Tag Archives: inspiration

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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Coffee and Candles

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During the past week I’ve managed to break two objects that I have had for a long time.

In themselves they weren’t especially valuable, but I was upset that I broke them as they had safely accompanied me through various house moves and always had their own place in my home.  They each represented different memories.

The first item was a glass ‘coffee press’ coffee maker. I am not a great caffeine drinker but the coffee maker had seen plenty of dinner party service over the years.  The day I broke it, I fancied some real coffee, but as I took the jug from the cupboard, it slipped out of my hand and the glass shattered on the tiled kitchen floor.  Fortunately, the Bodum Bistro coffee press  is an iconic design, and I was pleased that later on that day I was able to buy a similar replacement, and even better, the price was reduced in the sale.  The filter is a little more sophisticated, but otherwise the design remains the same.

I’m sure that a large part of my sadness at the demise of the coffee maker relates to the fact that my late mum had one and it was a permanent fixture on her kitchen worktop.  Hers was a small capacity version, and she invariably had some black coffee on tap, “The caffeine perks me up, dear”, she used to say.

The second mishap was entirely my own fault.  Many years ago on a visit to Copenhagen, I bought a small, round, glass tea light holder.  It was bang on trend at the time, being made from thick glass in an irregular pattern that was meant to resemble a snowball. Indeed it looked suitably ice-like and reflected the light very well when it held a lit candle.

This was  my ‘go to’ holder for lighting candles, sometimes to lift a dark corner or scent a room, but mostly I viewed it as my ‘in memoriam’ votive candle holder, often placing it in front of a photo of James or having a candle lit in remembrance on significant dates.

So … on the day it happened, I intended to change the spent tea light for a new one, but a little wax had melted onto the glass at the bottom of the holder.  I thought, “I know, I will run some hot water over it”. This was in an attempt to soften the wax and make the candle easier to remove. But I realised this wasn’t my greatest idea when I heard a distinct popping sound and saw that the glass had cracked all the way round.  I guess that the hot water being directed onto the cold glass caused it to expand too quickly and it couldn’t withstand the pressure.

I have other tea light holders; in particular I often light one that has a butterfly design.  It was not so much the loss of the Danish holder that upset me as the significance of what it represented over the years.

Inadvertently destroying two objects from the same era in the space of a week felt quite strange and I set out to find a message …

My emotional response was disproportionate to the monetary value of the items, but not to my sentimental attachment to them.

More positively, I learnt that mere items can generally be replaced. 

 Memories remain whether or not the associated items still exist.

 Losing items relating to a time that is now in the past allows opportunities to move forward and embrace something different for the future. 

I now have a chance to find a new favourite tea light holder without displacing the old one.

 Creating new memories is as important as holding old ones.  The trick is to let go what is not necessary any more and replace it with something different, which may turn out to be even better than the original.

How often I have said, “I wish that hadn’t happened …” weighed down by ‘stuff’ I am carrying with me from the past.  Of course, when it comes to major losses and traumas, these cannot be simply discarded like the broken coffee maker and candle holder, but their ongoing effect and presence can be managed in a healthy, forward looking way. Simplistically, looking forward rather than backward is a learned skill and it is definitely easier said than done.

Someone said to me recently, “Throughout your life you gather stuff that clings to you.  If you could see it you would look like a snowball getting larger and larger.  What you need to do is to control your roll down the hill”. I like the imagery of this and also favour the thought of brushing off some of that snow so it is not so heavy and cumbersome.

My new coffee maker saw good use over Christmas and I am resolved to try different coffees to ensure it is utilised more regularly.

And I am looking forward to finding a tea light holder that reflects who I am now, rather than who I was when I bought the old one.

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Of Samaritans and Sacher-torte

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It’s been a while since I posted on the blog, due to our move from Surrey to Devon and the associated busyness related to finding our way round.  We are gradually settling in and getting to know our new home and area. This all amounts to a work in progress!

I wanted to share a rather unique and wonderful Good Samaritan experience that came our way last week.

We were on our way back from shopping in Tiverton and as we rounded a bend on the A396 road to Bampton, we saw a man and a woman standing near to a car.  The man had his thumb out, hitching a lift.

“Shall we stop?” I asked Shaun, who was driving.

“I think we should”, he replied, pulling over into the passing place.

The man and woman approached.  They were wearing hiking gear and didn’t look particularly concerned, so we weren’t sure quite what to expect.

They greeted us cheerfully enough and we immediately gathered they were not English (the red classic Renault with foreign plates should have given us a clue).

It turned out that they were Austrian. “Can you help us, please?” asked the woman.      “We need a lift to Exebridge, where our boat is moored”.

It turned out that they had driven from Exebridge to where we had stopped, a few miles outside Bampton, with the intention of walking back to board their boat, and ride it down the river to where the car was parked, a distance of some five miles in total.  But they had come unstuck …

“The road, it is so busy!” they exclaimed.  “No pavements and it is too hazardous to walk”, they added.  We agreed.  Although not an especially busy road, it is an A road and is thus not ideal walking territory.

“It’s fine”, said Shaun.  “Get in the car and I will drop my wife off at home with the shopping and then take you on to Exebridge”,

They got into the car gratefully.  I was racking my brains for anything to do with Austria to converse about, and eventually rather lamely came up with,

“I don’t know anything much about Austria, but I have eaten Sacher-torte” which seemed to please them.  It was the only common ground we could find and I was amused at the thought of sitting in the car talking about chocolate cake with two Viennese strangers!

Shaun dropped me home and amid much nodding and smiling goodbye from the couple, he set off again to Exebridge, and soon returned having dropped them off.

We thought no more about it, except to congratulate ourselves on having the warm fuzzy feeling of playing Good Samaritans for the couple.

We hoped they would enjoy the rest of their stay and take back to Austria with them an impression that the English can be helpful and friendly, too.

Early that evening, there was a ring on the doorbell. I opened the door to see the Renault outside, and I was presented with a bottle of red wine; the Austrian woman stood there, effusively thanking us for our kindness. There was much waving and smiling before the couple drove off again.

We were amazed and touched that the pair had gone to the trouble of coming back with a gift for us; how very kind!

I had to laugh when I read what was written on the wine bottle label:

“Instead of Sacher-cake, wine from Vienna.                                                                             Thank you for the ride!                                                                                                          Greetings, Claudia and Christian”.

Somehow, this incident makes us feel more settled in this lovely region to which we have moved.  We didn’t present to the Austrian couple as new strangers in town.  As far as they were concerned, we were the locals, they were the visitors.  This instils a new level of confidence that comes from feeling as though we are relaxing day by day into our new environment.  Shaun and I agree that Devon is already offering some unexpected bonuses.

It is markedly unusual for my blog posts not to include something about grief and loss, but it does not have a place in this piece.  Suffice to say that the enormous distractions of leaving work and relocating here have combined to put me into a place where, apart from around the anniversary of James’s passing, I have not had time to think about the ramifications of the changes.

There is something quite refreshing in the shift of focus and I am hopeful that it will give me inspiration in my writing and colour my words in a new way.  Time will tell!

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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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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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Look around, look up and look forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had reached an impasse.

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

I looked upwards to the heavens for inspiration. 

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

I tried to visualise looking forward beyond the finish line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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