Back in February Ralph asked me if I wanted to take a short break in Spain towards the end of May. We had been invited to join some friends to share an apartment and it wouldn’t cost us any more than a budget airfare each. We’d go Monday to Friday so that it wouldn’t impact Ralph’s weekend drama teaching, flying out early Monday and back late on Friday to make the break feel as long as possible.
At first I hesitated, firstly because this left me with only 3 days leave unaccounted for. We had already booked a fortnight’s cruise at the end of August and a trip to New York in November. Then there was Christmas to consider. Only 3 days left felt a bit skimpy. What if I just needed to take a break, a duvet day here or there?
Secondly, I was a little concerned about being beholden to others. I quickly learnt that being able to retreat at will is something I really need to have the option to do to manage my anxiety levels. While Ralph has found comfort in socialising, I am a different animal, for me, social distraction can feel “false” and “wearing the mask” can feel heavy and tiring and I have to be able retreat at the drop of a hat to recharge my batteries. On holiday with others, I worried that this might be perceived as rude.
Finally I hesitated on the basis that I have never been a party animal ever, let alone now following the loss of Phoebe, what if the pace was more hectic than I would be able to cope with?
On points 2 and 3, Ralph swiftly reassured me that my worries were unfounded, that there were no expectations of us, this was simply a genuine offer from people who cared about our wellbeing with no strings attached. We could do our own thing or spend time with them, whatever felt right at the time.
As for my concern about the whole year being planned out, well I pushed this swiftly aside. Hadn’t we learnt all too painfully that the future is by no means guaranteed, that our lives, indeed anyone’s life can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye. With this in mind, wasn’t it better to seize the moment, grab onto any positive opportunity presented to us? So I said yes, let’s go for it and as soon as payday arrived I booked flights and cleared the time off with work and as the weeks and months passed by I was increasingly glad I did.
Grief is beyond exhausting and I was becoming increasingly tired of holding it together and by April I longed to just be able to breathe out, just to be how I am at anytime, let my thoughts and emotions drift wherever they need to go, without any obligation otherwise. I felt like a box with a badly fitting lid, its’ contents spilling out each time I tried to push the lid back down or a badly repaired version of myself with cracks beginning to appear under the pressure of trying to be normal. I had thrown myself with determination at survival, at maintaining friendships and at work. But this is a big ask with depleted energy levels following such a significant loss. It simply isn’t sustainable for long periods without a break and as time marched on, it was only the prospect of the long Easter weekend and this planned week in Spain in May which kept me going. The promise of a slower pace and hopefully a reprieve from the constant pain however temporary, was in sight and helped me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The opportunity to metaphorically just lie on the lawn and watch the clouds was in striking distance if only I could hang on just a little bit longer.
It was tough though. Weary, I began crave solitude more and more. I needed to turn in on myself and reduce the level of interaction with others. I remain forever grateful for the number of people who love and care about me; who reach out to me on a regular basis. I would never, ever want to appear ungrateful but keeping up appearances is draining and even though friends have told me repeatedly, that I don’t have to, that I can be honest and real, I was just so tired of talking about how I was. Although I have always preferred real talk to small talk, my real talk now was dark and heavy and I needed a rest from it and the only way to do this until our holiday was to not talk at all. I turned down invitations and spent time alone. I withdrew into the sanctuary of our garden at weekends, lifting the finished spring bulbs in my pots and replacing them with summer bedding plants, digging out and planting new borders. I escaped into running, yoga and my own thoughts. I lost myself in historical dramas on the TV. I even googled hypoallergenic dogs (Ralph has allergies); never previously a dog lover, I even toyed with the idea of an appreciative four-legged companion with no requirement for conversation.
Detached protector mode, that’s what it’s called apparently and I think it’s a coping mechanism I’ve used during difficult times throughout my life but from what I have read of others experiences after the death of their child, the desire to isolate in these circumstances seems very common. I read one bereaved mum state that she “simply didn’t have the energy for conversation”. I understood what she meant completely. Day by day, I felt like I was shutting down, my battery was in the red and the only way to conserve energy until we went away was to withdraw, and even then I felt like I was a car lurching towards the petrol station on fumes alone. Forget living on the bridge as I wrote about previously, even that gave too much visibility of the people in the worlds on either side. I couldn’t even cope with waving at them. I wanted to beam myself or blast off right out of there to a place far away, to a place of tranquil retreat.
On the second Thursday of May, I published my piece, “What lies beneath”, it was a relief to be more open about the feelings I keep mostly hidden and encouraged by a caring colleague to stay true to my word and to be kind to myself, I decided to take an extra day off work. This meant I only had 5 more days to go before I could ease up. The sense of relief associated with making this decision was enormous.
But while I looked forward to our “escape”, Ralph was more dubious. This was our first trip away without our girl, would it actually be more painful than restful? I understood his concern. Holidays with Phoebe are amongst our most magical memories of our girl…..
In 2013 we went Eurocamping with friends to Italy. This was immediately after Phoebe’s first episode of Rhabdomyolysis and long stay in hospital. She had been so poorly and could barely walk when we left, we pulled her around the site in a “rumble truck” but her strength returned quickly and my head is full of memories of her toddling on the deck outside the caravan, feeding the ducks in the lake and playing in the sandpit with her daddy. We have video of her toddling along wearing a huge curly red wig the day the kids club had a circus theme…
Perhaps we were mad to have taken her abroad after she had been so ill, but we didn’t know about LPIN1 then, or its potential dangers, I thought some sunshine & relaxation would be a good recuperation for us all and I was so determined to give her as many adventures as possible. Making special memories was incredibly important to me.
The following year we took 2 short breaks, one to Peppa Pig World and another to Blackpool. I remember her excitement at sleeping in a bed rather than a cot in our family room at the Holiday Inn and her disappointment that she wasn’t tall enough to ride on George’s dinosaur ride. Ralph filmed Phoebe in our hotel room in Blackpool reinacting Frozen knocking on the wardrobe door and singing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” while she made me sit inside and pretend to be Elsa. We went to the Tower Circus where she fell asleep during the show and to Blackpool zoo were she had her customary face paint. Precious but painful memories..,
Last year in June we went to Majorca. Now more aware of the dangers of LPIN1, I had asked Phoebe’s consultant whether he thought it would be ok to take her abroad. He asked where we were thinking of going and when I said Majorca he seemed more than comfortable, commenting that the quality of health care in Spain was high. So I booked, I took out specialised health insurance and off we went. We had an amazing time. Phoebe loved the pool, Bamse club, the shows, staying up late and sleeping in, her slushies (preferably blue), eating pizza and having braids put in her hair……
On the morning of the day Phoebe died she had asked me whether we were going to Majorca for our holidays again, and I said “No Phoebe, we’re going to Menorca next year” she was disappointed, she said she wanted to go to the beach again so I reassured her Menorca would be just as good. Cancelling our All Inclusive 2017 holiday was an incredibly painful thing to have to do. The future I thought we would have had been ripped away from us.
Just a fortnight before we had lost her we had a fabulous time at Centerparcs. This was our second visit, a pre starting school treat. Phoebe made us laugh. She decided that rather than sleep in her own room, she wanted to make herself a bed in the cot in our room, we let her, assuming she’d soon decide it was uncomfortable, but no, she ended up sleeping there for 2 out of the 3 nights taking her leave to her own room only because of my snoring. She loved the water slides. She loved being a chocolate chef, doing balance bike and archery. She loved the amusement arcade, the kids disco, bowling and the show we went to see, but most of all she loved throwing pennies at the wishing well in the village centre…. A remarkably simple pleasure I wish with all my heart I could experience once more but never will….
These memories were all as fresh as her loss was raw and although I was hoping for an escape, I wondered whether Ralph’s worries were grounded, would the pain of what could never be again hijack the rest and recuperation we both so badly needed from our break to Spain?
The day arrived and thankfully we both managed to get up for the early flight. Getting up early has not been easy since losing Phoebe for either of us. Ralph has struggled with insomnia and intrusive images while I have suffered with distressing dreams. Neither of these set us up well for the morning after. However with the promise of 5 days retreat in the sun, I stumbled out of bed, into my clothes and into the taxi.
I am a regular flyer, I go through Terminal 1 at Manchester Airport most weeks for work. I usually pass through uneventfully and calmly, although I do keep my head down so as to ignore the ever numerous numbers of small children riding on their Trunkis. I don’t usually get particularly stressed but I did that morning. This wasn’t work and my usual blinkers weren’t as effective. Memories of flying to Majorca last year, the three of us, Phoebe with her headphones watching Sky kids app whirled around my mind. I was anxious and snappy with Ralph and as we took off tears welled up and rolled down my cheeks. I tried desperately to focus on my breathing taking deep breaths, slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth to steady my emotions, relax and escape into sleep.
Sleep was what I needed upon arrival also, I lay down on the sun lounger on the quiet patio and slept pretty much all afternoon. Watching the clouds drift by would have to wait, as my long breath out led to a deep sleep; not even the gardener who arrived with his lawn mower and leaf blower could rouse me.
Rest and sleep were a steady theme throughout the week. We both slept well and we barely shifted from that patio each day as the break and the apartment delivered on everything I had hoped for. It was a perfect tranquil hideaway. I rested, I read and I wrote.
Before departing, I had invested in a portable bluetooth keyboard and spent the best part of 2 days of our holiday sat at the patio table writing my blog. Writing has been a great escape for me, but writing on a patio in the sunshine took escape to a whole new level. In the days before our departure I heard writer, Jimmy McGovern being interviewed on the radio. He talked about his writing studio in his garden and I thought how wonderful it would be to have my own writing hideaway like that, but sat there in dappled shade on the Costa del Sol I thought why stop at the garden, why not escape to another country altogether!? I noticed a top floor apartment in the complex was for sale, I googled it and was positively surprised by how reasonable it was. I looked in estate agents windows at other apartments and I mused on the potential to live a simpler less stressful life. I felt anonymous there, liberated in a way from my grief and reprieved from it’s heavy burden, in a new place with no memories of Phoebe…..
Until that is, the dream was burst firstly a little by the arrival a little girl with long hair around Phoebe’s age by the pool with her parents and secondly by the terrible news from home of the bomb at the Manchester Arena.
Memories of our girl were triggered as she sat on the poolside and splashed with the same confidence Phoebe had in and around water. She had an Elsa doll which she threw with childish exuberance into the pool. I focussed on the keyboard and on my writing determined not to be drawn into a painful spiral of longing.
My emotional reaction to the news of the terror attack however, was harder to manage. The first victim I saw named was 8 year old Saffie Roussos. My heart filled with empathy for her parents, but this terrible news also acted as a trigger for my own grief, the grief I had hoped to take a small break from. I should have known better when I chose to read a Daily Mail interview with a First Aider who held Saffie in his arms as she asked for her mum… I know this is not my tragedy, but it is not unusual for other peoples tragedies to trigger pain in those already bereft and reading these words tipped me over the edge. I remembered Phoebe shouting for me while I was upstairs ringing the hospital and how I was across the corridor rather than by her side when she died unable to cope with the sight of her being shocked over and over as they tried to restart he heart….. The tears welled up uncontrollably and I retreated to our room to cry, the protective walls of our sunshine retreat had been breached. Yes I could have chosen not to read it and I perhaps spend too much time online. Perhaps only a total withdrawal from society is the only way to really escape. No media, an even more remote location, perhaps even a bunker like Branch in Trolls built to hide in and protect himself from the threat of the Bergens….?
However when it came down to it, it wasn’t hauling up in a bunker which delivered happiness to Branch, his colour didn’t return until he held hands with Poppy thereby connecting and sharing his life with someone else. The same was true for Elsa in Frozen, her self-imposed exile to her Ice Palace only offered her a temporary escape from her problems.
Total retreat and Detached Protector mode weren’t solutions for these kids character favourites of mine and I’m not sure they are completely for me really as was proven by the company of our friends on holiday. As opposed to existing in parallel isolation, we relaxed quietly together, dipping in and out of quiet personal contemplation, our books and sleep into casual conversation, shared meals, drinks and the daily discussion of the crossword clues. For their company and their understanding, I thank them x
There may be merit in a hideaway on a sunny southern European hillside overlooking the sea. It’s potentially a worthwhile goal to set and work out a plan towards; a bolt hole in the sun could provide us both with valuable respite from this crazy world and its hectic pace. Isn’t that why we go on holiday after all? But human contact, our friends, my friends are important, yes I know, go somewhere beautiful and friends will be knocking on our door to come and visit, I used that argument when trying unsuccessfully to sell the idea of selling up and moving abroad to Ralph, but running away never solved anything, did it?
I previously wrote about there being “No Escape” and this remains true, you can try hard to avoid triggers. For example I wasn’t keen to go down to the beach where we were likely to see lots more families and small children. I preferred the quiet of the apartment complex, but I’m not sure this is the right long-term strategy for me. I could slam the door on the past, leave with a dramatic flourish rather like a character leaving EastEnders in the back of a black cab, but as soaps often dramatise, the past has a painful habit of catching up with you.
So back from holiday which I know rested both of us, I’m trying to face life without Phoebe again. There have been some stresses and I think I could be forgiven for indulging in the idea of a permanent sunshine escape, but I’ve put the dream to sell up and move to immediately to the Costa del Sol on hold.
Just before we went away, I had begun to see a therapist so I want to re-engage with this, hoping that CBT will help me to adjust post the trauma of losing our girl. I need some help with my ill-fitting box lid, to process my painful memories so that they don’t tumble out and destabilise me quite so often. Nothing can fix what has happened, that terrible day cannot be erased from my memory but perhaps I can learn to cope with my memories more successfully. The theory and evidence behind CBT is good. There are no guarantees, I know that, but I’m willing to try. perhaps it can help me build a stronger foundation from which to rebuild my life……
Maybe with a sunshine retreat woven into it one day, who knows 🙂