Missing & Missing

I have written my blog for a few years now, off and on. Lately, I have been busy trying to focus on re-entering real life, dealing with real issues, a real job, real family, other stuff, and continuing to walk this new path of life. All whilst still missing Paul big time.

There are many and varied aspects of grief, and I have written about a number of them. Have I covered everything? Grief is all encompassing, all consuming and still touches every aspect of my life, day in day out. I realise it’s different for each individual person, but there is much commonality.

It used to be thought that there are 5 stages of grief. ‘Pass through’ and ‘deal with’ all 5 stages, and that’s it – you’re done! Nice and neat and tidy. I think anyone grieving will agree that’s not how it pans out in reality. More recently, there has been a growing recognition and appreciation that grief is a more complex process than a 5 phase model suggests. Simon Rubin’s ‘Two Track Model’ of bereavement recognises and measures the long term effects of grieving by assessing how well a person is adapting to their loss. The aim being for the person to adapt so that they ‘manage and live in the reality in which the deceased is absent‘. Sounds spot on to me.

To me, grief at its core is simply missing someone you have lost, and managing that missing. I miss Paul just as much (if not more) now than I did 5 years ago. I miss his daily presence, his love for and interaction with me and our boys, his silly humour and camaraderie, his incisive mind, his extreme musical talent, our chats about everything and anything, waking on a free day and asking ourselves ‘what shall we get up to today?’  – the mundane, everyday stuff. Mostly I just miss him. And because he’s rarely if ever mentioned by anyone other than very close family, the missing is magnified. Time passes, and people are now (understandably) oblivious to that ongoing missing.

Will the Missing ever stop? I feel like I oscillate between two polar positions: at one end, I make every effort to set aside my true emotions and get on with life in a positive way, thankful for all the many blessings I have,  looking to God for my every need; and at the other end, I spiral right back to that all too familiar place where I ache for Paul, his presence, the person himself. Where I just long to hear his voice, feel his touch, spend a few minutes in his presence.

I belong to a large, vibrant, loving church family. Much has been taught there recently about being authentic, living lives which are real, not fake, being free to be the person God made you to be, not wearing a mask – “Come as you are”. I’m aware that very often I still wear my mask – forcing myself to hide my true emotions (well, it’s necessary to survive, right?). I have ‘processed’ my grief big time – but will missing Paul ever stop? Will the deep ache ever go away? No: Grief is that friend you never wanted, always lurking round the corner, ready to pounce at unexpected moments. But it has become part of the true, real, authentic me, and I have assimilated it into who I now am going forward. And that’s ok.

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Milestones – 5 Years In

I haven’t written my blog for a while, having been busy with the demands of life. But August saw the five year anniversary of our losing Paul, and September saw what would have been our 30th (Pearl) wedding anniversary, as well as Paul’s birthday. A few “milestones” I suppose. It seems fitting to reflect on how things are, what I have learned, how I have changed, during what have been the most challenging, tough, confusing and at times bewildering, five years of my life.

I am conscious of course that it is generally expected by society that five years must be sufficient time to recover from a loss, and heal. Get back to normal. Is five years enough? What about ten, fifteen or twenty? Surely, someone will think, it must be time now to put grief behind me, and move on? In so many ways, it might seem appealing to try to somehow leave all the pain and sorrow behind, and focus fully on embracing the future? I can see why others take this view, of course they just want the best for me and they “want me to be happy”. But to me, although I have done much to process and manage my emotions, and am doing my very best to carry on with my life, one thing I do know: however much adjusting I do, I will never come to a point (in time) when I can say I am done with my grief, done with remembering and missing Paul. I will always feel sorrow at losing him and will always be conscious of his absence and miss him.

I have learnt so much in the last five years, shed loads about myself and much about other people too. I know I am stronger and far more resilient than I ever thought I could be. I have learned that I can bounce back, and that if I can face and survive losing Paul, I can face and survive anything. I have learned that it’s absolutely OK and appropriate to grieve, to feel the deepest depths of sorrow. I realise what’s important and what’s not. I have gained perspective. I have learned that the God who I have always loved and trusted, and whom Paul loved and trusted, is indeed more trustworthy than we knew and is far, far closer than we ever imagined. And I will never stop believing in the sovereignty, providence and goodness of God.

Have I grown or changed? Yes, probably far more these five years than in my entire life. Catastrophic loss will change you and grow you. You have a choice: sink or swim. Paul would not have wanted me to sink – he showed enormous courage and strength during his illness and he grew spiritually and emotionally more then than ever before (even though physically his body was deteriorating). 2 Corinthians 4 verse 16 in the Bible says “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all”.

I sometimes fear that as the years roll on, Paul and his memory are falling ever further away from me. But in reality, as the years pass, I am moving ever closer to being reunited with him again. And meeting face to face the God we both love. Raw grief, raw hope.

Process or Postpone the Pain?

Pain is real. It has to be addressed, faced up to, and processed. It is part of life. There are doubtless medications available to dumb down the impact of the pain of grief. For some, that may be the only way to enable them to function. Whether or not we choose that option, all those grieving have to find a path through the fog and a way to deal with the pain at some stage.

But if we do not face up to and process our grief to some degree, are we simply postponing the inevitable? I believe so. And delayed or unresolved grief can sometimes become complex grief, which they say can be much harder to manage further down the line. It rears its ugly head, sometimes many years later, and demands to be addressed.

Rightly or wrongly, I chose from the outset to face the full impact of my grief head on. I felt the enormity of the pain, in all its intensity, the indescribable shock and horror of its impact on my mind, emotions, spirit and body. It occupied practically all the space in my head and emotions for many years, and even now it still takes up a significant space for much of the time. It is, at times, hard to block out. I am all the more stable for having done so. I can now live with my grief, have assimilated it into me; it is a significant part of who I now am.

Prince Harry in recent interviews via his charity “Heads Together”, which highlights all manner of mental health issues, was brave enough to admit publicly that after losing his mother at just 12 years old, he did not process his grief at all for about 18 years. Prince William said that 20 years down the line he still felt the “shock” of grief.

Those who like to analyse the supposed “stages” of grief would put shock as “stage 1”, implying that we are in shock only at the very outset – maybe a few days, or months. But I still feel a deep sense of shock even now: I suddenly wonder where Paul is, then jolt myself into the reality (yes, he really IS gone, he is NOT coming back), and I experience afresh that sinking feeling of horror and disbelief.

I am greatly encouraged by the current trend for various groups to talk about mental health issues including grief. Bringing our true feelings into the open can only be a good thing. Talking about such issues will only help to bring hope to those who are walking through a dark place, and help to bring them into a place of light.

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Plans & Purposes

We all make plans, whether conscious or subconscious, specific or general. We plan, both for the small things in life (what will we have for tea tonight?) and for the bigger things (who will we marry? How many children would we ideally like to have?). We walk through our lives, believing that we are in control, and therefore in a position to make plans and carry them out. But sadly that is not the case – whilst there is nothing wrong with making plans, we are simply not in control of much, if anything, in our lives.

Paul and I made plans of course, just like any married couple does: we had all sorts of things in mind, particularly as we thought about our retirement (a long long way off, but we may as well dream!) Paul aimed to retire from his professional work at around 50, and we had ideas about doing charitable or church related work, perhaps being involved in a church plant or some exciting venture abroad! We always planned one day to go to New Zealand, a place Paul was very interested to visit, (which sadly never happened).

During Paul’s illness, and after his diagnosis, we both quickly came to realise that we had no control over anything at all in this life. God is sovereign. Despite severe disappointment at facing up to our situation, Paul said (and repeated numerous times) that God had good plans for us as a family and for each of us as individuals – for himself, for me, for Barnaby and for Owen. Towards the end of his life, he began to say that God’s plans for us might not be the same as our plans, but that they were nevertheless good plans.

In Jeremiah 29 verse 11 God says “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”. Proverbs 19 verse 21 says “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails”.

I often remind myself of Paul’s conviction, that God is good, and has good plans and purposes for us all. We may not agree with his plan for our lives, or even like them (I’m certainly not a big fan of His plan for my life from my mid forties onwards) but that does not mean that those plans are not good, or that He has somehow made a mistake. However much I may not understand God’s plans, or even like them, I will never stop believing in the sovereignty, providence and goodness of our God.

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Some Strategies

Strategies are key in life. In any crisis, where it is a case of ‘sink or swim’, we instinctively develop strategies to cope. Ways to get through. We all have to do it, or we simply may not survive the crisis.

In the last three years I have often jokingly shared with friends that I have developed many “strategies” for survival and sanity. I cannot always explain or articulate them, but they are there nonetheless. Here are a few which I can try to spell out. I use them variously, depending on the need, my mood, my emotions, and other factors. Some were vital at the outset of the journey, others are more useful nowadays:

1) When attending a special event, (eg a wedding), be prepared for what you will say. Don’t be thrown into sudden conversations with strangers which may throw you. Have something ready to say to explain your situation if it comes up (and it will). Rehearse the actual words.

2) “I only have to get through TODAY”. Yep, it’s true – we are only required to live today, not tomorrow, so I tell myself, don’t panic, try to live in the day/moment – after all, I don’t know how many of them I may have left.

3) Play ‘pretend ‘ – i.e. Paul is not dead, he’s just not here at the occasion. He could be anywhere – away on business, at work, ill in bed, etc. (I admit, this one’s a last resort when I’m desperate!)

4) Learn to speak, whilst ‘bypassing’ your emotions. What do I mean? It’s possible to speak words which pass through my mind or thought process, but actually bypass my emotions. Particularly useful when I must not lose my composure, at work, business meetings, special occasions etc. Tricky, but very useful with practice.

5) Try to be Paul. This isn’t as weird as it sounds! I mean, remembering his character, his courage, determination, faith, hope, strength in adversity and all he and I spoke of during his illness – and focussing on trying to emulate those character traits, in his honour. Tough call.

6) I count my blessings – I recount and actively thank God for all the good things in my life. Sometimes I go back to basics – a comfortable home, my health, our two amazing sons, a job – even my mobility. The absence of a migraine (!)

These are just a few strategies, I employ many, many more and some are impossible to explain, or even subconscious maybe. All of them have one strand in common – hope. Hope chooses to focus on the good, whilst not denying or burying the bad.

Paul & Lisa wine Country California1992

 

Graduation – Up & Up & Up

Yesterday I had the enormous privilege of attending our eldest son Barnaby’s graduation. He completed his Masters degree in Aeronautical Engineeriing.The occasion was held at Bath Abbey, a beautiful traditional venue. The ceremony was very moving, and I was bursting with pride as I watched him go up and collect his degree, and receive a departmental Award for one of his projects.
This is a tough degree, and he has pressed on with his studies, whilst at the same time having to come to terms with losing his Dad and a very dramatic change to our life as a family. I cannot describe the feeling – Proud just doesn’t cut it. Paul will be immensely proud of him, and the perseverance and stickability he has shown over the past 3 years. To get to where he is today, he has had to overcome much turmoil and muster up courage and determination – in bucket loads.
In a period of uncertainty, resilience is key. The ability to bounce back in difficult times. To retain a certain stability or core grounding, rather than being utterly crushed by the storms of life.
The three of us also recently attended another very different event – a Coldplay concert at Wembley Stadium. We all love Coldplay, as did Paul. An amazing experience. So many of the lyrics to their songs I find so poignant and meaningful to life’s circumstances. One of their many songs I love is called “Up & Up”. It’s all about resilience, about recovering from life’s challenges, and never giving up. “See a pearl form, a diamond in the rough. See a bird soar high above the flood…up & up”. “when you’re in pain, when you think you’ve had enough – don’t ever give up”.
Barny is moving from one season of his young life to the next. He has graduated, is starting work, and has grown into a lovely, thoughtful, resilient young person. I can see so much of his Dad in his developing character, especially the determination to keep going, despite facing and dealing with enormously difficult stuff; his courage to move forward, without wanting to give in to self pity or to use our loss as an excuse for anything. He is going Up and Up and Up, on his way to recovery, with real hope for his future. A proud Mummy moment. I am proud on behalf of us both for what our son has achieved. And God is good.

Attachment or Detachment?

There is no doubt about it – I am attached to Paul. I have been ever since we said ‘I do’ 28 years ago, when we became ‘one flesh’ as the Bible describes it. When two pieces of paper are glued together, and that glue has set and solidified, it becomes impossible to rip the two apart into two clean sheets. You end up with two torn, ripped halves – a mess. So it is with a marriage when you rip apart the two halves. I am as attached to Paul now as I was then, time has done nothing to lessen that attachment.

I have read (about grief) that you should try to ‘detach’ yourself from the dead person, because they are no longer there, and that the healthy response is to gradually detach yourself from them, and live your life without reference to them.

I have found it impossible to do so. But I think this has to do with the fact that I believe Paul still exists, and that I will meet him again in another life. Much depends of course on your perspective on life and death. If I believed he was gone for good, and no longer existed, that we would never see each other again, it might be easier to detach myself; (“he is completely gone, I must forget him and move on”). For my own sanity perhaps? But that is not what I believe.

My attachment to Paul was probably stronger than I realised whilst he was alive. I always thought that though we were extremely close, we were also two individuals who could function fairly independently when necessary. We didn’t always feel the need to call or text each other constantly when we were apart (as I know some couples do) – but we knew the other one was always ‘there’. We were part of each other. I have never known that intimacy with another human being. I do not share that closeness or bond with any living being now – however lovely friends and family may be.

Have I detached myself at all? Do I even want to detach myself? Probably not. I know Paul cannot play any role in my life now, but I don’t think a bond that strong between two people can be easily broken or ignored. I am that ragged and scruffy piece of paper: torn, broken, ripped apart – which will never be all smooth and clean again.

I feel as if rather than detaching myself from Paul, I have tucked him away safely somewhere in my heart (my mind? My emotions? My soul?) and his memory is always there close by. My bond with him feels as close and intimate as it ever did. But my ongoing dialogue with him is ‘on hold’ for now. We have pressed the pause button on our relationship, but not for ever. One day it will be resumed. So I continue to grieve, but as I have often said, I do not grieve without hope. Raw grief, raw hope.

 

Paul & Lisa, Bedruthan steps

Time & Eternity

I have reflected much on the subject of time. Almost three and a half years have passed since Paul left this world, passed safely through death itself, without harm, and entered into eternity to be with his God. He left the ambit of time and space, which is all we really know, and began an existence which will never end: he will never die again. Once we enter eternity, there is no more dying. Never again. He knew Jesus, and he is safe.

To me down here, still passing through time and space, it has often felt like Paul is becoming more and more part of my ‘past’, as time passes. There is a general assumption that the more time passes, the more manageable grief must become. But the reality is that as the person one has lost slips further away, in time, it feels as if they are becoming increasingly left behind. Trying to move forward, it can feel like I am leaving Paul behind in time and space. That my life with him is becoming more and more a part of a fading, dimming memory. This, for me, makes it harder to bear. I never want to leave Paul behind, and I don’t intend to.

They say time heals. Time of itself, cannot do anything to heal or restore a broken heart. I’ve spoken to people many years along from losing a husband, who remain heartbroken and still miss him as acutely as they did on day one. I miss Paul today even more than three years ago.

Recently I had the realisation that the ‘time’ aspect of missing Paul is two-fold; yes, the (earthly) Paul I knew is slipping further away in time. But as the hours, days and years roll by, I am actually also coming ever closer to seeing Paul again! And the Paul I next see will not be the ‘earthly’ Paul (with his human faults, frailties and limitations) but a heavenly version. The version of Paul as God intended him to be when He created him. He will be recognisable as my Paul, but he is now eternal. Radiant, stunning, exquisite, faultless – perfect.

Whilst I still struggle daily in so many respects, I try to live in the moment as much as I can. Each day time is passing. We don’t know how long we will be here. The challenge is to find a balance between remembering, treasuring and holding onto the Paul I said goodbye to, who is the other half of me. And looking ahead to the Paul I will know in eternity. With each day, I come closer to that Paul in time.

I read somewhere: “change is never easy; you fight to hold on, and you fight to let go”. So true. I grieve, and my grief still feels so raw, yes even after nearly three and a half years. But I never grieve without hope. Raw grief, raw hope.

P & L dec 2011.C&J

Light and Darkness

Light and Darkness

We are in that period between Christmas and New Year, that time of year which can be so difficult to get through for so many people, for numerous reasons. Many find Christmas a challenge, missing loved ones, juggling family relationships, agreeing where the children should spend their time following a divorce. This year, our family has felt somewhat depleted, as Owen is in Brazil spending three months volunteering with a church there. We are not four, not three, but two. Barny has made a real effort to make our time special (and Owen sent me a gift from Brazil!). But of course Christmas is not about me, my feelings and emotions, it is about the coming into the world of Jesus, the Son of God. I try to focus on that.

At Christmas we are reminded of the contrast between light and darkness, with Christmas lights lighting up trees, shopping centres and homes. In life also we encounter ‘light’ and ‘darkness’, in the circumstances which come our way. At times life may feel like one big ball of light – meeting a husband, getting married, the coming into the world of children. At other times life can feel very dark. Many people can identify with times when they literally feel like they are groping around at the bottom of a very dark, very deep pit, with no way out. The ups and downs of life. “All part of life’s rich pageant” as Paul used to say.

Over Christmas the lights in our bathroom stopped working (again!). So we have had to light a candle whenever we needed to use the bathroom. ‘Constitution by candlelight’ as Barny named it. One candle only provides a tiny amount of light, but amazingly it spreads over the whole room, providing just enough light to see what one is doing.

In our kitchen we have a small box of cards, entitled “Keep Calm and Trust God”. We have a family habit of reading one card out at mealtimes when we say grace. One particular card always seems to surface more than the rest. It quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. – “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase”. So often in life, there is only enough light to expose the next step of the journey, but no further. We cannot see any distance into what life has in store for years to come. I’m beginning to think there’s a reason for that. If we actually knew what life was going to bring, we simply may not find the courage to face it.

Jesus said “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. (John 8. 12). According to John 1.5 “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it”. I know this to be true. Darkness can never actually extinguish the light, however black the darkness feels. In the battle between darkness and light, light will always prevail and win. One candle can provide the spark of light needed to see a way forward.

Today is New Years Eve. For me, it feels as if I am standing on the edge of another year, holding a tiny candle, whose flicker provides just enough light for me to be able to take one small step forward. Even though I don’t see the whole staircase.

Paul & Lisa, Jane & Dennis wedding