Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Our Lips are Sealed

This weekend someone who was very well meaning told me that I need to move on from Emilie's death and stop dwelling on it. They pointed out that it will be difficult for John and the kids when I get upset around Emilie's anniversary and that it may be easier for them if I didn't.

... If I didn't get upset ...

Today is her anniversary - six years.

The advice I received from this well meaning person this weekend got me thinking about the way I handle grief and emotion. I believe that as parents we have a responsibility to show our children healthy ways of managing emotion. Samuel misses Emilie - whether he fully understands what he misses or not is another matter but when her anniversary comes around we talk about her.  We go away as a family and make new memories together, we have cake together, we celebrate her life and sometimes we cry.

This weekend I cried in-front of my children.  When I discussed this with Sam and asked him if he understood why I was upset, he simply replied 'because Emilie was your daughter and we all miss her.'

When the above advice came through in email form my initial reaction was panic. Old anxieties surfaced and I worried that by showing emotion and grief in-front of my children I was reversing the parent/child relationship and inviting them to care for me.  I didn't want them to see my weakness.  I wanted to pick myself back up, dust myself off and carry on regardless of what was going on.  Emilie died six years ago and really I should be over it by now. Right?  Life moves on and we don't mention bad things that happen - it's not the British way.

And yet this felt so wrong.  I was reminded of the hours after Emilie was born.  She was wrapped up in her hospital cot and was lying next to where I was sitting.  I was doing ... well I can't really remember.  She didn't need feeding and she didn't need changing yet the normalcy of having given birth carried on.  I had still undergone a hugely traumatic birth.  I had lost blood, I was exhausted and my blood pressure was dangerously high.  Everything ached terribly and I had been given medication to lower my blood pressure and medication to stop milk production.  I had a terrible headache which is associated with pre-eclampsia.  I was seriously ill.  I couldn't just leave and carry on - I had to stay where I was until I was well enough to go home.  This sense of having to stay where I was was probably a positive thing as my default is to do just what I've described about - to get away from the pain; to push it away, to get rid of it, to put a lid on it and move on.  Because I had to remain in hospital I had the opportunity to clean and dress Emilie.  I had the opportunity to hold her, to cuddle her and to kiss her - to take precious photographs.  These were not things I wanted to do.  My initial reaction was to get rid of her.  I did not want the pain of seeing her and I did not want physical proof of her existence.  I wanted the excruciating pain gone from my life.  In short, I wanted to move on.

The hospital staff, our friends who were with us, and John were hugely supportive of me over the two days we spent with Emilie.  Our friends Dave, Jenny and Carol held her and commented on her beauty.  They cradled her like any other newborn baby and they loved her unconditionally.  For this I will always be grateful.  And then something amazing happened; a midwife - a stranger - came into the room.  She wasn't my  midwife and I never saw her again.  I can't even remember why she came in, but remember her being there.  She walked straight over to the cold cot where Emilie was lying and looked into it.  She turned to me and said 'she is beautiful, and looks just like you'.  I remember being taken aback - what was the correct response?  At that moment the only response I could think of was a snappy 'you do know shes's dead, don't you?' (In a strange way this memory has always made me laugh - I often think of that poor woman!).  She replied that yes, she did know that Emilie was dead yet it didn't change how beautiful she was or the fact that she was our much wanted, much adored daughter.  The kindness of strangers can be amazing and form the whole two day nightmare this is one of my most vivid memories.

She was still our daughter.

Someone told me yesterday that a life so short is no less precious - and how true those words are.

So I will carry on remembering her.  I will let myself feel this emotion at anniversary time and will not push it down.  I will show the emotion - where appropriate to my children - as I believe it is as healthy for them to see my vulnerabilities as it is to see my strengths.  And maybe - just maybe - children seeing the emotional strength and the emotional vulnerabilities of their parents, and being able to use healthy and appropriate language to discuss these emotions, is a step in the right direction towards not having children who grow up believing that emotion is bad; believing that putting on a strong front is the best way to be - and descending into mental health problems later in life.

We need to talk about these things.
With September progressing I feel my anxiety levels rise, triggered by the back to school chaos with a child with Autism and my husband away in South Korea for the first couple of weeks of the month amongst other things.  This is a post that has been in progress for a couple of weeks and has undergone change, development and rejection but is one that I felt needed to be written.
Six years ago our daughter, Emilie, died.  It is her anniversary in less than two weeks.  It is the event from which this blog grew and is a defining moment of my life – the point at which ‘before’ became ‘after’.  My life bears no resemblance to that which it did before Emilie’s death and I am completely changed as well.
She changed me and her death made me into the person I am today.
But that is not especially what I am writing about now.
Four days ago my dad died.  He was probably ‘dad’ in name only.  I did not know him well and had not seen him for over a decade.  He made huge mistakes when I was growing up - which are not for this blog – and at the age of 22, after his separation from my mum, I made the decision to protect myself and withdraw from him.  It wasn’t really a conscious decision at the time but became a conscious decision over time.  I did not like the person I became when I was faced with the prospect of seeing him.  I did not like the panic attacks, the anxiety, the obsessions and the lies and when I had my own children I realised that my priority had to be to my own family.  I had to learn to be a parent and work out what that looked like for myself.
But now I am faced with fresh grief – and with decisions that are really hard for me to make.  At this anniversary time I am struggling to isolate one grief from another; the grief of Emilie’s death from the grief of the death of an absent parent.  How should I feel and what is the right way to respond?  If the past six years have taught me anything it is that grief is hugely personal.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve and the social norms and rituals that surround death can often make personal grief hard.
I have spent the past few years thinking that I have finished grieving my (lack of) relationship with my dad yet the news of his death hit me much harder than I expected. Maybe this is because of its close proximity to Emilie’s anniversary, maybe it’s because I have dealt with it alone while John is away or maybe it’s because grief is actually cyclic and, as I have said before, time does not heal all wounds.
Right now I am firmly rooted in the Anger stage of Kubler Ross’ Grief cycle and I’m happy here – it’s easy to wallow in my own self pity rather than having to deal with the acceptance that I will never receive the answers or apology(ies) that I have so longed for.
Yet I feel like a fraud.
The majority of people who know me well will know about the difficult relationship I had with my dad and my grief feels like a lie.  It becomes something I believe I don’t deserve to feel and the hurt, pain and disappointments of the past 35 years are coming back to haunt me.  Is there a correct way to mourn the death of an absent parent and how is it possible to reach a position of acceptance and forgiveness when it is now totally one sided?
I don’t have the answers and I possibly never will – it is something new that I will have to learn to process and I don’t want anger and hatred to surface as I learn to process things.
And then there’s September ... Samuel picked up a conker this morning and I struggled to share his excitement.  They will forever be a seasonal reminder that we are drawing closer to the anniversary of Emilie’s death.  Her death came at such a significant time in the year – that change of season from the heat of summer to the beauty of Autumn and then my grief led me into the barrenness of winter where I genuinely hibernated with the warmth of the air until spring came round again.  And as I enter this new wave of grief I feel myself ready to hibernate again whilst I process everything that has happened.
Hopefully with the promised change of season from winter to spring that seems so far away at present, I will enter a place of forgiveness and acceptance and will be able to move forward.  For now, after days of agonising and wrestling with guilt, grief and anger, I need to be able to be with my immediate family as John returns from South Korea and make choices and decisions that are best for us.  I need to be ‘ok with not being ok’ about this particular situation and that is something that is not easy for me.
But who ever said that grief was easy ...?

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

On Loss ... and Gain

As I’d spoken about in a previous post I have recently become a student again and am retraining as a Psychotherapist.  It still feels a little bit unreal and very BIG but so far I’m enjoying it.  I’m just nearing the end of my first year which, incidentally, has flown by.  Every so often I’ll be reminded why I decided to embark on a career change and the weekend’s training that has just passed has been no exception as we were learning about grief, loss and bereavement.

Prior to the day itself I found myself fantasising about breaking down – about not being able to cope and my own grief overwhelming me.  In my fantasies I would run out of the room and leave the training centre realising that actually I’m not cut out to be a psychotherapist after all.  The familiar fear of failure leapt at me again.  I had no idea how I would respond.  I worried it could go two ways – I could experience the reaction mentioned above, descend into panic and find myself firmly back in the darkness of loss or I could breeze through the weekend not feeling anything, rising above it all and be able to leave saying ‘my grieving is done, I am restored’. 

Neither happened. 

I felt it.  Actually I felt everything and familiar feelings of loss and grief resurfaced throughout the day. It was tiring – but not exhausting in the way I had feared.  It was sad and if I was someone who cried I’m sure I’d have shed a tear ... but that’s something else that needs work!  But I really felt it ... and I knew at that moment, more than I’d known before, that I am making the right decision in this career change.  Those feelings; the grief, the loss, the fear, the devastation – they are all things that I am familiar with.  They help me to empathise with people in different situations and, I hope, have helped me to develop a sense of openness and integrity that I will eventually be able to use to help other people.

A question was posed to us this weekend; ‘can loss bring a gain; can it be transformative?’

I’ve spoken about this alot throughout this blog – about the transformation in my life since Emilie died.  Would I have chosen that path for myself?  Not a chance.  But it happened and we had to move forward.  We had to find the ‘new normal’, work out what that meant for us and discover how to carry on being parents when one of our children had died.  In my training notes I wrote the following:

“Moving forward in a new experience means leaving the old behind.  The old pattern is gone forever.  Every move forward means leaving something behind and each new stage means loss in another area.”

This got me thinking about the different losses we have experienced as a family – and I have experienced as an individual.  Even starting this training meant a loss in another area.  It meant that I would never return to teaching.  Adopting our daughter meant that we had to leave our dreams of fostering lots of children behind.  Each new stage means loss in another area.  I have reflected a lot on these different losses and am beginning to see real value in acknowledging them and giving them the importance that they deserve.

I am not a stranger to loss.  I have suffered years of infertility, miscarriages and the stillbirth of my daughter.  My adopted daughter has Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Autism which is a huge loss in itself.  She has defied expectations and is doing incredibly well yet seeing the other children in her class make progress and meet their milestones whilst she is left behind is hard.  There are simple losses like not being able to go to the cinema as a family to see the latest films as she would not cope with the crowds, the noise and the containment. Often, activities we have planned are cut short when she has had enough. 

There is loss surrounding Samuel and the relationship we’d hoped he’d have with Emilie, had she survived.  I feel this loss most when our daughter is struggling; when she lashes out and hits him or is unable to engage with him as she is overwhelmed and over-stimulated.  I see this loss so starkly in Sam as he takes himself off for some alone time or sobs when she has broken one of his possessions.  I long to be a ‘normal’ family – whatever that is.  And then I feel the joy of seeing them play together, of seeing how much he adores her and how much she idolises him.  And there is the gain.  They will never have a ‘normal’ relationship and the gap between them will widen as they both grow older and he develops ‘typically’ yet their relationship is incredibly special because of that.  When she is struggling and can’t make herself understood Sam knows what she wants and what she is trying to say.  We hope that he will be more accepting of people around him as he has learnt to be accepting of and to love his sister unconditionally.

Loss is huge. It can be as simple as the disappointment felt at losing an ebay auction; the sadness of missing an opportunity – or not getting what you expected.  It can be more complex; losing out on a house purchase – something we have recently experienced – or losing a pet.  Losses can be more impactful; losing your job, losing a friend, diagnosis with a serious illness or life - long condition, losing a parent, losing a spouse, losing a child.
All of these things will evoke feelings of grief and grief, as I have learnt, is frightening and all encompassing.  I am not an expert on grief but throughout this blog I have spoken about our own journey through grief and about what has helped – or hindered us.  However, the prevailing truth in our own journey is that grief doesn’t go away.  It does not shrink; time does not heal it and you do not wake up one day to find it is gone.  There are times for me when my grief will be triggered; a smell, a sound, something that has been said, a memory, a photograph – and for a time I will be taken back to the weeks and months after Emilie’s death when nothing felt like it would ever be right again.  But my ability to deal with those triggers has improved and life carries on.

Loss is an inevitable part of life.  It affects us in one way or another every day; the loss of time being a huge example.  The task is not how we get over these losses, boxing them up neatly and moving on, but instead what we do with them.  How can we allow loss to bring a gain?  I had a picture in my mind this weekend of bulbs in their dormant stage as they die back in the autumn ready to emerge in the spring. I always feel a sense of sadness when the flowering bulbs in my garden die back and lose their beauty.  But the anticipation is always there.  I am certain that they will return the following spring – bringing life and beauty back into my garden.  The transformation for me this weekend was the reminder that ‘every move forward means leaving something else behind’.  We’ve had a difficult few weeks as a family but I hope believe that it is just a season.  As we leave this season behind I wait in hopeful anticipation for what is coming next.

To close I’ve borrowed an idea from Lois Tonkin ( ).  For me, this was both transformative and affirmative.  I will it do its own talking.