Wednesday, 31 October 2018

It's Halloween: Let's Talk About Death

Please excuse the following rant in advance. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with some aspects of Halloween, I just think our version is a grotesque concept. For one thing, Trick-or-Treat = standing on a stranger’s doorstep and basically threatening them unless they give you something nice, despite having done nothing to deserve it…

In the UK we have this ghoulish, horrible, frightening representation of the dead. We never really talk about death until October, and then it’s represented by blood, gore, and horror. I just find it so incredibly tasteless and unhealthy. We all die. It’s the one certainty in life - even more certain than birth or marriage, or all the other things that are expected and celebrated in life. It’s the one thing we know will happen, and it doesn’t have to be hideous.

Death can be beautiful, but nobody ever talks about it. My daughter’s birth and death were peaceful and beautiful. Sad. But beautiful. Even after she died, she was beautiful. I do not, cannot, and will not associate her with the awfulness that seems to represent death in this country. She was not hideous, she was not scary, she was not gross, or ghoulish, or disgusting, or any of those things that seem to appear at this time of year. I find it upsetting that death is treated like such a horrible, terrifying thing.

I feel like Halloween turns death into some gory spectacle. It's not just “harmless fun” (which is the argument I’m always given when I try to start a dialogue about death, and yes, a part of the old me can appreciate the "harmless fun" of kids dressing up, and getting high on candy). But I think it’s damaging that death is represented in such a negative way, and then generally silenced for the rest of the year. Death should be part of an ongoing conversation, so that when it happens, it’s easier to deal with. It shouldn’t be hidden away until October, and then paraded around like some frightening freak-show.

Holly’s death was beautiful. God knows it wasn’t what I wanted for her, or for me, but if there is a right way to die, then she died with dignity and it is one of few things I was able to do for her. At the other end of the spectrum, my elderly Gran’s death was equally beautiful, in a different way. My Mum was with her, and she quietly just slipped away, and was released from the horrendous illness that had been so cruel to her for the last years of her life. Her death was liberating, it set her free.

But here we are on Halloween, surrounded by these awful, upsetting, hideous representations of death. I wish I could see it as just harmless fun because my six-year-old wants to go trick-or-treating, and I suppose, to him, he only sees the “fun” side with all the sweets and candy, and I don't want to deny him that. But I just can’t help feeling this representation of death is not healthy. I don’t want to be around it. I don’t want my beautiful daughter to be associated with it. I want to protect her from any negative associations and Halloween to me this year, just feels so oppressively negative.

I have always tried to turn her life - and death - into something beautiful. To create positive memories, rather than remember her only with sorrow. So, while everyone else is surrounding their homes with macabre images, I took her beautiful bauble (containing her ashes) outside into the autumn sunlight, and photographed some tributes to her. There is beauty in everything, if you look for it. Even in death. At this time of year (and I admit that I am probably being over sensitive during the run up to the anniversary of Holly's birth, and I'm prone to overthinking everything anyway), I'm doing my best to hold onto that, in spite of what feels like an onslaught of grotesqueness associated with death...

And off I go... Trick-or-Treating with my son... in a controlled, and sensible way, in spite of my own feelings... Because that is what parents do for their children, and I don't want to deprive him of his "fun."

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Baby Loss Awareness Week

It's the end of Baby Loss Awareness Week, 2018 (#BLAW2018). I'm not sure how this week makes me feel, because for me, I don't need to raise my own awareness; baby loss is part of my reality. My blog is not limited to one week, it's part of a continuous narrative, sharing my ongoing journey through baby loss. One day, I intend to transfer these blog posts over to a new website, specifically for the purpose of remembering Holly Rose, but in the meantime, I'll continue to post here, and on Instagram (under the hashtag #RememberingHollyRose) where I've posted a few mini blog posts over the course of the last week.

Yesterday, I tweeted about baby loss awareness, and it was picked up and quoted by the press. Part of me wishes I had never strayed into the online world of social media on a day which made me feel vulnerable. But part of me is proud to continue to raise awareness, and to speak on behalf of myself and other baby loss parents who shouldn't feel silenced. So I'm sharing below one of the news articles that quoted me, along with the response I felt compelled to write in response to some unsympathetic comments I read.

I'm sure many of you are sick of #babylossawarenessweek (then again, maybe you didn't even know about it). Yesterday it concluded with the #WaveOfLight which was about remembering babies who died, worldwide. I attended a lovely service with a shocking number of other bereaved parents (literally - a shocking number, and that was just one service). Meanwhile, Meghan and Harry announced their pregnancy yesterday. 

For many people, pregnancy announcements in general are a painful trigger, as a reminder of what they have lost - particularly if the loss is more recent. That can't be avoided. But this particular announcement completely took over the news, and overshadowed the wave of light on the one day of the year it takes place, during the one week when we can theoretically openly talk about #babyloss without the stigma of silence so frequently associated with it. That's the whole point of baby loss awareness week - to #breakthesilence - as it so often feels like something nobody is willing to talk about.

At least three news articles (that I know of) quoted me from Twitter, in articles about the royals announcing their pregnancy on #waveoflight day. On some sites, I read hurtful comments about "PC gone mad," and how everyone is so easily offended. It's not about being "offended," offended isn't even the right word. It's about being hurt, and you simply cannot tell people who are hurting, not to be hurt. Nobody is upset with Meghan and Harry for having a baby. But their advisers could have done better research, and if they genuinely didn't know about the timing - to me, that's even more sad. #Babylossawareness is needed. It's needed because when you've lost a child, you need to feel able to talk about them. That's all we ask, and for that to happen, there has to be understanding.

I've subsequently been trolled by people who presumably read my comment in one of the media articles. So, I apologise if you don't want to hear or think about #babyloss. Neither do I really, but it's part of my reality all day, every day. I'm sorry if my posts "offend" anyone. But #babylossawareness is needed for the sanity of parents like me.

 Just a small number of the candles representing lost babies at one of the many "Wave of Light" services held for Baby Loss Awareness week. 

My lovely boy, remembering his little sister at the Wave of Light.

My Friend Mo

Dear Mo,

Looking back, I didn’t really have a "happy childhood." Hard to say why, there was no specific reason. Just an overwhelming sense that by school-age, I didn't really fit in. I liked books, words, and writing. I liked losing myself in an imaginary world somewhere between pen and paper, somewhere far away from mundane reality. You were the first person who shared that world with me.

You were not the most "popular" teacher in primary school. Your teaching methods were somewhat old-fashioned; you were strict and, by modern-standards, unconventional. But you saw something in me that others didn't. And I saw you in return. You were not just my teacher, you were my friend when I felt I had so few of them.

Our friendship transcended a gap of several decades. My favourite memory of you is the time I reduced you to tears, and somewhat-undignified snorts of laughter (I'm sorry to tell you that your snorting was much mocked by other pupils), over a slightly ridiculous English exercise from a set-text book. The chapter related to the postal service, and the specific task was "draw what you think a 'Dead Letterbox' looks like"... Even at the age of nine or ten, I questioned the educational value of the task, and mockingly took the instructions literally. I drew a faded letterbox on its side, at a 90 degree angle, with cracking paint, cobwebs, and a birds-nest balanced on top (and with pretentious attention to detail I knew only you would appreciate, the initials ‘VR’ for Victoria Royal): I will never forget queuing up with the other pupils, patiently awaiting my turn to have my work checked, knowing that the ludicrousness of the drawing would appeal to your sense of humour. Sure enough, you cackled and snorted for several minutes, while the other children stopped their chatter and sat in silence, staring at you. (I think it was quite a shock to them, that even teachers have a sense of humour).

The year after I left your class, during my final year of primary school, you made Christmas cards with your class. You’d made your own, by way of example, and I remember how special I felt, when you presented me with the card you'd made. It said, "I was trying to think of someone special to give this card to. It had to be you"... And so began the tradition of our annual Christmas cards to each other... although I wasn't to know, aged ten, that the tradition would continue for almost thirty years.

You retired from Ridgeway Primary School, just as I graduated up to secondary school, and our friendship could have ended there. Secondary school was a disappointment to me, and by December, aged 11, I was already struggling with a sense of isolation, and the feeling that nobody understood me. That year, you sent me another Christmas card, delivered to my home address. Again, I've never forgotten your words, they have stayed with me all these years. You wrote, in your familiar spidery handwriting, "I miss our conversations, your acute observations, of people and of life." And you stopped signing yourself "Mrs Burdett." You signed yourself, "Mo." And I knew then that you were no longer just my old teacher.  You were also my friend.

Every year (admittedly, with the occasional late exception), I wrote back to you; sometimes at length, and sometimes just a few words. Meanwhile, your Christmas cards became more elaborate. Homemade cross-stitching, in festive patterns. I kept them all, too precious to part with - most years, I still display them. And I'd sometimes drop in to visit you when passing through Ridgeway, with a bunch of flowers or a belated update. Sometimes years would pass, but friends always pick up where they left off, and you would always pop the kettle on, with an amusing anecdote. Even after your beloved Hal passed away, you retained your sense of humour.

You always said I “had a way with words," and you encouraged me to use them. You told me more than once that there was a space saved on your (burgeoning) book shelf for my first novel. I took your confidence in me to heart. You taught me the importance of words, and the weight they carry. Whenever I write a piece I'm proud of, or read a favourite phrase, I always think of you, and will continue to do so.

In recent years, you had become physically frail, but your mind was as sharp as ever. Your Christmas cards were no longer hand-stitched, and some years they didn't arrive at all, but I always knew the kettle would be on if I called in to visit. The last time I saw you (only a few weeks ago), I was overjoyed to finally meet Rachel, your daughter, who I had heard so much about, after living all those years in Japan. Somehow our paths had never managed to cross, but I felt I knew her. So much of your wisdom is in her, and I felt I'd found an instant friend. It can't be coincidence I met her when I did, and I hope in years to come, I can pick up my friendship with her where my friendship with you left off.
My only regret is that I am writing these words to you now. Now that you can't read them. The last time I saw you, I felt compelled to write you this letter, and most of it was already mentally penned... I only wish I had not delayed sending it.

Life has taught me, there is no point telling people how you feel at funerals. Tell them now, while they can still appreciate the sentiment. Nobody knows better than myself, that you cannot know what tomorrow will bring. Don't put off until tomorrow what you can put in words today.

I wanted you to know that although it is many years since you first encouraged me to write, there is still a novel in me. I don't know the exact content yet, but I do know that you have to live before you can write. For that reason, I have taken my time, but one day, Mo, there will be a novel on your shelf (or maybe Rachel's), and it will have your name on the opening page, dedicated to you, because you were the first person to believe in me, when I desperately needed someone to.

I wish I had told you all this when I last saw you, and I felt the compulsion... Premonition, even. I should have trusted my instincts. But still... Words speak volumes, but actions speak louder still, and so, I hope you knew. I hope that you knew how much you meant, because you will not be forgotten.

So I can only echo your own words back to you, today. The words you wrote to me, aged 11, in a Christmas card. "I miss our conversations, your acute observations, of people and of life."

I will miss you, Mo. A good teacher is never forgotten, but a good friend, even less so.

With all my love to Rachel and David,


Friday, 5 October 2018

Instagram: #TheGoodTheBadTheVainAndTheUgly

I've recently started using Instagram, since the purchase of a new phone with sufficient memory to enable me to download the app. For whatever reason, I'm currently finding it quite a liberating experience. It's the only place online where I merge all of my personas into one, and don't feel the need to filter my life. Consequently, my page is a bit of a mismatch of professional shameless self-promotion, everyday silliness, cute furries, dark days of grief, and everything in between. A combination of the vain, the mundane, the happy, and the heartbreaking. All part of the journey of self-acceptance since losing Holly Rose. Occasionally, I use it for a mini vent, and I find the sense of community there to be supportive and understanding. Social media can be both a blessing and a curse when you have experienced loss, and so I think it's important to share both the good days and the bad, rather than create a misleadingly perfect narrative.

On one of my down days, I recently wrote this "mini blog post" (complete with #hashtags), accompanied by the following picture for Instagram, and I'm sharing it here too. Feel free to follow me, and be prepared for an influx of random uploads, through good times and bad, and everything in between.

You may be wondering about the influx of selfies on my Instagram feed. (Those who know me will tell you I was never really a selfie-taker, and never quite got the hang of it). My newfound vanity is an attempt to accept "the new me." I long ago accepted that I will never again be the same as I was before - mentally, or physically. An attempt to see myself as others see me. People tell me "I look great," (I must admit, every "like" helps) but I look in the mirror and fail to see it.

Yesterday was a good day... Today... Not so much. I just watched a video of myself in the show I've been performing in for the last four months. (I'm proud to be in that show, it's helped me to regain a little of "the old me" in ways that nobody will ever really know). But all I see are the physical changes which represent the difference between "me now" and "me then". It's a painful visual reminder of the difference between who I am now, and who I was before.

#Grief doesn't disappear, we just learn to live with it. Maybe we simply become better at disguising how we feel. In the wake of loss, every emotion has a duality about it - happiness and sadness occur simultaneously. So I can post "flattering" selfies on the same day that I can post this slightly more realistic, honest #selfie of how I'm actually feeling right now.

#Loss has taught me that I am never alone. There is always someone who relates; but in order achieve understanding, we need to be #honest and open, in a way that people don't necessarily want to hear about, especially on social media.

I have always worn my heart on my sleeve, so I don't want to hide the bad days. Sometimes those bad days are also the good days. Everything is a grey area, there is no such thing as black and white.
I still get through very few days without crying (more now than I used to... and even that admission is tinged with guilt). I am also learning to live with myself, and attempting to love myself, as I am now. Sometimes that might mean using #allthefilters to paint myself in a #positive light - the way I'd like to be seen - the person I catch fleeting glimpses of.

Some days, I also look like this. And that's the #truth.

#babyloss #nofilter #HollyRose