On the Sunday after our break in Spain, the 28th May 2017, I ran the Manchester 10k. I completed the course in 1 hour 8 minutes and 2 seconds, almost 2 minutes faster than I had done when Ralph had taken me out for a practise 10k a couple of weeks earlier and as this was only the second time I had run that far, I was proud of myself.
Running had never been my thing, it conjured up memories of awful hilly school cross country runs in Northumberland where I grew up wearing dodgy 1980’s PE kit. I always thought it boring or I felt silly and exposed on the few occasions I had previously attempted to shuffle around the streets.
Ralph on the other hand, has always since aged 17 when he joined Stockport Harriers. He has always said that running keeps him sane, that it clears his head and in the aftermath of Phoebe’s death that was certainly something which was needed. The thoughts which whiz around your mind and the emotions that appear to take over your body after the loss of your child can make it seem as if you are going mad. Even now, 9 months after Phoebe’s death and despite my best efforts, I can find myself unwittingly crashed to the floor, I hear wailing, then realise that it is coming from me…. This is the frightening and painful reality of my life after child loss.
Running does clear the head and lift the spirits. After each run, no in fact after each mini milestone I set myself around my route, I feel a sense of achievement. I like circular routes with lots of suburban interest. I challenge myself to keep going from lamppost to postbox to parked car to cherry tree on the corner…. But while running has proven mental health benefits which I definitely appreciate, this wasn’t the reason I decided to put on my trainers, my initial motivation to run was in order to find something which Ralph and I could do together…..
During November and December I had sought solace in dancing and I competed in a ProAm competition in Blackpool in early January which I previously wrote about. It gave me an escape, an emotional lift. But while it was good to dance with young Alex, I missed my husband. Dancing had brought Ralph and I together but it didn’t feel like useful escape for him now. For Ralph, dancing would have felt like returning to our previous life, our life before Phoebe and this was uncomfortable for him, almost like we were denying her existence… So desperate for us to do something together, to come together, I decided that if Mohammed wouldn’t come to the mountain then I would bring the mountain to him. I would put on my trainers, and run.
At first it was hard, I couldn’t even run a single lap of the park, “our park” as Phoebe used to call it, behind our house, without needing to walk for a bit. But I was determined and at that time I rationalised the pain I felt whilst running, by reminding myself that this pain was nothing in comparison to what Phoebe had suffered. She had lost her life traumatically, I had no right to complain or give in. The pain of trying to run a mile or 2 simply couldn’t compare with what my little girl had gone through. You may raise an eyebrow at this thought process, but such were the thoughts which ran through my mind; I was riddled by the guilt because I hadn’t been able to do what parents are supposed to do, I hadn’t been able to protect my child. She was dead and I was here and for that, I felt that the punishment of struggling to breathe, my aching legs and lower back pain was justified. I forced myself to go out in all weathers including in icy hailstonesones…..
I wouldn’t do that now, I still wrestle with guilt, I remain some significant distance from having conquered that particular battle, but I am no longer as quite brutal with myself as I was during those early weeks and months. I am beginning to try to be more compassionate with myself. I think I have to be, life is continuing and it would be utterly impossible if I made myself serve painful penance each and every day. So I wouldn’t run outside in terrible weather now, I would give it a miss or do a couple of miles on the treadmill.. And wouldn’t you know, I think I have begun to actually enjoy running.. It is becoming a release rather than a punishment. The first mile can be hard going and occasionally I find that my body just isn’t feeling it, but beyond that first mile and especially beyond mile three, (which seems to be a magical threshold), I enjoy the rhythm and the emotional uplift which follows.
Following a recommendation from an old school friend, I joined an online support group, “Run Mummy Run”, I like to follow the other members, experienced runners and complete beginners as they strive forwards and support each other. Reading others stories, about their struggles and their successes is very motivating and the support everyone gives each other is inspiring. I also know there are other bereaved mums who are members and this has encouraged me to keep going.
I bought myself several pairs of funky running leggings that I know Phoebe would have approved of: my pink unicorns, my Cheshire Cat leggings and my Little Miss Sunshines and as the weather has improved I enjoy looking at all of the gardens I pass as I observe how they have moved on and changed since the last time I jogged by.
If I can, I like to plan my runs so I pass or finish at Phoebe’s tree or with a spin on Phoebe’s roundabout and I like to run with my husband. Ralph and I don’t run together as much as I would like due to the practical constraints of life but when we do, I enjoy it. We don’t really talk, I haven’t yet mastered the art of chatting and running, but my original objective has been achieved. I like us being side by side, or as is more often the case, following the leader, it gives me great comfort, a sense of being together and supporting each other on this journey no couple, no parent would ever want to have to embark upon.
As I trained for the race, Ralph was a great motivator, I think I run harder when I run with him and it was certainly down to him that we did a practise 10K. I might have winged it, just relied on the atmosphere of the occasion on the day to pull me through the last 3/4 of a mile beyond the furthest distance I had ever previously run, but thanks to Ralph, I knew I could do it because I already had.
I was still nervous though, that morning when we got up on the 28th May and on the start line. There was no seeing how my body felt, no backing out. On that day, I had to do it, I had made a commitment. People had committed over £600 to help us with setting up our charity in Phoebe’s name (thank you 💕💕💕), I had to finish and I wanted to run it all.
I was delighted that Mike, one of Phoebe’s friend’s dads ran with us. He ran the Manchester Half Marathon with Ralph and here he was supporting us again, despite the fact that my pace is significantly slower than his.
Running the race was a humbling experience, many people were running in memory of others with their lost loved one’s name on their back, just like I had Phoebe’s name on mine. I had been told it could be very emotional seeing all the stories, all of the reasons why people of all abilities were out there clocking up 10k running out from the city centre to Trafford Park and back.
Running with so many others lifts you and there was a great sense of support and camaraderie all the way round. One guy ran past me and patted me on the shoulder and told me I could do it just at a moment when I needed the encouragement and I was proud of Ralph when he stopped briefly to check on a lady who was ill just metres away from the finish line.
The support of the crowd was fantastic, Ralph saw a few people he knew, he ran close to the pavement doing high fives with kids along the route, I spotted a former colleague who waved and cheered and then there are those who don’t know you, but who read your name on your number and shout out encouragement and support. There was music and entertainment, everything to keep spirits high and determination solid….
But I’m not going to lie, even though I felt lifted by the occasion, my body still had to do the work and beyond 7k and despite my training (including running in the heat of Spain while on holiday) it wasn’t a walk in the park. I had stabbing pains in the ball of my right foot for the last mile and a half and I have to say that being able to see the finish line in the shape of Beetham tower from pretty much as far away as Old Trafford did not play to my preferences. As I said before, I like to challenge myself with small markers, just keep running to the next corner and see how you feel….. This is how I usually keep myself going, it makes the distance feel more achievable; but there it was, a great towering reminder that the finish line was much further away than my feet wanted it to be…..
I made it though, I thought of Phoebe and how she repeated back to me what I had tried to instil in her, so I couldn’t let her down. “You’ve just got to try haven’t you mummy” she once said. “You can do it mummy” she had shouted when I froze metres above the air doing the aerial extreme course at Centerparcs in the rain….. I even sprinted the final metres to the finish line despite having told both Ralph and Mike that I wouldn’t. We’d slipped back from the 1 hour and 5 minutes pace maker so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do that, but seeing the clock count down on the gantry stirred a final flurry of effort in me and I crossed the line with a flourish and enormous sense of achievement. I hope Phoebe would have been proud of her Mummy.
I slipped on my finishers t shirt and wore my medal with pride. Although I have to mention that this was, in fact, my second award for running, the first being a bracelet made for me a week or so earlier by Phoebe’s chatty friend Lisa who had spotted me running round Sale in my Unicorn leggings and decided of her own volition to make me a bracelet as soon as she got home. She brought it over straight away with her mum, I wasn’t even that long out of the shower after my run! “I’ve made you a prize” she said, “for your marathon running…..” I’m not sure which made me more emotional, receiving this special gift or crossing that line at the top of Deansgate…
But thinking of Phoebe and crossing the finish line weren’t the only reasons the day was emotional; there was another layer of emotion that day which I hadn’t expected when I signed up for the race, no one had. Despite Paris, Nice, Brussels and London in recent times, it can still feel like terror is something which happens somewhere else, but this time it wasn’t, this time it happened in our home city, in Manchester. The Manchester 10k took place not even a week after the terrible terror attack at the Manchester Arena after an Ariana Grande concert.
Given her young following, this bomb horrifically and specifically targeted children and parents and thrust 22 families into the world of sudden and traumatic loss. How I felt for those families, my heart lurched with empathy for them the minute I read about what had happened the morning after when we were away in Spain. We may not have lost Phoebe as a result of an evil and callous act of terrorism, but she was snatched from us suddenly and traumatically. We were left in shock, in disbelief and that was just the beginning. As the shock wears off over time it gets harder, not easier and armed with this knowledge of the difficult and painful path which undoubtedly would lay ahead for the affected families, my heart felt heavy.
A heaviness and intensity of mood was palpable on Portland Street as we waited for our start time. Each wave of the 2017 Manchester 10k was preceded by Tony Walsh, aka Longfella, reading his powerful poem “Do Something” and a minutes’ silence. There was a sense reverence and quiet defiance. A sense of people standing together. Many runners sported the Manchester Bee and the names of the 22 on their backs. I was nervous about the actual running, but I was glad to be there. There wasn’t a second thought. The only thing that would have stopped me would have been the run being cancelled. The threat of a terror is scary, but I have learnt all too painfully that dreadful things can happen to anyone at anytime. Frighteningly, danger and tragedy can lurk in much simpler everyday places, by taking a car journey, by crossing the road, in the pool on holiday, by catching an everyday infection which leads to terrible consequences….. Since Phoebe’s death, I have heard so many, many tragic stories. Life can be snatched from us or from our children with little warning. I am in no way suggesting that we live our lives or parent irresponsibly, we all have to weigh up the options and risk for ourselves and make our own decisions that we feel comfortable with, but I have come to the conclusion that we cannot protect ourselves from every eventuality however hard we try and in trying to do so there is actually a chance that we stifle the opportunities life offers us. So I was there on Portland Street thinking not only of Phoebe but of those recently and tragically bereaved. I was there with Ralph and Mike and 1000s of others who had also decided that the actions of an extremist terrorist were not going to stop them coming and running for all manner of reasons and causes close to their hearts. We were all there, “doing something”.
I could write, as others have that this was because we do things “differently” in Manchester, but controversially I don’t really subscribe to this sentiment. This statement and some of the rhetoric which surrounded and followed the tragedy didn’t always sit quite so well with me. Being a bereaved parent most likely gives me a slightly different perspective and slant on things…..
I love Manchester, my adopted home, where I have worked and lived for the best part of 2 decades but I would personally prefer to believe in the goodness of human kind standing against evil and that any community rocked by such a tragedy would come together. Didn’t we see international displays of solidarity in the wake of Paris and Brussels with swathes of people changing their Facebook profile picture to show their support and their sympathy?
I don’t want to undermine people’s sense of pride in their home, Manchester is a great city. I think the community support and solidarity which followed the attack whether it was by visiting St Ann’s Square to add to or contemplate the floral memorial, by contributing to the emergency fund or by having a Manchester Bee tattoo was heartening. People did come together, but I personally struggled with some of the defiant statements which were made
At home after the run we caught up on the TV coverage. It included an interview with the recently elected Metro Mayor for Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. “This won’t change us” he said…… “But things have changed” I screamed internally! For those families affected life has been tragically and irreversibly altered! Their child, their parent(s), their sibling, their friend, they’re never coming back! If that isn’t changed, then what is? When I try to remove the lens of bereaved parenthood, I see things more broadly, I know that it is important to send out a loud and defiant message out to those who plot evil that they won’t stop us living our lives or destroy our society and its values, I subscribe to this belief, else I wouldn’t have stood on the start line, but as a bereaved parent, I just couldn’t help my raw, instinctive response to these words and to those uttered by Liam Gallagher in the week that followed at his benefit gig when he said “Normal service has been resumed”. Again, I know what was meant was “you won’t stop us doing what we want to do, terror won’t win” but having experienced the sudden and painful loss of our child, the suddenly silent house, the empty bed, the left behind toys, the folding and putting away of never to be worn again clothes it is difficult for me not to zoom in on the tragic reality for those who have lost, “normal service” will never be resumed for them. Their lives are forever “changed”. I am not the person I was before we lost Phoebe, I can never go back and be that person again. Phoebe is forever gone and as a consequence, even though I am determined to carve out a positive life, I am forever changed. It will likely be the same for the families of the 22.
This thought stuck in my mind when Louise Minchin talked about how people visiting St Ann’s Square to pay their respects, to contemplate and see the vast quantities of floral tributes which had been laid were “still crying”…… “But it isn’t even a week later!” I thought. “There will be many buckets of tears still to be shed”. 9 months after Phoebe’s death and I cry pretty much every day at some point. Sometimes just a few tears leak from my eyes and trickle down my cheeks in response to the inevitable daily triggers which occur, but sometimes as I’ve said, I wail. I sometimes wail with an intensity which matches or goes beyond the tears I cried in those first days and weeks. The shock, numbness and sense of disbelief has worn off you see and when that happens for those who lost their loved ones in the attack I hope with all my heart that the support and compassion they need will be there for them.
I know significant funds have been raised & donated for the families of those affected so financial hardship should be one less thing for them to worry about. Hopefully this will also give them access to any professional help they might need down the line too. The One Love concert was heartening and genuine. I hope that seeing the level of emotional outpouring, the solidarity, the kindness of spirit and knowing that so many have donated, still ran the 10K or attended the concert fortified the bereaved families during this incredibly difficult time. I felt this way when our friends took on the responsibility of Phoebe’s funeral costs and then as the total on my just giving page went up and up to fund Phoebe’s roundabout, it kept me going. I was so grateful. But the support needed for those bereaved families goes beyond the financial and will stretch into the future, beyond when they have all been able to finally lay their loved ones to rest. When you aren’t so close a funeral feels like an end, but when it is your own painful loss it isn’t the end., it’s just the beginning, the beginning of an arduous road.
I was pleased to read that the flowers from St Ann’s Square are to be made into a permanent memorial. I hope this gives some comfort knowing that their loved ones will be forever remembered. When I saw Phoebe’s roundabout fixed into place it gave me enormous comfort as it does now. It is somewhere to go. I like to see the children play and it nourishes me to know that it will be there, complete with it’s poem for years to come. Keeping her memory alive is so important to me.
But over time there can be a sense of the support which was so omnipresent in the early days and weeks becoming more recessive as people resume their lives. This isn’t abandonment, I just think it’s a natural process due to a human need to try to recover and look after ourselves; we can only stare pain square in the eye for so long. The world keeps like turning, it moves away from you while you can feel frozen in time. I know that I have friends I can reach out to if I’m struggling and I have also been able to seek counselling and good therapy support, but irrespective of this, grief can still feel like incredibly lonely and isolating journey with few to accompany you who really understand your pain.
But we are there. We are thinking of them. No-one can understand the pain of another completely but I have experienced sudden and traumatic loss. I do know how that felt, how it feels to have lost my little girl and that has to count for something. The 22 and their families were in my mind alongside thoughts of my my girl as I ran the 10k and as I watched the coverage afterwards. I continue to think of them daily. Them and the families of those lost in the subsequent attack on London Bridge and Borough Market and those lost in the fire in Grenfell Tower. So much tragic loss…. Bereavement does this to you I think. You cannot help but think of those affected as these tragedies trigger memories and emotions related to your own loss.
There are various charities and organisations which offer compassionate support to bereaved parents and families. I’ve added a page to my blog with a list of useful sources of support. I am certain these organisations will have reached out to signal their existence to say we are here if you need us and we have experienced loss. We will walk alongside you, help you navigate the road if you need us to, we will prop you up if we can.
“Bereaved parents have a deeper understanding of each others pain. They are mindful of the really dark times and that is why they take turns in carrying the light for each other”.
It resonated with me, summed up how I felt as I ran and how I feel right now as I continue to think of all those families. When down the line, in the months and years to come, when life gets heavy, when it all feels too much, I hope they have someone to carry the light…..