Before setting sail for our recent cruise in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, I mentally planned a blog post. I packed my portable bluetooth keyboard, envisaging that I would buy wifi on the sea days and find a quiet spot and write, just as I had done during our week in Spain earlier in the year. I had intended to write a defiant piece stating how contrary to what seems to be a prevailing viewpoint within the bereaved community, I believe that bereaved parents are both brave and strong; that we do have a “choice” and that we are entitled to enjoy holidays….
Writing now, back at home with the fire on to take the edge of the encroaching autumn chill, I’ve had to evolve my opinion with regard to holidays (more later on this) but, I remain as resolute as ever in my opinion with regard to how brave and strong I believe bereaved parents are and with regard to the extent to which we can exert control over our lives post loss….
I see bereaved parents as warriors; I personally believe that it takes courage to walk in these shoes, to dig deep every day, but as the months since Phoebe’s death have slowly passed, I haven’t found this to be a commonly held opinion; “You’re so brave” frequently appears on lists of those things said to bereaved parents which are resisted and rejected, along with “You’re so strong”. I have read other articles and blogs which have railed against these statements as ignorant platitudes, countering with explanations of the mask we put on to hide our inner despair and vulnerability from others or with the posting of memes, quoting how “we don’t have choice”……
Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but I believe we do have a choice…..
Of course, I don’t deny that we had no say in what happened to us or more specifically and importantly to Phoebe. Her death was utterly tragic and the pain I feel is beyond anything I ever thought possible, but there was nothing I could do about it and I cannot reverse it. I do believe, however, that I have a choice with regard to how I respond and how I live now.
During a rare moment of internet access on the ship, I googled for choice related quotes and I came across those pictured below which led me to read “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian Psychiatrist and Nazi Concentration Camp & Holocaust survivor, on my return. Over the weeks I have been finding reading calming, therapeutic, thought-provoking and inspirational and this book hit the mark on all counts to the extent that I even felt compelled to underline passages which resonated to enable me to find them again whenever I feel the need for that extra dose of motivation!
Frankl argued that the reactions of the prisoners were “not mere expressions of their physical and sociological conditions”; all did not respond to the horror of their situation in the same way and therein, he said, lied the proof that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. “Any man” he said “can decide what shall become of him- mentally and spiritually”. Frankl also talks of suffering as being an “ineradicable part of life” and then describes how those prisoners who kept their inner liberty were able to use that strength, to raise them above their outward fate. This he states, is applicable beyond the horrific experience of the concentration camps and that “Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering”.
This is pretty much how I feel. I have not, mercifully, had to endure a concentration camp, but chance certainly dealt Phoebe the most sh***y hand and I am without doubt suffering, Ralph and I both are, but I get to choose my response, I am not simply flotsam or jetsam at the mercy of this situation.
The concept of choice isn’t just limited to doing great or transformational things, far from it. For me it equally applies on a much simpler and everyday level, starting with the choice all bereaved parents face every day from the minute they wake each morning, to get up, or roll over…?
I could choose to not get up, but I don’t, or at least not on the vast majority of mornings, nor do the bereaved parents I have met along this journey so far, it might feel like an impossible slog, it might feel like we are accomplishing very little, but we get up, we keep going. Somehow we “just keep swimming”, trying, as I read recently, to “avoid the whirlpools” and this I believe, is an active choice which requires real courage. I worry that this opinion and perhaps everything I’ve written so far, might be viewed by some with scorn or even anger as the loss of a child can be utterly debilitating, frequently accompanied by the paralysing and frightening consequence of PTSD or complicated grief. For those in that situation, getting up, feels insurmountable, even breathing represents a challenge, but with this in mind, surely it demonstrates great strength and bravery as and when they succeed. Each task completed, however small can be the equivalent of climbing a mountain and that, to my mind should be applauded.
So when I am offered those controversial words, rather than reject being told I’m brave or strong, as platitudes, I believe them. These statements are intended as words of love and encouragement and I grab that with both hands. Initially, I too looked downwards and shook my head, but not any more. I find that it benefits me so much more to accept their words. I draw strength from them to replenish my self-belief and my self esteem. They keep me going and fuel my determination, they help me lift my head up and provide a valuable boost, filling my heart with love and pride so that I can look forwards, believing that I can survive and, perhaps longer term even grow and thrive…
So if these opinions remain solid, why have my opinions on holidays changed and how?
Don’t get me wrong I haven’t done a complete U turn on things; I still vehemently believe we are entitled to experience the joy and the respite a holiday should offer. If the shoe were on the other foot we would readily say to someone else post tragedy, that they deserved a holiday as a reprieve from great pain, so with a self compassionate mindset, I believe we should try to grant ourselves permission to take pleasure from things like holidays, without any sense of the incumbent guilt that can accompany the idea of having fun following the loss of a child. But as much as I believe I’m entitled to enjoy life and as much as I feel I am making some progress with my battle to overcome the overwhelming sense of guilt that I have felt following Phoebe’s death, believing I’m entitled to enjoy a holiday and actually enjoying a holiday or at least the kind of holiday we opted for on this occasion, are two very different things….
I had looked forward to the cruise with great anticipation, almost desperation. I was determined to enjoy it. I had very much enjoyed the escape and battery recharge from our week in Calahonda in May. I returned to work, grateful in the knowledge that I only had to get through another 3 months before we would fly out to Malta to board the Oceana for 2 weeks of ” luxurious” cruising around the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic. We hadn’t had a 2 week holiday for years, since before Phoebe was born and I had thought that now, more than ever, we deserved it. And so when invited to join our friends, I booked without hesitation at the beginning of this year and ringed the dates on the calendar which kept me going as my reserves gradually depleted again. In the 2-3 weeks immediately before the Cruise, I felt fit for collapse and declared my brain to be out of order….
I needed the holiday so much, we both needed it as our grief was taking its toll both on us as individuals and on our relationship. But sadly, although now back at home I see there were things to appreciate and look back on, in the moment it wasn’t quite such plain sailing; enjoyment proved, often elusive and I frequently felt more as if we were cast adrift on a make shift raft, trying to navigate choppy seas rather than enjoying calm passage aboard a stable, comfortable cruise ship steering effortlessly through the Mediterranean and the Adriatic…
So why was this, why didn’t our Cruise fully deliver the positive experience I so desperately wanted to proudly write about? Why did I end up feeling so ‘Lost At Sea’?
I think I’m beginning to get a handle on why.. Since returning home, I’ve been asked multiple times whether we enjoyed the cruise, and with those whom I feel genuinely want to know rather than it being a passing enquiry, I have been honest as I have tried to explain why it didn’t fulfil our hopes and expectations and with each conversation I have been able to process my thoughts and the answers have become clearer..
In the first instance I think my level of desperation holds a massive clue, I wanted to enjoy myself too much and I think I simply set my expectations too high. This is all to often the case with hyper desire, that which we covet the most has a lot to live up to and can end up disappointing…
Analysing further, in contrast with our ambling 5 days is southern Spain where we ventured little further than the apartment patio, the cruise was too hurried and stressful without sufficient time to catch our breath, explore and find our way. With the gift of hindsight I realise that perhaps the whole premise of a Cruise was perhaps counterintuitive to our needs. The death of your child casts you,figuratively, adrift into stormy seas. The safe ship which you thought was your life has capsized and you’re left clinging to the wreckage. You desperately want to find calmer waters, a safe harbour where you can drag yourself ashore and gradually rebuild your life; but on a Cruise while the sea may be calm, you are barely moored in one port before you are setting sail for another. After so much turmoil in your life you naturally seek stability not endless change and whatever relaxing picture the cruise brochures paint, in reality that’s what cruising brings, a different place every day without enough time to properly explore or find your bearings and on top of that you are always on a deadline, the time by which you need to be back on board isetched firmly in your mind, lest the ship set sail without you. All this, I found exhausting, as did Ralph.
Cruises can be quite formal, or at least this cruise was too formal and too structured for us. I could say especially for Ralph, who has never been one for formality but we both struggled. Our grief ebbs and flows and therefore so do our needs on a day to day basis. What really worked about the week we had in Spain earlier in the year was that there were no expectations of us whatsoever. We were able to just be however we were in the moment and take things hour by hour. We didn’t need to conform to any rules or behave in a certain way, we were able to simply breathe out. On board the Oceana however, I felt , we both felt, constricted, as if we were holding ourselves in, unable to respond to our needs as they occurred. To eat or to not eat, to dress up or to dress down for example. I had, in a way, quite enjoyed compiling my cruise wardrobe over the weeks in the run up to our departure but when it came down to it, it wasn’t just Ralph who struggled, I felt false, I wore my sparkly shoes with Phoebe in my heart and I knew she would have loved mummy’s dresses and new bright pink lipstick, but they were but a mask, I may have looked elegant on the outside, I may have smiled and raised my glass but inside I was screaming.
Screaming on the inside was how I felt a lot of the time life on board was quite simply too much for us. I had hoped the trip might offer some quality together time as an antedote to the strain our different approaches to grieving were having on our relationship, but sadly the opposite was all too often true. We struggled with the same issues, but at different times which pushed us apart. When you are grieving and faced with a threat or a challenge you have to focus on protecting yourself, it’s a base requirement and putting someone else first can simply be, beyond your capacity. It seems strange to talk about a cruise holiday as a situation of threat or challenge but for us, as 2 recently bereaved parents, it was just that, a challenge, we had bitten off more we could chew.
Too hurried, too structured, too formal, too busy, too frivolous,too noisy. Too many too’s. It was quite simply too full on……
There were too many people having fun. It is often said that one of the loneliest places can be in a crowd and this was certainly the case here as I sat on the side lines watching others enjoy themselves. This is not a new feeling to me, nor to Ralph, as we’ve compared notes. There have been many occasions since Phoebe’s death that I have felt on the outside looking in, this kind of loss steals your innocence and has a profound effect on you, inhibiting your ability to let go and have carefree fun. I’m not entirely convinced that waving a flag and singing Rule Britannia as the ship sailed away would ever have really been my thing but I felt jealous of those people, cocktail in hand, joining in with the party dances. Just like a holiday camp, is how Ralph described it…. But rewind to last June and wasn’t that how we’d described our family week in Majorca, when we’d had such a wonderful time and when we’d all joined in with the party dances wholeheartedly and without a care in the world, Mummy, Daddy, Phoebe….
I think at this time as we rebuild our shattered lives, we need a much calmer and peaceful type of enjoyment, more of an escape.. The break in Calahonda provided sanctuary whereas on the cruise it often felt like there was no escape, no where to hide. Were we ever to consider cruising again I would think about the merits of an adult only option. I love children, but on holiday as a newly bereaved parent, I think I need to escape from the pain which can inevitably accompany spending time with them. One night I was caught completely unawares during the evening dance date, normally frequented by an older clientele, by a beautiful little girl, aged about 4 wanting to dance with myself and our friend Sharon. We danced as a three and I twirled her but the tears weren’t far behind and I had to retreat for the night to our dark and windowless inside cabin.
This was also an issue, while the darkness helped us sleep, I looked longingly at the cabins across the corridor and wished we had invested the extra funds for an outside balcony cabin to which I would have been able to retreat and sit looking peacefully out to sea away from the craziness, the families and from feeling exposed in the midst of so many strangers. I am not shy, far from it. But I was acutely aware of our hidden tragic story and felt frequently on edge. Ralph seemed happy to escape into small talk, but not me, I just worried that I could at any time, be asked in the course of casual conversation whether we had children. There is no happy outcome in responding to this question, answer honestly and it takes the wind out of the askers sails, say no and I’m left feeling equally, if not more uncomfortable…. I accept that there are some circumstances in life where this kind of small talk is unavoidable, lest you opt to become a total hermit, but that aside, I personally don’t want to have to face it on holiday when I need to rest and restore. For many holiday’s are an opportunity to meet new people and share stories and experiences but right now, I feel that our story is somewhat too raw to be the subject of passing holiday chat with those who haven’t experienced a significant loss. It was truly lovely to meet Cynthia and Lee, who both sadly lost their partners and then met through a grief support group and married, their compassion was wonderful, but not everyone has this understanding. Maybe one day I’ll feel more at ease with strangers, but I don’t right now, I personally need more of a retreat or the more secure and supportive option of holidaying in a smaller group with less need for compromise and with close friends only. Friends who know your story and with whom you can just be without worrying about difficult questions. Of course we did have friends with us on the cruise and thank goodness for them as they steadied our course, helped us relax and enjoy what we could. They helped us navigate what would otherwise have been a more difficult voyage. For their patience and their support I thank them, it cannot have been easy and I wouldn’t have blamed them for jumping ship, but they didn’t.
I am also grateful for other friends and colleagues who cared enough to ask, to really want to know how the Cruise went when we got home and were prepared to listen, but for them and for this great therapy of writing , I might not have been able to have developed such a clear idea of what worked and what didn’t so that we might set make better choices when choosing our next holiday. I might not have been able to reflect back and also see that there were also plus points….
I enjoyed the company of good friends in more relaxed surroundings; my favourite evening was a meal for 4 on deck away from the hustle. I loved deck 7, the promenade deck, frequented by those, like me who wanted to be away from the noise to read quietly with the added benefit of a little shade and being closer to the gentle movement of the water. I loved some of the beautiful places we visited, like Venice, Split and especially Dubrovnik; these are now on my list should life grant me the opportunity to return and explore at them at our own pace. Finally I loved the sea days; oh how I loved those long sunny days without deadlines, miles from anywhere, looking out to the endless horizon…….
A horizon of possibility is what I saw on those quiet reflective days. Looking out to the horizon was calming, therapeutic and filled me with hope. Mid way through our 2 weeks, I posted on Instagram, feeling philosophical about the new horizon I have to face and back on land that is how I feel again now. I’ve had the time to process post holiday and give some thought to what now and where next and not just with regard to the kind holidays which will better deliver the rest and self care we currently need. The horizon immediately in front of me, is not the one I expected to be looking towards a year ago and while I wish we hadn’t been so brutally thrown off course, we were and I have no choice but to plot a new course. Phoebe isn’t here on this journey with us, at least not physically, but she is in my heart forever and I think this helps me find the courage and the strength to sail on and navigate these stormy seas in hope of calmer waters ahead…. Perhaps I’m not lost as such, just trying to get to grips with this new course and coordinates, its tough and there will always be bad weather days but there will be sunny ones too, I’ll get better at crewing this ship, I know I will.