Finding light in the dark

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‘Six months is nothing’, they said. ‘When you come back, everything will be exactly the same.’

March 2016 was easily one of the happiest times of my whole life. I was in the Philippines, my boyfriend proposed. I was so tanned, so healthy and had absolutely everything to look forward to.

In April, everything changed. Well, not everything. One thing changed enough to make all the good things look different. Once upon a time I would have seen this as a sign that maybe I didn’t deserve to be as happy as I was. Now, I simply refuse to feel sorry for myself. What good can it possibly do? I still have all of those wonderful things (apart from maybe the tan). It’s so important (and often so bloody difficult) to focus on what we’ve been blessed with, rather than fixate on the negatives.

I wrote this post to comfort others as much as myself. Because sometimes terrible things happen. And the only way to make them less so, is to find the strength to interpret them in a positive way. A while back, I made a decision to have faith in the world around me no matter what, so I really have no other choice.

It’s something I worried about over again and again, without ever truly believing it would happen. That I would receive that heartbreaking phone call when so very far from home. Losing someone is never, ever easy, but finding out when I was minutes away from boarding a plane from Kuala Lumpur to Japan is one of the most painful experiences of my life.

What happens when you’ve assigned a limited amount of time and all of your money to fulfilling your dreams, and something happens to make you wonder why you ever wanted to be away from home at all? Because everything you really care about is a million miles away. You can plan every detail of your life six months in advance, only to find out repeatedly that you will never have full control. On 8th April 2016, my wonderful grandad died, and we made the decision to fly home.

Although I could talk forever about the strength of my family, or the beautiful send off we gave him, what I want to share is the light I’ve managed to salvage from the dark. That even though I’ve lost someone too soon and my family are suffering, I will not crawl into a corner, angry and afraid. I will be strong for them and for myself. Because that is the least we can do for the people we love.

There is so much hope to be found when it’s least expected, if only we discipline our minds and hearts enough to find it. Death is the only reason our lives mean anything, and grief teaches us so much about love. I said this in another post about death; that being prepared to grieve for someone is the same as being prepared to die for someone. They are the bravest declarations of love we can make. They prove that you believe in something much bigger than the constrains of life and death.

Be open to the possibility of a force affecting the order of things, and you’ll realise how much you want it to be true. If a bird of prey circles my head the day my grandad dies, and then again, in a different country, the day of his funeral. I will believe it means something. I don’t care if it’s just a coincidence, because I believe enough to make it true to me. I found something lovely in something very sad, and that means I know I’ll be ok.

In fact, lots of my family members experienced weird and comforting coincidences around my grandad’s death. He had dementia, but knew everyone’s names and played the harmonica during his last days. I even spoke to him on Skype. I keep seeing the Ferguson tractor he had and was handed free samples of his favourite drink (Baileys) at a food festival. It doesn’t matter that I’m probably just more tuned into these things now he’s all I can think about. All that matters is that my grandad’s death is shrouded in meaning. There is so much comfort to be found in that small, simple fact. That a random case of life and death has so much definition and significance in the minds of the people who loved that person. People live forever with us that way.

‘The ghosts of the people we love live inside of us, and like that we keep them alive.’

So it will probably come as no surprise that even though our money pot is dwindling and our plans have gone completely out of the window, we’ll be flying back to Asia tomorrow, having spent two weeks at home. Determined to finish our travels on a positive, and to continue to have faith in life, we’ll be spending the next couple of months in Northern Thailand and Vietnam, before volunteering on an organic farm in Spain. Because if there’s one thing death teaches you, it’s that you only have one chance to tick all those things off your list. Just one.

I was so fortunate to have known my grandad for 26 years, and will remember him by continuing to make the best possible memories I can for myself and my family, just like he always did for us. Having a positive reaction to a negative thing is really fucking hard, but I hope this story inspires you to be brave enough to do the same.

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A lesson on Christmas traditions

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Picture me aged 3. I’m making a snowman from cotton wool and toilet roll. I proudly present snowman to Mum and Dad when I get home from playgroup, and then again the following Christmas when he emerges from a dusty box of decorations. And just like that, a tradition is born. Snowman is a running family joke every Christmas, with his green fez and droopy eyes. Every year, he reminds us how much we’ve grown, what’s changed and what will never change. He represents the purest kind of innocence and he is protected and preserved the way we wish we could preserve time. He is a fond memory, and yet he is still there for us to touch, display and laugh at every year.

Well, he was there. This year, 23 years later, something quite terrible happened. This year, my dog ATE SNOWMAN. And I cried. And so did my mum. My mum and I cried over a small pile of cotton wool and toilet roll.

Admittedly, a part of me felt like Christmas would never be the same again. That silly tradition of unveiling snowman every year was gone. Which is ridiculous because the sentiment lives on regardless – I’d still have the memory without the physical reminder. Perhaps what we’re really afraid of is forgetting the small things; the forgettable things that are actually quite lovely to keep safe. After all, the moment an object jogs a memory (that might otherwise have been lost forever) is far too wonderful not to protect.

But still, why the hell do we want Christmas to be the same every single year? What is our relentless obsession with reliving the past?

After a couple of hours grieving over poor old snowman, I started to think about the impact personal traditions can have on our ability to cope with change and embrace the unknown. The truth is, there have been some big changes in my life this year, and seeing snowman in little pieces was like a visual reminder that my life, like most people’s, is subject to uncontrollable change and unplanned disruption. Shit happens, basically.

My mum and I were faced with two choices: a) to feel extremely sorry for ourselves, or b) make a bigger, better snowman, rebuilding him and adding to the story he represents. Our story. Which is of course guided by the way we respond to the unplanned. Sometimes all we can do is laugh and carry on.

We become so dependant on our traditions for things to feel ‘right’ that we often forget the bigger picture or fear life without them. Wrongly or rightly, we assign a great deal of profound emotion to the most useless physical objects or rituals. Cut yourself loose and you’ll be surprised how well you cope on the other side.

Christmas also has a tendency to make us EVEN MORE dependant on material things. We feel like we’re being sentimental, when in reality most of the sentiment is just another dose of consumerism in disguise. I mean, what is the point in crackers? Sure it’s ‘tradition’ but isn’t it also a royal waist of money? I love Christmas as much as the next person, but it does a bloody good job of distorting our perception of things. We run the risk of doing the same things over and over and over again, without pausing to stop and think about why. Christmas is a prime example of our susceptibility  to finding security in nostalgia  which is no way to live in the long term.

The lesson? Take Christmas and all your traditions with the biggest pinch of salt you can afford, take the pressure off yourself and remember what’s important. Shared traditions are a big part of celebrating a certain culture, but having the ability to break free from them when necessary is essential for culture (and your own sanity), too.

Lesson 31: giving death a voice

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What do you say to someone when they tell you a loved one has died?

What do you wish people would say to you?

If there’s one life lesson worth sharing, surely it has to be this? It’s the hardest thing to think about, let alone talk about, but how are we meant to even begin to understand something we very rarely confront?

I am not a councillor and I do not have lots of experience dealing with grief, but I do have a strong belief that words can make you feel better. The mantra and purpose of my blog is to connect people through the shared experiences we don’t always draw attention to, and I think one of hardest things about grief, is that we do not talk about dying enough. It’s a terrifying taboo not worth thinking about, so no wonder we struggle the way we do when we lose someone close. The other side of the coin, of course, is that there’s always a danger of obsessing over death. The final-ness of death can consume you if you let it. Most of us choose to brush the idea under the carpet until we really have to face it.

Earlier this year, when I started to struggle more and more with OCD, I thought about dying all the time. More precisely, I worried about dying all the time. It snuck up on me on the tube, in the shower, in the middle of the night: “one day you won’t be here… one day so and so will die… this time 2 years ago so and so was here…” and it provoked panic. Therapy quickly taught me that really, there is no point in worrying, or panicking, or dwelling, because it won’t change a thing. In many ways this is reassuring, but in others it’s the foundation of the problem. We are completely and utterly ruled by nature. We have next to no control when it comes to death, and that’s what’s so scary.

We do, however, have full control when it comes to life. So, the one true way to stare death in the face? Simply, to live the best life you can.

A full and beautiful life isn’t just happiness and rainbows; it is catastrophe, sadness, anger, heartbreak and all the extremes that make us the emotional humans we are. To live a life without the negative is not living, it is half living. All these fiery, dramatic, powerful emotions make us feel alive. They’re difficult to process and cope with, but they’re integral to the human condition, particularly where love is concerned. Perhaps this is why when we grieve, we experience every catastrophic emotion there is. The person we loved and lost casts us on a journey through what it means to live, and what it means to love. It is painful, but to experience it means you have truly lived, and that is a blessing. You were brave enough to love someone so much that you ran the risk of inflicting this much pain on yourself in return. Being prepared to die for someone is the same as being prepared to grieve for someone; and both are the bravest declarations of love you can make.

But how does knowing this help with anything? Understanding grief does little to help you through it. And in all honesty, grief never really goes. It fades, sure, but it will linger for as long as you love that person. The trick is learning to comfort yourself rather than taunt yourself with ‘what ifs’. Your mind and memory will take you on a journey through time, always dumping you in the present with a big hole in your heart. My advice to you is to fill that hole with stories. Say them out loud, write them down and share them with people who care about you. Keep that person’s voice alive. Make it your duty to protect their memory.

Talking about death is integral to coping with grief. It also encourages us to fear the unknown a little less. This is what I tell myself when thoughts of death catch me off guard – I hope it comforts you too:

“…You know that moment when you start drifting off to sleep? It’s by far the most peaceful, welcoming feeling you ever experience. Your eyes are heavy and your body happily succumbs to the beckoning quiet. You want nothing but darkness and nothing else matters…”

That is how I imagine death to feel. Death is remaining in that blissful, content couple of seconds just before we fall sleep, handing ourselves over because it feels irresistibly natural. Maybe that’s why the dead visit us in our dreams. What if, when you die, you become the essence of a feeling? And what if you can’t quite settle into being the essence of peacefulness until the people who love you feel peaceful?

Last night, I dreamt that I had my purse stolen. My Granddad, my Dad’s dad, was in my dream, trying to help me find it. Oddly enough, I woke up to a text from my Dad (who is currently is Japan) saying that he’d had his wallet stolen. It was weird enough that I had experienced the same anguish and frustration asleep as my Dad had when he was awake, but it was even weirder that my Dad’s dad was there to comfort me. This was just a strange coincidence, but I can’t help but believe that maybe there are all sorts of different energies and forces we don’t understand. Our sensitivity to the people we love is much stronger than we realise. Who’s to say that bond is broken after we die?

Death, like anything traumatic and confusing, needs a narrative, even if the narrative is just a big open space that we write ‘who knows?’ in. Because, like life, maybe death can be whatever you want it to be.

Lesson 22: learning from Dad

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More than just a Daddy’s Girl, I am my father incarnated in female form. We are identical in so many ways it’s actually quite weird. Our eyes, mouth, nose, ears, legs (cheers Dad) and feet all look exactly the same. And more than that, we often think the same. We’re moved by the same things. We’re not afraid to say how we feel and we like to think we’re pretty in-tune with our emotions. We’re over-thinkers and people watchers, happiest either staring out to sea and pondering life or dancing to loud music with an endless supply of beer.

I have learnt more from my dad than I could ever say. Not only did he perform the miracle of ensuring I got an A in GCSE maths, he’s had me believing I can achieve the unthinkable ever since. Almost 10 years on, I might have forgotten Pythagoras’ Theorem, but I’ll never forget the importance of working hard to get what you want. My dad’s ambition, work ethic and motivation are qualities I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed firsthand. They are the reason my sister and I went to good universities and followed our dreams of living and working in London. They paid for family holidays to beautiful places. They ensured we all lived in a spacious house in a nice area. They provided security, health and opportunity. The very foundation of my life has been outlined by my dad’s hard work, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

My dad is really good at giving advice, but, like most of us, he doesn’t always practise what he preaches. When he dropped me off at my halls in Exeter for the first time, he handed me a note that told me to work as hard as I could whilst having as much fun as possible. My whole life still revolves around this rule, but I’m not convinced that my dad, or many people of his generation do the same. And there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t. If I’m not still dancing until sunrise on my 50th birthday, then something has gone horribly wrong. If anything, once you reach your 50s and 60s and your children are able to support themselves, you have more of a right to have a good time than the average teenager. You’ve brought up happy, ambitious children who love and respect you. Surely the rest of your life should be one big celebration?

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Father’s Day seems like the perfect time to document some of the most valuable lessons my dad has taught me, whilst hopefully reminding him and others to take his wonderful words of wisdom on board.

  1. Do things today, not tomorrow. It’s easy to push back the things you want to do. Life gets in the way far too often. Some things we can control and some we can’t. It’s so important to be impulsive no matter what, making the most of the opportunities in front of you and continuing to dream big through the hard times. My dad taught me the value of having a life plan, and together we’ve learnt that plans are often only made to be broken. Expect the unexpected and learn from the surprises life can bring. Change is terrifying, but it forces us to grow in ways we didn’t realise we could.
  1. You can’t please everyone. And you should never aim to. You can only spread yourself so far. Trying to fit into different moulds of expectation will only leave you wondering who you really are and what you really want. Save your loyalty and energy for the people who really appreciate and deserve it, because otherwise you’re in danger of being all used up by the time the ones you love need you.
  1. You are never too old to do fun, crazy, ridiculous things. At the end of term at university, my dad would drive all the way down to Exeter to collect me. On a few occasions, I took him for a night out. Like a proper night out. I took my dad to Timepiece. And we didn’t just go upstairs, we went upstairs-upstairs. Only Exeter goers will understand the significance of this. But just imagine my dad discovering that Jager bombs are only £1 after he just withdrew £100 at the cash point. He stayed up drinking cans of cider with my friends while I passed out. I find this weirdly inspiring. My dad is cool. My dad rides a motorbike. As he gets older, I want my dad to embrace this fun, carefree side of him more than ever. And I hope reading this inspires you to do the same.

Lesson 10: appreciating mums

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When I was seven, my nan was in a pretty horrific car accident. She swerved on ice in the pitch black, crashing into a tree that quickly crushed her car. By complete chance, two kind men found her in the dark and saved her life. She had reconstructive surgery around her eye. I can still see it now. I drew pictures of her because her poor broken face scared me so much. I remember, quite clearly, climbing into bed with my mum and sobbing with her when we heard of the accident. For the first time in my short life, it dawned on me that this person, Nanny, was my mum’s mum. And for the first time, my mum was no different to me. We were just kids together. She was vulnerable and scared. I wanted to protect her the way she protected me. I felt like it was my duty because suddenly, we were the same.

Whatever way you choose to look at it, our lives form complete circles. We start by being completely dependent on our parents, before our parents eventually and rightfully often become heavily dependent on us. From start to finish, we are connected by a beautiful bond as old as humanity itself. So, whatever my mum has given to me, I vow to give to her. Maybe this is why I feel I can tell her everything? Or maybe that’s just because she is so patient and understanding. When my mum goes to cross the road, I reach out to take her hand. I open the marmalade lid for her, I help her choose an outfit for a night out, I do her hair, I take her to fun new places, I tell her how beautiful she is, I laugh with her when she says something ridiculous, and I do these things because my mum has dedicated her life to doing them for me. I say ‘do’. I don’t actually live at home anymore, so these things have become planned events rather than everyday occurrences. Can you imagine how it must feel to bring someone into the world, someone that is entirely yours, and then one day have to let them go? Well, my mum did. And to me, that’s the most amazing thing of all. The purest act of selflessness; something nobody will fully understand until it happens to them.

My mum gave us the best childhood. My strongest memories consist of weekends spent eating packets of crisps on park benches, chasing chickens around farms, making sandcastles, constructing elaborate dens, painting pictures, nursing dolls back to health, sleepovers with friends and family, 100s of presents on Christmas day, birthday parties, zoos, ice cream, bouncy castles, dance classes, books and games. I wasn’t spoilt, but I was given everything a child needs to have the very best start in life. My parents didn’t have a great deal of money when my sister and I were young. When my mum was my age, she did a lady’s shopping for £5 a week, walking for miles into town and back again, pushing me in the buggy. My mum quite literally went the extra mile.

It’s weird and difficult to say this, but growing up, my family unit was so close I thought nothing could change it. Not ever. How privileged we were to be able to depend on something so much. Some people never have that. Recently, I’ve come to appreciate two major things: one being just how much my mum has sacrificed for us, and the other being that my parents, like all parents, are human. My mum has just turned 50 (sorry Mum) and more than anything, I want her to start doing things just for her. She is free, for the first time in 25 years, to do whatever makes her happy. I can categorically say that without my mum, I would be nothing like the person I am. Not in the slightest. Everything good in me is because of her, which makes her kind of magical. If she has the power to do that, she can do anything. Only when she feels that powerful will I have come close to giving her everything she gives to me.

Lesson number 10 is completely and utterly dedicated to my mum, because near-enough every lesson I’ve ever learnt has been shaped by her. So, when you think about it, not only is the motherly bond an eternal one, every individual mum kind of lives forever in some beautifully unique way too.

I would love to hear about the lessons you’ve learnt from your mum… Please feel free to comment below.