was a strange but unique feeling; she had held my hand, held me and held my heart more times than is possible to count and today was our turn to hold her and let her go.

… My lesson from today for myself and others is enjoy every minute with your loved ones, make the effort, say how you feel and don’t be afraid to say or show it”.

Water gives life, it sustains life, and in this case, it absorbed the last remnants of a life in a spiritually uplifting, natural way.  It was so good to see the repression usually associated with modern grief being cast aside in favour of such a memorable and simple committal to nature.

Throwing our roses into the sea allowed us to share in the precious and unique event and send our messages to Sylvi’s waterborne spirit.

Afterwards we all walked along the seafront, threading our way through the Easter holiday makers to reach the pub where a room had been set aside for the 35 or so of us who had gathered.  We gradually relaxed and reminisced, sharing our favourite recollections of such a very special lady.

The day’s individual setting and sequence of events typified Sylvi, who always cared about the impression she left, with everyone who knew her.

Sylvi’s wishes were not to leave anyone mourning gloomily with dark thoughts of the three years she lived with cancer.  Rather, she wanted those who love her to remember her with fondness, joy, laughter and compassion, which is what we achieved on the day and will sustain us all, as we go forward with our lives.

Sylvi was an exceptional woman who instilled in all who knew her an appreciation of making the most of life, whatever the circumstances.

The following day, I felt in reflective mood and had a need to connect with nature again.

We went to Hatchlands, a local National Trust property, and enjoyed a long walk.  There is a small lake in the grounds and Shaun and I sat on a bench watching the breeze ruffling the water.  All we could hear was the sound of the wind in the reeds at the edge of the lake, and the birdsong in the hedgerows.  I found myself praying for Sylvi and her family, and hoping that they all feel, as I do, a sense of having commemorated her life and her passing in the most positive way possible.

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Anyone who knows me will be familiar with my love for the stretch of the Basingstoke canal that is near our home.   I find my walks along the towpath healing and restorative.  There is something about being close to the water that is nurturing and peace-inducing in equal measure.  I walked there again the day after Hatchlands and felt that I was casting away the cobwebs of sadness at the loss of my friend.

Over time I have gradually learned important lessons about the nature of water.  We cannot live without it; indeed our bodies are made up of 50-60% of water.

It is a life giver as well as a life taker.

It sustains, it restores, it calms, it balances.

It supports life for every species.

It blesses with baptism, and curses with torrents and drought.

We cannot survive without its provision for our most basic needs.

We need to respect the water in all its many forms.

The four environments – ocean in Cornwall and Dorset, lake and canal in Surrey are entirely separate and diverse but they all provide the same sense of being at one with nature.  Each experience of these four very different days has underlined for me our human need to love and be loved, and to learn from every single life lesson that we are lucky enough to be taught.

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The Grief Climate

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Grief … you tread on it, stamp on it, walk on it, tiptoe round it

You are buffeted by it, you are sheltered by it

You see it, you taste it, and you grow it.

You smell it, taste it, feel it, hear it, and finally you Throw It.

 We have had some hard frosts this week.  Each morning, the roofs have been iced in white and I have had to run the car engine for a while to de-ice the windscreen.  As I watch from inside the warmth of the house, a tiny gap appears in the centre of the screen, slowly expanding and melting, spreading across the glass until eventually the ice turns to slush, easily cleared by the windscreen wipers.

The frosty mornings put me in mind of the climate of early grief, when you feel as though your emotions are cast in frozen stillness.  Numb with shock, you can hardly move to put one foot in front of the other.

The thaw comes very slowly.

It is notable that in compensation for these cold, frosty mornings we have had stunningly colourful sunrise and sunsets.  Late in the afternoon, planes leave raspberry pink vapour trails across the darkening sky, and the sun is a glowing orb that sinks slowly below the horizon.

Early grief is a cold and exhausting climate.  But eventually the clouds separate, the sun shines and the rainbows arrive.

At night, the sky is clear and full of stars.  The newest star is yours.  And the moon shines her benevolence upon you.

Comparing grief to how the weather behaves I suppose to be a reasonable enough concept, and perhaps it can be applied to our senses.

If you could see it, how would your grief look?

You might think that grief would be unremittingly ugly, like a warty old crone face.  You can picture early grief looking like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, with an unutterably horrified expression.

But grief’s face does evolve.

You begin to see a gentler, calmer, visage.

When your grief is new, your face carries a hunted, pinched expression.  This is particularly evident when you look back at photos when you thought you looked ‘normal’.  Eventually the face you see in the mirror has absorbed the hurt and pain in its planes and lines and what reflects back is the familiar look that you know is your new normality.

If you were to hear your grief, at first it might be a senselessly discordant shrieking, wailing sound; your own silent scream.  You hear it in your head much of the time.  Sometimes it drowns out the rest of the world around you.  Sometimes you need to vocalise it.

Tinnitus is an aggravating, ever present ringing, a whistling, white noise mix of sound that is like the second stage of grief’s orchestra.  It stays.  You get so accustomed to it you don’t notice it any more.  Perhaps it never really goes.

You can try to balance it out through listening to music, something that was impossible to do in the beginning.  Every song was a memory.

On the plate, grief has its own flavour that kills the appetite and does not nourish you.  It’s bitter; sharp like a bad wine, or bland and beige like an overcooked dinner. To work through grief, you need to find stimulants to whet your appetite, which are beneficial and flavoursome and will awaken your taste buds again.

Early grief does not want to eat.

Early grief loses the pleasure in food.

But appetite will return and it needs tempting back with appealing foods.

Given that you are what you eat, when you are grieving and surviving on tea and toast, it is no wonder that you do not necessarily possess the strength to deal with all that surrounds your loss.

 The touch of grief is far from tender.  You may recognise the feeling of sensitivity when you have a fever, when your scalp is so sore it hurts to brush your hair.  Your skin is dry with an underlying itch that you cannot scratch.  Your throat is raw from weeping.  Your eyes are red and they burn with lack of sleep.

You have to get past this.  You must shower, dress, put on your armour for the day and push yourself back into life.

You might equate early grief to walking along a rock strewn path wearing unsuitable thin-soled sandals. You can feel the roughness beneath your feet and you are lucky if you don’t turn your ankle or slip on the scree-like slopes.

One of the best things about the evolution of grief into a gentler incarnation is being able to enjoy simple pleasures like buying and wearing a new outfit.  It will come.

The garden of grief might contain some kind of hybrid mix of cactus, gorse bush and nettle in its first year.

Later on you may have a plump cushion of soft geranium with pink blooms and lemon scented leaves.  Or you could brush against a thyme plant on a warm, sunny day, and enjoy the resinous fragrance that drifts upon the breeze. The beauty and perfume of a rose will lift your spirits.

Finally, the sheer weight of grief is hard to carry.  It’s hard to determine whether you carry it on your back or your front.  Perhaps it is seated in your heart.

Slowly but surely the weight diminishes.  Eventually you may be holding onto something as light as a tennis ball.   It’s a useful mind exercise to practise throwing it away …

 

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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”.

 

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 Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Always loved and missed.  Forever in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

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

A Day On the Lake

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I am a recent convert to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme.                                          The premise is simple.  Guests are figuratively cast away to a desert island and allowed to choose and discuss their eight favourite tracks to listen to, along with a Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, one other book of their choice and a luxury item.

The actor Tom Hanks produced an interesting and emotional interview.  We learned that he had a disjointed childhood with a father who moved from job to job, scooping up the children and frequently moving them from place to place.  The clear message that Tom put across was that he turned to acting to assuage his loneliness.  Indeed, he said he was searching for the vocabulary of loneliness.   I was particularly moved and inspired by his words,

There’s a huge difference between loneliness and solitude.  Loneliness is to be avoided, solitude is to be sought.  It’s good for the soul.

 The movement from loneliness to solitude represents for me the gradual process of learning to still my restless spirit and embracing instead a peaceful sense of calm.  It is the difference between feeling alone in a crowd and accepting comfortable isolation – as a choice.

Last week, a day out on our holiday with friends exemplified for me the beauty of solitude.  You might not expect to find solitude on what is effectively a tourist trip, but we did …

It was a warm, still sunny day and we were in Dalyan, a riverside resort in Turkey. Alison and Bob booked a boatman to take just the four of us out on his boat for the day.  He collected us from the jetty behind our hotel.

We set off past the Dalyan rock tombs, and the town itself, before we reached a channel between tranquil reed beds, our passage disturbed only by the melodic sound of the reed warblers’ song and the gentle lapping of the water.

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We eventually passed into a large lake surrounded by the soft green slopes of mainly uninhabited, tree-lined hills.

After a while, the boat dropped anchor in a secluded bay.

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The experience was a total gift to the senses.  The touch of the cool milky green water as we swam from the boat was soft and gentle.  We exclaimed at the sight of the terrapins in the water and beauty of the land around us.  We inhaled the warm scent of the wild oregano and thyme on the hillside.

Our lunch was simple and delicious; fresh fish and meat barbecued on the back of the boat accompanied by salad anointed with oil and a squeeze of crisp, sharp lemon juice.  All we heard was the occasional bird and the chime from the bells round the goats’ necks as they scrambled effortlessly among the rocks on the shore.

But there was also a sixth sense present. This I can only describe as a deep sense of contentment with our brief time of solitude away from the bustle and clamour of the everyday world.  It was a magical, wonderful, memorable day.  Alison and Bob had been on a similar trip before and wanted us to share in their enjoyment, and it certainly worked on the TRI level – that is to say, it entirely nourished, for all of us, mind, body and spirit.

 The loneliness of grief is a desert.  Particularly in the early days, when you are most likely to be surrounded by well-meaning family and friends, all you can feel is a wrenching sense of being alone with your pain and loss. You feel that no-one else can comprehend what you are feeling, and you are right.  You have to learn to live with the loneliness and eventually be able to turn it from an arid stretch of barren scrubland into a garden of solitude.

The loneliest pain of loss eventually gives way to a solitude which possesses in it a kind of self-worth. 

Loneliness is fearful. 

Solitude is brave. 

Loneliness is barren, constricted by its own limitation.

Solitude is fertile, giving the mind free rein to be creative and expansive.

I echo the words of Tom Hanks but would take what he said even further and emphasise the difference in the nourishment of the soul that exists between loneliness and solitude.

To my mind, loneliness is an outward reaching, futile desire that hungers for company in a negative way.  Solitude reaches inwards to the soul to seek and eventually find, the peace and balance that come from positively knowing self.  Like most things in life, this is a learning curve and can only by achieved gently and gradually, taking small, ultimately rewarding steps along the way.

 

 

Hey – go and clean that bathroom!

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Have you ever noticed the way that repetitive, non-cerebral activities such as household chores free up your creative brain?  This blog post literally has its genesis in a swish and rinse round the bath, continues with a buffing of the taps and ends with a swirl of bleach down the toilet.

Distraction techniques, or focusing on an undemanding practicality, seem to allow the inventive, imaginative part of the mind to run at full tilt.

A similar thing happens, albeit via a different route, through meditative practice when you are mentally and mindfully taking yourself to a different place, clearing the mind and allowing whatever wishes to present itself, to draw across your mind’s eye.

This reminds me of a guided meditation in which I took part recently, based on the Buddhist principles of loving kindness. The foundation of this is that we should learn to practise loving kindness towards ourselves as well as others.

A friendship demands little but gives much. 

It expects no more than acknowledgement of its existence. 

There is a true grace in friendship which we should encompass and convert to give loving kindness to ourselves. It is all too easy to forget that our friends like us, despite our perceived shortcomings.

You first have to learn to be your own best friend … something that is easier said than done.

During the meditation, we were asked to think of ten attributes about ourselves that we like.  Now, how is that for a tall order? – I arrived at three or four before giving up.

Afterwards I thought about why this was so difficult.  And I think it is because generally we are conditioned to be self-critical, judgemental and constantly aware of our failings/shortcomings. It becomes an alien notion to like ourselves.

So … I am getting better at saying to myself, “Stop! – step back from a commitment or two and give yourself time for you – for your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual nourishment”.

When I have managed to do this, I definitely feel better for it.  This is a good example of how loving kindness towards self is achievable.

If someone asks me, “do you believe you are loved and supported?” Then I do not find it difficult to answer “yes”.  And that means that I know in my heart that I am worthy of being loved, something else that is all too easy to forget.

My family and friends affirm to me that I am loved, through their constant support, their many kindnesses to me and their constancy.  Surely then, it should not be too difficult to remind myself of the positives in my life. The lesson lies in believing and having faith in the fact that I am loved equally by those whom I can see and those whom I cannot…

Those who are living with grief and loss can operate at essentially a polar opposite.  They constantly use distraction techniques and general busyness to avoid visiting their grief and perhaps to evade the sorrow that accompanies introspective grieving. I often think that bereaved parents work overly hard to fill in the gaps left by their loss and they are not practising sufficient loving kindness to themselves.  Over time, loving kindness really can help to process loss in a gentle way.

It is really important to find ways that work for you to achieve the balance that enables you to choose how to process your sadness.  This is a steep learning curve.

If, like me, you operate on a chore/reward system, you will be well placed to practise these techniques.  For me, reward equates to having time to write, meditate, or examine how my emotions are balancing out in the now..  First of all I must get the boring jobs out of the way and whilst I am occupied doing these, I am setting myself up to for my chosen reward.  It works! – for me anyway.

So next time you pull on your Marigolds to tackle the regular dull chores … choose your reward first.  You won’t even notice the tedium …

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