Be there to listen; even when you don’t know what to say

When someone dies, we often find it difficult to know what to say to the people they’ve left behind.  Strangely, rather than overcoming this sense of embarrassment, we often avoid having a conversation at a time when, by just being there to listen, we could make such a huge difference.

As an Independent Celebrant, I often meet with loved ones very soon after their loss and it is my job to talk to them about the person who has died, to help us prepare a service to celebrate their life.  It is a huge privilege to be with families at this time and to hear their stories and share their memories.  I love helping them open up their box of happy memories, finding comfort in the joyful moments they all spent together is a wonderful way to start the process of grieving.  And most of what I do at our first meeting is listen.

It is hard to know what to say.  Nobody finds it easy, or comfortable to start a conversation about death, especially when it seems there are no words that are “enough”.  And there really are no words that will ever feel like the right ones, so you have to be yourself and use the kind of language you normally do.  We tend to over-think what to say and this becomes our excuse to say nothing.  “better to say nothing than the wrong thing”, we tell ourselves, but in truth, it is better to say something simple and show you are thinking of them.

Before the age of facebook messages, we used to write to people when they lost a family member or loved-one.  Sympathy cards, which so often seem ‘old-fashioned’ now, are exactly that – a lovely, kind old-fashioned way of showing that you are thinking about what that person and their family are going through.  They cost very little (even less if you make one yourself, or use writing paper) but mean a great deal to the recipient.  I recently spent time with a client looking through more than 130 cards from her husband’s work colleagues and friends.  She was overwhelmed by their kindness and by how many lives her husband had touched.  She told me that their words meant more to her that she knew how to express, and that they were giving her great comfort.

One of the wonderful things about being a Celebrant in a small community, is that you also hear about the way people support each other at a time of loss.  Food arrives regularly, cooked with love and care and with no thanks expected.  Lifts to appointments and offers of filling in forms and informing locals of funeral arrangements are common place and every time I visit a family, there are neighbours popping in to make tea, do washing or collect the kids for an hour’s relief.  I am constantly reminded that life goes on and it is the people around us who ensure we’re able to get back on board as we start to recover.

And as time passes, after funerals and wakes and celebrations of life are over and the family has to return to ‘normal’ life, comes the time when being there is even more important.  Once the initial shock and support has subsided, and everyone has had to return to their own lives, it can be a very isolating time for the family.  Once the organising and preparing for the remembrance has ended, family can feel at a loss and the reality of finality hits home.  This takes a different amount of time and a different form for everyone.  We all grieve at our own pace, and one of the most important things you can do is reassure them that there is no need to rush the process.  Reassuring them that you’re there for as long as they want to talk, whenever that might be, is very supportive.  Don’t be disappointed if they don’t take you up on this offer, and don’t hesitate to keep offering; when they’re ready they’ll hear you.

Most of all, don’t stop talking to them about the person who has died.  We tend to feel like we should avoid mentioning them, in case we upset their loved one.  I like to think of this in a different way  – when we talk to them about the person who has died, we help them remember the memories they created together, their shared stories and the good times they enjoyed.  We give them a chance to reconnect with their happiness at a time when they are feeling sad, and to see that the memories will always be with them to enable them to experience those emotions again.  It’s a gift we can give them which might make them cry as they smile.

I think we talk too little about death in our society, and this is a key reason why we hesitate to engage with those who are experiencing it within their family group.  We don’t know what to say, because we’ve rarely heard our parents talking about it and it’s highly unlikely it has been discussed at school unless a tragedy has impacted the school directly.  When we look at cultures where death is more widely discussed and made part of life, we discover the challenges in talking about it are less frequent.  In Mexico, for example, every child has experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations, by the time they reach school age.  Death is part of the culture from art to music to tourism, so offering words of support is second nature.

I’d love to know if you were supported by people listening when you lost someone you loved.  How do you think we can make it easier for people to feel they can offer a hug or words of support?

With love

Dinah

Mixed emotions on Mother’s Day

It seems like a wonderful idea; a day to celebrate the most giving, caring and nurturing person in your life.  The person who gave you life and raised you, perhaps with the help of another, or perhaps alone, to become the person you are.  A day to acknowledge mothers all over the UK who deserve to be pampered and looked after and put-first, even if only for today.

Indeed, it is a great idea.  I’m a big fan of it; especially since I became a mother, 28 years ago.  However, as an adopted child, and as a child who is estranged from her adopted family too, I have mixed emotions each year as the cards begin to appear in the shops.  I find myself staring out of windows and contemplating “what ifs” that become more ridiculous as the frenzy builds.  Radio adverts and reminders to buy gifts, or make lunch or ‘just give mum a cuddle’ seem to bring emotions out that I had not anticipated.  From anger to fear, from instant tears to derisory laughter, I run a marathon of emotions by lunch time that leave me seeking silence for the rest of the day.

Not every mother-daughter relationship is worth celebrating; and that is ok.  Seriously, it has taken me until the age of fifty to be able to add the last bit.  It is ok to not think of your mum as your best friend.  It is ok to not look forward to her phone calls or visits.  It is ok to be real about how she makes you feel and to just “be ok” with that.  I know it sounds like I’m making that seem simple and it is far from that.  However, it is a choice to accept that you can be ok with it.  That it might take work, there might be days when you struggle with being ok with it, and that at times you’ll decide “this is bulls*** of course I’m not ok with it, I want to fix our relationship” and that is ok too.

All I’m suggesting is that, once you’ve given yourself permission to move on from the “if only” you still carry around, you can begin to let go of a lot of baggage.  I know that I carried mine for most of the last 35 years.  When I finally acknowledged that it was ok to not have either of the women in my life who had been my mother, and instead to focus on the incredible young woman in my life to whom I was a mother, I think I actually began to like myself.  I began to see what a great mum I was too.

That’s the great thing about letting go of our baggage;  we’ve got the energy available for new things and feel more able to manage change and make choices.  No longer weighed-down with unrealistic expectations or regrets, we can become open to positive thoughts to replace the often-reinforced habitual negative ones.  The positive self-talk I use in my head these days, far outnumbers the negatives,  I know this change has come since I let go of the daily reinforcement of my mother’s negative words, that had long been part of my own self-bashing,

This weekend, my daughter will be here after a couple of weeks away.  I’m hoping we’ll get some time together to talk about everything and nothing, to hang-out for a bit with a coffee in our woodland and perhaps even watch a movie together.  Being around her reminds me I love being a mum.  It also reminds me of all the women in my life who are amazing mothers that will be spending the day being pampered and loved and appreciated.

Five years ago I wrote a letter to my birth mother and another to my adopted mother on Mother’s Day.  I never posted either of them, and last year I dug them out and threw them in our Rayburn.  I didn’t even bother to re-read them.  I knew what I’d written and I knew I deserved to move on.  That process of letting go has allowed me to look forward with less dread to Mother’s Day this year and instead, focus on being appreciated as a mum.

Dinah

I’m not a Christmas cynic; I’m cynical about what it’s become

 

I love Christmas; getting excited about being with family, choosing which silly games we’ll play and which of our favourite movies will get played for the umpteenth time. I love how quiet the towns are on Christmas day, how everything seems so peaceful and serene. I love going for the traditional walk on Christmas day, after eating more than I should, and admiring the amazing surroundings of where we live.

I’m not a Christian, and consider myself non-religious. I do, however, love the sense of family that comes with Christmas, and as such, have always enjoyed the celebrations. However, as I age and become more questioning (some might say cynical), I don’t like what Christmas has become for many.

It feels like a competition, which you may not have actually signed up for but you’re in it anyway. As gifts become more extreme, with families buying the latest electronic upgrade for their children’s phones and game-stations and couples getting in to debt to out-shine their friends in the “you’ll never believe what he got me this year” stakes, it all strikes me as nothing like what Christmas is really about.

When did Christmas stop being about giving your time and become about giving an indication of how successful you are? When I watch people giving expensive gifts, I have to ask whom are they really doing it for? Is it for the recipient, or, is it more for themselves; a way of announcing, “look how well things are going for me. I’m so successful I can spend loads of money on generous gifts for those I wish to impress.”

I will always remember the first year my brother and I were working, full time. We both still lived at home and that Christmas was a perfect example of my theory. Did we save the money we’d earned in our first few months of independence? No, we spent most of it on gifts for our parents, grandparents and each other. Looking back, I see it was our way of saying we had grown-up and were playing with the adults now. Naïve if well intentioned.

This year, after several challenges for all our family, and some dear friends, we had a quiet Christmas day. Our daughter cooked and hosted us and her Nan (my husband’s 80 year old mum) and the day was a real joy. We exchanged a few gifts, mainly little things we’d spotted that we knew were needed, but the main thing was that we were together. A family, with memories shared of those who were missing, and laughter at many of the memories. A precious day.

“Imagine if people stopped thinking Christmas involved giving gifts” Hannah remarked this morning. What a wonderful thought. Perhaps we’d return to the idea that Christmas is about giving just one gift: your time to the ones you love.

Here’s to a positive, joyful and family time over the week ahead

Dinah

Let’s Celebrate more often in the year ahead

The past twelve months have not brought many reasons for Planet Earth, or it’s inhabitants, to celebrate.  From election results that made me wonder if I had been transported to an alternate reality, to revelations about behaviour that made me feel angry and powerless.  Each day of 2017 seemed to increase my levels of astonishment, fury, despair and absolute astonishment.  And rage.

As we draw to an end of this dreadful year, I ask myself what I can celebrate; I always reflect on my successes at the end of each day, month and year.  It’s a positive, reflective opportunity to acknowledge my achievements and since my change of pace (from a too hectic “doing” life to a more present “being” one) one that helps me notice the little things that make a big difference to my wellness, my friendships and the lives of those I love.

There have been plenty of things to celebrate in my world during the last year, and when I stop looking at the overwhelming world-picture, one I can have very little impact on, and focus instead on my tiny, and rather beautiful, corner of Carmarthenshire, I see far more to be positive about than I imagined.  Each morning here, we sit in awe of the view from our window and watch the birds.  We start each day with a celebration of the decision we made to move here, thanking each other for the brave and bold move me made.

It can be so easy to focus on the negative news, the social media sensational stories that beg us to share the misinformation, stirring up hatred and ignorance.  All too easy.  It takes a bit more effort to focus our energy instead, on the positive stories, the daily heroes who interact with others and change lives, the things happening in our communities that we can be proud of.  Stories of hope and change.  Stories to celebrate.

They are there if we look for them; and when we choose to put our effort into finding, sharing and liking the good and the positive, when we spend time looking for things worth celebrating, guess what happens?  We find them!  We find them and enjoy them, and gain strength and hope from them, and when we share them with our friends and family, they smile and enjoy the thought that “there are things to celebrate in the world”.

I’m setting myself a challenge for 2018 and I’d love you to join me.  I’m going to find more to celebrate.  I’m going to go out of my way to share things I believe will encourage other people to celebrate the positives in their lives too.  And let me be clear, I’m not hiding my head in the sand or pretending that everything will get better for Planet Earth whilst I’m focussing on the positive.  I am not going to be silent, I am not going to sit back and let the world continue on it’s self-destructive path without speaking and peacefully protesting in any way I can.  And I will do that in a positive way, celebrating my ability to express my opinions in a (relatively) free country.

Who’s with me? I’d love to know how you’re going to celebrate more in the year ahead, and what you’re celebrating about 2017 that gives you hope.

Dinah

Let’s talk about death, darling

Talking about our inevitable death and our wishes after the event, is not usually included in recommended light conversation for date night.  Even amongst those who work in roles where you’d expect talking about dying to be something they’re trained in, and despite us all knowing that we will, at some point, die, many of us never let our family or close friends know if we have any special requests for our own life celebration service.

As a Celebrant, I often have detailed conversations with family members to ensure every detail of the service we put together is exactly in line with the wishes of the departed loved-one.  An integral part of writing the ceremony, is often including particular words or music that meant a great deal to everyone present.

Despite this being such an important part of creating ceremonies that help the family move forward, I realised last weekend, that I had never spoken in any real detail with my husband, John, about what I would like for my life celebration.  Even with my experience and training, I found it slightly difficult to pick the right moment to suggest we ought to make it clear for those left with the task of arranging our funerals, if there was anything particularly important to us that we’d like them to include or consider.

I am pleased to say, that once I got over the initial “this isn’t the most positive thing to talk about over pudding, but I’d like to talk about death, darling” John and I had a constructive, positive and at times even funny conversation.

We talked about where and how we wanted to have our bodily remains left, and both agreed we liked the idea of being cremated.  John has always said he’d like a Viking send-off, but after giggling about sending him down the garden stream in a log boat, set alight with his charcoal, we got a bit more practical and agreed a Life Celebration where we were by water would be more manageable.

We talked about who we’d love to have there, and why.  We shared ideas on who we’d want to speak and what stories they might share.  I was reminded of my first experience speaking at a funeral, when John’s dad died and I was asked by his mum to write and deliver the service, with just two days to prepare.  Before long we were remembering holidays we’d shared before his dad became ill, and it was one of the most positive conversations we’ve had about him since his death seven years ago.

One of the big things we acknowledged, was that the service is really for the people we leave behind, not for ourself.  We wanted to be sure the ceremony would be positive and uplifting for our daughter and friends, we hoped the people we’d ask to read would share joyful and happy memories and be there to offer a hug and support to our family.  By preparing as much as we could in advance, we were removing some of the burden for those that had to plan and make arrangements during a challenging time.

I made him promise that, if he is around to help plan my service, nobody would read “Stop all the clocks” by W.H. Auden; it would have our daughter in pieces.  By the same token, “The life that I have” is far too much like him for her to cope with it at his service, so we’re planning on short, simple and possibly even comedic poetry, with a leaning towards Pam Ayres.

And all the time that we talked about these plans, we held each other’s gaze; we smiled and listened intently.  We cried a little too; the thought of being here without each other brings no joy and after over 30 years together, I don’t spend time imagining a life after John. Yet this evening’s conversation, heart-wrenching, laughter-creating and above all, surprising, had proved to be soothing and calming, leaving me with a sense that, despite the fear, we can talk about death; even with those we fear leaving the most.

Dinah

 

 

Planning a wedding to please everyone (and other ideas that will drive you to the edge)

You know your mother has always dreamed of giving you the Big White Wedding, the one her parents couldn’t afford for her.  You know your dad will be nervous but proud in equal measure and has been keeping his top-hat specifically for your big-day.  You’ve got to accommodate every diet from gluten-free to vegan, via all the allergies and intolerances and that’s before you’ve even started on the table plan.  Just who is this wedding about anyway? Read more