Year Six – the Calm after the Storm
By Andrea Corrie
Last summer, the job that I have held for 11 years came to an end with the retirement of my employer, a hospital consultant, and I found myself with several weeks to fill before I took up a new post within the hospital. The run up to closing the practice was a very stressful time and by the end of it all, I felt as though I had a surfeit of energy to dispel. I am no athlete, but having previously trained for charity power walking challenges I knew I would benefit from exercise induced endorphins if I went out walking early in the mornings.
You may well wonder what this has to do with grief and its relevance to the sixth year since we lost James to a tragic accident when he was 19; but as my exercise regime evolved I began to observe a significant correlation between that and my grief path and ways in which it has altered with the passage of time.
The summer mornings were warm and still. After a few outings of pounding the streets at a brisk walk, one day I found that what I really wanted to do was to go faster. I picked up pace and broke into a tentative, clumsy, run. I felt terribly conspicuous, certainly as though everyone must be watching me as I passed the houses along the suburban streets, but I carried on. Soon my legs were aching, I was gasping for breath and I needed to stop, but I felt an incredible sense of elation. I had managed to run for only a few minutes, but the point is that I had managed to do it.
How like the early days of grief when every breath was torture and you had to keep reminding yourself how to do it:
How like the early days of grief when your legs were leaden and the slightest movement was a Herculean effort, when to get dressed, drag yourself out – perhaps to the local shops where you dreaded seeing anyone you knew, lest they should ask – or not ask – about what had happened – was as much as you could manage:
How like the early days of grief when you felt as though you had ‘bereaved parent’ tattooed onto your forehead and that everyone could see your pain:
How like the early days of grief when a single insensitive comment could literally stop you in your tracks.
As the days went by, I challenged myself by whatever means made me run a little further. Some days I counted lampposts. Other days I ran to the length of tracks on my iPod. Gradually I found that I could sustain the pace for longer and longer, without so much effort.
How like the early stages of loss, of getting from one milestone to the next … so many dates hold special significance when you have lost a child. Each one is tough to approach, but once you have passed it, recedes slowly behind you into the distance.
My leisure time over, I started my new job, but I continued to run regularly. My running became a work in progress in the same way as my grieving is a work in progress.
I signed up for a women’s Race for Life 5K challenge for the following summer so that I had a six month goal towards which to work.
How like the goal of working through the recognised stages of the grieving process, each one of them a target to be met, however long it takes and in whatever order. Since James’ passing, I have experienced almost all of them at least once in the six years – denial, anger, bargaining, depression. But I still – and suspect I always will – struggle with the final stage in the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross model, that of acceptance; for I do not believe that parents can ever accept the loss of their children, being as it is, out of the natural and expected order of life’s cycle. Assimilation is, for me, a far more accurate description of how I view the way I have learned to live with my loss, which does not now feel like a separate entity but has become an intrinsic part of my being.
In the winter months, I retreated from the pavements to the gym and pounded treadmill instead of tarmac which was somewhat monotonous. It was wonderful to be able to resume running outside when the spring came.
How like the gradual emergence from the dark, grey, tedious days of grief I remember from around the middle of the third year, when I could once again notice and take pleasure in the colourful circle of the seasons – that butterfly-like transformation into the way of life that is best described as new normality.
As my stamina increased I found I was more easily achieving the distance targets I set myself, without being exhausted afterwards and jogging along at an even, comfortable pace.
How like the evolution of the grief process from the jagged peaks and troughs of the early rollercoaster of emotions into something more measured and calm.
When the day of the Race for Life event dawned I felt excited and nervous but ready for the challenge. I was running for June, a friend who has tackled her recent treatment for breast cancer with remarkable positivity and humour. When I arrived at the venue, my daughter Stella’s words of advice were ringing in my ears,
“Don’t look at everyone’s back sign when you are running, mum. You will well up, your throat will tighten and you won’t be able to get your breath. Read them before the race, or afterwards”.
I didn’t really understand what she meant, but I soon saw that each sign pinned to the back of its owner’s T shirt told its own story.
That day at Kempton Park, three thousand women ran, jogged or walked the distance for their mums, dads, grandparents, siblings, sons, daughters, stepfamilies, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, friends, neighbours, colleagues – indeed, for anyone and everyone affected by cancer. Seeing this, and knowing that similar Race for Life events are held all around the UK over the summer months was incredibly moving and really brought home to me how many lives are touched by loss.
How like the gradual realisation in grief that the ripple effect of loss in a family reaches far beyond those who are immediately involved, expanding beyond the nuclear family to friends, peers, colleagues and the wider community
How like the compassion and empathy that I have encountered from my family and friends, and from other bereaved parents, through organisations such as The Compassionate Friends, Drowning Support Network and CRUSE Bereavement support, all of which play a supporting role on my grief path.
How like the human spirit – indomitable by nature – to somehow find the strength to reach out to help others in pain and distress.
After Race for Life, I signed up to another event in the Autumn, not for sponsorship this time but to try to improve my running time and ensure that I build on the foundations I have laid down with my initial training.
How like the nature of the grieving process which actually turns out to be a constant in your life. It is always hard work but ultimately it carries reward with the understanding that it is possible to live life post loss in a meaningful and positive way.
On some of my runs, I feel spiritually uplifted, not just physically stretched. Pounding the ground early on a Sunday morning, with no distractions other than having an awareness of my surroundings, I regularly think of James, and I am able to process the emotions surrounding his passing and our resultant loss, with equilibrium. Indeed, it often feels as though he is running in my shadow, encouraging me to push myself that little bit further.
Listening to some of his favourite music tracks on my iPod has enabled me to hear them again without distress. Simply to imagine how he would chuckle at me jogging along to his music is enough to lift my spirits.
Sometimes, too, there will be a feather on the path or a butterfly flitting by that brings James to mind as though he is giving me a nudge.
How like an emphasis that our children are still with us, residing within our hearts wherever we go and whatever we are doing. As time passes, it becomes even more important to ensure that their names are spoken and their lives are not forgotten. Our memories of them become ever more precious.
The seminal message in managing my grief at this six year stage is a need to challenge myself, to keep building my confidence through trying new projects, and to frequently reach a point where I say to myself,
“Wow, who would have thought I would be able to do that?”
despite what has happened.
My self belief has changed from ‘Perhaps I can do this’ to, ‘I know I can do this’ and that applies equally to my grief path and to running, in fact to all the challenges that I face day to day.
Achievement of any kind is empowering. Empowerment goes a long way towards restoring the confidence that is inevitably shattered following the loss of a child. Given sufficient support and motivation, we are able to rise phoenix like from our trauma and distress to be stronger than ever. Guidance and help can present themselves in many forms, from formal religious settings to Reiki and other forms of spiritual healing; I believe we are drawn to whatever will help us move forward in our understanding and assimilation of the tragedy and shock of untimely loss.
As a family we are fortunate to have had a positive year; with the arrival of a granddaughter, such a beautiful little soul! – and we have family weddings to look forward to. It is such a joy to be able to face the future with optimism and anticipation, something that seemed unthinkable in the beginning.
Despite the ever present background sorrow of loss – which in itself does not diminish – I hope that my positive messages are inspiring and useful to others who are travelling the ever changing, undeniably tough, road of grief.
Written in loving memory of
James Edward CLARK
11.09.85 – 28.07.05
Always loved, forever in our hearts
Tribute gallery at
Andrea Corrie July 2011
Photos: courtesy of Andrea Corrie, all rights reserved.
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