Thanks so much for answering my question: what’s the hardest time of the year for you?
Most people replied that Christmas is a difficult time of year due to loneliness, nostalgia for their childhood and reminders of the loss or distance of family.
Can I share something with you, Heidi? The hardest time of the year for me is New Year’s eve. I think resolutions are pointless. A ‘commitment’ is much better and it doesn’t need to be done on January 1st. Over the past few years I’ve worked hard to ignore the hype around NYE. However, a certain person in my life loves fireworks, so our family attends the early show, just to see the joy on her face.
[By the way, I don’t make resolutions anymore, I do a regular stock-take which I’ll talk about in another post]
Heidi, the hardest time of your year is school exam time.
“I have two children with learning difficulties (dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia),” you say.
I can’t prepare myself. I know it’s coming and I feel so much for my kids. For me personally, it’s like an impending tsunami. I try so hard to prepare myself for the anxiety and the stress. The kids know they have to go through this process at school and I have to let them go…my heart just breaks.
You say your experience with children who struggle with literacy and numeracy difficulties is a kind of grief. This makes complete sense. You grieve because it’s confounding and upsetting how hard life can be for people that you love. You wish you could change something to make it easier for them. However, you know they will eventually have to navigate their own way.
I have not had a personal experience with learning difficulties, Heidi. However I have interviewed many extremely successful people who live with dyslexia. The singer Leo Sayer couldn’t tie his shoe-laces by the age of twenty-one. Until he was an adult, he didn’t have a diagnosis for the way his brain worked. However, he seems to have made a truce with his dyslexia:
“I think sometimes those things allow you to train your brain in other ways, and your heart in other ways, to actually get through life in different ways. It certainly grew my creativity,” Leo Sayer said.
Another person who touched me with his story was the artist Joshua Yeldham:
“Well, I was drowning in life in that whatever I touched at school was deemed a failure. So every exam I failed. And no-one at that point knew that I had learning difficulties. Later the word 'dyslexia' came out. But back then it wasn't picked up and so I was a failure.”
The blue owl image on this post is Joshua’s work. It fills me with joy and curiosity and I love it to bits. He wrote about his childhood experience in a brilliant book called Surrender.
Heidi, I know you also help other parents of children with learning difficulties and I thank-you for the work that you do in growing our understanding.
Don’t forget a bit of self-care. When exam time comes around again, I wonder if there is anything you can do to try to ride the approaching wave - apart from run, which you playfully suggested :) I feel confident your wonderful kids will make it through the giant maze and I imagine you waiting at the exit, arms open wide, ready to guide them through their next challenge.
Love, Jane x
(Blue Owl - Morning Bay' used with kind permission of Joshua Yeldam)
I asked the question ‘What does Grief feel like’ because I used to avoid talking to people about bereavement and death. When I started the interview show One Plus One nearly ten years ago, I began to notice that, in the little safe space of a studio, people wanted to answer life’s big questions. And so I got braver and asked increasingly intimate questions about life, death and beyond.
Helen, after asking the question I’ve learned that most of us have had their lives interrupted and sometimes deluged by grief. Several people referred to the emotion as a Tsunami. It seems right to talk about it and thank-you for writing about the grief you’ve lived with through the life and death of your daughter Jacquie.
Personally speaking, I have encountered much grief although I would say my experience is still fairly limited. My Dad (who is 90) says the worst feeling associated with grief is going through a person’s belongings, deciding what to let go. Belongings create memories and it feels like a betrayal to discard or pass these on. Even the act of downsizing a home - without the presence of death - can induce grief.
Helen, humans experience grief in many ways: losing an unborn child, losing a parent, a parent losing a child. There are parents who witness their child being killed and are unable to prevent it. There are parents who never learn the truth of why their child went missing. There is grief at an imagined life lost and grief at the loss of body functions, brainpower, memory or a permanent change in circumstances. There is living grief when a parent loses custody of a child, a parent knowing a child has been hurt and they were not able to stop it. The list goes on.
I often recall visiting a group of Shia women in Najaf in Iraq in 2003 after the discovery of a mass grave. Imagine the grief of these women arriving at the grave site to spy a shred of clothing or part of a shoe sticking out from the dirt that snagged recognition after more than twenty years.
When I met the women, I noticed how they were never alone. They grouped together and they grieved together and knew each others stories.
I think our ‘western’ style of bereavement is inadequate. After a certain time, we are expected to put on a mask to indicate we are fine when inside we are going through an emotional shredder. We are expected to ‘get over it’.
Helen, as a child of eight, your lovely Jacquie was diagnosed with an illness which required too many visits to the hospital. She eventually had a kidney transplant which gave her the wonder of extended life and incredibly, she gave birth to two children.
Then twenty-six years later her donated kidney failed.
The final years of her life when she went through countless surgeries for cancer caused her much suffering. She died a few days after Christmas 2013.
Helen, you told me that since Jacquie’s death you have lead ‘a double life’ where you sob and ache when no-one sees.
Some of the most comforting words I offer came from the mother of a friend (my former cameraman in China) who had terminal cancer in his mid forties. His Mum said that life isn’t measured by the quantity of years but by the quality within them. That phrase has always inspired me.
Your Jacquie gave immense love and was greatly loved. She left behind treasured children who will always carry her in their memories. She is remembered. And deeply, deeply missed.
If we all need to travel the rugged mountain path of grief to realise the value of life, and in the process re-discover ourselves, then perhaps grief is valuable in ways we don’t know.
Thank-you for sharing Jacquie’s story.
(Image: Grieving by Bernard Ollis 1973. By kind permission of the artist)