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The poem that might just change everything

How long do you have to wait before you can claim that something has changed your life? It’s been 24 hours since I first read the poem that changed my life, but I imagine it’s like saying I love you on the third date, or choosing your wedding dress after only trying one on – it’s too soon to say it’s ‘the one’.

That’s why I’ve covered my back and entitled this piece “the poem that might just change everything”. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, full of love, loss, heartbreak and wisdom. And just like all the best poems, it’s structure is faltering and broken, revealing the power of the words themselves. (Can you tell I’m a literature student?!)

But I’m not going to show the poem yet. You’ll love it, I know you will. I believe it might have changed my whole life. Which is why I’m going to make you wait. Later I’ll tell you why I love the poem, but first I’m going to tell you how I am.

An update on me

 I haven’t written for a while, and if you’re particularly close to me, you’ll know why that is. I love being honest and open on my blog, and I think it’s crucially important to share when life is far from rosy. However, this time I’m not going to tell you everything.

Grief is confusing and destabilising, and sometimes it all gets a bit much – which is exactly what has happened to me recently. If you’re grieving – whether you’re in your first month of grief or your twentieth year – it’s ok not to be ok sometimes. It’s been nearly two years since I lost mum, and the further it gets, the harder it seems to get! It’s not as simple as “time heals”. Right now, my wound is raw and more painful than it has ever been – and that is surprisingly normal.

If you’re worried about me, please don’t be. I have an incredible support network that I am relying on in this time, and I know that if I need you, you will listen to me, comfort me and maybe even bake me a cake. I promise that if I need help, I won’t stay silent.

Might everything change?

I’m currently starting a new project, called ‘Project Me’. I’m prioritising resting, relaxing, and being kind to myself. I’ve been doing things like reading, writing, sewing and making frequent trips to see the hamsters in Pets at Home – things that make me happy without complication or compromise. It’s a really great idea that I can’t claim is my own – lots of people who love me have been shouting at me for a long time to stop being so busy and rushed and stressed.

I’ve started seeing a fantastic counsellor, and she very quickly understood me, accusing me of being very good at “doing” and not very good at “being”. It made her laugh when I said, “but I don’t know what to do to just be”! Lots of us are all guilty of it I’m sure – finding our identity and self-worth in what we do, not who we are. I need to remember that I’m a human being, not a human doing.

That is why this poem might just change everything for me. I’ve read it over one hundred times already and I only encountered it yesterday. It’s a gorgeous reminder that I am a perfect version of myself, and that my disbelief at that fact is painful for those who love and cherish me. It’s not arrogant to believe that I am the best version of myself I can be, or love myself despite all my flaws and failings.

Sadly, my mum shared my low self-confidence. She wasn’t all that keen on herself, and it frustrated me so much, because to me she was the most beautiful, extraordinary woman I knew. That’s why, in her memory and to make her proud, I’m focusing on falling in love with myself for a while. With the poem printed out and stuck on my wall to remind and motivate me, I’m going to keep working hard on Project Me – ironically the hard work starts with some serious rest!

The poem that might just change your life

So here it is, the poem that you’re going to love. At least, I hope you love it. If you’re a bit broken like me, or you’re having a tough time, or you need reminding that you are brilliant, I dedicate this to you. A female friend shared it on her Instagram, revealing that another female friend had introduced her to the poet, Nayyirah Waheed. Isn’t that awesome? Let’s all do more of that – sharing inspirational, motivational, beautiful things with each other, to build each other up and help make the world a better place. (It’s what I’m trying to do with this website, so thanks for being involved!)

For someone who has always struggled with low self-confidence, this poem really spoke straight to my heart. In a time of personal darkness, this poem is a ray of brilliant, blinding light – Waheed reminds her reader that there is nothing that can stop you happening, stop you being, and stop the beauty of that being.

I hope this inspires you, you wonderful, perfect human BEING.

as you are – Nayyirah Waheed

“as you are.” says the universe.

“after…” you answer.

“as you are.” says the universe.

“before…” you answer.

“as you are.” says the universe.

“when…” you answer.

“as you are.” says the universe.

“how…” you answer.

“as you are.” says the universe.

“why…” you answer.

“because

you are happening now.

right now.

right at this moment

and

your happening

is beautiful.

the thing that both keeps me alive

and

brings me to my knees.

you don’t even know how breathtaking you

are.

as you are.” says the universe through tears.

Like this poem? Pass it on! Have something to share with me? Email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you.

I need your empathy, not your sympathy

Hannah, who has previously written for Let’s Talk About Loss, wrote to me in response to my article explaining to others how to help me through my grief, and has written a similar piece asking her friends to empathise not sympathise.

*Disclaimer: Talking with someone who has lost a parent can be really tricky – we completely understand that. This website exists primarily to allow those who have lost parents to share their experience and talk through the taboos that exist in society. If it can also help educate those who are friends to grieving young people, that is a fantastic outcome. We know how hard it is to know what to say, and hope that you find an article like this helpful. As ever, email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com if you have any thoughts or questions.*

This post does not come from a place of anger and annoyance, more from a place of grief and love.

One of my pet hates is when someone looks at me with that classic look of sympathy after finding out my mum has died. Yes, I can understand why people do this, but sympathy is not going to get me anywhere. I do not feel sorry for myself, so you do not need to either. I had a mum who was present and wonderful for 17 years of my life so that is something to be happy about, not to be sorry about. However my grieving of her death is going to be a long and painful journey so I do need your empathy.

Understanding my loss

What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy then? By definition sympathy is the feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, while the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Doesn’t the definition of empathy just sound so much more positive and encouraging? Sympathy encourages people to feel sorry for themselves and stay where they are, while empathy helps people to move forward and continue living their life.

Some of you may look at the definition of empathy and think “but I don’t know or understand what it’s like to lose a mum, let alone at 17 years old”. You don’t need to. In this life we have all experienced some sort of loss, whether this be a grandparent, partner or even a loss of confidence. Even if the person is still alive you may have experienced a loss such as an end to a friendship but the communication has been cut off and this can feel like a loss.

You understand more than you realise

In reality, what does empathy look like compared to sympathy? To me, this is what I think it looks like:

  • Instead of crying for me because of my situation, cry with me as I remember the memories and experience my grief.
  • Instead of talking to others about my sad situation, ask me how I’m actually doing.
  • Instead of avoiding me because you don’t know what to say, and therefore don’t want to hurt your pride by saying something wrong, just say anything.
  • Instead of just thinking about me on those known hard days e.g. birthdays or Mothers day, tell me you’re thinking of me.
  • Instead of getting annoyed at me on a bad day, forgive me and remember that this is tough for me and I’m going to make mistakes.
  • Instead of expressing sadness at my situation, ask me what my mum was like, I love that!
  • And if you want to ask a question then do! That’s the only way we are ever going to get over this taboo of grief.

Most importantly make sure no one walks through their grief alone, in any situation. Obviously there will be times when they have to do this grief thing on their own but you can be there to check in to see how they really are. Even when they say they don’t need you, they do. As humans we hate to be seen as needy but isn’t that what all friendships/ relationships are about. You help someone with their difficultly and they help you with yours while enjoying the joys of life.

So from today let’s choose empathy over sympathy. We all need empathy, not sympathy.

Hannah is a fantastic young woman and once again she has articulated well her feelings as she navigates life without her mum. If you want to learn more about Hannah’s situation, you can read her earlier post here.

Another fantastic article: a friend recently shared this article, published on The Huffington Post, with me. It’s another great article explaining how people in the Western world have got grief all wrong and have unrealistic expectations about how people cope with grief. It’s important to fully understand that everyone deals with grief in a completely unique way but there are some common realities. I really recommend this article and hope that is might help shed more light on the experience of loss and death.

If you have a story to share with us, email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com

Sometimes I say I’m ok but I’m not ok. Is that ok?

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and it got me thinking. Princes William and Harry have been doing incredible work reminding the country that it is ‘#oktosay’ – encouraging us all to speak up about how we’re feeling and break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. I’m passionate that talking can cure most things, and have started this website with the aim of showing others that we need to talk about loss, grief and death.

So why can’t I tell people that I’m not ok?

There are lots of acceptable responses when someone asks if you’re ok, but everyone’s favourite is the classic “fine thanks, how are you?” That makes me so angry! Fine is such a non-word – it conveys none of the reality of your emotions, and is short, easy excuse for avoiding the question. When my friends tell me they’re fine, I ask them another question – pushing and prying to get more information – until I find out that they actually had a really challenging day at work, or just received great news, or need my help in some way. That makes for meaningful conversation and makes me a better friend.

“Because the truth is, I’m not fine”

But recently I’ve been telling people I’m fine. A lot. Maybe no one has noticed – it’s such a universally accepted word, and once I’ve returned the question, they can agree that they are fine too and we can move on. However, I’ve noticed and it worries me. Because the truth is, I’m not fine. In the last week alone I’ve felt sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, lost; and I’ve cried on more than one occasion. I haven’t always answered fine – this week I’ve also felt joyful, excited, thankful, passionate; I’ve danced and laughed and smiled lots of the time, and it’s been easy to share those feelings. But mostly I’ve avoided being honest when things haven’t been so great. People would rather hear about what made me laugh than what made me cry.

We all need to change

I need to take my own advice, and talk through the taboos. I need to stop feeling ashamed that I had to go to my housemate, sobbing, and ask for a hug. Maybe I won’t share it with the cashier in Co-op but there are people in my life who I can talk to and will listen, without judgement, and understand. I’m going to start seeing a counsellor again – I’m not too proud to admit that grief is confusing and conflicting and constant, and I can’t cope with it alone.

“How could you know that when I replied to your text, I was slumped on my floor sobbing?”

It’s ok to say you’re not ok – whatever it is you’re dealing with. So maybe next time you ask me how I am, I’ll actually tell you. I won’t always want to. But sometimes I’ll be honest and tell you – and you might be surprised to hear that I’m really struggling. I’ve always been good at hiding my suffering, looking like I’ve got everything in control. So if you’ve encountered me in the last week, you might be completely taken aback to know that this week has been one of my worst in a long time – I haven’t coped at all. Surprised? My fake smile and cover-up coping mechanisms are good, I’ll admit.

How you can help me

I want to offer some advice to those people who are horrified to know that I’m not ok – who didn’t realise that when I answered fine I wasn’t. How could you know that when I replied to your text, I was slumped on my floor sobbing? It is obviously impossible to know unless I tell you, but the more I talk about my mental health with you, the more likely I am to be honest and open when it’s been a rough few days.

“I want to talk about loss, and I want you to talk about loss”

My wonderful friend Lizzi has written a blog post on mental health, and though it’s not about dealing with loss or grief, she articulates really well why it’s important to talk. Here’s a short excerpt of what Lizzi wrote:

As mental health awareness week draws to a close, wouldn’t it be great if we could all be more intentional in conversations with those who don’t quite seem alright, even though they’ve said they are? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all stop calling people ‘crazy’ for their erratic behaviour or mood swings because just maybe, that word is going to enforce upon them the belief that the mental health problem makes them somehow less valuable than others who do not suffer from poor mental health? Wouldn’t it be great if people with mental health issues felt able to be as open and honest with their peers about their emotional and psychological pain as they can be about their physical health? Be kind. Be open. Be aware.

Maybe you’ve noticed that I’m not ok. Don’t be afraid to ask if there is anything you can do. I wish more people would ask me to talk about my mum – sharing memories keeps her alive and telling people about her means more people get to know and love her. Don’t be scared of the taboos that society has created – I want to talk about loss, and I want you to talk about loss.

Have a story you would like to share? Email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com

An open letter to Prince Harry

Dear Prince Harry,

The two months after my mum died do not exist in my memory. The first memory I have after she died in July is my birthday in September. What I did, who I saw, what I said or thought in the time between July and September, I will never know. I stumbled through life as I do when I get up in the night and forget to put my glasses on.

I have previously referred to the time as like being sucked into a black hole, and you probably understand that. You have called the time before you grieved “total chaos” and I am lucky that I only suffered through that period for about two months. I was so privileged to get twenty years with my mum – you had just over half of that. It was helpful that we were aware, if only for a week, that we were going to lose mum – it was a complete shock for you, and must still be. And when I needed to grieve, I could shut myself off and process everything – you are a member of the Royal Family, everything you do is scrutinised and your grieving process has been a public one.

You should be incredibly proud of yourself

I’ve been on the verge of punching someone too. I used to go on long walks by myself and punch the air – because I needed to punch cancer and I couldn’t. I’ve also been so incredibly empty that I didn’t even have the energy to be angry. A world without your mum is not one that you want to get out of bed for, and sometimes even anger is too much effort. Have you ever had no oxygen left in your lungs because you’ve run too fast? I used to live in that state 24 hours of the day. But like you, I saw a counsellor – and like you, it was the best thing I did to address my grief.

The most refreshing thing about chatting to my counsellor was realising that everything I was thinking and feeling was completely normal. She talked me through the stages of grief, and although my emotions still catch me by surprise all the time, it’s easier now to recognise why I’m suddenly angry or sad or lonely. My counsellor encouraged me to dedicate time to processing my grief, helping me to realise that my brain was physically reeling from the pain of losing mum. Spending time thinking about her hurts every time, but it also brings me so much joy as I remember the laughter, the lessons learnt and all the love we shared.

No one is ever alone

You and I share a birthday – September 15. I can only imagine September 15, 1997 – as my own mother celebrated my third birthday, you turned 13 and it was the first birthday without your mum by your side. Maybe you barely even remember it? This year I will turn 23 – it will be the third time my mum hasn’t been present for my birthday, and it still won’t feel normal. Will it ever be normal that she is gone?

We have another thing in common: I’ve recently started boxing, too. Isn’t it the perfect way to get rid of the anger that consumes you? Often, my boxing coach remarks on how frustrated I seem, which at first I couldn’t understand – at 7am on a Monday morning, why on earth was I so angry? The week had only just started! But I gradually started to understand that it was the constant anger that I will now live with for the rest of my life. The anger at losing mum, how unfair life has been, how heartbreaking it is that she is gone – I channelled it into those punches and as they got physically more powerful, I also found my inner strength and resilience.

Let’s talk about this

I have an immense amount of respect for you, William and Catherine for your Heads Together campaign. Already, the public opinion on mental health has shifted considerably, and you’ve made it #OKtoSay that you’re suffering from mental health issues. You’re are changing lives and no doubt will save some without even realising it.

Like you, I’m now in a place where I feel able to help others and is the reason I’ve started this website. However, that won’t always be easy. I am hugely passionate about my website, but thinking and talking about losing my mum will never be easy. So why do it? Because – as you have articulated so well – mental wellbeing is essential and tackling the taboos and stigma will enable young people to live happier, healthier, freer lives.

I believe that young people who have lost a parent when they are young need a safe space to talk through the taboos of loss and death, and to see that they are not alone in their grief. For their friends and family trying to support them, this website provides a collection of case studies to learn from as they attempt to be supportive and caring. 2017 is the year to change the conversation, and your work with Heads Together is exactly what the country needs. I am proud that you are a member of my Royal Family and are using your position of influence to make positive change. My promise is that I’m going to do everything in my power to join you on your mission and help young people who need to talk.

Got a story to share on Let’s Talk About Loss? We’d love to hear from you. Email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com to start talking.

Grief made me the man I am

Mark Woodward lost his dad many years ago while he was still at university. 33 years later, he can still recall the phone call that changed his life forever. But as a husband and father himself, he knows that there can be love, joy and happiness after grief.

One thing in life is very certain, cannot be changed and we all experience it. Our own mortality and that of those we love with all our heart and soul are inevitably part of life, which makes it even more important that we treasure every moment with our loved ones, live life positively, laugh endlessly, look to make others’ lives better and have no regrets about opportunities missed or feelings left unexpressed.

The cold January

January is the month that brings this home to me. As a child, taking down my Mickey Mouse Christmas lights on January 6th was only made better by the very distant thought that the cricket season was not so far away. That month never really felt like a new start; in fact January was always cold, desolate and decayed – a month of negatives.
As time went on, the month was cheered by three birthdays to celebrate in my wife’s family, but those have always been balanced by the death of both my parents.

When my mother died in 2010 on my wife’s birthday, it just added to the hurt that I’d felt since my Dad died on 11th January in 1984. I remember receiving the note asking me to ring home one night after returning from a university table tennis match. Hearing my mother’s sad news was devastating and almost impossible to understand. A lot of
me died too that night, but most clearly that shock instantly defined my life philosophy. As an only child, it was the day I properly grew up.

My dad, my hero

A few days earlier, I had returned to university for my second term at Exeter University. Over Christmas I had spent the first extended period of time with my Dad who had recently retired. It had been a wonderful holiday – I had been proud to talk to him about my growing independence and we had shared warm conversations about the woman who would be – albeit 10 months later – and still is the love of my life.

“I wanted to spend so much more time with him”

I had spent my childhood shyly in awe of my father’s cheery nature – he was my hero, a brilliant rugby player and cricketer, who had fought for his country as a Spitfire pilot. He was the neighbour everyone turned to when they needed a practical hand, and, with time for everyone else, he was always the life and soul of any party. I wanted to spend so much more time with him, but in a January phone call, he was gone. He had collapsed suddenly and died in the bathroom of our family maisonette, while my Mum had been putting the washing out. In that moment, there was a massive hole in my life, but I had to deal with it.

In a crisis, I have always been able to act objectively and see positives. In January 1984, I went into overdrive, writing to friends, calling relatives, helping plan his funeral, reading at his service and then returning to university. My university friends were phenomenal and I still recall the flowers they sent me soon after the news.

All these years later

33 years on, I can say time does not heal – and I can still vividly recall the bathroom where he was found – but you find ways to cope just a little better when you visit a place he took you to as a child or when you hear a piece of music from your childhood that reminds you of him. I have missed being able to share significant moments in my life with my Dad – a wedding, two amazing daughters, a career and more – but have taken comfort in living my life like him – putting others first – and in his honour. Maybe he has been able to watch it all!

“Death has taught me to treasure every moment with friends and family, to keep my glass full, to laugh in adversity and be grateful for every second”

I would love to think he would be proud of my actions. Like him, I have tasted life’s greatest gifts as partner to someone special and as a father myself to two amazing daughters. I have been so lucky to share so much with my own daughters that I never had the chance to treasure with my own Dad. I wonder if they know just how proud I am of everything they have done and just how much they have made me laugh and cry for joy over the last 20 years.

Death has taught me to treasure every moment with friends and family, to keep my glass full, to laugh in adversity and be grateful for every second. Others have suffered far, far worse than me and I have been so fortunate to have had an amazing father-in-law to share those moments with and mentor me. I find it amazing that I have known him almost twice as long in my life as my own Dad!

“His death told me life is precious and you should tell those you love what you really feel”

Just occasionally, my Dad appears in a dream and those moments are so special, moments you don’t want to end. His world was obviously one without video footage, social media and digital footprints, but he is there in my memories and items connected with my childhood.

There is so much I still want to know about him and his own life, but his death told me life is precious and you should tell those you love what you really feel. He made me the man I am and still does. It is a privilege to live my life as he would have wanted me to and who knows where his spirit is – but it is in me every day.

Have you been affected by Mark’s story? If you have one of your own to share, email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com now.