My life has been a rollercoaster for the past 20 months. I lost my 17-year-old son to suicide in September 2020, followed shortly by the death of both of my parents. Within 8 months of the final loss, I had sold my house, left my career, relationship, hometown and relocated 300 miles to start afresh.
I was aware that I had powered through, constantly managing change and keeping super busy. I had, fortunately, from early in my grief journey begun journaling in an attempt to capture and process all that was happening.
It was only after I moved into my new home, six months after my move, and when life slowed down that I started to reflect on the enormity of what had happened to me. I realised that my memory was fuzzy and the chain of events that led to my move wasn't clear.
I decided to pick up my various journals, explore the journey I had been on and try to appreciate my thinking during this time of shock, trauma and sheer raw grief.
It felt quite daunting to open the pages and be faced with the worst year of my life. It took a few days of trepidation and journals sitting on the coffee table teasing me, but I’m so glad I took the step. I learned loads about times I had forgotten, and I was able to piece together the timeline and appreciate what I was feeling in the moment.
Here are my reflections:
What surprised me?
Depth of thinking – I thought I was an incoherent griefy mess for months but I was actually having profound thoughts from an early stage. I understood that I had trauma to process and was trying to clear my mind and find a way through from the outset.
Seeds of change early - searching/questioning and exploring – I hadn’t realised even from an early stage, 3 months after Samuel’s death and before my parent’s loss, I was looking to my future. I knew there was something more and I was grappling with what that might look like.
How I championed myself from early on – it brought a smile to my face that I gave myself recognition for what I was going through, the cute inspiring statements, giving myself a pat on the back and vital self-validation.
Isolation and bleakness – when away from my closest family I felt so alone and hopeless. My home environment did not support my grief, I was forced to literally hide away. My grief was suppressed, accumulating inside me after each loss, with nowhere to go.
Validation of grief is so valuable – the kindness and gestures of others meant so much, people remembering key dates, sending small gifts and reaching out. Often this came from unusual places, people I used to work with writing long, kind messages. The level of understanding differed, however. The blanket ‘How are you?’ message felt so lazy. I didn’t know how I felt and certainly didn’t haven’t the energy to articulate it in a text.
Connection and support are key – exploring what might help, trying things out, attempting to find my fit in this new world – searching for who else understands? This lay behind so much of my early activity.
Support groups - SOBS and TCF – joining the suicide loss community. Finding this helpful in many ways but still feeling different in my unique experience
Counselling – mostly this was light touch, a talking platform. I felt judged by one therapist, and this was more damaging than helpful. Fortunately, I was brave enough to articulate this
Chaplain sessions – I accessed support from my hospital’s chaplain, on a bit of a whim, and I was encouraged to draw out my feelings in a tree diagram and explore my many roles in Samuel’s life. It was one of the simplest yet enlightening exercises and was a huge catalyst for understanding the complexity of the past 4 years of Samuel’s life.
Knowing pain to come in entries – it was sad looking at the dates of my entries and knowing the depth of pain to come, with my mum and dad dying in quick succession and being thrust back into heavy grief.
Using numbing agents – how drinking at Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries was what got me through. It was important that I didn’t judge myself and knew it was a short-term measure.
Self-care practices – a focus on looking after myself was there from the start. It was funny as I kept mentioning applying face packs – I don’t think I actually did these very often! I knew from early on what was going to help me get through though.
Short and longer-term thinking/planning – I was given really great advice as I struggled to imagine a future and became easily frustrated. Breaking the steps down into small, manageable steps and having patience that the longer-term would evolve.
What did I learn?
Have time and patience with yourself - there is no rush, your grief is not going anywhere, it’s here forever and life will evolve slowly. I sought solace on long bike rides where my thinking somehow felt lighter and clearer, away from the four walls of home.
Focus on what is within your control – at a time of huge uncertainty hold on to the parts you control, it reduces anxiety and helps stop you from spiralling.
Connection is so important – I hadn’t realised how my mood lifted when I was around my children. Having simple dog walks with them and gentle conversation sustained me.
There are so many key events and special days in a year – this can feel relentless with clusters in some months. There is also a certain build-up and a hangover effect afterwards. Just being aware of these and riding with them. My birthdays will never be the same again and accepting that.
Life evolves and plans can change shape - I was originally planning for a life change in 2 years and taking early retirement. My relationship breakdown and desire to start afresh accelerated my plans. These changes felt completely right at this point but would have been very daunting at the outset.
Self-care as a long-term measure – I was excellent at prioritising my self-care in the early days, but this had dropped off. I was able to revisit what did work for me, podcasts, bike rides, running, and long baths and put them back into action.
I am so grateful that I had the foresight to pick up my phone and start to capture the events so early on in my grief journey. I always encourage my coaching clients to keep a journal. I know research has shown that it can be as effective as counselling for many.
I would encourage others to review their journals, see the journey they have been on, appreciate the key themes they identify, the depth of thinking and explore what has sustained them. It can be daunting but has been an eye-opener for me and reassures me of my brave choices in navigating my new world.
If you would like to explore how coaching can support you on your journey, contact Suzanne Howes at www.coachingafterloss.com