Can We Please Talk About Death?

My Mum died. I didn’t lose her – she was in the lounge. She didn’t pass anything, death isn’t an exam and what does ‘pass away’ even mean?! She died.

You can talk about her and mention her name without whispering it. It’s okay. I like talking about her. I like remembering her. I like hearing stories of her.

I’m sick of people treating grief like a broken eggshell. Talking about it will not cause your own parent to die. Death happens to everyone, so surely we need to work out a way to talk about it?

I posted the above on one of my social media channels the other day. I was really surprised by the response. So many bereaved children commented saying how much they agreed. They also included the awkwardness that comes when someone says ‘I’m sorry’. How do you respond to that? I always say ‘well it wasn’t your fault’, but that sounds callous. As does saying ‘well it was a long time ago’, or ‘it’s okay’.

Nobody knows how to talk about death. We resort to nonsensical euphemisms. Nobody knows how to talk about grief. People whisper. Or they blank words out of sentences. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. Death and grief seem to have become one of the biggest taboos in our society. It’s really quite odd, because death and grief happen to literally everyone, so of all the things which could be taboo, it’s a bit bizarre that death has become one of them.

Rio Ferdinand did a fantastic documentary the other week where he spoke about the death of his wife, and the grieving process that he continues to experience. He spoke about his worries for his children. He spoke about his resistance to therapy, and later his need for it. It was raw, open and honest. It was refreshing to see an honest account of grief on a national TV channel. We need more of it.

Grief is horrible and unpredictable. It will affect everyone differently, and different people will need different approaches when it comes to talking, or helping. But rather than projecting your idea of what constitutes ‘help’ onto another person – why not just ask them what they need, or what they would find helpful?

The only way we can start to break down the walls that death puts up, is to talk about it. The only way we can begin to ‘trial and error’ our way through the language surrounding death, is to begin to try, experience a few errors, and slowly work out the best way for these conversations to happen. Death and grief aren’t a big black hole that needs to be avoided at all costs. Talking to someone about it won’t make you fall in the hole and keep falling until you can’t get up.

Please ask your friends if they would like to talk about their dying family members. Please ask your friends and family if they would like to talk about their dead family members. It might be awkward and uncomfortable, especially to begin with, but death happens to all of us, and slowly, together, we can work out a way to talk about it in a more comfortable way.

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Let’s Talk About Grief

Death is part of life, but it’s also difficult, and on the whole, crap.

It might not be that bad for the person dying – they might have been ill for a long time or might be ready to die. But for those left behind it’s usually rubbish and leaves them living with grief in some form. (If there isn’t anyone left behind then that is also crap, because nobody should be alone at the end of their life, so whichever way you look at it, death is rubbish).

Despite this, grief is something rarely discussed. It’s a bit odd, because while some subjects are becoming less taboo and more talked about, which is brilliant, grief appears to be lagging behind.

I’m not entirely sure why this is. It might be because those working to break down stigma – being more open, sharing their stories, talking about difficult subjects – tend to be slightly younger and maybe haven’t yet reached an age where grief is a feature in their lives. (I appreciate this is a huge generalisation and stereotype and there are older people also doing some brilliant work).

Whatever the reason, grief isn’t hugely talked about

This year seems to have contained more celebrity deaths than any other in my memory. A lot of people are blaming 2016 but it’s more likely to be that they were all a similar age and life happens. The fact that so many people are blaming 2016, instead of seeing death as part of life, further illustrates how afraid people seem to be to see death as something unavoidable that happens to everyone. It can be far easier to blame the concept of an evil year, than to face up to our own mortality.

Mum had excellent end of life care. She worked in palliative medicine all her life, so she knew what she was doing, but she died where she wanted (at home), pain-free, next to Dad, and I can’t think of a better death than that. Mum knew what she wanted, Mum and Dad discussed it, and her wishes were made known to all of the people looking after her. I’m absolutely convinced that Mum wouldn’t have had a ‘good death’, without having these conversations frankly, honestly, and in enough time for her wishes to be carried out.

Since Mum died, I’ve blogged about grief a little, and heard from people all over the world, of all ages, who are going through a similar thing. The fact that I have heard from the variety of people I have, shows that there is a lack of conversation surrounding grief, because if my blog attracts these people (and I’m just one little person typing from my bedroom, onto a blog that I put no money into advertising), then people are clearly hunting out the ‘I get it’ of another grieving person.

I’ve found that when it comes to grief, so many people don’t know what to say or do with me. As many of my friends know – I’m as blunt as they come at times – I certainly don’t expect anyone to do and say, or not do and not say, anything at all, but I still feel like there can be a wall between me and other people sometimes. Weirdly, the people I’ve found most at loss of what to say have probably been services, some people in services are brilliant, but others blame things on grief that aren’t grief-related, ignore grief at times when it’s probably worth bearing in mind, and trot out generic lines which aren’t at all helpful. I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve spoken to other one-parent people my age who have found the same thing.

If there’s anything that comes from all of these celebrity deaths, I hope it’s that we can open up conversations around death, dying and grief. It’s something that I never really thought about until Mum became ill, but since her illness and death, it’s something I’ve realised is massively important. It’s important to have conversations with your loved ones about what you’d all want at the end of your life, it’s important to keep talking to your grieving friends, and it’s important to keep talking to others if you find that you are grieving yourself.

This is to those of you for whom Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas.

This is to those of you for whom Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas.

I’m sorry that you are hurting.

I know that the ‘merry’ in ‘merry Christmas’ can feel as though it is mocking you.

When the whole world feels as though it is laughing, smiling, and celebrating, but those are the last things you feel like doing.

Crowded rooms can feel the emptiest.

Hugs can feel like they’re not quite tight enough, not quite long enough; never quite reaching you.

You smile but it doesn’t reach your eyes, and your own laugh seems distant and far away.

The pressure to be perfect can press down on your chest until you can no longer breathe and the number of people around can make your head spin. Occasionally you feel your mask slipping and you have to run to a bathroom and fix it before anybody sees.

Everybody wants to know what you’ve been doing all year and what your future plans are. That can be hard to answer when you’ve spent so much of the year in doctors appointments, hospital visits, and counselling sessions. It’s hard when your test results are medical rather than academic, when so many of your peers are patients or services users not students or colleagues.

It’s okay if your biggest achievement this year is survival. Fighting against the crap in your head, the illness that is determined to infiltrate your body, or the general difficulties that life insists on constantly throwing your way, is huge. It’s hard, brave, and courageous to continue to get up and dressed every day (or most days), when circumstances seem determined to destroy you.

Maybe you’ve lost someone this year. They might have died, or might have just exited your life. Maybe you lost someone last year, or the year before. Time doesn’t heal it, it just gives you longer to attempt to get used to it. Sometimes it makes it harder because the longer they’re gone, the more they’ve missed. Christmas can feel like it’s shining a light on the space that they’ve left behind.

It’s okay to miss them. It’s okay to grieve for them. The fact that they have exited your life doesn’t mean that you have to erase their existence entirely.

Be kind to yourself this Christmas. Let yourself have some time off. It’s absolutely okay to cry if you need to. If you want to laugh, then laugh – nothing in your life cancels out your right to feel happy. Let people in; if you can, and if you want to. Let them hug you. Let them be at the end of the phone. Let them text you. Let them listen. Let them be there.

Maybe you’re feeling just fine. If so, then please: try to be considerate this Christmas. Please understand that not everyone will be happy, not everyone will want to share copious amounts of food, not everyone will be able to manage being around large groups of people.

Christmas is only one day, but it can be incredibly stressful for those of us who don’t feel able to tackle it. Mental illness, physical illness, or other things, can all affect people’s ability to ‘Christmas’, and more often than not, we’re not trying to be difficult, we just can’t do it.

I hope that you all have a peaceful Christmas this year. I hope that it’s as stress-free as possible. I hope that you get a little time with your family or friends and that it’s as enjoyable as it can be.

I’ll leave you with some Winnie the Pooh wisdom:

“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“And freezing.”
“Is it?”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
― A.A. Milne

Children Can Bring Light To The Darkest Of Days

Cycling home today, I saw a lot of Mums pulling various uniform-clad little ones across traffic lights, book bags trailing behind them. I also saw a couple of late-teens-early-twenties-aged-child-looker-after-ers laughing and giggling with their rabble, jumping and skipping along the road.

I love seeing it, it’s so lovely to see people happy and enjoying life.

It does make me miss the various little people (and slightly bigger people) I’ve been lucky enough to take care of, though. Growing up, I babysat for the vast majority of the village from the age of fourteen (being a Beaver Scout leader and having younger brothers helps with that!). I’ve lost count of how many lounges I’ve sat in, stories I’ve read, and games I’ve played.

Through volunteering, there are even more hours spent looking after children to add up. The hordes that have come through Beavers, Cubs and Scouts (at one point I helped out at all three, spanning two different troops), and those I worked with when volunteering with Shout Out Leeds, with Team v, at a school or two, play groups and church.

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When working in a toy shop for a few years, I met a lot of kids, some very briefly, but there were other more regular shoppers who I got to know quite well. As a student ambassador for a couple of years, I interacted with children and young people of all ages. With many it would be a ten-minute chat, or occasionally a day doing various activities. But residentials were the best bit of the job: whole weeks getting to know some incredible young people, being privileged enough to share their stories, hear their worries, and listen to their hopes and dreams. There are so many young people who I got to know really well, but who I will never see again.

Out of all of the children I’ve looked after, there are a couple who have, perhaps, made the biggest impact on me.

The twins who showed me that even though the world can be ridiculously rubbish, there are still smiles to be had, and Peppa Pig can fix almost anything. They showed me that what my body looks like doesn’t matter, so long as it’s healthy enough to take them swimming. They reminded me that baking can be fun, giggles are infectious, and that mess can be joyful. Their Mum recognised that things could be rough, cancer was rubbish, and hugs from little people were sometimes all that was needed to calm a storm.

The three children belonging to my friend. The youngest, born just a month after Mum’s terminal diagnosis, reminding me that life is cyclical and though people die, and it’s crap that they die, people also live, people are born, and life is precious. The middle one has enough energy to keep a power station active for a week and an imagination to rival that of acclaimed writers, who continues to show me that dreams are important and life isn’t as serious as you think. The eldest, an incredible footballer with a big heart, always outside playing with his friends – a continuous reminder that life is greater than these four walls.

Finally, the two boys who I spent Summer, Easter and Christmas with for three years. The boys who baked with me, swam with me, built dens and Lego models with me, ran down to the river, came to the library and tackled buses with me. The boys who took me to the Great Yorkshire Show, the Royal Armouries and Leeds museum. The two boys who let me kiss things better, let me hug them, let me care about them through a time when the world felt so uncaring. However rubbish my night had been, whatever crap was going through my head, however downright awful I felt, they never failed to lift my mood, show me how to smile and bring light to the darkest of days.

Kids are incredible (as are many of their parents!). I’m not entirely sure how/why their parents decided I was responsible enough to keep their little people alive, but I’m so glad they did. I don’t know how many of them will remember me when they are my age, but I will remember many of them.

Summer has come to a close, and I haven’t done a single day of childcare. It feels very odd. I’ve finally emailed my student ambassador job to let them know I’m not coming back, and had a lovely email in response. I miss some of these children a huge amount. I hope that I can see some of them soon (though a couple of them moved to Guernsey which is mildly inconvenient). I’m growing up and moving on and it’s impossible to take everything from my past to my future, I guess it’s just about recognising that these experiences will always be a part of me and my life – they have shaped me and helped me grow into the person I am today; they have got me through some really tough times. Moving forwards is hard, leaving things I enjoyed and loved is hard – but ultimately, it’s right.

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I’ve Lost My Anchor

Losing my anchor is hard to explain. It feels like I’m floating around in life with nothing to tie me down or ground me.

As Hope Edelman writes in Motherless Daughters:

But if you’re twenty-five and you’ve lost your mother, how do you know where you are? It’s really, really difficult to not know where you are at that age. You need to be in relation to something. Dad may be really important and helpful, but he’s not a woman.

I’m a bit younger than 25… but it still resonates with me. My emotions can run wild and there is nobody to keep them in check. Sometimes I get upset (like anyone else), but where there used to be that person to give me a hug or receive a ‘brain dump’ text, there is now a blank space. Other times I’m really happy, good things have happened and I want to share them. But it’s hard sometimes to find that person to share it with. So it peters out.

I don’t really want anyone to fix anything. I’m not really expecting any answers. I just want someone to say ‘actually, yeah, that’s crap’, and then have a chat, give me a hug, and move on with life.

It’s a weird sensation losing your life anchor. Sometimes it’s a very lonely place to be. It can feel like you’re out at sea and you can shout, scream, sing, dance, whatever… but nobody can see or hear you.

When you have an anchor, it can be easier to try new things, meet new people, and go to new places, because you know that there is someone to come back to if it goes wrong (or if it goes right!). You know that after a long day, when you’re tired, there’s someone to welcome you home. You know that if you get ill, there’s someone to look after you (even if it is by text). You know that if you have questions to ask, there is someone to go to.

My Dad is very good for a lot of these things. He’s still there to go to and is pretty much always there when I need him. My two brothers are also lifesavers at times (even if communication is sometimes a struggle for a 16-year-old boy). I have some amazing friends, too, who listen to my brain outpourings and answer my questions. I’m lucky to have some fantastic women in my life who mentor me, listen to me, answer questions and give me hugs. Some I view as almost adopted ‘big sisters’. But nobody will ever replace Mum. Nobody has the seemingly unlimited amounts of time, love, and patience that Mum possessed, and there is nothing on this planet that is as safe, warm, and grounding as a Mum hug.

Missing Mum is to be expected. Nine and a bit months on and I’m almost more frustrated that she’s missing out on stuff, than I am upset that she’s gone. I get angry. Cancer sucks, in a big way. I want to shout and scream at it for destroying her body and taking away her life, but there is no point in that because cancer wouldn’t hear or care. I’m frustrated that she’s not here when I need her. Sometimes I get mad at her for leaving life, even though I know it wasn’t her fault or her choice. I often want to throw a tantrum at the injustice of it all. Or to run and run until my body burns and I can focus on external pain, rather than the internal pain I feel. I want my chest to burn from being alive, not from the pain of someone being dead. I want Mum back.

I’m floating around. Bouncing backwards and forwards like a ball stuck in a pinball machine. I feel like I’m flying away and losing control and there is nobody to catch me and bring me back. I try to communicate things, but my words get stuck and lost and float away, unheard. Mum used to practically be able to read my mind (which I definitely was not a fan of at times!), but that seems to be a power that only Mums possess. It’s nobody’s fault but my own. It’s not that people aren’t listening or don’t care, it’s that I don’t have the words. I just miss her. I want my anchor back.

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9 Months Too Long

Dear Mum,

It’s been 9 months since you left and to be honest, it’s about time you came back. I’ve definitely learned the lesson of how fab you are and how much I need you in my life; I promise to never forget that ever again. I just need you to come back.

Sometimes I think it’s all maybe getting a little easier, but then I’m hit with another huge whallop of grief – determined to knock me down and keep me there. I have to do whatever I can to find some air again and claw my way out of the grief vacuum. It would be far too easy to drown in it.

It’s sunny now. Summer is here (in true British form of ‘is it going to rain today? 1186773_429236453855696_2130074871_nI better take a coat just in case’). Last summer you hardly left the house – it was too painful and tiring. The summer before I barely remember, I think you must have been working, and I was too. The summer before that we all went away as a family, climbing up mountains in France and mountain biking down them. It was boiling hot but there was snow at the top of the mountains. There are photos of us standing in snow in t-shirts.

You loved summer. You would come home on time to watch Wimbledon (unlike the rest of the year when you would often work late), then would finish your work later that evening, after ‘Today at Wimbledon’ had finished. We’d play table tennis in the garden, or actual tennis down at the local tennis club. We’d go to places on weekends sometimes; Yorkshire Sculpture Park or Harewood House, or even just have a potter around Wetherby. 166 (2016_04_23 16_52_32 UTC)You would normally take a couple of weeks annual leave and we would go somewhere – France for many years, but Spain once or twice, or different places in the UK.

I remember one day last summer really clearly. It must have been summer because I was wearing the dress I’m wearing today (I hadn’t realised that until I thought about it just now!). Dad was at the cottage so I offered to come home and be with you. You woke up mid-morning. I helped you to the bathroom and found your medication that Dad had left out for me. You thanked me for looking after you – you had kept insisting that friends could come over or carers could come round – but that morning you told me you appreciated it being a family member. In that moment I wished more than anything that I had my life more ‘together’. I wished I’d passed my driving test so I could have come over more and done more. I wished I was more sorted, more settled, more able to help. I wished I could have spent more time with you.

I miss you.

My driving test is coming up – I’ve finally almost reached that point (let’s hope I pass…). I’m settling down. I’ve got a better work-life balance. I might have been more able to help this year. But it’s a year too late.

Nine months is no time at all, yet in my head it stretches on forever. It’s not even a year. In the grand scheme of things it’s nothing, but it’s a nine months which have perhaps been harder than any previous nine months that I’ve ever lived through.

So, it’s about time you came back now, you’ve been gone long enough. We’ve learned to do a few things without you – we’ve learned to make a decent Christmas cake, we’ve learned which suncream to buy, we’re learning how to have fun again. E managed to get off on a school trip with all documentation intact, J has finished a year of work without killing or maiming any children, Dad’s kept the house going and the boys alive. We miss you, though.

I miss you, Mum, it’s been nine months too long and the sun is screaming out for you to bustle through the house and throw us all outside.

Lots of love,
Xxx

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Some days are just HARD

Nothing specific has happened today. Well one or two things, but nothing of great significance (compared to Mum dying, anyway… I compare any challenges in my life to Mum dying, it’s a pretty effective tool for minimising any stress). The whole country feels somewhat unsettled after the EU referendum which certainly isn’t helping, and my Facebook feed is pretty unpleasant. It was noticeable in The Hut today that many members were more anxious and/or flat than normal. I had two appointments. Neither were bad, in fact they wer both pretty positive, but both contained things which are difficult to hear.

Nothing ‘bad’ has happened. Some days are just hard.

I’m tired, I’m not sleeping well at the moment. The sleeping tablets I’ve been off and on for the last 10 months (sleeping is hard when closing your eyes prompts images and memories of a very poorly Mum) aren’t cutting it right now. It takes ages to fall asleep and once I do, I wake up all night. It’s not ideal, and all day I just want to nap. I’m tired, and I don’t just mean sleep tired.

Life keeps throwing up challenges and sometimes they’re cope-able-with, sometimes they’re cope-able-with-a-bit-of-help, other times it can feel hopeless. Perhaps I’m not making any sense, but I’m not sure I understand myself right now or that I have the words to explain how I feel. I feel mute.

I miss Mum, that much is clear. I want nothing more than to run home into a Mum hug. I want my Mum to look after me, to help me through the difficult days. I want to text her when I’ve had a tough appointment, I want to let her know when good stuff happens, I want to ask her advice on which food containers to get for my cupboards. I want her to come into my room on the mornings when the world feels bleak and I’m unable to move, to bring me some cornflakes with skimmed milk and brazil nuts, to get my clothes out for me and remind me how to get dressed, just like she used to. I want to go into her room at 2am when I can’t stop crying, to sleep next to her in the big double bed, to feel safe.

I want to feel safe, anchored and ‘me’ again.