I am aware that I have been very silent over the past few weeks during the festive season. This has been partly due to some expected, obvious reasons, and partly not.
Firstly I was pretty sick over the entire Christmas break, battling a viral infection and cough that lasted an epic eight weeks. Somewhere in me, I knew that I would be ‘felled’ by something nasty over Christmas. Ever since Romy passed I have weirdly been in excellent health. This was a puzzle to me as I knew how run down I was emotionally. Why, then, did I seem to be so physically resistant to anything? Then I read somewhere that grief gives us boundless, ‘unhuman’ energy, and this I know to be true. For the past six months – and tomorrow marks this point to the day – I have been bouncing off the walls, leaping about with boundless, unspent energy which seemed to be driving me forward.
We have also been trying our best to deal with an unpleasant situation that began just weeks after Romy passed and which became increasingly complex and hostile. I have no wish to comment on what this was as I honestly don’t want to give the situation any more energy. It is also, we hope, now resolved. However, I will say that it involved behavior that I experienced as extremely hurtful. This seemed all the more shocking given that we have been so supported over these past six months. On top of our grief, at some points it became almost too much to bear. My anger, always simmering below the surface, got a few more outings out of this one!
However, Romy’s passing somehow gave us the tools to deal with it and we clung on with grim determination. It brought us even closer together as we sought to find ways to come through this new, totally unexpected challenge with grace and dignity. I found that I kept referring to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’, which strangely both my husband and I had framed on our respective walls when we first met. Even more strangely, we had both chosen to do this as the poem was a favourite of both our fathers. Its words have had huge significance just recently.
And so it was that after several months of staying strong in the face of more adversity, frenzied house decluttering, relinquishing of my life’s work and many of its associated possessions, rearranging the furniture and planning some kind of Christmas that I ground to a halt, arrived at my parents’ on Boxing Day and pretty much took to my bed.
Of course, Christmas had been a looming spectre for some weeks, but the reality turned out to be different even from my grim expectations. I developed a severe aversion to Christmas cards. Let me explain. Incidentally, we haven’t sent Christmas cards for years. Apart from the fact that we keep in touch with most of our friends and family via phone, email or social media -therefore rendering the idea of chopping down trees and buying stamps just a little bit pointless in our opinion -we are not practising Christians and would always prefer to make a donation to a charity with the money instead. This year we chose the two hospitals who worked so hard for Romy and were very touched when some of our friends and family followed our lead and donated in her memory. At first I thought that my new, aggressive, anti-Christmas card stance was just about me until I read a very sensitively written post by a fellow bereaved mother about this very subject.
I realise that I have trouble with anything that involves me signing the names of our family. I recall my pleasure in the short time I was able to write five names in any card I was sending. Now, whenever I have to do this, one name is always missing. This is not a conundrum for our son as, beautifully literal, he simply adds Romy’s name in. I suspect that there is far more leeway for a six year old to do this than for me. The reverse is also true – seeing anything addressed to four of us is simply a stark reminder that we are five, and that a name is missing. I have to stop myself from physically adding it in with a pen, because that would be silly, a step too far.
The other problem with receiving cards – and I apologise in advance if this offends because this really isn’t my intention – is twofold. Firstly, they are generic, by which I mean, they all sing out, “Have a wonderful Christmas!” I appreciate that the sender is often scribbling their 98th identical card, but this year the sentiment, “Hope you all have a great Christmas” fell pretty flat, as we were anticipating a pretty horrendous Christmas without our daughter. Secondly, the cards also generally come from whole, complete families. Some of them, sweetly, make and print cards showing beautiful pictures of their children; another swift punch in the gut for those of us who know that in every one of our family pictures now exists a gaping hole. It’s just one more ridiculous side of grief that nobody would ever expect and which I would never expect anyone to think of, but which is very difficult to navigate as ‘The Bereaved’.
Incidentally if you are reading this having sent us a Christmas card please, please don’t feel bad – we really did appreciate the thought, and also the fact that you sought to act as normally as possible with us – which is always welcome. I just mention this as I was so touched by the article I read and realise that it’s one more aspect of supporting the bereaved which could perhaps be made more public, so that others may understand some of the experiences we have that we often feel foolish trying to explain.
There were also people who thoughtfully sent us a generic card with a picture of a beautiful tree or flower or the words, “Thinking of You” ( I have to say a special ‘thank you’ here to my dear friend Helen who also wrote some particularly beautiful words). These people were like angels to me this Christmas. They got it. They got that I was dreading Christmas but desperately trying to make it magical and lovely for our other two children. They got how guilty I felt about that. They got that seeing four names instead of five was unutterably painful. I was deeply touched that those people took extra care to write a personalised message in our card, mentioning Romy by name and acknowledging the fact that we would be missing her this Christmas, which should have been so happy as it was her first.
A very strange thing happened on Christmas day. Since just before Romy was born, for some unknown reason I have associated a five pointed star with her. So strong is this association that there are five of them on her memorial plaque. The biggest one, which represents her spirit, is depicted as a shooting star, which is how I think of her. One of our family Christmas traditions is making mince pies, a task that my older daughter and I always undertake together. We make the pies open with a star shape cut out of pastry placed on the top. This year, I couldn’t find my star shaped cookie cutter. I hunted high and low but realised I must have packed it up with some other incidental items during my frenzied decluttering spree. I looked for another one in various shops but couldn’t find one, so in the end we borrowed from a neighbour.
As we sat down to our slightly alternative Christmas lunch, we pulled crackers. Out of mine flew none other than a small, five pointed star shaped cookie cutter. I realise how ridiculous this sounds but in that moment all I could think was that this was, somehow, some kind of gift from Romy. This is one of many difficult to explain occurrences we have experienced since she passed. Whether the slightly deranged wishful thinking of two struggling, bereaved parents or, as we prefer to think, a small proof of the continuation of spirit, these incidents are very comforting to us.
Just like every other aspect of bereavement, Christmas is a minefield. I couldn’t believe how angry I felt. I was also dismayed at the new Christmas tradition I have acquired in driving to the burial ground after Christmas lunch to visit my daughter’s grave, but I couldn’t not do it. This at least was one small way in which I felt I could include Romy in our day; a day that is so much about family that it becomes a burden for those of us for whom someone is missing.
New Year was very hard and I wasn’t expecting this. As much as I expect that everyone must think I had a terrible 2014 and couldn’t wait to see the back of it, I felt differently. 2014 was the year in which my daughter was born. It was the year in which I got to spend almost sixteen weeks with her, every second of which was pure joy. It was another link with her. 2014 might have been the year she left us, but it was also that of her birth and I can never get it back again. I just wasn’t ready to let go of that year. However, just like everything else in this miserable business of grief, I had no choice. It was going to be snatched from under my nose whether I liked it or not, just like my daughter.
Just before Christmas fell we marked the Solstice, as we always do. Somehow, this makes more sense to us as a family as it more in line with our beliefs. The winter solstice is marked, in this country, as the point in which the light recedes to its farthest point from us and we are literally plunged into darkness. Like a dark moon, it is a time for reflection and introspection, and often for creativity. It is also the point at which we begin to think about the return of the light into our lives as the days very gradually become lighter. In our family, we always have Solstice dinner, which the children love. We prepare food in the colours of yellow and orange to represent the returning light, and we eat in candlelight. We drink pomegranate juice in recognition of the story of Persephone returning from the Underworld, and we tell the children these stories as we eat.
This year, Solstice took on a particular significance for me. It marked a point of deep introspection and darkness, of feeling very alone in my grief. It mirrored my desire to crawl under the duvet and not come out, to ignore everything going on around me and lose myself. However, somewhere in the middle of this as I lit a candle for our angel, I also felt a small glimmer of something like hope. I recognised light returning and although there are still many dark days ahead I am beginning, very occasionally, to look forwards instead of back. My mind still loops over and over various scenarios, particularly Romy’s last few days with us, which is very difficult, but I am also, somehow, finding the strength to look ahead for my living children. I hope that the next few weeks might bring me a little of the creative impulse too.
So the festive season of 2014 was truly one of angels. The anger was not welcome but I am starting to realise that it has its own role to play. I have also been blessed with angels in many guises: family, friends old and new, acquaintances and even strangers who I’ve been able to talk to and share how my feelings with.
As the children returned to school after the break we attended the first ‘puja’, or assembly, of the year, which had as its theme, ‘The New Year’. I found myself deeply moved by a poem shared by one of the teachers as the words so aptly describe how I have felt recently:
Beannacht – A New Year Blessing, by John O’Donohue
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.