Tag Archives: healing

Letting Go is Not the Same as Forgetting

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I don’t know why, but today feels like a day for remembering.  It’s not an anniversary, or a birthday, or a special day for any particular reason.  But I feel like I’ve been so caught up in the here and now, so busy assimilating all the new experiences of our first Spring living in the Devon countryside, that somehow my remembrance of James has slipped down the page.

How’s that for an admission?  I can almost hear a sharp intake of breath from the recently bereaved.

“What did you say?  You can’t be a very good mother.  How can you possibly forget?  How can you not be thinking of your son every waking moment?” 

Well, hang on a moment, don’t get too carried away.   Is it so wrong after nearly thirteen years, to allow myself to shrug off the mantle of grief now and then? Is it wrong not to feel guilty for doing so? Letting go is not the same as forgetting.

Perhaps it’s time for a chat with James to clarify things.

“Gee, thanks, Mum, nice of you to tell the world you’re forgetting all about me”.

“Now, I didn’t say that, did I?”

“No, but you implied it. Are you, as they say, ‘over it’?”

“Never, James.  I can never be ‘over it’.

Let me tell you how it is.

How could I forget 19, nearly twenty years of your life with us?  Those 19 years still underpin everything I see and do.  Trust me James, I don’t waste my days, and do you know why I don’t waste my days?”

“Is it because you feel you’re always having to make up for me not being there, or is that too vain?”

“Very mature observation, son.  You’ve obviously grown more sensible now that you are in your thirties!

No … I don’t feel that I have to make up for your not being here, in the same way I don’t want anyone else who knows and loves you to feel that.

But, and it is a big but, any parent who has lost a child, indeed anyone who has lost anyone close, will live differently to a new default setting.  We must value the life we have left, for none of us knows how long that may be …

After all, we have a better understanding of how life can be snatched away in an instant”.

“I think I get that mum.  Are you happy these days, would you say?”

“Yes, son, I can truly say I have attained proper happiness again.  It has taken a long time.  It has taken a lot of working through the trauma, distress, shock and pain of grief.  But the joys in life seem heightened when I allow myself to really embrace them”.

“How have you arrived at that point, mum?”

“Wow, James it has taken so many different directions to reach the place that is comfortable, it would take an age to list them all.

But most importantly, I have had to learn to trust in the renewal of optimism and positivity.

I have had to learn to have faith that things will get better.

I have learned that I can step out of the darkness, into the mourning light”.

“Do you still see things that jog you into memories of me, Mum?”

“Yes, of course I do.  Why only today, I was in a shop and I saw one of those wooden artist’s mannequins, you remember you had one?  You can pose it into different positions and draw it …Something like that takes me back instantly to remembering you.  Whatever else might change, those memory jogs certainly don’t.  And of course, some music always takes me back immediately.”

“Ok, you’re beginning to convince me”.

 “It’s simple, really.  I know that by remembering you, you are with me always.  But like I don’t need to be in a Church in order to pray, I don’t need to be remembering you every moment in obvious ways …”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if I am out walking, I will see something that makes me think of you and smile.  You know we moved to Devon last year and the road we use most frequently takes us through a place village called Bolham.  I can imagine you … you would have called it Gollum, or Bottom, just to make me laugh.  I can picture that.  Those sorts of personal memories are very special”.

“I’m glad you are happy, mum.  I’m sorry not to be there to share more stuff with you but I am pleased that you can enjoy life in a new way.  Does anyone in Devon know about me, by the way?”

“Ah, that’s an interesting question.  You will recall that at the start, I wanted to tell anybody and everybody.  These days I am more selective and I choose whom to share you with.

I’ve made a new friend, and I told her recently, because I knew she wouldn’t react negatively … some people can’t handle others’ ‘stuff’ – but she gets it.  And that’s comforting.  I will always need a variety of go-to people, and what is interesting that many of them never met you, but they all feel they know you!”

“That’s good to hear, mum.  I am glad I left my mark”.

“James, you have no idea. Sometimes on a clear night I look up to the skies and marvel at the stars.  You are one of those stars, and your light shines brightly in all those whom you left behind, with love, and optimism.

My appreciation for your life, transforms the years since your passing into something bearable.  I hold what was so precious and special in the past as treasure deep within my heart and soul.

This is my truth and certainty at today’s point in the process of living with loss. So, even if you aren’t top of my ‘to do’ list every day, rest assured you’ll never be forgotten.  Got the picture?”

“I get that Mum, thanks for checking in with me.  Talk again soon.  Love you”.

“Love you all the world, James”.

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Pleasure and Joy

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I enjoyed some simple pleasures last week.  Getting outside and walking in bluebell-clad woodland, a fascinating talk by a medical herbalist at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary and a tasty lunch shared afterwards with a friend.

A creative writing exercise commonly asks for a piece that incorporates the description of how something affects all our senses. Thus my opening sentences could achieve this – the sight of the trees and flowers, the light fragrance of the bluebells, the sound of the breeze in the trees and the taste of the soup I enjoyed for lunch (celeriac, cumin and coconut – lovely!)

But what is missing is how to convey the sense of well-being that has its roots in our innermost soul, at the very heart of us.  This is the nebulous sense of joy that does not come from external stimuli, or our daily circumstances, but is an inbuilt emotion that we can draw upon if we are lucky enough to be able to recognise, identify and embrace it.  My joy on the visit to the sanctuary came not just via the enjoyment and relaxation of the surroundings, but also from seeing my friend Alison’s pleased reaction to  her first visit there.

The bluebells in the woodland are like a reflection of the blue sky above, so pleasing to the senses that they cannot help but bring a sense of joy.  Learning about them too, is a happy and interesting experience.  Knowledge in itself often brings joyful exclamation;   “I never knew that!” you say, as you learn something new … like the facts about the native English bluebell versus the Spanish garden escaper:

“True English bluebells have stems that droop, whilst the Spanish are straight.  In the English bluebell the petal tips are curly and just visible are the stamens with white, creamy pollen, rather than the Spanish blue or pale green innards”.

I wonder what it is about this magical seeming flower that sends us into joyful ecstasies?  They are certainly a challenge to the camera lens, their particular shade of blue/mauve being a difficult colour to capture.  If they are in sunlight, they bleach out and look a pale depiction of their colourful selves.

Too little light, and they are a dull facsimile of their perfect best.

But get it right, achieve that balance of the light-just-right and the colour true and there you have it.  A joyful experience indeed!

A return to joy from the depths of grieving is a hard won and long struggle that remains a work in progress.  I am lucky to possess a degree of innate resilience, but this on its own would not have been sufficient to bring joy back into my life.

The return of joy after loss takes makes me think of approaching a building project, brick by brick.   It starts small, with the foundation level being the first instance when you recognise an awareness of positive emotion affecting how you feel.

You feel happy.

You don’t feel guilty about feeling happy.

You hold on to the feeling, drinking in the emotion that surrounds you and fold it into your heart.

You have one of those light-bulb moments.  This can be built on!

Gradually the bricks mould into something more substantial. Events which please, be they small or significant, begin to form something solid on which to lean, a structure that becomes denser and supportive so that you not only feel joy, you have the confidence and assurance to begin to give out that joy to others.

The conviction that life is getting better and growing happier again, despite what you have lost, is a source of ever strengthening joy.  It is supported by the love of those around you.  As you give out the light of your joy, so it is reflected back to you.

Joy is often bittersweet because you need to have known pain to recognise the beauty that lies within the joy which comes later.  Each of us knows this in very disparate ways.  For myself, I think that joy comes most from the knowledge that I am loved.  I believe that in my insignificance as just another human being on the planet, somewhere in the massive universe, I actually matter.

And that faith brings its own form of un-diminishable joy; it is the joy that makes me want to keep on living, keep on learning and keep on exploring life’s great adventure.  It’s an extension, an elaboration and a significantly deep addition to the first-glance pleasure of seeing a carpet of bluebells softly flowing across the forest floor.

And experiencing such moments with friends is part of the glue that holds pleasure, joy – and indeed life – together.

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Seeking out the good stuff

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When I am getting ready for work in the morning, I often turn on the TV in the kitchen. Although I am not really watching it, it provides a backdrop to my breakfast preparation, loading the dishwasher etc, and I get to see the news headlines so I feel a bit more informed and connected with the outside world at the start of the day.

This morning, I noticed for the first time, that as I switch on the television, a message flashes up on the screen. It says Life’s Good ­ which is not so much a message aimed directly at me as the brand motto of LG, the company which made the TV.

But I prefer to think … how lovely it is that my electronic device is sending me a daily reminder, of something which it is all too easy to forget.

In particular at this time of year, the days are still short, grey and rather wet, and it is difficult to shrug off the need to follow new resolutions and to muster enthusiasm for whatever may lie ahead. I was further reminded of this when I attended a Cygnus café meeting at Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary earlier this week. The presenter was Jan Dayton, a well-known and respected healer and medium. Jan’s theme was light, colour and rainbows. Through interactive discussion and guided meditation she reminded us of ways to find lightness in our lives, recapture the colour in our existence and to seek out the positive. All these admirable attributes enable us to move forward in our lives in a calmer, better balanced way and I subscribe wholeheartedly to the ethos, whilst accepting that putting it into practice can certainly be a challenge.

We all lead such full lives. It is easy to become blind to the signposts that exist all around us. We need to take time to reconnect, reflect and bring ourselves back into the moment that is now – not yesterday, not tomorrow, but the here and now which is our current place and state of being.

After my visit to the Sanctuary, I tasked myself with listing three things that gave me lightness and enhanced my day and thought of these just before I went to sleep. As Jan said, if we fill our minds with positivity at the end of the day, surely our nights’ rest and dream state will be better than if we spend time fretting about all the things that go wrong throughout the days.

For the record, my three things were

  • seeing daffodils in flower at the sanctuary
  • the view from the sanctuary of the mist lifting over the Surrey hills
  • an unexpected visit from a friend in the afternoon

This is an easy enough practice to adopt on a daily basis, it feels achievable and worthwhile. Why not give it a try?

Another signpost for optimism greeted me when I opened my diary today, in the form of a quote by author Louise May Alcott:

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.

Rather than trying to keep resolutions, this year I am going to focus on aspirations. Resolutions feel as though they set you up for failure and the potential to be hard on yourself if you do not succeed, whereas aspirations are to be sought and achieved, fulfilled and completed, which to me represents a far more positive and attainable route.

Here’s to a motivational, aspirational and inspirational 2016!

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Of fruit and logos

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The Apple logo has it. Like the Nike swoosh, it’s an image that is instantly recognisable worldwide. The apple is complete in itself, yet it has a piece missing. In fact there is an apocryphal story associated with the logo that suggests it was inspired by troubled genius Alan Turing, the man who laid the foundations for the modern day computer. He it was, who died after taking a bite from an apple he had laced with cyanide, but the theory that this event inspired the logo has been dismissed by Apple. So too has any biblical reference suggesting the apple’s association with knowledge. More prosaically, the designer of the logo confirmed that the reason for the bite is to show scale “so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple rather than a cherry”.

What is the relevance of the Apple logo to grief? I think there is a significant correlation. Ten years after the loss of my son James, I am complete but with a piece missing, at least that is how it feels. To the outside world, I am like the Apple logo, whole, but I know I am not quite as whole as I was. And on the inside, I feel much the same. I am not alone in this – by the time we reach a certain level of maturity, we have all experienced events in our lives that represent chunks out of the apple, but the face we present to the world is complete.

Early grief would not be represented by a small segment out of the apple, rather the fruit would look decimated with a huge chunk missing and the core laid bare.                                                             I remember feeling distinctly unbalanced after James died. It was though I had lost some symmetry of form with the loss of one of my two children. I was blessed to have that symmetry for the time that I did. It was a long time before I felt evenly balanced again, albeit in the way I live now, in a new normality.

If we as parents are the tree, then our children blossom and thrive like the fruit we bear and there is nothing more rewarding than seeing them grow, flourish and develop. The cycle of the fruit tree through the seasons represents a comforting and familiar sequence when it is unbroken.

When James died, in amongst the sense of despair that he had figuratively only just begun to ripen into adulthood, another small seed was sown in my mind.   It was this: rather than James being on the cusp of his adult life and at the beginning of everything new and wonderful that manhood can represent, he had perhaps in fact completed his circle of life in the nineteen, almost twenty years that were his allotted time.                                                                                                                  Only by having real faith that his all too short life was not a waste, does it become bearable to live with the traumatic reality of his passing.

In the supermarket recently, I was struck by the number of varieties of apples that I saw and their worldwide countries of origin – Royal Gala and Braeburn from New Zealand, American Golden Delicious, Opal apples from Estonia and Pink Lady from Australia, alongside Gala apples from France and sturdy UK varieties such as Kentish russets and Cox’s orange pippin. If James was an apple, I like to think he would be a ‘Jazz’ – a pear-drop flavoured apple, brightly coloured, fresh and crisp, with a bit of fizz.

I was reminded of a school project years ago, when I had to take the children to the supermarket to look on the shelves for items from different countries. I am sure we ended up with a few tins, tomatoes from Italy and salmon from Canada. A scant thirty years later, our expectations have broadened to the extent that we take for granted the worldwide freight traffic that enables us to have such an amazing variety of fresh items at our fingertips.

This international traffic, whether physical or virtual, always gives me a pang of regret that James was not able to fully embrace social media as it was only just in its infancy when he died – he would have loved its global flavour.

To return to the Apple (Inc) theme, the late Steve Jobs said,                                                          “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life”.                                   When you lose a child your own life is thrown into sharp relief and it is exceedingly difficult at first to decide how you are going to carry on living it with any degree of meaning. There is a temptation to take the route of constantly wondering what your child would be doing if he or she were still here, and placing restrictions on how you behave, where you go, even your own enjoyment, because you feel you shouldn’t be able to enjoy yourself (guilt free) after your child died. Thankfully this effect lessens with time and when I feel happy now I do not need to qualify it with how I think James would react – indeed, I believe that he would be far happier to know I am enjoying life, than not.

Living vicariously is fun as an exercise but it is not realistic to sustain; Steve Jobs’ advice is sound.

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Hippy Birthday

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11 September is a sad anniversary for many. On a personal level, it was a particularly significant day for us this year as it marked James’ thirtieth birthday; it seems impossible that we have lived through eleven birthdays without him being here to share them. The birthday date each year brings to mind happier times and it is undoubtedly a much easier day to get through than the July anniversary of his passing.

It was a strange day this time round, as I was in hospital on the first postoperative day after a total hip replacement. Any of the usual small rituals associated with James’ birthday, such as lighting a candle for him, were not easily achievable. Instead, when I was not focusing on clearing the post-operative brain fog and processing my feelings around the procedure I had just undergone, I dipped in and out of Facebook on my phone. A few days earlier, I uploaded a series of photos of James taken over the years and it was heartening and comforting to read people’s kind comments and good wishes, both for his birthday and my recovery.

I began to consider whether there were parallels between my surgery and the grief path, which sounds rather indiscriminate, but it is a favourite game of mine to play ‘match up’.

Measuring other events against loss and grief can often offer a new perspective for processing them.

Breaking it down to the simplest level, both the loss of James and my hip replacement mean that something has been taken away from me, to be replaced by something else.                                  In the case of my hip, a part of my self has been taken out and discarded as no longer functional. It has been exchanged for something new and shiny that works properly.

Can the same be said of the loss of my son?                                                                                   No, of course not! – there is no comparison.

A part of my self was indeed lost the day that James died, but with what has it been replaced?

We can never replace lost children.

BUT the gap left by his no longer being here has gradually been filled, over time, with a new sense of being, a new sense of hope, a new sense of living and a new sense of purpose. To this end, I ‘work properly’, albeit in a different way.

An enormous difference between my hip replacement and the loss of James is that my surgery was planned and anticipated, his passing was most certainly not.                                                             Thus the shock and trauma of loss is an element which has no comparison with planned surgery.

I turned to word clouds to better express the links between the two concepts: there is great

fun to be had at www.wordle.net if you are minded to play around with the written word.

This is not an exhaustive list, but all the same it can be seen that most of the words appear in both HIP and GRIEF word clouds. The exceptions relate to the unexpected nature and timing of loss, which is neither chosen nor controlled.

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Anticipated events can be prepared for and researched. Fear of the unknown may be reduced with the acquisition of knowledge and an idea of what is to come. This cannot be said of sudden loss – by its nature it will instil a deeply profound, traumatic shock to the system, and even after a decade of living with that shock, I am still aware of its reverberations if something happens to trigger memories of the early days of grief.

The regret associated with loss is permanent; whereas the regret I felt for the necessity for surgery has been transient.

Control is an important concept to me. I enjoy an orderly existence and prefer to plan for events. When they are thrust upon me, this engenders a certain level of fear and uncertainty – hence I dreaded my spinal anaesthetic prior to surgery but in reality it was better than anticipated. The uncontrolled nature of loss and grief, when all my terms of reference were swept away from me in an instant, means that a long recovery road followed for me to be able to get back on track and feel as though I was in relative control of all aspects of my life. I am often reminded of C S Lewis’ quote from A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”. Being forced to get to know grief when it is thrust upon you does have the effect of reducing the fear.

Pain is difficult to quantify as we all live with degrees of physical, mental and emotional pain. For me, the removal of the physical pain associated with my hip has been miraculous and instant, a real life-changer for the better. The same cannot be said of the pain associated with grief and loss. This is an underlying, permanent, pervasive level of pain, with which anyone who is bereaved has to learn to live.

When I was in hospital, the medical staff were fond of asking, “How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten?” My scale did not rise above a seven, and painkillers were appropriately issued to keep me comfortable during the early recovery phase. But when it comes to grief, the pain score will be right off the scale at first, and today I would rate my grief pain score at two to three. This reduction has been a slow, gradual process, and it has been aided not by physical painkillers, but by the positive attributes in my word clouds. Accepting the presence of a constant low level of pain as a given has become almost second nature.

It is clear to me that having faith in my own ability to heal both physically and mentally – with a great deal of help from outside my self – is a massive stride towards a proactive recovery whether it is from loss, or surgery, or a combination of both.

It is achievable, yes, but no one ever said it would be easy!