Grief, Two Years On

I can’t quite believe it’s been two years since Mum died. In some ways, her death feels like it happened yesterday. In many ways, it feels as though it happened a lifetime ago.

Is it getting easier? Maybe.

I’ve always believed that you don’t get over grief, you get along with it. You rub along with it as best you can. Two years on and I still hold this belief. I’m not over grief, I haven’t come through it, but I’m learning to live life alongside it.

I no longer burst into tears when I see a Mum-aged person chomping on a cheese straw. Or when I see a cancer-ridden-body making their way around the supermarket. The grief attacks are becoming further apart. There aren’t as many times that I pick up my phone to text or call Mum, before remembering I can’t.

But that doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

I still cried when I found out that Dad had donated one of her favourite Christmas cookbooks to a charity shop (thankfully I have a wonderful auntie who replaced it within a week – queue more tears!). I still sobbed when I had some significant health challenges recently and wanted nothing more than a Mum hug. I still struggled when faced with a stranger receiving a cancer diagnosis right in front of me.

Mum hasn’t disappeared from my life. She has become part of it.

She’s part of the Christmas cake I baked a few weeks ago. She’s part of the bread I’ve made the last few weeks. She’s part of the birthday food package delivered to my brother. I see her in the crunchy leaves – remembering walks we had and the time we played football one October half term. I hear her steady advice in my ear when I’m faced with horrible life challenges. I feel how proud she is, through the pride I feel for my brothers and all they are achieving.

She’s everywhere.

Life changed when Mum was diagnosed. In some ways, the five years since her original diagnosis have been the worst five years of my life. However, they’ve also been the best five years. I’ve become closer with my brothers. My life has been propelled in a completely different direction – but despite the agonising decisions at times, I firmly believe that it was the right thing. I’ve met some amazing people. I’ve inherited many Mum figures. My outlook on life has changed. I have fallen back in love with art. I’ve been through tears, sobs, sleepless nights, medications, therapy, major health challenges, jobs, houses, flatmates, long phone calls, dog walks, driving tests, exams, panic attacks, laughter… the list goes on.

I’ve learned what’s important. I’ve learned how much I love my family, but that they’re not always right. I’ve learned that family aren’t necessarily those you’re related to. I’ve learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined – however much I don’t believe it at times. I’ve learned that crying is okay. I’ve learned that people can be amazing. I’ve learned that some people are not amazing, and you have to let them go. I’ve learned that it’s okay to let people in. I’ve learned that every emotion is okay, you just have to learn how to manage them. I’ve learned that you have to do a job that makes you happy, even if it doesn’t pay as well as other jobs, or doesn’t live up to other’s expectations. And that’s only the start.

I don’t have anything profound to write to mark these two years. I can’t tell that grieving ever goes away. You probably don’t want to hear yet another ‘it gets better’ platitude, but I can tell you that it becomes cope-able-with. I can tell you that however you feel is absolutely okay. I can tell you that your grief is your own, to cope with as best you know how. As my Mum always said: be kind to yourself

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Two Years. Sleep well, Mum. ❤

 

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A Huge Thank You

Yesterday was Mum’s birthday.

A year ago, we started fundraising for Martin House Children’s Hospice in Mum’s memory, as she used to work there.

I am delighted to say that a year on we have absolutely smashed the target (it doesn’t all show on Just Giving as some donations went straight to the hospice). The money was originally going on lighting, but due to planning changes we have had a bit of a change of plan. It’s now going towards a music, art, and animation suite which is so perfect.

Mum brought joy to many people’s lives and hopefully this room will bring joy to the lives of many young people on their families. Mum was also a saxophone (foghorn) player and loved music. We would often dance around the kitchen to various CDs and blast them out in the car whilst we sang along.

We want to say a HUGE thank you to everyone who has helped us to reach this target – and there have been a lot of you! It was a fun thing to do, and a lovely way to remember Mum, and now she can live on through this room and all that it will provide.

The Moment Everything Changed

It’s ‘time to talk day’ tomorrow. I was volunteering at a time to talk day event when Dad text me asking me where I was and came to pick me up. He told me in the car that Mum’s cancer had come back and that there wasn’t a cure. From that point on my Mum was no longer invincible and everything changed.

Mums aren’t supposed to die, or to get sick. Especially not healthy Mums. They’re supposed to always be there. They are one of the few people in life who don’t get fed up with you (or if they do they’re not meant to show it), who put up with all of your flaws.

In that moment everything changed.

Dad told me that Mum’s cancer had come back. That there was no cure. We were driving from the White Rose Centre to home. I didn’t cry, not really. I looked out of the window. We drove home. Mum and the boys were there. We didn’t talk about it.

I went back to uni that night. I started crying and didn’t stop. I think I maybe text one of the people I was living with in halls. I text a friend from home who drove over to be with me, with another friend. The two of them sat with me until the early hours of the morning. They tried to persuade me to go home, but I couldn’t. They helped me tell the other people I was living with. The next day I sat with a welfare tutor for hours (even though it was a Sunday). I cried, I talked, I sat in silence. I tried to make some sense of it all. We wrote a list of all of the people I needed to tell.

I miss her and sometimes I need her more than others. And given that I’m now 22 and rather more independent, I probably wouldn’t be living at home and wouldn’t be able to crawl into her bed, like I did at 16/17 when things were rough. But I would have been able to text her, and to be honest some days I might have gone home for the evening and got a Mum hug. I miss her. Some nights are long. Sometimes everything feels dark and twisty. And sometimes at 22 you still really need your Mum.

Have ‘a year’

2016 is ending, which many will be delighted about. There’s a weird thing that we all do where on one day out of 365, we look back at the previous 365 days and judge ourselves. Lots of people are posting achievements, happy moments, sad moments, words of wisdom, and hopes, dreams, and goals for the next 365 days.

I read somewhere that:

‘it’s okay if the only thing you did today was breathe’.

I would like to extend that to this year.

It’s okay if this year you ‘just survived’. It’s okay if you didn’t achieve your goals or complete all of your plans. It’s okay if you didn’t graduate, if you didn’t change the world, if you didn’t get the promotion you wanted or finish a race you wanted to run. You have still achieved something this year – you have smiled, laughed, and loved. You have brightened someone’s day, made someone smile, and made a difference in the lives of those around you.

If this year you have been in hospital, had a family member in hospital, received a new diagnosis, lived with an old diagnosis, taken medication, had an operation, had tests done, or put up with a mind or body which seem less than impressed with being alive, then I’m proud of you.

If you have had a baby, got a new job, graduated, moved house, passed an exam, received a promotion, got married, got engaged, learned to drive or raised money for charity, then I’m proud of you.

If you have taken a picture of a sunset, felt the wind in your hair, cuddled a puppy, taken the bins out, watched TV, read a book, hugged, text a friend… done anything at all that involves being alive, then I’m proud of you because at the times it can feel like there is hatred stirring all over the world and things can feel very bleak, and if you can continue to enjoy and appreciate the little things, and remain kind in the face of all of that, then you’re doing well.

I hope that 2017 is kind to you all. I hope that it brings you the things that you want. I hope that it provides you with family times and time with friends. I hope that you receive love and laughter and that you treat yourself with all of the kindness and compassion you deserve. I’m not going to tell people to have ‘a good year’, because I think that can feel out of reach a lot of the time. Instead I’m going to say have ‘a year’.

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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There Was A Life Before Cancer

It feels as though cancer has been part of my life forever. It’s only been 4 years. Two elevenths of my life. Or 18%. So not all that much when you calculate the percentage, but I suppose cancer will always be part of my life, now. Having a Mum die of cancer does that to a person. The word cancer will always hit me in a way it never did before August 2012, and I’m more alert than I ever used to be for signs and symptoms of cancer in both myself and those around me.

So over time that percentage will grow. But however much it does grow, whatever number it hits, it will always be under 100%; I had a life before cancer, and there will be parts of my life to come that won’t be defined by this disease, either.

I’ve just cleared out my childhood bedroom at Dad’s house. It used to be called home, or my parents’ house, but none of those seem to fit any more. So it’s now Dad’s house. It’s been a few weeks since I was last there. It’s all a bit odd… When I first went to uni, I didn’t go home for weeks on end. But as Mum became more ill, I went home more often, so it never really felt like I was moving out… or moved out. I haven’t slept in that room since Mum’s coma in February 2014, I’ve always stayed in the spare room, but that’s another story for another day.

Going through my room was like travelling through time. With every cupboard, every drawer, and every bag, another set of memories was uncovered.

It’s amazing how many details of childhood get lost in the fog of memory and time. I had a house in a village and a small primary school and some friends. I had reading achievements, book cover design achievements, a poem in a published book. I had a church, a Sunday school, the Fairtrade stall, a few Christian camps. I had swimming badges, Brownies badges, Guides badges, Explorer Scout badges, and Duke of Edinburgh awards. I had music certificate after music certificate after music certificate. I had multiple art books, a jar of wool-ends from the granny square blanket Mum helped me put together, another jar of little paper stars I used to fold. I had tennis trophies, a table tennis bat, a few medals from charity runs. I had enough charity and volunteering t-shirts to clothe a small army.

I uncovered the life of a person with hopes, dreams, aspirations and confidence. Someone who looked to the future, knew what she wanted, and had long-term goals. Someone who got involved in anything and everything, and aimed to be the best at everything she tried. I uncovered the life of a person who feels so far removed from myself that I’m not sure I recognise them.

Some of losing these things is just growing up. It’s a natural part of life. But it’s almost as though cancer came into my life and slowly took my interests, and what made me ‘me’, erasing them from my life one by one.

I had a life before cancer, but I don’t want to go back to that life, because it doesn’t feel like ‘my life’ anymore. I don’t want to try and go back to the person I was before because it would be like trying to fit a jigsaw piece into a hole that it doesn’t belong in. I would say I feel broken, and irreversibly changed, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I have changed. My perspective has changed, and to some extent my life values have, too. Cancer has ripped a hole in my life, and caused me to forget to live for a couple of years. It makes living hard at times, even now, because it feels like I’ve ‘checked out’ for the last few years, and in that time things have changed and people have moved on – it’s impossible to jump straight back in feet first.

I had a life before cancer, and I’m not going to get that back. I don’t want to get it back. But if I had a life before cancer, I can have a life after cancer, too. I’ve just got to keep taking steps forward, no matter how hard it gets. I’ve just got to keep on keeping on

Also posted on Huffington Post.

Here’s to Those of Us Who Aren’t Graduating This Week

It’s graduation season. Facebook knows it, Instagram knows it; it feels like everyone in the world is graduating. If you can count yourself among that number, then all I have to say is this: congratulations. I have so much respect and admiration for anyone who completes uni, whatever their degree class. It’s really not an easy thing to do, and it’s so lovely to see people smiling next to their proud family members and friends. I know people that have completed uni despite really difficult life circumstances, and I think that it’s phenomenal to have achieved so much, and they should be incredibly proud.

I also know quite a few people who should have finished university this year, but they’re not, because life didn’t go to plan. Some have horrible illnesses to deal with, some have chronically or terminally ill family members, for others life has just dealt them a rough hand and they’ve been blown off course a bit.

Currently, I’m sat in my jimjams watching Come Dine With Me repeats and hoping that tonight might be the night that I actually get a decent amount of sleep. Looking at all of these celebratory photographs while feeling so far removed from them can be pretty difficult, because there’s a nagging voice in the back of my brain saying “that could’ve been you”. It can be so easy to look at other people’s lives and see all that you’ve lost. Had life gone to plan, I would have been stood there alongside my peers in a cap and gown, smiling next to two proud parents. That’s what I always thought would happen when I signed up to university three years ago.

But for me, and some others I know, even if we’d have stayed at uni and graduated with our class, we wouldn’t have had two parents stood smiling next to us, because we don’t have two parents any more.

The other morning, I was cycling around this beautiful city I now call home, as part of my job. I later went into the office, talked to my lovely colleagues, and spent a couple of hours listening to the radio whilst doing some work. I left the office and went to The Hut where I volunteer, and spent a while sat on a bench, chatting in the sunshine with a friend I met there. I came home and after a driving lesson, I spent some time with my flatmate, doing her hair for a dinner she was going to. I’m so lucky. I’m much more content than I have been in a long, long, time. I feel like I’m finally beginning to get a little ‘me’ back.
I wouldn’t have ever found The Hut, or my job, if I hadn’t left uni when I did. I wouldn’t have made that friend; I probably wouldn’t be living where I am now. I don’t know what I would have done or where I would be, but I wouldn’t be here; and I’m happy here.

I know a few others who have left uni, too, or are simply graduating at a later date. One or two have jobs, some are still living in this city and others have moved elsewhere. All of them are doing something with their life, and that’s amazing to see.

So here’s to those of us whose lives got blown off course. Those who are continuing to get up and face the world every single day, despite seeing how far life will go to try and make sure we can’t. Who are in new jobs, making new friends, creating a different life from the one we had always planned. Who might not have got a cap and gown on today, but who got dressed in something resembling an acceptable outfit, despite the crippling depression/stress/pain that can be in our lives, those of us for whom getting dressed and leaving the house is a real achievement. Here’s to those of us who don’t have that certificate, but who deserve a medal for simply participating in life when sometimes all we want to do is hide.

To everyone who is continuing to live their life, despite horrendous circumstances, I’m proud of you. To my friends who are watching Facebook this week with a pang of disappointment or sense of failure, I’m proud of you. I’m so proud of you for continuing to smile, for continuing to check if others around you are okay, for holding others together when you feel like falling apart, I’m really, really proud of you. I hope that you can look at all you have achieved, and all that you are, even if it’s not something you can get a certificate for, and feel a little proud of yourself, too.

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Chilling on Friday morning, reflecting on the lack of graduation, but the amazingness that is my job 🙂

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