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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. 

The unexpected knock at 5am

Kayleigh has shared the story of losing her dad suddenly when she was at university, and how she has coped since that day. It is an incredibly inspiring story and great to have the first post of someone losing their dad. Email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com if you have a story of losing a parent that you would like to share. 

I woke up at 5am to frantic knocking on my student halls window. I got up and pulled back the curtain, expecting to see one of my flat mates who had forgotten their key on a night out,  but instead I saw my mum. I remember rushing out of the flat to the front door. My mum burst into tears, unable to speak or tell me why she was there. Fortunately, her friend was with her, and able to speak for her; my dad had died.

A world turned upside down

My world flipped upside down. I left uni that morning, in the middle of my first year exams. I didn’t go back for a week, and to be honest, even that was too soon. Once I did go back, the next few months were a blur – I did anything I could do to forget. When I was at uni, I had things to distract me. New friends and a new place that dad had never been… it was an escape from the cruel reality going on at home.

Everyone always tells me how strong I am and how strong I’ve been and how “if I was in your situation I would have dropped out of university for sure”. I tried the best I could to not be needy, and attention seeking, especially meeting these new people. I kept telling myself nobody wants to be friends with the mopey kid that just lost their dad. But truth is, I haven’t been brave at all, I cried every day for almost 3 years after he died. Just because you don’t see something happen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t go on behind closed doors.

“He supported Arsenal… so obviously I supported Tottenham”

And as for telling me that if it was you, you would have dropped out… do you know how that makes me feel? It makes me feel like I have behaved in an unusual way. It makes me feel that you think I couldn’t have possibly loved my dad because I couldn’t possibly be back at uni so soon, or at all. Truth is, I was extremely close to my dad. We were like brother and sister. We had our pointless squabbles and our play fights, we picked on mum, we did silly things together like bomb it down the tesco wine aisle with me standing on the trolley. He supported Arsenal… so obviously I supported Tottenham (to annoy him). I actually really got on with my dad, which made it even more difficult when he left us.

Breakfast on a bench

The first Father’s’ Day, I remember waking up at my boyfriends house at 8am. I dressed quickly and silently and walked. To begin with I didn’t know where I was going I just knew I had to get away, so I bought 2 bottles of wine, which I proceeded to drink by myself on a bench for breakfast. I was so angry. How dare anyone celebrate being with their dads if I couldn’t. So if that stupid day was going to happen, then I was going to forget about everything. And I did.

My dad died in January 2014, and I don’t think it was until I came to do my masters degree, in September 2016, that I finally did the majority of my grieving. I spent my undergraduate using my boyfriend as a crutch, and surrounded by friends who were there when this horrible thing began. So I was constantly being cushioned. Which was lovely for that time. But in that first term of my masters, living alone, with nobody who knew what I was feeling and having nothing to take my mind away from my own grief, I was able to confront it all head on.

“Those first few months were hell, but I have come out of it the other end and survived”

I’m not going to lie, those first few months were hell. But I have come out of it the other end and survived it all. I am thankful for all the time I got with my dad, and I wish it could have been longer, but I know that he is proud of the woman I am becoming. I have not fully gotten over what has happened, but I am starting to accept it more and more each day. Maybe I am as strong as people think I am.

Inspired by Kayleigh’s story? Have one of your own to share? Email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com. 

I don’t forget but it isn’t as frightening

A wonderful woman who I will only refer to as A has written of the loss of her mum – despite it coming when she was an adult, it still affected her hugely. Grief is scary and confusing at any age, and you don’t need to have it all figured out. The emotions you might be feeling are normal and okay. If you appreciate A’s story, maybe you want to share your own? We’d love to hear it.

It’s March 8th, and I feel today is an appropriate day to write about my loss. Today would have been my mum’s 71st birthday, last week she would have celebrated her golden wedding anniversary. Next week is the anniversary of her death.

My legs completely gave way

Eleven years ago today my mum was 60. She didn’t want to be 60, and I never really understood why until I became aware her mum had died at 63. A week later I was on my way up the M6 on a dark, cold and rainy night to get to the hospital she had been rushed into. In films when people get bad news they collapse and it’s all very dramatic – this is what happened when I received that phone call. My legs completely gave way. I had to drive myself as my husband had to stay with our young daughter who was in bed fast asleep, I tried to tell her mummy wouldn’t be at home in the morning. For me this was hard enough as I’d never been apart from her before. I don’t remember much of the journey apart from the music I was playing, it has taken years before I could listen to it again, thinking back I should have played something I didn’t like!

Hospital visits

I arrived at the hospital to find my dad – understandably – in a mess and my mum lay helpless, she thought she was at home as she hadn’t opened her eyes. She was talking, shouting in fact, at my dad which was actually quite funny and lightened the mood a little. At this point we were quite optimistic she would recover from the stroke that had caused this.

I just wanted to escape

I sat with her for what seemed like days but was actually just hours. She kept asking why I was there, as I now lived over 100 miles away. When she eventually opened her eyes she was crying, I felt so helpless and to see her so frightened was one of the worst things I have experienced and something I will never forget. When she was made comfortable and stable I made the trip back home, I wasn’t well and was exhausted and needed to desperately to see my husband and daughter. I just wanted to escape.

I called my dad as soon as I got home, the hospital had asked him about resuscitating my mum, which they had needed to do as soon as I’d left; did he want it to happen again? He was crying down the phone, he couldn’t make that decision, so I did. Mum was a very independent, strong minded (stubborn really) woman and she had once told me that if she couldn’t live her life I was to shoot her! I had no intentions of carrying that out but it made the decision not to resuscitate easier for all of us.

The early morning phone call

The phone call came at 4am in the morning, as they always seem too. Looking back I was glad I hadn’t been there. It was strange as I wanted to remember her as she was before but I was also glad I had gone to the chapel the day after to see her: she looked like my mum again instead of a woman who had suffered many strokes. They had done a fabulous job. I gave her my cross to take with her; I thought it might help.

I don’t forget but it isn’t as frightening

Even though I lived away and had my own family I don’t think the loss is any less or more. We are all affected differently. I had and still have times where it’s unbearable. It creeps up and I don’t realise: standing in the card shop full of Mother’s Day cards crying uncontrollably, a Barry Manilow (mum’s favourite) song on the radio, which I would normally have switched straight off. I’m not sure if any of that will ever stop happening. As each day, week, month and year goes by I don’t forget but it isn’t as frightening, I can’t explain why. It definitely helps to talk, to let it out, to share; all of sudden you don’t feel so alone. I don’t feel as aggrieved when someone loses a parent who has reached a ripe old age: it’s not fair but you can’t change it. I may still have work to do on those feelings. There are always people worse off but grief is individual and unique.

At the end of the day, despite the pain, I do believe that things happen for a reason and I think God spared my mum from maybe living the life she didn’t want to have to live. Holding to that hope makes everything a little bit easier.

Got a story to share? It’s so helpful to talk about our grief. Email letstalkaboutloss@gmail.com and talk to us today