The Circular Staircase
By Andrea Corrie
Eight years ago in July, my 19 year old son James lost his life in an accident in the river Thames at Kingston, Surrey.
After eight years of living life as a bereaved parent, what is there still to say about grief?
I have learned various lessons along the way, and sharing those lessons may bring some insight or understanding to others. Please remember these are opinions borne out of my own perspective and if there is one thing that is certain, it is that grief is entirely individual. The views expressed are mine and I disseminate them freely.
Perhaps most importantly, I have gradually moved towards understanding that there is no end point for grief. I relate to the analogy of grief that describes it as a circular staircase. It is indeed like stepping up and stepping down but also stepping round … and round … and round … in never ending fashion.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stage grief model (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance) is familiar, and I have often visited it, looking for ways to try to make sense of the process. In fact, the model is actually a misapplication of an original identification of five distinct stages of coping by someone who is dying. Her research was focussed on dying people, who knew they were dying, and this is not quite the same ‘one size fits all’ model that is universally applied for mourning of any type, be it for the loss of a parent, a child or a marriage.
It could be argued that many people have made an idol of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages; too many people have grasped onto their linear nature as a proscribed, even time-limited formula to get them through grief. Laying down a staged grief cycle is formulaic by its nature, but it is difficult to see how else a framework could be devised that would give the newly bereaved an idea what to anticipate.
Those who know me doubtless appreciate that I was not about to follow any edicts about how and when I should grieve, but like anyone else flung into the maelstrom of child loss, I was in dire need of some signposts to guide me across a new and totally unfamiliar landscape.
Being bereaved is like being told to try to find your way across an alien planet without a map.
Yes, I have experienced all the stages of grief at different times in different ways, and somehow through hard work and application of many resources, I am pleased to affirm that I have arrived at a point of near contentment today.
Stage models create expectation of what mourning is meant to be like. I suppose I was set up to expect certain reactions and it was disconcerting when those reactions appeared in the ‘wrong’ order or not at all. Stages also imply that mourning is passive, which I have certainly found not to be the case.
Think for a moment about a mundane task like cleaning the kitchen. First is the ‘sweeping the floor’ stage, followed by the ‘clean down all the surfaces’ stage, followed by the ‘bleach stage’, and finally the ‘drying off and polishing’ stage.
The kitchen doesn’t do anything but be there, and everything happens to it so that it emerges bright and shiny.
No bereaved parent emerges bright and shiny, untouched by his or her experience. We would not be human if we did not experience painful reactions and responses to trauma – but these irrevocably alter how we are for the future.
Grief is rarely, if ever, passive. Rather, especially early on, it is a shouting, roaring, ranting, wailing banshee of a thing which cannot be ignored and has to be squared up to if you are to have any hope of barrelling your way through it. The only time I have found grief to be passive is when it produces a type of exhausted, numb inertia which I believe is nature’s way of giving one a break from relentlessly working the treadmill.
Dr Kubler-Ross does not have the monopoly on staging. Various internet sources suggest that seven stage grief models may be applied. However, these should be viewed with a degree of caution, since such models are based on observations of select populations, which are not necessarily subject to evidence-based scientific study. A grief model which I read about in an article on the Yahoo! Contributor Network suggests this sixth stage:
“Testing and Reconstruction.
The hallmark of this stage is an attempt to solve the practical problems posed by the loss. A person in this stage may begin to engage in normal life activities again, may evaluate financial obligations or living arrangements, and may begin reaching out more to other people”.
I like the positive message in this stage which represents a place I reached at around the four year mark. This was the time when I began to socialise again and pick up some friendships that were much neglected.
This was the time that I was able to feel more ‘normal’ again, albeit a new ‘normal’. The old me is gone forever and those around me have had to take their own time getting to know the new me.
I too have had to take time to get to know the new me! The loss of the self I knew is a shock. For 49 years, I knew myself well and I disappeared overnight. It has taken a while to come to terms with an irreversibly altered persona.
Another aspect of grief that jumped up at me early on is fear. I remember that at first, I was deeply afraid of becoming overcome, engulfed and embittered by grief from my loss.
The author C S Lewis expresses this very well:
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
C S Lewis, A Grief Observed
My way of countering this helpless fear was to take on a variety of challenges, confronting those crises which threatened to overwhelm me.
I discovered that achievement, small or large, is empowering.
I discovered that focusing on new activities, from spiritual practice to walking, running and cycling, all have an uplifting and positive effect.
I discovered displacement tactics to cope and move forward another small step on the journey at times when my mind threatened to get stuck in grief.
I discovered that expressing grief in writing is a powerful and cathartic tool. It is especially useful to look back over what I have written as a measure of progress.
I discovered the need to be introspective and visit my grief quietly and sit with it when I have to, or conversely to have a good angry rant at the fates. Both reactions are helpful.
I feel that I have been slow in fully realising quite how immeasurable is the impact of our loss on my husband, daughter and stepchildren, and I will always feel immense regret that that we and the wider family do not have the natural continuance of life experienced by the non-bereaved family.
We are a modern day blended family – Stella and James’ father and I divorced in 1999 and sadly, he passed away in 2002. Shaun and I were married in 2005 and it was a scant six weeks after that when we lost James. There is much to say about the grief of step-parents and step-siblings, which deserves its own separate article.
When a child dies, there are no new memories or future events to share and anticipate in relation to that child, and this emphasises the difference between families who are living through child loss and those who are not.
Grief unavoidably carries a measure of guilt, with which the bereft have to learn to live. Family events such as birthdays, Christmas, weddings, the arrival of grandchildren, all serve to emphasise the absence of the loved one who should be here to share our joys. It is difficult to resist the ‘what if’ game where one can create scenarios in which you and/or the lost child did something different, which affected the outcome. The guilt that as a parent you should have been able to prevent what happened to your child descends like a fog and it is very slow to dissipate.
As the guilt over the loss diminishes it may be replaced by a different guilt – that you can begin to enjoy your life again with a return to optimism and anticipation of pleasurable events, such as holidays.
I firmly believe bereaved parents should allow themselves to feel happy again, without any guilt, if they are able.
The time frame for my personal journey through grief is impossible to set down. It is only in looking back year on year that I can evaluate moving along to the point where I am now.
The point where I am now is different to the point I was this time last year, and different again from the point I will be this time next year.
Thank goodness for the evolution! - for if we did not move forwards or progress we would land up mired in a spiral of hopelessness.
Does grief make a better person of you? I think it both humbles and enlightens, even ultimately enriches with understanding. These days my perception of others is a gentler thing. I cut people more slack than I used to in some respects, though I find I have little patience for trivial complaints in others. Everyone has grief, trauma, strife. We do not all wear it all the time. But to extend your feelings of empathy to those who are simply unable to understand what you are going through, because they themselves are fortunate enough not to know, is a tough thing to do in the beginning. It is easy to see others’ lives as blessed when you are struggling with the trauma of loss.
It is easy to be impatient with those who don’t know what to say to you – but you come to realise that you too would have been the same before your loss.
Certainly I think grief can give you strengths you did not know you possessed, and finding the fortitude to cope with grief leads you to tackle that which you hitherto thought impossible. When you think about it, once you have risen like a phoenix from the loss of your child, nothing that is thrown at you in life can ever hold the same level of gut-wrenching fear.
I have the greatest admiration for my dear friend Karen in Melbourne. We met online through the support group Drowning Support Network. Karen has lifelong claustrophobia and fear of flying but she has conquered it since her son Sam died. She has managed a couple of flights within Australia and she and her husband are planning a trip to the UK next year. We cannot wait to meet them.
It is often said that after child loss, your address book changes, and I would agree.
My post loss friends, those whom I have met through the Drowning Support Network and the Compassionate Friends are particularly important. Our friendships have evolved from the initial focus of our grief, to more typical rounded friendships. But, there is an incalculable value in being able to call upon others who truly understand what it is like to be a bereaved parent. Also, pre-loss friends may see you as untouchable or unreachable. They wait for you to return to your ‘old self’ and sometimes cannot cope with the disappearance of that self.
I have also made some new friends entirely unrelated to bereavement which feels like healthy progress. Early on in grief, loss colours everything and I would not have been able to focus on new relationships with others.
During my writing research, this year in particular I have been intrigued to note the amount of grief writing that is accessible online. When I first started writing in 2005, it seems to me that there were less people publicly expressing their emotions in the written word. But If I type ‘grief writing after child loss’ into Google today, it immediately brings up a raft of material world wide.
When I look over the themes I have covered, they are universal, but they certainly evolve over time from the bleak agony expressed early on, to optimistic messages of transformation and hope.
In between, I have concentrated on how best to approach my grief proactively and positively, and I also acknowledge the many others who help me along the way.
For ourselves, in the first few years we had the focus of engendering change in the form of safety improvements at Kingston riverside, thus ensuring that other families do not have to endure trauma such as ours. This living legacy for James helped a great deal in the initial stages of loss.
I have learned to formulate ways to cope and to move forward in living a meaningful and positive life through utilising whatever means I can put at my disposal to help me get by. Yes, I can now lay down new memories going forward but at the same time I balance them with the memories of the son I have lost; thoughts of the future he should have had are never far from my mind.
Last year, my husband Shaun and I felt that the time was right to contemplate downsizing from our family home and with the usual attendant stress of property transactions, we moved house. We have moved a short distance – only eight miles – and we are settling well into our new environment. Our new, more rural location is a source of great joy to me; we are close to the Basingstoke canal and I am getting to know it through walking, running and cycling. To experience the beauty of the changing seasons, to see the wildlife and enjoy the colours of nature in all her splendour is wonderful, truly it is like healing balm to the soul. I feel something of James in all my outings in the area and I often think of the following epitaph, written for a young soldier who lost his life in Afghanistan.
“Listen for him, in the rustling of the branches, and the rippling of the stream”
Even though this is a place where James has not lived, I feel his presence in the beauty of the surroundings and I am able to revisit thoughts of my loss with a gentle sorrow, rather than the desperate longing that marked the early days of grief.
In fact, it has come as quite a surprise to me how easily I have accepted living in a place where there is no history of James. Our previous house was naturally full of memories of him, and I will admit that it is easier for me to live somewhere that I am not constantly reminded of both his presence and his absence. Moving house after loss is a conundrum for many and I was anxious about it beforehand, but I have been reassured by my level of contentment. I am not sure that I would have been so sanguine about it earlier on.
Turning to the final grief model stage, Acceptance, I do not agree that we ever get over or accept the loss of a child. For the word Acceptance, I invariably substitute Assimilation.
In time, through bits and pieces of assimilation of our loss, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust.
It is a hard task but not unattainable. This is my loss; this is the hand I have been dealt and it is up to me to play it as best I am able for the sake of my son and all who know me.
Finally, I revisit a favourite quote, originally published by the Compassionate Friends, which reached me via my friend Sandra. She channels grief for her son into artistic works of painting and sculpture which give colourful voice to her sorrow. Sandra is an admirable example of how expressing grief creatively and sharing the results with others, can be an effective tool in the armoury of the mourning journey.
“I am not alone and you are not alone. For as surely as the intangible things you left behind are with me, so a part of me stepped quietly with you, across the threshold of tomorrow.
And as the brilliance of a star, in a dark sky, so in my heart is a memory of you – endless, beautiful, indestructible”.
I hold dear the joy, the laughter and the tears that nineteen years of the privilege of knowing the love of my son gave to me. His life touched and brought joy to many and above all, he leaves us with memories of a life too short, but a life well-lived.
Andrea CORRIE July 2013
Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark
11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005. Always missed, forever in our hearts.
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