Do you remember those words whenever you undertook any journey that included the children? Those words, strike terror into any parent’s heart, together with ‘ I need a wee, is it much further, I’m hungry, I’ve forgotten teddy, I want to go home!’
Oh, I remember it well. Loading the car with all the gear took the best part of two days and nights. All the endless equipment needed for a camping holiday in France. Each item was carefully place in its allotted space, leaving the boys sitting on sleeping bags with a cool box between them and barely enough room to wriggle or squirm let alone stretch their legs or adjust their position. It didn’t, of course, stop them from playing tap tap until one of them, usually Matt, shrieked in pretend pain and both were threatened with stopping the car and going home if they didn’t stop it and settle down.
We never did stop the car and turn it round, of course. Paul, and later David, and I and the boys had looked forward to these two weeks of relaxation and recovery in the French countryside, bathing in the slower pace, sunshine, bonhomie and plenty of wine or Bierre Blonde for too long, to give it up easily. Once David had stopped worrying about what we might have forgotten or what the rattling might be, and the boys had plugged themselves into their Sony Walkmans, or fallen asleep, the miles flew by until neither of us could put it off any longer and we crept into a motorway Aire and dozed uncomfortably for a couple of hours. Sunrise would find us on our way again and in search of our first French croissants and pain chocolate, usually in Tour or Saumur.
By lunchtime, in blazing sunshine we would be checked in, pitch located and in the throws of stretching aching limbs and erecting our tents and eventually crashing into reclining chairs to catch up on some much needed sleep, while the boys checked out the pool, the tennis, the bar and the girls!
And so it was! Each year we eventually arrived ‘ there’ , whether it was the Dordogne, the Ardeche, Italy, the Alps or wherever. Journey’s end!
As I approach the first anniversary of losing Matt, I find myself on another journey, a different one. A journey I found myself on when I lost Mark ten years ago. It is not a journey I ever anticipated, or one I chose to go on, but a journey full of unknown roads, narrow paths, u turns and impossible climbs. For the first ten years, I travelled with David and Matt like we used to do, but now, sadly they have gone and I journey on without them. Alone. I’m cramped, uncomfortable and constantly tired. I have no idea where I’m going, no map or Satnav to guide me and no peace or sunshine waiting for me. I wish someone would threaten to turn this round and take me home, that I didn’t have to press on with this grief journey, a journey without a destination.
‘ Am I nearly there yet?’ I ask daily, but deafening silence is my only answer.
I know I was fortunate to have my lovely Mum for sixty two years and to be a Mum for forty two years. For most of those years I took the day and it’s meaning for granted. I loved treating my Mum to a trip to the garden centre, for lunch, to buy her a plant and always made sure I bought a special card with meaningful words and pretty flowers on the front. I tried to spoil her all the time, but especially so on Mother’s Day.
As a Mum, the boys did the same for me and, as much as I didn’t want them to make a fuss or spend their money on me, they did so anyway. After Mark died, Matt tried harder, even though he didn’t need to, and he always signed the card from the both of them, which usually made me cry. Last year we had a very special day out at Staunton Harold, which included a very muddy walk, an encounter with a deer, a chilly coffee, a nosy robin and lots of giggles.
I had no idea that last year, the day before the first lockdown would be the last Mother’s Day I would ever have with my Matt. That still doesn’t seem real and my head and heart can’t accept the truth of it at all so I have spent a while wondering how on earth I can get through the day this year without these special people in my life. I keep telling myself that I probably wouldn’t be able to see my lovely Mum because she was in a care home and we are currently in Lockdown 3. I probably wouldn’t have seen Mark either as he could have been anywhere in the world, although we would have FaceTimed. Which leaves Matt and he would have been right by my side. He would have ordered a Deliveroo meal, afternoon tea, something special from Amazon and selected a film for us to watch on Netflix or Amazon Prime. And it would have been a lovely, almost perfect day.
This brings me to the point where I have bought a lilac tree! I’ve been thinking about it for a while but only made the final decision this week. It’s a dwarf variety as I don’t really have enough room for a large tree and for now it will be planted in a new container. So why? Why a lilac tree?
I think the initial idea comes from a far distant memory of a lilac tree which grew in my lovely Gran’s garden. I just remember the bent over branches, laden with lilac coloured blooms, delicate and fragrant, just at the right height for me to bury my nose in its heady aroma. That memory has stayed with me since childhood and will forever evoke those special memories of being at Gran’s while my Mum worked. Mum would take me over to Gran’s early morning, usually on my bike, and then Gran would walk me to school or look after me all day until Mum came to pick me up at around 5pm. I’m sure it must have rained, been cold and miserable and there was certainly no heating, apart from a coal fire in the little bungalow, where Gran lived with Uncle Willie ( another story for another time ), but I just remember long summer days, curled up cats, Listen With Mother on the radio and Andy Pandy, The Wooden Tops and Rag, Tag and Bobtail on the black and white TV and the lilac tree, of course
Delving a little deeper into the meaning of the lilac, Latin name Syringa, I discovered some fascinating facts, symbolism and traditions. Did you know, and I guess some of you did, that in Greek mythology, the God Pan took a fancy to the nymph Syringa and chased her through the forest? Understandably, she was scared ( who wouldn’t be? ) and so she turned herself into a lilac tree to thwart his advances. Clever girl! In a bridal bouquet, white lilac is said to symbolise first love, and bring calm and peace. The purple lilac flower is associated with family, and mourning, particularly for widows and to honour and show respect for our loved ones, which is something I strive to do every day for Mum, for Matt and Mark and my lovely Gran too. All so relevant to my life.
When I was young, as I said, my memory tricks me into believing that summers were always sunny and the lilac at Gran’s flowered endlessly, but the truth is, it is a Spring flower with a relatively short flowering season, but is it also vital for the survival of caterpillars and butterflies. I like that. And the fact that the flower is often used to help treat depression and was often painted by Monet and Van Gogh.
So, this Mother’s Day will be agony and lonely and excruciatingly difficult, but I hope I can find five calm and peaceful moments to sit in the garden near my lovely lilac and feel close to my Gran and my much missed Mum, who shaped me and my beloved boys, who taught me what unconditional love really means and who continue to love me just as deeply as I will always love them, for, as long as I live, I’m still a granddaughter, daughter, and a Mum even if we can’t be together for now. And that’s something to celebrate surely.
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.
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.
We are all very aware that we live in a ‘throwaway society ‘, where nothing is really expected to last forever and most things can be replaced easily and relatively cheaply.
I remember trying to buy a vacuum cleaner and was told it should last for a least three years!! For the price they wanted for it, I expected the thing to last at least ten! The same with kettles and irons. They are just not built to last and when getting something repaired is almost as expensive as replacing it, it hardly seems worth the effort, so we get sucked into this ‘ nothing lasts forever mindset’.
Phones, cars, houses, sofas, soft furnishings, bedding, towels, pots and pans, bikes, and clothes. You name it, we replace it with nauseating regularity.
Unless, of course, your name was David! He didn’t believe in throwing anything away or replacing material goods. He hung onto stuff with a vice like grip. It’s quite sweet when you find his cycling proficiency certificate and his sermons from maybe forty years ago, all hand written, spelling mistakes and all. Not quite so amusing when it’s jars of rusty old nails, bit of wood, tea towels and even the double bed from his first marriage. “ There’s nothing wrong with it”, he insisted. Really!?
But, sadly, if the truth be told, most of us do replace things for a variety of reasons, including relationships. Maybe, they have broken or broken down, there’s a newer version, we need a change, they have come to the end of their usefulness or we’ve simply got fed up of them.
Well, I’m fed up of my grief so can I throw it away please? If only I could but, as any bereaved parent will tell you, that just isn’t possible. I fell in love with my firstborn, and later his brother, the moment they were born and that love deepened and grew over the years. I could never contemplate throwing that love away, of course, I couldn’t. Every cell, bone, thought, action and decision I ever made was based on my love for them. Where we lived, how I spent money, holidays, toys, food, jobs, cars, future plans and day to day life were all infused and infiltrated by my unconditional and unfailing love for them. There was no separation.
When grief stepped in the moment Mark died, I didn’t realise that, like the love I felt for him, it was going to be forever. I thought it would be terrible and hideous, and painful and heartbreaking for a long time but, as the cliche insists ‘ time is a great healer’. It’s not! My grief was all of these things, but it was also, lonely, and heavy, redefining, creative, paralysing, rhythmic, bilingual, and entirely normal. And it is all of those things or most of them every single day my boys have been gone to a greater or lesser degree. Oh yes, we get better at hiding it, dealing with it, managing it and the edges do soften from time to time depending where we might be on our grief cycle. But just as we can’t and would never want to throw away the love we hold for our child, we absorb our grief until it becomes part of who we are and we gradually accept that both love and grief are most totally, unquestionably, unequivocally, and, yes, thankfully FOREVER, for to throw away one is to deny the other and, that just isn’t possible. So I will continue to love, celebrate, honour and grieve my boys however I can, until I take my last breath and will hopefully hug and hold them again – forever!
I lost count of the number of times over the years that I sat and told a concerned parent that their child’s behaviour, speech, development was entirely normal for their age, gender or circumstances; writing numbers backwards, not concentrating, being reluctant to want to read, not listening, etc. And, with a few exceptions, I was mostly right.
But it’s such a hard thing to work out what is normal for you, for your family, your child. Most of it is based on your own experience, your childhood norms and mores and so when you meet someone different or something different outside of what you are used to, or what you expect, it challenges your idea of normal and also how you think and feel about what is normal for you.
Mark was a restless baby, no surprise there to anyone who knew him! He rarely settled or slept, was only happy if he were being held or played with or fed. He wouldn’t let me leave the room for a moment and hated being lain on his back anywhere. He wanted to see the world, take it all in and always have someone to be with. That didn’t really change as he grew up. He surrounded himself with friends, played team sports and never stayed in one place very long. He was never going to be the one who settled in the same town as us and built a life around the corner. How I wish he had, but that was just not his normal.
Matt, on the other hand, was a sleepy baby. So much so that I took him to the doctors as I was so worried there was something wrong with him. “Be grateful”, was the doctor’s response! After my experience with Mark, Matt didn’t fit into my idea of a normal baby. He was quite happy to lie in his pram and watch the clouds, play with his toes or simply sleep until his next feed. He would spend hours watching Mark being busy, and was never enthusiastic about team games or joining in. He had his friends, but a few close friends were good enough for Matt. He would ski, make music, play on his computer, and enjoy his own company. Pushing him to be more like Mark was futile and pointless. He was himself and he was normal too, just different from his brother. I’m quite sure that if I’d had a third child, they too would have had their own version of normal as well.
You don’t need me to tell you that we all grow up believing that our childhoods were normal, that things were just how they were in our homes, marriages, lives and we probably had no reason to think otherwise until we met someone and first considered making a new life together with them. At this point we may have discovered, for better or worse, that their normal wasn’t quite the same as ours and it took many years to iron out differences in how we ran a home, managed finances, cooked, cleaned, tidied up, made up after an argument, behaved on holiday, and brought up children. Eventually, we created our ‘normal’ and the cycle started again.
I think we all know that experiencing emotions is normal too, although we all have our own ideas of what that might be. Love, anger, sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety, etc. All normal, except for when they might become extreme and damaging and we need to seek help. Grief is a normal emotion too, although, it’s one we rarely discuss or even think about until it happens to us. Our first experience of loss and grief might be when we lose a pet, or a grandparent. We might be encouraged to talk about our loss or seek some grief counselling to try to understand these unfamiliar feelings but there is also an expectation that we will recover from our grief and move on somehow. And for the most part, we do to a greater or lesser extent.
When I lost my dad, I couldn’t see how I would manage without this larger than life character in my life. I held his hand as he took his last breath and that was such a privilege. I busied myself making arrangements and making sure Mum was OK, but I really didn’t know how I was expected to feel. What was normal? David had lost both his parents years before and I tried to uncover how he’d felt but he’d either forgotten, or chosen to bury those feelings and couldn’t really explain. My grief for my dad was quietly packed away and I continued on.
When Mark died some eighteen months later, I thought I could do the same. How wrong I was! This wasn’t normal grief, there was nothing normal about it at all. Mark’s death blew my world apart, shattered my life and heart into tiny fragments that could never be reassembled and would never work in the same way as before. It was physical, emotional, spiritual and traumatic. Who was I without my boy!? I didn’t know and I didn’t know what normal was anymore……..until I joined The Compassionate Friends and I found a group of other bereaved parents who had,or were, experiencing exactly what I was, who felt like I did, behaved, tolerated or thought about life like I did. They put into words what I was feeling, said, “Yes, I feel like that too.” And I realised that normal when you have lost your child can only be understood by those who have lost a child and it is always alright to do, feel, think and behave however feels normal for you. It was such a relief to have my grief for Mark validated and accepted as normal for a bereaved parent.
So when I lost Matt this year, I knew I just had to go with how I felt, however abnormal, weird, strange, extreme that might seem to non bereaved friends. I’ve had a few concerned comments from friends on how I’m dealing with my grief, but by and large, most accept that my grief for my boys, is just that, my grief, and that it is entirely normal for me. At the moment I don’t need medication, counselling, sleeping tablets, or help not to feel, experience, or acknowledge the devastating loss of both my children. I just need my friends, bereaved and non bereaved, people who will sit and listen, endlessly, to me talk about my boys, how frightened I am to be alone in this world, how hard it is to deal with the grief waves, the hideous dates I have to breathe through and from time to time distract me. Everything, no matter what it is, is entirely normal………for me!
I found two quotes but I’m not sure where they come from. They sort of say the same thing. I’ll leave you with them.
Some of you might have noticed that since Matt died in May, that I have been a bit creative! Some of you, or maybe most of you, might be thoroughly sick of seeing photos and posts of the fairly basic things I’ve knitted, embroidered, sewn or painted in that time. Some of you might even have read the endless blogs and are too polite to tell me to stop, please stop! I understand and forgive you. but the fact is, I can’t stop now I’ve started. It’s become a bit compulsive, something I actually need to do. For now.
I’m not a naturally creative person. I have a trail of unfinished projects behind me, projects started, abandoned,thrown in a basket or drawer, ripped up or lost over the years. A rabbit with two ears missing, a baby jacket for a friend’s baby, who has just finished university, a pair of gloves with only a thumb and one finger complete, sketches started and not finished, and a list of ‘to dos’ that will probably never get done at all now.
There were many reasons for not completing these projects. Plain incompetence was one, I didn’t have the skills, or the patience. Time was eaten up with work, raising two boys, divorce, marriage, being in love, falling out of love, sickness, caring for David, and sheer exhaustion to name but a few. And maybe I didn’t need or want to, to be honest. I liked the idea, but couldn’t actually be bothered.
When Mark died in Taipei and Matt and I flew out to identify his body and deal with all the complexities of a death abroad, I knew instinctively that I needed to write it down; all the details, the strange rituals, the sights, sounds, the people we encountered, the decisions we had to make, the meetings, the language, his amazing friends, the dead ends, the unanswered questions. I kept a journal of it all so I wouldn’t forget one second, to make sure I recorded the experience of the death of my beautiful boy. I still have that journal, although I have never read one word of it since.
I continued to record my feelings in that journal for most of that first year without him and I wrote poetry too, – not good poetry but, raw, emotional stuff that spewed onto the page in brutal, cruel and ugly words and phrases. I wrote to Mark too. Letters each Friday telling him what we’d been up to, letters of love to keep him up date, to let him know how much we missed him and to stay connected to him. Eventually, I stopped as life, a different life, took over once more.
In 2012 David and I walked the Thames Path, all 186 miles of it, over a period of ten months. It was a cathartic, symbolic journey of a river from its underground spring to where it enters the sea; life from the beginning to whatever came afterwards. I blogged most of it but never wrote up the last four blogs for some reason or another and I deeply regret that. Typical me.
Then in 2015, as close to the 21st of each month, Matt, David and I did something in memory of Mark and again, I wrote blogs. We did everything from a Starwars concert to Chester Zoo, Warwick Castle to Liverpool and Hadrians Wall to Harry Potter. It felt good to honour and remember my boy in this way. And it helped, or at least I thought it helped, us all turn our catastrophic grief into something positive.
This year has been different. Without David, Mark or Matt, I have still written my blogs but they have taken on a sadder, more reflective tone, a need to write my grief because it’s not so easy to tell my story anymore face to face. I gardened in the summer like most people, but my need to nurture something seemed to come from a deeper place than before and now I seem to be stockpiling different projects, trying out skills I’ve never done before, because with so little to fill these massive holes in my heart and block out the terrible thoughts in my head, I need to stay busy, occupied and distracted. I’ve joined an art class, been invited to a creative group on Facebook just for bereaved parents and I’ve found that I love the process of creating something, watching it take shape and form. I’m even finishing things too! I think my boys would be proud of my efforts.
And during my journey, I’ve found other bereaved parents who have found comfort, solace, relief, distraction and even peace and joy from their creative crafts : art, sculpture, gardening, up cycling, writing, raising money, music, walking, making mosaics, quilting, knitting, crocheting, card making, printing, photography and even on line gaming. It seems to be something we need to do as parents whose children no longer need us to shape or help create their lives. Instead we become more creative in their memory, because of them and for them. And some, not me, I might add, are incredibly good at what they do.
Like most little girls I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I’d never seen a ballet but I had a notion in my head of layers of tulle, a fitted bodice, ‘jette ing’ across a polished stage, landing jumps gracefully and spinning en pointe mesmerisingly. I probably pleaded and whined until my Mum gave in and a ballet teacher was duly found and lessons were commenced. In time, maybe I realised that I was the wrong height, the wrong shape, had the wrong teacher or simply fell out of love with the whole ballet notion, and the little pink leotard and satin shoes were put away in a drawer somewhere.
I didn’t give up on dance as such and eventually started ballroom dancing lessons. These were much more successful. I sort of ‘got’ it, understood the patterns, managed to master the rise and falls of the steps, the different directions and rhythms. I enjoyed my lessons and I enjoyed watching the original ‘Come Dancing’ program with my Mum, watching the professionals compete so effortlessly and admiring the sequinned gowns. I’m not sure when I gave up ballroom dancing but probably when my brother was born or I discovered boys, or, more likely, both.
David and I tried dancing lessons too. I thought it would be easy to pick up again but hadn’t bargained for David’s two left feet or our age, my memory, or all of it. It was supposed to be the Salsa but was, in reality, a lot of stopping and starting, tripping, sore toes, glaring, blaming and occasionally giggling helplessly. The music was different, the teacher was different, very different, the rhythms were unfamiliar and, of course, my dance partner, David, was different. Eventually, we sort of got the hang of it in a fashion and progressed to other dances, other music, other steps. We even got our grade 1 dancing certificate!
I think we stopped going to lessons a couple of years before Mark died but I really can’t remember why that happened, it just did. But the dance went on somehow. The rhythms of life and love, death and grief continued and I was forced to join in and learn new patterns of rises and falls, new steps, how to lead and when to follow, which foot to start on and if I needed to go backwards or forwards. In the ten years since losing Mark, I was just getting the hang of these new rhythms – the birthday sequence, the main holidays, the slower daily bits, the heart stopping sudden memory steps, the hand holds, the arm positions and the simple turns. Oh, I still tripped, still trod on Grief’s toes or went left or right at the wrong time. She was a difficult partner and would occasionally speed up, slow down, stop suddenly or spin me until I felt sick, and out of control, but I was learning all the time with each year that passed.
And now? Well now, since losing Matt last year, it’s like starting all over again, just as I did as a child when I moved from ballet to ballroom or when I learned to dance with David. The steps no longer fit the rhythm, the music is out of sync with my head, my body, my hands and feet. I’m rising when I should be doing a heel spin, I’m facing the wrong way, setting off on the wrong foot again. It’s all out of tune and I’m out of step. Grief is a harsh dance mistress and I have to practice these unfamiliar steps over and over each day. I’m tired and I want to give up, like I have in the past, when it was too hard or I fancied trying something different. But I can never stop this dance. The rhythm is daily and relentless.
I doubt I will ever learn the whole dance but I have to push on, learning just a few steps at a time, understanding the rhythm of the day, an hour even, fixing it in my head, visualising it, practising it, until hopefully over time, I can dance part of this duet with Grief and reach a place where it might not take as much effort, or be quite so painful and unpredictable. But it’s going to take time and patience, support from friends, gentleness, forgiveness and love.
I don’t think I will ever be awarded a Grade 1 certificate in Grief Rhythms though!
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.
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!