Thursday, 23 July 2015

Birthday honours...


First of all, I just wanted to thank everybody who read my last post, particularly those who shared it or left comments. It seemed to resonate with many people...I think because it's a very common experience (although it feels so very personal to each one of us) and the more knowledge the better. I hope it helped someone. I found it a very cathartic post to write, anyway.

On to happier things! Our wonderful next door neighbour, Eric, celebrated his 96th birthday earlier this week. We had a small tea party for him, and I baked a cake...

 It was a soft lemon sponge, filled with lemon curd and frosted with white chocolate whipped buttercream. On the top, as you can see, were fresh raspberries and dried raspberry powder...to add a little zing!
 We kept everything simple...tea, cake, strawberries and elderflower cordial....all served in the absolutely magical room that Eric himself designed (he is an architect)....overlooking his serene and very beautiful garden...
 He takes such pride and comfort in it, and has a regular gardener who comes fortnightly to mow and trim to his very exacting specifications! I gave him a little help blowing out the candles...
 ...but he made a pretty good job of it himself!
 Eric is truly one of the dearest and most inspirational people I know. He's very lucky (as he acknowledges) to have kept in good health for all but the past year...he suffered a fall not long before Christmas which has caused and exacerbated other problems. But his personality and spirit are what shine through. He's kind, accepting, funny...he has so many friends from all walks of life and every generation, which is a testament to his lovely nature. I once asked him his secret. He gave me this advice:
Always look forward, never backwards...what's gone is gone.
Keep an open mind. You can learn so much from others, however old you are.
Let it be. Only worry about things you can change - leave everything else alone.

Wise words.
Happy, happy birthday. Proud and honoured to know you, Eric. A true gentleman, in every sense. xx

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Some things I've learned about death...and grief...(updated,almost a year on....)


**In a couple of weeks time, it will be exactly a year since my father died. I thought that it might be apt to republish this post, with a few updates incorporating the experience I've gained in those 12 strange months. It doesn't get easier. But it gets more familiar and routines return together with joy and happiness. The life force is an incredible one. We must treasure it.**

 Most of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will know that my darling Dad died...exactly 6 weeks ago today at 4pm. It was, in the end, a very peaceful death...in his sleep, in his own bed, on his beloved farm. We couldn't have asked for more. But since then, I feel I've learnt some valuable lessons which I wanted to share with you here. I was lucky...apart from my grandparents, I haven't lost anyone very close to me until now. Grief is such an individual emotion...each person will feel it very differently. But you may find some comfort, or useful information here...I hope so x
 1. However ill the person is...however much you expect and anticipate their death...you will never be prepared for it. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer over 18 months ago. He outlived all the likely timelines we were given. At the end, he could barely eat anything at all. And yet, somehow, it all seemed so sudden. He was here...and then not. And never will be again. Shocking. Truly. ** One year on, this feeling is no better. The space left by my Dad is enormous and un-fillable. We work around it, our lives go on...but we're re-routed somehow, as though a crater has appeared in our world**

2. This is a tough one to talk about, but I think it needs saying. If you are given the opportunity to spend time with the body of your loved one after their death...do fight any first impulse to reject the idea, and really consider it. I confess that I was scared at the prospect. I'd never seen a dead person before. But I followed the advice of my sister, Esther. She's a nurse and has experienced literally hundreds of deaths (although, of course, this one was very different emotionally) She thought I would regret it if I didn't. And I'm so glad that I listened. If you have loved the person deeply in life, there is nothing to be frightened of....that time, which I spent with my Mum and youngest sister too...was incredibly special and valuable. It was peaceful and serene and it was a privilege. That's all I can say.**I am still so grateful that I had this opportunity. It has helped me come to terms with his death, however hard it seemed at the time. And it has also made me less scared of my own death. As Shakespeare says "....and our little lives are rounded by a sleep." Nothing to fear, really.**

 3. You don't have to follow tradition, or convention. Of course, some...even most...people find it comforting to be able to leave the funeral and other arrangements in the hand of experts. Where religion is involved, there is usually a clear path to follow. But if this isn't you, or more importantly, the person you have lost..then don't be afraid to do your own thing. For example...we arranged the whole funeral as a family, with minimal input from the funeral director. Dad had no faith, so we had no religious element at all. My sisters and I led the service, choosing pieces of music that we connected with Dad in place of hymns. We each wrote & read a piece about him. One of his dearest friends spoke too...a wonderful, funny, warm & irreverent speech that he would have adored. My mum chose an incredibly beautiful love sonnet by Shakespeare to honour their 53 years of marriage and what he had meant to her. And...because none of us like formal flowers, and Dad adored wild ones and growing vegetables...a lovely, talented friend of mine made the stunning arrangement above...full of his favourite things: globe artichokes, red chilis, aubergines, turnips...wild honeysuckle and buttercups from the farm he adored. Very Dad. Which was the whole point. It all felt so right. So don't be afraid to do your own thing, if it feels like the best thing.** I've only been to one funeral since Dad's...ironically in exactly the same place, which was hard...and it very much followed a similar pattern and was extremely personal and family-led. Although I didn't know the person involved very well, it gave me a connection and insight into his life and felt very special. So I believe this even more now than I did when I originally wrote this piece**
4. Grief is exhausting. And it takes up a lot of time. Time talking to people...explaining what's happened. Making arrangements - to stop things, to cancel things, to put an end to the administration associated with a long-ish life lived fully. Be prepared to go over the details again and again in the first days. However tired I was in the first month, I often either couldn't sleep at all, or woke in the early hours. Coming to terms with the reality...the finality...is really hard work. Don't plan anything important in the first few weeks...you will likely forget arrangements you've made, even if you have written them down. Don't rush anything. There is an impulse sometimes to sort things out, to clear things away. Try and resist. Let things rest, take time, be patient. You may regret it later if you don't...or you may not...but in any case, a few weeks at least won't hurt.**And, a year on, although this has naturally subsided a lot, there are still times and pockets of extreme grief that hit me in the face like a hammer and stop me doing anything at all for a while. Often as I'm drifting off to sleep I'll remember something random...like my darling Dad teaching me to 'read with feeling' at about 5 years old, using William Blake's poem 'The Tyger'...and his voice is so clear...'Tyger, tyger burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?' And the tears will flow silently, and my nose will get stuffy and it takes ages to sleep even though I'm exhausted. But there's also something very comforting about the recalled memory too....the sharpness of the pain has subsided.**

5. You may find yourself spending lots of time with photographs...recordings...videos...anything that records the one you have loved. It's as though I was trying to imprint Dad on my brain...at first, I was terrified that I would forget him. That's a silly thought...how could I possibly? But we all take great comfort from images that bring him back, even if only for a moment. We talk about him constantly. He's present in our lives...as he always has been.**Even more true now....so wonderful when someone unexpectedly produces a photo they've found or remembers an anecdote...or we find a letter or postcard he wrote (or anything at all he wrote....even lists or scraps in a notebook are precious) My mum recently found a wonderful self-portrait he'd drawn before she even knew him, in his very early 20's. It's been copied and given out to all members of the family. Especially as he was a naturally gifted artist and the likeness is stunning. One of my sisters can't even look at it yet, while I get a huge amount of solace from it. Everyone is so different...and nothing that you feel is the wrong way to feel.**

6. Not everyone by any means has the luxury of preparing...however loosely...for the ultimate death of someone close to them. Because it is a luxury. To have that time, to be able to say...or try to say...all the things you need or want to. I am lucky. The last thing I ever said to him was 'I love you, Dad', the day before he died. And he said the same to me. So I have that always, like a hug. But it's made me so aware that not everyone can do this...and it's taught me to tell those I care about how much they mean to me, whenever I especially feel it. Because that's so important....it truly, truly is. Just say it, do it, hug them, mean it. You will never regret it.**The most important of all the things I wrote, in my opinion. I try and live by it always. It doesn't take a minute to show or tell someone how you feel about them and how you treasure them. Life is absolutely too short for holding back, or for grudges and feuds. I wish everyone could know this, but too often they don't until it's really too late...**



7. Take comfort whenever and however you can. Dad adored nature....wild animals, birds....his beloved dog....the flowers and plants that grow in the hedgerows. And now I feel his presence whenever I see a butterfly or moth (which he could always identify)...or see a red kite wheeling high in the sky....or here a swift screaming with joy in the sultry twilight air....these things bring him to me and I treasure them daily.**Again, this is still as true a year on and I'm sure it always will be. So many things trigger wonderful memories and bring Dad closer again.**

 I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that he's gone. I still can't get used to talking about him in the past tense. I can't bear the fact that I'll never hear his voice again...or see his smile....or feel his arms around me. My wonderful, remarkable, infuriating, complicated, loving, generous, maverick father. The world is a lesser place without him in it. But I will learn to live without him...because the last lesson I've learnt is that, however much you don't want it to at first, life does go on. Making the very most of it is what I know he would have wanted me to do. And living a full and happy one is the best way I know to honour him and all he meant to me.** What can I add to this a year on? That there have been times in the last 12 months - and still are - when I feel I would literally sell my soul just to see him and talk to him again for 5 more minutes. That the realisation that he's really, really gone is just as terrible now but I am more familiar with it and can cope with it better. I am learning to live without the physical reality of him, as we all must...but I've also realised that he will always be with me because he has had some influence over every facet of my life and I'll always carry that with me. I often ask myself what Dad would have expected of me in a certain situation. If you follow this blog - and thanks to those loyal friends who do - you'll know that I've lost my enthusiasm for it over the past year. I've thought so many times about posts I could write, I've taken the photos even...but any creativity I have been able to muster has been used up in my work and daily life. I'm trying to change that now. Dad loved my writing and took great pleasure in it. He always believed in me and was proud of me. He wanted above all for his beloved family - my Mum, who was his true soulmate, my sisters, his 4 grandchildren and our partners as well as his wider family - to live our lives to the fullest and be happy in whatever we did. Mediocrity was something he abhorred. Dad...my dearest Dad...I miss you every minute. But I'll keep trying my very best to be the daughter and woman you always hoped I would be- and believed I could be.The world IS a lesser place without you, but it's still an amazing and wonderful life and I owe it to you, and myself, to keep moving forward and experiencing everything it offers me.**

xx