Acknowledging the dark to appreciate the light
Jul 6 · 3 min read
I was walking the cliffs near my home on a beautiful sun-baked afternoon. I noticed the skylarks were not singing. I chatted with my wife about the life cycle and habits of these melodious beauties. Had they fledged all their chicks and abandoned those nests in the long grass? As I searched the sky for any signs of them, I noticed two young women walking towards us.
As I rested my eyes on one of them. A wave of sadness hit me in the chest. Tears sprung from my eyes, and my knees felt a little weak. As my body registered this emotional disruption, my mind began to catch up. I registered the face of a woman in her late twenties with blonde hair scraped up into a ponytail, talking animatedly to her friend.
My body had registered some resemblance to my daughter Holly, who died three years ago. My emotions had been triggered, and a wave of grief had swept over me. My wife gave me a questioning look. We had been talking about skylarks, and then seemingly for no reason, I had burst into tears.
It took me a moment. It was like a shockwave starting in my chest, spreading out through my body into my limbs. I shook my fingers and felt the energy dissolve.
“I just had a wave of sadness seeing that woman. Her hair was a bit like Holly’s.”
My wife nodded, understanding. Like me, her grief and tears can be triggered by a wide range of reminders of our beautiful daughter. A stranger’s laugh, a french plait, someone using their hands to punctuate their conversation in a certain way.
At first, these experiences would shut me down. I would be unable to talk, and I would seek solitude, step away from people, retreat to the loo or the safety of my van.
A year ago, it took me five minutes. Sat in my van, I watched transfixed as a woman chatted to her friend. My mind knew it could not be Holly, but other parts of me were not so sure. I felt immobilised, rooted to the spot. The woman entered the shop, and my mind won the argument. The grief flowed through my body and dissolved. I picked up my shopping bag and got on with my day.
I recognise the sensation as a dissolving. The trauma of losing a child to suicide is imprinted in every cell of my body. I will never forget. I will not be moving on or getting over it, but I can live with the pain. I can even welcome it as a reminder of the joy and love that Holly brought into my life.
I am not ignoring the emotion or reacting to it, and I am not just observing it or hiding it away or storing it somewhere for later. I am not controlling or managing my emotions. I am feeling the emotion, noticing the grief throughout my body. My mind recognises it. I allow myself to feel it. Once felt, I dissolve it.
On that walk on the cliffs with my wife, I described the sensations, and as I did so, I felt the sunshine flooding back into my body. Here I was, a content old man able to walk the beautiful Cornish coastline whenever he wished. What began as a wave of pain transformed into a wave of love and gratitude. The pain was still there, not denied, but acknowledged as a reminder of 28 years of having the privilege to be the father of an extraordinary child/young woman.
For this story, I would love to be able to report that as the emotions dissolved, a skylark began to sing high in the sky above me. That didn’t happen, but my senses did start picking up the sound of the waves on the shore. I noticed a lone surfer patiently waiting for a rideable wave to emerge from the calm ocean. I took my wife’s hand in mine, and we carried on with our glorious Sunday afternoon walk.