Grief is my wake up call.
First published in Invisible Illness on Medium John Walter 📣Aug 6 · 7 min read
Mydaughter Holly was 28 when she took her own life two years ago. Losing your child to suicide is a devastating and life-changing experience. It is not something you can get over — recover from — come to terms with — heal with time.
Holly is dead. She did not choose to go, and she is not in a better place.
I am still here. I am trying to make sense of my life now that my beautiful, brilliant star of a daughter succumbed to a fatal mental illness.
This story is not about Holly. It is about how grief became my wake up call.
In the weeks before her death, I had lost all sense of direction. Scroll back several years, and you see my business collapsing and with it goes my sense of purpose.
I was a creative activator going into schools and the corporate world using music and drumming. I was passionate about connecting people and facilitating their creative spirit. After the crash of 2008 money started being withdrawn from educations arts budgets. I began ploughing money into marketing to schools. Nothing could reverse it. Profits disappeared and soon became losses.
Unlike others in a similar position, I refused to diversify. A passion had driven me for ten years, and I was not willing to make compromises. My inability or unwillingness to create a pivot point for the company was disastrous. The business folded, and so did my sense of adventure.
I decided to go back into teaching to keep up the mortgage payments. I could write for weeks about what a disaster that was.
I limped from one teaching job to the next with resignations and discontinued contracts piling up behind me. Alongside this, I was downsizing and trying any other way to make my finances work, and my debts go away. Somehow, I found myself making an official complaint that my line manager was bullying me.
Amid this sorry tale, I woke up one morning to find I had gone deaf in one ear. Long story short, I had a brain tumour. It knocked out all hearing in one ear and disrupted my sense of balance. It is now a dormant tumour and has been for three years.
So in the few months before Holly died, I retired as a teacher, walked with a stick, took on a menial admin job for 20 hours a week and did very little else.
It is not all doom and gloom here. I had paid off all my debts and was living in a beautiful seaside location. I walked to work across the beach and sometimes swam in a sea pool on the way. There was some contentment there but no purpose or meaning to my life.
The trauma of bereavement by suicide
As the organisation Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide states:
A death by suicide is usually sudden, often unexpected and may be violent. These factors increase the degree of shock and trauma experienced compared to many other types of bereavement. Survivors may struggle to make sense of what has happened and fundamental beliefs may be challenged.
I have had excellent support from Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide and in the process met with others coping with this trauma. Some are still needing support 30 years after the event. For most, it is a life-changing experience.
I remember stepping outside of Holly’s London flat 36 hours after she had died there. We were on our way to identify her body. We decided to walk across London parks rather than take public transport.
I was sleep-deprived and groggy, but as I stepped into the sunshine, I felt my spirits lift.
“How can I be enjoying the sunshine when Holly is dead?”
I realised at that moment that life for me was going to continue. I realised that this loss and devastation would be with me forever, but I had some choice on whether I allowed the trauma to paralyse me or to energise my life.
Now I realise it does both concurrently.
I am embracing joy and pain.
“We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.” ~Mary Oliver — Evidence 2010
Two years have passed. Holly is with me always. I am not necessarily thinking of her, but I am aware of her presence. She sits on my chest sometimes as I wake, and it takes a considerable effort to ease her off and get on with my day.
I had a moment of paralysis sitting in my van watching a woman chatting and laughing. For five minutes there was part of me that believed Holly was not dead at all. Here she was with her hair plaited and her eyes shining.
The logical mind and my soul’s yearning fought it out for a while. I felt the pain of losing her and the joy of who she was, come together. I got out of the van and continued my day with both moving me forward.
The thing I find hard to admit.
I have renewed purpose in my life since Holly died. I find it difficult to admit that. As if it is disloyal. I should be sad — lying in a darkened room tearing out my hair. The grief police will descend on me at any minute and arrest me for doing it all wrong.
The truth is I have come alive in many ways and particularly in my creative life. I am writing regularly. I have dusted off a “five years in the drawer” novel and now work with an editor to make it ready for publication.
I have created a YouTube channel and systematically record my repertoire from the many years I was a professional storyteller. I compose music and find ways of sharing it. I bake or cook something new almost every day.
Responding to the wake-up call.
I threw away my walking stick a few days after Holly died. I had been using it for a year because my balance was so compromised. We were walking daily through London, meeting with Holly’s many friends, family and colleagues. One day on Westminster Bridge, I realised that using a stick as support was ridiculous. My brain would only learn to compensate for the loss of a balance organ if I walked unaided and got used to it. I left the stick in a bin on the bridge.
A few days later, I signed up to train to be a counsellor. I spoke to a local trainer and explained my background. Two months later, I began the basic level course, and now I am a year away from qualifying.
Becoming a counsellor was something I had always almost done but never taken the plunge. We had been encouraging Holly to see a counsellor. I could impact someone in a similar situation to her. The course is providing meaning and purpose for my life that was sadly lacking.
Rediscovering meaning and purpose.
Important to note here that I am not religious in any way. I don’t ascribe to a higher purpose or serving a greater good or a spiritual path.
Yet, I have rediscovered meaning and purpose in my life.
Werner Erhart’s words: “Life is empty and meaningless” resonate with me. It gives us the freedom to create, in the moment, whatever meaning we want for our lives.
He also says:
It is important that you get clear for yourself that your only access to impacting life is action. The world does not care what you intend, how committed you are, how you feel or what you think, and certainly it has no interest in what you want and don’t want. Take a look at life as it is lived and see for yourself that the world only moves for you when you act.
So to rediscover meaning and purpose — every day, I take action. I am creative, and I don’t need to narrow that down to the activities that make me money or seem noble.
One day I feel moved to write, and the next I make music. Another day I create videos. Some days I bake cakes and make bread and go for a long cycle ride.
My life had lost purpose. I had narrowed down my actions to those that made money to the exclusion of all else. I had some illusion that I had to decide to be one thing to the exclusion of everything else to survive. I had to be a teacher or a musician or a storyteller or a drumcircle facilitator or a videographer or a counsellor or a writer.
I can now change all those “or”s to “and”s.
Main points of the wake-up call.
- Joy and pain can coexist.
- Anything that you consider meaningful is meaningful.
- Your purpose is to take action wherever and whenever you feel moved.
- Creativity has no limits unless you impose them yourself.
Useful links:Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide