Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Death can be depressing sometimes



This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a chance for us all to be open about our own struggles with mental health, to reduce the stigma attached to anxiety and depression, to discuss the fact that sometimes we all feel down, that sometimes we struggle to cope. It is also Dying Matters Awareness Week, an opportunity for us to be open about the fact that we all die and that we're all affected at some point by bereavement. It is convenient for a time-poor, part-time grief blogger that the two issues are, in my experience, often closely linked.

It seems to me that gradually, or perhaps suddenly, we're getting much better in our society at talking about mental health. Celebrities are leading the way in coming out of the closet and openly discussing their struggles. Thanks to authors such as Matt Haig, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Fearne Cotton, it is no longer taboo to talk about anxiety, depression or bi-polar disorder, which is so important when we're frequently told that something like one in five of us will experience mental health issues in any given year. It is essential that we talk about this, that we normalise the experience that so many of us have. And yet, when I write those words: WE ALL DIE (even when I don't write them in capitals), it still feels as if I'm saying something shocking and uncomfortable and inappropriate for polite company. Even though it happens, not just to one in five of us, but TO ALL OF US!

In case you don't know my story, by the age of forty-five, I'd lost both of my parents to cancer and then, a few months after my mother's death, I discovered the dead body of the man I was in love with when I broke into his house. He'd apparently died of heart disease three days earlier, though the exact cause of death has never really been determined. It was, without question, the most traumatic event of my life. It left me reeling, not just for days or weeks or even for months, but for years. It was like a bomb had gone off at the centre of my life and the aftershocks went on and on and on. Three years later I consider myself to still be in recovery, I'm still grieving. I still have days when I struggle. My mental health has been deeply affected by loss. I know that I am not alone in this experience. And yet I have never felt more alone than I felt during the early months of that grief.

When Paul died, most people had no idea how to be around me. They didn't know what to say. They didn't know what to do. Most of my peer group had no experience of losing a parent, let alone a partner, let alone both. When I tried to talk about it, some people offered me platitudes about heaven needing angels or gardens needing flowers. (I wanted to murder those people for suggesting that some deity had inflicted this on me for his own pleasure). People asked me to be grateful for the happy times and cherish the memories. (I had eight months of a wonderful relationship. It wasn't enough.) People told me that I would 'get over' it, that things would 'get better', that I would meet someone new. (I didn't want to get over it; my sadness was all that was keeping me close to the man I loved. Things couldn't get better because all I wanted was for him to come back. I didn't want anyone else). I was angry and desolate and I wanted to be where he was. I was difficult to be around, I know. And I wasn't just difficult because of the anger and the desolation and the non-stop tears, but because I was standing there openly talking about the fact that death happens. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone and no-one wants to think about that. Our culture does not want to acknowledge that death happens at all. It especially doesn't want to acknowledge that death happens to children and young people, to people who appear healthy, to people who are our age, to people like us. But it does.

And when someone close to us dies, nothing can prepare us for the impact. People who haven't experienced deep grief, assume that it feels like sadness. They expect us to cry a little and then get back to normal. But this is not my experience of the kind of grief I experienced when Paul died (or even the grief when my parents died which was much much milder for me). This grief, like many griefs, was shocking and traumatic and grief like that is a full-body experience. For many months I felt like I was vibrating with shock. Grief stops some people from being able to sleep. Grief stops some people from being able to eat. Grief makes it impossible to concentrate or to remember things. Grief literally wiped out huge parts of my long-term memory and still affects my short-term memory to this day. Grief can lead people to live in a state of terror; once the unexpected has happened, anything could happen at any time. Nothing feels safe anymore. Anxiety is a huge side-effect of grief. It is not at all unusual for depression to follow. Grief makes it very hard to cope.

Six months after my loss, I went back to see my old therapist. I didn't go to talk about grief (I had a bereavement counsellor for that). I went as a routine follow-up to the therapy that I'd been having before Paul died, a therapy that, bizarrely, ended the same week that he did. I remember sitting in her office filling in the standard NHS depression questionnaire which asked me how often I had felt hopeless (every day), how much I had cried (every day), how often I felt fearful (every day), if I had felt that sometimes I'd rather be dead (every day). My therapist totted up my scores and told me that I was clinically depressed and in need of ant-depressants and CBT. If I wasn't depressed when I'd entered her office, I certainly was when I left. I was no longer grieving, I was depressed. She implied that I should have been better by now, that there was something wrong with me, that I was failing grief. Like the rest of our society, she had no idea how to deal with bereavement.

Luckily for me, I had a wonderful bereavement counsellor via the hospice where my mother had died who reassured me that I was throughly normal in my response to my experience and who supported me for a year as I went through the necessary process of grieving for my love and for my parents. Luckily I had some friends who were gifted in empathy, who were able to sit with me while I cried, who were able to listen without judgement while I talked. Luckily I was a writer who instinctively knew that in order to heal, I needed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of my experience. Luckily (perhaps) I had already had my own struggles with mental health and I knew the strategies that would help. I got out into nature, I swam, I upped my mindfulness practice, I became an expert in self-care. I survived. Three years on, yes, I'm still in recovery but I am smiling, I am happy, I am thriving. Things can knock me off balance and sadness and anxiety can return but I know how to pick myself back up again. Having been through the worst, I know I will be always be ok. Having been so close to death, I have also made peace with my own mortality. Death has become familiar to me. It no longer scares me.

Which brings me full circle. We are scared of that which is unfamiliar. How can we prepare for something that no-one will talk about? How can we learn how to support people who are struggling if we have no understanding of why they are struggling? How can we admit that we ourselves are struggling if we fear that we will be misunderstood and silenced when we speak out? Mental health matters. Dying matters. We need to talk about it all. We need to get better at supporting each other in dealing with it. So here I am, doing my bit to raise awareness, in this awareness-raising week.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Journeys

Very hot and tired at the top of Lion Rock, Kandy

I'm reflecting on journeys today, mostly because I've just returned from an epic journey around Sri Lanka with my children and also because I've made this the subject for the writing workshops that I'm running this week. Journeys are a good theme for writing. From the epic quests of Homer and Virgil to the voyage and return narratives of Gulliver or Alice, authors have always written about journeys. Because, as readers, we want to be taken on a journey by the author. Because, as readers, we want to experience, with the writers and characters, some kind of transformation. In order for a narrative to succeed, a change needs to take place. It would be a sorry tale if the protagonist in a story ended up back exactly where they started. Whether change is internal or external, the transformation needs to take place and an internal or external journey is the route to that transformation.

Grief is a journey too. No, not that seven stages of grief, jump over a few obstacles and arrive at the finish line kind of journey. I don't subscribe to that model of grief at all. Still, it is a journey nonetheless. In fact, a quick search tells me that I've mentioned journeys twenty-three times in this blog. But my experience suggests that grief is not a linear journey at all. It's more cyclical than that, more like a repeating spiral, or a complex web. In one piece I described it as Snakes and Ladders; in grief we're constantly moving forwards and falling back. But even the Snakes and Ladders metaphor implies an end point. It implies that grief is a process that can be completed, a game that can be won, a course that can be graduated from with a diploma in survival. It isn't really like that.

Still, I returned from my trip to Sri Lanka feeling that if there were a diploma to be granted, I would have deserved it. Even before the loss of my mum and Paul, I've dreaded holidays as a single parent. It's not easy taking two children away on your own and spending each day with only children for company. It's not easy making all of the decisions on your own and having responsibility for all of the packing and the paperwork, for all of the driving and all of the carrying of luggage. It's especially not easy when the suitcase that you're carrying includes a hefty package of sadness and loss, when your hand luggage is anxiety. Usually I come back from holidays feeling pleased that I've survived and proud that my children have enjoyed themselves. I don't usually come back feeling that I've had a good time too. But this time I did.

Of course, you might think I jolly well should have had a good time. I've been to Sri Lanka for God's sake. I've been white water rafting and surfing. I've stayed in treehouses and hotels with swimming pools. I've seen elephants and bears and crocodiles. How lucky I am, how privileged. I am. I know. But I'm still proud of myself. Proud of myself for being brave enough to travel to the other side of the world with my little family. Proud that I kept them safe. Proud that I am learning to live wholeheartedly again.

I didn't do the whole journey alone. Once I'd got us from Sheffield to Heathrow and from Heathrow to Colombo, we joined a group tour around the island. Our guide was a Sri Lankan local, who colloquially referred to himself as Sam. Sam has his own story to tell, a story that he wants to write. He's been on his own journey of transformation. Once in the tobacco trade, he swapped his suit for the traveller's life, preferring to be in the business of spreading joy rather than disease. He survived bombs and bullets during the Tamil conflict (he showed me the scars). He stood with tourists watching the sunset four hours before the tsunami destroyed their vantage point. Sam knows a thing or two about close calls. You don't come out of those experiences unscathed. Close calls with death change your perspective on life. Once a Muslim, he now has a more pantheistic belief system and  'takes the good from everywhere'. On our trip he talks about Buddhism and Hinduism with equal reverence and he's changed his views to incorporate the Western philosophy of the travellers that he's encountered. Despite the disapproval of his community, his daughter was allowed to reject seven suitors before she found 'the one'. Sam believes in love.

Sam intersperses his instruction on wildlife and culture to share wisdom and philosophy. On the bus, over the microphone, he tells us that the Singhalese see life's journey reflected in the landscape. Sometimes, he says, the road is flat and easy and sometimes there is a mountain to climb. And then the flat again. Ups and downs, over and over. This is the journey, he says. He talks about the seasons and the passing of time. He tells us that it will be the Singhalese New Year while we're there. When I ask him why New Year is in April he somehow diverts into astrology and numerology and I find myself unexpectedly having a personal reading over the microphone. He tells me that my life has been hard but that my future is bright. He says that though I seem soft on the outside, I am tough inside and that whatever life throws at me, I will survive it. There is something personal though that he says he must talk to me about in private.

Over dinner on the last night, Sam asks me for my advice about writing his life story. Like all writers, he's not sure where to begin. I tell him that constructing a story is like constructing a tour, to think of his life as a series of interesting landmarks. His job is to put them in a compelling order, to tell the story of his journey. I suggest that he begins with a bang to hook the reader. I tell him to start with the explosion and the time when he lost his hearing and didn't know how he ended up where he was, to  gradually let the story unravel, the pieces assemble. He lights up. He understands. And then he asks me, 'what happened to him, your partner?' And of course there have been a few partners but I tell him about Paul. 'I can see it,' he says. 'You seem so happy and smiling but you carry it like a stone inside.' He tells me that I will love again. That I will encounter my life partner at a creative gathering, that our eyes will meet across a room. He reinforces my feeling that I won't be internet dating again any time soon.

I return from my holiday feeling jubilant, like I've taken a giant leap on my post-loss journey. The climb up from the depths of grief was harder than climbing Lion Rock in the midday sun (it was really hard) but I've made it to a brighter vantage point, a point from which I can admire the view with the kind of intense thankfulness that, it seems to me, can only come from the close hand knowledge of how quickly things can change. Sudden loss is like a tsunami, the consequences devastating and long-lasting. The scars remain. Still, I feel like I've shot up a ladder on the board. I realise that I am no longer just surviving. Mostly, now, I am thriving. I'm not waiting anymore for a partner to have adventures with (just as well because Sam seems to think the next one might not appear until 2022) but am seizing the day now, living life to the full in a way that I didn't think possible three years ago. I spend the money that my parents left making new memories with my children. I go to the places that Paul would have loved to go, hoping that I carry him with me as I travel. I savour each precious moment knowing that it might be my last, fearing always that it might be my last. I have been on a voyage to the underworld and returned. A transformation has taken place.

And when I get home, I feel it again. The lack of a person to come home to, the urge to phone my mum. I feel bereft once more. I'm not at the end of the journey. The grief is still there. I carry it always like a stone. But it's easier to deal with, lighter to carry. For now, I'm mostly on the flat part of the journey and though the ups and downs will continue, I know that I am strong enough to survive it all.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Marking time


Clouds - sent to me by Paul, 3 years ago today

'When you think about it, tomorrow only exists today,' said my son this morning. 'Because tomorrow, tomorrow will be today. So, really, tomorrow doesn't exist at all.' He's a wise soul for eight. His words reminded me that the only way to live is in the present, today. And at the same time, he reminded me that today, my particular tomorrow is the third anniversary of Paul's death, a death which sometimes feels like it happened yesterday and sometimes like it was many, many moons ago. Time, like language, like grief, is a tricky customer.

It is hard to know sometimes how to mark the passing of time, especially in this digital age, especially if, like me, you've blogged to death about loss. If I don't write on the anniversary of my love's death, will people think I've forgotten and moved on? If I do, will they think that I'm stuck, depressed, a broken record, a tiresome bore? Who knows? Who cares? Not me. Not much. Well, maybe a bit.

'I don't put her photo up on Facebook on her birthday anymore,' said a widowed friend the other day. I nodded. I understood. It's been five years for him and he has a new partner. He's not sure it's respectful to her. I disagree but I understand. Everyone is different. 'I still put flowers on her bench though,' he said. 'But I don't tell anyone.' I nodded again. Again, I understood. Time passes. Grief changes. There is no rulebook. 

At this time, three years ago, Paul was still alive. As far as either of us knew, he and we had years ahead of us. We were chatting on Messenger, exchanging poems and photographs, making plans for the future. It was a pretty deep conversation really when I think about it. That's not unusual for me. It wasn't unusual for us. It wasn't unusual for Paul either, though probably he's mostly remembered for his humour, his wit, his kindness and his warmth. When he died, a friend on Facebook said, 'he could appear daft but he was as deep as the sea.' He could. He was. 

I was telling him to make the most of his potential, to not be afraid to shine bright. And I was also telling him about a TED talk I'd just watched which was all about living in the present and how this is better for our mental health. 'That makes sense to me,' Paul said. 'Longer term thinking is more vague and uncertain, more likely to lead to anxious thinking.' Twenty-four hours later he was dead.

And when he died, his loss reverberated through his community. And when he died, it was like my heart had been torn from my chest and like my whole body was vibrating with the shock. It doesn't feel like that anymore. Thank God, it doesn't feel like that anymore. Time passes. Grief changes.

But, three years on, his loss reverberates through me still. His loss is threaded through my very being. He and the loss of him, are part of who I am now. Not everyone can understand this. I was dating someone recently who didn't want to read my blog. 'I'm interested in who you are now,' he said. He wanted to spend time with me in the present, not to hear about my past. I wanted to spend time with him in the present too but he was concerned about the logistical future of a long-distance relationship, a future which seemed unimportant to me. Because, for me, there's no point in thinking about a tomorrow that might not exist. Because for me, life is all about making the most of every opportunity for joy. My past has informed the person I've become.

My past includes him now. The timing, and other things, weren't right. Love, like language, like time, like grief, is a tricky customer. But when that barely-even-a-relationship ended, I fell into a pit of grief again and it was like my heart had been ripped out again and all of those feelings of loss were deep enough to drown in. I was vibrating again. 'Do you think you're depressed?' asked a friend, with concern. 'No,' I replied. 'It's grief. It just makes loss unbearable now.' At least I am able to recognise it now and, excruciating though it is, at least I know how to navigate it. I had to stop and tread water. I had to cry and give in to sadness but I didn't drown. I can swim on. I can live alongside grief. I have to live alongside grief. This is just the way life is. For now. Who knows what grief will turn into tomorrow?

I read something online today: 'Yesterday is heavy. Put it down,' it said. And I get that, I really do. And I wish I could. But if I put it down isn't that a bit like forgetting? Besides, sometimes, with grief, out of nowhere, yesterday is today again. Whether I acknowledge it on Facebook or not, the repercussions of Paul's loss go on.

When I started writing, it was today and Paul's anniversary was tomorrow. As I finish, tomorrow has become today and it is three years today since he died. His loss flows with the blood in my veins, his love still beats in my heart, his memory lives in my mind. Because of him, I know what love is. Because of what I went through, I feel loss more acutely and I see everything more vividly knowing that at any moment it could be gone. I don't know what tomorrow will bring but, like everyone, I have hopes for it anyway, I plan for it anyway. But mostly, I live for today, taking notice of everything that's here, being grateful for all that I still have and, sometimes, allowing myself to be sad for what I've lost. Because I lost a lot. I lost a man who loved me and who I loved passionately. A man who was both daft and deep as the sea. I lost Blacksmith Paul. Today, especially, I remember him.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Home is where the heart is

I learned a new word recently. I am a writer and so I love words, sometimes almost more than people. Words help to make sense of my innermost feelings. The blank page listens when there's no-one else around. Generally speaking, words don't let me down.

I love the precision of language, the way that, as a writer, if I choose the right words I can convey the exact sensation of feathers on skin, or sunlight over the ocean. Less is more, we say. Why use ten words when one will do? 

The English language is vast and intricate and yet still, sometimes, we say 'there are no words'. In grief, I've learned that sometimes this is the best thing to say. Less is more. There are no words of comfort adequate for something as big as the disappearance of a parent or a lover or a child. 'Grief' is not big enough. 'Loss' is not strong enough. 'Sadness' only goes so far.

And sometimes we have to look to another language for the word we need. The Eskimos, some say, have fifty words for snow. The Americans, allegedly, have fifteen words for sandwich. The Greeks, we're told, had six words for love. And the Welsh? The Welsh have one word which, for me, sums up the pervasive, eternal experience of profound loss. Hiraeth. A word which has no precise translation but a word which means a longing for a place to which we cannot return, a yearning for home.

And yet I am home. I am sitting here in my favourite chair by the fire in the house that I share with my two children, my family. I live in Sheffield. I've pretty much always lived in Sheffield. If you ask me where my home is, I don't have to falter. It is here, nestled amongst the green parks and trees, at the confluence of rivers that fed the steel industry, between the seven hills. It is here that I belong. In truth, I'm not sure that I'd live anywhere else. Maybe for love. Only for love. And yet, for the last three years, I've been homesick, filled every day with longing, desperate to return to something, somewhere, to a place that had no name. Hiraeth.

For me, that place is the place where parents and grandparents congregated around Christmas trees and days when my mother's voice was just at the end of the phone. It is the time when I had someone to love who really loved me. Before he died. Before she died. Before anyone died. The place that I long to return to is a place of innocence. It is a place where, sometimes, it could feel that everything was ok. It is a place of completeness, wholeness. It was a time when nothing really awful had yet happened and when I couldn't imagine how awful things could get.

These days I try to live in the moment. I work hard to count my blessings. I focus on the sensation of feathers on skin, of sunlight on the ocean. I strive to find the beauty in the little things, to cherish what remains. But the longing will never leave me. And every time I love someone, it is tinged with the knowledge of the loss that will come. And every time I lose someone, I fall deep down into a well of pre-existing sadness. And I know that it will always be here. This sadness. This longing. This yearning for a place to which I cannot return. At least I have a word for it. And I love words, sometimes more than people. Hiraeth.

Monday, 10 December 2018

The ghost of Christmas Past

The ghost moves in without me noticing at first. Why would I? Ghosts are invisible after all. But still, I feel it, though the children don't. Their heads are full of candy canes and Christmas crafts, packages beneath the tree. They are in the present, or three steps ahead into the future, counting down, opening doors, eating sweets, their excitement palpable, though also invisible.

When I open doors, the ghost comes in. I inhale it like smoke and it seeps through my skin. Funny how invisible things can feel so heavy. I walk around weighed down with it, as if I am carrying it like rocks in my pockets, like I am full to the brim with it. I still don't realise what it is. You'd think I would recognise it by now.

Gradually it reveals itself, though it takes the form of absence not presence. It is in the gaps in the list of gifts to purchase and in the box of decorations for the Christmas tree. It is threaded like tinsel through ferns. It is in the making of plans that someone else used to organise. The Christmas train is a ghost train now and the spectre is there on the stage at the panto. Behind you. The ghost of grief is in the air. The ghost of grief is everywhere.

The ghost sucks up joy like a dementor, demanding to be seen. And then I remember: ghosts don't like to be ignored. I set a place at the table for grief and welcome it in. Only then can the festivities begin.




Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The end of grief?

It is two years, eight months and three days since my love, Blacksmith Paul, died. A strange day to note, you may think, but it’s been logged on my calendar for two years, four months and eight days. On that day I was sitting sobbing again in the pale blue room of the hospice, (the one just down the corridor from where my mother had also recently died, the one marked: Counselling, Do not Disturb). I was asking when it would end, when I could hope to feel some semblance of normality return. My bereavement counsellor paused, recognising perhaps that I might not like her answer and told me that, statistically-speaking, two years, eight months and three days is the average time it takes to recover from a major bereavement. I broke off from crying to snort with laughter. It was clearly ridiculous. The date seemed to be impossibly far away. It seemed impossible that I could survive for that long. It was also impossible to think that it could ever be over. I put it in my phone, maybe as a date to work towards, maybe as a black joke or ironic statement. 13th November 2018:  Grief Ends.
               As I sit here on that day, I look back at my journey through grief and reflect again on the twists and turns along the way. Looking back I realise that, although I didn't really expect my path to reflect that of the widowed people I know, in many ways it did. Paul and I had only been together for eight months. It wasn't like I lost a husband who was integrated into every aspect of my life. But I still lost the man I loved, the person I relied upon and my hopes for the future. And, like other people, I lost parts of myself in the blast, lost friends who simply had no idea how to be around my devastation. It was a life-altering experience. 
                It is easy to frame the years by the writing retreats in Wales that I go on every Easter. That first Easter I went three weeks after Paul's death. It was a weird thing to do but the trip was paid for and the children's father was already to booked to have them. It seemed as a good a place to be as any. That week I just wrote one poem and a eulogy and I also began writing a blog in response to prompts from Megan Devine's Writing Your Grief programme.  At first I wrote daily, then weekly, then monthly. Eventually the memories were all recorded (there were only eight months of them after all) and I’d used up every metaphor for agony that I could think of. Slowly synapses began to reconnect and a new life started to emerge. When I returned to Ty Newydd a year later it was with a potential new romance in mind. The year after that, my annual retreat signalled the end of that relationship. Having new love in my life had eased my loneliness but it hadn’t been the saviour I might have expected after all. In fact falling in love again had unleashed whole new layers of grief and tipped me into something close to a breakdown. I'd read that, for many people, the second year of grief is worse than the first and, in the end, perhaps this was true. If I spent the first year of grief wallowing in a pit of despair, I spent the second year grappling to climb out of it, trying to navigate my way in a new world with no faith in my map or my compass and no hope that some guardian angel was working for my greater good. In the second year I battled with anxiety, depression and what I eventually realised was post-traumatic stress. It was a very hard journey. It was hard to trust again. It was hard to love again. And it was very hard to lose love again. In fact, all of it was hard.
            Still, two years, eight months and three days after Paul’s death, in truth, I am doing great. I am off all medication and not feeling in need of any therapy. I am dating again but happy also to be alone. And I am writing fiction again, my head bursting with new stories and fresh ideas. I am working on new projects and filled with ambition and hope. My brain is mostly functioning, my heart is mostly repaired, I am mostly recovered. The house that I moved into six months after Paul’s death is feeling like home and, though I lost friends in the aftermath, I gained more. And the other house, the house by the sea bought with the money left by my mother, is now a place for writers to come together and create. I am living a dream that somehow arose like an island in the fog. And the grief? The grief has receded but not vanished. A few weeks ago, I went on a date with a man who later messaged me to tell me that he’d realised he used to know Paul. As he described what a lovely man he was, the floodgates opened and I had to pull over my car because I was crying so hard. I can still be blindsided by grief. And on Bonfire Night last week, I wandered around poking sticks in fires and wondering why on this, my favourite night of the year, I felt full to the brim with sadness. And it was only later that I recalled that it was still grief and that memories of the blacksmith still lingered in the embers. Fascinated always by narrative, I ask myself, does a love story finish just because the hero dies? Or do the threads that bind two lives together continue beyond the grave, beyond the last page? Does grief really end two years, eight months and three days after a traumatic loss? Or does sadness echo through the days that follow, seeping like wet ink onto the blank pages of the future? Of course it does. In fact, though it gets easier to live with, grief shifts and changes like clouds in the sky and goes on, in some form, forever. Grief, like love, goes on for eternity. I realise now that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
            This weekend I ran a writing retreat, not in Wales, but at my house in Bridlington. As I often do, I sent the participants off to the beach to look for treasure, to search for the gifts that the ocean left behind. I picked up an assortment of objects: green sea glass that I imagined as a top hat for a leprechaun, a swirling conch that, though it no longer held the sound of the sea, was a lens to view it through, the pale blue-striped shell of a clam. As I walked my eyes, as always, were looking for hearts. It is something I used to do in the early days, searching for signs that all was not lost. And that day I found one. At night the sea was wild and by day black sand swirled over the beach, and, over a flat stone, the rivulet of water and sand made a heart-shape. I watched for a while, mesmerised, thinking of Paul and of the journey of grief. I wanted to reach down and pick it up but I knew that to do so would break the illusion. I would just be left with a stone. So I left it there and moved on. And I was walked, I realised that, at that moment, I was so unbelievably happy and so completely at peace with myself and with the world. I felt full to the brim with joy, my pockets full of gifts, my heart full of hope. I felt so very lucky and wondered how this is possible. But it is.
            The next day, the rain was pelting down and the sky was a blank bank of cloud. It was not a day for swimming but I live now as if each day is my last and I cannot miss an opportunity to swim in the sea. It is the gift of grief, the gift I didn’t want to hear of when he died. I undressed and walked to the water’s edge. Already the air was cool against my skin. I dipped my toes into the sea and felt icy waters prickling my feet. I waded in deeper as the strips of seaweed and swirling rocks twirled around my legs. I walked out and then back in, wondering if I was brave enough, out and in again like the tide. And eventually I dived. The cold took my breath away as I swam briskly through the waves, rising and falling, going with the flow of the water. I was swimming not through the clouds but beneath their canopy and though I could not see the blue of the sky, I knew that it was there and that it will always return. My skin tingled with the euphoria that I always feel when swimming outdoors and as I walked back up the beach shivering, I said to my friend, ‘these days I feel invincible.’ Though the journey has been impossibly hard, I am alive and I survived.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Swimming through clouds



At four years old, I won the Sheffield Water Babies cup. Though some memories are embellished by other family members' narratives or recalled mostly through photographs, my memory of winning that trophy feels real. I remember it in sensory details that only I would recall. I remember the sensation of the water in my nostrils as I descended into the swimming pool from the side, plummeting so deep that I could almost touch the tiles on the bottom, the sounds of dry land muffled and retreating as my ears filled with water. And I remember the view of bubbles in the water as I slowly rose back up to the surface, the sounds of laughter and relief from the crowd as I emerged and smiled and began to swim breaststroke down the big pool at Sheaf Valley Baths. I don't remember what I was thinking as I swam but I remember the comfort and ease of the challenge. All I had to do in order to win was to be the youngest child to swim a length and water was already where I felt at home. 

At some point I must have wondered where my family were because I remember stopping mid-way to tread water and looking up into the gallery to see my father. I guess my mother was there too but it is my father that I remember because his presence was more rare and thus more special. And I remember pausing to wave gleefully to him and I remember, as clear as if it's a photograph, his smile beaming down on me. I've heard that the audience were charmed. As a parent myself now, I can imagine the scene. I remember too, standing on the podium and being handed a trophy that was almost as big as myself and I remember refusing to hold it because I was afraid it might get wet. My memory stops there but the family albums show me posing at home, dried off and holding the trophy with my brothers. Sometimes I joke that it was the high point of my life and that it has all been downhill since then. There are times when it has actually felt that way. 

Last weekend I took on another swimming challenge to raise money for the charity Widowed and Young. The organisation had a free place at the Swim Serpentine event and no-one to take part and so, at the last minute, I said that I'd do it. Outdoor swimming has always been a love of mine and I knew that it would be easy for me to swim a mile around a lake in central London. Besides, Swimming through Clouds has become the name of my blog, so it seemed fitting and I've often felt guilty that I haven't run a marathon or climbed a mountain in Paul's honour. It seems to be a thing that bereaved people do. Everyone needs something that keeps them getting out of bed, something that keeps them moving (though they've no idea where they're going), a cause that helps them to create something vaguely positive from the unbearable pain of loss. Some people in these moments of heartache, take up new hobbies and new challenges and some of us return home. I am a returner. If you'd asked me as a child what I loved most in the world I would have said reading and writing and swimming. True to form, when Paul died, I immediately began to assemble a bereavement library and I wrote as if my very life depended on it. And through it all, I swam.

For me, there is something meditative about swimming. When I swim, the world and my cares recede. I imagine that returning to water is like returning to the womb and throughout my life, when I'm stressed, I gravitate to it - the sea, the pool, even the bath. Water makes me relax. But, though a bubble bath is great, swimming is better. With swimming come the endorphins that we all get from exercise and as we move the body, somehow we simultaneously clear the clutter from the mind. For some, I imagine the pounding of feet on pavement or wheels on tarmac creates the beat but for me the rhythm of the strokes is akin to the rhythm of the breath  Sometimes I even find myself counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe, 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe. I am focused, occupied only in the business of propelling myself through the water. Even in the early days of grief, when I was swimming, I could stop crying. When I was swimming I felt ok. 

If swimming is one step up from the bath, swimming outdoors, for me, is the holy grail of wellbeing. There is so much written about the positive benefits of outdoor and cold water swimming and if I were a different sort of person I could quote research and analyse the effects on mind and body. But I am not a scientist and I don't need empirical research to tell me what I feel in my own mind and body. I only know that when I enter the cool water of a reservoir or lake, my mind is as still as the water's surface and that I feel at peace. When I swim outdoors, I feel like I am in my rightful place, part of the glorious whole that is nature, suspended between water and sky, like something bigger than me is holding me together. It's a similar feeling to the one I get when I sit at the summit of a hill or lie on a beach gazing at solar systems, the comforting feeling that I am small and my worries smaller, that nothing matters but the feel of the water, the movement of clouds, the fluttering of leaves at the water's edge. For those precious moments, everything is fine, just as it is.

But swimming the Serpentine was a different matter. There were rules to be adhered to. If the temperature dropped below 15 degrees, there was a wetsuit that had to be worn (wetsuits make me panic). If I chose to swim without a wetsuit, I needed a tow float (what the heck is a tow float?) There were forms to fill in (forms make me panic) and tags and labels to attach - tattooed numbers for my arms, timers for my ankles, baggage labels for my stuff. And there were crowds of people (crowds make me panic) and they were all wearing wetsuits (even though it was a blissful 17 degrees) and they were stretching and preparing like swimming is some kind of sport. It was all a bit terrifying. My swim friends had told me not to go to the front and so I took my time entering the water. I walked slowly down the ramp, aiming to give myself time to acclimatise but I hadn't prepared for the fact that the ramp gave way abruptly to deep water and I found myself descending, plummeting under, bubbling back up, trying to catch my breath. And then I smiled and started swimming and gradually the rhythm returned: 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe, the crowds spread out and I was able to look around at the trees and the water and the clouds. And it was ok. Halfway round, I wondered where my children were and I spotted them by the side of the lake. They were jumping and shouting, doing a little cheerleading routine. I stopped to tread water and wave. I thought of my dad and I thought of Paul and of the cycle of life. When I emerged, someone gave me a medal and we hugged and posed for family photos just as I had done when I was four, only this time I was the adult and the people who were proud were my children.

The truth is that aside from the crowds and the tags and the admin, swimming the Serpentine wasn't a challenge for me. It was just a little swim in the park. Pleasant, but a bit too busy for my liking. Compared to the challenge of grief, it was nothing. But I am happy to have raised so much money for a charity that do wonderful work, who were a life raft for me as I journeyed through what felt like impossible waves of grief and I am extremely grateful for my sponsors and supporters. Mostly though, I am proud that I came through it all and that I can still smile. And if there have been a lot of downs since that Water Babies cup, maybe now, the only way is up.