I am not a political person. Not even slightly. The news is never on in our house and we don’t buy, or read, newspapers or subscribe to online news websites. It is still a source of amusement and consternation in my family that I was two whole days late to the party when the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death came out.
However, for the first time in my life I am about to comment publicly on a political event. I had a strangely fitful night’s sleep last night, waking every few hours to feed M, surprised to find myself wondering whether any election results had been announced. This was a very puzzling state to find myself in given that I have paid very little attention to the election campaign, its protagonists or indeed anything else going on in the US outside of my husband’s recent business trip to New York. The frenetic buzz of the collective consciousness must have been reaching out to me.
On waking, and as the Facebook posts and general online dismay, upset and outrage unfolded and intensified I found myself getting swept up in it all. We put the TV on and watched as president elect Donald Trump made a speech. I felt a creeping sense of disbelief as I wondered how a whole nation of people could have chosen as a leader a man who had apparently so openly expressed opinions based on hatred, intolerance and misogyny. How the general concept of standing together for the good of humanity seems to be gradually becoming eroded by those expressing, and supporting, the ideas of exclusivity and separatism. What good could this possibly do for humankind?
I followed D into the kitchen and issued a minor rant as we made the kids’ breakfast. The children asked what ‘Trump’ was. ‘Is it like Top Trumps?’ our eldest asked? I struggled to find a neutral way to explain the current situation in the US, particularly as K is Obama’s biggest fan based purely on the fact that he has a cool sounding name and can, apparently according to YouTube footage, throw some groovy shapes.
After ten minutes of listening to me lamenting the state of the world at large my husband simply said, ‘I can’t have this conversation for four years.’ It stopped me in my tracks.
During my daily five minutes of child free thinking time in the shower, I thought a lot about that comment and observed where it took me. I wasn’t surprised to find myself comparing the situation to that of losing a child because since Romy died it is a constant battle for me not to make everything in my life about that. But I went with it. I concluded, somehow, with the thought that it is our reaction to change that is key, and that this can be applied in any situation we find painful.
When Romy died, my initial instinct was to take whatever drugs I could get my hands on to numb me and make it all go away, to take to my bed and not get out again. I did not want my life if it did not include hers. I had experienced change of the highest magnitude and it had not, in any way, been of my choosing. Two days into the worst pain I had ever experienced I began to realise that, just as my husband couldn’t listen to my negative outpourings on the politics of the United States for four years, I couldn’t feasibly spend the rest of my life frozen in grief. In order to stay alive for my surviving children I had to stay open and not fold inwards on myself; I had to change my thinking. I went crazy getting hold of every book I could on death, grieving and spirituality, desperate for a manual, for something to tell me how I was supposed to be acting because I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to ‘do’ grief. I didn’t know how to be a bereaved mother. I didn’t even know how to be myself any more.
Understandably, others didn’t know how to act around me, what to say, how to be. I wouldn’t have known either. Alongside the collective outpouring of kindness and support that overwhelmed us both sat other people’s outrage, horror, disbelief and shock. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen. It certainly isn’t supposed to happen to People Like Us: decent people who have worked hard, minded their own business and always tried their best to be kind.
Well guess what? It does happen.
It occurred to us both at this point that we had to find a way to set the tone for others. If we didn’t find a way to deal with our situation with grace and some form of acceptance then how could we help our children?
I will never forget the actions of a particular friend who dropped a kind note through my door offering to come and have a cup of tea whenever I was ready. Within hours she was walking with me in a field near my home, talking about Romy and laughing – yes, laughing, at some of the things that had happened during our 48 hours of hell in two hospitals, watching our daughter let go of life. It does help that this friend is an accomplished actress and comedienne but she is also a sensitive soul who understands loss and she completely understood my need to let some emotion out before it got turned into negativity and consumed me completely. If this meant being complicit in laughing with me about the mortuary attendant then so be it.
What I want to explore here is the fact that, whether we like it or not (and we usually don’t), change happens. Sometimes it is not of our choosing and we wonder how life can possibly continue as it was before. Sometimes it is of others’ choosing and this can lead to feelings of frustration, of being out of control. In these times we reach for a reference point, a steady compass that we may return to to find relief and familiarity. But as I discovered, there is no manual. There is no ‘one way’ to do it, but if I know one thing then I know that allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by a sea of negativity is not the way.
In the early days of my grief I almost allowed myself to become wrapped up in anger, outrage and non acceptance before I realised that if, as I do, I believe that we are all living our lives on this earth in order to learn then I must look for, and anchor myself to the bare facts in order to see the lesson. These facts were:
- My daughter had died.
- I had two other children to care for.
- I had a life, whether or not I wanted to live it at that moment, and that life included a purpose, even if this was not clear.
- There is always choice. I could stay in bed and throw away my life, or I could get up, give my children an example of strength and find myself a life to live.
So when I reassessed my feelings about the state of the world this morning I looked at the facts as I see them:
- Some people, somewhere, have elected this change, so it is not entirely out of control or devoid of choice.
- What is done cannot be undone. Acceptance allows us to be open and to get out of the loop we are stuck in. Accept the situation even if you wish for a different one. When you practice acceptance, things shift and there is space for more change which may be more to your liking.
- There is always choice. We can all moan, complain and dramatise this change or we can look to see what we may learn from it and move forward from there.
Don’t be fooled into believing that the above is some kind of prescription for ‘conquering’ grief because it isn’t. I still have days when I feel like I can’t get out of bed. I still dream about Romy. Certain situations can still induce a panic attack or bring me to tears. I still think of her several times every single day of my life. A part of me still does not accept that this happened at all; let alone to us, to me.
However my husband, the master of the impactful one liner, once said, ‘Why not?’. This was not a callous throwaway remark. It was a reminder that whatever happens in life does not follow a prescribed schedule. Why should this have happened to us? Why not indeed. Did it happen to us, or did it happen to our daughter? On some kind of spiritual level, could it have been her choice to leave? I could spend the rest of my life being consumed by bitterness about how unfair it all is or I could look for ways to use my experience, however it has hurt me, to impact others’ lives for good.
We have to believe that some good always comes out of change otherwise what is the point of life? If we are so arrogant that we do not believe that we have anything left to learn then we are not of service to the human race.
The author Rebecca Campbell wrote this morning: ‘This is not the end, it is the beginning.’ If we commit to always seeking life’s beginnings rather than getting stuck lamenting its changes and its ends then the capacity to learn is greater and we feel better and more positive about ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in.
Whether grieving a loved one or the state of the world’s politics, this seems like a good place to start.