“Two hearts, believing in just one mind, beating together till the end of time…..”
“Phil Collins” I hear you say, “She’s quoting Phil Collins?”…….. “It’s a jive” I explain, one which the dance school used to use a lot, I’ve danced to it many times and I’m sure I must have danced to it with Ralph. Jive was always our best dance, my favourite, despite the amount of energy it required at the end of a five dance final. We even did ‘our jive’ as our wedding dance. We’d originally had other ideas, we’d had a lindy hop lesson thinking we might surprise everyone with something different, but with busy lives and lots of other wedding organising to do it was simply easier to blast our usual routine accompanied by the swing band we had hired for the occasion.
Dancing stopped when I became pregnant with Phoebe; competitive dance is an expensive pastime and requires a significant time commitment, with little ‘back up’ when it came to childcare it was simply no longer practical even on a social level. I didn’t miss it though, we had Phoebe and she was infinitely more rewarding and gave me more enjoyment than any dance, even the jive, had. This said, I am grateful to dancing, it has seen me through tough times and now is no different, it provides me with a great distraction and escape from my pain. It has been a valuable ‘go to’ in terms of being therapeutic and helping me to attain just a glimmer of something close to happiness. I haven’t been dancing with Ralph though, he has met me at the dance school for an after class drink but we haven’t danced in fact we haven’t been able to do much together, not just the two of us anyway. Things have been strained, we are grieving so differently. Our ‘two hearts’ are broken and we have been a long way from ‘believing in just one mind’ or so it has felt…..
It feels more like we are spinning round on two completely different planets which have occasionally crossed paths close enough for us to wave at each other, but more frequently, have collided, giving rise to additional stress and anxiety for both of us. There has been no malicious intent on either part, we are simply two people under immense pressure, struggling to make sense of what happened to Phoebe and to us and get through. We are angry at what has happened rather than with each other, but when you are hurting so much, I suppose it is only natural to take out on the person closest to you. Unable to deal with this, as well as the tragedy in our lives, the resultant course of action had begun to be once of avoidance, such is the fear of having more cross words and of the physical pain that these often induce. But this has made us both feel lonely, we have missed each other but we keep misfiring, failing to achieve the sense of connection we desperately want with each other. .
We have struggled to grieve together and talk about Phoebe, the pain is intense and our approaches so different. I am more head on, I want to talk, reach out to others in our situation, whereas Ralph is more runaway, spend time with old friends or in the pub talking about sport or anything else really. I find solace at home while Ralph prefers to go out. We have also struggled to ‘relax’ together, if ‘relaxing’ is even possible 4 months after losing your daughter, unless facilitated by others or by a specific activity. Soften the dynamic with even 1 extra person and it can work or give us something to do, but putting us face to face with no other distraction other than a glass of something or a plate of food and it can be destined to spiral downwards into intolerable despair or towards tension between us and cross words.
Still we had the Retreat coming up didn’t we…..?
Following a brief text exchange: question from me “Will you come with me on this ?”, answer from Ralph, one word, “Yes”, I had booked us onto a retreat for newly bereaved parents (less than 3 years) organised by The Compassionate Friends, a charity which offers support to bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents. Perhaps the retreat would be a positive step in terms of breaking down some of these new and frustrating barriers between us, an opportunity for us to spend time together, be closer both with regard to our grief and supporting one another and also in terms of just resting and relaxing in each others company. I desperately hoped it would be therapeutic and restorative for both of us.
I could hope anyway, I never stop hoping, I’m an eternal optimist! We’re a funny couple Ralph and I, the Yin to each others Yang. I will always look on the bright side while my dear husband is far more cynical and suspicious and now was no different….
I had expected some questions from Ralph the minute I checked out the hotel venue online and discovered that Willersely Castle was owned by the Christian Guild. I know my husband, he is an ardent atheist and suspicious of anything with a church connection. TCF is a secular organisation and I felt sure there was a simple explanation (there was, cost and the ability to book out the entire venue) but despite reassurance both from me a directly from TCF, Ralph remained skeptical…
But…….. at least he was still coming, that was the main thing,we were going together. He even said he thought there were some useful subjects on the agenda which encouraged me and although his major reason for coming was still most likely because I wanted him to, that in itself was a good thing and it gave me hope that we might both be able get something from it.
Ralph drove and we travelled the hour and a half journey to Matlock in Derbyshire mostly in silence, with our occasional conversation limited to the route, which exit off the roundabout or which lane to get into and our expectations of the hotel. We arrived late in the afternoon shortly before the group welcome.
I was deeply touched by the greeting we received from the organising volunteers. We were met at the door with warmth and hugs and were even shown up to our room, helping to take the edge off any nerves I was feeling. I also drew comfort from the smaller group we were put into with other parents who had lost a young child. We all shared our beautiful children, their photos and their stories.
This isn’t the first time I have done this, I have attended other support groups, it is my natural inclination to want to talk, to reach out and to seek others who might understand how I feel. But this hasn’t been and isn’t naturally Ralph’s approach and I knew he was well outside of his comfort zone. He wants practical fixes and was frustrated and complained to me that “all” of the discussion groups he was interested in were on at the same time. He doesn’t (yet?) share my desire to reach out, meet and establish a new support network so he couldn’t rationalise why free or social time was scheduled for the Saturday afternoon; You could join a walk or a trip to a local shopping village or do crafts. “They could have repeated some of the topics in the afternoon” he said, “so you had more chances to attend…. ” I tried to roll with his frustration, but it was difficult, I had “looked forward” to this weekend and while I had always known that it was not something Ralph would have chosen to do by himself, I still desperately wanted him to see the benefit rather than feel stressed and uncomfortable so I likely pushed too hard and tensions bubbled over.
He wanted space, to retreat to our room and I should have just let him go, but such was my desire for us to be together I insisted on going up too. “Why are you so angry?” I asked once behind the closed door of our room. What a stupid question! I knew why he was angry…. He was angry because the worst thing in the world had happened. He didn’t want to be here, he didn’t want to be a member of this club, he didn’t want to be a bereaved parent and neither did I, I hadn’t really meant “Why are you so angry?” What I had really meant was “I wish you weren’t angry, because just like you I wish we weren’t here. I wish we were at home watching TV with Phoebe asleep upstairs”. We sparred on as we got ready and into bed. I turned my back to him, Ralph twitched nervously and the mattress vibrated and wobbled. I tried to ignore it and quiet my mind, but I struggled. I took 2 sleeping tablets and closed my eyes desperate for sleep and with hope that calm would be restored in the morning.
It was, we are not stupid, underneath all the tension we both recognise what is happening and why and forgiveness for the hurtful things we had both said was given readily. We ate a cooked breakfast together and with the other parents and then went to 2 separate discussion groups. Me to a session called “How long will this pain last” and Ralph to a discussion about dealing with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a common diagnosis amongst bereaved parents.
Did I leave the session knowing when the pain would lessen, no, but I felt continued benefit in sharing, another lady even mentioned she had read my blog and liked its positivity and hope….. But Ralph didn’t feel he had got anything out of his group, he was frustrated having wanted more practical advice on how to cope and manage the symptoms of PTSD. So afterwards unable to see the rationale for the “free time” he decided to dig himself an escape tunnel and go off on his own during the free time, we had run out of toothpaste so he would seek out shops and perhaps somewhere to watch football for a while.
I let him go, I knew this was the best thing to do. I pushed any silly and irrational worries that he might not return out of my mind and occupied myself decorating my jam jar tealight holder for the candle lighting planned for after dinner. It might sound a bit naff, decorating an old jam jar with glitter and other sparkly stuff but the organisers knew what they were doing, there was method in the apparent madness; craft activities are absorbing and facilitate simple passing conversation as you share materials and ask for the scissors, or the glue, the ribbon basket and the wire….. I used sticky gems to fashion a tiara for our princess and added a pink balloon, pink ribbons and lilac butterflies and other girly things Phoebe would have liked. I added her name in beads and in sticky glittery letters, in mixed upper and lower case just as she used to write her name.
I felt jealous of the young couple decorating jars for their son, they seemed so together in their grief, everything I worried Ralph and I weren’t and wanted us to be but I needn’t have worried, things are not always as they seem and the remainder of the day delivered reassurance that our struggles are far from being unusual and gave us a valuable opportunity to grieve and cry together.
We’d agreed that morning that we would go to the discussion group focussed on grieving as a couple and the impact it has on your relationship and as the sky darkened I momentarily worried whether Ralph would get back in time, but he did with about 10 minutes to spare. I felt a deep sense of relief to see him and his red polo shirt. I saw this as commitment to us. I took his hand and we went to the session together.
The group was moderated by a couple who had themselves lost their son and the first thing which struck me was how pleased they were to have fathers in the room. Talking and sharing seems to be something women are more comfortable with and some of the other mothers were on the weekend alone , unable to convince their partners to come. In fact the number of women on the retreat overall far outnumbered the men; yet here we were sat together and for that I felt grateful. I felt grateful that despite feeling uncomfortable and skeptical Ralph was a willing and honest participant. I felt relieved that the message from both the moderators and the other couples was that the challenges Ralph and I are facing are normal for our early stage of grief and that our issues are very much illustrative and stereotypical of the different ways men and women grieve. We were expecting too much from ourselves and our relationship at this stage. In the words of one of the other dads in the room we had to learn to just be, to just walk together before piling on any further expectation. Just being here together just 4 months into our journey was an achievement in itself. We were more together than I had realised and as the session wrapped the barriers which had grown between us which we had been struggling to dismantle, tumbled to the ground
After dinner the group gathered for a candle lighting. I’d been to several other ceremonies of this type local to us in Manchester over the Christmas period but this was our first together. I had desperately wanted Ralph to come each time but he hadn’t been able to face them. I could tell he was overwhelmed now too, but here he was for me, facing his fears. I squeezed his hand, and kissed his head to reassure him. A tea light had been dropped into the jar I had decorated earlier and after some sensitively and thoughtful well chosen readings and poems we were all invited to come up and light our candle for each of our children. With his emotions rising Ralph wanted to do this almost straight away so up we went to have our tea light lit. The flame flickered and I placed the jar near the front of the table just as Ralph wanted and tears overflowed from both of us. This was the first time we had cried freely together since the terrible night we collapsed to the floor in the hospital when the Doctor told us that Phoebe had passed away. Since then our timings and triggers have diverged with one of us breaking down while the other, although ill equipped for the task, has tried to offer support. Here though, with the love and support from the other bereaved parents in the room we could both cry. I held him and he held me and we cried together. “We’re in the way” Ralph sobbed, worried others couldn’t get past “you’re never in the way” said another dad, gently placing his hand on Ralph’s shoulder. Our 2 hearts, just as in the cheesy song which went through my mind over and over after the weekend, were at last, able to be and cry together in just one mind, thanks to the support and understanding of a special group of people who sadly knew what we were feeling. The lovely, elegant and poised Chair of TCF chatted to us afterwards patiently and attentively and we quieted and achieved a sense of calm, ready for bed. I know others stayed up and relaxed in each other’s company but having just shared such an emotional experience together for the first time we needed to retire just the two of us.
The next day we travelled home in conversational silence, listening to the football. Man City were beaten by Everton. I was itching to ask how he had found the weekend but I left it, I was content to just be, thinking of the advice I had heard the day before. We drove back through the Peak District to Sale in a quiet and comfortable silence. In the end I didn’t have to wait that long and it was Ralph who asked me, later that evening over a quiet drink, what I had thought about or got out of the weekend. I said I had got a lot out of it. New contacts, reassurance we’re pretty normal, reassurance on a personal level that there are others looking for hope and trying to be positive. But that mostly I felt grateful that it had helped us grieve together, to connect. He acknowledged this, the candle lighting had been emotional and we met some nice people but he still wasn’t sure himself what he had got from it. He talked about others being surprised we had attended at just 4 months down the line and felt it was too early for him. He said that he preferred to talk to our friends who knew Phoebe. but he did think it might be useful down the line and he said that he would go again. He would go again. I’ll take that. Those who know my husband will know that this was a significant statement, signal enough that the weekend had in some level been a success even if he couldn’t articulate how.
So 2 weeks down the line, are we now completely together? Er no!!! It hasn’t been a magic fix,they don’t exist in the world we are living in. The road we are on continues to be a treacherous one with twists, turns and bumps and having lived through the last 4 months neither one of us expects any kind of fairy tale ending, to be rescued or to live in any way happily ever after! We have argued and been short with each other but not so explosively. Maybe we’re just tired of fighting but there are some signs of a new patience and tolerance or at least an ability to cut any rising tensions down before they build to boiling point. We are also quicker to forgive, to back down and to understand. Ralph is still going on about not knowing what he got out of the retreat, but even yesterday he asked me when the next one is and still says he would go again. So we likely will. Our 2 hearts may not always beat together in just one mind but with another year under our belts and patience and understanding from both of us I believe we will gradually achieve the closer harmonies we both desire.
I love you Ralph Casson, you do my head in sometimes and I know the feeling is mutual but I know we’ll survive xxx