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Growing a Garden of Hope (3)

View from Portsdown Hill

Finding Meaning

I realise this picture doesn't look much like a garden, but then my garden of hope doesn't always look much like one either. So at first glance, here's just a photo of lot of dry grass under a cloudy sky. But if you look a little more closely, you might see that there are some wild flowers determinedly holding on; little flecks of colour amongst the drab beiges and faded greens of the grasses and weeds. These little heroic plants resolutely cling on despite the turmoil and clamour of all the bigger, stronger, more abundant varieties, all jostling for space on the hillside. The tiny glimmers of light and colour that have punctured the grey and the darkness, and enabled me to hang on and find the determination to keep going since I lost Anton, are my reasons to continue. Finding a sense of meaning in my life without Anton is still the single most important aspect of my survival.

In the early weeks and months, without thinking about it too much I just made a decision that I would get through the next 10 minutes, the next hour and so on. I clung on to the ordinary, everyday things, like walking the dog, preparing meals. I remember we even watched films. It was distraction we all sought at that point. Just finding ways of surviving the horror of now. When I think back to that time I have the impression of shock enveloping us all in a very strange sort of muffling cotton wool, like those war films that simulate someone's loss of hearing when they've been close to a bomb blast. Between the stunned, bomb-blasted hours and the horror- and terror-laden tsunami hours there wasn't much of anything else to begin with. But after a while, there was a bit more space when I was able to think a little more clearly.

My mum died in 2011. She had a pretty tough life and was a very feisty, strong woman. Although she was only around 5'3" she nevertheless considered herself to be quite a tall person; we laughed a lot about this together (I am only 5' 4"). But actually she was a very tall woman in my estimation. A single parent with four children, no matter what life threw at her she never stopped working and trying to make life better for herself and us. Moreover, she was never too busy to help out someone in need, and when I was a child and complained of being fed up, she would suggest I do something to help someone else and stop thinking only of myself. She wasn't always very sympathetic! As I grew older, whenever I was going through a particularly difficult time she would say "You've got to dig down very, very deep inside, and pull out a great big handful of strength; and you've got to keep going". She was right. When faced with losing someone we love to suicide or other traumatic death we must do exactly that; find the strength to keep going. But how?

"He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how" Friedrich Nietzsche

Like most parents, our children provided much of the meaning in our lives. Our youngest son Stefan still does, of course, and now we have a wonderful daughter-in-law and a gorgeous grandson too. But when Anton died, I knew I would need to somehow find more. For one thing, it would not be fair of us to expect Stef to fill the gap his brother has left behind. He has enough to contend with, having lost his brother and lifelong best friend, without having to worry about us (though of course he does worry). My job as a psychotherapist had given me so much; helping people find ways of improving their lives is a hugely privileged and humbling thing to do. But here I was, too emotionally fragile to do the one thing that might have made life feel more worthwhile. If I'd had a different sort of job, I probably would have gone back to work a few months after Anton's death, and perhaps it would have helped; certainly it would have distracted me from the pain. But I wasn't fit to do my job, so I had to look elsewhere.

Meaning can come in many forms. If you have children, or grandchildren, or other family members who are dependent on you, then you have little choice but to keep going. As you keep putting one foot in front of the other, meaning can naturally become a part of your life again. Family who aren't dependent on us can also fill this gap - our remaining son still needs us, just as we need him. We have a 3 year old grandson who provides much appreciated light and laughter. When we look after him our whole focus is on him; there is no space to think about anything else. Our little dog Frankie provided us with the impetus to get up and go out every day even in the immediate aftermath of the bomb that destroyed our world. She brings us comfort, and in return we care for her.

If you don't have dependants perhaps you have other family or close friends who are precious to you, or a job that gives you satisfaction. Maybe you're involved in a cause, such as raising money to help organisations who work to prevent suicide, or campaigning to improve the society in which we live. Bereaved parents especially, seem drawn to honouring their lost child in some way, and set up charities, trusts or scholarships, or create gardens of remembrance. All these things become our meaning. Our reasons to get up in the morning. One of the new things that brings meaning to my life is volunteering to help refugees, and another is the blog that you are reading now.

Two of the many books I was drawn to read after losing Anton were Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and Edith Eger's The Choice. Both were written by holocaust survivors who suffered horrifically in Nazi concentration camps, yet afterwards found ways of thriving again, being willing to rebuild a relationship with the world that had treated them so badly, or looked the other way. They had to trust in life again, alongside the horror of their experiences, the atrocities they had suffered and witnessed, and the traumatic grief for all those they had lost. Both of them ultimately found a sense of meaning through their work. Frankl was a psychiatrist and Eger became a psychologist and psychotherapist. They both found ways of helping others, and that was part of their survival, and their ability to grow, not just in spite of, but because of their ordeals.

Another book that really inspired me is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. When Raynor and her husband Moth lost their home and business and then received the news that Moth had a terminal illness, they decided to walk 630 miles along the South West Coast Path from Somerset to Dorset. The book chronicles both their physical journey and what they both found in themselves and one another along the way.

Countless times in my work over the years I have been in absolute awe at the strength, courage and determination of those who have been abused and battered by life, have suffered appallingly at the hands of others, or had simple bad luck in contracting serious illness, being involved in an accident, or losing a loved one much too soon. I have often been heard to say how amazed I am by the sheer resilience of the human spirit and its capacity to survive, even thrive, after horrific trauma. There is a name for this phenomenon; its called Post-Traumatic Growth.

Post-Traumatic Growth refers to the capacity to develop and grow, emotionally and psychologically after traumatic events. One of the factors that seems to enable us to do this, is a sense that our life, post-trauma, has some meaning. I must emphasise here that this concept relates to the traumatic aspect of our loss, not the grief of losing someone we love. The trauma is the part that makes us feel anxious and fearful, and can cause flashbacks and nightmares, amongst other symptoms (see Post-Traumatic Stress post for more).

But whilst the grief will always be a part of us, it is possible to recover from the trauma; in fact many people recover quite naturally over time, which is why Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is usually not diagnosed until at least 6 months after a traumatic event. If you are still experiencing symptoms of PTSD after more than 6 months it might be a good idea to seek help from a therapist specialising in trauma. The trauma of losing someone to suicide or other violent death is of course particularly harrowing, because we are having to deal with the trauma and the loss at the same time. On bad days it can be easy to see this as an impossible, Sisyphean task and that is why I am always thankful to those who have trod this path before me, and are lighting my way.

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*1889 Götzen-Dämmerung; oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophirt, Author: Friedrich Nietzsche, (Second Edition), Chapter: Sprüche und Pfeile (Proverbs and Arrows), Quote Page 2, Publisher: C.G. Naumann, Leipzig.

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