Tag Archives: RNLI

Respect the Water 2017

 

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This year’s RNLI Respect the Water campaign runs from May to September, and many will have seen media coverage by Ross Macleod, Coastal Safety Manager, and the ever increasing team who contribute and pull together to produce an innovative and effective campaign across the UK and Ireland.

Back in 2006 when we were involved with Kingston Council developing safety measures at the riverside where James lost his life, a friend sent to me the ‘Starfish Story’ (replicated at the end of this post).  The message in this simple story tells how individuals can make a difference for the future, in ways they may never have envisaged.  The story seemed particularly apposite to what we were proposing, and achieved, in Kingston. From the end of our campaign in 2009 to date, it is impossible to measure the effects of the increased safety of the area, but there is no doubt that, like the man throwing the starfish into the ocean, we made a difference.

Somehow, the starfish story has become synonymous with my involvement with the RNLI, which began in 2014 when my book Into the Mourning Light was published.  In Chapter 10 of the book I reproduce the starfish story in correlation with our campaign and the work with Kingston.                                                                                                                The next time the story cropped up was when The RNLI filmed me for a video as part of the awards ceremony for Respect the Water in 2015.

A few months ago I was approached by the RNLI in relation to this year’s collaborative initiative along the Thames.  Pub chain Nicholson’s has joined forces with the RNLI to promote water safety messages to customers across its entire network of 78 locations, via special promotions of their fish dishes, empowering staff with water safety advice to share with customers, and running additional fundraising and awareness activities.

In addition the RNLI are supplying potentially lifesaving throw bags to pubs at key locations along the River Thames in London.  RNLI personnel will then deliver training to staff on how to use them to rescue someone from the water in an emergency.  The message is clearly prevention rather than cure.

On a personal level, I was particularly touched to learn that the RNLI had decided to honour James’s memory by dedicating the community throw bag training manual to him.

I was asked to write the dedication, incorporating the starfish story.

On Wednesday 31 May Shaun and I travelled to the Horniman at Hays, the Nicholson’s pub on the south bank near London Bridge which is launching the initiative.   It was truly inspiring to be part of this event, and we met other members of the RNLI who have been involved, over a period of years, in the development of the throw bag initiative. I was particularly pleased to meet Tim James, another helmsman from Teddington who is a colleague of Andy Butterfield and John Soones, two passionately committed individuals who each form part of the wonderfully cohesive jigsaw of the community safety arm of the organisation.  It was a pleasure too to meet event organisers Bridie and Rachel who, doubtless with other staff in the wings, helped the event to come together.  The pub was very busy and many people passing along the walkway in this tourist-rich part of London will doubtless have taken away with them a new understanding of how to Respect the Water.

They will have seen this year’s Respect the Water video which encourages anyone falling into the water to try to float, rather than instinctively trying to swim hard.

They may have seen the demonstrations of how to deploy the throw bag by Guy and the team and realise its effectiveness.

This initiative and its new collaboration with licensed premises demonstrate an evolution into a valuable community based approach to education, training and safety around these important water-based issues.  As always, the RNLI demonstrate a wholehearted desire to effect positive change through the commitment, drive, passion and enthusiasm of its members.

When I first spoke to Andy Butterfield, Guy Addington and Ross Macleod  back in 2014 I never imagined the association would develop into what represents, for me, an ongoing tribute to my son’s memory.  The remarkable prevention and rescue organisation that is the RNLI facilitates opportunities for an ordinary individual like me to truly make a difference for the future in drowning prevention. I am very proud to be involved.

https://www.respectthewater.com/

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The Starfish Story

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”  asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

 

https://www.respectthewater.com/

What’s in a Murmuration?

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Following my talk at the launch of the RNLI Fish Supper charity fundraiser last October, I was honoured to be invited to pay a return visit to the College in Poole on 10 January and give another presentation, this time at a training event.

I was told that currently, there is something of a sea change (couldn’t resist that one) in the management structure of the RNLI to better integrate the management functions for rescue (lifeboats), supervision (lifeguards) and prevention (Respect the Water, education and community awareness).  To this end, there is a new grouping of operational RNLI Managers with specific responsibilities covering the entire coast, including Irish waters and the River Thames.  My brief was to address this group of men and women who together have an enormous amount of knowledge and experience within their specific fields.

Prior to the presentation, which was to be at 5pm, Shaun and I were sitting with a cup of tea in the Slipway café bar at the RNLI college, watching through the window a group of starlings, known as a murmuration.  We marvelled at their airborne acrobatics as they gracefully swirled, swooped and dipped, forming wonderful shapes which morphed and changed with smooth fluidity in the sky above the water in the bay.  Their synchrony and grace were a delight, and we felt privileged to be watching their spectacular pre-roost show, as the light was fading fast.

There seems a curious synchronicity at work, in that when I looked for an image of starlings to illustrate this post, I saw that the RNLI’s Ross Macleod had posted some pictures of starlings in Studland Bay, Dorset and he kindly allowed me to share one here.

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One theory of such murmurations is that they are to do with defence, representing distraction and safety in numbers; the group behaving with a single purpose, and in the starlings’ case, to avoid predators.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the birds’ behaviour in formation is that the group responds as one and although they are separate, uniquely individual characters, they move collectively, forming their shapes in shared commonality.

As I come to know better the men and women associated with the RNLI, whether they are volunteers or staff, it is not too fanciful to think that collectively they behave much like a murmuration.  Apart from the fact that they are not in danger from marauding raiders – although of course they do experience negativity from a few detractors – their underlying aim and remit is single-mindedly purposeful and can be summed up in their intrinsic desire to make our waters safe for everyone.

They are entirely impartial, proactive, positive personalities whose aims and aspirations I cannot praise highly enough.

They are vocational and often generational, many of them having fathers and grandfathers who served the RNLI.  The water is in their blood and it shows in their passionate commitment to make a difference for anyone and everyone.

What could I, as an individual, tell them that would impact on the group?

I felt the most value I could give to the presentation would be to share my own reality of ‘What Happens Next’; by which I mean … how do you live your life after the crushing loss of a beloved son to drowning?  It is only through my dealings with the RNLI since 2014 that I have come to understand how important it is to keep telling our personal story.  This is because the ways in which sharing some of James, and our life as it has evolved since his loss, provide helpful insights into life as a bereaved parent.

I found this group an ideal audience also to hear some of what I have learned about grief and loss in the past 11 ½ years – not only to help them with their work when they are involved in incidents with the worst possible outcome, but also in their personal lives.

They are all people with families and friends like any other group and inevitably, most of them will experience the loss of someone close to them at some time or another.  I was glad to mention the loss-specific organisations that have been so much help to me: The Compassionate Friends, the Drowning Support Network and CRUSE Bereavement Care.

I always feel it is worth sharing too the assorted elements that come to form the grief toolbox … in my case the above organisations, our work with Kingston Council, my writing, to name but a few.

I also thought it would be beneficial to summarise some of the Do’s and Don’ts that I have learned in the past 11 years.  These I have published in full before, but I feel they are worth sharing again:

Top Do’s and Don’ts in dealing with Bereaved families:

  • Don’t tell them that such tragedies happen to only those who are strong enough to survive them
  • Don’t change the subject when they mention their lost loved one
  • Don’t stop mentioning their lost relative’s name because you are scared of reminding them; you cannot upset them any more than they have already been upset
  • Don’t presume to understand their grief because you have experienced the death of an elderly relative or even a pet
  • Don’t remind parents that they have other children or could have another child
  • Don’t say “I don’t know how you cope; I couldn’t.” The bereaved have no choice in the matter.

 

  • Do be as normal as possible with them; talking about ordinary things and even sitting in silence, can be comforting
  • Do answer questions honestly and understand that some people have a need to know small details, others will only want the wider picture
  • Do ask how they are feeling, but only if you are prepared to listen to the answer
  • Do express your own sadness about what has happened, and encourage them to talk about him or her as often as they want
  • Do remember the needs of the wider family who may all need support and ask you questions that they cannot ask the most directly affected family members
  • Do remember that you must protect yourself from being drained by the needs of the bereaved family – who heals the healer?

The things we do as we go through our lives can outlast our own mortality.

The things we do today and tomorrow are stepping stones, building for the future.

Sharing our memories and our present and our future provides unexpected legacies in memory of those whom we have lost.

I am indebted to the RNLI for allowing me to continue telling the story.

There is a naturalness in the murmurations of the starlings.

There is a naturalness in the ebb and flow of our seas and waterways which commands us to remain vigilant … and always to continue to Respect the Water. 

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A Call to Action to Respect the Water

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My heart aches.

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

What can we do?

Now is not the time for the benefit of hindsight.

Now is the time to embrace foresight. 

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

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

Spread the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look out for yourselves and for each other.

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

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

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

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Links

www.rnli.org.uk

www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk

Eleventh Anniversary of Loss

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

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

I was asked recently,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your relationships have to be redrawn overnight.

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

You fear for your own health, wellbeing and sanity.

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

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

You either cannot sleep or can’t wake up.

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

All your terms of reference disappear.

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

There are many tools in the grief toolbox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James. My James.

I say your name,

with joy, not regret,

with pride, not shame,

to remember, not to forget,

with laughter, not tears,

with thoughts of today, not yesterday,

with love for tomorrow and all our tomorrows”.

 

sunnyjim

 

 Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Always loved and missed.  Forever in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

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

The RNLI on the River

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

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

You would be wrong on both counts …

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

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

Chiswick

Gravesend in Kent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easter Reflection

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Touched by an Angel

 We, unaccustomed to courage

Exiles from delight

Live coiled in shells of loneliness

Until love leaves its high holy temple

and comes into our sight

To liberate us into life.

 

Love arrives

and in its train come ecstasies

Old memories of pleasure

Ancient histories of pain

Yet if we are bold,

Love strikes away the chains of fear

from our souls.

 

We are weaned from our timidity

in the flush of love’s light

We dare to be brave

and suddenly we see

That love costs all we are

And will ever be

Yet it is only love

which sets us free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter to all, when it comes!

sunnyjim