Butterflies and Eggs
By Andrea Corrie
27 July 2012
I like eggs. Their symmetry and smooth shape appeal to me. A few years ago, a friend who keeps hens asked me to check to see if there were any eggs to collect. I had never handled a newly laid egg and as I lifted one, still warm from its straw nest, I marvelled at the feel of it, the sense of living energy contained within, a force of its own enclosed in a porous shell.
If you hold an egg in front of a candle flame, I am told, you can clearly see the yolk within, tethered at either end but floating free in the safety of its confines.
But what do eggs have to do with grief and grieving? It may seem an unlikely correlation but I think they can relate to progression along the grief path.
On 28 July 2012 it will be seven years to the day since my 19 year old son James died in a tragic accident. At that time, my grief resembled a box of eggs dropped on the supermarket floor; in an instant it became jagged, formless and messy. Most people would step round it, not look at it and do their best to pretend it wasn’t there. A few people who came close to understanding would help to mop up, but the nursery tale of Humpty Dumpty comes to mind, and it proved impossible to put us all back together again, at least without any cracks.
In the same way as there are a multitude of ways to prepare eggs, there are a multitude of ways of grieve. None are entirely right and none are entirely wrong. My own path holds a mix of ingredients and methods, and with each recipe I try, I achieve a little more success until I am at a point where my grief is calm and settled most of the time, with the occasional soufflé like rise in its intensity.
Picture the alchemy of frying an egg – that fascinating transformation from liquid to solid that takes place as an egg white coagulates, whilst the yolk remains soft and warm in the middle. Transformation is a concept that crops up a great deal in grief. The butterfly is one of the best and most common symbols of transformation, reflecting as it does the complete change of one creature to another. There is nothing in a caterpillar that hints at the promise of a butterfly.
Nothing keeps the butterfly held to the ground, but as with an egg yolk, I like to imagine that James’ soul is tethered to all those who knew and loved him in this world, but he also floats free in the afterlife.
Of course, the greatest transformation of an egg is in fertilisation and the ultimate emergence of new life. We emulate this as parents, nurturing our own offspring as they develop and watching over our brood as they form and grow. Little wonder that the grief of a parent who has lost a nestling out of time is arguably the deepest, most shocking grief of all.
The most profound human transformation occurs when the soul or spirit leaves the physical body. This is not intended to be a morbid train of thought; rather there is solace to be drawn from either witnessing, or having an awareness of, the transience of our physical presence.
I was with my dearly loved mum when she died in hospital ten years ago and the actual moment of her passing was deeply awe-inspiring rather than entirely distressing. The split second change from her bodily presence being there… to not being there… was something quite remarkable and I take comfort that I was privileged to witness her passing. In some way I believe it prepared me to believe and have faith that this profound transformation of the physical to ethereal would also take place at the moment of James’ passing.
In the human condition, regardless of what has befallen us, there is always hope. The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) says:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all…
More than anything else, I realise that the essence of moving forward is contained in that simple premise: hope.
- Hope of a return to feeling ‘normal’ again
- Hope that the pain would diminish
- Hope that I would find sufficient peace in my mind to stop questioning why James died out of time
- Hope that I would come to appreciate the years we had James with us, rather than dread the future without him
- Hope that I would be able to feel joy again and live my life with purpose and meaning
- Hope that my relationships with family and friends would resume without the awkwardness of grief’s presence in the room
- Hope that the lessons from James’ passing, once we could see past the grief clearly enough to understand what those lessons are, would enrich those of us who are left behind to live our lives without him.
Happily, my hopes have gradually, slowly but surely, been realised. There are many contributing elements to this place of acceptance, seven years into loss.
My main drive has been a dogged determination not to let grief and sorrow get the better of me. I cannot over estimate the value of amassing a virtual tool box to help deal with this most traumatic life event. And my experience tells me that the best way is to gather whatever works, such as the following, most of which have helped and continue to help me:
Join an organisation such as The Compassionate Friends, or Drowning Support Network.
Connect with other bereaved parents. You will find like minds and people who truly understand.
Express your grief through writing, reading, painting – creativity is a great outlet.
Learn new crafts, volunteer for fundraising or charity work, take up new sports, hobbies – from somewhere, push yourself to find the energy to take on something that challenges you – and work at it. Achievement is rewarding.
Go for counselling with an organisation such as CRUSE and/or take up an extreme sport – anything that deflects your main focus from grieving will help you to process your grief indirectly in a way that is palatable and appropriate to each individual.
About eighteen months ago I took up running. I will never be a marathon runner, nor would I wish to be, but I do enjoy the challenge of running 5K (3.1 miles) a couple of times each week.
But I now realise that when I first started running, I could find many reasons not to do it properly. I would set off with enthusiasm, then after a few minutes I would slow to a walk/re-tie my laces/change the tracks on my iPod/take some water etc.
It took a while to understand that these were my own ‘butterfly mind’ diversion tactics from the matter in hand. For me, there is a definite synergy between running and the grieving process, and these avoidance/diversion techniques can equally be applied to a morning run and traversing the rocky road of grief.
Sometimes it is absolutely necessary for peace of mind to be able to switch off from grieving. At other times, it is possible to meet it head on. These days there is control in my grief so that it has become a place that I visit – in a manner that I choose, and when I choose.
Thus the distractions and diversions have lessened over time, as they have done in my running.
I can now run for three miles without stopping which is, to me, an amazing and elating achievement.
I can now go long periods without thinking of James or perhaps more importantly, feeling guilty for not thinking about him, which is an equally amazing and elating achievement.
Self belief and confidence play great roles in grief recovery. Acceptance of child loss is an alien concept. But assimilation of the event is something that can and does happen over time.
The author Paulo Coelho says,
“When faced by any loss there’s no point in trying to recover what has been. It’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new”.
This is impossible to consider at the beginning of the grieving process. How can anything fill the void that is left by the loss of your child? The answer is that nothing can, but I firmly believe that through sustained hard work, application, concentration and focus one can recover hope for the future and live life with meaning and joy once again. Grief is tiring! – but the renewed hope and optimism that is eventually regained, certainly makes this weariness easier to bear.
There are changes afoot in our household as my husband and I plan to sell our house and downsize locally. We both feel that the time is right for us to proceed. Of course I have anxieties about leaving James behind. However, a good friend recently said,
“Don’t worry. You will pack up your memories of James along with your boxes. When new people come into your house they don’t see your memories. They don’t see your events, happy or sad. They bring in their own with them”.
This makes me feel much better about the concept of being somewhere that James has not lived with us. It would have been very different early in our grief. Perhaps it works for some people who must break ties to achieve a modicum of peace, but I know that had we moved earlier, which was a temptation at one point, it would merely have been an attempt to run away from the pain.
The day we move into our new home, wherever it may be, I will put my favourite photos of James in a place where we see them every day, and I have faith that he will be there with us, in spirit.
I have observed over the past year that more people are comfortable with mentioning James, than previously. It is as though they feel that sufficient time has elapsed so it is ‘safe’ to do so. More than one colleague or friend has said that they don’t mention him because they don’t want to upset me…. My response to this is that I don’t ever want James to be forgotten and to hear his name, to talk and laugh about him and his life, is to me a wonderful and very special thing to be able to do. It is lovely to be able to do this with less likelihood of tears than in the early days.
The great British stiff upper lip is not so great when it comes to grief and grieving! We need to be less buttoned up and to say how we really feel. There is no shame in crying with someone in their loss. But I have learned to make allowances for people who have not encountered traumatic loss, for if I think back to the time before we lost James I would surely not have behaved any differently.
I too would have been one of those people who say, helplessly, “I don’t know what to say.” But I understand better how people feel so useless and shocked in the face of traumatic loss.
It is true to say that there is no manual or text book that adequately describes, for a bereaved parent or for those counselling a bereaved parent, how to deal with the enormity of bereavement. We do not automatically know how to behave, how to grieve, how to make sense of the turmoil of emotions that comes with this particular form of loss. We must each work through our grief creating our own recipes. If you take ten people and put them in a kitchen to make a three egg omelette, the chances are that you will end up with ten different omelettes.
So it is with grief.
We must all make our own choices and draw on a carefully blended recipe of resources to produce the desired end result; assimilation of loss and hope for the future.
Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark
11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005. Always missed, forever in our hearts.
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Photos by Andrea Corrie – used with permission.