Tag Archives: grief

The Friday Review: September Reflections

IMG_20140804_115126

Andrew Gormley sculpture on top of Blackwells Art shop in Broad Street, Oxford.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn, and it feels like it out here in Darkest Norfolk, where the nights have suddenly become chilly, and the elderberries are hanging in heavy, bloody bunches in the hedgerows.  It marks the end of a summer we have barely experienced, and not just because of the weather, which has, frankly, been ruddy awful here.

At this time of year I am inclined to be reflective, and this year all the more so, since at the end of the month I will turn 50, an age at one time I seriously never thought I would reach.  The same day will be the first anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death, after a long struggle with dementia.  There’s a lot to think about, as you can imagine.

This summer, I haven’t been very present on this blog for many reasons.  We’ve been in the process of clearing out mother-in-law’s house, ready for its new owners to move in, which has been a long and arduous project, requiring a great deal of travelling, complicated emotions and memories, and an uncountable number of visits to the city dump and various charity shops.  I won’t bore you with the details except to say that two old ladies living in a large three bedroomed house for 28 years can accumulate A LOT of STUFF.

In the midst of juggling estate agents and solicitors, my husband was called in for a routine hernia repair operation, which went well, but immobilised him for a period.

Then, inconveniently in the middle of his recovery, I went down with what was subsequently diagnosed as Menieres disease, a condition of the middle ear which causes tinnitus, pain, hearing loss, debilitating balance problems and bouts of vertigo.

Anybody who thinks vertigo is just being scared of heights needs to be corrected.  It is when the balance mechanism in your inner ear goes haywire and your brain can’t orientate you in three-dimensional space.  The result is like having your head in a washing machine.  Vomit-inducing.  Try having a bout of that regularly for six weeks, and I think you’ll know why I haven’t been writing much.  Thanks, however, to the wonders of modern medication, I am now able to function like a normal human being again, an unbelievable relief.  I have even got my hearing and ability not to walk into large pieces of furniture back!  The fear that I might never hear again, that I might lose my balance permanently, has also faded.  Which is nice. And my husband is fully recovered, so that’s nice too.

My doctor told me she didn’t like the term ‘disease’ when she diagnosed me with Menieres.  She said it didn’t accurately describe the condition.  For me it described it perfectly.  The dis-ease within my skin.  The sense of being unbalanced, literally and metaphorically, as I negotiate this transitional phase of my life.  The stripping back of the extraneous.  There was no energy for anything unnecessary.  No energy spare for anything other than the basic functions of life.  Standing up.  Lying down.  Walking.  Eating. Sleeping.  Seeing.  And most demandingly of all, hearing.

It is amazing how, when life is cut back to the bone like that, when things you take for granted suddenly become unstable, lots of things simply are no longer worth the effort, and some are even intolerable.

I am no longer inclined to take any shit.  I am no longer inclined to care what other people think.  I am no longer willing to tolerate a victim mentality, either in myself or others.  I am no longer willing to do anything but be grateful for every minute of every day.

Yes, Menieres changed me.

The last year has been spent in the aftermath of Alzheimers, midwifing my husband through his grief, and coping with my own mother’s diagnosis with the same disease, an event which rocked my world off its hinges completely.  The trauma of caring for someone with that horrible affliction cannot be underestimated.  I am still dogged by the memory of my normally affectionate and amiable mother-in-law screaming down the phone at me that I was a thief and a liar, and in league with a secret government organisation that was trying to kill her.  Such memories are not easily processed.  By the end of this month, the house in which she spent her final years will be moving into new hands, and we will no longer have to face the feelings of dread driving into the village, which came from our weekend visits to care for her, not knowing what fresh dramas awaited us.  Not having to drive up that road any more will help, I think.

Alzheimers changed me.

This time last year, another life changed radically too.  My niece Phoebe was diagnosed with cancer, a rare and most serious kind that caused catastrophic blood clotting so desperate that her leg had to be amputated.  Her courage in learning to walk again, facing many surgical procedures, and now conventional chemotherapy after the months of oral chemo she has already been through, continues to astound me.  I’m sure she wouldn’t say she was being especially brave.  She is 32 with a lovely husband and two little children to live for.  She just wants her life back.  To me she is an inspiration.

Cancer has changed me too.

Through all this I have written, even if somewhat intermittently.  I have written in my journal, doggedly trying to stay sane through its ink-stained pages.  I have scribbled many writing practice sessions.  I have reflected and plotted in my writing notebook.  I have rediscovered myself after the blinding snowstorm of caring for my mother-in-law, and managed to cling onto myself in the subsequent whirlwinds of Menieres and family problems.  Through writing, I have remembered who I am, and then discovered I am more than I thought I ever could be.

And that is where I am now.

Changed.

I am not sure this chrysalis phase is over yet.  There is plenty more change to be negotiated, not least my own mother’s decline.

But just now, things are stable. Optimistic.  Grounded.  And, thank goodness, not spinning!

So I begin September, my birthday month, hopeful, and in the process of transition.  A transition that I hope to share with you, dear reader.

Thank you for sticking with me.

Happy Creating,

EF

Advertisements

Twelfth Night

img_20170104_123143

Taking down the decorations

This is the part of Christmas I hate.  The clearing up.

Today is the day for taking the decorations down.  If you leave them up any longer, its supposed to be bad luck.  And since I don’t want any more bad stuff in my life for a good while, I’m diligently stripping the tree, just to be on the safe side.

Once all the cards and baubles are gone, the place looks rather sad and naked.  Empty.  You can see where all the dust and cobwebs have built up.  (I’m leaving the hoovering and dusting till tomorrow, so I don’t use up all my strength in one day.)  It looks especially empty this year because we made such an effort to bring that Christmas magic back into the house.  The first annual holiday without a loved one (in this case, my mother-in-law) is always a tough one, and especially so for my Husband this year, because his mother was such an enthusiast for the season, such an integral part of the family’s celebrations.  We had to make a particular effort to reclaim it not only from grief, but from the difficult memories of the last few Christmases spent in the shadow of her Alzheimers disease.

I think we managed it (mostly).  At least, I’m pretty sure it could have been a lot worse.  And when I came downstairs one evening and found him lying on his back on the sofa, gazing at the twinkling lights on the tree and listening to the soft music of Vaughn Williams, relaxed for the first time in months, I decided we’d found a reasonably happy medium.

Now the Yuletide festical is over, and we have to face the stark reality of a future year, the uncertainties of Brexit and Trump, as well as clearing out and selling the home of a loved one.  However, I don’t feel as desolate as I thought I would.

I always said I was a ‘glass half full’ kind of person.  You know the old adage, the one about looking at a glass with some water in it, and choosing to be optimistic about there still being something left to drink, or being pessimistic about the fact that its half gone.  The joke I heard recently about, ‘well, there’s plenty of space for more vodka’ seems to chime with how I feel today.

The house may feel bald and empty, but now there is space to fill it with new things.  Good things.  Things we can choose together, not the baggage of caring for someone with dementia, of watching her suffering, and of our own powerlessness to help.  There is new opportunity in the space that is left, both by the decorations and the lifting of the burden of caring.  And we get to choose what we fill it with.

Which is quite exciting when you think about it.

(Think of all the writing and painting I’m going to get done!)

So don’t look at your dusty, de-Christmassed home in dismay today.  Look for the gaps in between, the space for possibility.  Don’t mourn the loss of Christmas.  Think to yourself, in your best Mary Poppins tone, ‘well, what shall I do today?’

Happy Creating,

EF

Pivot Points

Let me tell you about the Marie Antoinette watch.

Its said to be the greatest watch ever made.

One day in 1783, an admirer of the French queen arrived at the workshop of Adam-Louis Breguet, the greatest watchmaker in Paris.  He wanted the perfect watch for the perfect woman.  His commission was to be without bounds.  Breguet was to pour everything he knew into making the most complex, and most beautiful timepiece possible.  Money was no object.

The watch became Breguet’s obsession.  Even after the French monarchy fell, Marie Antoinette was executed, and the lucrative business he had built from the commissions of the aristrocracy was in ruins, Breguet continued to craft his masterpiece.  Ultimately, it took forty years to complete, and had to be finished by Breguet’s son, four years after the master himself died.

Known officially as the Breguet No. 160 Grand Complication, the watch contained every function known at that time – Breguet even invented a few new ones.  It was crafted in precious metals and gems.  Breguet used sapphire for all the mechanical pivot points in the clockwork, in order reduce friction.

And its these sapphire pivot points that fascinate me.

Because I’m at a pivot point right now.

You will have noticed in recent months that this blog has become fairly, if not completely, dormant.  Life has, as it were, taken over.  There was no space to write.  No space in my life.  No space in my head.

Then, in September, on my birthday ironically, my mother-in-law died.  Her dementia had been filling up all the space in my brain and in my life.  Since she has been gone, I’ve begun to recollect not only who I am, but also all the activities that had been shelved and forgotten in order to look after her.  So many things I wanted in my life had fallen away, out of necessity.  And so many things now seemed irrelevant.

In the last few months, I know that I have changed not only profoundly but also irrevocably.  So much more has been happening than simply looking after my ailing elderly relative – things which are someone else’s story to tell.  And yet they, too, have had a hand in my transformation.  My life has been like a pack of cards, being shuffled by the Hand of (insert your favourite deity/scientific motivator here).

The day my mother-in-law died was a beautiful day.  The sun shone.  The sky was a perfect sapphire blue.  I stood outside the hospital foyer with a soft, warm wind on my face, and knew that I had reached one of Breguet’s pivots.  Wasn’t the sky exactly the right blue, after all?  And does not sapphire reduce friction?

The friction of life with Alzheimers is gone.  The cards that were thrown up into the air have fallen back down in a new order.  The things that seemed important then are irrelevant now, and vice versa.

Now the funeral is over, now the first shock of grief has passed, I find all I want to do is write.  I want to write something profound.  I want to write because I have changed.  I want to write something real.  Something hard.  Something pivotal.  My own sapphire pivot point.  So I am writing.  By hand in my journal.  In notebooks, longhand.  Using Natalie Goldberg’s wisdom as my map, I am steadily shuffling my way towards the light.

I hope I am making my own ‘Grand Complication’, out of the precious metals and gems of my own life.  I hope you will join me on my journey.  And I hope it won’t take me the forty years it took Breguet!

Happy Creating,

EF

Tips on Writing a Eulogy (Because you never know when you might need to.)

cropped rosesToday’s post is something of a reactive one.

A friend emailed.  He told me that another friend had died suddenly, unexpectedly.  He was in his forties.  My friend has been asked to give the eulogy at his funeral.

‘What do I do?  Where do I start?  You’re the writer, you tell me.’

As it happens, I have written a eulogy myself.  I wanted to give a speech at my step-father’s funeral.  I wanted to talk about how much he meant to me.  In the end, because of family circumstances, this became impossible, so instead I read his favourite poem and luckily, that summed up a lot of what I wanted to say about him anyway.  I still have the speech I wrote, tucked away somewhere.

You never know when you might be called upon to give such a speech.  Unexpected deaths happen all the time, and even if the death is expected, it’s still a tough call when you are asked by the chief mourner to stand up and ‘say a few words’.  That makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it, that phrase?  Like you can just burble out the right thing off the top of your head.  No one does that.  You have to plan.  Here’s a handle on where to start:

  • Think of a list of adjectives that best describe the deceased as you knew them.  Don’t go overboard trying to make a huge list.  Four or five will do.
  • Now think of memories of them which illustrate that quality.  Maybe your adjective is ‘kind’, and the memory might be an occasion when they sat up with you all night after a bad breakup, not really saying anything much, just listening to your sorrow and comforting you with their presence and understanding.  Maybe ‘talented’ is the word, and the memory is of going to hear the premiere of their latest musical composition at a local concert hall.  Perhaps ‘inept’ is the word, and your memory is of them falling into the river whilst trying to row a boat and impress everyone on the bank!
  • Don’t choose too many words and memories.  People at a funeral can’t sit through too much.  Try three, and see if that gives you an overall picture of what meant most to you about the person.
  • Think carefully about the situation.  If someone has died young, or without fulfilling their potential, the audience might appreciate hearing of some lesson the deceased taught you that may serve as evidence of a legacy.
  • People don’t like to hear ill of the dead.  Don’t tell the mourners about the horrendously blue best man’s speech he gave at your wedding, or how she borrowed your best dress and left lipstick stains all over the hem.  They don’t want to hear the small things any more than they want to hear that the deceased was a child-murderer or cheated on their spouse.  We deify the dead, and only get angry at their shortcomings much later in the grieving process.
  • If you are angry at the deceased, reflect on your anger carefully before you give your speech.  If you don’t, your words might come across as bitter.
  • Read your speech out aloud and practise it.  Show it to sympathetic friends who you trust to say ‘you can’t say that!’, or ‘That’s perfect!’
  • Don’t ramble on.  Keep your speech short and to the point.
  • Be fond, and include a gently amusing anecdote if you can.  This diffuses tension and helps mourners think of the happier times.
  • Expect to have a rollercoaster of feelings on the day.  You may have trouble speaking at all without weeping.  Or you may experience a sense of enormous calm descend on you, and give an Oscar-worthy performance.  Or more likely, a bit of both.  Either way, don’t judge yourself.
  • Always try to end on a positive note, emphasising some way in which the deceased enriched the world with their presence, however brief.

That’s a few ideas off the top of my head.  I hope that this is not something you are facing right now. If you are, please be assured you have my deepest sympathies.  If you have written a eulogy yourself and have some tips, do please share them in the comments section.

This post was written with fondest love to Mad Mark the Maniac,

EF