My blog posts for Still Standing Magazine

As a contributory writer for the excellent grief resource, Still Standing Mag, I have listed here links to the posts I have had published on the site so far. Writing these each month has been a great way to keep my blog writing going and also seen much more widely as they have a fantastic following of writers and readers. Simply click on a link below to read them.

Sept ’18 – How to avoid burnout when supporting grieving friends

Aug ’18 – Don’t hurry to ask me why my child died

July ’18 – Hypochondria, anxiety, and grief: what comes after loss

June ’18 – Overcoming grief sabotage

May ’18 – Why her, God? Why not me?

April ’18 – 5 tips for using social media when you’re grieving

March ’18 The strength of a grieving mother

Feb ’18 – Don’t be sorry that you’re not grieving

still standing

 

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Guard your grieving heart

For many bereaved parents – coping with the worst thing that could ever happen – the next most awful thing is thinking about other people who might be affected by a similar fate. It’s distressing to think that anyone else might have to experience what you have, especially if it could have been prevented.

It’s a good idea to consider the things that are supporting you through your grief, and what is adding to your grief. In my recent post on Still Standing Magazine, I suggested some healthy ways to use social media in grief. Social media is a lifeline for us, but it also makes the world a much smaller place. Now, it’s a matter of a few clicks to find hundreds of people who have lost ‘exactly’ like you have. It can be distressing as the realisation comes that life’s fragility is more certain than its longevity.
Superhuman grief strength makes for super humans!

Forget ultramarathons though, nothing can match a grieving mother’s mental and physical strength (dads too, of course). I liken the strength to that of a woman in labour. The moment of crowning when animal instincts take over and she finds power that she never knew she had, despite overwhelming exhaustion, to push the baby out.

Grief pains create a similar inner strength. Often this is channelled into something worthy… a legacy, a charity, a cause. This work saves lives. Brings hope. Comforts the brokenhearted.

It’s important to remember that almost every campaign, whether small like my book or large like MP Carolyn Harris’s recent victory to scrap children’s burial fees, is driven by the strength of grief. There is a parent who is the driving force of the work. There is a child no longer here because of the work that needed to be done.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the work that has been borne out of a loss which, unlike a normal job, can’t be resigned from easily. Once you start offering support, or to lead a campaign, or fundraising, or write a self-help book, whatever it might be, where does it end? Do you now feel obligated to help heal the world indefinitely? Maybe so, it’s no bad thing, but only so long as it is beneficial for you also…

If that person, that project, that campaign could be handled well by anyone else tomorrow, how would you feel? If the answer is ‘free’, ‘relieved’, ‘better able to cope with your own life’, then it might be worth considering delegating some of your work, stepping back for a period or even completely.

Look after you, so you can look after them

Early on, I felt surrounded by grieving mothers, having never identified with one (not openly anyway) previously. The loss upon loss was heartbreaking. Each story had its own trauma, shock and anger. It’s not just the taking on of other’s emotions but also the sudden awareness that early death and trauma happens to so many people, every single day. The despair sets in and pushes hope out.

It’s important to find some kind of balance. Always check in with yourself. If the person or thing lifts you up, or you look forward to seeing them/doing it, that’s a sign to do more of it. If it drains you or brings you into a depressive or anxious state, step away even for a short time and pursue something more healing and restorative for as long as you need.

I’m not suggesting you stop helping others, or that what you have worked for isn’t worth the stress on you, some people have to be the driving force because there is simply nobody else. The world needs people that care about each other. I’m saying, with as much love as I can, that it is not your responsibility to help everyone, even if they are experiencing exactly what you have.

So, guard your heart. Be aware of your own physical and mental health. Take a step back regularly, reassess what you’re doing and why. Check in to see if there is anything that could be done differently. Healing is a lifetime process that comes in the most unexpected ways, and in its own time. Running from that is unlikely to do you any good, but walking slowly with it is the kindest thing you can do, for you.

Sunday Sermon Notes – 11th March 2018

This year at my church we’ve been invited to bring our Bibles and notebooks to help us reflect on what we are studying. The notes I’ve made have been really interesting for me, and there is always something I can relate to, draw comfort from or feel encouraged by… and it’s not always the ‘easy’ side of Christianity either, there are some real challenges that have got me thinking. Sharing my notes in a blog post is a useful way for me to reflect on them later in the day.

Sermon 11th March 2018

Today is Mother’s Day. We listened to this passage from Exodus 2: 1-10 (CEV).

A man from the Levi tribe married a woman from the same tribe, 2 and she later had a baby boy. He was a beautiful child, and she kept him inside for three months. 3 But when she could no longer keep him hidden, she made a basket out of reeds and covered it with tar. She put him in the basket and placed it in the tall grass along the edge of the Nile River. 4 The baby’s older sister stood off at a distance to see what would happen to him.

5 About that time one of the king’s daughters came down to take a bath in the river, while her servant women walked along the river bank. She saw the basket in the tall grass and sent one of the young women to pull it out of the water. 6 When the king’s daughter opened the basket, she saw the baby and felt sorry for him because he was crying. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrew babies.”
7 At once the baby’s older sister came up and asked, “Do you want me to get a Hebrew woman to take care of the baby for you?”
8 “Yes,” the king’s daughter answered.
So the girl brought the baby’s mother, 9 and the king’s daughter told her, “Take care of this child, and I will pay you.”
The baby’s mother carried him home and took care of him. 10 And when he was old enough, she took him to the king’s daughter, who adopted him. She named him Moses because she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”

Malc, our vicar, spoke about the emotions and struggles of a mother who felt she had no choice but to put her baby out onto the water, to let him go in the hope that somehow he would be okay. The Nile was a river of death, where the bodies of the Hebrew children had been discarded on Pharaoh’s orders. This mother, feeling the danger coming closer, made a reed basket and set her baby out on the water, releasing him to she didn’t know what but knowing that it was better than staying.

Most parents will have experienced times when they’ve had to ‘let their child go’, to put their own fears and needs aside to allow their child to get that next level of independence. Even as soon as just after birth, the first time you leave your baby with anyone other than you is one of the most significant introductions to this type of parental love. We know our children can’t and shouldn’t be tied to us and spend our lives trying to strike a balance between holding them close enough to protect, strengthen, love and support them, yet far enough to help them become their own person and live their own life.

What resonated with me most, however, about the image of Moses’s mother, was the death of Abi. I’ve read this passage countless times, I know this story so well, yet verse three stood out to me today.

3 But when she could no longer keep him hidden, she made a basket out of reeds and covered it with tar. She put him in the basket and placed it in the tall grass along the edge of the Nile River.

I identified with the mother placing her precious baby in a basket and giving that unwilling gentle nudge, not even a push, as she lets him go. We put Abi’s body into a woven casket made of willow, we followed the casket to the church, and then to the crematorium, and then I looked on helpless as I let her go. This is not about the ‘letting go of my grief’, this is about the physical act of leading my child to a new place, alone.

There is significance about the letting go, because as a grieving mother there is no letting go. In the grieving mother’s mind you want to stand by that casket forever – you don’t care about life or death, that people might feel awkward if you made a scene, that they would try to convince you it’s not a good idea – you just don’t want to ‘push’ that casket away. But we do. I did. It was the final way of giving her back to God, of trusting Him to care for her. I may have let Abi physically go but she is always part of me. I’ve no doubt Moses’s mother would have felt similar grief.

Moses was saved, picked out of the water by royalty, welcomed into a prosperous kingdom, and even reunited with his own mother.

That’s where my comfort lies.

The baby nobody mentions

Dates are always important when you’re grieving and even though I try hard not to get on the anniversary train, it’s impossible not to think of ‘this time xx years ago’.

Abi died on 10th February 2013 aged 12 years old. I’ve posted before about the days leading up to us turning off her life support. We have four days of being reminded and also trying not to remember. But, in truth, this period of mourning starts much sooner than this. Of course, I think of Abi every day, but 26th January is a particular day that no one but me secretly remembers.

On that date, we celebrated as Abi finally graded for her black belt in kung-fu, something she loved and had worked hard for over four years.

On that date, I mourned the death of my baby… what would have been our fourth child.

I recall the overwhelming emotional effort to hide the fact, to hide my shame and despair. It very nearly broke me. But I focused on Abi, on all my happy, healthy children. It was all I could do not to go insane.

Having decided to have a fourth child, I had miscarried our first attempt at 7 weeks, just as I was coming round to the idea of being pregnant again. Yet, to my utter surprise, just five weeks later I was already pregnant again. I was so confused by my dates that I didn’t realise until I was eight weeks gone. So, when I did find out, I was convinced this one was meant to be.

But it wasn’t. Early scans showed problems.

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Halloween – Trauma or treat?

I no longer buy into the commercialisation of the celebration of evil, horror and fear. Stick a bit of sparkle on a witch’s costume and it makes everything OK, right? It’s only fake.

But I have seen blood pouring from my dying child’s mouth. I have seen the death behind the glassy eyes. I have watched as my child’s skin turned deathly pale. I have watched as her body slowly decayed.

If this makes you feel uncomfortable then perhaps that’s good. For people like me, Halloween brings flashbacks at every turn. When going outside or turning on the TV I realise there’s no escape from it. Cute ghostie cookies to tempt children, family fun spooky events, every shop selling black gorey tat, cartoons being ‘spooktastic’. Then there’s the photos on social media of children I know dressed up to either look like death or like something evil. Great!

That’s not to say I begrudge others participating, I’ve done it myself many times and it’s very hard as my children are so excited about pumpkins and all the ‘fun’ things they see. I am a complete party pooper, I realise that I seem over dramatic. But, while I don’t feel as traumatised now as I did, I know there are many people out there who will be, who have just walked out of a hospital morgue without their child and straight past a shop showing ghosts, ghouls and blood. I can’t bring myself to join in anymore with something that I don’t believe in celebrating.

Our church holds a light party every year which is really popular. I like the idea of focusing on the light in our lives, this world has enough demons already.

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:

From cradle to grave

Today, I took my 9-year-old son to his football match. It’s normally Dad who does the football matches, but it had been almost a year since I’d seen my son play due to having the new baby and he asked if I’d go and watch him. He’s been appreciating some one-to-one time with me of late, which of course I love too.

While he was warming up, I automatically joined the other waiting parents by scrolling on my phone, but as I’m trying to be more active I realized I could use this as an opportunity to go for a walk, get my own blood circulating a bit. I wasn’t in an area I knew very well so I just walked out down the road and after about ten minutes I came across a small church.

I thought it would be good to have a little look around. There was a small graveyard just in front of the church, hidden by tall hedges. The graves looked old and weather-beaten, and I’m sure it had long since closed to new burials.

I first noticed five cross-shaped gravestones, lying flat in a line on the ground. On them were the details of men – figures in the community as their job titles were also engraved under their names, each from the 1800s, early 1900s.

The book of Ecclesiastes came to mind. (I’ve been reading over it this month.) In it, Solomon – the king – writes about accomplishments and the work we do, the things we put our effort into, the dreams we chase, and reflects how all of it is pointless once we’re dead. Not in the immediate years following our death, but the hundreds of years that see us but a distant memory, if that.

There can be great meaning to what we do, if through doing it we help others, but equally we spend a great deal of time doing or worrying about things that have no meaning.

Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

I thought of these men in the ground. Long gone. They probably were highly regarded in their day around the area, but who remembers them, or what they did today?

I then saw a small, quite beautiful, cherub angel gravestone. It was to mark the grave of a baby. I couldn’t tell how old the baby was as the dates had worn away. A little baby without its mother, a mother without her child. I thought of the mother having to put her newborn child into the ground here, the tears that must have been shed, nearly 100 years ago. Yet so many more have been born since – life has moved on at an extraordinary rate but this baby was here once, briefly. This baby’s short life mattered.

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I saw other graves. Some in fairly good condition, others nothing more than a nub of stone sticking out of the ground. No matter what condition the stone, what the status was of the person buried there, or what age or situation they died, they were united by sharing this space. They had once breathed and created memories, but they all ended up as dust and mud, under a gravestone, forgotten or barely remembered.

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I was struck by this stone of a weeping angel.

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It was of two sisters, buried together. One had passed away at age 19, the other had died later age 35. I thought of the parents having to cope with two of their children dying, having perhaps adjusted to the loss of one daughter, only to lose another. Or perhaps they had died too? Who knows the story behind this family’s plot. Who even cares?

There was a striking stone marking the grave of a toddler. Clearly the child of someone of some wealth or importance at the time to afford such a memorial.

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Of course, 100 years ago infant mortality was high so child burials would have been common, but the diversity of the graves in this one tiny patch of churchyard just seemed so poignant to me. Those who lived long, buried next to those who never grew up.

Each one would have been mourned, by wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, friends and relatives… who now themselves may have departed. How did they live out their lives – happy, depressed, lonely, content…? How did grief shape their futures?

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon sees that bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, the wise know more and die, just like fools who don’t know anything and die too. Life is for living he concludes, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, we can chase any number of dreams but without God there isn’t much point to life at all.

As I headed back to watch my son’s football match, I considered today, this next hour, my ‘work’ was to be there for him. To see him smile at having Mum watching from the sidelines. This memory would stay between us two. And when I’m dead and gone, and he’s dead and gone, this moment will be forever gone too.

But, today, it mattered.

 

Guest post: Born sleeping – 10 years of missing Amy

I’m sharing this post on behalf of a lovely friend, Louise, who lost her first child, Amy, 10 years ago. Louise has offered me much emotional support since my own loss and I have been inspired by her strength. Please read and appreciate the years of love and loss in these words and images.

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Thursday, 17th March 2016, marks the 10th anniversary of the death and birth of our daughter, Amy. She was stillborn at 39 weeks, following a textbook pregnancy, and with no logical explanation.

Having happily carried her for nine months, to then endure labour and birth knowing there would be no positive outcome is certainly the hardest thing I have ever experienced and I truly hope never to surpass it. I know, my husband, Jason feels similarly about having to helplessly watch it happen.

It took me a long time to begin to face my grief, but even in my darkest days I started to write about it. This poem took me years to complete (and I am still editing it as I re-read it!) but I thought, a decade on, I might dare to share it.

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Losing Amy

“It’s not there, sweetie”.
Those words I’ll never forget.
The words of a consultant,
Searching for a heartbeat,
So strong for nine whole months,
That now had ceased to be.

Disbelief so whole,
And pain so numbing.
We held onto each other, as our world collapsed.
To leave that room was to accept it.
I couldn’t move.
I kept repeating, “NO!”

I had felt so joyful,
As I nurtured our first child within.
I had taken great care,
And yet our daughter, Amy,
Our little ‘Bean’,
Was born sleeping.

Although so cold,
Her skin was soft,
As it should have been.
We caressed her face, her perfect hands,
And took our birth day photographs
Of our precious girl.

I felt broken.
So sad and lost.
I gave birth to her
And yet I didn’t feel like a mother.
I treasured the memory of her kicks.
Poor Daddy had nothing to remember.

Three years passed and, despite two beautiful sons,
I was feeling desperate.
I had confined Amy’s photographs to a box
my grief alongside them.
But now the lid was about to blow.
I was losing control.

I reached out for help
And someone grabbed my hand.
Rachel. A bereavement counsellor.
A rock to cling to in the whirlpool of grief.
She helped me find my way out of the dark
And I am so thankful.

Ten years on and my grief persists.
Sometimes it washes over me like a wave.
Occasionally, it still bends me double with its force.
But I don’t attempt to control it now.
I accept it has a place in my life
And our darling Amy, a place in my heart.

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We sadly know we are not alone in our experience and were thankful for the support given by SANDS (the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity). Their work provides an essential resource to grieving parents, so if you would like to donate in Amy’s or any other baby’s memory they would welcome any support. Please click this link https://www.uk-sands.org/donate Thank you. x

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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My failures as a grieving mum

I’ve failed.

Life seems fractured.

Daily events feel insurmountable.

Relationships are strained and unstable.

Work is challenging.

Motivation to care, about much, is gone.

I’m sharing this deeply personal post because I know for sure that I’m not alone. That out there are other mothers, in mourning, trying to hold it all together, being strong every second, achieving amazing things just by getting through a day but feeling like a failure throughout it all. I want to reassure those readers that they are not failures, but that the feeling of failure is normal living with what we do.

Failure is a cruel term. How can I possibly have failed at anything?

I am loved.

I am safe.

I am provided for.

I’ve read all the posts, seen all the ‘grief charts’, know the lingo of the phases and stages… but I’ve yet to see the word ‘failure’ mentioned.

As an independent and determined woman, I worked hard to carve out a career and a stable family home. Then death came knocking at my door and decided to pull the rug from under me.

The feeling of failure is huge, but in order to shrink it I’ve tried to consider exactly where and why I feel I’ve failed.

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