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The Family Book – Reinstated!

A year and a half or so ago I made a ‘Family Book’ for Saskia, essentially a book of photos of all her main family members. She found it difficult to remember all the different nanas, grandads, uncles and aunties so the idea was to help her sort them all out in her head. It was a very old school Blue Peter-esque affair, involving coloured card, a glue stick and some sticky-backed plastic.
It had its day, and then got forgotten at the back of the bookshelf for many months. Recently though Saskia has had it out again, talking her friends through it, now a dab hand at the ‘Name That Nana’.
The reason for talking about this book is that it now has several family members in it that have died. I made it not long after Ben’s death and it seemed natural to include him on the first page – there’s a picture of our family as we were (me, Sas and Ben), and how we are now (just the two of us) – and Pickle the cat gets a look in too. Ben will always be Saskia’s Daddy, and so to me its vital that he doesn’t get edited out of stuff like this.

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At first, it was just Ben that was no longer with us, but since making the book, Ben’s grandad and nana have both also died, and so as we look through the book, we inevitably talk about them, the fact that they’re dead now, and like Daddy, we won’t be able to see them any more because their bodies stopped working too.
There are two good things that come from this image of two happy old folks, leaning into each other on the sofa as they pose for a Christmas photo. The first is that Sas can see that she is not alone – other people lose their Daddies, other people die. Families are full of dead people. Death is a normal, natural part of life. Not scary, not strange.
On the other hand, the photo also helps me bring home to her the point that most people die when they are very old, not still young like Daddy. I am always mindful that she might worry about me dying, or others very close to her, so when we talk about death I really try to emphasise this. This lovely picture of Grandad Ken and Nanny Daphne helps me to help her understand.

Thank you Ken and Daphne. RIP.

imagePS – I know they don’t look that happy in the photo, but that’s just typical old folks posing for photos. They were actually very jolly!

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Doh!

In a moment of brain absense I permanently deleted one of my posts recently. No idea why my hand decided to click ‘yes please’ to that, but it did.

 

It was called ‘The Family Book’ and I published it about a month ago. If anyone still has the email with that post in it, I would be so so gratfeul if you could send it to me so I can republish the post.

 

And I promise I won’t do it again…ever.


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A NOT HAPPY day

Today Saskia was NOT HAPPY, or so she told me. She also described herself as ‘grumpy’ and ‘sad’, not feelings she’s prone to I’m proud to say. Usually I can shake her out of any grump with tickles, cuddles, offers to play with her, or the big guns, cake or telly. But today she didn’t want ANYTHING!! as she hotly exclaimed on several occasions.

Whether sad and grumpy were just her ways to express her being dog tired, which I knew she was, or her voicing a deeper unhappiness, I don’t know, but in the midst of her whining and whimpering this afternoon, she suddenly came out with ‘I need my Daddy!’, then she just cried ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ over and over again for maybe five minutes. Eventually she stopped as she began to drift off to sleep in my arms.

I was shocked, and really sad for her. This is the first time she’s shown strong emotion about not having her Daddy. My instinct is that she was feeling rotten – exhausted after a run of late and restless sleeps – and was so out of sorts that she felt she didn’t want anything, but she wanted something. Something, or someone, who was missing, but could look after her and make her feel better.

I asked her what had made her think about Daddy and she said it was Pickle, our cat. She knows he was Daddy’s cat, bought especially to cheer him up when he was poorly.

The last few days have been relatively intense in terms of talking about Daddy, and death. On Sunday we visited the burial ground, and Saskia brought a new stone that she’d chosen on the beach in Cornwall to go with the one she’d brought to put by the tree on January 3rd. And yesterday we attended the committal (just the burial part of a funeral) of Ben’s Nan. Although Sas asked questions about what was going on, she didn’t seem upset at all at the time – she was much more concerned with taking her shoes and socks off so she could run barefoot in the grass! Who knows what she’s absorbed, what she’s understood and what she’s taken to heart, but it’s very possible that the events of the last few days were jumbled up with her unhappiness when she cried for Daddy today.

Poor Sas. There will be many more moments like this ahead as her loss gathers meaning in her mind. I still don’t feel I have the right words. I’m just hoping that cuddles and kindness will be enough for now.

I


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Counselling for copers

An article on grief counselling that I wrote recently for the Pilgrims Hospices website

Despite being very keen to encourage my late husband  to take up Pilgrims’ offer of counselling, and being, in theory, very open to the idea of going to it myself, in reality I was a bit slow to take it up; I remember saying  “Oh I’m fine… I’m managing… I don’t think I need it.”

I’d wager that a heck of a lot of people, caregivers and patients, have resisted having counselling, or at least procrastinated about it, using reasons like that. The implication is that counselling is only for the ‘non-copers’, those who are ‘struggling’ or ‘not managing’. If you’re doing a half-decent job of keeping your chin up, cracking on and ‘coping just fine thank you’, then what good can talking to a counsellor do? “I’m FINE!” we cry.

But on my first visit to see the Pilgrims counsellor, I realised I wasn’t ‘just fine’. Though I was coping very well indeed, not all was well. How could it be? My husband was dying and I was stretching myself in a million directions to deal with the changes to our lives. So there I sat crying my eyes out (something I never did at home – not because I was repressing tears, just that they never came when I was there), thinking “wow, where did this come from?!” And the same pattern occurred every time a session was due – I’d think “I’m fine, I shouldn’t waste her time really”, then I’d go and to my surprise, out would come fears and anxieties that I’d pushed away and tried to ignore. I would walk away a little exhausted perhaps, but always with a strong sense of having understood myself a little better, and having removed some of the ‘baggage’ (ie unnecessary and unhelpful thoughts and feelings) that I was carrying around with me.

So how does counselling at Pilgrims work? There’s no fixed timetable, it can work around you, although she did make suggestions about what might be a good time frame and frequency for sessions. The sessions last about 50 minutes and take place in a comfy room with no windows so no one can see you if you start having to reach for the tissues!

I had sessions in the months leading up to my husband’s death, then a few more about a month afterwards, and then a few more about six months afterwards. I may yet have more.  My mind boggles at what a wonderful service this is!

But how does talking to a counsellor differ from talking to friends or family? I’m lucky to have fabulous friends and family who I rely on when I need to talk. However,  a counsellor offered a number of things that they couldn’t…

  • You don’t need to protect a counsellor – They can’t be hurt or upset by what you say, so there’s no need to hold back
  • They will let you speak – Friends or family often want to cheer you up and may be busy telling you why you shouldn’t feel depressed, or guilty, or angry, rather than letting you talk about how you feel.  A counsellor on the other hand, will encourage you talk through these thoughts and feelings.
  • They are skilful listeners – They don’t just passively listen while you do all the work, they listen hard to what you’re saying. They listen ‘between the lines’ and ask the right questions. Together you can get to the heart of thoughts and feelings that may be hard to admit, explain, understand or come to terms with.
  • They are experienced in counselling patients with terminal illness and their carers/family – Because they have talked to so many people in your situation, they can understand what you are going through so much better than many family or friends can. They are also in a position to share other people’s experiences with you (confidentially of course), thereby giving you precious reassurance that you are not alone or abnormal
  • It’s focussed – Unlike the ebb and flow of normal conversations that go off on tangents or where the subject often changes, the conversation is focussed and so can really get to the root of troubles rather than just skipping around on the surface
  • It’s confidential  – You don’t need to worry that what you say will be repeated to other family members, or discussed in the pub by your mates
  • There are no distractions – No phones, no children, no eavesdroppers, no mess to be tidied…

To sum up, if you are a patient or a family member, and are hesitating about using the counselling service at Pilgrims, let me urge you to give it a try. Going to counselling doesn’t mean you’re weak, or mentally unstable – it means you’re sensible enough to make use of a very useful service that’s offered to you at a time when you are under incredible pressure. Use it! I did, and it has helped me no end.

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Death and The Snowman

When I picked up The Snowman DVD box set for Saskia’s stocking this Christmas, I was really just thinking of it as a cosy Christmas classic, feeling sentimental about watching it as a child and imagining how she’d love it. She has absolutely adored it, and this rainiest of Januarys has, in our household, been a snowy one, with regular viewings (I confess often several times in a row when I’ve bowed to her toddler-dictator demands) of both the original 1982 film and the modern sequel The Snowman and the Snow Dog.

But I’d completely forgotten, and perhaps just been so swept away with the gooey Christmas nostalgia that surrounds the film, that it’s as much about death as it is about flying through the air and meeting Santa. Both films end with a young boy knelt sadly beside a mound of snow and a few clothes – all that remains of his melted snowman friend.

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In the Snowman and Snowdog sequel, death appears right at the beginning of the story too, when the boy’s dog dies and he and his Mum are seen burying him in the garden.

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When I watch this scene I am struck by how resonant it is of our recent trip to Ben’s grave. There’s a tree, a mother and a child, and treasured objects laid on the grave. I’ve been watching to see if Saskia has made this link and I don’t think she has, certainly not as strongly as I have. I don’t want to push it, but I did mention once as we watched that the tree was like Daddy’s special tree. She didn’t really say anything, and usually now when we’re watching, she adds her own commentary for me (in case I’m getting lost in the complexities of the plot) and when we get to this point she let’s me know “the doggy’s died, Mummy” in the same, rather pleased with herself way that she narrates every other scene. No great feelings of poignancy apparent!

What I like, I guess, is that these films deal with death in a way that is matter of fact, and sensitive. I know that both films are sentimental, and that the 1982 film sugar-coated the original Raymond Briggs story by adding the Christmas elements, but I don’t mind that so much. I just appreciate the fact that on some level the stories are teaching Saskia the idea that death is a fact of life – we will all die, just like a snowman will always melt. So far we haven’t come across many stories (either in books or on film) that feature death so this has been an interesting first for us. I would be really interested in recommendations for stories that deal with death sensitively from anyone reading this – it’s a theme I’d like to revisit in a later post I think.

Finally, for your interest, here’s a link to an article in the Independent in which Raymond Briggs talks about the theme of death in his book and how the story was ‘hijacked’ by Christmas.


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Saskia in the sunlight

This morning, in the sparkling sunlight, Saskia and I visited Ben’s burial place together.

Morning sunlight over the burial ground

Morning sunlight over the burial ground

We were there for a special reason – something I’d been planning for a few months. Since Saskia and I started having little ‘conversations’ about where Daddy had gone to (see this earlier post for more on this), I have thought about bringing her to the burial ground so that I could begin to tell her a little about why it’s such a special place for her. She’s been several times before of course (at the funeral, and a number of family gatherings), but we’ve never talked to her about why we’re there – she’s always just treated it as a little expedition out in the countryside – flowers to look at, gravel to crunch, mud to squelch in.

I know she’s too young to understand much, but she can understand that the place is special and associated with her Daddy. So, to tie the place to her, we made a stone – a present from her to Daddy.

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Unwrapping her special gift for Daddy

We made it a month or so ago. We chose the stone on Whitstable Beach (a favourite place for Ben, Sas and I), and then Saskia did some beautiful finger painting…

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Fabulous finger painting by Saskia

A little message and some varnish to preserve it…

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Love Saskia x

And so Saskia put it under ‘Daddy’s tree’ – and hopefully there it will stay for a long long time, nestled amongst the grass and roots.

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Saskia putting her painted stone under Daddy’s tree

I talked to her a little about this being ‘Daddy’s tree’ and ‘a special place where we can come to remember and think about Daddy’. I showed her his name on the plaque and his photo that sits nearby, but in truth she was only partly with me. Her lovely toddler mind was distracted by all the flowers on the other graves, and especially a wicker reindeer that someone had placed on a grave nearby (she wanted to ride it!). So our little ‘ceremony’ and ‘conversation’ about Daddy was short and sweet – I decided we needed to change the activity and go for a walk. Which leads me on to something I absolutely love about the Woodland Burial Ground – in the middle is a pond. It has wooden bridges that cross it at either end and is home to hundreds of frogs in the summer. For me when I come alone, it offers a serene and inspiring place to walk and reflect, but for a toddler it offers a myriad opportunities for discovery and fun! First we tried to say hello to some ducks but they wandered off, so we played pooh sticks (though none of our sticks were very keen to come out from under the bridge). After that we had copious amounts of fun throwing stones into one end of the pond and then dropping some more off the bridge at the other, enjoying their satisfying ‘plop!’. And here is my beloved monster enjoying the thrill of balancing on a big rock…

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Joy!

It was such a perfect time. I hadn’t envisaged the fun part – I hadn’t gone further than the stone and the talking about Daddy part in my imaginings of our visit. But it was just right – now Sas will have these vivid, fun-filled memories to go with her memories of Daddy’s tree and her painted stone. I suppose these images are just fragments in her mind at the moment – little shiny pieces that she knows go together but exactly how they fit and what they mean she can’t tell.

After our adventures down by the pond we crunched our way back up the gravel path to Ben’s tree, meeting his mum, step-dad and sister along the way. To my surprise Saskia proceeded to confidently tell her nana, gramps and aunty that this was Daddy’s special tree which would grow bigger and bigger, and this was her stone for Daddy. So it did go in after all – seems she can listen and stomp around exploring graves. Clever girl.


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Where’s my Daddy?

‘Where’s my Daddy?’

Saskia probably asks this once a week at least now, sometimes more, and often repeatedly in succession in her toddlery sort of way. She’s not upset when she asks – just curious, and enjoying asking a question and getting a response.

Since I first wrote about this in September in the post I knew the day was coming… I have done a LOT of thinking and talking about the subject. And finally, in the last few weeks, I feel I’ve cracked it – I’m comfortable with what to say and what it means. Surprisingly, for an atheist (albeit a rather woolly and fence-sitting one), I’ve decided to say that Ben is in heaven. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, but here’s how I came to it.

My starting point

So, I wanted to have an answer that she could relate to with her limited understanding of the world, but also I wanted it to be meaningful for me. I didn’t want to just spout cliches that I didn’t believe myself or wouldn’t make sense to her. My belief is that Ben lives on in our hearts and our memories. He is here insomuch that his impact on our lives still affects who we are and how we live our lives – in that way he lives on. I also take a lot of comfort in the idea of him being reabsorbed back into nature, and when I visit his grave at the beautiful woodland burial ground I imagine his ‘spirit’  around me as the leaves rustle in the trees and the birds sing. ‘Spirit’ to me here is a metaphor for love and goodness and connectedness to nature. This probably sounds very vague and a bit wet, but that’s fine, I’m not out to justify my own beliefs here, just to explain my own answer to the question ‘Where’s Daddy?’. But of course I couldn’t say this to her – I’d lose her straightaway in all that abstract stuff. And anyway, this is just what think, and in her life she’s going to meet lots of people who have very different ideas about where Daddy’s gone, and eventually she’ll want to make up her own mind. So what could I say to her?

‘Heaven’ is a useful word

I first started to seriously consider the option of using the word ‘heaven’ when my friend Janine suggested it on a car journey home from holiday. As someone who works with children and their families she can be quite a wise old bean about bringing up children sometimes – she has a lot of good ideas anyway. So, she suggested that I should tell Sas that Daddy had gone to heaven – cue seriously unconvinced ‘u-huh…’ from me. She explained that when Sas went to school, and even before, she would find herself being asked about her Daddy, and therefore she needed to have a way of saying that her Daddy had died that she was comfortable with and that others would understand. Children in her class might not know the word, but if they told their parents ‘Saskia’s Daddy’s in heaven’, then they would understand and be able to explain to their children as they saw fit. If Saskia has only been told things like  ‘he lives in our hearts and memories’, she could get herself into some confusing and uncomfortable conversations, with people misunderstanding what she was saying. This is the last thing I want. I want her to be able to talk about her Daddy with confidence and pride, to put people at ease when she talks about him, so she doesn’t have to see the discomfort in their face when the taboo subject of death is raised. Janine had made a really important point, but I was still uncomfortable with the word ‘heaven’ as it didn’t seem true to my own beliefs.

The taboo of death

The fact is, if I’m looking for a way of saying that Ben has died that is true and uncomplicated, then just that, ‘he’s died’ is the most obvious thing to say. I talked in a post called Squashed snails and dead flies about how surprisingly often a toddler encounters death in their day to day life, largely due to their physical proximity to nature (little ones are so much closer to the ground, and fall on it, crawl on it and study it with unbounded curiosity on a regular basis). Saskia is no stranger to a dead snail or fly. For a moment there I wondered if the simplicity of life and death in nature would help me answer Saskia’s question. But it can’t. Death in nature is brutal. We sweep the dead snail away and swat the fly. I can’t equate Ben’s death to that. Some might say that death is as simple and cold for humans too, but that’s not how I feel about Ben going, and I don’t want Saskia to feel that either. With humans, the bonds that we create and the love we have mean that something of us lives on. We respect their bodies, we cherish their memories.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that Ben has died – it’s what I usually say – but from the lips of a two year old ‘My’s Daddy’s dead’ has a coldness that would shock people. There would be no coldness in her, she’s an innocent, but I would hate for her to see shock or hurt on people’s faces when she spoke to them. This is why, however simple and true they may be, I have chosen not to focus (for now) on the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’ when I talk to her.

‘Heaven’ as a ‘catch-all’

So, I was back to the ‘heaven’ option, but still couldn’t square it with my own beliefs. I don’t believe that Ben is in a place somewhere out there in the universe, with God, Jesus, angels and lots of immortal souls, watching what’s happening here on earth. That’s  what heaven means right? Well, more chats with more wise friends, Lizzie and Liam, helped me to see things differently. Why not use the word as a catch-all? It doesn’t have to mean the conventional Christian idea of heaven. After all, translate it into other languages and cultures and it would take on a myriad of different meanings. Why not use the word to mean ‘something peaceful after death’. I don’t know for certain what happens after death, but I strongly believe that it’s nothing to fear. For the atheist in me, ‘heaven’ can mean the peace of a deep sleep, free of pain and worry; and for the new age, circle-of-life side of me, it can mean the peace and beauty of the natural world that he has returned to. In time she will learn that for her grandparents it means something different, and for her aunties and cousins and friends something different still. The unifying factor is that heaven is a lovely and peaceful state or place to be. This appeals to me because I want to bring up a child who can form her own beliefs but is also sympathetic and open to other people’s. Using the word heaven so widely will leave the door open for us to talk about different ideas of the afterlife as she gets older.

Heaven sounds right in a sentence

So having gone through all these thought processes, I was almost decided that ‘He’s gone to heaven’ was the right answer for Saskia’s question. I thought I’d try just one more time my idea of him living in our hearts. I pointed to where her heart was and told her Daddy was there. As I said it I knew it wasn’t going to work, and this was confirmed moments later when we said ‘Daddy’s in my tummy’ (she’s a bit obsessed with her tummy, perhaps because it’s the only bit of her insides that she actually has any concept of!). It confirmed once and for all you have to avoid metaphors altogether or choose them very wisely when dealing with two year olds. So I finally went for it and said ‘He’s in heaven’ and you know what, it just sounded right – it sounds like a place. To Saskia, Daddy’s not here, so he must be somewhere – he is, a place called heaven (And what’s that Mummy? Well, she hasn’t asked that yet – that’s a question for another day…).

She’s started to say it herself now, and it sounds ok. She said it to my friend Marylka at the dinner table when somebody’s Daddy was mentioned –  ‘My Daddy’s in heaven now’ she said in a rather matter of fact way. Tears came to Marylka’s eyes, but I just felt so proud of her. I hope she will always be as eloquent and happy to talk about her Daddy as she grows up.