February, I have never particularly liked February; such a dour month, sandwiched between January and March, it’s cold and grey; the festive season is but a memory and we shiver and dig in, heads down, making our way through each day waiting for Spring, warmer weather and looking forward to better things. I know it is punctuated by Valentine’s Day, but with years of the postman always getting lost and not meeting my husband until my mid-thirties, it too, had often been a disappointment. Ralph has always said you don’t need a special day to show someone you love them and he is right, you don’t and while the fallout from the tragedy of losing Phoebe has put our relationship under immense pressure, we are surviving. Tensions still rise, but our love for each other is apparent every day, not just Valentines (although my Olaf card was lovely), as we , show increasing patience with each other and offer support as we make our way into further into 2017 together.
In shock following Phoebe’s death, the first 3 months passed so quickly, a blur of significant dates which we just had to survive, my birthday, Ralph’s birthday, Phoebe’s birthday & opening the roundabout, followed by Christmas and New Year. I think pure adrenalin and sheer raw determination got me through. January was then supposed to be taken up with the challenge of returning to work but it coincided with the news that due to a major restructure, I was at risk of redundancy. With major milestones out of the way, I had thought that January would be the month where, with a new year in the date, I would need to just keep digging deep and get on with getting on, getting through the routine of each day and trying to establish the “new normal” I had read about in so many pieces on grief following the loss of a child. But no, with a new threat in the shape of my long tenure (over 17 years) at work potentially coming to an abrupt end, the life I thought I was going to try to live was thrown up in the air again.
Of course, nothing could be worse than losing Phoebe. What we were talking about here was just a job; I have a lot experience, skills and determination, so I tried to take the news philosophically. But I cannot deny that this news shook and upset me and as the process unfurled and I received the news that there would be a role for me, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I am certain that I would have survived had the news been less favourable, but I was grateful that, on this occasion, I was not going to have to rise to the challenge of finding a new job as well as learning to live day in and day out without Phoebe. And so, albeit delayed by a month, it is that challenge I have found myself faced with, the challenge of the day to day.
As I look back to our life before we lost Phoebe, I realise just how happy we were. When you are content and fulfilled, life feels so much lighter, easy and unconscious. The days slip by effortlessly. But, now, each day is a conscious slog and requires an enormous amount of effort just to get through. Each day can simply feel like a painful repetition of the previous day. A never-ending cycle of waking up without Phoebe, another shower, another drive to work, another evening to fill, followed by the relief of another bedtime when I can finally switch off my conscious brain and seek escape in a precious night’s sleep. The sense of repetition is further exacerbated by a lack of a focussed destination or a clear purpose in my life. Yes I keep busy, busy, busy and I try to fill my time as purposefully as possible, but during these early days it is hard to find anything that, in any way, comes close to being Phoebe’s mummy. Being a parent is all-consuming; from the second she was born, my purpose was to be Phoebe’s mummy and my future was defined, rightly or wrongly by hers. Our plans revolved around her schedule and her milestones, going to nursery, her activities & classes, starting school, her holidays and her birthdays. When Phoebe tragically lost her life so suddenly, not only did we lose our precious daughter, but we lost the future we thought we were going to have. We were left in shock, spinning if you like, like a tornado had ripped through our lives and turned it upside down. But now, the dust has settled and rather than spinning, we are left plodding through each day; day after monotonous day without much sign of it getting easier. I know that Phoebe’s was the greatest loss and I know that 5 months is but a blink of an eye in terms of the grief journey following the loss of a child, but knowing this does not relieve the burden or the frustration of feeling like you are going round in circles, climbing the same mountain or set of stairs each and every day.
This feeling brought to mind a visual; a famous image of an impossible staircase; illustrated in 2D, the stairs make 4 90-degree turns as they ascend to form a continuous loop so that a person could climb them forever and never get any higher. With this image in mind I hit the internet and after some googling and a revealing discussion with colleagues at work, I discovered that the image was that of “The Penrose Stairs” created by Lionel Penrose, a psychiatrist, geneticist and mathematician and his similarly skilled son, Roger Penrose. It was first presented in 1959 and inspired the famous lithograph “Ascending and Descending” by famous Dutch graphic artist, Escher. Both images are depressing, especially that of Escher, were the figures go round and round, head down in perpetuity. Was this to be my fate? Was this my new reality? Was the rest of my life to be defined by this infinite sense of climbing and climbing yet never reaching any kind of summit or destination? Would I forever be climbing stairs to nowhere?
As the days and weeks have passed I have developed rituals and strategies to help me cope and push into and through each repetitious and potentially vacuous day. Mornings have been and continue to be, difficult, but I have agreed with work to start later. I began by getting to the office for 10am but I have been edging the alarm gently earlier as the days begin to get a little longer and I am now trying to arrive for around 9.30am. There is a whole routine to be completed and prepare me prior to this. I begin by making, then sipping a Ginger Tea. Ginger is known for its stomach settling properties, and whether my tea is having a real or a placebo effect on me, it has become a foundational part of my morning routine as I regularly wake feeling nauseous. Following this I make my way from bedroom to bathroom and stand under our powerful shower installed earlier this year and let the water revive me. I have noticed that I dry myself in exactly the same way every morning, almost ritualistically, before brushing my teeth, getting dressed, drying my hair and doing my make-up. I have had my hair both restyled and coloured since losing Phoebe and I’m wearing more make up than I ever wore when she was alive, when I had neither the time nor the inclination to apply any more than foundation and mascara. But now both this and my sharp hairdo make me feel more able to take on the day, almost like a magical mask, my superhero mask which gives me special powers. But as day follows day, I wonder for how long I can go on like this, even Super heroes must get tired, need a break or at the very least need to put their costume in the wash! It is hard work, bloody hard work trying to be my own super hero every day. Will it be like this forever? Will it always be so hard to bear? Will it ever get any easier? It has to, one day? Doesn’t it?
As I consider these questions, I am reminded of the words of some of the other bereaved parents I met at a local support group I attended a couple of times. They described being a bereaved parent as being a “Life Sentence”. I was horrified; I had gone to the group seeking hope, some level of reassurance that there could be some semblance of “life” down the line without our beautiful girl and that I would survive and learn to live life in a positive way again one day, but I left with these punitive words ringing in my ears and as I stared at the images of the impossible stairs, these words came back to me. Had I been naïve in my rejection of them, determined to carve out a different and more positive future for myself? Did I have no other choice but to accept this fate, this “Life Sentence”?
Another memory came to mind, a memory of watching TV with Ralph. Ralph had at one time become very interested in genealogy and doing his family tree. The BBC TV programme “Who Do you Think you are?” had been a regular viewing appointment and I recalled an episode where the celebrity’s ancestor ( I can’t remember whose) had been sentenced to hard labour in some horrific Victorian prison. Inmates, men and women were made to work the treadmill or tread wheel climbing for hours each day. Some of these engines ground grain but many had no purpose other than to punish and torment the prisoners physically. I remember thinking that this punishment was hugely disproportionate in comparison with the crimes committed. Prisoners were often driven to exhaustion, they fell off the treadmill only to be whipped and forced back on it…… Was this to be my fate?
It shouldn’t be! I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? Why should I be sentenced to any kind of punishment, I am not a criminal, petty, heinous or otherwise! I know that this horrifies my husband but I admit, I do have days when I find myself face to face with guilt and I question whether I was anyway culpable with regard to Phoebe’s death. In these moments of despair and darkness I have beaten myself up for taking her to her swimming lesson the day before we lost her, for then taking her to a party, for not making her drink her glucose drink as she didn’t eat much while there and just giving her calpol for her ever so slightly raised temperature of 37.4c. If I had taken different decisions would the outcome have been different? I will never know and the truth is that hindsight casts a different perspective. When I think back to that Friday afternoon, it wasn’t as if Phoebe was desperate to get out of the pool. Prior to her lesson she was a little reluctant but this wasn’t surprising; she was tired from her first full week of school and we were greeted by a substitute swimming teacher. Anyway, she did so well in her lesson, did her version of front crawl for the first time and afterwards wanted to play in the baby pool with her Daddy. We commented her lips looked bluish and she seemed a bit shivery but she was also playing, having fun and was so excited about the party. There I had trouble getting her to eat much but she seemed happy, she watched cartoons on my iPad and joined in with singing Happy Birthday enthusiastically. She felt a little bit warm to touch but there were so many people in the room it was bound to be stuffy and finally she fell asleep around 9pm but after a busy week, she was bound to be tired…… When I’m being rational and reasonable I can tell myself that I’m being unfair in blaming myself, in punishing myself. It is not easy to reject these thoughts, but I know they will only do me harm, so while I am not so green as to think I am impervious to recurrent waves of guilt, I am determined not capitulate to them. I try desperately not to roll over and resign myself to a never-ending and tortuous penance or life sentence that I do not deserve.
So how do I break free? How do I get off this terrible treadmill? How do I exit the Penrose stairs and begin to achieve a sense of new direction, of purpose, of moving forwards or upwards? There has to be a way; after all the Penrose steps are, in fact, an illusion, an impossibility in 3D or in real life. Guilt will keep knocking at my door, but I will keep trying to resist this negative and paralysing emotion. It will be the end of me if I allow myself to think I deserve to be punished, I have to believe I deserve to feel better about myself.
I have a plan or at the very least I have observed what seems to help me……
I have noticed that accepting and setting myself challenges and rising to them has a positive effect on me and makes me feel more in control and this is very powerful. It doesn’t even need to be big things, it can be a short checklist for the day for example setting myself small tasks for the day e.g. stack the dishwasher, hang out the washing, send that email, pay that bill or make that telephone call.I know I’m not alone in this approach, I saw mention of checklists come up in response to a post on a bereaved parents internet forum asking people for their techniques of how they cope each day. Over time however I have begun to need to take my challenges further than daily checklists though; I am setting tasks for the weekend, for the week, for the month and even objectives I’d like to achieve within the year. I also seem to respond well to goals I can take on as a project or work on overtime. The pro-am dance comp last month gave me a focus and a boost of self-esteem and I finished the month by completing my first ever “run”. Granted it was just a fun run of 3k but when the day came, I hadn’t really felt like it but I had committed to others I would be there and I knew I would feel a sense of achievement so I turned up on the start line as planned. Even the other morning, Ralph asked me if I would do the Manchester 10k and I said yes. At work, while the restructure has been taking shape I have been proactive, creating my own projects and deadlines to keep me occupied and make me feel like I am making a positive contribution and outside of work I have made some slow steps with regard to setting up a charity in Phoebe’s name.
I have also set myself challenges which have been purposefully difficult. I know this sounds odd and some might find this hard to understand and think I should give myself a break and be kinder to myself, but for me (crazy me!), it is important. It is almost as if it gives me a sense of conquering demons and of not surrendering. 2 weekends ago I cleared the leaves which had built up in the garden. I knew it was going to be tortuous as the back garden was Phoebe’s playground, where her imagination ran riot. It is full of memories and scattered with her toys. Not just the big obvious ones like her trampoline or play house, but smaller reminders like her pink watering can, small plastic spades, the broken sails from her bumble bee windmill that we stuck in the strawberry pot and Halloween stickers which had come away from the fence where she had stuck them to create her “Spooky Wall”.
Then this weekend just gone, I chaperoned at Phoebe’s dance school show. I spent Friday evening and Saturday afternoon looking after, dressing, reassuring and blowing the noses of little girls and boys aged 3-7. I didn’t have to do either of these things, no-one forced me. I chose to do them as even though both tasks were difficult and resulted in tears. I was in control and this makes a huge difference when you have been catapulted overall into a life you did not choose. I could have downed tools, I could have backed out but I didn’t and as a bonus I can now more easily see the bulbs I planted in November peaking through and I enjoyed the company of the young children whom I got through 3 hours of show and multiple costume changes without tears or tantrum.
Some and I include Ralph amongst them,might say what’s the point or trying to assert control, that it is a futile waste of energy, that life “is what happens while you are planning something else”. Others might also warn that I will wear myself out if I’m not careful; fall in a heap with nervous exhaustion…. But personally, I would take both these arguments and turn them on their head completely. Yes I agree, everything could change in a minute and the rug could be pulled from underneath me but I don’t want to just plod round the Penrose stairs until the day I die, I want to at least feel as if I am making active choices even if it is just a ruse, a way of kidding my brain. I agree that setting goals and rising to challenges on a daily basis is tiring work but it helps me right now. At the end of the day that is all any of us have, the right now. Yesterday has gone and tomorrow may never come, we only have the right now, so if setting myself challenges helps me today then it’s the right thing to do and what’s the point in worrying I might get worn out as there is no guarantee that I’ll have tomorrow anyway………………..
As chance would have it, I haven’t had to create all of my own challenges, work has this week offered me a challenge in the shape of promotion. I have gone from wondering whether I would even have a job to being offered the promotion I never thought would happen in a matter of weeks, talk about a rollercoaster ride! I have accepted starting March 1st; irrespective of the tragedy I am living, I’m going to give it a good go. Carpe dime isn’t that what they say? I have often had a love/hate relationship with work as it has periodically driven me crazy with its politics, hierarchy and risk averse culture but here in this moment it has offered me an immediate focus, a potential step off the treadmill onto a new path which I can pursue along the other goals I have set myself.
In time, it may become apparent that it might be a completely different direction which gives me the greatest sense of purpose but that really doesn’t matter right now, taking this promotion to Senior Insight Manager (Go Me!) feels like a good and purposeful thing to do at the moment so I will go for it and not worry whether the this is the right path, it feels like the right path for right now, and its forwards, not circular, it’s still uphill and it will be hard but at least it gives me an opportunity to break the cycle and get on a road to somewhere. I need to feel like I’m going somewhere, that I’m not just standing still, stuck or worse still, constantly climbing those stairs to nowhere.
I even felt a flutter of excitement when I was offered this role but, please , please especially those other bereaved parents who may be reading this, please, don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT skipping into the sunset. How could I be? A new job or completing any number of tasks successfully could NEVER heal this kind of pain but it is a timely & much-needed departure. I have enough life experience to know that the Emerald City at the end of any Yellow brick road is never as shiny as it seems and Ralph and I were talking about the greek poem Ithaca, the other evening which also carries the message that the destination often disappoints and it is the journey that one should focus on. So with this in mind I am just trying to take tentative steps towards finding a way forwards, it is so hard and I carry my pain with me like awkward, heavy and cumbersome luggage, but I have to believe that with each step and with each new direction I explore, that the bags will eventually begin to get lighter and the roads will become easier to navigate.
I’ve read other bereaved parents talk about not wanting to go forwards for fear of the distance that will grow between them and their child and I can understand this, but time will pass, I cannot stop it, so I can either try to set out on a journey, or I can be tormented on a daily basis by a just treading water. I will try to view it not as if I’m leaving Phoebe behind, but that I am taking her with me, wherever I go and whatever I do. She will be in my heart and on my finger ( I ordered my “ashes into glass” ring this week) and I know that she would have been so proud of Mummy being promoted; she would have flung her arms around my neck and said “well done Mummy!” She told me “I was the best Mummy in the world”. She was the best daughter I could ever have had. She made me proud, she always tried and therefore so will I. She will be my inspiration forever…..