A better grief

The Annual Sue Ryder lecture, delivered on March 6th at the Houses of Parliament

Good evening. First of all – thank you for the great honour of speaking on this occasion. On November 7th 2017, my wife, Fiona died at home whilst under the care of our wonderful Sue Ryder team. The meticulous expertise and deep compassion which they brought into our home are things I shall never forget. The debt I owe to them is both indescribable and unpayable – and if tonight’s words make some small scratch on its surface, I shall be pleased.

Let me make a confession: I hate writing postcards. As a child, whenever we would travel on holiday – the responsibility for doing so would be divided up between my brother and I. One would write to Granny, one to Auntie and so on. I hated it. I would write in the biggest possible script so as to minimise the number of words required – and I am sure they were as boring to read as they were to write. Years later, travelling with children of my own – the same rules applied. Fiona and I would parcel out between us who was writing to whom. Out would come the big handwriting, and my reluctant words would fill up the page and disappear into the post-box.

So why, seven days after Fiona’s death, did I find myself coming home from a walk across the crunching, frosted grass of the cemetery, to write a postcard? It was because I felt as if I were abroad. Everything looked the same, the landmarks were still in the same places, the cars still drove on the left – and yet somehow, I had been transposed into an alien place. A shift had gone on so that the familiar became unfamiliar, the reassuring became disturbing and I didn’t belong. Like shopping in a foreign supermarket – I inadvertently bought the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong quantities. Like a stranger living abroad, I found that my calendar seemed to have different dates to those marked on other people’s. My milestones were not theirs. Like a newbie on foreign soil speaking a foreign language all day – I was exhausted by teatime…or often by lunchtime.

And so, I began to chart the experience through a series of some thirty ‘Postcards from the land of grief’. Initially they were published on my blog, and received lots of interest. Later they were featured on BBC Radio 4’s “Sunday worship” – provoking one of the biggest audience responses that programme has ever seen. A little later this year they will appear in a book, and there is every indication that there is a good appetite to read them. Other people live in this foreign land of grief too, it would seem. Their friends and family see them there, separated by an invisible border and o so far away. They want to help, but as we now know – 51% of them are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

So perhaps tonight I can read you a postcard or two – sent from that foreign land to all of you here tonight. This new research has shown that bereavement is a ‘very individual phenomenon’. As a minister of religion for 30 years, I am no stranger to death. I have been there at the bedside as a person slips away. I have been there just afterwards, with the body in bed and praying with family. I have been there to discuss the funeral. I have been there to conduct the funeral. I have been there to visit the family after it and see how they are doing. Despite all of that, my arrival in the land of grief was a rude shock:

A new topography
I am learning that the landscape of grief is a strangely unnerving place. In part its strangeness is that those things which you had thought would be familiar…are not familiar at all. Grief can turn a soft memory into an unforgiving rock face or a hairbrush into a sword to pierce the heart. Regrets, like injected foam, expand to fill the space you give them. Words spoken or heard are like an old cassette left next to a magnet – muffled by exposure to greater force.

To arrive in that land is to find yourself in a place which is both close to and distant from what you always regarded as normal:
Invisible borders

I once heard a refugee describe how the border with his home country ran just alongside his refugee camp. He could stand at the edge of the camp and gaze across at an old familiar tree in the home country – but he could not go there. The border was both invisible and impervious.

I am finding that the landscape of grief has just such a border. I can gaze across it at old familiar things. I can watch normal life unfold before my eyes, and I can stand and have a conversation with those across the border as if nothing separated us. That said – it is impossible to cross for now. When it comes down to it, they live there and I live here and nothing can be done about that. I make occasional forays into their land, and they are precious. It turns out, though, that I take the border with me. I am like a cartoon character racing to outrun an elastic band – legs whirring and arms pumping, but the snap of the elastic must bring me back as surely as night follows day.

The refugee made a new life for himself across the border. He would still gaze from time to time at the old, familiar tree – but he found others in his new home. Like the old one, they provided shade and the kind of mental landmark which makes any new place a little less strange. Today, I shall go looking for trees…

The report will demonstrate that ‘knowing support is on hand increases resilience’ and that has certainly been my experience. ‘Kindness’ is an old-fashioned word which seems to belong to an age of innocence, and yet it sustained me in those early days:

The currency of kindness

It continues to surprise, this land of grief. Its topography is so hard to read – like the shifting sands of the desert. To climb a tiny hill can feel like scaling a mountain – leaving the lungs gasping for air at the top. Once scaled – the view behind may be spectacular – but the view ahead is hidden, at least for now. Some of the valleys which look like no more than a ditch prove to have sides so steep that they all but blot out the light.

As ever with foreign travel, the currency is unfamiliar too. Money has little value. It can pay the bills and provide some distraction, but it has no real worth. After all, it could not pay any fee to prevent crossing the border into here. In this land the currency is kindness. It comes in words and actions, cards and letters, and even smiles.

I started this week by re-reading all the cards and letters which I have received. They came from every direction, in every kind of handwriting and from every age. Some were poetic, some fulsome, some brief – but all have made me richer here.

I thank God for every single one of them. Like money sent home from abroad – they have helped to sustain life in this foreign land and I am humbly grateful.

As many told the researchers, there is an awkwardness about seeking help. The version of ourselves which needs to reach out for it is one which we neither recognise nor welcome. To admit to loneliness is to admit to a form of social plague, it feels:
A cross-border confession

When I used to live in that other place, holidays to France were an annual feature. The rumble of the wheels down the ferry ramp and the first sight of a French flag fluttering over the port always brought a frisson of joy. So, too, did speaking another language. The sheer fact of speaking a different language and saying different things made me feel like a different person. I could say them ‘over there’…
I am about to write something from ‘over here’ which I could never have written ‘back there’. I could never have written it because it would have been embarrassing and awkward. I would never have written it because it would have been untrue. Nonetheless, I write it now. I am lonely. Married to Fiona for 30 years, and in love with her for longer than that, life without her by my side is shockingly different. One day last week a 24-hour period passed where my only conversations were on the phone or with a cashier at the supermarket. Mine is by no means a unique experience, and I have endured it for a far shorter time than many. All the same, it is a shock to find that it is true.

For those who are scrolling for the comments box even as they read this, I wanted to write a message or two. Firstly – thank you. Your kindness and warmth are a reflection of God’s image in the foxed mirror of humanity, and it is wonderful to see.

Secondly, please be assured that my loneliness is neither your problem nor your fault. You did not cause it and I do not count it as your duty to rectify it. Your attempts to distract me from it are always welcome, and the place in your heart from which they come is very dear. Please don’t be surprised, though, if I do not always accept them. The reason for my refusal has everything to do with me and nothing to do with you. Part of the collateral damage of bereavement is a wastage of the confidence muscle, if there is such a thing. That muscle which heaved body and soul up over the parapet of home has shrunk, you see. I look out over the threshold of home to a landscape filled with life, laughter, food, drink and conversation and I both move towards it and quail from it. I will learn, and the muscle will grow back, but it may take a little time.
Thirdly, please don’t let the sea-mist of sadness which sometimes rolls off me put you off from telling me about your life. I want to know. I want to hear the shrill sound of laughter and the clatter of ordinary dishes and the occasional curse! It reminds me that there is a life out there, beyond the mist – and I still belong to it.
The forthcoming report will talk about the importance of community in addressing what is essentially the individual problem of grief. I could not agree more – and I am fortunate to find myself in the midst of this painful and challenging experience with a faith community gathered around me. However, sometimes the least tolerant or understanding person within the circle surrounding the bereaved person can be …the bereaved person. I found myself too often in the company of people whom I described as Mr Shouty, Mr Angry and Mr Selfish. Between them they would rant about anything not going their way, and they would berate me for having the audacity to look up a little. Sometimes they would conspire to make even the positive things seem like negatives:
The treachery of absorption

When living away from home, and once you realise that the stay may be long term – things begin to change. You learn the language. You grow to love the food. You stop scanning the supermarket shelves for those things which you know you can’t get here anyway. In short, you learn to fit in. To do so can be quite gratifying – a successful experiment in cultural adaptation. This is not where you meant to be, and it may not have been your choice to come here – but you are making the best of it.

And then, the moment of treachery comes. You are walking through your new-found neighbourhood or talking in your new language with your new friends – when you stumble because you cannot remember the old ones. Perhaps you struggle for a word which was once so familiar on your lips and it just won’t come. You’re glad the people in that other country can’t see you now, because you would feel ashamed.

There are days now, in this land of grief – where I feel like I am starting to fit in. I recognise that single man in the mirror and do not flinch. I look at on old picture in a new space or sit in a new chair in an old room and it feels…normal. Then there are other moments where that new normal feels like a treachery to the old. It feels like the person who has studied their new language so hard that when a newspaper comes in their mother tongue, they can no longer read it. Absorption, which was such a laudable aim, feels like treachery in that moment.

To understand the bereaved person is to understand that this kind of internal conflict can go on for months, or even years, after the death. Bereavement is a deep wound with no visible scar.

If we are to make a change within this landscape of grief, then we shall all have to make adjustments, I think. Friends and family will have to embrace the joyful danger of getting it wrong for the greater good of getting it right. Employers will have to recognise that the incapacity brought about by grief may far outlast any bereavement leave they give. The bereaved themselves will have to speak a little more in the foreign tongue of this place to which they have moved. And we shall all have to recognise that the scars left by grief, like the patina on a much-loved antique – may add to our value rather than diminish it.

There’s a tree I often pass on my morning walks with the dog, and I want to leave you there this evening. At some point in its life the tree, on Greenham Common, has been all but uprooted. The main trunk now lies parallel to the ground. Springing up from it, though, is new growth – defiant and wonderful. I call it the Courage Tree – and I would like to see forests of them all across the country. Maybe with Sue Ryder’s help, we will.

RLHP

Companions in the storm

An honest tale

This morning I began to preach through Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth. As ever was, the sermon was written early in the week and ‘percolated’ through the remaining days. The introduction which you read below was only born last night, and judging by the response to it – it was meant to be:

“Trust God in the storm…but keep on rowing” – I used to love that Danish proverb. It was my defence against the ‘let go and let God’ brigade whom I regarded as spiritually lazy.  That  was before the greatest storm in my life broke…

My little boat was pitched and tossed around in a way I would never have thought possible, and I lost sight of the shore. I could not keep rowing , as my hands were too weak to grip the oars and my back too weary to pull against the tide. And then, something remarkable happened.

All along the shore, pinpricks of light emerged.  My sisters and brothers in God’s family came out of their houses with candles, torches, bicycle lights and anything they could find to show me that I was not so far from home after all.  Stronger, fresher, rowers pulled alongside in boats to my right and my left. I out rode the storm and I was back to the trusting God again.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

A sky full of stars

On worshipping together

Churches often gather people from different ages under one roof, but the extent to which they are genuinely engaged in worship together is open to question. In 32 years of ministry I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I have failed to truly bring the ages together in worship. That being so, yesterday morning’s service, on the third Sunday of Advent, was particularly special.

The service began with a welcome. the lighting of the advent candles and a lively song. The very simple script which you can find here was then enacted by the children. At the close of the talk, people of all ages were invited to contribute by writing or drawing on a star, which they then added to a  simple background of a night sky at the front of church. On the star, each person was to draw, or write what they might give to the baby Jesus. Since the innkeeper had given a bed, the wise men had given their gifts, and Mary and Joseph had given their love – what might they bring?

With some gentle Christmas music on in the background, I waited to see if people would join in. At first it was just a couple of children towing reluctant parents to the front. After that came a trickle, and then a flood as people kept leaving their seats and adding their stars to the night sky. The hardest part was reading them out afterwards – everything from ‘a kiss’ or ‘cake’ to ‘my today, tomorrow and every single day. You can see some further examples below.

Please enjoy them, and please feel free to steal the idea for yourselves!

remaining years Lamb Plans lego

A Christmas hug

All the way from Nepal

I have been collecting nativity sets for many years now. I have them in all shapes and sizes, made from all kinds of materials. I have them from Germany, Peru, France, India and other countries too.  Last year, Magnet magazine ran an article all about the collection.

When I travelled to Nepal earlier this year, I really hoped to bring one back with me. Sadly, I was unable to find one – and bought a two-dimensional batik of the nativity scene instead.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

Initially, I was disappointed that this was all I could find. However, when I got it home and unrolled it to take a proper look, I noticed one very important detail. Look in the bottom right-hand corner and you will see that the angel is hugging the shepherd. Can you see?

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

I was surprised by this, as I had never seen it in any other depiction of the nativity scene. However, a Nepali visitor to my home a couple of weeks ago brought some light to bear.  She explained that, in her homeland, whenever the Christmas story is enacted, great emphasis is placed on the angels telling the shepherds not to be afraid.

What a lovely thing, to depict such a message with a hug, don’t you think?

A bench with a view

The launch of the Fiona Fund

My landscape right now is littered with milestones. They are all marked in years, rather than miles, and they bear the number ‘1’. Each one is a reminder of a year past without my wife and best friend by my side. I miss her more than I can say, and her absence is felt keenly every single day.

In years gone by, we would often walk together by the sea – and Fiona loved nothing more than to gaze at its rolling waves and its ever changing landscape. We always appreciated those who had donated benches in memory of a loved one, as they allowed us to enjoy the view. She was adamant, though, that she did not want to be remembered in such a way. ‘I don’t want people sitting on me’.

Bearing that in mind, we have found a more enduring way to remember her. Throughout her working life, Fiona was an information professional.  A friend described her as someone ‘who dedicated her life to empowering others to be the best that they could be’. This was never more true than when working as a healthcare librarian at St George’s University Library.  In her last years, when hospital visits became both more frequent and more intrusive, it would give her the most tremendous lift to encounter some of ‘her’ students, who had passed through her hands whilst studying for their profession.  Training and knowledge were as much weapons against cancer as hypodermics and scalpels, so far as Fiona was concerned. Remembering this, the Fiona Fund was born.

Each year the Fund will make the Fiona Littledale Award in association with the Patient Experience Network to an oncology nurse who has already demonstrated their personal commitment to developing their skills and understanding of the field. The award will make it possible for them to attend further training by covering the costs associated with it. Just like Fiona herself, this will encourage those who are already prepared to go the extra mile by offering to shoulder some of the burden. Each year the recipient will write a blog post on their training experience, and will be offered the opportunity to host the Fiona Fund Twitter account.

After many months of investigation and preparation, the fund is now open for donations. If you click on the Fiona Fund logo below, it will take you straight to a page where you can join in.

I shall continue to sit on benches by the sea, and every time I do so I shall remember sharing them with my ‘bravest and best’. Meanwhile, the fund established in her name will be making a difference to oncology professionals, and those who benefit from their skills.

FF

 

The last postcard?

Another postcard from the land of grief

There comes a point when living abroad, where to continue sending postcards seems a little odd. After all, you live here now. The tastes, sounds and smells are no longer new. The language and customs may still be a little odd – but you can fit in with them to a degree.  You live here, they live there, and if you want to write it should really be a letter rather than a postcard. I am in the process of writing just such a letter now – and you can find details of it here.

The sun has now risen 365 times without its rays ever falling on her face. I have not made her a cup of tea nor held her hand for 365 days. Suns and moons and stars and mistakes and conversations have all passed by without ever sharing them. I have managed, very falteringly, to live without her. She lives there, I live here and we shall not meet again until I travel to another place more foreign still. It will be foreign to me, I suppose, and yet in the truest sense ever it will be home.

The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
    as you are, a traveller
          with the moon’s halo
    above him, whom has arrived
    after long journeying where he
          began, catching this
    one truth by surprise 
that there is everything to look forward to.

(R.S Thomas Arrival)

Until that day comes, and today especially – I shall head for the sea.  I shall gaze at its seemingly endless waves. I shall look for its invisible far shore,and I shall choose to believe that on another shore she looks for me.

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On sharing the journey

Another postcard from the land of grief

Years ago, before the loss which now overshadows me was even a cloud on the horizon, I was studying for a Master’s Degree in Preaching. As part of a module on post-modernity I looked at various media which caught the spirit of the age. One of them was the advert below, from the St Luke’s advertising agency:

The advert was all about the power of connection – in good times and bad. When I recorded my latest programme for BBC Radio 4, I had no idea of the number of people in the worldwide ‘stadium’ of the radio audience who would sense a connection with it. They have visited this blog in their 1000s, they have written cards, letters, emails and made phone calls. This land of grief has a population far bigger than I had ever realised.

Many of those who have got in touch have expressed their desire to read the book of the ‘Postcards’ and to be kept informed of its progress. Thanks to my publisher, Authentic Media, they can now do just that. Please visit this page and let them know that you are interested. Writing the remainder of the ‘Postcards’ book is proving to be particularly rocky terrain in this land of grief, and your company would be very welcome.

Thank you

A postcard on the postcards

Thank you for  visiting here after hearing ‘Postcards from the Land of Grief’ on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday October 21st 2018. It is clear that the programme has helped many including some recently bereaved and I am sorry that I am unable to respond individually to all those who have been in touch.  As I pass through my own ‘land of grief’ my capacity for doing so is not what it might have been. The programme is currently available to listen to again here , and you can also click ‘show more’ for a written script which includes the music and CD tracks.  For some practical help, please visit this page at Sue Ryder. You may also find it helpful to join in with the Sue Ryder Online Community here, where you can connect with others facing similar issues. I am delighted to say that when ‘Postcards’ is published next year, all royalties will go to Sue Ryder’s wonderful work.

This land of grief is a strange and daunting landscape, and I am honoured to have provided some companionship for you within it, even for a little while.

Richard

TREE

A Nepali slip of the hand

A journey completed

Eleven months ago, as the house hummed to the sound of the oxygen machine and the stair lift rattled occasionally up and down, I would have thought it inconceivable that I should spend ten days in Nepal this October.  Back then, the thought of trundling through Kathmandu’s dusty streets, gasping with wonder at sunrise over the Himalayas, or soaring 1800 feet above a Nepali lake beneath a para-glider would have been the furthest thing from my mind. So why did I go?

In the last weeks before my #bravestandbest left me for a higher calling, we had talked often about her funeral. We discussed the songs to sing, the way things would be, and where any money raised in her name might go. On the latter, she was keen that it should go to a mission context – but was unsure where that should be.

When the time came to plan it- a good friend introduced me to the work of KISC Equip in Nepal. This remarkable project is taking great strides in introducing best practice to Nepali schools in every context from mountain villages to big cities. Staff, parents and students are learning how to learn all over again, and it is yielding fruit. Since Fiona had dedicated the last few years of her working life to helping others learn how to learn – it seemed like a good fit. On November 16th , some £1800 was raised for the project through the generous giving of family, friends and colleagues. A few weeks later, the idea was born of going to see the project for myself, accompanied by one of my sons and two beloved friends.

There are so many things which I shall remember about Nepal. I will remember the majestic mountains:

Fishtail_Mountain.jpg

I will remember the lush green valleys:

jungle (Medium)

I will remember the stunning colours everywhere

oldl (Medium)

More than anything, though – I shall remember a morning visit to a tiny yellow school in the shadow of the Himalayas:

Besisahar.jpg

In that school, with its highly motivated head, its dedicated teachers, and its enthusiastic students – I caught a glimpse of what a project like KISC Equip can do. After a tour round the school, we paused for spiced coffee and biscuits beneath the fan in the Principal’s office. With great ceremony, the visitor’s book was passed to me to sign. As I picked it up, I made a slip of the hand I have never made in these past eleven months. I wrote “Richard, Fiona…”. Maybe it was not a slip. Maybe it was because, as I told the school Principal, I could see her everywhere in that little school.

The legacy of my #bravestandbest lives on…

Far away is near at hand

Another postcard from the land of grief

 As I write this, I am a very long way from home. I am several continents and 4500 miles away, in fact. Outside in the street are the toots and cries of a busy street in Nepal, and above me tower the mighty Himalayas. All this could hardly be further from my day to day life at home. And yet, that other country haunts me here.

For my first few days here, I have been following a path laid down by the inspiration of my #bravestandbest. I have spoken to teachers and visited schools where money given in her memory has been invested in the lives of Nepali schoolchildren. Their eager faces and enthusiastic learning would have made her glow with pride, I know.

And now, here in the mountains, i find my heart stirred by their quiet majesty. Silently magnificent, they take my breath away, and I cannot help but think how she would have loved them. Wordless, hands clasped, we would have looked at them and treasured the moment. Eleven months ago today, that became impossible – and I choose to believe that there are other mountains for her to see now.

Years ago, on a railway embankment somewhere between Reading and London Paddington there used to be a piece of graffiti which read ‘far away is near at hand in images of elsewhere’. How true that is today.