5 ways to do self-care when you’re grieving

Self-care is a power hashtag. Women of all ages and stages of life, in particular, are proclaiming the importance of making time for themselves amidst the busyness of life. Self-care encompasses anything that helps us unwind or makes us feel good, even for a moment, from little things such as sipping a hot cup of coffee and reading a book to spa weekends and aerobic workouts. The point is to not forget about you while you’re busy spinning numerous plates, and particularly when life is going wrong or is throwing up more challenges than usual. Taking a moment to care for ourselves is one way to help us find hope and restoration when we are up against it.

Instagram is one place that people share the ‘self-care’ moments. A quick search calls up nearly 500,000 posts, the majority of which are are exercise, beauty or food related. It can be easy to compare how we ‘invest in ourselves’. The gorgeous picture of a beautifully designed latte froth or candles by the bath can all feel a little unrealistic, and also that having this moment somehow makes everything okay, the audience are reassured, we’ve admitted a struggle but don’t worry it’s not too messy…

But we all know that Instagram gives only one view. In fact, one of the simplest forms of self-care is to switch off your devices and avoid the temptation to compare altogether.

Self-care is not just a nice thing to do, it’s not just a nice photo, it’s an essential part of survival. Taking time for yourself will lift a mood, improve self-esteem and dilute stress to name a few benefits. I find it makes me calmer, less irritable and clears my mind.

Being kind to yourself when you are grieving

Because grief is so personal, how you find your peace is also different for each person. In the early stages of grief, people want you to feel better. Good friends will support you with food, company, or practical tasks to ease the pressure. In my grief, I didn’t know what I needed and felt guilty for any act of self-care. When you’re grieving, self-care in the traditional sense is very hard to do. I had been a busy working mum who made time for regular exercise, reading books and lunches with friends, but found I couldn’t do any of these. It was another layer of grief to lose my ‘self’ too.

It was two years before I could do anything remotely relaxing. I tried a gentle exercise class with meditation but my anxiety went through the roof as I lay there feeling my heartbeat slowing. As the group were guided into peace and relaxation, I felt a panic attack developing. Suddenly I was being transported to Abi’s hospital bed and experiencing how it must have felt for her to die. I was forced to close my eyes yet I felt tears coming. Meditation was like dying to me. Despite being fit, exercise had a similar effect and triggered panic attacks, so I avoided anything that raised my heart rate.

I finally went for a facial, but again, I had to fight the urge to run. It’s crazy as it seems such an innocent, ‘lovely’ thing to do. I wanted to talk about trivial stuff as she applied the lotions, to help distract my mind from the expectation of relaxing, but the therapist insisted on turning the lights down and being as quiet as possible (which would be great normally but not when that reminded me of a dimly-lit intensive care ward).

I couldn’t read a book for years after Abi died. I read, oh yes, I read a lot, but it was all about grief, death, therapy related. I read a lot about faith as I sought answers to my questions. There was no head room for escapism in popular fiction.

In those early years, I had to find a way to care for myself without the painful reminders and anxieties. It wasn’t easy. I had to think outside the box. Here are five ways I found time for myself:

Journalling – It’s no surprise that writing became my main way of relaxing. I mixed it up between blogging on the computer and writing in journals. Writing using ink and paper is actually very therapeutic as it works on different parts of your brain, enabling you to process and release emotion. It was this that inspired my grief journal. I always feel calmer after a writing session.

Walking – Being outside getting fresh air is a popular stress reliever. In my grief haze, I’d look intently at the details of everything: the patterns on the pavement, the shapes of the trees, the clouds and skies. Walking allowed my mind to wander and helped me process my thoughts. However, on difficult days the walks needed to be somewhere different, so I could be anonymous, as the fear and stress of having conversations with people I’d bump into was too much.

Resting – Not wanting to see anyone is a common aspect of grief. Just having a space at home to be peaceful but without going out was helpful. My bedroom often is a place I like to lie down in the day, as I can look out of the window, watch the birds and clouds, rest and reflect. With a busy home, finding solitude is near impossible but I grabbed moments when I could.

Showering – Baths are nice but often too much hassle with a busy family, and again they gave me too much time to think, but showers I have found to be therapeutic. There’s something about the water pouring over you and down that washes you clean yet cloaks you in warmth and comfort. It’s a safe, quiet place to cry and pray.

Photography – Being behind the lens gives me a fresh perspective on what I’m seeing. By focusing on the detail of a moment, I can almost step inside it, and forget the overwhelm and fog around me. This is why Instagram is my preferred social media app, as it’s a way of sharing images without the information overload of the other networks.

These self-care moments helped walk me through the bad and not so bad days. Exercise, facials, meditation, could all wait until I was ready. Four years after Abi died I started to read fiction again. Five years on and I felt able to exercise. I have enjoyed a massage at a spa. My creative mind has returned and I have written books, and been able to genuinely enjoy crafts I once loved such as knitting and baking.

It may sound like I’ve returned to myself and that I’ve recovered the person that I lost, but that’s not entirely true. I still struggle and have wobbles. I still use food as a comforter. I have some dark periods where everything feels hopeless, but knowing ways I can help myself, gently, without guilt or fear, goes a long way to getting me through them.

What about you? What are the ways you look after yourself through difficult times?

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Biblical breadcrumbs, books and bereavement

 

On Sunday I attended my church’s All Souls service, which is held to remember those we have loved and lost. I have been to this ever since we lost Abi. The vicar’s sermon focused on this passage. What he said resounded with me so much that I had to replicate it here for you to read.

OK, so Jesus is out and about doing his amazing stuff, healing, miracles, powerful words… and the prophet and Jesus’ relative, John the Baptist, is locked up thanks to bad King Herod. John the Baptist was a special guy. He was sent by God to prepare people for the arrival of Jesus. He was a bit rough and ready, shouting at folk and eating grubs, someone we may all think was a bit of an oddball. Herod was intrigued by him, yet scared of the reaction he was causing so he locked him up. The only problem was Herod’s wife, she hated John and tricked Herod into executing him.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14: 6-12)

So, Jesus has just had the sad news that John has been killed, and it is not what he says but what he does that is so remarkable.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14: 13-20)

He withdraws. This all-powerful son of God, the one who people looked to for help spiritually and physically, the one who had all the answers, who was so confident in his faith and understanding of the human race, retreated. He was bereaved. He needed to be alone, to grieve, to contemplate and process what had happened.

Yet, people didn’t care about this, they just wanted Jesus to look after them. They needed fixing, healing, ministering to. They needed him to serve and guide them as he had been. Can you imagine in your grief, crowds of people following you, asking for your time and energy?

Yet, despite his grief, Jesus saw the crowds and went to them. He didn’t say ‘Can I just have a few days off, please,’, or ‘Go away! I’m grieving my friend here can’t you think about anyone but yourselves, you insensitive bunch!’ Did he turn away from them and close his eyes? Did he sit, depressed and numb to their cries for help? Nope, he saw them. He felt compassion for them and began to heal them. He went straight back to his work, not for any other reason than love.

And he didn’t just whip round a few to get some healing done to get them off his back for a bit. Nope, he then performed another miracle by feeding every single one of them. He fed them all, with five loaves of bread and two fishes. There was even some left over.

He could easily have said, right John is dead, I’m giving up on this, I’m fighting a losing battle, what’s the point anymore. But he used his bereavement and ministered to thousands of people, filling them physically and spiritually. John’s death was not in vain. Jesus was not giving up that easily. The message of God’s love would bless others despite this tragedy.

Sat in the service, I thought of the books I’m writing. I considered the ways my own grief may have ‘blessed others’ – the organ donation, the fundraising for Bristol Children’s Hospital, the appreciation and forgiveness of others, the blog writing, and now the books: the children’s book, grief journal and a memoir.

I didn’t plan any of these things, they all sort of happened out of the needs of others – Abi was dying but other lives could be changed from her organs, people wanted to give money in Abi’s memory so the fundraising happened, I heard from people who had been bereaved so the blog writing developed, and by listening to what would help others the ideas for the books came about.

The books, I hope, will be like Jesus’s bread – using one story – the story of our loss – to help many others.

 

 

Would you like to donate to help me publish a children’s book about dying?
Just £1 will make a big difference to help me get the book out there to comfort children like ours who have been bereaved.

For more information click the JustGiving logo below:

 

My teenager is growing up, and I’m the one who’s crying

My second daughter, Abi’s sister, is growing up.

OK, that’s not surprising and I should be thankful, she has now surpassed Abi’s age by three years. Yet, now, aged 15, I see this young woman transformed before me. The same height as me, the same determined look in her eye, the same belief that she is right…

She shouts at me to stop ‘staring’ yet I find myself unconsciously gazing in wonder at her beauty and maturity.

All of a sudden.

I’m told (by text) I don’t need to collect her from school, she’s off to town with her friends. Having spent so long trying to establish friendships with new people who don’t know her history, I know how important this is to her.

Yet I’m sad. I’m unprepared.

Her meal is kept warm in the oven, waiting for her to return. She’s straight up to her room after eating alone and happily snuggled in bed chatting online and listening to music with headphones in. She doesn’t see me, or hear me.

I hover outside the now-always-closed bedroom door, finding an excuse to drop by with an harmful of clean laundry. She now tells me to leave it outside.

Of course, I’m busy enough with my other three children not to be completely overwhelmed by this new situation, or so I thought. I have plenty of things to keep me occupied, yet she isn’t one of those things anymore. Only my mind is left to wonder about what she’s doing, if she’s okay, if she still needs me, if there’s anything I can do…

She yells and complains and demands sure enough, but this was once punctuated by funny chats, advice, foot rubs and bedtime reading… the hours of sitting with her at night, now she goes to bed without so much as a ‘goodnight’.

I complained so much about the demands on my energy from her, the neediness, the physical and emotional strain of trying to show love and normality when our world was upside down. She blocked out the pain of grief all too easily, a normal reaction to a then 10-year-old mind. We soldiered on, but we were together.

We spent hours travelling and attending therapy and other appointments to help smoothen this transition to grief. School appointments, GPs, counsellors, therapists… all to get her to this point of what… normality. So, it was worth it, in the main.

This isn’t about wishing she was Abi. This isn’t about making her live Abi’s life. Yes, my nest is busy, I’ll rarely be alone thank God. But this particular darling girl is one of the few connections on earth I have to Abi. They were so close in age and shared so much, just 22 months apart. The memories of Abi all include her, memories she appears to have forgotten, and as she pushes me away it feels scary to know that in a way I’m losing her too.

I suppose this is what ’empty nest’ syndrome feels like. The transition from child, to young adult, to me letting go. With every argument, I am afraid of losing her. She’s of an age now where should could go, sleep at her friends, get away from the memories, let loose and be free of us. How do you be firm when you are so scared of what that will do?

I never dreamed I’d be like this. I’m fiercely independent myself! I left home at 18 with a pay packet and a sure sense that I would be happier living alone. I don’t consider myself to be motherly, needy or coddley. I just love, deeply. Being cut off, because what I say is wrong, uncool, unhelpful, overprotective or challenging, hurts more than I could ever know. I try to say the right thing, on her level, but always seem to get it wrong.

The other day she shocked me with her words. ‘You’re just jealous, Mum. Jealous!’ I wasn’t expecting that. But when I’d had time to reflect I realised she was right, this clever girl of mine. I am jealous. I envy the fact she is more interested in the people in her phone than me. That she wants to spend more time with her friends than me. I’m jealous that she is spreading her wings, and isn’t interested in this ‘dull’ 41-year-old woman.

Yet, I love how she’s growing and changing and seeing her finally bloom. She’s quite late to the party, but she’s picking up speed so quickly and I suppose it’s that which is the shock for me. Yes, there’s the teenage angst, the ‘not fairs’, the miscommunication but I’m so proud of her my heart could burst.

We are so similar and sparks fly, but I live in hope that we will get through these years with her knowing that I love her, and grow older and closer so that, one day, she will be able to sit with me and talk about Abi.

 

Would you like to donate to help me publish a children’s book about dying?
Just £1 will make a big difference to help me get the book out there to comfort children like ours who have been bereaved.

For more information click the JustGiving logo below:

Sick with grief

No one ever told me that my grief would make me feel so ill.

As they broke the news to us that Abi was going to die, I thought of only her, then our family… and everything about how we’d live without her.

I was prepared – and expected – to feel depressed, but the physical symptoms that gradually took hold were more of a shock.

I shared this link about how grief affects us physically on my Facebook page, and wasn’t too surprised to find many of you have felt similar symptoms – some debilitating, some mild, but all as a result of the grief. These symptoms, however, are mostly during the early weeks and months after the loss. I didn’t really notice anything until about a year after and they got worse…

I developed a weird thing with my heart – in that I have noticeable ectopic beats and a type of tachycardia that causes palpitations. (Part of me thinks I am so aware of my body now that I’m conscious of my heartbeats, I probably wouldn’t have  noticed this a few years ago.) It’s not bad enough to have me on medication, but it is bad enough to make me anxious to the point where I’ve been scared to go out or be alone. It has greatly improved now I’ve lost some weight, am more active and eating better, and I think was made worse by the pregnancies, but while I’m now able to function again, I’m nervous (make that terrified) about exercising. I’m scared that raising my heart rate will trigger palpations, and then a heart attack. It’s so bad that I almost have a panic attack just thinking about it. There are countless stories of people dropping dead when running or exercising, usually fit and healthy people, and this only adds to my worries and my excuses not to do anything. 

But I’m so tired of being scared. I’m so tired of saying to the children ‘be careful’, or of saying to myself ‘you’d better not’. Of living in fear. I ran half marathons and 10ks with relative ease before Abi died, I got such a buzz from being fit! But every one of my symptoms – however real they were (as they were genuine medical things, not ‘imagined’) – have been brought on by grief. 

It’s commonly believed in the medical profession that 90% of illness is caused by stress, and grief is just a form of stress. I didn’t take myself to the doctor at the slightest thing before Abi died. I didn’t worry about exercise or food. I didn’t worry that putting butter on my toast would kill me, or that if I ran I might keel over…  I miss that me, the me that worried about obvious stuff but didn’t let it stop me.
But I still have a bit of that old me left. The me that refuses to quit. The devil is telling me to stay down, God is telling me to get back up!

In January, I wrote this post about easing myself back into exercise, by going for gentle walks and getting outdoors more. Doing this, when I can and when my mind allows me, has been beneficial.

So I have taken the next step and started looking into exercise, raising my heart rate. I signed up for a local netball group but I was too scared to put pressure on myself, so I went out for a run. At least on a run if I wanted to stop and go home I could. After months of procrastination, talking myself out of it, crying, fear, anxiety, another bar of chocolate, I put my trainers on and went.

It felt good. I ran for 15 minutes and didn’t collapse or struggle. I went at a gentle pace but was surprised how good it felt to be back out and having that mental space while my body felt energized. It’s a far cry from the hours of running I was capable of before Abi died, but I have a new agenda now. To build up my confidence to enjoy exercise for what it is, not what it might do to me. We’re all going to die, so I may as well live!

I don’t know if I’ll do another run. I might, I don’t want to put this out there and feel I have to now commit to it, but it’s a start.

It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other.

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

 

The hypervigilant mumma – will I ever switch off?

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So we’ve been a bit ill again.

Jake’s been the worst hit this autumn. Normally a very healthy child, he’s had a chest infection, sickness and now another cold virus that has brought him out in itchy hives.

On Saturday, I was home alone with Jake and Naomi. Daddy and Joe were at the football, and Jen had gone to a friend’s house. I was making a good dent into clearing up, as we have moved Naomi into her own bedroom, and I then needed to change Jake. As I was doing so I noticed raised red spots all over his legs which he wanted to scratch. I was quite alarmed as it’s most unlike him and he’d been eating well all day.

I undressed him and found more of these strange red marks on his arms. Worried, I phoned 111 and within half an hour I was talking to the consultant on the phone. With Jake not having any worrying symptoms other than this itchy rash, she was happy that he didn’t need to be seen and said it was likely viral or a reaction to something he’d eaten. As he had had another cold, I put it down to that. It was what is called ‘nettle rash‘.

Thankfully my sister lives close by so she was able to pop out and get me some Piriton and Calamine lotion. And, once dosed up, the rash started to look less angry.

I phoned Daddy at the football game. While I didn’t want to disturb him, I knew that he’d want to know this had happened. He was understandably worried but I reassured him that I was keeping a close eye on Jake, who was watching all the telly and eating all the chocolate at this stage!

As I sat there, I considered the state of hypervigilance we are living in. With young children, it’s natural to be anxious – it’s how we survive, but our personal anxiety runs much deeper now. I am so close connected to them that I almost feel everything they do, trying to absorb their pain or unhappiness. We are ready to act in an instant, we never switch off and we are always on guard. That’s not including the times when they get ill, when it goes into overdrive! Sometimes I feel like I might collapse with anxiety.

It is exhausting – physically and mentally.

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Social media – the friend I hate to love

I was desperate for a break. What with a new baby, my hubby having a miserable time and facing a tonsillectomy, and changing my teen daughter’s school, the last few months have been a tad stressful to say the least. I’d booked us a week in Cornwall with my two sisters and their families about six months ago and I couldn’t wait.

The run up to a holiday is always stressful, sometimes I wonder why we bother as the sheer effort of packing a family of six seems too much. It was even harder this time with everything that’s been going on as well as end-of-school-year activities and work deadlines to get on top of…blahhh! I felt like I was drowning in things to do. My phone has been permanently in my hand as I use it to manage so much of my life, but I had begun to resent the way it also saps my attention.

I’m in demand from all corners. While each member of the family constantly need me in some physical or emotional capacity, I also have a home to run, clients making demands and bills to pay. I also have a whole other life’s worth of demands on social media making me feel compelled to comment on or like posts (even though I know I don’t have to). I know I’m all too guilty of letting this bad friend distract me from all the other crap that I should really be thinking about.

So, as well as getting to spend some quality time with my sisters and their husbands and children, I really looked forward to taking a break from the social media life, in fact the entire internet! Keeping up with my stresses as well as, it feels, the stresses of masses of friends and acquaintances has not been doing me any good at all.
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Grief, selfishness and ‘me time’

One thing I’ve noticed about grief is how selfish it makes one. Rightly so, of course, as grief is a personal pain that has to be endured by the individual – there’s nothing ‘giving’ about it. We cling to the memories, we absorb ourselves in the pain of our loss, we channel our energy into coping with how we are feeling – often to the detriment of others.

In many ways, for which I’m thankful, Abi’s death helped me to be less selfish as a person. I had pursued my career running my business, giving all my spare time to it (in truth, it was my escape from the strain and monotony of family life). I considered myself an independent soul within my marriage. I did what I wanted. I deserved the things I wanted. I was dissatisfied if things didn’t go my way. I worried that what I had wasn’t enough.

My priorities shifted completely when Abi died. I saw what was important, that living now was more important than waiting for the right time. That I needed to treasure what I had, not hanker after what I didn’t have. Despite the pain of Abi’s death, I am forever grateful she gave me that insight, because I realised that my life’s perspective had become totally skewed.

But, confusingly, while grief has helped me to appreciate them more and the material stuff less, it has also pushed me away from them, as I try to cope with loss and protect myself from more pain. And this is more obvious to me (and them) when my energy tank is near depletion. Selfish mum is still there, it’s just that she’s selfish in a different way now.

When I found out I was pregnant again in August 2015, my toddler was 18 months old. I wasn’t prepared for the news at all. I was in a vulnerable place emotionally and had just started to get stronger after a period of psychotherapy and finally starting on medication for my anxiety. I felt better for the first time in a long time. The foggy anxious-filled weeks and months after having my fourth child were fading and I felt more like me again. Yet here I was, given a gift I wasn’t expecting. A gift I knew was going to sap my emotions and energy even further and most likely throw me right back to square one.

I asked God what was going on. If this was wise given my situation. If this was really what He wanted for me. I had just started to ‘get back out there’, to feel like I was controlling my ship again. My life wouldn’t be about serving Him, but about serving little people with big demands!

I found I craved even more personal time alone – to think, to do the things that interested me (working, blogging, creating, zoning out), to do things my way. Now, my ‘me time’ isn’t about sitting down for five minutes with a book and a cuppa, my me time is more about having some emotional space from the constant worry and grief – being with my children and dealing with their own complex emotions is draining and me time allows me to shut off from that.

It takes a lot more than a cup of coffee for me to zone out these days

It takes a lot more than a cup of coffee for me to zone out these days

Blogging is a big ‘me time’ factor that my family don’t understand. I need to write this stuff down to save my sanity some days! And as much as I love them, I found I wasn’t good at mothering them because I craved peace, time to grieve, time with my thoughts – I wanted to be mothered myself! The problem starts when that craving begins to overtake everything else.

But God has given me another child. A fifth child. Me? Lord, don’t you know, I’m really not that maternal. I really don’t have that many hours in the day. I’m really not that good at this selfless parenting thing like other mothers. Yeah, I can do the baby days with my eyes closed, but once characters develop and cuddles aren’t enough and the challenging starts I find my head in the biscuit barrel wondering why I’m finding this so hard!

My children need and want to be nurtured. It’s not their fault they were born and need me. It shouldn’t be that I resent them at times for that and then feel terrible, knowing all that I’ve lost! A perpetual cycle of mum-guilt.

This post isn’t meant to be a self-pitying rant, it’s recognition of how intricately life’s web is spun and how making sense of the details helps me to understand the bigger picture. I was brought up in an insecure environment which made me self-reliant and only trusting of myself. I know I’m a deeply thoughtful and caring person, but I have an inherent fear that switches my ‘flight or fight’ button on at any given moment.

With this new baby, I consider that God doesn’t want to give me the easier (for me) route of one-off giving such as helping a charity or someone in distant need, He knows I’d still have my selfish steak, that I’d still be wary of opening up to those I love most. He made me strong. He knows bringing up children with love, trust, selflessness and encouragement is what I need to build on, to show His love daily, and by doing so I will not only allow the better side of me to come through, I’d also be living my life as He intended, for Him.

That’s not to say ‘me time’ isn’t important. I know that in order to give to them I need to feel as though I’m giving to myself a little. We all need time to ourselves. It’s about recognising that I shouldn’t get consumed by the need for me time so much that it affects my ability to give all the other times. That life’s pace is slower than the one in my mind. One day I will have all the ‘me time’ in the world and will miss the sound of my name being called for the umpteenth time. I’ll miss being needed!

For now, I will remember that the joy is right under my nose! I’ll remember that I’m only human. I’ll remember that I am enough. I look back on this post and see all the ‘I’s and ‘Me’s I’ve written and how self-centred life has become. Yet I have been gifted with the most valuable treasures and I need to look after them. They depend on my love and love is the most important gift of all.

This post was inspired by the wonderful Melissa over at Your Mom Has a Blog who wrote this thought-provoking post about ‘The Me Time Myth‘.

 

 

 

Fight or flight – coping with illness as a bereaved family

My personal anxiety is much better these days although I’m still on a minute dose of anti-anxiety drugs just to help me through the first months of having a newborn should it suddenly increase with my hormone surges. It seemed sensible to do this, keeping any risks to baby to a minimum but allowing me the scope to get a bit of extra support if I need it.

Pregnancy and the birth of a new baby are always exciting and a reason to celebrate. A rainbow baby is an absolute blessing, there’s no question about that. The rainbow baby is treasured in a way deeper than another child. Not loved more I should add, but the joy of that child’s life is remembered by the parents and family as it reminds them of joy and hope after the most painful loss, or losses, imaginable.

But the joy is a double-edged sword as post-traumatic anxiety always threatens to spoil the fun!

The very fact I have already lost a much-loved child and much-wanted pregnancies puts me in an anxious state of mind, fearing having to go through that kind of loss again. Not fearing about them breaking a leg, or falling over, but fearing they will simply not be here anymore.

It’s an odd and unsettling feeling. It’s not the same as general parental anxiety. It’s not the same as an overprotective mother who might stop her child from climbing a tree or going out to play for fear they might get hurt, it’s not saying ‘be careful’ for the umpteenth time that day, it’s a deep unnerving knowing that at any time they could be gone. Forever.

We try hard not to overly protect our other children. We let them play out, we encourage some independence, we encourage bravery and trying new experiences even when they feel anxious themselves (and all we want to do is wrap them up, close the curtains to the ‘nasty’ world and stay home). We know we have to do this, to enable them to live as full lives as possible.

When worrying turns into anxiety
Anxiety is always there for us. The anxiety switch is ready to turn on at any moment. We can go from normality to are they/we really OK in an instant. Will this common illness turn into something traumatic? Will they wake up this morning? The anxiety surrounds sudden loss, which is understandable considering Abi’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage. The anxiety is the fear of life changing in the blink of an eye.

The ‘fight or flight’ reaction, commonly known as something we have inherited from our ancestors to save us from harm, is still very real for the anxious grieving parent. At times of pressure, I found I have conflicting thoughts – one part of me says ‘Ignore it’ or even ‘Run! You’d be better off alone than worrying about this’, another part says ‘Don’t mess about, get them to a doctor’ and ‘Let’s fret about everything bad that can go wrong’. It can be very hard to think clearly.

We’ve had some nasty seasonal illnesses (which added to the worries of my son’s illness earlier in the year). Things I could handle pretty well in the past, but now I have to work overtime just to keep myself from going over the edge with worry, especially knowing with children how hard it is to read the signs sometimes, how one illness can mask another. It’s more exhausting than ever to know what to do for the best. With our NHS system on overload, we are conscious not to clog up busy waiting rooms with things that we can treat at home, yet invariably we’ll find ourselves taking them down, just in case (I try to avoid using Google to diagnose us seeing as every symptom seems to relate to something terminal or life-threatening!).

What are the chances…?
Life has become a game of chance. Abi’s illness was one of those ‘million to one’ scenarios, so it’s hard to say now ‘the changes are slim’ when we’ve been one of those million.

The other night, my son sat in the car and simply said, from seemingly nowhere, with tears in his eyes, “When did I last see Abi alive?” He has been talking about her a lot lately. I said it would have been the day she had her brain haemorrhage.

“Brain haemorrhages are really rare aren’t they, Mum? So why did Abi have to get it?”

I admitted I didn’t know why and that I often think the same. Why her? She was our daughter, their sister! Like us, he misses her. He knows it is very unlikely he’d get it too, he knows it was Abi’s ‘thing’, but being exposed to death at such close range so young makes the fear of death very real for us all. We think about death more often than most. And, after the viruses have passed, the post-illness anxiety lingers much longer.

 

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“I still miss her.”

Our children are most vulnerable to anxiety as their perception of the world changes, we already have their fears to ease, let alone the fear that death may come to them again at any time. Of course it will, because, like it or not, death is the most certain thing in life, but I am sad for them already knowing we will have to face loss again some day.

Faith in God has been vital to our comfort and it’s not to be underestimated. My children are always asking about heaven, Jesus and how it all fits together. Yet we also have to do what Jesus said, live life like a believing child, not a cynical, bitter adult. Be honest about our feelings, when we feel sad in grief, happy, adventurous, scared…

For example, literally minutes after having an emotional but straight forward chat about missing Abi, my son was building a pretend toilet out of his two-year-old brother’s bricks and laughing at his idea. It’s not to say his feelings about Abi were insignificant or made him feel uncomfortable, far from it. He said what was on his mind, it moved him, he processed it and then moved on to the next thing.

I admit that I struggle to be the same. As I watched him play with the bricks for a while my mind was still deep in our conversation. I wanted to hear more. I wanted to help him talk it through… but he’s done that, for now it was enough for him. He didn’t need to wallow or grieve. He didn’t need to be clung tight and watched. He just needed to express his fears and emotions.

He worries about death a lot, which is normal for his age, and I’m more ready than ever to answer his questions. I also admit that I don’t have all the answers, but one thing I do try to tell him is that worrying about death will not change the fact that we will die, and that even though everybody worries a bit about dying, we need to work hard to try to enjoy the days that we have and make the most of our lives rather than allowing the worries to control us. It’s harder than it seems when you’ve seen death like we have.

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The siblings as they were. Abi united them.

As I reach the last few weeks of my pregnancy, when I hope to welcome another daughter into the world, my mind is filled with excitement, fear and worry. Aside from the usual worries that most mothers have about the birth and if baby will be okay, I am thinking about the long-term pressure of life. This will be another person we, essentially, have to keep alive, another person to worry about, another person who relies solely on us to keep her safe and well. At times, it seems such a huge responsibility! A lifetime of worry!

Despite all this, I feel, as a family, we are doing pretty well. We are laughing and living as best we can, and there isn’t much to be done about these anxieties, they are part of our grief now, and I hope that it reduces as time passes. But I really wanted to record the mixed emotions that arise every time the ‘panic button’ is pushed. I’m sure I’m not alone!

Here’s to, hopefully, a healthier spring and summer!

 

A picture of health

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This is a picture of Abi and me on holiday in about 2011. I love the health and happiness radiating from BOTH of us in this picture. Of course, there was never any sign that Abi would have a brain haemorrhage two years later but what struck me when I saw this was not Abi particularly, but me. This is how I remember Abi, but it’s not what I think of when I see me.

While I was never overweight, I had worked hard to get myself fit after having three children. I was caring about myself for the first time and it shows. I felt confident, happy in my own skin, mentally calm…

Since Abi died, I feel like a bleak shadow of that former me. My skin appears greyer, my eyes tired, my fingernails are chewed and sore, my body unfit and neglected…

I stopped exercising as it brought on palpations when my anxiety took over. I didn’t see the point in loving myself anymore. I failed my daughter, why should I care about myself?

I am now tied into a pattern of compulsive eating, because food is my only comfort. I’ve gained weight (obviously being pregnant twice in 3 years has something to do with that!). I’m not one to worry about my weight but I know my pattern of behaviour is not healthy, physically or mentally. It’s almost self-destructive. It’s a common trait of the bereaved.

I posted on my faith blog, By His Light, yesterday about how I mourn so much harder when life is tough. When there is illness, overwork, stress and anxiety. When parenting challenges me to my core and being fair or consistent goes out of the window. I feel more tearful as the pressures mount and miss Abi terribly.

I withdraw at times like this… because I need the solace. I want to build a wall around myself where I can just hide under a duvet and wallow… for a while, until it passes. I don’t want others to see this vulnerable me, I want them to see only the me I know… and like.

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Of course, I can’t do that. I have three children to look after, a home and business to run. A husband who needs his wife to keep it together. A baby growing inside me who needs to be nurtured.

So I turn to food as my pick-me-up, several times a day. It helps for the briefest moment so I’m back again in an hour or so. I feel excited by food. Yet I’m starting to feel the discomfort of the weight (not least the baby pressing on my lungs)… I suppose it represents, physically, the emotional weight of grief.

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