Would You Like to Talk About It?
By Andrea Corrie
How would you respond if you were invited to speak to a group of trained counsellors about living with the loss of your child? Early last year I received an invitation to speak — five and a half years after the passing of my 19 year old son, James, who lost his life in the Thames at Kingston in a tragic accident in July 2005.
The invitation came from Dee, an experienced counsellor with the UK Cruse Bereavement Care organisation. Dee coordinates some of the training programmes for Cruse counsellors in the local area. Cruse Bereavement Care is a national charity. Cruse counsellors are all trained volunteers, who give their time to Cruse Bereavement Care in offering support to the bereaved. Sessions are available to all on request and can continue for as long as necessary; but in reality, the average timescale for the services of a counsellor is around eight to ten sessions. The sessions are not chargeable, although, naturally, donations are welcomed as the organisation is a charity.
I found my own sessions to be invaluable, taking place as they did from around eight months after James died. I took the option for my Counsellor to visit me in my own home and the sessions, being on familiar ground, certainly helped in allowing me to express my grief in a safe, controlled manner. They represented significant steps on the way to my beginning to understand the path my life would take following the loss of my son, and how I would achieve my own ‘progress’, as I saw it.
Over the past five years, I have shared my grief experiences with Dee, and in turn she has expressed that she has a better understanding of the counselling needs of those who have lost children. Hence she invited me, if I felt able, to disseminate my thoughts and views to a wider audience as part of the Cruse Bereavement Care training programme.
Soon after James died, I read the words of a bereaved mother, quoted on the forum of The Compassionate Friends, who said, “When I myself get to the pearly gates – hopefully not for a long time yet – and I am reunited with my son, he will ask me, ‘Well mum, what have you been doing all these years, since I died?’ I do not want to answer, ‘Why son, I haven’t been doing anything very much. I have just been grieving for you!’ What I will tell him is, ‘Well son, although I missed you as though my heart would break, I carried on living my life as fully as I could, so that when I got to meet up with you again, I would have plenty to tell you about all our lives after you had left us’”.
This gave me a seminal message about grief and grieving, and I was so grateful at the time to read something positive that a parent could say about her loss. Hence, after some consideration and thought, I decided to go ahead with the talk for Dee, because I felt that James would approve. After all, I was telling his story. Show me a bereaved parent who doesn’t like to use their child’s name in conversation and talk about his or her life!
Dee and I met the week before, so that we could run through what I, and the audience, could expect from the session. I found it helpful to prepare cue cards with words or phrases that would prompt me, set out in chronological sequence, so that if nerves or emotion got the better of me, I would be able to steer myself back on track. I have little experience in public speaking, and my main concern was that I would get flustered and be unable to convey my message clearly.
The day duly arrived. I felt very nervous and although Dee gave me the opportunity to pull out, even at this late stage, I knew there was value in what I was doing and by this point I felt I could not possibly let everyone, including myself, down. The hardest part was visualising just how I would begin my address. I found it impossible to plan, as the audience began to gather in the room around me. I decided to leave it to Providence!
The audience numbered twenty seven.
Twenty seven pairs of curious eyes observed me as the clock ticked round to the start time, seven o’clock. I figuratively pulled a protective cloak around myself and tried to project a calm, relaxed and confident persona.
Dee introduced me simply by saying, “This is Andrea and she is going to tell us about her son James, who died when he was 19…”
At this there was there was a slight, but audible, collective intake of breath. Thankfully I did not have to stand up to speak, and clasping my nervous palms together under the table, I surprised myself by opening with a touch of humour, saying, “My husband tells me that when I am anxious and my throat constricts, I sound like Marge Simpson, so if you pick up on that, just bear with me!” I felt the audience relax and knew that I was off and running and everything would go well.
I began by relating how I thought I knew grief, having lost my mum in 2001, my ex husband in 2002 and my dad in 2003. After that, life settled down and in 2005 I married my dear husband Shaun. Everyone was so happy for us; my daughter Stella (James’ older sister) and James, and Shaun’s two children Mark and Janine. Six weeks later, James lost his life in the Thames after a night out with his friends in Kingston, when he accidentally slipped from the tow path.
I can hardly begin to describe the emotional rollercoaster of being ecstatically happy in June, and utterly devastated in July. One of the worst aspects, initially, was a complete inability to absorb what had happened, or indeed, to make any kind of sense of what felt like a living nightmare.
Once my talk was under way, I realised that the audience were listening attentively, and I began to grow confident enough to look up and, at times, make eye contact with some of them.
I realised that Stella’s observation, when I told her about my planned address was wise. She told me, “Well mum, you could hardly have a better audience, since they are trained to be non judgmental.” This was very reassuring to a novice speaker!
I went on to describe my individual approach to grief and how it has evolved over time. Using the cue cards gave some helpful structure to what I said. I tried to convey the distinctly separate aspects that have helped me to work through such a horrendously shocking event and I spoke of the following, which I call The Three Ps:
Proactivity – For me it was very important, as soon as James died, to find other people who truly understood what it was like to be a bereaved parent. To this end, I used the internet to find appropriate links to organisations, including the Compassionate Friends and the Drowning Support Network, which have both provided, and indeed continue to provide, a great deal of support.
I also looked for counselling and found Cruse Bereavement Care through my local GP. I contacted Cruse, and waited some three to four months until an appropriate Counsellor was available. I had particularly requested a Counsellor who understood what it was to lose someone to water, because for me it was essential for whoever counselled me to have some insight into this particular type of loss.
Positivity – From the outset I believe that it helped me to look for a positive way through the grief, although this was incredibly difficult in the early days. However, I was helped by….
Projects – For us there was no question but to immediately launch into an ultimately successful campaign for changes at Kingston riverside to make the area safer and to ensure that no-one else would have to endure the trauma that we lived through.
This was achieved over three years or so and helped enormously in giving me the feeling that I was ‘doing something’ in the light of our personal tragedy. James’ legacy is that the area is now safer, brighter and altogether more appealing to the many visitors who pass along this stretch of the Thames.
I also discussed the extensive effect of losing a child, which takes a long time to realise, saying: The ripple effect is much greater than, at first, anyone anticipates. The early days of grief mean that you close in on yourself, surround yourself with a numbing cloak simply to get through each second, each minute, and each hour. When you slowly begin to emerge from shock, blinking as if in sudden daylight, you realise that your social life, your family and friendships, your work and life balance are all irrevocably altered and damaged by what has happened.
You have to start all over again to rebuild the relationships that hitherto you took for granted. It is not uncommon to feel like a social leper in the early days, because the majority of people simply do not know how to deal with you, or with the enormity of your loss. People also talk a lot about ‘significant dates’ and difficult days. In fact, beyond the obvious trials of the anniversary, birthday, Christmas, etc., nearly every day can be significant in some way to a bereaved parent.
As Dee had asked me to elucidate on how counsellors can help bereaved parents, I also admonished them a little, telling them: Don’t say facile things to a bereaved parent, such as, ‘I know how you feel. My granny died last week’. There is a WORLD of difference between someone who has lived her life into her seventies or eighties, and a 19 year old on the cusp of adulthood. I am sad to say that the only way you can truly know how I feel is to walk a mile in my shoes.
Similarly, please don’t say, ‘At least he /she didn’t suffer,’ or, ‘You are brave to cope with it the way you do.’ No bereaved parent wants to be told he or she is brave.
I am not brave. Strong, resourceful and resilient perhaps, but not brave!
I do not define myself by the loss of my son now, although I did so in the first couple of years, but I do reflect on my life in distinct terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’ he died. I suspect this is inevitable for anyone who has suffered sudden loss.
Equally I am no closer to perfect than the next person, and do not underestimate my grief path which has not been without spells of wrenching despair, tears and railing at the fates for what has happened to us. Thankfully, I have found that these very raw, acutely agonising moments do mellow with time.
People shy away from mentioning the child who has died for fear of upsetting the grieving parent. I pointed out that this is really rather ridiculous. How could we be any more upset than we already are? If now I ask about my friends’ sons and daughters, yes, I do really want to know! We are sometimes just too polite for our own good.
I also emphasised how important it is for the bereaved to spend time with others who really understand. I continue to meet with and email other bereaved parents, and this is an invaluable mutual support network.
I further expressed to the group a premise that I feel I have learned over time. It is my view that bereavement can cause people to fall into two distinct groups in the way that they deal with their loss. There are those who cant or don’t want to change, and those who DO want to change and will do everything in their power to do this. Guess where I place myself? I appreciate that, in many ways, I am lucky. James was not murdered, nor did he suffer a long illness, and although we have a modern day ‘blended’ family, it is not a fragmented family. So I have always had loving and compassionate support.
Despite that I still feel parental guilt – guilt that I could not prevent what happened to James, and guilt that my husband, daughter and stepchildren, and all those who knew James, have to go through their lives without him here to share all that is to follow.
I wished to convey how grief changes with the passage of time. In the early days of grief, it is impossible to find optimism and hope for the future. Looking backward is far less painful, in some respects, than looking forward to a future without your child. There are many ways forward that gradually become ‘do-able’ in time. I found it helpful to keep a journal, write for TCF and DSN and, recently, for some light relief, to join a creative writing group that has allowed me to express emotions and enjoy sharing the response of a group who are not directly involved with my bereavement. Picking up on old hobbies is also a great help in restoring normality to a life which ceases to feel normal. New normal ultimately becomes the order of the day.
The process of dealing with loss saps confidence to a huge extent, and I found that challenging myself with charity walks and going to the gym helped me to regain my own self confidence. Learning complementary therapies – Reiki, Holistic Massage and Reflexology – also helped to give me new directions to focus on and think about.
Five years post loss, I hope I convey the message that it is possible to achieve a kind of independence from your grief and choose if and when you wish to visit it.
Counselling has an invaluable, though indefinable, role to play in this. It is one more tool in the armoury against the potential of being subsumed by grief. There are times I still need to sit quietly with my thoughts of James and visit anew the sense of loss but these are less frequent and less acutely painful.
I closed my talk, somewhat surprised to find that around 25 minutes had passed, by emphasising to the group, people say to me when they hear of James’ death,
‘What a waste!’ But I can tell you that I do not consider a single moment of his life a waste. The waste lies in the lack of the future that he should have had, not the time he was with us. With a level of absorption of my grief that has come with time, I can think of James’ life as a complete short story, rather than an unfinished novel.
Afterwards, there was an opportunity for the counsellors to ask questions. Then they broke into smaller satellite groups and discussed all that they had heard. I went to each group in turn to answer their – sometimes quite searching – questions.
I am sure you will wonder how I felt at the end of the evening. Well, I realised how very empowering it is to ‘hold’ an audience, and I understood for the first time the attraction of being on a stage! Although I was emotionally drained afterward, this was offset by a wonderful sense of achievement. I was proud of myself for having the courage to speak and proud that I was able to share my James with such a willing and empathic audience.
I was gratified to get complimentary feedback after the evening. In particular one of the Counsellors took the trouble to write to me to say that my talk had altered the way she communicates with a close friend who lost her daughter, making her feel more comfortable with talking about her own offspring.
Such a response made me feel that I had really achieved something worthwhile, whilst contributing to a better understanding of the issues of the grieving parent in relation to their counselling needs.
Written in loving memory of
James Edward Clark
11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005
Tribute gallery at
UK Cruse Bereavement Care:
Compassionate Friends UK:
Drowning Support Network
© Andrea Corrie