100 Weeks With Death

8ba7bc1bc9eb795d77f2cab06feb9e87

photo by thesucess at Morguefile.com

Introduction

I’ve been trying to write a follow up blog since November. Between being a dad of two small boys and the fact I made another career change early in 2017. I set up my own marketing consultancy (Go Narrative). Things have been crazy. I’ve always put great thought and feeling into these blogs and I wanted to keep doing so.

As it happens I believe this will actually be a very interesting blog. By its nature, being published such a long time after my initial stream of mourning blogs, it has afforded me much time for reflection. This blog will cover what it’s like to live with grief. After the dust settles, so to speak. I will share how it has affected relationships and what group therapy was like. I share what daily life with grief is like, and how it rears its head. Importantly I talk about what my relationship with Mum and Dad is like now, it’s still there. I explain how grief can change your sense of self and make you feel like a teenager again. You’ll read about the changing sense of ‘home’ and what it means to truly be present in the moment. What I have gratitude for. What it feels like. We’ll even touch on a little neuroscience.

I’ve always been very open and public in my grief, not least of which because those of us who have been on the road for a while can offer a hand to those who are fresh into the hell of loss.

I hope this blog can bring comfort to some and awareness and improved empathy for others.

100 weeks since the accident – Sunday 18th June 2017

That first year was impossibly hard. The first six months were hell and the initial three were just unbearable. So, what of the second year? Which we are fast approaching the anniversary of.

One thing is certain – you start to understand, deeply, what it’s like to live in a post-loss world. There was life before, and there is life after. As time goes on, after those hellish periods, you are forced to face a simple fact: life goes on.

“Keep calm and carry on”

Horrific attacks “close to home” and the Grenfell fire… I’ve found it hard to allow loss, knowledge of death into my conscious… Maybe this is similar to how we as humans tend to be naturally not understand grief until we’ve lived it? Is it something to do with survival? “Keep calm and carry on”. The world doesn’t, it can’t care… we all have limited bandwidth. I don’t hold this against the world. If you are not close to the person who was lost its really hard to empathize. Every bombing on the news, every car crash I see, I think of the survivors and what they are going through. It’s impossible for me to maintain that focus for long. In most cases I don’t even know who the people even are.

A friend of mine who also lost her father on the 19th sees the 19th each month as a stinging milestone. Honestly for me it’s been every Sunday. Still. Possibly forever? In the Pacific time zone it happened as the day is getting going. I look at the clock. Ten to nine in the summer. Ten to eight in the winter.

There are times when grief surges. When I’ve been ill. Over tired. High stress situations. When something damages Mum and Dads artifacts, even just a coffee table. For stressful moments I’m getting better and it takes more to rattle me now that in used to – it’s odd to have an awareness of when the walls start crumbling and the black water of grief rises up over the pontoons and spills into my mind. It ends up triggering all sorts of other emotions, frustration, anger, not just sadness. As I’ve become more aware of it I’ve become better at managing it when it surfaces. Most people will never see or know it’s happening.

Resources and Support

About a year in my wife started researching group therapy options. Eventually we found one, conveniently located (most were not) in the downtown Seattle area. The separation and loss services at Virginia Mason proved to be one of the most positive components to my relationship with my grief. I cannot lay enough praise on this service and the team. They offer 1:1 services for a fee but the group sessions have no cost.

Group therapy has a structured program

It’s not a support group (think Fight Club). A support group is a self-managed collective who share their experiences. Group therapy has a structured program (10 weeks in this case) with a curriculum that leads you through the pain. From the negative and into positive constructive tools. The death imagery component was being followed by the celebration of life, for an example. Another key aspect is that it is managed by therapists. In our case there were four participants and two therapists. Another benefit of the program was the ability to have two hours per week of camaraderie and people who just ‘got it’. It was a safe and welcoming environment. If you or anyone in your friends or family have been through loss and live in Seattle I cannot recommend it enough and would be happy to discuss it in more detail 1:1 (reach out in the comments, twitter, email etc.).

“Be kind to yourself”

In the cold light of day we get a new view, a new understanding of grief. To start off with it is all consuming. Eventually it becomes more manageable, but still dominates. Then as time goes on the need to operate in the world increases so much so whole days can be tackled without collapse into a teary heap. It’s then that the new view of grief starts to form. It’s always there. Reflected in songs, memories, smells, photographs… It’s there but it isn’t all consuming all the time like it once was. It is hard to describe. It’s like a companion. A pet almost. It nudges into you. It needs to be tended to. Cared for. Sometimes it wanders off into another room only to spring out at you later on.

“Be kind to yourself” is something my wife has said many times to me, and it is so true. My wife has been a rock. From the beginning when she quit her job to take care of me and the boys and focus on the moment and family and life. To running with that role with her career on hold so that she can be the foundation for her three boys. She has felt their loss very deeply and it has affected and changed her profoundly. Not only was she very close to my parents, she truly loved them and had said only days before their deaths how lucky she was to have my family. And that she felt a part of my family. She has also felt the sting of other loss, and let downs from people close to her. Knowing I have her and we have each other has been at times the only thing that keeps me sane.

The depth of grief is directly proportional to the depth of attachment

After a while it becomes clear that managing grief is a lifelong project. It is a part of life now. Death is. Those in the club are now more complete as humans. They have experienced more of the human experience. They are wiser having been dragged down into the depths of pain and had to figure out the long and torturous journey back to the light. They bring something back from the depths. An awareness, knowledge.

Something that has become apparent to me as I consider my own grief and loss vs. the loss of those around me, or of terror attacks or accidents. I have come to understand that the depth of grief is directly proportional to the depth of attachment. Traumatic loss brings a whole new level to this. When the Grenfell tower burned I could see the family members screaming out as life and love was torn from their souls.

When we started in the traumatic loss group they asked us what we wanted to get out of it and this forced me to rationalize a goal to all of this suffering. How I characterized it was that I hope to get to a place where I’m at peace with the fact they are not here anymore. That doesn’t mean I’m over them. It doesn’t mean I’ve found some abstract form of “Closure” – which is bullshit by the way. I’ve read a lot during my healing process and Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us was good. I felt it was a bit light. The general message of the book however is a good one: that we, in the west particularly, treat grief like it’s something to be dealt with and moved on from. Which may be the case if you have very little attachment and/or the death was expected and natural. This article here also explores the topic. It covers many of the expectations people have about grief and what the reality is. Here is an excerpt:

Expectation: The grieving need about a year to heal.

Reality: Sometimes grief does not even get started till after the first year. I’ve heard countless grieving people say year two is harder than year one. There is the shock, end of life arrangements and other business matters that often consume the first year and the grieving do not have the time actually to sit back and take the time to grieve. The reality is there is no acceptable time frame associated with grief.

Those friends who have shown up and been there. Travelled over oceans to see me, multiple times. Those who have gone out for beers with me and been a sympathetic ear. To those who have pinged on occasion but always with a sense of regularity and great genuine care and interest and showing me they are thinking about me. I’d start listing names but I’m lucky to have a long list and I’d worry I’d accidently leave one of you off.

His voice waivered then cracked

Then there are my boys. I never in a million years would have expected a then 3 and 5 year old to be as supportive as they have been. It took our 3 year old (now 5) a year or so to start to more overtly manifest their memory in words and discussion. But he was just so young before. He now empathizes deeply and talks about them and includes them in his life. It is bitterly sweet. And our now 7 year old has been, since day one, the most amazing nurturing and loving soul when it comes to his late grandparents. Just tonight he said “I miss him so much” as we talked about Granddad (with it being Fathers-day tomorrow). His voice waivered then cracked. He looked down tears filed his eyes and he thrust his face into the nape of my neck and hugged me with all his might. I am so very lucky to have them.

A New Relationship

Something that I’ve learned to develop is a relationship with the memory of Mum and Dad. Yes, this sometimes manifests with me having conversations in an empty room. It’s deeper than that but the concept is helpful to convey what it feels like. Asking for advice. Hearing advice un-prompted. When I was growing up and I’d get in trouble my Mum would say “Imagine a mini version of me is sitting on one shoulder and a mini version of your Father is sitting on the other and we are watching you, what would we say?” Generally, it didn’t stop me from getting into mischief but oddly now I remember it clearly and while they not be on my shoulders I do imagine that they are there. I used to speak to them so much…

Identity and purpose

It very much feels like my sense of self has changed. We come to view ourselves in a certain way (incidentally this is always different to how others view us) and when we lose someone so close to us it literally changes how we feel about ourselves. Our loved ones are actually a part of who we are. Our interactions with them fuel our ideas and feelings. We anticipate sharing things with them. We enjoy life more when we are with them. We know they will be mentors to us – I’ve even felt that way with my two young sons! For me having that ripped away so violently and suddenly, with two of my family, has left me feeling adrift. In many ways, I feel like a teenager again. Additionally, when we lose a family member, or a close friend, that loss is felt throughout the family or group. It changes the dynamic between those left in the group. For us a simple example was our Mother was the connector to each other and the extended family. While my sisters and I have kept lines of communications very much open and talk/message all the time the relationship web is forever changed. No longer do we have our oracle, our confidant, out advisor… our mother to interject her thoughts and perspective. Often, she and my father, also played a mediating influence between the siblings.

I’ve thought a lot about how I left the UK and moved to the USA. How I missed out on time with my parents. As much as we all visited and travelled across the Atlantic Living in America… the times I missed. I’ve thought of the trips “home”. Before they died I felt like I had two homes. Mum and Dads and mine, here in Seattle. That home has gone now. As much as I love my sisters and visit and think of the past and how I used to live there. It’s just not the same any more.

I think of the times they’d come and visit or when we’d pile the whole family into a plane to go back to England. No more times like that… gone…

Living in the Moment

All of this has made me realize more than ever how I have to make the most of life. It’s not easy! I’ve found myself getting wrapped up with work or frustrated with minutia even though I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to this ‘bigger perspective’. What I’m saying is: you can do your best to live in the moment and still not manage to do it all the time. It’s OK. You are not alone. I can however also report back that when you do live in the moment it does really make things much better. I’ve always loved my children deeply and now I feel like I’m able to be even more present, in the moment. I understand that I have to admit that it is this that is the silver lining of their deaths. And in so much proof that no matter how dark or terrible things are there is always a silver lining.

The Big Let Downs

Hello! I’m grieving, I can’t articulate what I need for help right now.

The flip side to this is I have very, very little tolerance for douche bags. I have been able to rise above things more than I was before but I still find myself getting to frustration quicker than perhaps I did before grief began. Pro tip: rising above is a byproduct, not a thing in itself, the thing itself if choosing what you care about and what you prioritize. In other words choosing peace and calm and growth and whatever other positive things you are after – through that you will find “rising above”.

Another thing I have very low tolerance for is people who should know better. I’m not going to publicly name and shame any specific friends or family members but I can tell you that there are an unfortunate group of people who we considered close who never stepped up. People who literally just ran away. Then there are those who claimed to be there for us and were not. I’m not talking about acquaintances or well-wishers who said “tell me if there is anything you need” – Hello! I’m grieving, I can’t articulate what I need for help right now, my whole world has collapsed… just show up, act. Those people were mildly annoying but I understood that they were not that close and how hard is for many people to ‘get it’. I’ve heard the ’maybe they just didn’t know how to engage you’. To which I say “I’m sorry, why are you defending them?”. Back on topic: I’m talking about the real let downs. People we expected much more from. For example, there is someone who was in one of our more inner circles that never, EVER, muttered so much as a word, nor a pat on the shoulder and a sullen look, or an email or a card. No communication regarding my loss whatsoever. When you act like that to someone who is grieving you are making a bold statement: I no longer wish to be in your life. And I tell you what, if you make that statement to me now I have no patience to test you on it – I will immediately accept. I will drop you like a hot potato and never look back. It’s hard to overstate how let down we have felt by some people. I say we because this has deeply affect me, my wife and my children. Both my wife and I have felt this when it comes to relationships. I know my sisters have had similar experiences.

That last paragraph had a whole lot of negativity in it. So, I’ll move swiftly on. I’m grateful that now I have the ability to feel happy again. Enjoying time with my boys, and gazing upon a beautiful view are just two examples of joy. It’s true that many times such things are soon followed by the deep pang of loss – not being able to share that thing with Mum and Dad. The end of the school year had plenty of those feelings. But I am grateful to be able to feel happiness again. Even if just a little. The frequency and duration of that happiness is gradually getting longer.

Neuroscience and the Evolution of Grief

In short, my grief is much more manageable now. I’ve come to realize it is a part of who I am. I will, for the rest of my days, have moments and wish I could pick up the phone or shoot a message to Mum or Dad or both of them to tell them. Likewise, there are times when all I want is to call them for some counsel. They were such good listeners.

I’m on my own now, so to speak. I have my wife and my boys. I have my sisters. But the unconditional love of my parents has gone. I’m on my own. I’m where the buck stops. There is no Mum or Dad to help any more, literally or figuratively. This in itself has also feeds into the new sense of self.

Have you heard of the Jennifer Aniston neuron?

There are memories. So many memories. They catch me at all sorts of odd times. I’ll be looking at the furniture (some of which was horribly damaged by Pickfords) and I think of them so clearly. Maybe commenting on how the furniture looks in our house (which of course they’d never have done). Maybe it’s just a random memory. The visions are very clear, very fresh. Yet it’s 100 weeks. That coffee table traveled half way around the world and through the Panama Canal to get to me. It seems time just breaks down and it feels like they were here yesterday, or even today.

As time has gone on grief itself has become increasing abstract and complex. That’s much of what I’ve been attempting to share with you here.

It’s not surprising with how the brain works (have you ever heard of the Jennifer Aniston Neuron?) – all interconnected neurons. Any relationship in your mind between one thing and another means there is a neural pathway connecting the two. So, if you think of a certain house and your mother then every time you think of that house the pathway to your mother will light up. In my brain now there is the pain and loss of death collection of neurons which connect to Mum and Dad. Then when a memory is triggered which connects to Mum or Dad it also lights up the grief center. The deeper your relationship the more of these connections. The more triggers there are. As time has gone on and I’ve built up the coping mechanisms to manage the grief center and in turn that has added whole new sets of neural capabilities. A simple example would be: how do I channel my feelings when I’m in public? Or: who do I allow myself to mention my loss to? These are all new structures that add complexity to the times the Mum or Dad neurons are triggered. On the flip side my coping mechanisms (both those I had before, and the ones I’ve developed since) are also now connected to my grief neurons. I’ve found myself dealing with a petty issue and suddenly I’m thinking about Mum and Dad. Up pops up grief again. Like I said, increasingly abstract and complex.

Closing Thoughts

What I’ve been trying to do in this blog is give a sense for what it’s like to be living with such a deep, wrecking grief, such as mine, 100 weeks on.

It’s still there. It always will be – because it is a part of me. It’s more manageable and it’s more complex. My memories of Mum and Dad are as fresh as ever. There are moments of debilitating grief –that is far less often but the full, raw power is there. Our relationships have changed. People who were main characters before have now left the show and bit players are now major characters who have brought immense value to the stage of our lives.

I’m more compelled than ever to throw myself forwards into life

It’ll keep shifting and changing. I’ll keep writing my journal but we’ll see about this blog. With the understanding that grief will always be with me I’m more compelled than ever to throw myself forwards into life. They’ll stick around. I know that. I know I’ll spend time with them. I know I’ll miss them. I know I’ll cry. So in the meantime it’s time to focus on this moment. Enjoy this one life we have and do our best to bring some joy into the lives of others while we are at it.

You are not alone and if you ever wish to talk about your loss I’m here. Reach out to me and I’d be happy to chat.

Advertisements

One Year On – Grief Still Cuts Deep

Today marks a year since the accident, since they were killed. I can hardly believe we find ourselves here. This past year has been torture. All the while we live double lives. The life we are expected to, the life we are required to operate in the world. Alongside that life is the life filled with the tragedy that befell us.

The world has moved on. Since not long after it happened I was aware of the worlds need to keep turning. For other people’s lives to go on. We have been lucky to have friends who have kept our loss front and center, in the most respectful of ways, to be sensitive, aware, supportive and present in the fact that this isn’t just natures course. The separation caused by the violent and sudden loss of my parents has cut deep into our core. For all those that held my parents close it is a wound that has yet refused to fully scab and heal.

Yet what is healing? It certainly isn’t a return to something, to a sort of ‘normal’. That is gone. It left the moment the metal crashed against metal, trapping and tearing my parents bodies inside. Granted there was a brief delay before we all knew but then it was over, that normal no longer to return.

Defying Explanation

It’s hard to explain and in some ways, as we have gone further from the initial loss and the initial outpouring of support, the harder it has become to communicate about the subject. The initial rounds of support were for the loss, an awareness of the tragic nature was always present yet as the weeks turned to months it was as if it was simply too big a mountain to summit in conversation; the ongoing understanding of the sudden and tragic nature of the loss a rarefied air atop the mountain that few wished to try breathe.

There was no time for goodbyes, no participation in the process for us loved ones. There was no chance to recount old times, share the final stories that had perhaps been saved for ‘later on’. There was no window of forgiveness or the airing of unsaid things, no chance to make amends – even if they had been the smallest of things. I was lucky in life to have had such a close relationship with my parents. An open forum of communication where we shared much. I’m lucky to have few regrets there and thankfully there were no issues left unresolved. Yet there are things I would have liked to have closed on, even revealed, silly things really… yet I never had a chance to do that. To find closure and send them on their way.

Abrupt is an understatement

I miss them. I’m constantly reminded of them. Think of that for a moment, for not a single day to go by without deep and meaningful thoughts to be processed and experienced. In all honestly I can’t make it more than a few hours before they are in my thoughts. They were torn so ferociously from us it is as if the myriad of tendrils of them in my mind remain unaccounted for. I’m moving through my heart and soul and finding these loose ends and tying them off. To find the other meanings and memories they relate to and to  carefully craft a bow of love between what was, what is and what can never any more be.

I simply can’t believe a whole year has passed.

One of the greatest feelings of loss is that of the loss of my children’s grandparents. Of their relationship, of all the love and care and interaction that they will all miss out on. It continues to be one of the most poignant things I long for, that I miss, that I feel robbed of. There are however dozens. You see in the loss of a loved one there is far more than the loss of your relationship with them. There are the dynamics of all the relationships that included that person and how you related to them. There is the loss of lifestyle, the things you did because of that relationship. For me, for example, as an ex-pat Brit living in Seattle there was the visits. Both my mother and father would visit independently and as a couple. I moved to the USA in 2004 and for over a decade a major part of my life was when my parents would visit. It was very much ‘a thing’. There was the planning, the anticipation, the arrival, the trip itself, the often tearful goodbyes and of course the memories. More and more memories every time. All that is left now are those memories. Never again will we compare calendars, look at school schedules. No more will we excitedly plan a whale watching trip or visit to the islands or peninsula. We won’t ever get the joy of booking those extra two tickets on the Santa Train at Snoqualmie.

Loss runs deep.

In the previous paragraph I shared an example of just one of the facets of my relationship with my parents which has now gone – been torn from us never to return. Like a baby who’s favorite blanket has been ripped out of its hands I’m left at a loss, a part of my being which was always with me and very much a part of who I am gone in an instant. There are a cacophony of other facets that litter the crystalline surface of my life.

Friends and family help. It’s not all dark. There are parts of my life that still glow and shine. Yet I’m not writing this nor are you reading it to hear about what is ‘OK’ or where the balance and calm are. I’m writing this to share how a loss of such a loved one, let alone two as is in my case,  year on, still so colors so much of life. That through the connections and shear number of facets which relate to them that the damage and hurt is pervasive, long lasting and that even after a full year I’m still very much living with, working with and through what this loss means to me.

It’s not all dark and this year has included smiles. It has, for me, included a change in career, the developing of new and meaningful relationships with some amazing people… including those which I’m proud to call very close friends. Maybe we are just better and cutting through the crap and sorting the wheat from the chaff now? Maybe we are just more appreciative of life, love and of people who bring meaning into our lives.

Then I think of how I’d love to tell Mum and Dad about that, or those people. The new job, the new experiences, the new people. How I’d love to introduce them to the new friends… and it hurts. It hurts a lot and there is nothing you can do when those feelings come. They wash into and over you swamping you with yet more loss. That’s right, more loss, I’m saying that the concept of loss isn’t static, new loss is added and increases over time even as you work to rationalize and understand loss you were previously aware of.

Time and the healing of wounds

Some say time heals all wounds. I’ve blogged previously about how time and focusing on your grief can help you move forward on your path. There is no going back. Yet more than time healing wounds is something I’ve grown to realize and that is that time makes it easier to [momentarily] forget, to push things to the side. When you are dealing with all the latest stresses of the day; from jobs, to fixing the house and paying the mortgage, to the children being children and everything else in between, time has a tendency to simply pile so much on to you that it can smother your mind in the present and make it harder to focus on the loss. That doesn’t mean you have to dismiss or diminish your loss or that because of the volume of thing to worry about and deal with in the day to day that you shouldn’t give yourself space and time to revisit those wounds. I say go for it! Go back to them. Find your space, create a space and go there.

Does it get any easier? Is a fair question to ask – and I have been asked it many times. I know you want the answer to be ‘yes’ but it’s not that simple I’m afraid. If you have been following my blog you will undoubtedly have come to realize there are many layers and facets to grief. In some ways ‘things’ becomes easier – you learn to live with your grief, so like riding a bike ‘dealing’ with grief does become ‘easier’ as you are more experienced with it. You can push the pedals of grief more efficiently. The emotional depth, impact of your feelings and efficacy of working to tie off all those lose ends, to move with and through all your memories and the connections not just to what was lost but the things and people that remain (including new experiences by the way) doesn’t ever get easier. The mechanism for doing so does. The mechanism is quite different to the emotional journey and that, my dear reader, is always as hard as it was on day one. And that is OK – it’s OK to feel overwhelmed by your loss even a long time afterwards because quite frankly time isn’t all it’s made out to be.

Time doesn’t matter. Time is a figment of our imaginations.

Our brains and memories actually don’t operate on a linear construct. John Medina’s “Brain Rules” talks in detail about how memories work and how they are stored in the brain and whilst we have the condition of time as an element to a memory when you bring a memory into working memory vs. deep storage it is as fresh and real to you as it was when it happened. I’m sure I’m butchering John’s amazing work and deep insightful knowledge on the matter – I can’t recommend his book enough. I finished it just over a year ago and was excited, thrilled even, to share it with my mum who, being a biologist, was always game for a good scientific discussion about how the human body worked. Additionally both my parents were keen observers of the human condition and I knew they would love to discuss Brain Rules and all the fascinating knowledge locked up within.

Time not mattering is important because it helps illustrate how fucking devastating loss can be even a year (or further) on. That blade of loss that cut deep and true into the very fabric of your being can cut again, and again, as you revisit it. Quite frankly it may never ‘go away’. We can build up learnings and constructs to handle how we feel. A sort of interface or “API” to connect our grief and the life we have lost to the new life we are building and living. In many ways ‘dealing with’ grief is just that… two things. Firstly accepting the fact life is changed and you need to build a new life on the new normal in a world where your loss is true. Secondly that you must build an API between ‘then’ and ‘now’ that will, for you, in a very personal way, enable you to rationalize, relate to, communicate and handle how you feel to and for yourself from the past into your present moment.

The moment is key. The moment is king.

All we have is the moment. Unplug the future, unplug the past, plug them both into the present. This is a saying I have been fond of since 2003. I now see its weakness. What it means and why I coined it was to demonstrate to myself and some close friends that there really is nothing but the present and that we must embrace and live in the present fully. It was an intellectual grasping of the importance of the moment yet it failed with one key experiential element which grief has brought into focus for me; the unplugging of the past is where the weakness lays. It is not so much of an unplugging of the past as a building of the connection from the past to the present into a way that the past can relate to the present in a positive way whilst allowing the present to be and ideally thrive [unplugged from the past and] on it’s own merit. The strength of the original statement still stands in so much as it’s focus on illustrating the importance of embracing the now. In doing so we can appreciate and enjoy what we have while we have it. “Everyone I know goes away. In the end.” – Nine Inch Nails. When you experience loss, especially tragic loss, you rapidly become aware of this truth.

Which leads us to a fitting place to end, with music; music has been a gateway to the past, to my feelings, my grief and my loss. My “Contemplative and Inspiring” Spotify playlist has been my go to for when I want to open the door. It is an eclectic mix (often in a minor key) which includes some songs guaranteed to make me cry and others that simply make me want to kiss the sky.

How have you felt about your grief as time has passed… what has been healed and what remains as open as the day it happened? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and let’s discuss. Sending hugs.

Everything changes, everything stays the same.

Life has taught me, and continues to teach me enormous amounts in the past 10 months. That’s right it’s been 10 months. Life has changed. Life has stayed the same.

It’s been a while. I’ve been out there in the world getting on with things. As in The Grief Spiral (which I highly recommend) there is very much a practical aspect to grief where you get to a place where you can put yourself out in the world, you react to this, uncover new learnings and feelings and come back inside to process it. Then you do it all again.

What stays the same?

In many ways nothing changes. The world keeps turning, as it should. With grief you get off the roundabout and it keeps spinning – you look at it and wonder how you are going to get back on, and you do. It’s a jolt, you almost fly off. You hang on tight and eventually things start to steady down a bit. “A bit” being emphasized. Over time the ‘bit’ gets bigger.

The universal truths stay the same, sometimes these will seem new to us, or we see them in different ways. Love, loss, life, meaning, the pursuit of happiness, living in the moment, relationships. I feel that I’ve grown more sensitive and caring of all people, certainly those who are grieving but also, far beyond that.

The mortgage still needs to get paid, the kids fed and cleaned and clothed. This has been a source of comfort and stability – I’ve written about how the children provide a constant rock of emotional stability (having my youngest cling to my leg and say “I love you Daddy” is enough in itself to help me make it through the worst days. Additionally the fact that they need caring for is, simply put, a forcing function to keep forward motion.

Forward motion is so important. Even if you come back again. Go forth, engage with the world and life, return, convalesce, process, understand. Move forwards again.

How life has changed…

Then there is the fact that sometimes it feels like nothing has stayed the same. My outlook on life has changed, my relationship with my sisters has changed (we are all simply having to deal with so much). Then there is the recognition of how brief all of this is – our brief time in the sun.

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.” – Richard Dawkins

Things that evoked certain feelings continue. The affect of seeing old people, hearing certain songs, all ripe for emotional triggers. I’ll find myself feeling intensely connected to my mum when I’m gardening. In particular when I’m weeding the strawberry patch that she planted at our home.

The simple act of seeing seasons turn, or the buds appearing on trees.

Then there is my job. I quit Microsoft in February. Not only was it time for change but add to the new found awareness of the brevity of all of this I knew it was time to take my next step. I am now working with an amazing team at Emphatic Thinking. We are an agile digital marketing agency. Of course not being able to fill Mum and Dad in on this change brings enormous waves of emotion. “I really feel like sharing that with Mum, Dad or them both…” a thought, a feeling, an experience I have often.

The loss continues to haunt me, not least of which is how they were robbed of seeing their grandchildren grow up. They really and truly were the best Grandparents in the world. They saw my children multiple times a year despite the distance and were deeply involved with my sisters children back in England.

We have lost all the things we want to do with them – the plans that are never going to happen, from the big to the small. All of it cuts very, very deep.

Existence

I often feel empty. Very empty. At other times I feel very full – I’m very lucky to have my wife and children – they keep me sane. The new job provides a creative and productive outlet that I was craving. I met many amazing people at Microsoft and had a wonderful time and learnt many things there – but it was just time for a change. What I’m doing now is a great fit, a great challenge and a great way to leverage all those years in the corporate world at Microsoft and Intel – and by extension all the amazing companies I got to work with because of them (not least of which my time working with Lotus F1 Team, now Renault Sport F1 – I loved that).

Life, existence, just feels different now. Early on in this experience I talked about how I would just stop in my tracks and be totally derailed and no even know why. More common now is that I will be engaged in something and just have an overpowering sense of the size and scope of the universe and the relative small size we are. I find myself embedded in the moment and appreciating things so much more – the smell of fresh sea air, the sky, petals swimming on the wind.

Existence is fragile, we are all fragile and I’d like to think that I have a deeper level of appreciation for that now.

One of the most fragile things of all is the moment. For the longest time I’ve conceptually “got” the idea of living in the moment. The past 10 months have really taught me what it means to be in the moment. When you realize that the moment is all you really have there is a certain freedom afforded to you, a certain calm, a peace that washes over you.

Don’t get me wrong with two little kids running around it’s not always possible to feel that wash of the universal moment. One can always aspire and the world really has done its best to teach me that. Through all pain there is a silver lining – one of those universal truths.

Love

We find ourselves again with the realization that love is all that matters. Fueled by family; my children, wife, siblings, aunts uncles, cousins and yes my paternal grandmother who is luckily still alive.

I bumped into an old friend recently, who said “in grief we must learn to lean in to each other, lean into those we love”. We have strived to do that and keep doing it – if you know someone who is grieving then being open to and supportive of them leaning into you is one of the most important things you can do. Next to just being there for them, listening, or  stepping up and doing things for them. We are lucky enough to have some amazing friends who have literally crossed oceans to do this for us.

As you move forwards in this crazy life what have you learned from grief? From appreciating the moment? Love to hear from you in the comments

The Aftermath – Living with Grief

Grab a coffee, stick this on Instapaper, take a break to read this – it’s turned into a bit of an essay.

Wow – what a cluster f*ck the past three months have been. I’ve come back, with my blog, for two reasons. One, I get something from every time I publish one of these. There is something about the clarity obtained by putting it all into cleanly typed sequenced words. Secondly there is you, the reader… I’ve heard from so many of you. From the comments to personal notes. The fact my words can help in any way is an honour. For some of you, having gone through some kind of loss, the knowledge that my words have in some way helped you make sense of what you are going through is quite simply put the highest of highest honours. And then there are those of you who, despite having not gone through such a loss yourselves, have taken a mote of understanding away and have gone back out into your lives changed, made the most of your loved ones, your parents… in some, even if a small way.

It’s been hard. Impossibly so. It happened six months ago, tomorrow, the 19th of July 2015. The first month was hell on earth. The second was this sort of realization that I was living in a hell and I had to try made head and tails of it. The third month was this sort of “I think I’m getting myself together” month which ended with the damn breaking. In the process of making it through the daily grind, with work, with just putting myself out there, that I had been putting up a façade. And come the three month mark it all started to crumble. It was around about that time that I headed into a whole slew of date milestones and more. There was my birthday and a visit from a family member. That all lead up to a trip back to Blighty for the Inquest into my parents death. Then I came back, at the same time my parents were meant to come visit us in the USA. Which happened to be for the weekend of my wife’s birthday – and a milestone one at that.

The façade I had built up cracked. Then it broke. It flooded me and my life away in a wash of turbulence I wasn’t prepared for. And then there was the Inquest.

In the UK in cases of unexplained or violent deaths, let alone both, let alone when it happened to two people… at once, there is an Inquest. It’s like a trial. Replete with court room and “judge” (coroner). There are witnesses from the scene and the medical professionals involved. In the lead up to this there can, and was in our case, details from the police about the accident. For us this involved details about the collision itself, the trajectories, the impact and the medical findings… The sort of stuff you really never want to be exposed to, trust me.

You know, you watch horror movies, or action movies. You see car crashes or people being killed in all sorts of reality isolated ways and you build up this tolerance to what it feels like to experience that. None of that crap is real, it’s all just kids playing with toys. Special effects and an insulation from the visceral real thing. I’d go so far as to say our ability to “play” at scale with such things tricks us and sets us up to be ignorant of the real pain and hurt from such things. I believe, having lived the pain and torture of understanding what happens to you loved one in a violent accident, that we generally as a society do not know what this pain and horror feels like. That we believe the Hollywood “play time” version of it and therefore don’t ever truly understand the pain and horror involved in the torture and violence involved. I don’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone. I can say with confidence that if you have been through such a brutal loss that you won’t view the insanity of gun culture in the same way.

And so with the inquest I found myself in the lowest ebb of my life. You may not have realized it to look at me. People said I seemed “so strong” or was “doing so well”. And I’m sure many of them were honestly just saying it to be nice and offer some words of support. Yet I was working to pick up the pieces. I was shattered inside. Learning to live again. Few things were so true as that. I really was learning to live again. I mentioned in it my earliest of blogs and it continues to be true. It’s a new life. A life without the mainstay of my life.

 

It’s hard to understate what a colossal loss it is to lose your parents like that. When we lose our parents, normally one at a time, we slowly start to be introduced to this new life where there is no parental authority, no parental check and balance. Look, you may not have the best of relationships with your parents but I promise you one thing; you have judged your decisions and your life on what the reaction and response would be from your parents. Even if you hated your parents with all your heart. Even in that case you would live your life in a way the embraced that and made a point of boldly living to defy them and trounce them for all the reasons that you despised them. In my case I loved my parents deeply. I respected their input and their guidance. I actively sought it out. I remember having a conversation just a month before their deaths where I went to them for guidance and advice on how I felt about my career. My mother, as always, was totally supportive, and my father carried great, deep and meaningful insights. I was lucky compared to some. Whatever you relationship with your parents it is a very large and meaningful part of your life. I of course have deep respect and compassion for those in a place where they may never have known their parents, or had their parents snatched away from them at such an age where they were never to develop any sort of relationship. To you I tip my hat and hope I can learn from you what that experience is like.

I have become very attuned to the sense of loss in the world. A spate of school and public shootings horrified me. I felt both for the families of those who were killed, acutely so. And also for being in public in the USA and fearing for the worst. I’m not going to go off onto a rant about guns on this blog beyond saying I’m continually horrified at this countries selfishness and short sightedness when it comes to this topic. I have also become aware and sensitive to the impossible nature to feel all peoples pain, that we can become immobilized by the horror others experience and that we have to firewall ourselves off to much of the pain in the world. Yet we must try, we really must try and empathise a little bit more.

It’s not a far jump from the loss and horror in the world, especially when you are living such a hell yourself, to wonder about meaning and the point of it all. We really are only here very briefly. There are few of us who will ingratiate ourselves into the annals of history but in the big scheme of things those people are far and few. And most of them end up coming to untimely ends for one reason or another. For most of us we are just another brick in the wall and are faced with living our existence in this beautiful world and universe. Yet we still must wonder what the point is of all of it. In a time of loss we realize something quite profound, whether we had an inkling of it before or otherwise, and that is the meaning we make of our own lives and thus the impact we have on those that surround us. We live at a point in time in this thing called ‘humanity’ this vast, growing, matrix of souls, ideas and culture that flow with and through each of us. It’s in loss that we realize what our loved one meant to us. How my Mum and Dad in all their lessons and love, al their coaching and coddling, all their challenges and criticisms. In all of who they were that they left a deep and abiding impression on the very make up of my being. In their loss I have become deeply aware of the lack of their presence. Be it in person or being on the end of a phone. That I no longer have this wonderful part of my life. For all its positive and negative factors. I’m not ashamed to say my relationship with my parents wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t. And we had our own fair share of disagreements and didn’t see eye to eye on everything. Yet their presence was important, it was constructive and to the day they died it added deep and meaningful value to my existence. I wondered what they would think, or say about a decision I made. Sometimes I’d guide my decisions based on this, sometimes I’d relish the reaction they would have when I told them of a path I chose that I knew they wouldn’t approve of. Either way they were there as a truth north in how I navigated the world. The north star doesn’t judge you. It is just there. It helps you find your way as you sail the choppy seas. You can be good or bad at it is always there. It is in its essence unconditional love and in losing your parents you lose that one true unconditional love of your life.

My true north is gone. My north star is gone. I’m afloat on the sea of existence and my compass is spinning and spinning. I’m learning’s to sail without it. Looking to other stars. Both within myself and without to make up the difference. I can only speak from my own experience, now in my mid to late thirties, that losing them is both deeply painful and enormously confusing. I was lucky to have parents who were so involved to their dying day. It has given my aspirations of how I want my own children to view me. How I want to be involved in their lives for the decades to come. Which hopefully I’ll have, after all we never know. Therefore I must live today as if it is my last. I have felt cast adrift. A cast-a-way who is working to come up with new ways to understand direction, and meaning and purpose.

Much of how I viewed the world before has ended. It’s been tidied up into a neat little box and put up on the shelf of memories as “the time before”. I’ve been feverishly been trying to figure out what it looks like now. Think about that for a second. Here you are, in a storm of loss and grief and you are also forced to reassess how you view the world. How you make sense of your place in the world. It’s no mean feat. And it takes oodles of energy. It still does. I’ll never be done, and you know, the experience of what I’ve been through leaves me with some comfort; it doesn’t matter. Life can be snatched away from you, scrambled, destroyed, and you just have to keep on living it. You keep on soldiering forwards and figuring out a way. It’s all you can do. It’s important at this point that I don’t dismiss or depreciate grief itself. I’m not saying “just solider on” or “time heals all wounds”. It’s not just soldiering on and time doesn’t heal all wounds. If you don’t deal with and work at grief it will not get any “better” you have to stare it cold and hard in the face and fight it to the ground. You have to wrestle with it. Fight it. Listen to it. Learn from it. Let it beat you up and go full bore into it, fists wailing and beat the shit out of it. You have to do all that and more. My point is that you have to solider on. You have to be a warrior in your grief and do everything you can. It’s a journey, it’s a fight, it’s a teacher. It’s so many things.

And ultimately, ultimately it’s life. Life is death. I’ve met more people who have lost that ever before. People who have lost children (the day after my parents died, they lost their son), parents, husbands and wives. Fathers and step fathers. Brothers and sisters. Death is everywhere. Just ask people. See what happens. It really is the one thing that binds us all together. In this day of age in the West we are shielded more that the majority of human history from death. Elders used to die in their 30s, at a push their 40s. Those in their 50s or above attained a godly status. Our whole paradigm has shifted and death has all but been snubbed out – save for accidents. We wrap ourselves up in nursing homes, string ourselves out on machines and drugs until the last possible moment when we “pass away”. Losing my parents has been an education in what the school of hard knocks taught to many of our ancestors and that is that for most of human history we have been faced with losing those we love when we ourselves are more likely to be in our prime and when they, in many case, were a far cry from the common image of an invalid many of us associate with advanced age and end of life.

Anchors are everywhere. I’ll watch a movie and think that one of my parents (or both) would have enjoyed it and I have a positive flush of emotion. Of feeling close to them. People talked about this in the early days. It is true, certain things will make me feel like they are “nearby”. It’s this sort of mental simulation of them. And of myself and how I’d feel if they were nearby. It’s quite lovely. Music is the worst though, that just continually seems to trigger sadness. Even if it’s an enjoyable rush of emotion – that’s a hard one to wrap your head around. As I’ve moved further from the moment of their death and just had to deal with daily life the more I’ve been aware of emotional triggers that are likely to bring deep rushes of emotion. Mostly its an active avoidance of these, because most of the time I’m dealing with life, with other people, with the fact society and people in general are not prepared for such onslaughts of emotion, and I’ll push those things aside. Other times I’ll actively seek out the rush of emotions. Especially if I’m alone and the conditions are right for me to plumb the depths of how I feel. Emotions on a daily basis were so much less complex before. There seems to be oodles more layers and perceptions and complications now.

As I rushed into October some of the biggest anchors I had yet to deal with awaited me, and many firsts. My Birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas were just a few obvious ones. The fact my parents had visited a year previously and I was traveling back to England when they had flow home, or when I returned from the Inquest was when they had booked to come stay for us this year (OK, 2015) were all date coincidences that were incredibly hard to stomach and move through. The date issue still rings true for me. Weekly it is Sunday at the time they died. Monthly it is the 19th, the day they died and so on. I never knew dates and times could hurt so much, just being, just living with that symbolism. It really is “just” that, symbols… the passage of days, weeks, months and years. The definitions we use to carve out our world. Yet it is our world, defined by such things, and thus there is much meaning carried in the monikers and anchors we use to structure and understand our world.

Relationships and people have continued to be both a source of strength and a confounding and frustrating part of my existence. I’ve come to appreciate relationships much more and become far more aware of my own limitations as a human and the imperfections in relationships. I’ve also come to recognize what I value and care about in relationships. There are people who have really stood up and been counted. The people who called, relentlessly, the friends who turned up when it was either a hassle or inconvenient for them, who have gone out of the way to be there for us. The people who have cooked for us, brought us meals and helped out with the children. Some people doing all of the above. Then there continue to be people who we expected much more from. Who have done nothing. Not even offered words. How these people can possibly expect to play a meaningful role in our lives moving forward is quite simply baffling to me. People who quite frankly should know better, who should have made the effort and who have totally failed us. I wonder if you even know who you are. These people are a huge disappointment and luckily we have people in our lives who are as far from that as you can imagine. People who have trekked across states and countries to spend time with us, to prop us up and care for us and be there with usyou see it’s not always about being there for someone. Sometimes presences is all that is needed.

It’s oft just about being there with someone. The difference between some kind of required action and just being. I kid you not there are people whose effort just to stop by and chat with me in my office at work, to take the time out to listen and ask and be with me for a bit that makes the world of difference. The opposite of this, one of the least helpful things I have found, is that of the just saying “If there is anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask.” Let me set the record straight on this one… if you are not interested in how you can be better at helping or supporting the bereaved then please just walk away. So why is saying that a problem? Aren’t people just ‘trying to help’? Saying what they can? Yes… in the majority of the cases when someone say that their ‘heart is in the right place’, you see the thing is when you are engaging with a person who is suffering a devastating loss having your heart in the right place really is only a step in the right direction. Honestly you might as well not say anything, just avoid the person, avoid saying anything and stay well out. I know many people have done this and quite frankly it’s OK. There is just too much going on in the world for everyone to deal with this sort of loss all the time. The thing is if you really do care about the person and do want to help don’t delegate to the griever to have them be responsible for your effort to help them. Seriously. I can’t remember all the people that said that let alone come up with a list of things for each of the people who said it to do something. If you want to help. Just do it. Pick something practical and help with it; taking a person out to lunch, spending time with them just listening, doing shopping, cooking, cleaning, anything practical helps because (especially in those early days) getting shit done is really, really hard. Incidentally I’ve put a few people to the test unintentionally on this and asked them for something specific and they have flat out let me down. Which unfortunately has only reinforced for me the fact many people will just say it as a platitude.

I hate to come across as sounding negative. The thing is by in large people who go through this experience do not share it, let alone at scale and putting pen to paper, so to speak. I’m not claiming to speak for all grievers, all grief truly is different. My sisters and I suffered the same tragic loss and are all processing it in very different ways – it’s proved to be a very difficult experience for us to work together with and through our own experiences. That being said there are not enough voices for the bereaved and in reporting back from the front lines I want for nothing more than to share how it feels and how perchance you may be able to help those you love and care about when the time comes. Because it will come. I promise you that.

This has been the hardest blog I have yet written on the subject of the loss of my parents and how it has affected me. I have continued to journal personally every day and that has been a source of great support and relief. I have read a lot; from CS Lewis, to Martha Whitmore Hickman, Elissa Bishop-Becker and more on the topic. I’ve been seeing a grief councillor and other resources available to me to reflect upon and gain perspective. Not least of which friends, some of whom who have also lost parents, have proved to be rocks upon which I have steadied myself in this time of great turmoil. My wife and children have been immeasurably invaluable and I am indeed very lucky to have them. The sheer joy and laughter and childishness of my boys has grounded me in very important ways.

Despite its essay like length I wanted to share in detail what this experience has been like over the past three months. I shared monthly before and it was helpful. I’ve wanted to much to share since October yet it has been so very hard to crystalize the thoughts as I wade through the aftermath of the destruction my parents death wrought upon my life.

I’ve started to live again. I’ve started to have ups that accompany the downs. Colour and hope has started to find a way back into my life. The undercurrent of grief is still there and I’m paddling furiously to manage it yet something key is happening; I’m growing around it. There is no return to normal. There is a new life and at its core is who I am and who I am includes this tragic loss. Everything I knew and was before sits alongside this darkness as parts of the foundation of who I am and I am building out and on top of this core. Just like we move from being a child to an adolescent and then to adulthood I’m now moving into a new phase of my life not defined by grief but made bigger and better all because of it. The sadness and darkness of the loss will always be there waiting for me to get in touch with it be it through memory, music and more. There will always be space for the tears to flow and for my parents to sit there in my mind in all they were and can no longer be. Yet increasingly I am able to light a candle for them both and think of their lives and all they gave to me, all they taught to me, all they inspired me to be, and yes all the disagreements and pains too. I can embrace them in my memory and imagine what they would say to me. I can simulate them in my mind, I can almost hear the faint whispers on the wind with their ideas and advice. And interestingly I don’t’ always agree with them.

I welcome this state more and more. It is refreshing to share and also important that I tell you it is not all the time. There can be moments of strengths, such as on a walk today, when at the apex of a powerful and inspiring song I crumble into tears for the loss and lack of contact with Mum and Dad. I must accept both states for what they are and as many people have said “be kind to yourself”. Advice that rings true.

I miss you, Mum. I miss you, Dad. I love you. I wish you were here. I will endeavour to make you proud. To do the family legacy and your memory an honour in how I live my life.

How are you, today? How has your grief been going? What have you learned? What can you share? I hope to discover more and get ideas from you in the comments.

 

How to live before you die

In a slight deviation from my recent grief blogging I’d like to share this amazing Steve Jobs talk with you. Seems rather relevant.

http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die

And some key things to take away;

    1. On the concept of connecting the dots
      1. Follow your heart
      2. You can’t connect dots in advance
    2. On Love and loss
      1. Took Jobs 10 years to create Apple from garage to billions of $
      2. Fired – but didn’t run away from industry, vision, dreams
      3. Didn’t realize them but getting fired was best thing that ever happened
      4. Don’t settle
    3. On Death and thus Life
      1. If you live each day as if it’s your last someday almost certainly you will be right
      2. Pride, fear of embarrassment or failure… avoid the trap of feeling there is anything to lose
      3. Death is life’s change agent, makes way for the new
      4. You are the new now but will one day be cleared away
      5. Don’t waste time living someone else’s life
      6. Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other peoples thinking
      7. Don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your own inner voice
      8. Courage to follow your own heart and intuition . They somehow already know what you want to become. Everything else is secondary.

And as Steve adopted from the “Whole  Earth Catalog” (was printed on back)

Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Harnessing Grief

Photo © Marisa Woodget 2015 (edited by Matthew Woodget)– in this photo, on my mothers first birthday since her death, I hold a message to her, in a bottle, preparing to launch it into the Pacific Ocean.

This post is aspirational.

It’s been three months. A quarter of a year. Everyone says it’s a long road and I can safely say that the past three months have been the longest of my life. I feel like I have aged. I know I’ve put on weight. I call it my ‘grief weight’. Everyone says "Take care of yourself". If that means being healthy then I’ve been doing so sporadically. I feel it must also mean other things – mental as well as physical. Escapism in movies or computer games can also qualify. I have told myself.

Time is a fickle mistress and I’m prone to prioritizing a nap vs. stretching my legs. Naps are important. Taking naps qualify as taking care of oneself as far as I’m concerned. I certainly seek them out at the weekends. Once I took a tactical, vertical nap on the sofa. My eldest who is six and I were playing some Forza Motorsport for a reward- he was taking a turn racing and I managed to get a lap-nap in. He was going around laps a little bit slower than I.

I used to love showing my dad the latest version of Forza. We had a shared love for cars and auto sport.

Three months ago yesterday I had been playing Forza with my boys and my American Nephew (I also have two British Nephew’s). I went to great pains to reinforce that in real life there is no ‘rewind’ button. You can’t hit the ‘Y’ button and undo an automobile accident. I didn’t realize at the time that my father had been killed and my mother was on her deathbed resulting from a car crash. Sufficed to say that now I have mixed emotions about cars and speed. In both games and real life.

I was subjected to some road rage on the drive in to work yesterday. I was then exposed to a rather nasty crash minutes later. Experiences like that can really shake me. When I got to work I needed time to center myself before getting out of the car. It is beginning to dawn on me that I may have PTSD.

In my last blog I observed what it’s like as normality starts to encroach. I’ve been living with that for some time now and it’s led to a realization that I need to "do something" with my grief. I don’t mean therapy, or this blog or time with friends. True, tackling of your grief is important. What I mean is what to do with life now that I has lived through this experience.

Everything that happens to us leaves us with tools and different ways to view the world.

What does grief give us?

Grief Super Heroes

I said in a prior post how messy grief is. It’s all over the map. For me it began with the experience of shear horror and shock that would eventually give way to numbness only then to switch back to soul tearing sadness. It was pretty much "all grief" in those early days… my shiny new grief. The thing is the world doesn’t stand still. The kids need to be taken care of. The mortgage needs to be paid. Chores must be done. I found myself living this sort of parallel life. It’s always there, they are always there. They can interrupt me at any time. During the day I "do life" and in the evenings I’m this sort of grief super hero. Batman was an orphan, he comes to mind a lot. My boys are very much into super heroes, maybe that’s why this analogy resonates so. Sometimes life dominates consciousness; running the gauntlet of dinner and bedtime for the boys, for example, forces my grief persona to be put to the side, for a while. I’m pretty sure I’ve made it a whole hour without thinking about them. And there they are, waiting for me when I get back.

The super hero analogy is good for another reason; my life is changed. I am changed. I’ve seen and felt things I never thought I would. Everything is different now. Mornings feel different. Hugs feel different. The passing of the moment feels different and I’m even more apt to focus on living in it than I was before. Yet I’m still holding back. I’m still trying to understand the scope of how I have changed.

Those familiar with Star Wars will know what Anakin went through on his journey to become Darth Vader. He suffered great loss. His mother. His wife… and as far as he was concerned his children. We know the later to be a lie. In part perpetrated by the Jedi (the good guys!!) to protect the babies from Anakin. And more importantly by Darth Sidious (The Emperor) who used their ‘death’ to push Anakin completely into the clutches of the Dark Side.

I don’t want to be Darth Vader. Apart from for Halloween… Maybe I’ll be him for Halloween. You know, in a costume.

And this is my point, the journey of torturous loss and grief can lead one to lash out at the world. There are the soldiers who return from war who end up committing violent crimes and ending up in prison. I’m not saying that what I’ve gone through is the same as experiencing the horror of war. I may not be in that club. I am however in a club that shares the same postal code.

The world does looks different after loss, and when the loss is tragic the contrast and saturation are turned up even further.

Things can go one of three ways…

The good

One of the things that is good that can come out of grief is that we realize now more than ever how transient life is. "The page is out of print, we are not permanent" The Pretender, Foo Fighters. I was always fond of focusing on the moment "Unplug the future, unplug the past, and plug them both into the present" was a phrase I coined in 2003 at a music festival in an effort to console a friend who was having a rough time in a relationship. I was seeking to encourage him to make the most of life as "this" was what it was all about. Being together and enjoying life with those you care about.

Take that insight, that understanding, and amplify it. Sort of like what happens to Marty McFly with Doc Brown’s Amp in Back to The Future (clip).

It is because of this that we have a power to live even more in the moment. The promise of this fact is great. It is a promise that we can eventually get to a place in life where the grief isn’t holding us back. Rather that we can actually realize strength in it – I’m not saying that getting there is easy. It isn’t, it’s tough. I do, however, see it as the silver lining in all of this. The shear fact that if my parents died that they died for one thing and one thing alone; that those left behind could live the rest of their lives more fully, more completely than they would have otherwise. Is it a hard pill to swallow? You bet. Feeling like there is anything positive because of their deaths is very hard to imagine. Let alone to live.

The bad

Look, let’s just get this out of the way; there is a lot of bad in this experience. And ugly. It is as far from fun and enjoyment in life that you can get. I’m sure my earlier blogs covered that in quite some detail.

What I’m talking about here is ‘the bad’ in the context of forward motion. It’s the corruption of life, the electrical burn that can cut through the toughest metal. The risk is that if you never make it "through" your grief. That you become trapped in sadness and potentially PTSD if you experience that as well.

Would Mum and Dad want that for me, for my sisters, for anyone? Of course not. The fact is this experience is really truly deeply sad. It’s soul crushing. It’s waking in tears in the middle of night and not being able to get back to sleep. It’s "that song" coming on the radio as you drive bringing waves of emotion and floods of tears that you feverishly wipe away as you find a safe place to pull the car over and recover. The salt of sorrow dripping into your mouth.

It’s also true that if you stay there forever you can’t ever turn the sorrow into something positive. I truly believe that it is possible to experience something bad and to use it to do good in the world.

To do that you need to tackle it head on.

The Ugly

The biggest risk is that a tragedy consumes one so completely that the trauma is taken out on the world. This is where those veterans ‘snap’ because of their experience both on the battle field and when they try return to the world. I simply can’t understand a society that will happily send a nations children to war yet not support the funding for the appropriate medical and mental care that those warriors require when they come back from the horror of armed conflict.

I’m not saying that everyone who goes through a tragic loss will end up in a situation where they are attacking and hurting others. Neither is that the case for all veterans with PTSD. It is however a real risk. And it does happen.

The example of violent outbursts is an extreme. The Ugly can manifest in much more mundane ways. When I first started to grapple with this experience and how it was changing me I wondered; will I take people’s crap anymore? Will I call bullshit every time I see it? Will my political (and political correctness) filter be thrown out? "Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater" Mum and Dad used to say. Oh Mum, oh Dad… you were so fond of saying that. It served me and my sisters well growing up. So many lovely aspects of your coaching.

I decided to give myself a pass. For a while. Maybe I would be more frank and "less political" moving forwards. Or maybe more political! Perhaps I would speak my mind a little more. The latter is starting to happen. However I have actively held back in the interests of giving myself time to go through the grief process.

It doesn’t have to result in ‘ugly’. You can harness it for good. It’s OK to be outspoken and passionate about what you believe in. It’s not what you say it’s how you say it. Kind of like the ‘joke’. "An Jew, an Atheist, A Muslim and a Vegan all go into a coffee shop… and they all laugh and joke and have a good time. Because they are not assholes".

I really don’t want to be an asshole. Mum and Dad wouldn’t have wanted me to be, either.

Channeling your power

This is where the super hero analogy comes back into play. All loss isn’t going to turn one into a crime fighting caped crusader. However like all good storytelling Batman works because it appeals to something in all of us. Those who have tragedy in our lives are given access to the full-blown directors cut. We have seen something, learned something, felt something and it is powerful. Very powerful.

We first started to experience that power in how it would bring us to our knees. Literally. In those early days I did find myself stopping and collapsing. In the first minutes of finding out I couldn’t even breath. I was curled up on the floor, screaming. My life had been shattered. Torn. Ripped apart. Grief is powerful.

The following question then comes; how can I channel, then harness that power for good?

Step 1 – Channel for healing

Focus on yourself. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time, and space. Allow yourself to grieve fully. They are not platitudes, they are real. They are clichés because they are REAL.

This is no mean feat. It takes time. It also takes effort and focus. And patience. It is a road and it needs to be traveled. I went for a walk today and it was tough. One of those walks where you really don’t want to. But you force yourself to. And after a while you start to pick up a pace. It takes a while yet eventually you are just doing it. You are in the motion and you are fully present.

It’s like that on the dusty, dirty road of grief. And the wind will kick up and knock you back and blind your eyes and you won’t always be able to see where you are doing. That’s OK. Right now all you need to do is keep going down the road. Everyone’s road is different and there isn’t a destination, per say. What there is eventually however is a clearing from the dust.

The road terminates not in a place but at the beginning of a new journey. A new landscape. You find yourself in a glade at the edge of a forest, with views of beautiful mountains and canyons. That is the rest of your life out there. One of most beautiful analogies I heard with the ‘recovery’ from grief was how your lost loved one would eventually be ‘walking beside you’. It’s when the dust settles and you leave the rocky, tough road behind that you meet them in that glade.

Step 2 – Channeling for purpose

You will start to consider as you trudge through the dust in step one. That when you make it to the clear blue skies and crisp green rolling fields of life and love and opportunity that you will be able to tackle this a new.

Are you going to the mountains, to the coast?

Purpose is a uniquely personal journey. My favorite process for doing this to date is this resource from Steve Pavlina. It’s about what YOU bring to this world. When you have gone through a tragic loss you are left with this great power. What you can bring to the world is enhanced, amplified.

Whatever you chose for your purpose is what it all boils down to; what meaning can you draw from life? In your actions what meaning can you bring to life? It could be something ambitious which brings large scale benefits to the whole of humanity. Curing cancer. Sending us to Mars. Eliminating hunger in a region, or the world! Or it could be supporting such a mission – being a foot soldier who throws oneself at an existing mission and pours energy and life into helping it succeed. Or you could invest in the micro, the small scale. Living a good, loving life. Investing in your family. Your local community. Maybe it’s a mix of the two. Only you will know.

Step 3 – Channeling your new self

You are different now. You are forever changed. You were a warrior who trudged the road of grief. You sought all the help you could. You did the things you needed to heal. To grow. You integrated the grief into who you are. I read, and appreciated "The Courage to Grieve" by Judy Tatelbaum although I’m not 100% sold on her concept of "finishing" with grief. I get it, and understand how the process she talks about can help. I would just rather see it as a process that is whole and results in the integration of emotions and experience into who one is rather than moving beyond it. Nothing that ever happens to us ever leaves us. It makes us who we are. It defines us. And that is the problem I have with ‘finishing’. On the other hand if she really means "finishing" as per the phase, ‘the act of grieving’ and that all of the learning’s and experiences still accrue to one being ‘more’ at the end of it (despite the massive loss) then I could be sold on that. It makes sense not to be ‘stuck’ in the process of grieving for the rest of one’s life. That is where you can end up at "bad" or "ugly".

Having been down the road. Integrated the experiences, the emotions, the learning’s and come out the other side you are equipped to channel this powerful thing. Once you have channeled it you are able to harness it, to use it.

It is then that you are able to turn your life into a monument for those you have lost. The concept of ‘making them proud’ by who you are and your actions. We find ourselves back to that silver lining. I have to believe that is at the ‘end’ of this. Without that goal it seems to me that one could easily get lost in the dusty, dark landscape of Step 1. Never to emerge from the other side. Slipping into The Bad and The Ugly.

Final thoughts… for today

This has been the hardest of my grief blogs. In the beginning it was all so clear; I had lost, I was in pain. I could share that. I could address that. As I look to focus my mind so I can heal and subsequently share it is much harder now. Life is busy, complicated, and it dances a difficult dance with grief.

How did your journey go? How did you harness the new found power you discovered in grief? What did you do with it? What was the journey like for you – how long did it take? I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts. Do you disagree?

Remember – we are all in this together. None of us get out alive and the more we prioritize thinking and focusing on this subject the better prepared we will all be when it inevitably happens to us. Even for those of us who have lived through this it will happen again.

Like I said at the beginning, this post is aspirational. I will, I must, give myself time and space, permission to throw a glass at the wall and watch it smash (as long as no one is standing there!). Yet I can aspire for more. I can hope for more. I can strive for more. Thanks for joining me on this journey. Let’s keep at it… together!

Let’s discuss in the comments – that’s what blogs are for!

When Grief meets Normality

"Grief is more complicated than I had any idea of" – My wife, Marisa.

There are so many wonderful analogies for grief; the waves, the roads with switch backs, the messiness. It is complicated. It is very human. It is as individual in it’s nature for you as you are an individual in the world. In grief we find our true humanity. The good and the bad. The layers of life, the facades we put in place to operate. The masks we wear. The roles we play. They are all brought out into the open for us as we grieve.

 

Sometimes to great comfort, other times to deep harrowing sadness. Who are we?

 

What is the meaning of life? How do I seek meaning from life?

 

These age old questions of humanity find themselves on the tip of our tongue, constantly. We are forced to truly realize how very temporary life is. I write this on the eve of September 11th and think of the thousands of families that shared a final night together. Of all the bags packed and trips planned that would never see journey’s end. I think of my conversation with my mum, in England, that horrible evening and I’m reminded of how fleeting this all is.

 

Snow flakes are born in the stormy sky, they float down to the earth, settle for a while, and melt. Some are caught in downdrafts and land on warm roofs. Hastening their departure. Others find themselves in thick piles of cool white fluff surrounded by many others for a beautifully long winter.

 

Then spring happens. The cycle of life, of the earth, the universe, goes on.

Stir the soup

I’ve been back at work for a few, for several (?) weeks now. Time isn’t what it used to be. It’s a blur. It’s certainly going much more slowly, as an overarching trend. I’ve been "getting on with things" I’ve been doing chores around the house. I’ve been lucky enough to connect with some wonderful friends who have reached out to me and insisted on spending time with me. I’ve nothing but thanks to you. When people ask what they can do I tell them that, time, attention, care. Talking about what happened, what I’m going through. I need that. Oh and I, we, still need people to cook for us. It’s the biggest everyday chore, and the most outsourcable.

 

I started to feel different. The initial shock and pain of those first weeks had changed, shifted. Had it gone?! I was terrified to move forwards, away from them. Every moment I grow older I’m further from them and their love. I know, I know, they are "with me". In my DNA, walking beside me, watching over me. Whatever gets you through the night. These are all perfectly reasonable and nice thoughts and no doubt one day I will feel good thinking about them. Yet now, now I feel like I’m in some netherworld between the initial, constant, gut wrenching pain and that future. And I have no idea how long it will take me to get there.

 

I found myself being "normal". Participating in meetings. Processing emails. Cooking. Cleaning the kitchen. I felt numb. Then a particularly painful poignant evening with some people who I expected more from quite frankly brought it all into stark focus.

 

I was living on the surface of a cooling soup. A nice thick potato leek soup. As it cooled the surface grew taught and tense. A skin formed. And it was that evening that I pushed down through the skin into the searing heat of the soup below. I stirred it up. Pushing that "odd normal" down into the hot depths where it could melt and reform with the excited atoms in the turmoil below.

 

The next day it happened again. The surface cooled and congealed and I operated in the "real world". Yet now I had empowered myself to stir the soup. A chat with a good friend confirmed that which I had subconsciously realized. My job was to prevent the congealing happening. I needed to keep myself and my feelings and my emotions fresh and current. I could do this by continuing to expose them to the world and over time the entire mass of the soup would cool, together, as one. And rather than the formation of a separate, alien layer on top of the turmoil that remained beneath. If I could achieve that then my soup would come to a consistent, peaceful equilibrium with the world.

 

We can’t get around, or over, or under grief. We have to go through it. We have to stir the soup. If we feel like we are in a "numb normal" we are not making forward progress. We need to ensure that through the process of grieving that we allow it to be fed by and interact with the world . Only then can we find a balance and peace over time.

 

As we stir the soup we consume vast amounts of energy. And we need to make sure that we take care of ourselves. That we sleep. Rest. Exercise. Read. Watch TV. Whatever it is that gives us a chance to invest in ourselves. You must fulfil our needs.

 

Everyone’s flavor of soup is different, is cooked at different temperatures and is in a unique room that imparts its own affects on the soup. But it is all soup.

 

The Rewriting of History Paradox

Prior to my awareness of the crazy assed soup that I was swimming in I was going through a very strange, dark, odd experience with my grief. It felt poignant, and raw and I was somewhat aware of what was happening yet I couldn’t quite place my finger on it. It was in the corner of my mental eye and for weeks I couldn’t quite bring it into focus. Then one day with loving warmth of a tight knit group of friends and my wife it crystalized for me.

 

Unsurprisingly I have found myself thinking about the past, a lot. Of growing up. Of my parents at different ages and the things we did together and the lessons I learned from them. As I was experiencing these memories I would encounter a dark feeling that I couldn’t define. I was thinking about the past yet the present was creeping into it like an insidious darkness, infecting loving memories with the pain of today.

 

I would stop myself short. Cutting off this horrible turn of thought. I realize now that by cutting myself off I was preventing my ability to understand what was going on in my mind. As I would stop thinking about it, stop trying to understand it. It needed to stir the soup. If I hadn’t allowed myself to go back into these thoughts I’d never have been able to realize what they meant. I’d not have been able to rationalize it or integrate it into who I am.

 

So what on earth was happening?! It was dreadfully simple actually. In my mind I was imagining Matthew at four, five, nine, twelve years old. And that Matthew was also losing his parents. As I experienced this a darkness made me feel like I had lost my parents at those ages. It hurt. A lot. Yet there was a nuance, and a complexity as to why I was feeling this was; it was the fact I am a father. The thought of losing my father was being projected into my children, I was then imagining how they felt in their loss and then I was transposing myself into the mind of my children and subsequently imagining I was their age and I was losing a parent… at that age. It started by thinking about my children as 3 and 5 year olds. Then being a human I couldn’t help but model that out to other ages. Before I knew it anytime I was thinking of a childhood memory the same affect would happen. My parents would die in the past.

 

It. Was. Horrible.

 

And then I stirred the soup.

 

And it stopped.

 

Everyone experiences, and handles, grief differently. We all have our own weirdness’s. We are all fucked up. We are all human. We all have a unique path and experience in this world and all of that affects how we see, feel and interact with our own reality. So when we are faced with the most devastating grief we have ever experienced we will all handle it differently.

 

And if we don’t stir the soup we will congeal with a false normality, we will get stuck in our dark thoughts and we will not integrate those thoughts into our experience and we will never truly heal.

 

Stir the soup.