Tag Archives: writing

Of Samaritans and Sacher-torte

IMG_3386 (2)

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!

IMG_3362

Advertisements

The View from the Window – 12th Anniversary of Loss

IMG_2654 (2)

The View from the Window –  the 12th Anniversary of Loss

During class at the creative writing group I attended for some years, our tutor was fond of challenging us with ‘on the spot’ writing exercises.  One of her favourites was to give us the title The View from the Window.  The view we wrote about could be real or imaginary and we would have five minutes to write on the topic.  That doesn’t sound very long but you would be surprised how easily creativity can flow under pressure.  This technique is sometimes also known as writing from the wrist … allowing the creative side of the brain to entirely dictate what flows from the pen.  It is also a good way to release writer’s block.  Faced with an empty page or blank screen, simply looking out of the window and recording what you see is rewarding to do.  It doesn’t matter whether you end up with a piece that flows like well-ordered prose, or a prosaic list of items that you observe, the important thing is that you have allowed your mind the freedom to wander without constraint.  I am no painterly artist, but I guess it is similar to being faced with a blank canvas and applying the first strokes that will evolve into an artwork.  Confidence comes with practice.

I believe that in my own experience, the ever changing ‘view from the window’ correlates well to the way grief evolves over time.

Next week it will be twelve years since my son James died, and my window view today is substantially different from that at the beginning.

Today I can look out and see sunshine, blue skies, and the rich colours of nature.

Twelve years ago I saw only storm clouds and darkness.

In reality, too, my view from the window has substantially changed twice since James died, in the form of two house moves.  Our first move, in 2012, took us eight miles from Addlestone to Knaphill near Woking in Surrey, and it was a big leap in that I was moving out of the area where my children were born, schooled, and raised.  At the time, I wrote that I was anxious about moving to a house where James had not lived, but I need not have had concerns as I quickly understood the crucial fact that he comes everywhere with me in spirit.

It may reassure others to know that your memories do indeed move with you, wherever you are.  I also felt a certain degree of relief that I was living in an area where I was not constantly reminded of James; for example on a daily basis I saw children in the same school uniform that he wore, and they walked the pavements where he had walked; that was hard, but I didn’t necessarily appreciate so at the time.

There is an element of freedom that comes with being a bereaved parent living in a place where no-one knows your story, and as time goes on, you have a choice whether or not to share it. In early grief you may well have an irresistible urge to tell practically everyone you meet what has happened, but this tends to fade and I have definitely become more selective about the circumstances in which I share James, certainly in social situations where I may only meet people once.

Our second  move is very recent; at the end of June we transported our goods, chattels and two cats to our new home in Bampton, Devon … it is a massive change of pace and environment.  It’s an exciting, if slightly daunting, prospect to know that we have to start from scratch in getting ourselves established in a new area, but we are confident that family and friends will visit regularly and we will become involved in the local community as we get more settled in this new phase of our lives.

When we moved three weeks ago from Knaphill, the family photographs were almost the last thing I packed.  They travelled in the car with me and were one of the first items to be placed in the lounge.  This felt very important to my wellbeing.

As for leaving James behind … The couple who bought our house in Knaphill are called James and Vicky and the middle name of the seller of our new home is James.  I was also amused when our next door neighbour introduced himself … “Hello”,  he said, “I am Jim”,  I assume this to be a diminutive of James.  … thus I have complete confidence in James’s nudges, reminding us he is around!

It is now three years since the publication of Into the Mourning Light and I am still working on my second grief support book; it is coming together slowly.  However, as any writer knows, you have to be in the right frame of mind to write consistently, and planning and achieving a move are mentally draining, so the project remains a rather slow work in progress!

My involvement with the RNLI and the Respect the Water campaign continues and last week I was invited to the RNLI College in Poole to talk to a group of 45 mainly community based RNLI staff and volunteers who were attending a training course.  How different it was go to go Poole from Devon … a similar distance to before but a more scenic route, certainly.

It is hard to express how comforted I am by the RNLI’s continued support for our particular circumstances.  I have chosen to share our James in a way that brings home the ramifications of personal tragedy through accidental loss, but importantly, I am able to give hope and reassurance that life can and does get better after the kind of trauma we experienced.

This time round I called my presentation ‘Making Waves’ as I feel the RNLI certainly makes waves in its continued determination to reduce and prevent drowning tragedies.  The ongoing scenario is a positive and collaborative approach with all the other organisations that make up the National Water Safety Forum, each working hard to drive their initiatives forward.

slidepic

(Photo Credit, Nathan Williams, RNLI, May 2017)

In my own way, I am proud to be a wave maker too.  It is immensely gratifying to be able to share what I have learned over the past twelve years with audiences who can positively use some of the tools of working with grief and loss.  These apply equally to both work and personal life situations.

I couldn’t resist finishing my talk with a ‘water’ analogy … can’t get away from them! ….Every individual is contributing to the collective effect and every ripple is part of the wave that eventually breaks and spreads across the shore.

Twelve years of loss can perhaps be equated also to a twelve month turn of the calendar.

In grief terms, year one (January) looks entirely different to year twelve (December).  January is almost invariably a dark and long month, despite its being the first month of a new year.  When you are in early grief, going into a new year without your loved one is a difficult concept to assimilate.  I remember the first New Year without James felt all wrong; to be going into a year that did not have his living presence in it was a tremendous struggle.

Spring time and Easter hold a greater resonance for me today than they did twelve years ago, too.  I can reflect fondly on James’s younger years when he was involved with the Easter celebrations at school that led to the hasty last-minute creation of elaborate miniature Easter gardens and/or decorated Easter hats; Stella was always super organised with her contributions but James would invariably have a rush job on …

The Christian symbolism of Easter also reminds us that life continues, despite loss and heartache.

July remains a difficult month and always feels as though it drags.  This year it has felt very different because of our house move.  I cannot imagine a time when I will not need to place some flowers at James’s plaque at Kingston riverside on the anniversary of his passing.

We will be going to Kingston next Friday as we usually do on 28 July.

plaquebandwp209

I have always loved the colours of autumn, and the gentleness of that season soothes the spirit.  I find it a pleasantly reflective time now, though I recall well that the year James died, I was dismayed by the passage of time and wrote, “The days – and nights – dragged that summer, yet suddenly we were in late September and I had no real sense of how time had passed”.  Time passing ‘normally’ takes a while to resume.

When the turn of the year’s circle brings us round to Christmas again I can say that I have reached a point where I am able to reflect on how we have managed over the years and as I have said before, though we are without James’s physical presence, “Here we are, still standing, still living, still counting blessings for the life we now have.  The newest generation in our families give the continuum for our future and bring much joy”.

The passage of time has allowed my loss to become woven into this life’s fabric with gentle poignancy, the sweetest of memories and love without end.

IMG_2954 (2)

Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark

11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005

Loved and missed, always in our hearts

 

 

Pleasure and Joy

P1010054 (2)

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.

P1010058 (2)

Hug a Tree in 2017

img_0880

I bet no-one ever took me for a tree-hugger, did they?

And yet … as I reflect on the nationally trying (Election/Brexit) and loss-filled (too many to mention) year of 2016 that we are shortly to be leaving behind, I realise there is a great and simple truth to trees.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whatever human frailties we have, through all our joys and sorrows, trees stand steadfast.  Whatever havoc we may create around ourselves, the roots of trees reach further down beneath the ground and their branches stretch their fingers higher towards the sky.

They bend with the wind, they do not break.

They can withstand either scorching or freezing extremes of temperature.

The cycle of leaf, blossom, fruit, continues unabated and the sap circulates in trees’ systems like our lifeblood circulates in us, bending to the rhythm of the seasons.

Trees are life givers that can feed the world.

Trees provide fuel and shelter when we need it. 

Trees can be anything from spindly to magnificent. 

Trees can be in a copse, a coppice, a thicket, a plantation, a glade, wood, a forest, an orchard, a jungle, a weald; they can stand proudly alone or be in massed company.

The cycle of the deciduous tree’s life repeated year on year has a structure that reflects the human condition from birth to passing.  In spring, the sap rises.  The tree begins to green up. The leaves and blooms unfurl, fresh and new.  The tree’s energy is growing and strong.  In summer, the tree stands tall and proud in its gown of green, embracing the warmth of the sunshine.  The autumn brings mellow colour and as the sap falls back to the heart of the tree, the leaves fall gently away, leaving the tree stark but strong against the ravages of winter.

yearend2

It may look as though the tree is dormant, yet deep within its kernel heart it absorbs the sugar of the seasons, creating a rich residue, ready to come to life again in the spring.

We repeat such patterns many times throughout the living of our days.

When a tree dies, its life is revealed in the whorls of its bark and the rings of its trunk.  Every circle tells a story, each notch on the bark is an event in the life of the tree.

Some trees are really special.  When you stand beneath the shelter of their branches you feel they can help you to safely let go of troubled, chaotic thoughts.  They nurture and support in silent empathy.  They are living, breathing beings.

wisley

Two trees either side of a path can reach out like arms across a sacred space, drawing you to their embrace.  It feels as though they are acting as a channel that reaches high above the planet to draw down comfort, particularly at times of trouble, loss and grief.  Twice in my life I have experienced an amazing release of emotion, standing in this ancient energy and letting the trees take my sadness and absorb it into their primordial wisdom, leaving me comforted and calm. 

There is an undeniable truth to trees.  You know where you are with trees; they will never deceive.  Their wisdom is pure.

Listen to the trees.  They whisper in the summer breeze that rustles their leaves, and yet they whistle and howl through winter gales. Their moods are many and capricious, just like ours.

Do the trees mourn?  What can be sadder than a dripping, dark yew in the graveyard?  Yes, the trees can mourn.  But the beauty of trees in bloom in the early spring is a matter for deep joy.

Trees care not for politics or religion, though they are God-given.  The Tree of Life represents the first true human temptation; the mighty oak tree symbolises the stolid strength of faith.

Collectively, trees represent strength, resilience and solidarity.

A stand of trees high on a hill looks glorious.

A single small sapling reaches for the sky with optimism and conviction that it will one day be great and strong.

You may feel that you are separate from the trees, that they mean nothing to you. But we are all connected.                                                                                                                                             C S Lewis said, “Human beings look separate because you see them walking about separately. But then we are so made that we can see only the present moment. If we could see the past, then of course it would look different. For there was a time when every man was part of his mother, and (earlier still) part of his father as well, and when they were part of his grandparents. If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would look like one single growing thing–rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would appear connected with every other.”

I send love and good wishes to everyone for a peaceful and healthy 2017. 

Stay connected with each other, value your friends and your family … and if you feel so moved, go out and hug a tree …

Close Encounters of the Connected Kind

14589892_1292727670760589_7501550332266929359_o

Close Encounters of the Connected Kind

Many will remember the 1977 science fiction film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by Steven Spielberg.  It tells the story of an ordinary man whose life changes in extraordinary ways after an encounter with an unidentified flying object.

Every parent who loses a child is catapulted from a hitherto ordinary to an extraordinary world – in the true sense of the word, and trying to acclimatise to the unwanted, unfamiliar planet of grief is a massive challenge.

Eleven years after losing James, my grief planet has become more like home.  I have learned to negotiate the terrain that at first looked like an alien, un-mapped space.  My grief Satnav has charted the blind alleys, the no through roads, the cul de sacs and finally the multi-lane highways with the occasional diversion that reflects a slipping back into distress; triggered by differing outside forces.

The storms that once blocked the routes have given way to sunshine, clouds, light breezes with the occasional shower, and many rainbows.

In Close Encounters, Richard Dreyfuss’s character feels a connection he cannot sever with the UFO. The subliminal images that plague him throughout the film remind me of how, in the early days of loss, memories play repeatedly across the mind’s eye like inescapable screensavers on an endless loop.  You can neither turn off your memories nor eliminate your shock at the fact that this person whom you love so much is no longer physically here, and what you have left is a flat line, static level of memories, like an album of images to which you cannot add.

Accepting that your life cannot have a neatly tied up ending like a fictional story or screenplay is tough.

For me, time has unfolded the gift that loss has gradually offered: it has led to numerous new connections which in turn form fresh memories that include James, albeit in a more ethereal sense.

I was recently asked to speak at a public event at the RNLI College, the organisation’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset. The event was a fish-themed fundraising evening hosted by the RNLI to launch the charity’s annual Fish Supper Campaign.

img_0053

My talks and presentations thus far have been based largely on living with bereavement and loss.  They have been tailored to groups who are either grieving or connected with the grieving.  This time, I was asked to engage with an audience of around 80 people, at a reasonably light-hearted social event.  Those attending were connected with the RNLI and also included members of the public who had purchased tickets for the advertised event.

I thought about the brief; it presented something of a challenge to ensure that I did not bring down the tone of what should be an enjoyable, relaxed evening.

I needed to tell James’s story in a way that would ultimately provide positive messages.

I decided to base my presentation around the theme of connections.  As readers of my blog know, my new connections started very soon after James died in 2005, through our work with Kingston council to institute safety measures at the riverside.  Our ultimately successful three year campaign was a gratifying legacy for James in its own right.  Through connections that I made over that time and beyond, I talked at CRUSE bereavement training days and co-presented workshops at the Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary with Linda Sewell, with whom I first connected through the bereavement organisation The Compassionate Friends. Connections with the US Based Drowning Support Network also led to more writing and friendships made across the water – and across the ether.

But it was not until 2014, with the publication of Into the Mourning Light, that my connection with the RNLI began, through the initial contact from Teddington helmsman Andy Butterfield, who read locally about my book.

He in turn connected me with RNLI Staff Guy Addington and Ross Macleod. I told James’s story for the Respect the Water campaign in 2014 and was heavily involved in the campaign that year, amongst other things in composing the text for the beer glasses supplied in local pubs and restaurants.

In 2015, I was invited by the RNLI to tell James’s story again and the copy was used as a case study in the initial strategy document for the newly formed National Water Safety Forum.  Attendance at the NWSF launch event in early 2016 led to even more new connections with Jackie Roberts (RLSS) and Dawn Whittaker (East Sussex Fire and Rescue) … of which more another time.

Thus I found I had no shortage of material and I structured my presentation around the connections I’ve made and the positive aspects of life after loss.  I illustrated the talk with slides which chronicled the key events.

At the event, the MC introduced me as an ‘Ambassador for the Respect the Water campaign’, an accolade which makes my heart swell with pride – naturally, on my son’s behalf.

When I choose to give voice to and share what has come from living with loss, it is always done from the heart and in loving memory of James.

I chose not to dwell on grief and loss per se, except for two key points which I hoped the audience would take home with them.

Firstly I asked that people do not turn away from the grieving because they ‘don’t know what to say’.  How much better it is … to say a few carefully chosen words than cross to the other side of the street in avoidance.

And I made the point that offering help should be tangible, rather than an open “let me know if there is anything I can do” which puts someone on the spot.  The newly bereaved are not good decision makers; it is as much as they can do to put one foot in front of the other.

Secondly, although it is your natural inclination to try, you should resist the urge to empathise.  It’s no use telling me that you understand how I feel because your pet was put down last week (yes that really did happen to me).  Better to say nothing at all!

I concluded my talk with a quote from Jimmy Carter, former President of the USA.  He was talking of his faith, but I paraphrased what he says and applied it to each and every person associated with the RNLI.  It also reflects my own mind set in dealing with grief:

I do whatever I can,

wherever I am,

whenever I can,

for as long as I can,

with whatever I have,

…  to try to make a difference.

Afterwards, two members of the audience came to me and thanked me personally for my words, telling me that something I said had struck a chord.  It is impossible to convey the wonderful feeling this gives me; being public in grief brings with it a vulnerability and the potential of being judged by my actions.  I am lucky that I meet largely with positive responses.

The fact is that the RNLI organisation recognises and understands connections.  Who better than the volunteers like Beth Wilkinson, who was also a guest speaker at the event, to know that life can indeed be lost in an instant? Beth spoke lightly of a day of missing her bacon sandwich because her pager kept going off, but she represents the sharp end of what this life-saving organisation actually do on a day to day basis.

None of us can never forget that tragic accidental loss of life impacts on and reverberates through many lives, whenever, however and wherever it happens.

Whatever I can do to help lessen these effects reflects my heartfelt desire to stress the importance of understanding how careful we must all be around water, however innocuous it may appear.

We must do this in order to prevent further traumatic loss to individuals, the emergency services, and ordinary families such as mine; who never wanted to be extraordinary.

img_0070

 

 

A Letter

geranium

Dear Andrea

Someone suggested to me the other day that I write you a letter.  It would be a ‘good thing’, they said, and you would definitely benefit from it.  Well, I know you pretty well, and suggesting that anything is a ‘good thing’ is sufficient to put you off, but I am hoping that you will stick with me and read to the end.

This won’t be a letter of mincing words, of pussy-footing around the truth.  No, it is going to be frank and hard-hitting as words on the page sometimes need to be, to get to the nub of it all.

So, Andrea, how are you doing?

No, I don’t mean to you to look at me with a half-smile and say, “Oh, I am just fine …”

I am asking you to truly tell me, honestly, how you are doing.

You may wonder why I ask.  It is because I really want to know how you are living with your undesired status of bereaved parent.

There’s no point dressing this up, you’ll say.

At the start, you will tell me it is Hideous with a capital H.

It is unimaginably traumatic.

It is truly a living nightmare when your heart feels as though it has shattered into a million pieces, you might add.

It does not matter how your child lost his or her life, what age he or she was, what the particular circumstances were; All you want to do is wail and turn back to the clock to the time before it happened.

But you can’t.

But what you can do, and what I know you have learned as you have gone along, may surprise some people.  You have found, like others before you that if you take it one step at a time and if you hold close the belief that you will survive what is arguably the greatest loss of all; you will garner the strength and motivation to move forward and emerge a stronger, more compassionate person. 

I was pretty impressed, Andrea, with how you handled it to start with and how you have continued to handle it.

You have grown in empathy, soul and spirit in the (almost) eleven years since that truly terrible late July day.

How have you managed to do it?

From the outside looking in, I see someone who is brave and strong.  But you hate being called brave … and I know that is because you say, “No, I am not brave.  I had no choice but to get on with it after James died, trying at the same time to absorb this massive shock to the system.”

Other people’s expectations can be a pressure in themselves and I recognise that you had to learn to side-line what everyone else wanted or needed you to do in favour of what your own instinct was telling you to do.

Parenting doesn’t come with a rule book, nor does living in a world that has tilted on its axis.  How are you expected to react?

I remember you saying, a while after James died,

“I can’t walk down the high street smiling, you know.  Because, people will think, ‘There goes that woman whose son died.  What can she be smiling about?’  So you see, I have to adopt this neutral kind of mask, because it is what is expected of me.  Friends and colleagues are always on tenterhooks.  There’s a certain kind of wary look they give you in case you start crying.  So they don’t really ask you any more how you are feeling, how you are coping.  They just find it easier to pretend you are the same as you were before, very quickly after loss, and sometimes it is just simpler to take your lead from them.  But I know that made me seem cold and defensive”.

Well, you say that, but you had to protect yourself while the grief was still that sharp jagged thing digging into you all the time like a stitch.

How else could you cope?

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that you can see how ‘difficult’ you were to be around.  It is only now, too, that people are brave enough to tell you how awkward you were.  But you shouldn’t need to apologise for being in a place that is so difficult to negotiate.

One of the problems you faced when you presented your mask of neutrality to the world is that you still had to deal with the turbulent emotions.  It is all very well to pack your grief into a box and clamp it shut, but you learned the hard way that you have to take off the lid sometimes, lest the sorrow seeps out, or worse, bursts out when you least expect it.

You were ultimately quite sensible with this, and found safe, controlled way to visit and share your grief through examining it and talking about it.

You guarded against getting stuck in negativity by consciously seeking out the positives wherever you could find them.

You haven’t run out of words yet, have you?  You know you are lucky to have the gift of expression and that can be utilised to help others.  The creativity is in part fuelled by the appreciation of those who read your words and benefit from them.

The publication of Into the Mourning Light was the culmination of eight years of gathering together many helpful and uplifting words.

Now you have started work on your second book.

You tell me how much easier it is now to write of your loss, because you have told the most personal of stories and the grief has softened to a more malleable and manageable level.

Your writing is an ongoing legacy for James and it gives purpose, meaning and reason to sharing and analysing common thoughts around the issues of loss and mourning.

And your voice, well! –  how that has developed. You have always been a thinker and a talker, though never such a public one, and when opportunities arise for you to speak of your mourning path you take to them with a new confidence.

You are a grief achiever.

I know too, that all the things you do to share your mourning are in honour of your son’s memory.  Of course!  All you ever want as a parent is to be proud of your children and for them to be proud of you.  Why shouldn’t that pride still be there and grow?

I appreciate that you still have times of self doubt.  I sense that in the dark hours you long for someone to come and take that terrible pain of loss away and you weep for the future that James cannot have, all that promise of his life gone in an instant.

You have cried out at the unfairness of it, the injustice of his lost future, to faith, to spirit, to God. These days, I think, you begin to understand a little more that the elements of hope, love, light, faith and resilience are sustaining you in ways you never imagined.

In regard to how your grief has evolved, you say this,

“I had this horrible inner rage that had to be balanced out by seeking out something positive to come from my loss, despite my heartfelt longing not to have to make this constant effort, this searching all the time, for meaning and sense from what has happened.  Working through grief on my own terms is key to my being able to share how I have done it.  I am not saying my way is the best way, or the only way, just that it works for me and if it helps others along similar routes,  that is a source of joy.”

 So there you are, Andrea.   I believe this letter has turned out to be a ‘good thing’ after all, charting as it does the progress you have made and continue to make along a route which was never planned.

Keep on keeping on and I will write again soon …

rosecentre

The RNLI on the River

IMG_3510

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.

IMG_3517