Learning to Let Go

Letting go is hard for anyone, with pretty much anything. Letting go of one of the only things that has been consistent in my life since Mum died, is really really hard. But necessary.

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Volunteering at Time to Talk day 2014 – the day I heard Mum’s terminal diagnosis.

I’ve volunteered with Shout Out Leeds for three years and in doing so, I’ve met some wonderful people, had some amazing opportunities, and really grown as a person. We’ve supported each other through ups and downs and (hopefully!) made a real difference with the work we’ve been doing. I was actually with them when I got the text from Dad asking to meet up on the day he told me about Mum’s terminal diagnosis.

I started with the group as a fairly inexperienced member and learned a lot from those older than me, as time went on, I began to lead on things and eventually I took ownership of the Twitter/Facebook/Website. It’s now reached the point where I’ve gone as far as I can go with the group, and I have to move on and continue to build my life in York, rather than constantly returning to Leeds. I’m beginning to get paid for a lot of the things we would do in Shout Out for free, and as much as I’m an advocate for volunteering, I also need to afford to live. I had a good chat with the facilitator of the group, and we decided now was a good time to move on, before I began to get frustrated or stagnate.

My friends and I joke about ‘adulting’ all the time. We all seem to bounce between changing lightbulbs and colouring in, buying non-slip bath mats, and consuming frozen frubes, navigating tax and eating our tea off disney plates. We’re fumbling our way into adulthood with much hilarity and the occasional unmitgated disaster.

Part of this adulting is learning when to let go of things. Working out what to take with us, and what to leave behind. Knowing when it’s time to stop, breathe, and regroup. It’s not easy! Occasionally there will be times when it is clear that something needs to go, and sometimes it might even be a relief to cut something out of life, but more often than not, it’s really difficult. There are no right and wrong answers and no guidebook. It’s just life. It’s giving things a go, experimenting with things, taking risks and watching what happens.

I find it hard to move on because I’m leaving Mum behind. But I can’t remain in the place I left Mum forever. It’s not possible, and she wouldn’t want me to. She would be telling me to get up, get out, and live life. We’ve all got to keep on keeping on, and learn when it’s time to let things go.

 

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Where’s the “good” in “goodbye”?

I was going through old cards and letters the other day as I began to put things up in my room (I’ve been very creative with command hooks. I should probably have bought shares in command hooks…). I found the last birthday card that Mum ever wrote for me (which made me cry). I also found the card my family wrote for me when I first went to uni, which has found it’s way onto my wall.

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The more I read it, the more I think it’s excellent advice for life. (I wish you could FaceTime dead people, though, but Mum was cremated and I don’t think ashes can talk).

I was wandering round a shop today when ‘No Good in Goodbye‘ came on. As it came on I was scrolling through my phone and people from my uni course began to post their results.

Admittedly I got a bit of a ‘pang’ and my mind began to race about what could have/should have/might have been.

It feels stupid because I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am right now and I’m more content with life than I have been in a long time. If I’d have stayed at uni I would most likely have become even more unwell and probably wouldn’t have finished. I wouldn’t have met some of the wonderful people I now have in my life and would have missed out on some fantastic opportunities that I’ve been granted. I probably wouln’t be blogging for Blurt, or have the job I have now (which is basically my dream job).

I’m struggling to match the ‘me’ that I am, with the ‘me’ I’ve always thought I ‘should’ be. I’ve had a few conversations in the past week or so when people have been really surprised that I did Art up to AS level and DT to A2 level. They’re really surprised that I have a bit of a creative streak (something I’m debating blogging about more…). I guess I sort of abandoned creative me, and tried to become academic. There’s nothing wrong with being academic, but I don’t think it’s really ‘me’. I’m actually not a huge fan of reading and writing, I’d much prefer to play with paint, talk to people, or design a website. I like doing and being rather than sitting and reading. I like learning through doing or talking to people.

Uni was so tied up in Mum’s illness. I didn’t notice it at the time. I didn’t really think I was any different from my peers. When I’ve gone back through cards, letters and photos, though, it’s become increasingly clear how much Mum being ill really did affect it. I can see my social life dropping off. I can see the distraction setting in. I can match photos and cards to points in Mum’s illness. We tried to keep everything as ‘normal’ as possible, but looking back  I can see how far from ‘normal’ things fell.

There is no ‘good’ in ‘goodbye’ and as each day goes by, I miss Mum more and more. There’s more I want to tell her, or ask her advice on, or just chat to her about. But maybe there is a bit of good in the bad? Maybe Mum’s illness and death and my leaving uni have forced me to reassess who I am and what I’m doing with my life, and maybe that’s no bad thing…

It’s Far Too Easy to Drown in the Past

These past few weeks have been hard.

I think I maybe need to take a break from Facebook, or at least go on it less. My timeline is full of people finishing uni, going to the end of year awards at uni, doing other things that I’m currnently unable to do. Lots of people are going out a lot. Lots of people are returning home and putting up pictures of them with their Mum. Some people are getting jobs and celebrating with their Mum.

It’s easy to look at what I’ve lost. It’s easy to look at people finishing uni and feel like I’ve failed. Why didn’t I just stick it out? I didn’t stick it out because I wasn’t in a position to, I wasn’t enjoying it, and a few other reasons, but it’s hard to remember that when everyone is finishing and when you bump into people in the supermarket who ask you about finishing your degree.

It’s easy to look at people on nights out and at award ceremonies and feel frustrated with myself because at the moment going out for a few hours during the day renders me utterly exhausted. A year ago, I was one of *them*. But things have changed, life has changed, and I’ve got to accept that and stop dwelling on it.

Seeing Mums on my various timelines doesn’t usually affect me too much, I like seeing people being happy. Sometimes it’s hard though, because I miss her, because I haven’t had a hug in days and I can’t remember the time before that, because sometimes it can feel really isolating and lonely. It’s made harder when I try and talk to people about it and they just don’t get it at all. I wish I knew more people in my position, it’s so hard being young and motherless and it’s something you don’t really understand until you’re thrown into that situation (a situation I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

It’s hard when my health is not quite where it should be. Nothing drastic, but my asthma flared up again and prescription list has grown, something Mum I’m sure would have offered a sympathetic ear about (and an opinion, the side effect of being a doctor…). I’m also extremely tired all the time at the moment. I’m sleeping a lot, and minimal activity can leave me exhausted. There are a few reasons why this might be, but tiredness really doesn’t help when it comes to the whole coping thing. It also means the Race for Life was a no go this year, which was the right decision, but a really crap decision nontheless.

I need to stop looking at what might have been and focus on what I’ve got because I have so much in so many ways. I’m lucky that I have a Dad and brothers who mean a huge amount to me, and other family members who take an active interest in my life. I’m starting a new job soon, and it’s literally perfect for me (as anyone who I’ve taken the time to explain it to has said!). I have some close friends who take the time to listen to me and chat things over. I live in a lovely place. I have arms and legs that work and I’m able to get from A to B on my bike.

Things are okay. I am doing okay. I need to stop being so hard on myself. I don’t quite now what to do to help how I feel right now, but burying myself in yarn and watching hours of Netflix seems to work a little bit, so perhaps that’s the best way forward for now. Sometimes it’s the little things that help the most.

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind” – C.S. Lewis

Silence is Noisy

We’ve passed the seven month mark. Seven months since Mum died. I’m not sure when I’ll stop counting these milestones. Maybe it’ll happen when things get easier. I’m not sure it’s getting any easier yet, in some ways it’s getting harder. The day Mum died was hard, but every day since, there’s been a nagging voice in my head saying: “The longer she’s dead, the more she misses.”

I moved house again last week. A few months ago I had to move out of halls very quickly due to taking a Leave of Absence from uni, so I lodged with someone for a couple of months. But last week I moved out, into a flat which I’m sharing with a friend. I’ve also got a new job – I’m still waiting for a start date, but it’s another life change. They’re both really positive life changes, but changes nonetheless.

My Dad has been incredibly helpful in all this, as have a couple of friends. They’ve helped me make decisions, taught me valuable life lessons, and in Dad’s case, helped me move everything I own from one house to another.

I have noticed Mum’s absence, though. When you get a new job, one of the first things you usually do is tell your parents. When moving house, your parents (with any luck!) provide a vehicle of some kind and some extra arms and legs for carrying things up and down stairs. Mums, in particular, are good at remembering things you forget (such as cleaning products – a quick trip to the shop now means we have the best-stocked cleaning cupboard in York, but it’s something I hadn’t factored into the big move).

There wasn’t really anything that she would have done that didn’t get done anyway. In fact, I can’t think of anything in particular that would have been her ‘job’. At one point I did consider she may have helped me buy some new work clothes, but then I remembered she used to practically pay people to take me shopping, so maybe not!

A lack of significant ‘role’ for her doesn’t mean I’ve felt her absence any less, though. I didn’t miss her too much during the actual house-move (another pair of hands would have been useful but we can blame my brother’s man-flu for that!), but I missed her that first night. I don’t know why I missed her then – even if she was alive she’d have been at her house, not mine – but I did.

Before Mum died, I never knew how much space an absence could take up. I didn’t realise how noisy silence could be. I don’t really know how to describe it, and perhaps it’s something you never really come across until someone close to you dies, but absence can seep into every aspect of your life and can grow at an alarming rate.

It goes deeper than a simple nothing. “Nothing” can easily be masked by white noise; the radio, TV, a trip with some friends, tasteful home furnishings, or a chat on the phone. “Nothing” is easy to cover up. But absence is deeper. No amount of noise can stifle it, no amount of talking can deplete it, no amount of looking-after-yourself, being sociable or distracting yourself can make it go away. It demands to be noticed.

Time is moving forward, life is changing, and good things are happening. None of it makes the absence disappear, and sometimes it makes the absence even more noticeable, but it’s also essential. My life can’t remain in 2015, it can’t get stuck in a time when Mum was still alive – it’s got to carry on, and that means that I’ve got to keep on doing what I can to live in the present.

Regaining Okay

Today, everyone I started uni with three years ago will hand in their final essays (and then probably go off and celebrate with a suitable amount of alcohol followed by a few days/weeks of sleep).

Taking leave from uni in October was the right thing to do. I have no doubt about that. Not going back in January was undoubtedly also the right decision at the time (albeit one which I had slightly less control over).

It doesn’t stop it being odd, though. Last week my Facebook was filled with dissertation hand-ins and this week it’s full of final hand-ins and celebrations. It feels like more than seven months since I was one of them (a living, breathing, highly caffeinated student). It feels like a lifetime ago. A lot has happened and changed in the past seven months, but it’s not just that. I really underestimated how much I was in the uni bubble, and I really underestimated how quickly I would fall out of it and feel so out of it.

Life is bringing more changes for me at the moment. I’m moving out of the place I’ve been living for five months this weekend. I’m starting a new job in the next few weeks. I’ve just finished the course I’m doing at Mind. Lots of things are changing. It’s all positive change but change nonetheless. I’ve come a long way in the past few months, but there is a long, long way still to go. I’m not working on trying to get the ‘old me’ back any more. Too much has happened and changed, and I’ve changed with it, but I’m still working on getting to a place where I have more good days than bad days, a few less ‘grief attacks’, and hopefully a lot less anxiety (something which continues to rudely interrupt my life no matter how much I tell it I’d really quite like it to disappear).

My friendships have changed, too. A lot of people who I expected to stick around haven’t, but that’s okay. It’s life. Some things some people have said or done I’ve not agreed with, but I’ve also learned to stand up to that, and I’ve learned it’s okay to leave people at a point in your life. Not everybody has to make it to your future. I’m learning to trust some of my closer friends more, and to go to them when I need them, something which is really hard to do when one of the people you always thought would be around and be there for you dies.

I don’t regret taking time out from uni. It was the right decision. It has given me space, allowed me some time to breathe, and enabled me to meet some wonderful people who I can now call my friends. I’ve really settled into a new volunteering role (which I’m hoping to keep up alongside my new job), and I would never have found it had I not arrived on their doorstep five months ago and basically spilled my life story to them and asked them if they could help me.

Even with knowing it was the right decision, it is weird seeing everyone finish and I imagine it will be weird come graduation, too. There is also a nagging voice in my head telling me I should have stuck it out and ‘just done it’ (fun little words pop up like ‘failure’ and ‘weak’). I’m trying to ignore it, though. I know that’s not the case. I’ve continued to live, continued to get up every day and do things even when they scare me, I’ve continued to work on regaining ‘okay’.

Two Very Different Moves

I started planning moving away to university months before it happened. After sixth form, I took a gap year, so by the spring before I went to uni, I knew for certain which university I would be going to and what I would be studying. My birthday is in March and I’d asked for ‘bits for uni’. Mum and I spent the day in York shopping for bedding, pans, and decorative bits and bobs. I remember it as such a lovely day; proper mum-and-daughter time. It was filled with excitement of new adventures to come. She’d just been given the cancer ‘all-clear’, and things were really looking up.

When the time come to move to uni, my whole family came (it was a bit of an event). Mum had bought me a big tub of chocolates to share with others on my floor (after all, chocolate is a fairly sturdy base for friendship). It was an emotional but exciting and happy time.

I moved again this weekend. My first ‘proper’ move since I first moved to halls – I’ve moved between home and uni since then, but only to and from halls so it never felt very different from that first time. But this time, I moved out of halls and into a real house.

I’ve had to move out of halls because I’m not returning to uni this January. I felt the need to remain around my friends and support networks, so I needed to find a place to live fairly quickly (or sofa hop for a bit, but that didn’t really appeal). Thankfully, with the help of a local youth charity, I found a place very quickly, living with a lovely lady and her two cats.

I’d been thinking about Mum a bit less recently, but over the last week I’ve been missing her more again. I always low-level miss her, but it had been getting a little easier and memories of ‘well Mum’ had begun to replace some of the ‘sick Mum’ memories. Seriously missing Mum returned though, and with it came ‘grief attacks’ and many moments where it felt like every part of my body was breaking, all at once.

When I ordered new bedding (my new place has a bigger bed), it reminded me of that day I spent with Mum in York. A happy memory, but a memory nonetheless, one that can never be repeated. Packing up my things, I relived moments that have happened in that room. It was my home, my safe place, throughout Mum’s illness. When I returned from hospital the night before she slipped into a coma, that was where I landed. When my friend came to see me and started to cry, it was that room. The walls of that room have seen more than a student room should ever have to see. It was the place I ran to when I heard that Mum had died.

On Saturday, the three month anniversary of Mum’s death, I shut the door on that room for the final time. My very kind new landlady helped me move out. Dad will see my new place at some point, but Mum never will. She will never see my new room, never meet the person I’m living with. She’ll never see me grow and learn and laugh and cry and that breaks me. So many times in the last few weeks all I have wanted is a hug from her. A bit of reassurance that I’m doing okay and that the decisions that I’m making are not ‘wrong’ ones.

Living somewhere new is a new start. It’s a chance to move on from Mum’s illness and death. A chance to start piecing my life back together, to build it back up again. I wish it were that simple though…I still jump when the phone rings, and cry-laugh when I’m reminded of a Mum quirk. Mum is all around my room, in photos, in the plaque she bought me last Christmas, and in the books that stand on my drawers. Mum will be brought up in job applications when it comes to explaining why I’m not studying right now, her name will stick in my throat every time a friend or family member of my housemate visits and asks what I’m doing at the moment. It’s not as simple as ‘not being affected by cancer anymore’ because we still are – I still am – and probably always will be in some way. That said, I can choose to let it define me, or I can choose to move on and begin to build a new life. I hope that by moving, that is what I’m beginning to do.

Featured: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/naomibarrow/two-very-different-moves_b_9087128.html

Hope Is a Special but Fragile Thing

I actively avoid thinking about the future most of the time. Part of this is because it sends me into a blinding panic of attempting to work out how I will ever get a job and afford a house and a cat (yes, it’s an essential item) and change lightbulbs and work out how to pay bills and all that terrifying “adult” stuff. I reckon these are fairly common worries for people my age… but the main reason I avoid thinking about the future is because Mum won’t be there, and why would I want to imagine or think about a life without my Mum?

This complete mental block about the future has been making life a little difficult lately. I can think a couple of days ahead, and I can put things in my diary a couple of weeks in advance if I know I’ll be able to cancel if I have to, but that’s about it. Try to imagine what it’s like to be unable to think about the future. Firm summer holiday plans are out of the question, and anything further than that is impossible: vague plans for Christmas, career or promotion ideas, dreams of living in another part of the country… Thinking about these things is a luxury that, for now, I don’t have.

It makes it hard to make good decisions daily. Only when you stop thinking about the future do you realise how much keeping it in mind affects your daily decisions. Eating healthily, exercising daily, going to bed on time, revising for an exam; in making all of these decisions, we factor in the future. If I knew I had no future beyond today, I’d probably stay up late and eat a tonne of chocolate… I definitely wouldn’t bother revising.

On Saturday, I went down to London for a session with Team v – a programme which takes 100 young people from around the country and works with them over nine months to lead three social action campaigns. I have been on the Team v programme since August 2012 (just before Mum was diagnosed the first time), starting out as a leader, and eventually graduating to be a senior mentor. This programme is the only thing which has been a constant in my life since Mum’s original diagnosis. The circumstances of my education, job, friends and family have all changed, but this has always been there and the people I have met through it are amazing.

Unfortunately, the programme is coming to an end this summer, the funding is ending. For me, and many others, this is a huge loss. In the same way that I don’t think about a future without Mum, I’ve been trying not to think of a future without Team v.

I’ve had times in the past three years when I’ve felt completely hopeless. Mum’s been ill and things have seemed dark, but because of Team v, I have stood up and spoken to a room of 100 young people excited about changing the world… it has lifted me up, and given me hope. When Mum was in hospital in February, I got a surprise bunch of flowers and a card from my Team v family, showing me that even though my friends are scattered around the country, they care about me, they’re there for me, and they understand. We have a strong bond spanning the length and breadth of the country, and despite the programme ending, that will always remain.

This Saturday, we were consolidating what we’d learned over the years we’ve been involved in the programme. We did activities which involved thinking about our own personal strengths, and speaking about the strengths and personal qualities of others. The first part of this is immensely difficult for me – like many of us, I can easily see positive qualities in others, but I struggle to see or articulate my own.

I left the day absolutely exhausted, but happy. I’m going to miss this programme so much, it’s made an incredible difference to my life (something I will write more about on my personal blog sometime over the next few weeks). But even though there will be no more leaders coming through Team v, no physical office space, and no staff working on it, it’s not disappearing completely. It will always be in my heart and in the hearts of those who’ve been involved in it. I will never forget the things I’ve learned or the people I’ve met through it. Furthermore, there are around 350 young people around the country who’ve been through the programme and who are going to continue to make a difference in their communities, and that gives me hope.

Being back with these people on Saturday gave me hope for the future for the first time in a very long time. It reminded me that though it may be a life without my Mum, there is a life waiting for me. Whatever happens outside of me, I am still me and I can still achieve amazing things. Hope and gratitude are so fragile, but so important. I am grateful for the brilliant people around me who lift me up, inspire me to hope for the future, and be the best version of myself that I can be.

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Some of the Team v mentors, never missing the opportunity to dress up or take a selfie.

Featured: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/naomibarrow/cancer-hope_b_7736224.html