Things I’m learning about grief

SamuelandI

After performing the saddest duty of life at Samuel’s funeral life continues… but it is not, and can never be the same.Today marks four months since Samuel died, and I’m learning new things everyday about the impact of his death.  Losing a child has a profound impact.

Many families experience this pain, and there are a few families I know learning the lessons of grief too. A consequence of having a child as special as Samuel is that you get to meet and know a lot of other families with really special kids and this year our network has experienced the loss of a few of these amazing little people, and a few more are struggling with declining health.

I am learning the hard lessons about grief, I am sure there is a lot more to learn, but this is still a new way of life…  so what have I learned so far?

There is no preparation

I am no stranger to death, I have witnessed it many times in my career. However, no matter how prepared you think you are intellectually for the death of those close to you, you can never be fully prepared emotionally for the loss and grief.

Through all of the challenges that Samuel faced, and all the times that we were “prepared” for the fact that he was going to die, there is nothing…absolutely nothing that can prepare you for that moment.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the sheer flood of emotions then, and in the days, weeks and months that follow.

Grief triggers are EVERYWHERE

Yes there are all the “expected” things that you know are going to remind you. I expect to have feelings around photo’s of Samuel, around places that were important in our time with him.

But the reality is that triggers are all over the place, and they can lead to sudden outbursts of emotion, and they happen in places and at times that you least expect them to happen.

I was reading a book that included the detail of some psychology experiments that involved people washing and the impact the act of washing had on thought processes around a separate task… and before I knew it my mind had jumped to pictures of me washing Samuel for the last time before he died, and washing him after he died… both beautiful memories…. but memories that had me sitting in my office in a flood of tears, overwhelmed by a deep feeling of loss.

This reaction has been triggered by songs, by other images, by conversations… by many things.

The pain of a loss is a reflection of love

The words of poet Mark Doty are a beautiful explanation …

grief might be, in some ways, the long aftermath of love, the internal work of knowing, holding, more fully valuing what we have lost. 

You can never regret having loved someone with all your heart, and grief is teaching me just how much love I had and continue to have for Samuel, and it is certainly teaching more and more about Samuel’s impact on my life.

You grieve your past, present and future with them

Some of the grief around Samuel has been with us for a long time, we had to grieve for the little boy he was before his accident, we still grieve for that version of Samuel.

Then there was the “little stream of losses” along the way as Samuel deteriorated and was no longer able to do certain things. 

There’s the now of grieving for him. Missing him, noticing the differences that life holds without him.

There’s the future of grieving from him…. thinking of all those things that he will never be a part of in our futures.

It is messy and it is confusing.

Most people have probably heard about the “stages of grieving” by Kubler-Ross… it’s a useful theoretical model for having an intellectual understanding of grief…. but like my experience of many other models for life “knowing” something does not prepare you for it……. and when it happens it’s not that clear cut…. it’s not stage 1 followed by stage 2 etc etc…. some days it’s every stage all at once, sometimes it’s 5 followed by one followed by 3….. there is no such thing as a linear process of grief it is messy and it is confusing.

Then there is the anxiety that comes with grieving which is not something that the “models of grieving” discuss or have you expect…..the heart palpitations, shortness of breath and other anxiety symptoms that spring out of nowhere as part of the experience of grief.

You cannot compare grief and loss

With the best of intention people will try….. yes, there might be some similarity in the events, and there is certainly the shared experience of broken hearts and loss….. but each and every experience is different.

They didn’t lose Samuel… they didn’t have the relationship with him that is unique to me, the relationship that is unique to Jo-ann, or the relationship that is unique to Tanja or Taylor.

Grief is a unique and individual experience… I can’t compare my experience of it with my own wife’s experience due to the differences in the relationship between a mum and a dad and their child, we are all grieving but by necessity have to do it in our own way that honours our unique experience and relationship with Samuel

So there is no way I could even begin to comprehend another families grief and loss… I can sympathise with the sense of loss and the broken heart but I will never know what it feels like to have lost their unique child… and they will never know what it is like to have lost Samuel.

There are days when you will feel totally and completely alone

It doesn’t matter how many people are around, how supportive people are, and even in the midst of family…. the sensation of being completely and utterly alone can hit.. and nothing can shift it.

Time does NOT and cannot heal this wound……

The Rev Graham Long from the wayside chapel put it beautifully in a remembrance ceremony held by Bear Cottage. to paraphrase him

 Time does not heal the wound of losing a child, and nor would we want it too. To heal the wound would be in some way a signal that we have forgotten them, and we never want to forget them. In time scar tissue forms on the heart.. and that scar on our hearts is a reminder that they lived, a scar we WANT to carry with us because of everything it reminds us of.

 

I miss my little man every single day, with every fibre of my heart. Life does go on, it’s not the same, and it never can be…. I will always love him, and carry him in my heart…. and continue to learn to how to grieve for him.

I’m fine, no really! Ok who am I trying to fool?

I'm fine

 

I’m fine… no really I am! OK who am I trying to fool?  I’m not OK, but why should I be?

After performing the saddest duty of life I don’t expect to be fine, and the reality is that I am experiencing every single one of the emotions depicted in the image above. Sometimes one at a time, sometimes several at once, and occasionally feeling every one of them simultaneously, and it’s perfectly bloody normal, even if it doesn’t feel normal.

I’m struggling, that’s the truth, but I’d be more worried about myself if I wasn’t struggling.

The hardest part about struggling is the reality that those that I love are struggling too. There’s no escaping it, but it’s hard to give on an empty tank, it’s hard to see them hurt and not be able to do what is needed for them.

Managing the social dance

I’ve written before on social conventions and the dance that goes on around asking someone how they are.. and I’ve lost count of the amount of times in the past weeks that I’ve answered “I’m fine”  to a question… when I really wanted to yell and scream and rally against the inequities of life..

I’ve been reflecting on how prepared people are to hear the truth…. what would they do if I hit them with the truth?

In fact when you ask the question “how are you” to someone, are you prepared to hear what is really happening to them, or what they are feeling.. or are you hoping that you will simply get the polite ” I’m fine” ……

Resilience

As tough as it is to ride this wave of emotion at the moment, I know enough to know it’s normal, I know enough to know that it too will pass (although it will never go away, our love for Samuel was so strong that the pain will always be there to some degree), I know  that I love my family, and my family is tough … we’ve dealt with a lot, and we always bounce back. I know that I am and we are resilient and we will get through.

I know enough to not be afraid to cry.… and to let the tears flow….

I know enough to know that sometimes I have to sit with my sadness

I also know that right now though it feels like I’m about to break……

 

 

image credit @jessicahagy from This is Indexed

 

 

 

21st Birthday of sorts

Turning 21..again!

21 st Birthday… I wish, times that by two and you would be closer to the truth… but today is a 21st Birthday of sorts.

If I’m not turning 21 then whats up?

Today is 21 years since I joined the Fire Brigade…

What 21 years in the same job?

There are not too many “jobs” in which someone spends 21 years (or lot more) in these days. But this needs to be looked at in context, and the Fire Brigade has been far more than just a “job”.

I may have been in the Fire Brigade for 21 years, but I have had a number of “careers” already within this time.

I have spent time operationally on the fire-trucks doing the stuff you see firefighters do in the media and loved every minute of it.

I have spent time in Corporate Strategy and project management, I have spent (a short time) in training. I have done specialisations like Rescue and Hazardous Materials. I have spent time in additional roles like being a member of our Critical Incident Support team.

I have also been fortunate to have progressed  in rank to where I am today, an Inspector (for those looking for an equivalency in rank terms, think Major in the Army).

I gained an education… in more ways than one.

I gained a valuable vocational education, but beyond that I have earned three post-graduate degrees and picked up plenty of “life lessons” along the way.

Twenty one years has provided many great examples of leadership (as well as a few how not to lessons on leadership).

I have been shown the true nature of “the firefighter family” when my own families circumstances have been dire [see how did I get here].

Lessons learned

I have learned how fragile human life is.

I have learned how strong the human body can be, despite what people and circumstances can do to it.

I have learned how indestructible the human spirit is, or can be.

I have learned that there is always someone willing to help (including when you find it hard to ask for help), and some one willing to watch your back, and how to reciprocate such loyalty and friendship.

I have learned that there is strength in unity.

I have learned the truth behind a quote that I have never been able to re-find the source for……“Bravery is a single act usually over in minutes, true courage is putting on the uniform every day knowing what it is you might be called upon to do”, and I thank my fellow firefighters and members of other emergency services for putting on the uniform and showing up every day to make our communities safer for everyone.

I have learned….. that I have never finished learning….. and that….

21 does feel like a beginning again..

Just like a real 21st birthday, today is full of hope. I potentially have a long time and a lot more to achieve in this “fire brigade” life, just like when I was turning 21.

I hope the next 21 years (if it lasts that long) is as full of fun, friendship, learning and life that the last 21 has been.

When things are foggy

when things are foggy

A morning fog….

This morning was one of the first days this year that I have woken up to a thick fog, that completely changed the drive to work and it set me thinking about when things are foggy.

Reduced Visibility

Obviously one of the first things that you notice when you wake up to a foggy day is that you can’t see as far as you usually can, your visible world has shrunk. It doesn’t mean that all those things that are usually there aren’t there it’s just that they have become obscured.

When setting off on a trip in these conditions the same applies to your journey, many of the landmarks, signposts and other clues that you would use to help guide you are obscured, but the road is still there and so is your ultimate destination.

A need to change focus

Driving in a fog causes you to change strategy about the way that you choose to light your path. You can’t hit high beam to push your way through the fog, it just causes the fog to appear thicker and brighter and it further reduces your visibility. You can’t just speed up and push your way through it ( well you can but you are just inviting a car wreck!). The fog causes you to change your focus and start looking at clues that are more immediate and closer to you than your usual length of focus. To get the best visibility  you need to use low beam or change the colour of the light you use by switching to fog lights. When you do this the fog becomes less intense and your visibility improves.

When life gets foggy

Many of life’s problems can act a bit like a blanket of fog. They obscure how much you can see and they hide your destination from you. They cause you to shift focus. Just like driving if you try to switch your life to high beam, or speed your life up to try to push through you just manage to make things less clear or rush headlong into a potential wreck.

Treat life’s fog like driving in the fog

  • slow down
  • reduce the intensity of your focus
  • use landmarks and signposts in your life that are close to you, one’s that you often usually don’t pay attention to you
  • change the way you light up the problem, it might allow you to see a way through that you can’t otherwise

What are your tips for safely navigating through life’s fog? Share them in the comments ….

Because you are worth it…..I dare you!

I recently wrote about How to sit with sadness, the good news is that the strategy that I shared in that post …. applies to almost every emotion or set of circumstances you find yourself in, and BECAUSE YOU ARE WORTH IT here are the simple instructions……..

because you are worth it

The instruction manual for sitting with.......

 

I DARE YOU!

BECAUSE YOU ARE WORTH IT, I dare you to pick an emotion, pick a set of circumstances you are confronting…. follow the instructions……JUST PAY ATTENTION… don’t argue with yourself or justify your thoughts just pay attention to them and see how the emotion or your understanding of the circumstances change, …..and then …..

Tell others about your experience sitting with….. in the comments below!