The friends you need through loss

When a friend is grieving, it’s hard to know what to do, how to act, what to say. There’s a lot of criticism for those friends who haven’t ‘been through it’ themselves. These are often the same people who say unhelpful things such as ‘they had a good life’, ‘at least… [insert anything]’, ‘God only takes the best’….

As a bereaved person, you suddenly realise that there are people out there who have been fortunate to live a long time without having to deal with a significant bereavement themselves. Suddenly, those people seem alien to those of us in the ‘grief club’.

However, the non-grieving friend is one of the most important people in the early stages of grief. How can that be when they don’t understand what we are going through?

Well, it’s exactly for this reason that they are so important to us.

When Abi first died, people who had adapted to their own loss offered me support, and as a now bereaved-adjusting mum, I too find myself drawn to support friends who are experiencing loss. Yet there’s something important I’ve noticed about the distinction between those of us who have been there and those of us who haven’t.

When sitting with a friend in their rawness of grief, they are able to open up about the experience, the emotions and pain of loss. But I often hear, ‘it’s not as bad as your experience (losing a child)’. The sense that they can open up and ‘complain’ about their grief is stifled by my own loss. That I had a rawer deal. That they shouldn’t grumble. And that’s simply not true.

By our nature, we compare ourselves to others – our relationships, pregnancies, children’s milestones, jobs, homes, lives… we live by comparison. Grief is no different.

There’s a period following the death of a loved one where the bereaved are in limbo – this is the period that holds the shock, despair, trauma and strain of the loss before the person is ready to join the ‘grief club’.

I am mindful of supporting friends at different stages of their grief.

The initial stage is fuelled by anxiety, anger and fear. No one will understand what the person is going through.

This is where the non-grieving friend can offer the best support.

Rather than stepping back, they should step forward.

Offer to sit and listen, for hours, every day until that story has been told. The bereaved will have a chance to ‘own their grief story’ – to talk about it as though they are the only person to ever have lost someone they loved, to emphasise all the trauma and stress that has impacted them as a result of this loss, to cry and say how much they miss them without fear of affecting the listener’s own grief story. This is their time, and it’s vital to helping them transition into the grief club.

Once in the grief club, they are welcomed by people who’ve been there, who have had loved ones die of the same thing, who are setting examples of how they channel their grief and how they live on without them.

There is a very good place for the people in this club, but initially, as a way to honour the departed and to process what has happened, the grieving need their story to be unique. We all experience loss but every loss is unique and deeply personal.

The death of my daughter, the loss of my pregnancies cannot and should not be compared to the impact of the death of someone in old age or someone who has died from illness. My loss is hard, of course it is, but so is yours.

My advice to the newly bereaved is to seek out friends, experienced or not, who are good listeners, who don’t mind sitting on your sofa for hours passing you tissues, nursing a cold cup of tea (cold tea means they’re listening not bustling around trying to be helpful which would only fog your brain further). Seek out those friends who won’t burden you with their own losses and problems, who say few words, who will smile and lift your spirits a little. It’s your turn to be listened to. And never, ever, apologise for feeling the way you do.

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Staying married when you’re mourning

I realise not everyone who reads this is married, or even in a relationship, and we all have unique experiences, but I wanted to give my perspective of marriage after loss, which some may relate to or take comfort from.

One of the first things we heard after Abi had died – quite unbelievably really – is that ‘most marriages fall apart when a child dies’. It’s true, we heard this and read this as we were handed leaflets about getting ‘help’.

So, as well as coming to terms with the huge shock of losing Abi, we then faced the ‘likelihood’ that our once happy life would be forever shattered by her death and no matter how hard we fought it we’d be so broken that we couldn’t stay together. Our lives literally torn apart.

It was, to say the least, a very bleak time.

Yet here we are, four years after Abi’s death having just marked our 18th wedding anniversary.

It’s undeniable that the huge stress of death – and the death of a child – has an impact on a relationship. One day we could be so close we were almost the same person, the next we seemed to be poles apart as we rode out different waves of grief.

Because the loss of a child changes you, it’s inevitable that it changes your relationships too, and the relationship with your spouse or partner is often one of the closest you have apart from the one with your child.

The love we felt for each other hasn’t changed, if anything it’s stronger and we don’t argue about ‘silly’ things anymore (well, not as much). We are quicker to forgive. We move on to finding joy again as quickly as we can.

But that’s not to say we haven’t had a tough time of it. Our marriage is strong, despite the stress, but it’s changed. Your child’s death changes not who you are but your outlook; the things that are important to you shift and grow. You can so easily live on two different parallels though:

One of you is grieving ‘too much’. The other is not grieving ‘enough’.
One of you may want more children. The other doesn’t want another child (and risk more heartache).
One of you may want to move house. The other may need to stay put.
One of you may find it hard to work again. The other may seek solace in being busy.
One of you may want to talk about your child every day. The other may not want to be reminded.
One of you may find faith. The other may lose it.
One of you may fall out with family. The other may be the one who keeps family close.
One of you may take offence at misguided comments. The other may be forgiving of others.
One of you may want to campaign for injustice or charity. The other may want a quiet life.
One of you may crave intimacy and reassurance. The other may find it hard to express love.
One of you may openly develop depression and anxiety. The other may hide their true feelings.
One of you may laugh. The other may cry.

From these examples it’s easy to see how a couple can so easily find a void in their relationship as they try to find a place for their grief.  These don’t all apply to us but elements of each do, and I’ve heard from others who have found the same.

The strain is immense yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end.

The hardest thing for me in the first couple of years was not that I’d fallen out of love or that any of the things above were too much to bear. It was that my own grief was so consuming that I wanted to leave to find the space to ‘be with it’. I had, I suppose, several ‘fight or flight’ moments and the grief was constantly telling me to run!

I could be overwhelmed by the smallest things – sorting a pile of washing – and just want to run away from it all, because I didn’t want to sort washing for us all who were alive, I wanted to sit in a quiet room and grieve for my daughter. I wanted to cry and wail, curl into a ball, not pretend I was okay and go through the motions of life.

I wanted to start afresh. Where I wouldn’t have to look into my husband’s eyes and know that he is hurting too, where I wouldn’t see Abi’s birth, life and death in his face every day, where I could give myself new things to look at that would ‘mask’ the painful memories. At times, this feeling was suffocating but I pushed through it.

I knew that, for me, leaving was not a healthy option. I ultimately loved my husband, and we had other children, but my grief was constantly whispering in my ear that I would be better off letting it run my life. I could leave if I wanted but I knew I’d be left alone allowing the grief to eat away at me, it would always be the reason why, it would redefine my whole life. And it was that which stopped me, in those deeply depressed moments, silently crying over the washing basket as I wrestled with myself.

My marriage has survived so far and we are together because we want to be, we love each other, we desire each other, we treasure our family. The grief has found a place and we seem to have adjusted, but I always have a nagging doubt in my mind as I hear of ‘delayed reactions’ where one of the parents has a crisis later on in life.

As you know, we have added two more children to our home, both so quickly after losing Abi, we barely had time to breathe! Yes, it’s been the most wonderful blessing but we have also had to find a place for our marriage amidst the sleepless nights, weary bodies and minds and fractured nerves! Having another baby doesn’t ‘solve’ any problems if you’ve lost other children, if anything it creates new ones, but it’s still such an amazing part of our life and I know that God has turned our pain into a blessing.

There’s no denying that while we try to be fair, we treat our younger two differently to how we treated our first three when they were younger. There’s more love, fewer rules! We don’t love them more than the others, just differently. Our parenting style has shifted, we still have the same principles of parenting, it’s just we perhaps give them more of our time and are more patient and forgiving. We don’t fret about the hours of sleep lost, and now treasure the little ones running into our bed in the middle of the night for a cuddle. We’re of course also experienced now we are older and know what we’re doing. My husband is an amazing father, he always has been but he takes an even more active role in parenting now and helping around the house. It’s things like this that help keep a marriage together when you’re juggling so much.

The statistic that most marriages break up after a loss hasn’t actually been proven, yet it still remains something people believe. Of course, some marriages do fall apart but the death is likely to be one of a number of factors that decide the relationship is over.

Like any difficult time, in a marriage it’s important to ride out the waves together, even if that means you’re not on the same wave, as you’ll both be together when the waters have stilled again. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, or even today, and I don’t know how life will affect us, but I think I know now that we will always try to stay together, and I feel blessed we have made it this far!

 

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My 9-year-old son came home from school with his ‘life quote’, which sums it up very well. He explained that no matter if your car gets dented or broken on the journey (if someone dies), you can still rebuild your car so that you can carry on.

 

 

From cradle to grave

Today, I took my 9-year-old son to his football match. It’s normally Dad who does the football matches, but it had been almost a year since I’d seen my son play due to having the new baby and he asked if I’d go and watch him. He’s been appreciating some one-to-one time with me of late, which of course I love too.

While he was warming up, I automatically joined the other waiting parents by scrolling on my phone, but as I’m trying to be more active I realized I could use this as an opportunity to go for a walk, get my own blood circulating a bit. I wasn’t in an area I knew very well so I just walked out down the road and after about ten minutes I came across a small church.

I thought it would be good to have a little look around. There was a small graveyard just in front of the church, hidden by tall hedges. The graves looked old and weather-beaten, and I’m sure it had long since closed to new burials.

I first noticed five cross-shaped gravestones, lying flat in a line on the ground. On them were the details of men – figures in the community as their job titles were also engraved under their names, each from the 1800s, early 1900s.

The book of Ecclesiastes came to mind. (I’ve been reading over it this month.) In it, Solomon – the king – writes about accomplishments and the work we do, the things we put our effort into, the dreams we chase, and reflects how all of it is pointless once we’re dead. Not in the immediate years following our death, but the hundreds of years that see us but a distant memory, if that.

There can be great meaning to what we do, if through doing it we help others, but equally we spend a great deal of time doing or worrying about things that have no meaning.

Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

I thought of these men in the ground. Long gone. They probably were highly regarded in their day around the area, but who remembers them, or what they did today?

I then saw a small, quite beautiful, cherub angel gravestone. It was to mark the grave of a baby. I couldn’t tell how old the baby was as the dates had worn away. A little baby without its mother, a mother without her child. I thought of the mother having to put her newborn child into the ground here, the tears that must have been shed, nearly 100 years ago. Yet so many more have been born since – life has moved on at an extraordinary rate but this baby was here once, briefly. This baby’s short life mattered.

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I saw other graves. Some in fairly good condition, others nothing more than a nub of stone sticking out of the ground. No matter what condition the stone, what the status was of the person buried there, or what age or situation they died, they were united by sharing this space. They had once breathed and created memories, but they all ended up as dust and mud, under a gravestone, forgotten or barely remembered.

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I was struck by this stone of a weeping angel.

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It was of two sisters, buried together. One had passed away at age 19, the other had died later age 35. I thought of the parents having to cope with two of their children dying, having perhaps adjusted to the loss of one daughter, only to lose another. Or perhaps they had died too? Who knows the story behind this family’s plot. Who even cares?

There was a striking stone marking the grave of a toddler. Clearly the child of someone of some wealth or importance at the time to afford such a memorial.

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Of course, 100 years ago infant mortality was high so child burials would have been common, but the diversity of the graves in this one tiny patch of churchyard just seemed so poignant to me. Those who lived long, buried next to those who never grew up.

Each one would have been mourned, by wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, friends and relatives… who now themselves may have departed. How did they live out their lives – happy, depressed, lonely, content…? How did grief shape their futures?

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon sees that bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, the wise know more and die, just like fools who don’t know anything and die too. Life is for living he concludes, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, we can chase any number of dreams but without God there isn’t much point to life at all.

As I headed back to watch my son’s football match, I considered today, this next hour, my ‘work’ was to be there for him. To see him smile at having Mum watching from the sidelines. This memory would stay between us two. And when I’m dead and gone, and he’s dead and gone, this moment will be forever gone too.

But, today, it mattered.

 

Take me home – a pop song prayer

When trying to rebuild a life that’s been broken – it can feel like you’re grappling in the darkness, utterly alone, tired, afraid. Even the simplest routines go out of sync, the pace of life seems five steps faster than what we can manage. We’re barely breathing.

Fear, grief, faith, hope all mingle into a mess that leaves us feeling lost, numb. How can we go on…? And where do we go on too…?

Whenever I hear this song I can never hold back the tears. It strikes at the heart of the prayers of the weary me, the me that just can’t do it all anymore, the me that’s fed up with the burden I carry, the me that wants answers, that needs reassurance, to feel safe. I suppose, the vulnerable child within.

Songs can bring so much comfort to the grieving, and while I’m in a fairly clear place right now, sometimes I need to pray songs like this – to get me through, and that’s okay because it helps. I’m sharing this for those readers who need to feel a bit of release, who need to allow the tears to fall, to possibly help them move to a clearer mind.

If you need to hear this, watch Take me home, by Jess Glyne

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Wrapped up, so consumed by all this hurt
If you ask me, don’t know where to start
Anger, love, confusion
Roads that go nowhere
I know that somewhere better
‘Cause you always take me there

Came to you with a broken faith
Gave me more than a hand to hold
Caught before I hit the ground
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now

Would you take the wheel
If I lose control?
If I’m lying here
Will you take me home?

Could you take care of a broken soul?
Will you hold me now?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?

Hold the gun to my head, count 1, 2, 3
If it helps me walk away then it’s what I need
Every minute gets easier
The more you talk to me
You rationalize my darkest thoughts
Yeah, you set them free

Came to you with a broken faith
Gave me more than a hand to hold
Caught before I hit the ground
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now

Would you take the wheel
If I lose control?
If I’m lying here
Will you take me home?

Could you take care of a broken soul?
Oh, will you hold me now?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?

[3x]
You say space will make it better
And time will make it heal
I won’t be lost forever
And soon I wouldn’t feel
Like I’m haunted, oh, falling

Would you take the wheel
If I lose control?
If I’m lying here
Will you take me home?

Could you take care of a broken soul?
Oh, will you hold me now?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home, home?
Oh, will you take me home?
Oh, will you take me home?

A picture of health

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This is a picture of Abi and me on holiday in about 2011. I love the health and happiness radiating from BOTH of us in this picture. Of course, there was never any sign that Abi would have a brain haemorrhage two years later but what struck me when I saw this was not Abi particularly, but me. This is how I remember Abi, but it’s not what I think of when I see me.

While I was never overweight, I had worked hard to get myself fit after having three children. I was caring about myself for the first time and it shows. I felt confident, happy in my own skin, mentally calm…

Since Abi died, I feel like a bleak shadow of that former me. My skin appears greyer, my eyes tired, my fingernails are chewed and sore, my body unfit and neglected…

I stopped exercising as it brought on palpations when my anxiety took over. I didn’t see the point in loving myself anymore. I failed my daughter, why should I care about myself?

I am now tied into a pattern of compulsive eating, because food is my only comfort. I’ve gained weight (obviously being pregnant twice in 3 years has something to do with that!). I’m not one to worry about my weight but I know my pattern of behaviour is not healthy, physically or mentally. It’s almost self-destructive. It’s a common trait of the bereaved.

I posted on my faith blog, By His Light, yesterday about how I mourn so much harder when life is tough. When there is illness, overwork, stress and anxiety. When parenting challenges me to my core and being fair or consistent goes out of the window. I feel more tearful as the pressures mount and miss Abi terribly.

I withdraw at times like this… because I need the solace. I want to build a wall around myself where I can just hide under a duvet and wallow… for a while, until it passes. I don’t want others to see this vulnerable me, I want them to see only the me I know… and like.

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Of course, I can’t do that. I have three children to look after, a home and business to run. A husband who needs his wife to keep it together. A baby growing inside me who needs to be nurtured.

So I turn to food as my pick-me-up, several times a day. It helps for the briefest moment so I’m back again in an hour or so. I feel excited by food. Yet I’m starting to feel the discomfort of the weight (not least the baby pressing on my lungs)… I suppose it represents, physically, the emotional weight of grief.

Continue reading “A picture of health”

Are you ‘right with God’?

I attended a funeral this week of an inspiring lady from my church, ‘D’. Her death, while expected in some ways due to the leukaemia that had taken over her body, was a shock to her family and friends nonetheless.

She and her husband are both committed Christians and have done a lot for the church in their lifetime. However, the funeral wasn’t so much about their depth of faith, but was about how ‘D’ had lived her life and the impressions she made on people. We learned how she was the kind of woman to make the most of every day. How she was always challenging herself. How she used her creative talents to benefit others. How she was involved in community work and selflessly reached out to support young and old. All the while raising two children and being a dedicated wife, grandmother and homemaker. She had lived a life many of us aspire to, but did so without self-congratulation or pride, but humbly and modestly, and with an awesome dose of humour! She dealt with her illness with great courage and dignity.

It spoke volumes that the church was full of mourners and there was standing room only for some. While not originally from our village, all ages and people from all her life attended. A testament to who she was. A much-loved person who gave more love in return. I had only known her relatively briefly, a few years, and we socialised at church events. But there was much about my own relationship with her that made me feel a connection to her and such sorrow at her death.

She first introduced herself to me at the first church service I attended after my daughter’s funeral. This kind-faced couple approached me and she told me how they knew something of our loss, as they had lost their eldest grandchild in similarly sudden and unexpected circumstances at a similar age to Abi (who was 12 when she died). Ever since, they always made a point to say hello or to have a chat whenever they saw me. While there were periods where I didn’t see them for a while, I felt welcomed as an instant friend and there was a genuine sense of care and love about them.

Continue reading “Are you ‘right with God’?”

Health anxiety (hypochondria) after the death of a loved one

As someone who now openly admits to suffering with health anxiety, since the death of my 12-year-old daughter and three pregnancy losses, I tend to avoid any kind of health-related TV programme. In fact, I wrote this blog post about why TV alienates the grieving as it contains so much death, blood, gore and trauma.

Yet there have been a new spate of health-related shows advertised on our screens. One of which is ‘Doctor in the House’.

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In this show, a doctors stays with a family for a few days and gives them all a full medical before advising them how they can avoid and improve any ailments they suffer from and, essentially, improve their chances of survival for longer!

Now, to me, this looks interesting as – being health anxious – I would be interested to learn about what we could do to improve our health as a family. But watching the trailers, I know that it’s more likely to spark off further health anxiety in me. I would worry we had the same ailments!

Let me explain, health anxiety, or hypochondria, is where you worry excessively about your health. This also seeps out onto the rest of the family as anxiety over their health comes into the frame, but it’s mostly an anxiety of the self.

Continue reading “Health anxiety (hypochondria) after the death of a loved one”

When celebrities die – Why are we still so ‘shocked’ by death?

Yesterday, the news reported that Cilla Black – one of the UK’s ‘national treasures’ of entertainment, had died. The Media was ‘shocked and saddened’ by the news. bafta_arrivals_4_wenn2748821 Then social media saw a flurry of posts as people shared their own ‘shock’ at her death.

Cilla? Dead? That cannot be? Even Bruce Forsyth said he was shocked… perhaps because being 87 himself, he considers her to be far too young. Continue reading “When celebrities die – Why are we still so ‘shocked’ by death?”

Book review: Through the eyes of a lion, Levi Lusko

I was contacted by the publicist in Nashville, Tennessee, for the pastor and author Levi Lusko, to review a copy of his first book, Through the eyes of a lion.

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The press release said:

‘On December 20, 2012, five-year-old Lenya Lusko went to heaven while in her parents’ arms after a massive, unexpected asthma attack. With a ferocious personality and hair that had been wild and mane-like since birth, they called her ‘Lenya Lion’. But a few days before Christmas, Levi and Jennie Lusko had to leave the hospital without their vibrant daughter.

After Lenya’s death, Levi had to make a choice – one that anyone going through dramatic events has to make – to give up or to live. In Through the eyes of a lion, Levi explains why he chose to live, and not just survive – but live with the fire and passion that comes from acknowledging that there is more in this life than what can be seen with the naked eye.’

One afternoon, I had a few hours to myself so I decided to start the book. I couldn’t put it down! In fact, I got a highlighter out and highlighted sections that reached out to me most. I read the book in two sittings, which is pretty impressive as reading for ‘pleasure’ for any length of time has been hard for me since Abi died. I have only managed an hour at most. It even inspired this post which I shared about my faith.

There was much about the story which resonated with me. From the way Lenya died so suddenly. That her parents were with her when she passed. That she was one of four children. And that Levi encourages us to see life with fresh eyes – to see what has been invisible to us until now.

Continue reading “Book review: Through the eyes of a lion, Levi Lusko”

A (grieving) mother’s little helper – will antidepressants numb the pain?

I’ve been sitting here staring at the packet for half an hour.

Antidepressants.

These little pills, I know, are offering me the chance to numb my mind for a while from the anxiety and depression that’s taken hold of me. I’ve resisted them for so long that it feels strange to finally be here. As I said in this post, I can’t help feel like I’m failing.

I wonder if I’m really depressed enough to take them. After all, I’m generally okay. I’m not walking the streets in my pyjamas. I don’t feel a black cloud above me all the time. I’m still functioning as I always do, albeit with my mood swinging on a pendulum. I can be switched on one day, enough to write posts like this, but the next I can only stare at the screen blankly, my mind a fog.

But is this enough to start these tablets? I’ve spent over two years avoiding using them. I know this is a last resort for me.

I’ve been here before you see.

Do I really want to go here, again?

The answer is no. I don’t want to go here again, but I feel I must. Continue reading “A (grieving) mother’s little helper – will antidepressants numb the pain?”