Thursday, 2 July 2015

Some things I've learned about death...and grief...

 Most of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will know that my darling Dad died...exactly 6 weeks ago today at 4pm. It was, in the end, a very peaceful death...in his sleep, in his own bed, on his beloved farm. We couldn't have asked for more. But since then, I feel I've learnt some valuable lessons which I wanted to share with you here. I was lucky...apart from my grandparents, I haven't lost anyone very close to me until now. Grief is such an individual emotion...each person will feel it very differently. But you may find some comfort, or useful information here...I hope so x
 1. However ill the person is...however much you expect and anticipate their death...you will never be prepared for it. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer over 18 months ago. He outlived all the likely timelines we were given. At the end, he could barely eat anything at all. And yet, somehow, it all seemed so sudden. He was here...and then not. And never will be again. Shocking. Truly.

2. This is a tough one to talk about, but I think it needs saying. If you are given the opportunity to spend time with the body of your loved one after their death...do fight any first impulse to reject the idea, and really consider it. I confess that I was scared at the prospect. I'd never seen a dead person before. But I followed the advice of my sister, Esther. She's a nurse and has experienced literally hundreds of deaths (although, of course, this one was very different emotionally) She thought I would regret it if I didn't. And I'm so glad that I listened. If you have loved the person deeply in life, there is nothing to be frightened of....that time, which I spent with my Mum and youngest sister too...was incredibly special and valuable. It was peaceful and serene and it was a privilege. That's all I can say.
 3. You don't have to follow tradition, or convention. Of course, some...even most...people find it comforting to be able to leave the funeral and other arrangements in the hand of experts. Where religion is involved, there is usually a clear path to follow. But if this isn't you, or more importantly, the person you have lost..then don't be afraid to do your own thing. For example...we arranged the whole funeral as a family, with minimal input from the funeral director. Dad had no faith, so we had no religious element at all. My sisters and I led the service, choosing pieces of music that we connected with Dad in place of hymns. We each wrote & read a piece about him. One of his dearest friends spoke too...a wonderful, funny, warm & irreverent speech that he would have adored. My mum chose an incredibly beautiful love sonnet by Shakespeare to honour their 53 years of marriage and what he had meant to her. And...because none of us like formal flowers, and Dad adored wild ones and growing vegetables...a lovely, talented friend of mine made the stunning arrangement above...full of his favourite things: globe artichokes, red chilis, aubergines, turnips...wild honeysuckle and buttercups from the farm he adored. Very Dad. Which was the whole point. It all felt so right. So don't be afraid to do your own thing, if it feels like the best thing.
4. Grief is exhausting. And it takes up a lot of time. Time talking to people...explaining what's happened. Making arrangements - to stop things, to cancel things, to put an end to the administration associated with a long-ish life lived fully. Be prepared to go over the details again and again in the first days. However tired I was in the first month, I often either couldn't sleep at all, or woke in the early hours. Coming to terms with the reality...the finality...is really hard work. Don't plan anything important in the first few weeks...you will likely forget arrangements you've made, even if you have written them down. Don't rush anything. There is an impulse sometimes to sort things out, to clear things away. Try and resist. Let things rest, take time, be patient. You may regret it later if you don't...or you may not...but in any case, a few weeks at least won't hurt.

5. You may find yourself spending lots of time with photographs...recordings...videos...anything that records the one you have loved. It's as though I was trying to imprint Dad on my brain...at first, I was terrified that I would forget him. That's a silly thought...how could I possibly? But we all take great comfort from images that bring him back, even if only for a moment. We talk about him constantly. He's present in our lives...as he always has been.

6. Not everyone by any means has the luxury of preparing...however loosely...for the ultimate death of someone close to them. Because it is a luxury. To have that time, to be able to say...or try to say...all the things you need or want to. I am lucky. The last thing I ever said to him was 'I love you, Dad', the day before he died. And he said the same to me. So I have that always, like a hug. But it's made me so aware that not everyone can do this...and it's taught me to tell those I care about how much they mean to me, whenever I especially feel it. Because that's so important....it truly, truly is. Just say it, do it, hug them, mean it. You will never regret it.
7. Take comfort whenever and however you can. Dad adored nature....wild animals, birds....his beloved dog....the flowers and plants that grow in the hedgerows. And now I feel his presence whenever I see a butterfly or moth (which he could always identify)...or see a red kite wheeling high in the sky....or here a swift screaming with joy in the sultry twilight air....these things bring him to me and I treasure them daily.

 I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that he's gone. I still can't get used to talking about him in the past tense. I can't bear the fact that I'll never hear his voice again...or see his smile....or feel his arms around me. My wonderful, remarkable, infuriating, complicated, loving, generous, maverick father. The world is a lesser place without him in it. But I will learn to live without him...because the last lesson I've learnt is that, however much you don't want it to at first, life does go on. Making the very most of it is what I know he would have wanted me to do. And living a full and happy one is the best way I know to honour him and all he meant to me.

xx


Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Enchanted April...

 "Oh!" cried Mrs Wilkins....
The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.
 Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall off the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword...
 She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it....
Such beauty; and she alive to feel it...Her face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair.
 How beautiful, how beautiful. Not to have died before this....
 ...to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this....She stared, her lips parted.
 Happy? Poor, ordinary, everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it?
 It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself...
 ...it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy...
 ..it was as though she were washed through with light."
 These words, paraphrased from Elizabeth von Arnim's wonderful book absolutely sum up my April so far...
 Some of these photos were taken during a recent weekend away in Devon, some at the farm and some around our home...

 ...and garden (the hellebores are one of my absolute favourite flowers...so shy with their bowed heads...so exquisite and muted)

 The snowdrops are long gone now, but they sparkled in the churchyard for a while..
 Camellias and daffodils are fully in bloom...

 And these grape hyacinths were a gift to my Mum at our Easter family lunch on Monday...
Life is so busy at the moment...everything colliding as always....but I'm trying to take the time to really look around and enjoy the beauty around me. It's everywhere.

Mrs Wilkins and I would have been kindred spirits, I think! Dear Lottie.

I hope you are having an enchanted April too....i'll be back soon I promise x

Saturday, 7 February 2015

We'll always have Paris....

 Lots of birthdays in our family in January....I include darling Wolfgang Amadeus in the list...he would have been 259 on 27th. Possibly too old for me! But one person who isn't is my beloved husband, Paul...who celebrated a BIG birthday around the same time. Ten years ago, we held a fabulous and memorable lunch party for 40 friends in Salzburg. How could we top that? Well, we didn't try to, but we aimed to make this one just as wonderful. So we chose Paris. City of Light. Beautiful, charmant, amazing Paris...
 ...she glowered a little when we arrived (this is the view from our tiny but perfect hotel room...it came complete with a bijou balcony plus table & chairs for outside breakfast a deux...but NOT in January!)
 ...but by the next day, she had regained her golden glow and was looking gorgeous in the freezing cerulean blue of a winter morning...
 ..the gargoyles and saints looked disapprovingly down on us from their 800 year old perch on Notre Dame...
 ...and here it is from the front. I STILL expect sometimes to see poor old Quasimodo swinging on his rope between the two towers...
Anyway, far too bitingly cold to stay outside for long...so we popped into a favourite cafe for breakfast...
 ..there are many like this, of course, throughout the city...
 ..the bread is frighteningly addictive. Especially with the unsalted creamy butter it's always served with...
 ...ordering a 'Petit Dejeuner Complet' will get you freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, iced water and a choice of pastry (I always have a plain croissant) with preserves...some others in our party 'sized up' and added toasted pain Poilane and a (very runny) boiled egg which comes with crispy toast 'soldiers'. Anyone who knows me...that's YOU!....knows that I loathe and despise eggs. I call them 'devil's orbs'. I'm not allergic...I am fine with them in things. But serve them whole....like this...
 ...and I have to turn away. Luckily there was a beautiful display of preserves to distract me!
 After breakfast, the others went shopping while I took myself off to the Jewish quarter of the city, as I love to do wherever I am...
 ...I could've devoured these beautiful, burnished cholla whole...but I was good! Tucked away, I found a little memorial garden...dedicated to a school of children and their teachers, deported to Auschwitz in 1943 & 1944...
...it's a beautiful, peaceful place...full of rosemary (for remembrance)...

 ...both flowers and vegetables are planted here and I look forward to visiting again when it's warm and sunny to see it burgeoning...
 ...I loved the little shed in the corner, too.
On the way back to change for the party, we ran into a brilliant jazz quartet...just playing in the street...as you do! A huge crowd of toe-tappers gathered..."bravo, bravo...encore!" But it was time for us to go...
 ...and meet our guests. We'd taken over a restaurant we know and love for the lunch...and just under 40 of our friends had made the journey...by plane, by train...to join us for the celebrations. Some of them chose very - ahem - original attire ...
 ...he's well known for it!!
 We enjoyed a fabulous lunch...two choices for each course and it was so good to see everyone...
Speeches were made, songs were sung...
 ...the birthday boy blew out the candle on his chocolate orange mille feuille dessert...toasts were made...much laughter and joy. And afterwards, we retired to a friendly neighbourhood bar which was only too happy to accommodate the (by then) 25 mad British people...
 ...the day was long but wonderful. We missed - and toasted - the few very loved and absent friends and family who, for one reason or other, were unable to make the trip. But in every other respect, it was perfect!
The next day was for recovering, exploring, enjoying the city...everyone did their own thing, but a large group of us met up for another gorgeous, impromptu lunch which was huge fun. And then it was the time to leave...
 ...so we took a last walk out, around the breathtaking Place de Vosges...
 ...peeking into a hotel garden along the way - (Parisians do these 'formal' gardens so well....) and buying a few presents at the many, many chocolateries...
 we didn't buy these Valentine fish...but wouldn't they make a fabulous treat? I don't think i'd be able to eat them, though...too beautiful!
Then, we hopped on the Eurostar to be whisked back to England and the reality of a new week.

Merci, Paris. Brave, strong city of charm and elegance...
We all stand with you.

I hope you are having a wonderful weekend...and welcome to February! xx