Grief is Redefining.

Have you ever wanted to be someone else, someone specific or simply someone other than the person you actually were? I know I did.

My childhood, up to the age of eleven, was idyllic. I was an only child. Both of my parents worked. We were reasonably well off, had annual holidays, a nice house and car. I enjoyed a very close relationship with my maternal grandmother – Gran. She read me stories, taught me my nursery rhymes, knitted me dolls clothes, took me on picnics and, most of all, gave me time. And animals; a menagerie of budgies, dogs, cats, a tortoise or two to play with.

Things changed when my brother was born. Not all at once but gradually throughout my teenage years. Money became tighter, the arguments became more frequent and I lost my confidence. To avoid the worst of what was happening at home, I would flee to Liverpool at every opportunity, to stay with an aunt and my cousin. Life seemed easier in Liverpool, less complicated and more fun. My cousin was seven or eight years older than me. She was married and had the sweetest baby girl. I really just wanted to be her, to have the happy marriage, the little girl, card games on a Sunday evening and buying baby clothes at Ethel Austin.

As well as being Gene, I also wanted to be my English teacher – Mrs Smith. She was sophisticated and enigmatic. She spoke with a Georgie accent and simply had a way of making literature come alive, Shakespeare meaningful and Chaucer seem relevant. Pride and Prejudice became full colour and Keat’s poetry almost musical. I fell in love with English and I think a little bit with Mrs Smith. It was around that time I decided I wanted to be an English teacher just like her. I wanted to inspire young minds and motivate future readers and writers like she did. I created scenarios along those lines until I left school, left Mrs Smith and went to Teacher Training college.

During the time when Paul and I were trying to conceive, I would find myself daydreaming of being the mother I longed to be. A little girl all blond curls, dimpled hands and pretty outfits. I poured over the Mothercare catalogue picking out pushchairs, cots, high chairs and bedding for the child yet to be conceived. Such dreams in my head of how life should, or could, be.

And that’s what they were. Redefining fantasies that played in my head from time to time. I didn’t become my cousin, or Mrs Smith but I did become an English teacher and I did become a Mum, not of the little girl I dreamt of, but of two wonderful and amazing boys, who made all my dreams come true. Then the worst happened and Grief gatecrashed my life, redefining everything brutally and all I had spent years carefully constructing.

The redefining starts immediately your child takes their last breath and you become a bereaved parent. You are plunged into a world of making impossible decisions as your child’s next of kin, parent. You speak to medical people, the police, the coroner, the bank, phone company, friends or school. One minute you are a Mum, the next you are a bereaved parent and nothing is the same ever again. You behave differently, think differently, feel totally different. Things you used to find easy become impossible, decisions defy us, simple tasks defeat us, and motivation disappears. There is so little of who we once were left. When our child died, so much of us died too. We are hardly recognisable, even to our family and friends. We cry more than smile, we are exhausted most of the time, we barely eat, bathe, or care about the things we once did. We exist in a fog, in a place where they can’t reach us and eventually most stop trying. They were friends with one person and they simply can’t fix us and make us into that person again.

And we can’t either. We can never be that person we once were. We have been redefined by our catastrophic loss. Things we once cared passionately about hold no meaning anymore. Films or programs we once enjoyed become impossible to watch. When Mark died, I stopped reading – Mrs Smith would horrified! With Matt, I read at least twenty books about the Camino de Santiago. I carried on working after Mark and hardly move off the sofa with Matt. All we can do is get to know this new version of ourselves, a person not of our choosing or making. We have to relearn how to walk, think, behave and slowly emerge as someone we might like or not, or maybe grow to love one day. Hopefully, our friends and family, the ones we have left at least, might learn to like and love this reinvention too. Because we have been redefined as a bereaved parent and it’s all we have.

Grief is Bilingual

When I was at primary school, my friend, Lesley Yates and I had a secret language that we used on the playground and we thought we were really clever. It consisted of some words said backwards, some almost real words and some gobbledegook. It was total rubbish to anyone listening to us but we sort of understood each other. Just silly girls messing about.

I learned my first proper foreign language once I started French at the Grammar school. I loved it. I felt exotic, accomplished and superior as I learned endless vocabulary lists and stock phrases “ Ou est le stylo?” “ Le stylo est sur la table. “ and such like. I loved using French to talk to my friends, looking up the rude words in French/ English dictionaries and being able to write “ Je t’aime Robert Cooke” everywhere I went.

It took me a few years to understand that most French people don’t go round talking in stock phrases and that some things cannot be translated exactly word for word but, hey, I had never been to France at the time and YouTube and Google translate didn’t exist, so I think I could be forgiven. By this time I was also learning German and I had a few years of Latin under my belt too. Switching between French and German seemed incredibly clever. I doubt very much that I was very accurate, but nobody really corrected my poor accent or mis conjugations or agreement of nouns, verbs and adjectives, singular or plural.

By the time I first went went to France when I was nineteen, I’d forgotten most of what I’d learned at school and, of course, Parisians make no allowance for dithering Brits, scrabbling to retrieve a long lost word from the back of their memories. It was a number of years later before I had the chance to use any German and that was even more elusive. As for Latin, well……. it came into its own when I was teaching English and it helped pupils to understand derivatives of words and the families they belong to. Although, I’m sure the poetry of Virgil was a little lost on my Year 7s, I’m afraid.

Having numerous holidays in France and a property in Normandy for several years certainly improved my colloquial French and extended my vocabulary to include building materials, fifty shades of logs and different pesticides, as well as the French for most camping equipment and I got by. Travelling with my second husband meant that I am now proficient in ordering two coffees and cake in Russian, Polish, German and French, Spanish and Italian. All you need really, plus please and thank you, hello and goodbye. Not quite a multi linguist, but I try!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love words; where they come from, root words, putting words together, alliteration, metaphors, syntax, word families and discovering new words. I love how writers select the exact word or words to convey meaning, a mood, atmosphere, a character or imply depth of plot, mystery or intrigue. I just love words and I apologise now for those lovely friends who have read or listened to the million or so I have inflicted on them over the years. I’m so sorry!

However, in the last ten years, I have slowly acquired a new language, a language that only those ‘ in the secret club’ can learn and use. It’s not on google translate, there are no evening classes or audio tapes or even pod casts you can sign up for,or listen to, because it is exclusive. It’s an incredibly expensive language to learn and the cost is prohibitive, apart from the very few, who qualify and gain automatic access. Nobody actually wants to qualify or take up the offer, but to survive we have to learn how to communicate and use these new words and phrases effectively. The language is the language of Grief and the cost is that we have to pay with the life of our beloved child or children. A price none of us wanted to pay, I can assure you.

We learn it like you learn any other language, first by listening to others, who can speak Grief, then imitating a few phrases in the correct accent and intonation. We try out a few words when communicating with other bereaved parents,either face to face or on Facebook, or in our private groups and, to our surprise, we find that we are understood in the most part, are forgiven when we make mistakes and we find friendship, love and support amongst others who are able to speak our language too. The language of Grief enables us to talk about our child’s life and death, the trauma of the funeral, the tsunami of feelings that follow, the relentlessness of the missing. We learn what ‘gone’, ‘forever’ , ‘drowning’, ‘heartbroken’ actually mean in this new language. We learn how the use of our vocabulary and carefully constructed phrases can bring us support and validation and how we, in turn, can comfort and reach out to others who are struggling to be understood. The horrible shock is discovering that there are so many of us that are bilingual in Grief and, a bit like Lesley Yates and I, we all totally and completely understand each other.

Sadly, we all eventually become bilingual in spoken and written Grief but thank goodness we do. It helps us feel less alone and we realise that ‘ two coffees and a cake’ in Grief means that we are totally welcome to talk about our lost children, and even laugh and cry about them too, if we want. Yes, please.

Grief is Lonely

Until May last year I had never really been alone in this world. I had often felt lonely or had that isolated feeling or even a desire to just be left to have some time to myself, but I had never actually, physically, completely been alone. And it’s terrifying.

Until David died in December 2019, I had never even lived alone, despite being left by two husbands. I moved out of my childhood home when I was 18 to go to teacher training college and never thought once of returning after I qualified. I’d met Paul, we’d got engaged and I was married at 22. We bought our first home, had the boys and lived away from my parents but fairly close to his. When he left us in difficult and sudden circumstances, I was the only adult in the home but the boys were there as well. Mark too left to go to university but came and went over the next ten years. When my second husband Jan left to work abroad, one or other or both the boys would be home and, again, I might have felt alone but I wasn’t actually physically alone. Then I married David, and, although I often wanted to have some time alone, a bath alone, go shopping on my own, David was usually by my side, steadfast, loyal and present.

If I were to be totally honest, I was totally terrified of what living lone might be like, the reality of it, but I convinced myself that it would be ok as Matt, being the home bird he was, wouldn’t be far away and it would be fine. It had to be. Those first four months after David died were ok. Sad, but ok. I kept busy, decorated, cleared out “stuff”, sorted paperwork and Matt was in touch many times a day. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Strange, but not as fearful as I’d anticipated.

Although that was the first time I had actually lived alone, there had been many times in my life I had felt alone. As a child, an only child for the first eleven years of my life, I often felt different and alone when others talked of brothers and sisters. When I first found out that my parents had a not quite perfect marriage. I thought I was the only teenager to be worried their parents would divorce. Many times at college I felt alone, even though I had the most amazing friends. I didn’t feel as though I fitted in and I tried even harder, which made me feel even more alone, so I ate alone, cried alone, walked alone and shut myself away occasionally.

When babies didn’t come along as planned, subjecting ourselves to fertility treatment seemed to isolate us from friends, who were on second babies before we were pregnant with our first. As a stay at home Mum the first time round, I felt alone and tried so hard to make sure I saw someone every day, even my mother in law, as a last resort. I felt alone when my second husband left for three months in Kazakhstan and even sometimes when he was home too. I struggled with the empty nest feelings most parents have as the boys left to make their own way in the world, but they were only a phone call, a text, a message away and I knew I would see them again.

Real loneliness started immediately after I received the devastating phone call to tell me that Mark had died 7000 miles away in Taipei. Matt and I travelled together but alone with the shock, the trauma, the fear. His different from mine and no words to bridge the gulf between us. For weeks, then months and eventually years afterwards we tried to find common grief, but I realised, in time, that his grief for Mark was his and mine was different. Our relationships with Mark were different and so the missing, the memories, the momentous loss were different too. Accepting that helped us to respect those differences and also helped us to talk and grow closer over time.

It was the same with friends, even bereaved parent friends, and those closest to us both and to Mark. Much of the grieving took place in our heads, in the lonely night spaces, when driving or shopping or listening to songs, out for a walk, lying by a pool in the sun or high up in the mountains. The loneliness struck, ebbed and flowed and took many forms. Being alone with my grief became my norm and I learned to walk with my grief quietly and with some sort of acceptance.

But, now, without David, without Matt, without any family, I am truly alone I have no one connected to my story or that of my boys. No one who carries my genes into the future. Who is my next of kin, or my emergency contact? Who will make final decisions for me or hold my hand when I’m dying. Who will go through my stuff and decide what happens to my clothes, books, photos, jewellery or the house? Huge decisions. I sort of don’t mind the day to day living alone, which was the biggest fear I used to have. Far worse is the emotional loneliness that happens all day, every day in my head. There is no one out there who misses and longs for my boys like I do, who can talk to me about them and share their memories, the highs and the lows. I do have some amazing friends, who truly understand grief and loss, who try to understand my loss, my grief and I’m grateful to each one of them. TCF have been my life line. They make me feel less alone, less isolated, less different in my grief. Bereaved parents reach out to me and reach into my grief to hold my hand tightly and I’m trying really hard to keep those vital connections present. Non bereaved friends also show me they love and care for me and will always be there for me even if they can’t understand completely.

But no one loves, misses, longs for, or remembers my boys like I do, no matter how hard they try, and it’s that which makes my grief feel so lonely.

Grief is exhausting.

There are only a few times in my life when I have been truly exhausted. Tired, washed out, sleepy, desperate to go to bed, stay in bed, never get out of bed, but rarely actually, totally, completely exhausted.

The first time was when I was at college in the early 1970’s, I was struck down with glandular fever. First the sore throat, and the shivers with a raging temperature. Then the ache in every part of me, the inability to hold a cup of tea, brush my hair, let alone stand, or crawl into a shower or change my pyjamas. I spent two weeks in the college sick bay, being nursed, fed, medicated, and allowed very few visitors because, after a few minutes of talking, I would flop back onto the pillows, close my eyes and sleep for the next couple of hours. Once my temperature came down, my dad was called to come and pick me up and I returned home to recuperate fully. It took about six months to regain any sort of energy levels.

The next time exhaustion hit was as a new Mum. Folk try to prepare you for just how tired you will feel but no book, other people’s tales, your Mum’s knowing smiles, the antenatal classes can prepare you for that crushing weight of sheer exhaustion that drags your eyelids closed every time you sit down; the misery of just wanting to sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time; the anger you can feel towards the small, screaming scrap of life you chose to bring into the world, except you are too tired to feel very much at all. All you want to do is sleep, sleep and sleep some more. Night feeds, teething, night terrors, we’ve all experienced them and then as suddenly as they started, they are gone and a full night’s sleep is possible once more. It’s around that time that most of us, inexplicably, choose to have another baby. Did we really forget so quickly?

A diagnosis of an under active thyroid was easy, given that I would arrive home from school and sleep for two hours and then be back in bed an hour later to sleep soundly for the rest of the night. When I told this to the doctor, and also included that I could easily fall asleep driving, he ordered blood tests and there it was, plain as day, abnormal numbers that pointed to hypothyroidism. That was about twenty years ago and I still have what I call my ‘dozy days’ where all I can do is give in and rest, give my body a day off. That’s usually enough to rebalance things for a while. That and daily medication I need to take for the rest of my life.

Grief is like all of those descriptions, but much more. It has all of those symptoms and all of the impact of sheer exhaustion. It’s like wading through treacle, battling brain fog, collapsing into bed, only to be troubled by flashbacks, a video loop of last conversations, images, what ifs, if onlys. We are troubled by dreams, horrors and nightmares at night and bone weariness during the day. Too tired to eat, get up, dress or shower. Sleep comes in fits and starts. We seek help, are given advice or medication or we drink, hoping it will help, but nothing ever does, not really. I can sit for hours doing nothing much at all without even realising the time. In the summer I sat in the garden. Now I sit on the sofa. I know I need to move, go for a walk, do some housework, wash up the cups I have used, reply to a message, but even just thinking about those things tires out the few functioning brain cells I have and, if I do accomplish anything, I have to give myself the time to replenish the small amount of energy I have for each day. I go to bed earlier and earlier and sleep evades me more and more. It’s a viscous exhausting circle of emotional, physical and mental debilitation. One that might lessen over time, but never really leaves and is able to strike and return suddenly, without any warning.

Understanding and accepting that being totally exhausted is just a part of grieving and giving yourself permission to simply rest and sit with your grief is part of the self care that is so important after your child dies. It is essential to our survival. Of course, friends are only trying to be helpful when they suggest a walk, some gardening, a meal, keeping busy or staying distracted. Taking your mind off your grief for a little while seems such a good idea and it is, in theory. Hopefully, they will also understand that you would if you could, if only you weren’t so exhausted!

Grief is Paralysing

From my house into the centre of Birmingham is more or less a straight road. It’s about ten miles and a relatively easy journey, except there are about twenty sets of traffic lights. If you are really lucky, you might hit a green wave and sail through feeling somewhat smug and powerful. On the other hand, if you get catch one set of red lights, the chances are you will catch them all and frustration, impatience and occasionally road rage may set in.

When our child dies, we tend to hit a red wave of stop lights and we are paralysed by this thing called grief. Some of these things that stop us in our tracks might be enormous and permanent, some less important and temporary, but for all of us, life as we knew it comes to an abrupt halt and, as a very dear bereaved friend describes it, we are catapulted to Planet Grief, where everything we once knew and were familiar with ends and we have to find our way in an alien world we didn’t choose to travel to.

For some they stop going to work, find it impossible to crawl out of bed, let alone shower or get dressed. Some are unable to go to a supermarket, or see friends, cook a meal, leave the house, go into their child’s room, look at photos or do very much at all except cry. The things they used to love, that brought joy, fun and giggles, have gone and just breathing is so very hard, let alone making a decision, big or small, important or trivial. The paralysis is real. It is physical and not something that can be solved by simply pulling yourself together, pushing through or the dreaded ‘getting over it ‘. There is no medication for it, no exercise regime, or magic cure.

When Mark died in 2011, I went back to work after two weeks, travelled to London most weekends to see Matt or my Mum, who was in a home. I continued to organise events in Mark’s name, visit his tree, stay in touch with his friends and mine and go skiing with Matt and Heather. However, I stopped reading, which was something I loved and had always been passionate about, couldn’t go to church, although I did pray; would be stopped in my tracks in the supermarket when I spied food that Mark loved. I would suddenly stand stock still in an airport because I’d seen a young man with a similar rucksack, his walk, cap, trainers or haircut . A long sleeved white T-shirt could cause me to root to the spot, as could an ambulance with its lights flashing and sirens blaring. Any song by Oasis, Blur or Ave Maria caused my heart to lurch and time to stand still. The paralysis was definitely real.

When Matt died early last year, the red wave hit in different ways. My body totally shut down. I didn’t eat anything, apart from a few grapes or cherry tomatoes, for four weeks. I hardly slept, couldn’t leave the house, even to go for a walk. I sat in the garden simply staring into space for hours, days, weeks. I stopped watching the TV, couldn’t listen to music in case a song came on that Matt and I would have sung at the top of our voices as we motored up and down the M6 on one of our many trips. I most certainly couldn’t and still can’t pray to God. What on earth could I possibly say? I put away all Matt’s photographs, but couldn’t, and still can’t, move his shoes from the hallway. I know I will never watch Ski Sunday again or visit the home of the friends he lived with. I can’t face a walk along a canal tow path, or anything to do with Star-wars, Karate Kid, or Chester Zoo. I can’t answer the home phone without holding my breath and I struggle to let friends know just how lonely I am and how much I need them. I also can’t cry, even though tears form and rise up from my broken heart, they are locked away for now.

I have yet to find out just how long each of these stop lights will last. I suspect some will remain on red for the rest of my days, some will gradually, imperceptibly turn to amber and I will move stiffly, nervously and carefully forward again, as my muscles, organs and nervous system finds new and different ways to function. Whether any ever turn back to green, I can’t say, but I do know that I am sure, beyond all doubt, that I will never enjoy the thrill of the green wave through my life ever again and that I will always be in danger of the paralysis striking at any given moment and why should I expect anything more or less? A full recovery simply isn’t possible, but maybe, in time, a partial one might be. We will just have to wait and see.

For now the paralysis is real and I need to be gentle with me.

Grief is Heavy.

Do you remember the ease with which your dad swung you up onto his shoulders when you were out on a walk and your legs got tired? How tall you felt, how proud and awesome? And when it came to your turn, as a parent, to do the same, it wasn’t quite that simple. In fact your child was heavier than you thought and they wriggled, oh, how they wriggled until it made your shoulders ache and you were glad to lift them off and have them toddle off once more.

My betting is that across the world, throughout the generations, parents will be able to tell you exactly how much their baby or babies weighed when they finally came into the world. It seems to be etched into our hearts, engraved into our minds and memories forever, no matter whether it is in pounds and ounces or kilograms point this or that. I never did quite get the hang of metric weight, but Mark was 6lbs 7oz and Matt 5lbs 11oz, a bit lighter because he was a bit earlier. If you care to ask, I can tell you the weight of my Mum, me and the two babies I love beyond measure born to close friends. It’s there never to be forgotten.

Whatever their weight at birth, they were featherlight in our arms, fragile yet strong, vulnerable and resilient at the same time. That is until you were rocking them half the night and arms and shoulders ached and then went numb as you willed them to fall asleep…… please, please, just go to sleep!”

Over the years, my boys gradually became taller, stronger, heavier. Tiny babies grew into unpredictable toddlers, schoolboys, athletes, rugby players, skiers, students, boyfriends, employees and sons I was proud of. And my love for them grew too. That love felt heavy and spilled over into tears as I watched them struggle with losing their father, a stepfather, lost loves, cope with disappointments, and changes that came unexpectedly. I also cried with the same heavy heartfelt love when they remembered their lines in a play, when they wrote their names in a Mother’s Day card, when they stood on the start line of a 100m, or when six year old Matt learned to ski or wobbled for the first time on his first two wheeled bike. The love welled up when they left for university; so much so that I had to stop the car round the corner and have a good cry and the same when they celebrated moving into their first flat, passed a driving test, or strode proudly across the stage to receive their degree certificates. My heart couldn’t have held any more love for them than it did but I carried the weight of that love easily, unnoticeably, lightly because I simply loved them. There were no conditions attached to that love, none at all.

And then, just when Mark himself had found true love in Taipei, when Matt had an excellent job in London, I had my first headship, David was in good health, and Mum was recovering from her stroke against all the odds, Mark died. Everything changed in an instant. And I mean everything.

Everything, except my love for Mark, for my child, my son. You see, it was unconditional. It didn’t depend on him being here, or there, in touch, or silent, physical or spiritual. My heart was still as full of love as it ever was, still heavy and brimming over. It was still there. It was just called a different name. And her name was Grief. I have lived with Grief/ Love for ten years now but just when I’d got used to the weight of her, adjusted to carrying her on my shoulders, to her brimming over into tears when the memories come, and his friends are in touch, when my friends say his name, I lost Matt too. And everything has now changed again.

And like our hearts expand to create space when a new baby arrives for the love to grow and fill up that space, my heart is adjusting again to carrying the love/ grief I feel for my second much loved boy. Some days it’s all too heavy for me to get comfortable enough to sleep, sometimes the weight of it exhausts me so greatly that I can’t get up from the sofa, or pick up a book, move my eyes across a page, press the kettle switch to on or press the dial buttons on the phone. Sometimes it’s so heavy it physically hurts my shoulders, my arms, my chest and my head. My eyes are sore and my skin is dry and and cracked, my nails broken. But this heaviness is all the unchanging love I continue to hold for Mark and Matt and, because it was, is and always will be unconditional, the grief won’t lighten or become less. Ever. It can’t be turned off or on, picked up or put down at will. It will always be this heavy, the same weight as my love for my boys, but, in time, I will bear its weight and learn to adjust to the heaviness of it again.

But right now, just eight months after losing Matt, yes, grief is definitely, unbearably heavy.

Diary of A Childless Parent – 7 months

A friend sent me a video of her two boys in their Nativity Concert at school yesterday. It was each class singing a carol, socially distanced of course, each song taking us thoughtfully, reflectively, joyfully and beautifully through the age old story, and it got me thinking about all the Christmas concerts, productions, and Nativities I have been involved in over my forty odd years in teaching.

This year, of course, there is probably no littlest angel, no brightest star, no little fir tree, no sparkle and shine or perfect present. Just simple carols sung in wobbly voices, if, in fact, the school has managed to do anything at all, in between, online teaching, washing hands and reminding children about keeping apart and coughing into their sleeves.

Most productions started with a casual conversation in the staff room sometime in October, followed by a more formal staff meeting decision a few weeks later, scripts being ordered, parts given out and rehearsals for songs started before half term. Love them, hate them, dread them or feel uplifted by them, they were an annual part of my teaching life.

Do you remember getting the letter home telling you which part your precious child had been allocated? The pride when your child was Mary, or Joseph or the Angel Gabriel, the resignation when the they were a tinsel shrewn angel again, or an important king; the groan when they were a shepherd and you knew you were going to have to borrow a brown dressing gown and do battle with a tea towel, or worse! They might have been a mouse, a cow, the grumpy inn keeper with two words to learn, “ No room!” Even the smiling innkeeper’s wife with her pudding bowl and apron. Several times I had parents pleading for their child to be anything, anything at all, apart from the donkey, a narrator or a member of the choir because they’d never had a ‘ proper ‘ part. As they say, it was impossible to please all of the parents all of the time.

Compared to today’s children whose every achievement, burp, smile, activity, tentative word, song, dance or reaction is photographed, videoed and captured forever, I have very few photos of the boys at any of their school events. Sometimes I took the photos but never got them developed, or I did, but the grainy images have been lost over the years or maybe, I just can’t find them. But, if my memory serves me correctly, in the Year 2 production, Mark was a narrator and nobody could have been prouder of my elder son with his voice ringing out clearly across the school hall as he told his specific part of this special story. When Matt reached Year 2, five years later, he was one of the three kings’ pages, carefully carrying his precious gold covered cardboard box, his velvet hat slightly askew, behind his taller ‘king’. Cute didn’t come close! And, it seems, as the photo testifies, one year he was one of the shepherds, although I have no recollection of this – one of the perils of getting older, I’m afraid.

Whatever the production was called, however the story was dressed up, whichever part your child played, on the night, afternoon or morning of the concert, it was always so special, so magical, so poignant, it brought tears and smiles to the delighted parents…….and relief to the the exhausted staff that it was over for another year!

This year, in these strange times, as well as remembering my precious boys, I’ve thought a lot about Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She was a naive, thirteen or fourteen year old, nobody special until she was chosen by God and visited by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation and told that she would conceive the Son of God through the Holy Spirit. One can only imagine the shock, the horror and the fear she must have felt before the love, protectiveness and delight of carrying her baby took over, just as it did for me, and, I’m guessing for you too. All the feelings we felt when we were pregnant, she would have felt, but without the reassurance of hospital appointments, scans, midwives and baby books. Poor girl. Mary is often spoken about with reverence for her purity, her faith and her obedience to God. I’m not sure, however, if she had much choice in the matter and she certainly wasn’t given the full picture. She was only told so much and couldn’t possibly have imagined all the worry, delight, amazement, horror and heartbreak of what was to come when she gave birth in that draughty, old stable that auspicious night so long ago. If she had known, if she had been told the full story, the life and loss of her precious child, would she have agreed so willingly, been so compliant or calm? Would we? Would I? If I’d known I would lose both my boys in their thirties, as Mary lost Jesus, would I ever had had them in the first place? I don’t know for certain, but I do know that I’m so grateful for every moment of their too short lives as babies, boys, teenagers, young men, adults, my sons, my precious children, that I that was chosen to be their mum. But I also know that I would have taken more photos, more videos, spent more time watching them, hugged them tighter, kissed them more, and probably never let them out of my sight. And maybe I would have hoped beyond hope that I could have changed the outcome for them, and for me too.

As I continue to think about Mary, my heart goes out to her and to mothers everywhere who, like me, loved their child before they were born, delighted in their every breath as they were growing up and will continue to love them, grieve them and miss them for the rest of our lives.

And so, at this very different Christmas time, I wish you all a blessed and peaceful Christmas where love might shine down and the message from that first Christmas uphold you always.

Love from me and my boys. Xxx

Diary of a Childless Parent – week 28

“ And I don’t want her back this time! “

Said – by my Dad.

When – August 2001

On the occasion of – my wedding.

To – David, my long suffering husband to be.

It was a justified comment given that he had already given me away twice and was taking no chances that David hadn’t received his message loud and clear. Poor Dad and Mum. They had certainly been through it with picking up the pieces after two marriages had sadly failed. They must have had everything crossed for this one, but they both liked David and that was a good start at least.

I first met David when he phoned me after a morning service at the church I’d been attending for a little while. I didn’t know who he was but he asked if he could come over and talk. I’d given my testimony that morning and he said it had resonated with him and he wondered if I’d mind seeing him. During the course of that afternoon, he told me that his wife had left him after thirty five years of marriage for someone else. It had been two years before but he was still very cut up about it and was obviously struggling with what he saw as the betrayal of his vows, living alone and his impending divorce.

I think I’d just listened and felt sorry for the broken man sitting on my sofa. I remember thinking that I didn’t know what he expected me to do, or say, but of course, he didn’t need either really. He just needed someone to listen. So that’s what I did.

My divorce wasn’t quite through at the time either. It was an amicable decision. Jan was a good man but he worked abroad for three months at a time and was then home for a month. The constant coming and going, the missing of birthdays, weekends, holidays, family life took its toll on both of us and in the end, he wanted me to give up my job, my home, friends, family, career and live with him in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I loved him but I couldn’t uproot the boys, who were eighteen and thirteen at the time, or leave Mum and Dad, who weren’t getting any younger, or the friends, who were so important to me. I just couldn’t, so we sadly decided to part ways. It was sad, but not devastating.

Despite David being quite a bit older than me, a friendship grew out of nothing really. We enjoyed theatre trips, walks, the occasional meals out. He helped me with jobs in the house and garden that I found difficult; he mended the boys bikes and was happy to keep me company up and down the M1 to see Mark at Sheffield Uni. I wasn’t looking for anything else and I don’t think he was either. We had more differences than similarities, but we were company, for each other, I suppose.

To cut a long story short, as the cliche goes, we eventually married in 2001, much to everyone’s surprise, including my own. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t going to be a simple thing to blend four boys, two of whom were still at home on and off, different upbringings, a semi retired man and an ambitious teacher still looking for promotion to deputy headship, studying for a Masters and NPQH, an imbalance of income, experience and ways of doing and looking at things. Writing that list makes it seem impossible. It wasn’t, but, at times, it sure felt like it and there were many moments of tension, standoffs and worse, but there was also fun, security, safety, occasional surprises and lots of tenderness.

David was a good man. He loved God, his boys and mine and he loved me. We bought a house in Normandy, France and loved nothing more than setting off for Portsmouth on a Friday evening after school for the overnight ferry to Caen and the hour and a half drive to Bellou en Houlme and the peace and calm of the bucolic countryside. Within an hour of arriving, the fire would be lit, the inevitable flies removed, breakfast was on the table and plans for the day were being made. David was a whizz at chopping stubborn logs, taming the large unruly lawn, making repairs to the masonry, rusty hinges, broken pipes, a loose roof tile or the idiosyncratic French window that was stuck …..again! It wasn’t all jobs though as we explored the colourful marches, brocants, vide greniers, French supermarkets and the inevitable salon du the, we both loved. After a walk on Sunday morning round Bagnoles sur l’Orne, we would pack everything up, and head off for the 3pm ferry home, relaxed, tired, but happy.

And then there were the Summer holidays: cycling in Bruges, a road trip to Florence, Pisa, Lake Garda, Chamonix, Venice, and most regions of France. Apart from our honeymoon in Kefalonia and a few trips to Spain or Majorca, we usually drove, listening to audio tapes, stopping for numerous coffees, consulting satnavs and biting our tongue. Once David stopped worrying about what we’d perhaps forgotten and had begun to relax a bit, we always enjoyed just being together and having time away from the daily stresses and pinch points.

I can’t finish this blog without including our ski trips. They were spectacular, unpredictable, exciting and like nothing in any travel brochure. Sometimes we had one, two or three of the boys and assorted friends, girlfriends and family with us. I’m a terrified skier and David was just plain incompetent and dangerous. I lost count of the times I cried, Mark lost his patience, Matt tried to keep the peace and David totally wiped out. At some point in every holiday, one of us would find David face planted in a heap of snow with one ski sailing down the mountain without him and one, at a jaunty angle, still attached to his boot. He was incapable of uprighting himself and inevitably had to be extracted carefully from his landing place, reunited with his detached ski, pointed in the right direction and reminded again and again how to squeeze his knees together to do a snow plough stop as he set off at breakneck speed for it all to be repeated before the welcome chocolate chaud at the bottom. My brave, crazy man!

Sadly, we didn’t spend a lifetime together before dementia robbed us of at least another ten years. It’s such a cruel disease and over the last four years of David’s life, one by one, the bulbs that made up the light and joy that was this once fit, healthy and steadying presence in my life faded out until there was so little left of the strong man I married and I lost him just before Christmas last year. A loss I haven’t really acknowledged, processed or accepted, even now. I just know that I expect him to be here when I get back from wherever I’ve been, I turn to tell him something and am shocked he’s not in his chair by the window, or I occasionally make him a cup of tea with three sugars that he will never drink.

Well, Dad, David didn’t give me back, although I’ll sure there were many times when he would have liked to. This time I made it to the ‘ ‘Til death do us part’ bit and I’m glad we did but, by golly, I miss him so very much.

David- August 10th 1941 – December 8th 2019.

Diary of a Childless Parent @ 23 weeks.

“You two are…………..! “, shouted Matt from just ahead of us. I didn’t quite catch the last word so filled in the blank with amazing, awesome, incredible, and all the other superlatives I could think of.

“ What did you say?” I yelled back.

“F……….ng impossible!” came back the emphatic reply.

Not quite what was expecting! We were once again taking part in our annual canoe trip down the Dordogne river as part of our summer visit to our favourite part of France and, once again, we were making a complete hash of it. Or at least David was. I can say this now because he isn’t here to defend himself and the boys aren’t here to contradict me, so a little bit of poetic licence is allowed, I think.

I’d learned to canoe at school and was, for a time, a member of the school canoe club. I loved the strange floating sensation of being on the water, the gliding, the powering along, the turns and the tranquility of the Macclesfield Canal. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it being. It was probably more drizzly, grey, choppy, wet and cold than that, but, as I said, a bit of poetic license never goes amiss.

Inevitably, once we discovered the Dordogne when Mark was about ten and Matt five, we took to the river. Initially we all went in a cumbersome canoe which was heavy, difficult to manoeuvre and we inevitably ending up in reeds, totally beached on river pebbles or late for the mini bus ride back to the car, but we loved it. Over the years, the boys graduated to their own kayaks, I changed husbands, and David and I would find ourselves going along in a double canoe, trying to keep up with the boys, who were speeding crazily, racing, trying to capsize each other, diving from their kayaks and generally having a wonderful time.

Now it should have been easy, shouldn’t it? David, being stronger, was supposed to use his strength to move the canoe through the water, and me being the ‘ expert’ was supposed to do the steering combined with a little bit of paddling. Nothing too difficult about that surely. Except that the river was not quite the canal of my school days, and there were rapids to negotiate, bends, shallows and hundreds of other boats all trying to get from A to B.

It would go something like this.

“ Paddle towards the outer part of the bend.”

“ Which outer part?”

“ Over there, to the left……….no, no, the other left! “

“ Just paddle, David…………Why are you trying to steer? Let me do the steering. David, STOP TRYING TO STEER! Oh shit!”

Hence Matt’s comment at the beginning. This type of exchange would go on for hours as we careered from bank to willow tree, to bridge pillar, to other boats, to backwards and occasionally, expertly, in a straight line. I did say occasionally. Peace, calm and order never lasted long though, as you could hear the rapids long before you saw them. The boys would whoop and head off into them, paddling furiously, swerving their kayaks skilfully and emerging into the calmer pools wet through, exhilarated and with huge smiles on their faces. David and I, on the other hand, would plot our route through, clarify and reclarify our roles, before we set off gingerly and with trepidation. None of it helped by the fact that David couldn’t swim! Did I forget to mention that bit?

We tried to paddle, tried to steer, tried to avoid other vessels, drowning or murder. We usually arrived in the calmer pools soaked, scared witless and humiliated, barely speaking, with our relationship hanging by a thread, but arrive we did. And we did it again and again. And we loved it. The hilltop towns, Roque Gageac perched precariously on the cliff side, Domme overlooking the whole scene, Beynac with its riverside cafes and pleasure boats, Castelnaud and its ancient bridge and eventually our destination, where we would pull in barely speaking, arms aching, backs breaking and hungry as hell. The boys, of course, would be impatiently waiting for us, muttering expletives under their breath, but secretly relieved to see us still alive.

Order, tempers, sunburn, aches and pains and grudges would soon be soothed after hot showers, warm pizzas and ice cold beers sitting watching the setting sun on the terrace of the campsite restaurant. Promises to come back next year were made and all was well.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about those holidays and especially the memories I have of our favourite river. There are lots of analogies I could make linking that river to my grief but for the sake of this blog, and you, the reader, if you have read it this far, I just want to say that this grief journey, this horrific loss of my beloved Matt has, so far, been deep and dangerous, full of unseen rocks and hidden pitfalls, hideous rapids where I have feared for my life, unexpected and un chartered waters, where I’ve not been able to steer or control what was happening. But for the last couple of weeks, once I’d come back up from the terrifying depths I found myself in after Mark’s birthday, I have found some calmer water, smoother, softer, clearer and gentler and I’m trying to stay here for as long as I can, to gather some strength, some better sleep, some deeper breaths, some courage to face my next set of rapids that I know are just around the corner waiting, just waiting for me.

And although I’m negotiating these waters without Matt, David and Mark, I know they are cheering me on, and waiting for me further down this grief river, in the final, calm shallows, waiting to help pull me into the the bank and I hope, this time, they will all say, “ Mum/ sweetheart, you are amazing/awesome/incredible, or any other suitable superlative and this time I will hear them loud and clear. I so, so hope so.

Oh, and a pizza and a cold beer wouldn’t go amiss either, boys!

Diary of a Childless Parent…..5 months.

Have you noticed how dark the mornings are recently? As someone who wakes more or less at the time Matt died, I can assure you 6.30am is pretty near still pitch black. And I’ve had to adjust the time my lights come on in the evenings twice so far and will do so again no doubt when the clocks change next week. I know, I know, I hear you say, this happens every year, Viv. You should be used to this by now. You’re sixty eight for Heaven’s sake. Yes, but this year feels different, because this year it is different. Different because Matt died and my world was plunged into a strange, eerie, silent blackness back in May, when the light, joy, laughter, talent, optimism that formed my life died with him and the darkness came……….and stayed.

Colours faded, sounds muted, the sun lost its brightness, blues turned grey, everything was simply diminished and dull. In my head and my heart it was black, dense, breathless, heavy and suffocating. Movements were slow, effort was immense, thinking was distorted and words were repeated over and over, senseless, pointless, going nowhere and rarely into a full sentence. To describe the indescribable is impossible, but I can safely and truthfully say that everything went dark. It still is.

I tried to remember if this was how I’d felt when Mark died nearly ten years before but I couldn’t. I know I didn’t think such an enormous loss was survivable and I searched and searched, read and met people to help me through the excruciating pain I felt. People who wrote of their experience of losing a precious child, a couple who ran a tea shop in the Cotswolds who’d written a book, held my hand and told me they were still here after their fifteen year old took his life. Those further on who shared their journeys and reached back for my hand to hold and, over time, I found my own way of getting through each day one half hour at a time. And I’m grateful I did.

That’s how I felt on the 24th May this year. It most certainly is not how I felt the following day when the darkness came and swallowed me up in its dangerous depths. Losing Matt meant I’d lost all of my family, my reason, my purpose, my role, my present and my future. Every hope, dream, plan, notion, certainty and next moment stopped with his last heartbeat. The lights simply went out.

And yet I’m still here five months later. I certainly hadn’t planned to be and for the most part, I’m still not convinced I want to be. It’s still incredibly dark in my world, very dark, a can’t see a thing, treacly, thick, dense dark. So why?

The honest answer is I don’t know why, but I did what I did last time. I searched. I went back on the TCF forum. I joined the Childless Parents Group, I was allocated a Grief Companion through TCF, a lovely gentle, compassionate and supportive lady, who had lost two adult children too. ( I thought I was the only person ever that this had happened to, but no, others have sadly experienced this). I read and posted, posted and read and one day the title of a book recommended by another bereaved parent caught my eye. It was ‘Through the Eyes of a Lion’ by a man called Levi Lusko.

Why that book out of all the others? Well, I had met the author, or rather Matt, David and I had heard him speak one Sunday a few years ago at a church in London, not long after his five year old daughter died and a couple of years after we’d lost Mark. We were there because we’d been to see Cirque du Soleil at the Royal Albert Hall for Mark’s anniversary and it was the morning after the night before as it were. Levi was a pastor of an American Church and he was thirty two, the same age as Mark was when he died. He spoke of his little girl, with love, with passion, with humour. She was the second eldest of his four daughters aged between two and six. And she died. Four days before Christmas. There was pain in his voice, grief in his heart, brokenness in his words. He was as devastated as we were. Lenya’s photos were on the screen. She was beautiful, laughing, alive with her sisters. And she was gone. This young father made a huge impact on us and Matt had leaned across and had whispered, “ We were meant to be here this morning, weren’t we? “ “ Yes, Mark planned this for us,” I whispered back emotionally. And I believe we were. Not necessarily for then, but, perhaps for now……..

So, when I saw the title, made the connection, I had no choice but to order the book. Thanks to Amazon Prime it duly arrived the following day and I started to read.

I don’t propose to describe the book here. It’s up to you to choose to read or not but please note that Levi is a pastor and his faith is fundamental to the book. But that’s not what’s necessarily impacted me. Just as we were meant to be there that morning, I feel strongly that I was meant to read his story. Why? For a simple shapeshift in my thinking. He too talks about the darkness that came when Lenya died, the black, the colourless void that enveloped their family, Christmas, their future, and faith, but he talks too of those folk who came and sat with them, who loved them through their darkest days, who listened, who helped them wrap presents, who talked with tears and smiles about their beautiful ‘Lioness’. He says that each one of them turned off the darkness for a little while. It was always there, a constant presence, but that it could be turned off by a loving friend, a funny memory, compassion, kindness, a hand to hold, someone to wipe away tears, a message, validation of how huge their loss was, a meal, the washing done, the warmth of another human, the giggle of his girls, a quiet walk in Nature. Of course he talks about God and the comfort he got from reading his Bible, praying, his church family, but that’s for another time and place maybe. But now a few years into his journey, he hopes his book might help to turn off the darkness for another demolished parent who finds themselves in the black void unable to turn it off for themselves. It did, Levi, it did.

The shapeshift? I hear you ask. Oh, yes, sorry. Well, I thought people brought the light to you and when they went they took it away again, but now I believe that each time someone or something turns off the dark, when they leave or their text or message is read, and reread, their meal is reheated and eaten, the flowers bloom in the vase, their company, words, silence, touch, promise, memory, smile all remain and the dark takes a little longer to come back on and enfold me again, if that makes sense.

And so I just want to say ‘ thank you’ to those friends, actual and virtual who turn off my dark for a moment, a minute, five minutes, an hour, a day, every day, every week, occasionally, sometimes, often, sporadically whether you are aware of it or not, in whatever way you do, or try, I am grateful to each one of you. Because, at this point in my journey, I don’t yet have the capacity, energy, will, ability or motivation to find a way to turn it off for myself. Hopefully one day, who knows, that might be possible, but, for now, I love and need you all.

Although, when I think about it, writing this blog to explain and say just how much you all mean to me has turned off my dark for a couple of hours this afternoon. Interesting. Think my boys would like that.