If you’ve not visited before, welcome to THE GOOD GRIEF PROJECT. We are both sad and glad that you’ve found us. If like us you grieve for a son or daughter, then you will know our pain and we will know something of yours. The circumstances of your grief will in all probability be very different from ours but we hope that by sharing our story and some of the things we have learnt over the past six years since Josh died, that you can gain some comfort from your visit.
Next month Jane and I will be will helping out at THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS weekend retreat for parents bereaved by suicide and substance abuse. As always, it’s a great honour to give something back to a charity that gave us so much support in the early years of our own grief. It’s now 6 years since Josh died and many of those attending will be more recently bereaved and we have been asked to suggest some of the things that we found useful in those early days.
So here are some ideas from our own experience:
Josh died a long way from home in a freak road accident. His death was totally random. But however your child died you might have a sense that your own world, your own sense of being has become extremely FRAGILE, that the world you previously took for granted had now become very uncertain, and that you had lost confidence in how to survive it. You possibly had a sense of having lost all trust in the world.
In the days following the news of Josh’s death, we found that as a family (Jane, Jimmy, Joe and Rosa) we needed to know where we all were at any moment in time. If any one of us was to go anywhere (just to the shops, pop round to see a friend, anything) it became a rule that we would let each other know that we’d arrived safely and exactly what time we’d be back. We all had horrible fantasies that this could happen again, that our family would never again be safe from tragedy. And we found that the best way to counter these fears was to be together, to do things together. While we each would in time find our own space to grieve in our own way, I remember those early days as a kind of family huddle, lots of hugs, lots of silences to be sure but the important point was that we were always there for each, looking out for and supporting each other in whatever way we could. This was especially important after all the business of organizing the funeral had died down and others in our community had left us alone to grieve.
In a sense this forced us into a position of having to find the means to fend for ourselves. And we are lucky that we do have such a strong family bond. All our children are mature adults and have a high degree of emotional responsibility. But by looking out for each other on an hour by hour basis, we gradually began to rebuild the confidence and the trust we needed to venture out again into the wider world.
There’s another aspect to this – whether your family is large or small. It may now be just the two of you … you may even be on your own as a single parent – the thing is that as you look for comfort and support from those closest to you, you will find that they too have been changed by your child’s death. And quite possibly in ways that are quite unexpected. So this is also a period of getting to know one another again. This will take time and so its important to give each other time to find out anew who they have become, and how they feel most comfortable as they grieve for the part of them that is now lost. For it is true that while our child has lost their life, we too have lost that part of ourselves that we were to them, their brother, their sister, their mum or dad.
Gathering together, sharing the pain, supporting one another is in our opinion the best way of healing the wound, or at least attending to it. So make sure you give each other lots of hugs, share the shopping, the cooking, all the practical things around the house … whatever you do try and be physically as close as possible.
It’s natural to wonder if you are doing this grieving thing right. Of course there is no right way to grieve but you may feel judged, you may judge yourself that somehow your feelings and your behaviour are not appropriate for one who has been recently bereaved. You’re not sad enough, or you’re wallowing in grief. I’m not coping properly, you tell yourself, or I’m ignoring my feelings. I’m too angry with the rest of the world or I feel guilty if I laugh or have fun … the list will be endless. Such judgments may be actual, they may be perceived but whichever is the case, they are going to tangle up your mind and make it a lot harder just to get through the day.
So try not to worry and if you suddenly find yourself doing really weird things, go for it. One of the mother’s in our film still calls her dead son down to dinner. She has given herself what she calls “a wide latitude for craziness” and if others question her behaviour, she tells them “I’m a bereaved mother what do you expect!”
The evening following Josh’s funeral, you know what we did. After a full two days of several events in which we had celebrated his life and taken him to the crematorium, we were understandably totally wrung out emotionally and completely exhausted. Then someone suggested a video … so there we were a family of four (that should’ve been five) giggling away and joining in with all the songs of Mama Mia, a film I would never have chosen in my previous life yet providing all the escapism and release we needed at that moment in time.
We have to remember that grief is hard work (most of the time) and that we do need to take a break and if can do these without feeling guilty or sad that we are dishonouring a memory, then so much the better.
This may not come natural and it may not come easy … I am not a born ‘diaryist’ but for about two months in the first year I did keep one. Recording my inner thoughts in ways I knew would never see the light of day … I think this helped me to find meaning in life again – or at least to start to try and find some stability again. While its important (in my opinion) to share grief there is also a moment when we must deal with that inner struggle and to find a place to grieve alone … writing stuff is possibly one of the best ways working through the existential challenges that grief will present. I began just by recording the days events … got up, had breakfast bla bla bla … but inevitably stuff got deeper, memories, sadnesses, regrets, but also joys and bigger questions about our place in the world. Initially just a jumble of thoughts that over the months gradually somehow began to gain some cohesion, helping me to discover a creativity I had not known before and one of the first steps in trying to find a purpose to carry on living … I must revisit that diary one day.
And you might like to try this … I know many others who have found that writing letters and notes specifically to their dead child has been of great help. It’s a very practical way of maintaining a relationship with your child, to carry on caring for them and to carry on caring for yourself. Many of us find ourselves doing things ‘in our child’s name’ – doing a charity run for example – effectively we are helping ourselves when we do this and writing letters and messages to him or her may well be the first step you take in acknowledging that while you have physically lost a loved one, their spirit is still very much alive.
And you may want to publish these in some form – perhaps on social media. Less so now but from time to time we still write to Josh on his FaceBook page and I know of at least one other bereaved mum who uses FaceBook to chat away with her son on a daily basis. These are made up conversations – “Hi Josh, how are you doing today? We’re on our way up to your tree… ” A pretence if you like but by making them public we are at the same time communicating with his many friends who also share our grief, who also carry a part of our son in their hearts. You may then be surprised that friends start to write back. One friend of our son Josh’s created a website “Postcards to Josh” which now has over 100 postcards sent from all parts of the globe.
Initially, writing for me was a private act and an attempt to give some kind of voice and shape to some very basic primal feelings, feelings that perhaps I was too unsure of to express openly. But I also looked for other forms of expression (cos many times words just aren’t enough) and I sought solace with my camera. Exploring my emotions with the photographs I then made was an important (possibly the most important) factor in come to terms with Josh’s death. I also found that all those photos we had of Josh took on a very different meaning now that he had died – there is something very powerful and very poignant about the fact that his still image continues to exist long after he has gone. Again his spirit lives on .. but as an expression of grief and of love, its seems to me that photographs and all the creative possibilities that photography can offer are ideally suited to the task of a. remembering and of b. imagining, both essential prerequisites for a continuing relationship with the dead.
So this is an invitation to invent your own ritual, your own way of remembering your child and of building a sense of a continued relationship with her or him. Many people (bereaved parents that is) have noted that just because your child has died that doesn’t mean you stop loving them. Of course not but we do have to find a way of expressing that love. For many a regular visit to the graveside to tend the flowers is probably the most significant, lighting candles in their memory (the flame being a wonderful metaphor for keeping the spirit alive), laying a place at the dinner table on special occasions, all these are the things we do to maintain a connection to the deceased. As well as lighting candles I’ve found the need to make quite specific (and sometimes quite small) personal acts that won’t mean a thing to others but have huge significance for me and the way I try to keep up an on-going relationship with Josh.
And I see these as a very creative act or series of acts… like reworking the photos I have of Josh but they could be anything, from making a quilt from his/her clothes, designing a tattoo, to writing their name in the sand. They can be temporary or something made to last but they will always be a manifestation of the love you have for your child.
We met parents in America who painted pebbles with their child’s name and left them in places around their neighbourhood to be found by who knows who. Their son, they told us, never saw a stranger. He was very forthcoming in meeting new people so for them, their pebbles aren’t just about being seen by people who didn’t know him, because ‘had he been there he would’ve been known’.
Rituals then can provide the opportunity to create new stories after our child has died, new ways of conjuring their presence as well as acknowledging their absence. This may seem a bit silly at first – an invention that has just superficial meaning. My child has died and here I am pretending that lighting a candle or scrawling his name on a ribbon will make everything better. It did feel like that to me as I left the first of Joshua’s business cards in the Scottish Highlands. But as others too have pointed out, in this new life of ours we are still trying stuff out and much still needs to be practiced and rehearsed . Like the child who plays a being a nurse or a teacher, we are discovering a very new way of being. In time we will become more used to doing these rituals. In time they will become more ‘normal’. And as we repeat them over and over, they will gain added significance, and the story of our loss will become more real. These rituals then provide a new structure for our lives.
Waking up every morning and facing another day in which our child is still dead can be so hard. We do it, we get up, get dressed, prepare breakfast but all the while there’s a sense of why bother.
I go swimming. For me that’s my anti- depressant. A plunge into cold water that proves that I’m still alive … my own wake up call to the hard reality that there’s nothing to be done about Josh’s death except to carry on living. Then there’s the rhythm of the stroke, the breathe, the sound of the water, all taking me to another world where for a moment life and all its responsibilities is reduced to the mechanics of pure existence – life which is as close to death and to Josh as I dare go. I swim therefore I am.
It doesn’t need pointing out that physical excercise produces a ‘feel good’ factor. It’s those endorphins triggering neurotransmitters in our brain and producing serotonins that give you the lift you need to feel better about the world. People talk about ‘sweating out the sadness’ and to my mind there’s a lot of truth in that. Swimming (and cycling) are my favorites but whatever activity you choose, (running, working out at the gym, tennis, power walking) its about regaining a sense of control in a world that has let us down so badly.
In early grief you may experience a whole load of debilitating symptoms – short-term memory loss for instance, a listlessness or sense of inadequacy that leave you disillusioned and aimless, or an overall numbness and a feeling of being cut off from the world. Excercise helps to restore your equilibrium and give you the feeling that you’re in charge of your life again.
And you can do this alone or together with others. Personally I find myself zoning out during my swims but these moments alone also give me the opportunity to think about Josh and even imagine him swimming alongside. But then its also good to run/cycle/workout in a group and discover together the miracle of what your body can accomplish in the face of tragedy.
Watch out for news of the courses will be developing – EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY and ACTIVE GRIEF. We hope to be able to start these later this year .
You can find out more about THE COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS retreat along with the booking form here. But hurry there may be only a few places left.
Thanks for reading