Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The emotional minefield – It is rather like drowning!

The worst times were always in the middle of the night. During the day it wasn’t quite so bad because I had other things to occupy my mind. At school it was biology, chemistry and physics that mattered most to me. Plus, I suppose, the constant low-level battle with my Form Tutor who kept on saying, “Now your parents are in heaven …”.

At “home” – that didn’t feel like a proper loving home at all – I just had to concentrate on not getting hit by Granddad. That was a fairly full-time job as he had a very short fuse. Any mention of Mum and Dad was banned, even looking sad was pretty much banned. It didn't make for a happy  or healing time.

No, it was the middle of the night when things got really bad. I would wake up with my mind in a whirl. Stress, anger, upset, uncertainty – you name a negative emotion and I bet I could say with total honesty that it was in there somewhere. They wouldn’t be even the slightest possibility of getting back to sleep but I knew if I made much noise Nan and Granddad would wake up and there would be another blazing row.

I will never forget what a kind member of staff at school (the Head Teacher’s PA) explained to me. When somebody dies unexpectedly all the certainties in your life, all the fixed points and emotional ties that hold your life together, are stretched out of shape. Some of the lifelines will be broken for a while and a few might never join up again. Others ties will reform but in a different way to how they were before.

My email mentor described my life in those first few months as being like a waterfall. My life had been like a river, flowing quietly between high banks. Suddenly the river goes over a waterfall where it tumbled down uncontrollably into the pool at the bottom where the water (my life) was all churned up and without direction. Eventually the water (my life) would make its way to the edges of the pool and start to be a slow moving river again. But it is still a river and it does flow on eventually.

As she said, “This too will pass”. And it did.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Writing to a younger me!

Dear “Pre-Bereavement” Sally,

It is more than three years since the accident so now let me offer you some words of advice about coping with the nightmare just waiting around the corner.

Nothing to do with Mum and Dad’s fatal accident was your fault. Nothing at all and beating yourself up with a whole series of “what if’s” isn’t sensible: so please don’t do it.

Your form tutor at school wasn’t able to understand girls. Girls without problems were bad enough – orphans like you put him miles outside his comfort zone. Just ignore him as the useless person he is.

The warning bells in your head were right. You should never have gone to live with Nan and Granddad. You put yourself at the mercy of people who didn’t understand the meaning of the words compassion or empathy. Those enigmatic conversations with Mum’s sister were her trying to warn you about Granddad. Listen harder to what she is telling you.

Moving back to your old home in year 13 to live on your own is going to be a tough call. Be brave enough to do it and to then stick it out when things get really tough financially. And yes, your suspicions will turn out to be dead right - Nan and Granddad were robbing you blind the whole time you were living with them.

Don’t rely on Mum and Dad’s so-called friends for practical advice or emotional support. Yes they did sometimes feel guilty about deserting you but not guilty enough to do anything about it. Develop your own support mechanisms based on people you trust.

Making yourself go to school when all you felt like doing was hiding under the duvet will 100% be the right thing to do and will get you the grades you need to go to university.

The weight you lose will make you a much better athlete with a body most of your friends would die for. 5ft 10.5in and 8 stone 10lbs is brilliant, not a disaster.

You will make some special friends early on in the first year of your university course. All three of them will help you to rebuild your life and the debt you owe them will be beyond words.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Support networks - Part 2

I genuinely cannot recall exactly how I came to be given an email-based adult mentor. It must have been via the school but in those first few weeks quite a lot of information would go in my ears without making it as far as my memory.

If I had a problem or just needed an electronic shoulder to cry on I would email this lady and she would get back to me. Sometimes this would be within a couple of hours and almost always it was within a day. The whole scheme worked really well, partly due to the fact that the mentor wasn’t somebody I knew and because I was never supposed to see her – unless I chose to – I felt able to share all sorts of feelings with her.  Sometimes I felt so cross with Mum and Dad for leaving me behind to face such total crap on my own and I was able to say this to her as a stranger without upsetting friends or family.

This went on for quite a while and it probably one of the things that did the most to keep me sane enough to keep on going to school. But then it all went wrong!

For a reason she has never really been able to explain, even to herself, my mentor came to visit me at school. Not for any sinister reason, it was just to deliver a small birthday present, but it was totally against good practice and also against what had been agreed between us. Once I knew her face and recognised her voice I wasn’t able to share all my fears and worries with her. She wasn’t just an anonymous person responding to an email anymore!

We both tried, really hard, to make it work again. But the magic had gone. One 30 minute visit had destroyed one key feature of my support network. It is hard to say which of us felt worse. I kept on thinking that I should be able to put things right if only I wasn’t being so silly. She kept on thinking, “If only I hadn’t broken the rules, none of this would have happened”.

We are still in touch. Polite, friendly emails pass between us about once every six weeks. But we both know that the intimacy we had shared for those few critical months can never happen again.
And that makes us both feel sad.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Support networks - part 1

There are two types of support networks, practical and emotional, and if you have lost both your parents trust me when I say that you will need both.

I was unlucky in that immediately after the accident it genuinely seemed logical and best that I went to live with my Grand Parents. Apart from anything else they lived nearby so if I moved in with them I would not have to change schools; which as I was in the middle of my AS course was seen as being a good thing.

Had they been normal in every respect, which God knows they were not, my GPs would not have been able to meet my emotional support needs on their own. For a start they were two generations older than me and had been brought up when things were genuinely much harder than they are now. Emotion and empathy were not part of their make-up and it meant that all the mixed emotions I was feeling were a complete mystery to them. Their idea of supporting me was to forbid me from talking about my Mum and Dad and punishing me if I did!

The Mother’s sister was ready, willing and able to support me but my GP’s, for reasons I never understood, were against this and the weekly phone call that my Aunt and I exchanged was very closely monitored by my Nan.

If it hadn’t been for the Head of the Sixth Form I would have been in serious trouble. She was a star, an angel. She had a senior pastoral post plus a substantial teaching commitment yet she still always seemed to be able to find time to help me. I would arrive at her office in a frenzy of stress and sadness and she would get her hankie box out and help me through the day. One day at a time was what people told me to do and one day at a time was the only way I could cope.

My school friends did their best to help. Of course they did but they had their own lives to lead and it wasn’t too long before I realised that sharing my problems with them was potentially driving a wedge between us and so crying, or even looking sad, could only be done in small doses.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The accident and more on Nan and Granddad

I was in the back seat of the car when some idiot crashed into us. He had come round a corner too fast and had come over onto our side of the road. We were 100% not to blame but innocent or guilty you end up just as dead don’t you. You cannot say to St Peter, “It wasn’t my fault” and get sent back to Earth!

Mum and Dad in the front seats never had a chance. Luckily I don't remember much about the accident and the doctors say that I never will. I do remember blue flashing lights and being lifted from the wreckage and the screen they put between me and the front of the car. I think I guessed then that Mum and Dad were dead. I don't remember going to hospital in the ambulance but do remember arriving. A bit later Nan and Granddad came in and as soon as I saw them I knew Mum and Dad had been killed. Grandparents then left for a short while and I prayed and prayed that I would die to so I could be with them but of course I didn't.

Once the news sunk in I wanted to see their bodies, just to say goodbye really. But I wasn’t allowed to. I was told that their bodies were too badly damaged for me to even see them, never mind being allowed to touch them or to be with them on my own. This “rule”, that I later found out wasn’t even true, seems like a horribly cruel thing to make up but that is exactly what Granddad did. I suppose this was Granddad trying to protect me but knowing him I bet that some of it was also about him wanting to be in charge.  

A little while later Mum’s sister came to see me and she asked if it would be OK for her to wash Mum and Dad’s faces and brush and tidy their hair. I will always be grateful that my aunt looked after Mum and Dad bodies for me when I wasn't able to. I hope they both realised that I would have done it myself if it had been allowed.

Leaving the hospital, knowing that Mum and Dad were in the morgue, was almost the hardest part of those first few weeks. I just wanted to escape but at the same time I felt I was deserting them and leaving them to the care of strangers who didn’t know and love them like I did.

Gran and Granddad never forgave me for allowing my aunt to get involved. They thought it was their job to look after my Mum's body. Over the months that followed Nan and Granddad used to bring this problem up quite often as proof of how ungrateful and disrespectful I was towards them. There has never been any mention of Dad in their grumbles so I expect they would have left him with blood and oil on his face and hair like a tramp. They obviously didn’t care about him.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Granddad and how it all started to unravel

It was mid-afternoon by the time all the guests had left and I was ready to go home. Well, not really home, better to call it the place where I was a paying guest - a rather unwelcome paying guest at that. Nan, especially, was somewhat deaf so during my first few days with them I had been able to hear some confidential exchanges between them that had made the position totally clear. They didn’t want me there and that was just what I didn’t need.

 Nan and Granddad did their trademark slightly condescending goodbye and thank you to the manager. Then off the three of us went in their car. We hadn’t even left the car park before Granddad turned on me with a whole series of bitter recriminations about my “antics” at the funeral. He was, he claimed, “bitterly ashamed” of me. On and on he went getting crosser but less coherent by the minute. This continued until we got back to their house.

I was worn out both mentally and physically so I went to my room to get some peace and quiet and above all some privacy so that I could have a cry without my Grand Parents noticing. After about half an hour I had calmed down enough to get changed and to have a quick wash in the bathroom next door.

I didn’t want to see either of them as I had a premonition that round two was about to kick off. I made it as far as the kitchen unnoticed and started to make myself a cup of coffee. But as soon as Granddad heard the sound of the kettle starting to boil he was out of his favourite seat and into the kitchen like he was jet propelled.  

He didn’t speak and so I made the mistake of turning my back on him.  I cannot remember Mum and Dad ever hitting me so it caught me by surprise when Granddad suddenly hit me hard on my bottom with his hand. It didn’t hurt much and when I had retreated to my bedroom I found myself trying to make excuses for him and hoping that now the funeral was over things in the house would soon calm down.

They didn’t.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Wake

I think it is fair to say that Nan and Granddad didn’t enjoy the Wake. Yes of course they had lost their daughter and having children dying before their parents is not the way it was supposed to be. But the vast majority of the people there were a lot more concerned about me than them. Grand Parents didn’t like this and although they kept smiling they were busy storing up ammunition to use against me once they got me home.

It was during the Wake that I started to realise that I had no idea who quite a few of the people were. Some turned out to be colleagues from school and that was fine. They knew Mum or Dad and they wanted to mark their death. I had no problem with them being there.

But there were others who were just hangers-on. They never spoke to me or to Dad’s side of the family. They were just friends of Nan and Granddad tucking into free food and drink. It still makes me cross that I was rationed to a couple of friends from school while complete strangers were there mob-handed.

Nobody wants to be the first to leave a Wake. However once the first person decides that it is time to go then the mad rush for the door starts. In this case it was a friend from Mum and Dad’s time at university, who needed to leave to catch his train, who cracked first. The room went from fairly full to almost empty in less than 15 minutes.

I think it was about then when it really hit home that Mum and Dad were dead. That I wouldn’t see them again and that the course of my life had changed forever. That is one hell of a lot to cope with when you are still at school.

My aunt had a curious and enigmatic conversation with me before she left. I didn’t realise it at the time but she was worried, really quite worried, about how me living with Nan and Granddad was going to work out. It was left that I could ring her day or night if I needed to chat. I didn’t realise until too late exactly why she was so concerned.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Funeral

On the day of the funeral I felt like an actress. I had a well-defined role to play that was going to be viewed under almost indescribably stressful circumstances. I had been to the doctor and a whole range of options had been explored. At one point there had even been a serious suggestion that I shouldn’t attend the funeral at all and that the “event” (Nan’s words) should be “hosted” (Nan’s words again) by my Grand Parents.

I said no, most firmly and decisively, and got the first of many monstrous slaps from Granddad for my trouble!

In the end I settled for beta-blockers; just for a few days either side of the funeral. That worked really well and was the right decision as I don’t think that I could have coped totally unaided.

A funeral, when you feel like you are the star of the show, is a nightmare. You think that everybody is looking at you hoping that you are not going to create a scene by exhibiting excessive signs of grief. Some sorrow is fine, even a few tears are allowed, but nothing more thanks very much!

The Hearse, followed by a short convoy of posh black cars, arrived at exactly the predicted time of 11:25. Then what seemed to me to be very close to a “one size fits all” service was taken by a vicar who didn’t know Mum and Dad at all. My parents were both science teachers, they were secular and proud of it. They wouldn’t have wanted a religious service but since they couldn’t speak out and since I hadn’t been asked that is exactly what happened.

The only personalised part was when I stood at the front and spoke just for a couple of minutes about how good Mum and Dad had been as parents. I felt that almost the entire audience were just waiting for me to break down but thanks to the beta blockers I managed to say all that I wanted to say.

Little did I realise that Nan and Granddad were simply furious that I had “shown off” (Nan’s words) by doing this eulogy. It wasn’t long before they got their revenge.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Funeral Preparations

Until you are an active participant in a funeral I don’t think you realise quite how many different jobs have to be done, how long it takes to do these jobs and how much it all costs. At the same time as this is going on the deceased starts to become a non-person in the eyes of the State. A well-oiled machine springs into action and masses of letters are automatically generated that express regret followed by some request for money or information. Mum and Dad’s solicitor was totally and utterly brilliant and his was one of the few bills that I didn’t resent having to pay.

I was just totally frantic with stress and sadness. There were a few jobs that I had to do but much of the burden fell on my Grand Parents and on my Mother’s sister. The result was that the format of the funeral was overwhelming what they wanted and not what I wanted nor what Mum and Dad would have expected.

Lots of people were invited who didn’t know me or Mum and Dad. They were friends of my Grand Parents and I never understood why I had to pay for them to be fed and watered at the wake we had in a local hotel after the cremation.

Oh yes I ended up paying. My Grand Parents let the rest of the family think that they had paid themselves but once Mum and Dad’s estate had all been sorted out the itemised bill was passed to me and I had to refund every last penny to them. My Aunt (Mum’s sister) and my Uncle (Dad’s brother) only discovered this ages later when it came up in conversation.

My Paternal Grand Parents did almost nothing except attend the event. Two or three days later they then returned to the USA where they spend about 6 months a year.

After a violent death there is always some delay before a funeral can take place and of course there needs to be a vacant slot at the chosen church or crematorium as well. The time between death and the funeral is like being in limbo. You feel totally powerless and you just have to wait because until you have had the funeral the healing process doesn’t even start.

Why do I feel so uneasy saying - "Follow my blog on Bloglovin"

I'm going to 100% honest here. Making this post has made me feel uneasy. Something doesn't feel quite right and my Mum and Dad taught me to go with my instincts. So if signing up to this site generates visitors that post useful comments I will be happy to say, "OK, I was wrong to be so cynical."

But, as I rather suspect, all I get is lots of silicon based, computer generated, "visitors" then my gut would have been right. I will give it a month, then report back

Follow my blog on Bloglovin.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Bad communications, good communications

I liked my physics teacher. I liked him then and I remember him now with a fondness and respect that might surprise him.
In that first lesson he created an opportunity to have a private chat with me. “What has happened to you is ghastly beyond measure. You are just going to have to deal with it one day at a time and I promise you that it will gradually get better.” Those few words, that I recall as if the conversation had taken place yesterday, were words that I repeated to myself many times a day during those first few weeks.
It is a problem for the pastoral staff in a school to know exactly how much to tell other colleagues not directly involved with a pupil in my situation. With hindsight I think they probably should have warned the staff in the front office to be extra vigilant that correspondence that would normally be sent to parents would, in my case, be sent directly to me.
This became an on-going problem and it over a year before it was totally sorted out. I think that the rapid turnover of staff in the front office meant that the people who knew they had to be careful moved on and that the newcomers were never told anything until it was too late and a tearful Sally would be thrusting a letter at them and having a good grumble.
Sometimes they got it right. But sometimes letters would be handed out in envelopes to the rest of my tutor group – except for mine which was just the letter. I imagine that somebody had spotted the mistake on the envelope just in time! At least twice I had a circular letter with Mum and Dad’s names just crossed out and my name written in. That is just so thoughtless.
I tried ignoring it, I tried mentioning it to my Form Tutor and to the Head of the Sixth Form and I even wrote to the Chair of Governors (who wrote back to my parents rather than me which was a "nice" touch!).

Friday, 5 July 2013

The first day back at school

It felt like all eyes were on me as I walked through the front gate, past the lady teacher who was checking that skirt lengths were acceptable. I knew her of course, she had been my form tutor in years 10 and 11, but she didn’t make eye contact. Perhaps she hadn’t seen me?

I walked down the side of the main building with the usual crowds of youngsters aimlessly scuttling around. Not a familiar face in sight which was fine by me. Then round the corner and the Sixth Form Centre came into sight. Faces that I recognised but nobody seemed keen to acknowledge my arrival. Why should they? They had no idea what was going on inside my head.

Sharp left, down the corridor to the second door. Deep breath. Emily, my best friend, was in her usual place in the front row with an empty space beside her. My space, the space that had been mine before I became an orphan. An orphan, a word I was to hear so often in the weeks and months that followed.

The room fell silent. Nobody wanted to look at me in case they had to say something. So I sat down and Emily slipped her hand into mine. “Oh Sally, I’m so very sorry.”

The silence was broken by the noisy arrival of my form tutor. He was one of those teachers who seemed to get on fine with the boys but who found dealing with girls put him well outside his comfort zone.

He took the register in his normal slightly over-officious way. He did make the effort to make eye contact with me but rather spoilt the effect by then saying, “Nice to have you back” as if I had been off with a cold.

My head was spinning and my brain and my body seemed to be several metres apart. It was a good job that I had a free lesson – sorry private study – on my timetable because counting to ten would have been beyond me at that stage.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The different threads that paint the picture

My story is one made up from many different threads - intertwined ones of different lengths and of different complexities.  As my story unfolds some will come to an end and then gradually, almost imperceptible, recede into the background. New threads, some almost unimaginable to me in those first few weeks after the accident, will rise up to replace them.
Some of what I will post will involve people, people I thought I knew and could trust, who would let me down horribly when I was at my most vulnerable. Other, more cheerful threads, involve  people I was yet to meet, people who didn’t even knew I existed in those early days, who went on to became central to my recovery.
Let me start quite close to the beginning. Not the day of the accident, nor two days later when I went to live with my Grand Parents but the day I went back to school. 
For most of the 1000 pupils at my school it was just an ordinary day - indistinguishable from those around it. I would like to think that perhaps it wasn’t quite so ordinary for my tutor group as the Head of the Sixth Form had been in to afternoon registration the day before to warn them that I would be returning to school. Poor thing, she hadn’t known what to say to the group. She hadn’t had much experience of death. Her parents, and her husband’s parents were still alive and her only previous brush with the Grim Reaper was when a friend from her university days had died of cancer two years after graduation. Her powers of expression had failed her when she tried to explain to my school friends how I might be feeling. The truth was, of course, that she didn’t know.

I had spent a nightmare restless night at Nan and Granddad's. Almost every negative emotion you can think of was churning through my brain and my immediate future seemed to consist of a long series of hurdles to be overcome. Top of the list of course was Mum and Dad's funeral but going back into school - knowing that I would be the centre of attention - ran it a close second.

Breakfast provoked the first row of the day so I retreated to my bedroom to pack my bag in peace. I had to think hard what day of the week it was and I had no idea what lessons I had timetabled that day. In the end I managed to get everything packed so I walked out my car ready for the short journey to school. By then the contrast between how things had been just a few days earlier and how they were living with Nan and Granddad was starting to  overwhelm me. Escaping to school suddenly felt the better of two fairly dire alternatives!

How my "first life" ended.

In January 2010 my parents were both killed in a car accident. We were all in the car at the time, Mum and Dad were in the front and they died, but I was in the back and I survived almost unhurt. I guess it just wasn't my time to go?

I was in year 12 when they died, about half way through my AS year, so it was agreed that rather than going to live with my aunt (my Mum's sister), which would have meant changing schools, I should go to live with my maternal Grand Parents who lived nearby.

To say that this didn't work out well would be a gross understatement. I stood it for as long as I could but in the end I moved back into my former family home and I lived there on my own from the start of year 13 onwards.

Somehow I managed to get the grades I needed to go to the local university. I've just (July 2013) finished my second year there. During my first year I rented out my family home but for my second year I moved back in with three friends who are all on the same course as me. One of them is a very special friend!

Some readers might have read parts of my story before. I did write a blog for the ten months after Mum and Dad had to leave me but I was in a very dark place and writing the blog was just a little bit more than I could cope with at the time. I'm much happier now than I was then and I'm sure that I can make a success of this project.

I'm just over 5ft 11 inches tall but less than 9 stone. So I'm tall and slim like my Mum was. If you stick with me you will find out why these two statistics are so important!