You don’t have to ‘get over’ your grief just because it’s Christmas

It’s no surprise that Christmas is a difficult time for the grieving. For us, the period begins with Abi’s birthday at the end of November, we then have the four weeks until Christmas and then New Year, followed not long afterwards by the anniversary of the time we lost her. Next February will be four years…

In the first two years, the stress was more to do with getting through the Christmas period without her…  the first birthday, the first Christmas without one of your children there is unbearable, there’s simply no other way to describe it.

But as our lives are gradually adapting to living with our loss, I have found that Christmas has changed. We are able to still ‘do it’ for our other children, and having them has helped us – my husband and I – retain some sense of seasonal spirit. But the whole period now brings back memories of Christmas past.

The thing with Christmas is that everything is repeated a million times – the same films on telly all month, the same songs on the radio and in the shops, the same routines and traditions of crackers and stockings and favourite foods.

But with all this repetition comes the frequent reminders of the last time we heard those songs with Abi, the last time we watched the films with her there with us, the foods she loved, the stocking that now stays empty. We have films on our Virgin Tivo Box saved from that last Christmas of 2012 that our other children love to watch. Every moment of every day is a reminder of that last Christmas, and not knowing what was going to happen just six weeks later. Then the anxiety resurfaces about what might lie in store for us… I can’t bear to think about it.

The hardest part has always been hiding our grief from our other children, and even each other. We have been open about our grief and our loss, but we don’t want to be seen crying on Christmas Day. We don’t want to cause upset and spoil things. We have to retreat to the bathroom or swallow it down. It hurts, and it drains us. There’s a huge element of putting a brave face on. 

We still keep Christmas intimate – it’s our family time and we tread through it carefully. We learned quickly that it wasn’t possible to pretend it’s all okay and not get stressed so we now keep things low key. I hear from many people who are struggling with the pressure to ‘get over it’, just for Christmas. But I know from experience that it actally makes you feel better if you stop pretending. Yes, crying and grieving and being upset isn’t nice. It’s not comfortable to do around others but it is what it is. Hiding it will only make it hurt more. 

For those of you who are struggling with ‘feeling the joy’ that others expect, read this fantastic blog post: Stop forcing yourself to be happy. The most common search on my blog is ‘how to cope with Christmas after my child’s death’, and my Christmas posts are the most-read at the moment. So, I hope this post reaches you, the mother or father who is awake in the early hours, your chest aching from crying, and your head throbbing with worry…

‘Your job is not to make everyone else feel good about themselves, especially if you’re currently mired in grief or reeling from tragedy or terrorized by the worst adversity you’ve ever experienced.

Rather, your job is much, much more important. Your job is to grieve. Remember, grieving isn’t this sort of passive act where you just wallow away. Grieving is active and intentional. Grieving requires that you show up and live while you wade through the shit you’re going through. It’s the process of standing up, day after day after day, especially when you don’t want to. If you find yourself in good spirits along the way, great. But that is not and should not ever be the goal.

There is nothing–and I mean nothing–wrong with you if you don’t feel happy or positive or singy-songy this time of year. You’re not inadequate for grieving. In fact, if anything you’d be less than human if you didn’t grieve your losses.’

I hope you find some comfort and peace in these words, and I’m sorry, truly, that you are going through this. x

 

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Guest post: Thoughts of loss and hope at Christmas

I was pacing the landing with my teething baby at 3am last night and all I could think of was you. As anyone who has been bereaved knows, the build up to Christmas is never easy. If you have children you try to retain the excitement, the magic, the wonder of Christmas. Yet behind the smiles, lies an anxiety, a dread, a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach that represents the gaping void left by loss. This Boxing Day marks 20 years since you were cruelly snatched from us that bitterly cold morning. Twenty years! The same length of time that you were married to my mum. I was 14, you were just 45. 

When you experience a traumatic bereavement, whether as a child losing a parent or a parent losing a child, your world is irreversibly changed. The wounds are deep and the scars only partially heal. I was reminded of this only three months ago when we experienced two close family bereavements and the scars were reopened. Old memories were reignited and the full force of raw emotion came crashing down once again. 

Yet there is also the possibility for reflection and growth, heightened empathy and compassion, and a greater understanding of the fragility and precious nature of life.

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Forgiveness Series: 4. Forgiving yourself

One of the hardest aspects of grief – as a grieving parent – is forgiving yourself.

Children die every day. And, for every child that has left this world, is a parent left wondering what they did wrong, how they could have prevented it, why they weren’t in their child’s place.

Abi’s death could not have been predicted nor prevented, yet still I wondered what I could have done to save her. If I’d have noticed sooner and taken her to hospital… had she had some injury in her past that may have caused her hemorrhage… or perhaps things I did or didn’t do in the pregnancy and birth affected her. Then there was the guilt of every single time I lost my temper with her, or punished her, or said no to her.

Even, as in my case, where there is very little scope for ‘blame’ or ‘regret’, guilt still found a place in my loss.

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Forgiveness Series: 3. The Fourfold Path of Forgiveness

In The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu offer a process called ‘The Fourfold Path’, which helps us to move from a position of anger and resentment to one of forgiveness and (inner and outer) peace.

This part makes up most of the book, but I have outlined the basic elements of the path below:

Telling the story – this is you talking, and talking, and talking, about what has happened – the shock, the pain, the fear, the details. Getting the story out, again and again can help you to process the events and move towards understanding and forgiveness.

It will also help you to ‘own’  the story. I owned the story of how Abi died by talking and writing about her death, in all it’s real and painful detail. Yes, it’s all devastating to hear or to read, but it’s also MY story and will forever be. Talk about your pain – whether that’s a traumatic death, a life-changing medical diagnosis, an offence or abuse – and own your story. Try to do this factually, without the addition of things you thought happened or were in the another person’s mind.

Exercise: Tell your story to your stone, whisper it or shout it, but hear your voice say the words to the person who you want to forgive. Explain why you feel the way you do, talk about how you want to move on from the resentment. Then, when ready, write your story down, the whole thing. Get it out and work through the key points. This will help you to see where the roots of the problem lie. You can always destroy or delete it afterwards. 

Naming the hurt – It is very important to name your hurt. When we bury our true feelings we only seem to suffer even more because of it. Marriages crumble under the weight of unspoken resentments and unacknowledged hurts. When we ignore the pain, it grows and spreads like a tumour that eventually drains us and affects all our relationships.

This happens a lot in grief. After a death, people stop talking about the deceased. No one wants to mention their name because it reminds everyone of the loss, so nothing is ever said, and this silence screams at those most deeply grieving. If you feel angry, admit that – to yourself and maybe others (the authors guide you through this). Put a name to your emotions and they won’t seem so scary and overwhelming.

Exercise:

  1. Hold your stone in your dominant hand. Name out loud a hurt you are feeling. As you name it, clench the stone.
  2. Open your hand. As you release your fist, release the hurt.
  3. Repeat this for each of your hurts.
  4. Write down all the things you have lost and name the feelings that accompany those losses. What does your heart tell you. What is the weight of your loss. Name it so you can heal it.

In my grief, I felt so many emotions. Sometimes they all came at once and led me to feel overwhelmed. Other times, I went through periods of anger, or depression, or anxiety. Recognizing these helped me immensely, and while I still have periods of these feelings, I now know that it is better for me to allow them to happen than to try to bury them because they are too painful.

Granting forgiveness – This is how we move from the position of victim to one of a hero – a hero being someone who takes their pain and uses it to do something awesome like forgive and love others. All of us are human and are all capable of love, hate, beauty, cruelty, indifference and goodness. It would be nice to think there are those who are perfectly good, but that’s just not the case.

It’s easy to say ‘I forgive you’, but incredibly hard to mean it. You’ll know when you do, because you’ll feel able to breathe deeply again, your shoulders will relax and yes, it will feel like a weight has lifted off your shoulders. What you may actually find is that you begin to grow through forgiveness – that spreads to all areas of your life – your past, your relationships, even the person who cuts you up on the motorway…

Exercise:
1. Take your stone and wash it. You have spoken to it, clenched it and now you will cleanse it.
2. Get a bowl of water and dip the stone in three times. Each time you dip the stone in say ‘I forgive you.’
3. Write down what you have lost by not being able to forgive. Write about the person who has harmed you – why do you think they have done what they did? Now write how this experience has made you stronger. Has it helped you grow and show empathy for others? Write your story again, but not as the victim, as the hero. How did you deal with the situation and how will you prevent such harm happening to others?

For a long time after my loss, I felt like the perpetrator in a battle of resentment and anger. Why wasn’t I being forgiving? Why didn’t I forget? Why wasn’t I moving on? This only led me to clam up even more. It became a vicious cycle. I knew that in order to break this cycle I had to open my heart to forgive. Not to ‘make up’ or ‘tolerate’ but to truly forgive. It wasn’t easy, but it did transform my life and my grief.

Renewing or Releasing the Relationship – Having worked through your path to forgiveness, you’re left with a ‘what next?’ You can now decide what will happen to your relationship with the person you have forgiven. You can renew the relationship, using your forgiveness to create a new connection. Or, you can release the relationship, putting the person and the emotions related to them behind you. It is possible to release a relationship and forgive. Forgiveness is not about putting yourself in another vulnerable position. In cases where the perpetrator isn’t asking for your forgiveness or is no longer alive there isn’t a relationship to have. It can take a long while to get to this stage of the process, but when you do it will be immensely beneficial for you and your peace of mind and heart.

Exercise:

  1. Decide whether you want to renew your stone as a thing of beauty (paint it or place it somewhere), or to release it back to nature.
  2. Write down if it was possible to make something beautiful out of what you had. Was it difficult to do this. What did you learn about renewing and releasing?

The final post about forgiveness looks at forgiving yourself.

 

Forgiveness Series: 2. The forgiveness myths

In my first post about forgiveness, I outlined the impact resentment can have on our physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

In the second chapter of The Book of Forgiving, Desmond & Mpho Tutu explain what forgiveness is not. This might seem odd, but there are many things we assume about forgiveness that only add further barriers to our ability to forgive.

Forgiveness is not weakness
We greatly admire people who are forgiving, who seem to move on from their hurt or ‘cope with their loss’. We don’t think they are weak, far from it; we tell them how strong they are, yet somehow, if we forgive, it can feel as though we are giving in, being weak. Forgiveness requires immense strength, but it also offers complete freedom.

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Forgiveness Series: 1. Why forgive?

Grief is a complicated emotion. In the early days, life’s trivialities pale into insignificance. Little disagreements or annoyances fade away as you are thrown into the stark reality that life is precious. Arguing about whose turn it is to put the bins out seems petty and pointless, which of course it is.

However, over time, grief can breed resentment and anger as you try to find your place in this world without your child and try to understand other people’s emotions. You’ve changed, they’ve changed, everything you ever knew has changed.

These feelings are always natural, as I described in my post about the Whirlpool of Grief. However, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle of anger. Once you focus on those feelings, it is hard to move on from them. This leaves you feeling bitter, lonely and hopeless, and others feeling unable to help you or understand you.

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What being a mum of 5 has taught me about having babies

I know I say it a lot, but I have given birth to five babies. That’s quite a few! I often wonder how on earth my body grew and birthed these little humans! Knowing all too well how hard it is to get pregnant and the worries for nine months until the baby is safely in my arms, having five children is really something I celebrate every day, even though being a mum is exhausting and has made my tummy very wobbly!

I hear lots of new parents worrying about some of the main aspects of pregnancy and parenting – that is the birth, feeding and sleep. So, I considered what I did with each of my children and how it has affected them as they have grown up.
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I’m weaning my baby, see you in six months! 

So I’ve made it to the six-month mark. Hooray!

As much as I love newborns (I’ve been blessed to have five after all), I find it exhausting, especially with a toddler too. I know that six months is a key stage when weaning can get more established, the baby might sleep longer at night and is generally more sociable (i.e., I can give her to someone else for more than an hour!). It might sound harsh, but as much as I love my bambinos, being a parent on call 24/7 is the hardest job there is.

Weaning means I can get out a bit more…. oh, hold on, I’ve just remembered, no, it doesn’t!

You spend the first six months with your new baby pretty much at home or only visiting a few places due to fitting around feeds and sleeps, feeling generally knackered and drowning in nappy changes and washing, and frankly, CBA (can’t be arsed) to organize yourself to go further than the local shop…

…to gallop into the second half of the first year to find yourself spending it pretty much in your kitchen. Suddenly, the thought of breastfeeding on the sofa watching daytime telly because you’re pinned under a cranky baby seems appealing. You realise that all the progress you’ve made is swapping one room of your house for another.

When my husband comes home from work and asks me in a jolly ‘I’ve-been-out-all-day talking-to-adults-and-drinking-hot-tea-in-peace’ voice what I got up to today, I look at him ‘adoringly’ with bits of apple puree in my hair, milky dribbles on my shoulder and a cranky baby on my hip whilst stirring a pot of random homemade sauce on the hob and say ‘not much’.

The feeling of being unproductive is pretty dire for me, as I like to feel I’ve achieved something. When I look back and realise that all I’ve done is feed, change and wipe up all day, it’s not really much to shout about. Yes, there are fantastic moments scattered throughout all that, I have brilliant quality time with them, but I can’t help feeling that most days I’m a robot doing the same thing from breakfast till bedtime.

Let me explain the average day. By the time the baby has had breakfast and been changed, the toddler wants changing. Then I need to get dressed and have my own breakfast and clear away the breakfast things that the others left behind. Then the baby needs her mid-morning bottle, and she wants a nap. Then the toddler wants lunch. Then the baby wakes up and wants her lunch. Then they both need changing again. We have about an hour or so before she wants another bottle and, oh look, it’s 3pm; Joe will be home in a minute and I have to collect Jen from school. We go outside, briefly, in the car to collect her. Then whip up a culinary masterpiece that they all will love quickly make a meal that they are guaranteed to moan about, and give the baby and toddler a snack. I change them both, then it’s 5pm and the joys of getting the meal on the table.

Winter makes this much worse as it’s a case of how many layers can you put on a wriggly baby and toddler before dragging them out into the cold? I find myself saying ‘Oh it looks like it might rain’ so often I swear they will become phobic of all weathers that aren’t mild and sunny (though not too sunny as that’ll involve Factor 500 suncream and hats and gallons of water).

Admittedly, it’s easier to feed older babies on the go these days with ready-made milk and food pouches, but it’s the physcial time it takes to get out. By the time I’m ready to go out someone is hungry or needs changing. I promise myself every day that ‘tomorrow’ I’ll get up at 6am and be super organized, but it never happens.

Just like after the birth, I know this will get a lot easier as they get older, but for now, the children don’t care so I might as well hibernate till spring!

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I can’t let go of my children’s toys!

We’ve been having a bit of a clear out, which we need to do fairly frequently with six of us in the house. Our boys’ bedroom had become very cluttered with toys, clothes, books and teddies. We tidied it up but decided that as the large buckets of teddies weren’t played with much at all that we’d get rid of them.

Ha, well it didn’t quite work out that way. These were toys we’ve become so used to seeing and picking up that we’d stopped appreciating them. But as we were putting them into bin bags for the charity shop, we were sighing sentimentally over almost every one of them.

My husband was being more assertive about it but I suggested we put them aside so I could go through them again. So they were put into the baby’s bedroom to be ‘sorted’ later (aka taking the clutter from one room to another).

Then we decided to store them in the loft for ‘another time’, only I didn’t want to do that as they might get damp or ruined, and I didn’t like to think of them all abandoned up there (can’t you tell I’ve been subjected to Toy Story on loop this past month!).

So, a few weeks later, I sorted them out yet again! I found an old drawer under the cot and decided to put them all in there. After all Naomi might want to play with them look at them briefly one day! I did manage to make a bag of stuffed toys for charity, but I kept most of the ones we were originally going to put away or donate!

20161130_202240.jpgWhat’s wrong with me. They are just toys!

But are they?

There are a number that we’ve had since before we were married 17 years ago. (Mr Happy and Mr Bump my husband, then boyfriend, bought me. Dastardly and Mutley were picked up during one of many leisurely shopping trips.)

wp-1480537659107.jpgThere are some that belonged to Abi, that I can remember her choosing, holding and us buying (lots of YooHoos, Moshi Monsters and a Puffle).

There are Beany Babies toys that we bought from the regular stall at the annual village fair. Nintendo toys and lovely soft Keel pets.

There are toys that remind me of places we’ve been as a family (Pidgey Pidge the pigeon from our last London trip in 2012 for example).

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All toys that brought memories to mind.

I can’t even store them away. I want them to be accessible even though I could use the space for other things.

The children don’t look at these anymore. Jake, our toddler, might play with a couple (ie, empty the draw all over the floor and then abandon the game for another area of destruction!). They occasionally take one to bed, but really, who plays with all these stuffed toys anyway? They are such lovely things to buy but once you’ve got them home they just become part of the clutter.

What makes it worse is that I was never a cuddly teddy or even a dolly kind of child, it seemed babyish to me. My Barbie had a professional career in the City (and also a beautiful ballgown in case the career didn’t work out and she needed a Prince Charming!). Though you wouldn’t think that now if you saw what has become my secret stash!

As I found myself unable to part with many of them, I had to accept that it’s my relationship with these toys, and the memories they give me, that is what is stopping me getting rid of them. What does it matter, they’ve been with us this long, they might as well stop a while longer!

Tell me I’m not alone in this hoarding of kids’ stuff. Do you have any of your children’s toys you can’t bear to part with?