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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The expectations of a grieving mother on special days

Now that Mother’s Day has passed, I feel I can exhale. I have a little more breathing space (until Father’s Day which is another tough one). I posted on Facebook yesterday about how hard I find the run of ‘special (bloody) days’ I face. It feels like I’m charging at each one like it’s a brick wall and, by Mother’s Day, I simply go splat!

If I’m honest, I have always found ‘special days’ difficult. As an introvert who doesn’t like ‘fuss and nonsense’ I have developed an association with attention on me being difficult. Difficult perhaps because I don’t like letting my guard down. Difficult perhaps because I don’t like showing my emotions. Difficult perhaps because I’m simply protecting myself from disappointment or hurt…

My childhood, brought up in poverty, was still a good life and we appreciated what we had, but it doesn’t create much sense of anticipation either. Never expecting much, trying to ignore what others have that you don’t, being more thankful for a simple homemade cake than a big party and fuss, keeping a lid on your emotions…. It’s a humbling existence, which I’m not complaining about as I’d much rather have this than be the type of person to cry into my drink because I didn’t get the handbag I wanted.

Unfortunately, as a result, I find myself being irritable and grumpy on special days. I will brush off well wishes and shush people who try to be nice to me. It’s not something I’m proud of at all and I do try to be more open to accept love from others, even my husband and children, but it’s always with a tinge of feeling uncomfortable and wanting it all to be over! I will find myself deliberately busying myself with chores just to avoid the feeling that I must ‘sit down and be Queen for a day’. I clearly have no idea how to be kind to myself!

As I’ve got older and a heck of a lot wiser, I’ve realised I’m not a bad person for being like this. I’m just not the type of person to court attention or expect a big fuss. So, with any special day like my birthday or Mother’s Day I almost ‘vant to be alone’… as Greta Garbo once said.

The expectations of performing a role or being some kind of ‘perfect’, special person make me cringe. For me, rather than feel awesome, days like these always remind me of my failings… of actually not being a ‘perfect’ mother, or not being the ‘perfect’ wife. And then I make myself feel worse as I’m irritated at not throwing myself into it and enjoying some much-needed attention! Attention I know, deep down, I do deserve but just can’t cope with.

Recently, I’ve come down hard on my older children (disciplining your other children after you’ve lost a child is an emotional nightmare, but it’s proven to be essential and worthy of a whole other post, like this one).

I’ve been unpopular. I’ve heard my name shouted and horrible words said in anger. I’ve beaten myself up as I feel tired and emotional, always trying to hold it together yet always managing to give way to my frustration, all the while trying to work out if I’m disciplining as a caring parent or just taking out my grief on them. Failing, failing, failing….

Of course, I’m not really failing, but since Abi died, the expectations of special days adds yet more pressure to me.

Now it’s the same but harder still, as I feel the expectations of grief on these days, as well as on Abi’s special days. I want to hide from the world and get stressed about how I’m feeling. Due to how I am, I know it’s no one’s pressure but mine. I clearly like to beat myself up!

This Mother’s Day was tricky but also revealed a lot to me about why I am the way I am and what I am thankful for – and hence inspired this reflective post.

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What happens when we die? Explaining death to your child

When thinking about death we have so many questions and very few answers. It’s where the fear and disbelief stem from. Children are renown for saying exactly, and frankly, what’s on their minds. They also have questions which we can find hard to answer, especially when our grief is so raw and we feel lost in our own cloud of uncertainty.

Three years on my children still ask about Abi’s death occasionally. They think about death and heaven, and what it means to die. Part of them is anxious about this, another part very accepting. They have very normal and understandable feelings about death, just like we do, and we take their questions seriously.

My children know what happened to Abi. And while they do worry about death more now, they accept that her brain haemorrhage was a unique illness for her and is unlikely to happen to them.

In the early days, when they were 5 and 10, we kept them sensitively involved in Abi’s death and memorials. We didn’t hide from them what was happening and kept an open dialogue about it all. This we feel has helped them immensely to adjust to life without their big sister. They also fully believe in God and that Abi is in heaven, and again, we haven’t romanticised this to them. She’s not turned into an angel or a star or a bird. She is in heaven waiting for us to one day join her and to live again in a world without pain or suffering.

Yet still the questions come. And I love it!

I love that they always ask why. That their questions mean that they are really trying to understand this life, this world and our purpose. They are inquisitive and will not be ‘won over’ by empty phrases or ‘just because’. And Jesus made it quite clear that us adults can learn a great deal from children, whose minds are open and willing to accept that which they can’t see.
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Loving my children after losing my child

While, of course, I loved my children before Abi died, that love has changed quite dramatically since.

I gave birth to Abi, back in 2000, and it wasn’t long before my second child was on her way. She arrived when Abi was 22 months old. Back then, I worked 4 days a week and my husband and I had been married just three years. We’d just about settled into our first home together when we had to move to a larger house. I’d only been in my new job about three months. There was a lot going on. On top of that, I suffered what I later realised was Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following my second child’s birth. It was fast, furious and unbelievably painful, and a stress to both me and my child that still has repercussions today.

Life felt hard. It’s fair to say, I can’t remember much of the early years with the two girls and I’m thankful for the photos we took, as it reminds me that it was – in the main – a good time in our lives.

But back then our lives were like many other people’s – more about getting stuff done, getting us to places, sorting things out, stressing about work. There wasn’t much time to water the roses let alone stop and smell them! We complained about all the ‘normal’ problems of parenting that I see countless people complaining about online today. At times, I’m sure it felt like my children were sent to ruin me, not bring me joy!

After a few years had passed and life seemed more settled, and me recovered, we had another child, this time a son. His home birth was much more positive and calm. I finally felt in control and confident in what I was doing. Life was good again, and we were more able to see the wood for the trees and appreciate each other. We made some really good memories. But it still had its challenges, challenges that almost tipped us over the edge, challenges that – today – mean nothing…

When Abi died, in 2013, I seemed to remember every time I lost my rag with her, or ignored her or didn’t go to an assembly because I was working… I regretted a lot. Yet I also began to remember the things I thought I’d forgotten. Memories of the little girl came back to me, they were always there, just squashed by the trials of life.

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Before and after our grief

My husband’s car is on its last legs. We need to start thinking about replacing it before we spend too much more on it. He’s put it off for far too long and spent too much money keeping it going, but I know he loves the car mostly because of the times he spent with Abi in it.

The chats they’d had on the way home from a club, the trips they took together. It’s hardly been cleaned since she died (and it’s grim inside!), but I don’t push it. I know the sweet wrappers are hers. I know the hair clips are hers. I know he doesn’t want to lose even the dust that might be hers. It’s his space so I leave it to him (like a man shed on wheels!). We’ve changed my car and transformed our home. Abi hasn’t been erased by any means, and I’m always finding her hair clips around even now, but I know his car is the last big reminder.

When talking about replacing it, we were trying to remember when we bought it. Our marker… how long before Abi died.

You see, we’ve reached a point in our grief journey where life has become about ‘before’ and ‘after’ Abi. Continue reading

Health anxiety (hypochondria) after the death of a loved one

As someone who now openly admits to suffering with health anxiety, since the death of my 12-year-old daughter and three pregnancy losses, I tend to avoid any kind of health-related TV programme. In fact, I wrote this blog post about why TV alienates the grieving as it contains so much death, blood, gore and trauma.

Yet there have been a new spate of health-related shows advertised on our screens. One of which is ‘Doctor in the House’.

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In this show, a doctors stays with a family for a few days and gives them all a full medical before advising them how they can avoid and improve any ailments they suffer from and, essentially, improve their chances of survival for longer!

Now, to me, this looks interesting as – being health anxious – I would be interested to learn about what we could do to improve our health as a family. But watching the trailers, I know that it’s more likely to spark off further health anxiety in me. I would worry we had the same ailments!

Let me explain, health anxiety, or hypochondria, is where you worry excessively about your health. This also seeps out onto the rest of the family as anxiety over their health comes into the frame, but it’s mostly an anxiety of the self.

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A reflection on grief in the Bible

I wrote and adapted this old post of mine for the recent Service of Remembrance at my church earlier this month. This annual service is aimed at those have lost loved ones in the past year or so. Indeed, we attended during the year of Abi’s death and it was incredibly moving.

With memories of that, two years on, I was somewhat anxious about what to say. Preparing words of comfort for people at pretty raw stages of grief was more challenging than I thought. It’s easy enough online when people seek out the kind of words I write, but to stand up and speak about my view of grief was daunting. Continue reading

The physical pains of grief

It’s been a while since I posted about my reluctant but important decision to take antidepressant (or rather anti-anxiety) medication. I have taken a break from writing for a while, to let life settle and see what comes of this new course of treatment. While at first the medicine seemed to exacerbate my symptoms, they did eventually settle and I began to feel much better – clearer in my head, more able to plan and focus on tasks. My anxiety symptoms not dissolved but greatly improved.

It was in fact a couple of months after starting the tablets that I discovered I was pregnant again – a side effect that certainly wasn’t on the instructions! It was both a shock and a worry at first, I can’t deny. Having been through so much and my mental health just about improving, and feeling stronger, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to cope with the emotional and physical demands that pregnancy inevitably brings. Worry upon worry upon worry.

But you know, when I’d got used to the idea, I realised this was an opportunity to celebrate. I’m now delighted to be expecting again – and while I have only natural concerns about managing a toddler and a newborn (again), I know these are just hurdles we’ll get through as a family, just like every other time. I don’t want to spend this pregnancy in fear of the worst, and dark thoughts do creep in from time to time, but I work hard to push them away. To keep my mind healthy I must do this with a strong attitude and remember that worrying won’t change anything. I have experienced already the worst imaginable losses for any mother, I feel ready for whatever is to come.
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What Disney’s Inside Out taught me about grief and loss

I recently took my daughter, age 12, to watch Inside Out. It was a rare day that we had alone and I felt it would be a poignant film to see together.

Having researched the film (which I have to do with anything I expose my children to), I was impressed by the reviews which said the film offered a unique way of viewing how our emotions work in a way that children could relate to. I initially wanted to see the film because I thought it would give my daughter further insight into why she might feel the way she does and then have more understanding of her emotions. All this wrapped up in an entertaining Disney Pixar movie!

But I wasn’t prepared for the film to speak to me! To my grief. To make me think about Abi, too.

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The dark side of grief – craving escape from the mental and physical pain of loss

I recently went for my first month check-up at the doctors, to see how I’ve settled taking the antidepressants.

For anyone who has not taken antidepressants before, or who hasn’t experienced anxiety – and especially for those grieving mummas out there who are finding that anxiety and depression are adding to their grief, I wanted to share my experience.

Firstly though, I want to stress that feelings and emotions around anxiety and grief are different for everybody. I may know someone who feels similar things to me, but it will still be unique and personal to the individual. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your mind as well as your body and seek help.

Anxiety, however, is a mental illness, grief is not and it can be very hard to tell the difference especially when you are living it day in day out. A big problem for me about why I got to this point, was when I told anyone my story (ie, my daughter’s sudden death) and that I had anxiety they responded with ‘Of course you’re anxious, you’re grieving’ and then the anxiety was ignored because it was put down to grief. This created a build-up of symptoms that led me to the brink of breakdown –  I simply couldn’t cope if grief was going to be this horrible to me.

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