The Woman in the Coffee Shop

The Woman in the Coffee Shop

Recently I went to a Coffee Shop with some friends. On entering I noticed a woman that I had known in a work context several years ago, but hadn’t come into contact with in the past four years, since Leah became ill and died. I initially wondered if she would remember me, but then my attention was drawn to the yummy looking buns in the Display Counter.

As I was paying for my hot chocolate this woman approached me and greeted me warmly. I asked her about her daughter, amazed that her ‘wee girl’ is now at university. She then proceeded to ask me about my husband and each of my children. I started to feel a little nervous as I inwardly thought ‘Surely she must know about Leah.

Then, after she had enquired about my living children, she reached out and grasped my hand and quietly said, with a voice filled with compassion. “I’m so sorry for the loss of your daughter, I’m so sorry for everything that you’ve all been through.” Tears stung my eyes as I thanked her. We talked a bit about work and then within minutes we had gone our separate ways.

I joined my friends at a nearby table. We chatted and caught up with each other’s lives just as we had gone there to do. To the best of my knowledge they were oblivious to what had just taken place, which is as it should be – my friends don’t need to ‘eat, breathe and sleep’ my grief. Those friends have been there for me when I have needed them to be and hopefully I am there for them in their times of need too – friendships should be a two-way street.

However, those few moments with someone I hadn’t been in contact with in over four years were so very precious. She didn’t remind me of my loss, because I never for one minute forget that I am the mother of four children, one of whom is no longer here. Nor did she ‘make me cry’ as some have apologised for doing, my tears are always there just below the surface. In those few moments she held space for my grief, and she acknowledged each of my children. Her ability to make an emotional connection with me and to empathise with my situation was just what I needed at that particular time.

Those who know me well know that I’m a big fan of Brené Brown. Brené explains empathy and the concept of ‘holding space’ for someone better than I ever could:

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Children’s Grief Awareness Week

Children’s Grief Awareness Week

Children's Awareness Week UK

Today is Children’s Grief Awareness Day, a global day designed to help us all become more aware of the needs of grieving children — and of the benefits they obtain through the support of others.

It is also the start of Children’s Grief Awareness Week (19th – 25th November 2015) here in the UK.

Children’s Grief Awareness Week 2015 is an initiative launched by the Childhood Bereavement Network, the UK body for support groups in the grief and bereavement sector, and Grief Encounter, one of the UK’s leading bereavement charities.

The theme this year is

‘SUPPORTING PARENTS AND CARERS, SUPPORTING GRIEVING CHILDREN’

The aim is to bring home the message that the first line of support for grieving children is those closest to them, and that we all have a part to play in supporting parents and carers in their vital role.

Key messages from the Childhood Bereavement Network:

  • 1 in 29 school age children in the UK have been bereaved of a parent or sibling. It is estimated that 24,000 parents die each year leaving dependent children.
  • After the death of someone close, children need support in their grief, nurture, and continuity, helping them weave together the threads of their past and their future. The care they get from those close to them is one of the biggest factors affecting how they learn to live with the loss.
  • It can be a daily struggle for parents and carers to support their children when they are grieving themselves.
  • Advice from parents and carers who have been through this include ‘trust your instincts’ and ‘don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it’
  • Parents shouldn’t have to cope alone. Family, friends, colleagues, schools and the government all have a part to play in supporting parents and carers to support their grieving children.
  • Specialist support services should be available in all local areas for all grieving children and their families that need them – wherever they live and however they have been bereaved – helping them realise they are not alone.

Oh how I wish that I could read the above statistics and information as an ‘outsider’ – merely as a curious onlooker.

Sadly not, as in January 2014 my children joined the ranks of the bereaved.

As a consequence of this bereavement I, a qualified mental health worker and a trained family support worker, struggled to function. Many days I could hardly get out of bed or get dressed. I struggled to complete the most basic of tasks. Not only was cooking even a simple meal beyond me, eating was also something that I found very difficult – I didn’t begin to experience physical hunger again until at least eight months after Leah died. Yet I had the responsibility of parenting children who were grieving and hurting very deeply.

I particularly like and really connect with Brené Brown’s Parenting Manifesto taken from her excellent book Daring Greatly, but there is one line in particular that has been hugely challenging for me:

“Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.”

I’m telling you now, that there is one thing worse than experiencing the constant pain that lodged in my heart after Leah died; it is looking into my ten year old daughter’s eyes and seeing the pain and confusion in her eyes and knowing that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I could do to make this better and take away her pain.

There even were times in the early days when I tried to avoid eye contact because it was too painful for me to witness her pain. Imagine what it must feel like to be ten years old and have your parent, on whom you depend for emotional security, struggle to make eye contact with you, especially when you have just lost a sister whom you loved more than life itself and your family life has changed beyond recognition?

This is the reality of childhood grief.

For some children it’s even worse than this. Many families have spoken to me of their experiences of coping (or not coping) after the death of a child or parent. I’ve heard some devastatingly sad stories.

Adults who lost a sibling when they were a child, have told me of how their parents ceased to function after the death of a child and how these adults are still coming to terms with the emotional fallout from this.

I’ve been told about children being sent away to stay with neighbours and relatives while the adults in the house grieved – these children now grown up are still struggling to process their childhood loss.

I’ve heard of families breaking down as grieving parents tried to numb the pain in all sorts of maladaptive ways including alcohol misuse. I know of one young girl who had to be placed in foster care after the death of her sibling because her grieving mother became unable to care for her. How devastating must that be?

We have been fortunate to have had excellent support from family and friends. Last year, when it was too painful for my youngest and I to do things on our own together, there were others who accompanied us on days out so that we could still do fun things together.

Friends and family have ministered to us every step of the way. Our school aged children have also received excellent emotional support at their respective schools. After Leah died our youngest daughter’s P6 Primary School class supported her in many ways. One of the most tangible of these was by gifting her with a beautiful customized Memory Box in which she can store precious items that remind her of her sister. It was a most appropriate and thoughtful gift.

Memory box

Since Leah died last year we as a family have received input from Youthlife, the N.I. Children’s Hospice, the N.I. Cancer Fund For Children, Action Cancer, North West Counselling and from a Family Support Hub. From talking to other parents in online forums, the impression I get is that the support that is available to bereaved families in the UK is very much a “postcode” lottery, with some families apparently receiving little or no support. It has also been my experience that there is no coordinated mapping of services which means that even the professionals involved with a family are often not aware of what sources of support may be available. Oftentimes, it’s been other parents or ‘word of mouth’  that’s pointed me in the right direction.

It’s a long and difficult road though, we haven’t ‘arrived’ by any means. I sometimes think that grief is like an onion – there’s always another layer underneath.

#ChildrensGriefAwareness

Crying onion

Parenting Teenagers

Parenting Teenagers

I know why our stay at Daisy Lodge was referred to as a ‘Therapeutic Break’ rather than just a holiday. The staff there go to such lengths to ensure that each family have a relaxing time. All our needs were catered for. The result was that all of our family were very relaxed and interacted happily with each other, in a way that sadly, doesn’t often happen at home.

Siblings

Our three children even posed happily for a photograph before we left. The last time that I recall Simon and his sisters willingly getting their photograph taken together was in 2011!

Unfortunately, the Daisy Lodge ‘spell’ wore off soon after we returned home: our youngest two have retreated to their caves (bedrooms).They only emerge when their need for food supercedes their fixation with their electronic devices.

Communication is once again monosyllabic most of the time.

The exception to this being our eldest daughter. At 21 she has emerged from adolescence and she dazzles me with her wit and wisdom, along with her many other qualities.

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She lives away from home, is financially independent and works part time to support herself while studying for a university degree.

During one of Rachel’s recent visits home, my youngest daughter was being especially perverse and was pushing all my buttons. I was getting more and more frustrated. When my youngest had left the room, my eldest daughter turned to me and said “Don’t worry Mum, I used to be just like her and look how well I turned out.”

I replied “Rachel, I can assure you that very thought is the only thing that keeps me from signing myself into a home for the mentally bewildered.”

This week I was scheduled to take my youngest daughter school uniform shopping. She will be starting at Limavady High School on the 1st September, the same excellent school that her three older siblings attended.

I certainly wasn’t looking forward to this task. Last year it was just awful, I cried the whole time. This past weekend while sorting through bags of old school uniforms to take them to the Charity Shop I cried my eyes out while removing Leah’s name from her old uniforms.

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Happily for us, Rachel my eldest, offered to help us with the school uniform shopping. She gave up her two days off work to drive the 140 mile round trip home for this purpose.

Rachel read through the uniform list issued by the school, drew up a shopping list and off we headed to Coleraine to the shop where we always buy our school uniforms.

Not a tear was shed, only chitter and chatter and even some laughter.

So for any parents reading this who are in the trenches with uncooperative teenagers and feeling battle weary, I say to you:

Keep loving your teenager.

Keep hugging them.

Keep the lines of communication open.

Make sure they know that no matter what, you will always be there for them.

Let them know that home is where they will always be loved and will always belong.

Then some day, like me, you will discover that your uncooperative teenager has emerged from the “stormin’ hormones” and it’s all been worth it!

I recently discovered Brené Brown’s Parenting Manifesto, excerpted from her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

I think that Brené has so much compassion and wisdom.

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The Mask

The Mask

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Why do I blog?

Many reasons really!

I woke up at 4.15am this morning with a “vulnerability hangover” and wondered “Why did I tell everybody about going to the Cemetery last night?”

I imagined what people would think as they read it.

I knew that other bereaved parents would probably understand, but what about everybody else?

Well, I imagined that some people might think that if I really trusted God then I wouldn’t be so distressed and preoccupied with grieving. Maybe they would think that I was wallowing in self pity and just attention seeking.

I worried that some might resemble Job’s wife in the Bible story and would react with the attitude “Why doesn’t she just curse God?Job 2:9

Then at 7am this morning I received a private message from someone who goes to the same church as me. She says that reading my blog is the only thing keeping her sane. Receiving that message was both humbling and encouraging.

I feel at times like a drowning person clutching a piece of driftwood to stay afloat.

If my blog can help another person to also find a piece of driftwood to keep them afloat, then I will have achieved something.

If my blog alerts people to the possibility that the smiling person sitting beside them in church, or sharing an office with them at work, is really feeling quite broken on the inside, then I will have achieved something.

It concerns me that so many people feel that they have to wear a mask. Lots of people share with me in confidence how they are really feeling, but then tell me that they feel compelled to wear a mask in front of everyone else.

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They are scared of letting other people know how weak and vulnerable they really feel at times.

Why do we spend so much of our lives pretending and hiding behind our masks?

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I did my nursing training in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda in the 80’s.

I remember Sr Bosco handing us out copies of a poem about masks.

I was so intrigued by it that I copied it into my journal at the time. I read and reread it many times, it fascinated me.

That was over thirty years ago.

Has society changed any in all of that time, in terms of our acceptance of each other, in terms of our willingness to know and be known?

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This is the poem that Sr. Bosco gave to us:

Please Hear What I’m Not Saying

Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear for I wear a mask,
a thousand masks,
masks that I’m afraid to take off,
and none of them is me.

Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me,
but don’t be fooled, for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
I give you the impression that I’m secure,
that all is sunny and unruffled with me,
within as well as without,
that confidence is my name and coolness my game,
that the water’s calm and I’m in command and that I need no one,
but don’t believe me.
My surface may seem smooth but my surface is my mask,
ever-varying and ever-concealing.
Beneath lies no complacency.
Beneath lies confusion, and fear, and aloneness.
But I hide this.
I don’t want anybody to know it.
I panic at the thought of my weakness exposed.
That’s why I frantically create a mask to hide behind,
a nonchalant sophisticated facade,
to help me pretend,
to shield me from the glance that knows.

But such a glance is precisely my salvation,
my only hope, and I know it.
That is, if it’s followed by acceptance,
if it’s followed by love.
It’s the only thing that can liberate me from myself,
from my own self-built prison walls,
from the barriers I so painstakingly erect.
It’s the only thing that will assure me of what I can’t assure myself,
that I’m really worth something.
But I don’t tell you this.
I don’t dare to, I’m afraid to.
I’m afraid your glance will not be followed by acceptance,
will not be followed by love.
I’m afraid you’ll think less of me,
that you’ll laugh, and your laugh would kill me.
I’m afraid that deep-down I’m nothing
and that you will see this and reject me.

So I play my game, my desperate pretending game,
with a facade of assurance without and a trembling child within.
So begins the glittering but empty parade of masks,
and my life becomes a front.
I tell you everything that’s really nothing,
and nothing of what’s really everything,
of what’s crying within me.
So when I’m going through my routine
do not be fooled by what I’m saying.
Please listen carefully and try to hear what I’m not saying,
what I’d like to be able to say,
what for survival I need to say,
but what I can’t say.

I don’t like hiding.
I don’t like playing superficial phony games.
I want to stop playing them.
I want to be genuine and spontaneous and me
but you’ve got to help me.
You’ve got to hold out your hand
even when that’s the last thing I seem to want.
Only you can wipe away from my eyes
the blank stare of the breathing dead.
Only you can call me into aliveness.
Each time you’re kind, and gentle, and encouraging,
each time you try to understand because you really care,
my heart begins to grow wings–
very small wings,
very feeble wings,
but wings!

With your power to touch me into feeling
you can breathe life into me.
I want you to know that.
I want you to know how important you are to me,
how you can be a creator–an honest-to-God creator–
of the person that is me if you choose to.
You alone can break down the wall behind which I tremble,
you alone can remove my mask,
you alone can release me from my shadow-world of panic,
from my lonely prison,
if you choose to.

Please choose to.

Do not pass me by.

Please do not pass me by.

It will not be easy for you.

A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls.

The nearer you approach to me the blinder I may strike back.
It’s irrational, but despite what the books say about man
often I am irrational.
I fight against the very thing I cry out for.
But I am told that love is stronger than strong walls
and in this lies my hope.
Please try to beat down those walls
with firm hands but with gentle hands
for a child is very sensitive.

Who am I, you may wonder?
I am someone you know very well.
For I am every man you meet
and I am every woman you meet.

~ Charles C. Finn, September 1966

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And men too!