Silent Joy in Grief

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It was one year ago (26 May 2019) that my 94-year-old mother (Jean) died in hospital in Northampton, my father (Fred) having died in 2013.

As I’ve written previously, special days and anniversaries awaken powerful emotions which lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, along with the ongoing emptiness of loss. Additionally, this is combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, a feeling which may be magnified for me because I’m an only child of only children.

I had the following words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer printed on the back of the order of service for both their funerals as they expressed something my family wanted to articulate. These words have become even more meaningful to me with the passing of time, and I hope you find them helpful as well.

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve, even in pain, the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

VE Day 2020

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VE DAY IN LONDON, 8 MAY 1945 (HU 49414) Two small girls waving their flags in the rubble of Battersea, snapped by an anonymous American photographer. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205018927

Whilst acknowledging the need to tread carefully and sensitively in any comparisons between the Second World War and the current coronavirus pandemic, I believe there are some useful ones we can make to help us in our thought processes and thereby benefit our collective mental health.

VE Day in 1945 reflected a victory over a visible enemy, although also an invisible enemy of evil thoughts and ideas. The enemy we face now is totally invisible and does not care one iota for those it harms. Fake news is not new, they faced it back then; had they had social media, that would simply have been another front on which the war would have been fought. Today, not only in the coronavirus pandemic, we face a war against those who would deceive us. We need to guard our way of life against those who would lie to us, who seek to destroy the freedoms won for us then.

The Second World War was marked by terrible suffering, the like of which is hard to process, along with the inhumanity of it all. Today, many have been devastated by an invisible enemy, and we pause to remember the lives lost and the families and friends grieving.

Back then the world faced life-treatening jeopardy and, for many today, this is the first time we have faced real jeopardy. Yes, I remember the Cold War, but that’s the only threat that comes anywhere near what we face today. There’s fear and anxiety everywhere, and so we need to affirm, encourage and support each like never before. It’s the same for everyone, yet we all have unique circumstances and all react individually.

Back then, not everyone was celebrating, and for those who were it was only a brief celebration. The world faced an uncertain future and there was much rebuilding to be done, it was many years until food rationing was eased for example. In our own time, we might celebrate relaxations to the lockdown, but we still face the reality of an uncertain future and the prospect of rebuilding society. Then it was a collective experience, so it is today and will be for us. I’m neither being optimistic nor pessimistic; just realistically reflecting that there’ll be much to do in the coming weeks, months and years.

Today we celebrate the heroes of yesterday’s battles, but we also celebrate the new heroes in the NHS and all the key workers fighting a very different battle today. Come to think about it, the creation of the NHS was one of the great rebuilding efforts after WWII, and we are reaping its benefits today.

Who are you celebrating today? What can you do to help and support someone today and in the uncertain future?

Postscript: Today is ‘Victory IN Europe Day’, not ‘Victory OVER Europe Day’ as some history revisionists are suggesting for their own agendas.

Note: I chose the photo for this post because it reminds me of my two youngest girls, Pollyanna (2) and Matilda (3).

Natural Health Service

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Today’s family afternoon excursion into beautiful nature wasn’t just daily exercise, but emergency treatment from the Natural Health Service.

We’re all in the same situation in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, but everyone has their own personal challenges to face. For us, it’s having three young children, me trying to work from home, and preparing for my imminent retirement in July and moving house.

We’ve had a few bad days, and were both physically, mentally and emotionally drained. So, not only did the therapy walk do us the world of good, spending quality time with Naomi and our children really helped, but also observing and photographing nature.

Note: All the photos were taken with my smartphone, I just got in close, or low, or used unusual angles. See all the original here. Why not have a go for yourself?

Impending Retirement

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Photo by Jason Villanueva on Pexels.com

My retirement was never going to be a normal one, the reason being that I have three young children under six, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic which has well and truly thrown all our plans into disarray.

The earliest I could have retired was February 2020 but, for a variety of reasons, I decided to work for another five months until the start of July 2020. So now I effectively retire at the end of May, as June is taken up with holiday entitlement.

We’re moving to a rented property in Norton, Stockton-on-Tees, on or soon after the beginning of July. Although this is in doubt because of government lockdown restrictions affecting property work and removal companies. We also have the problem of a house and garage which need sorting out, with charity shops and the local tip closed.

I have mixed feelings about retirement. It’s a huge change in our circumstances and we’ve all made many friends in Wallsend, not least our children. Also, most of our married life has been spent here.

Although I won’t have any work responsibilities in retirement, I’ll remain a Salvation Army Officer. I’m looking forward to Christian ministry in different circumstances, with possibly new areas to explore, and I already have some idea of what these might be and how they might be developed. One thing I won’t miss is administrative responsibilities.

Overall, I’m looking forward to retirement and the opportunities it’ll bring, I just wish the details weren’t so obscured by clouds of uncertainty.

Update 11/06/20: We had planned to move on the actual date of my retirement, but because of the coronavirus lockdown we’ve been forced to delay it a week until Wednesday 8 July 2020. You really don’t want to know the ongoing problems we’re having to face and deal with, but we’ll get through it one way or another.

Update 27/06/20: The struggle is very real at the moment, with all sorts of problems delaying our plans, as the deadline for moving fast approaches. Today we discovered rain getting into our new home just inside the main entrance where the roof of the extension is joined to the main building. Hopefully, this can be sorted out soon.

Maintaining Mental Health

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Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

Looking after our mental health is always important, but especially so during the lockdown associated with the coronavirus pandemic. As this BBC web page says: Coronavirus has plunged the world into uncertainty and the constant news about the pandemic can feel relentless. All of this is taking its toll on people’s mental health, particularly those already living with conditions like anxiety and OCD.

How has the lockdown affected your mental health? I asked this question on Facebook and the following are some of the responses I received. They have been sensitively edited and permission for sharing given.

Karen: I’ve been struggling big time with not being able to talk to people properly and my depression has hit an all-time low, but I feel it’s not fair to speak to my doctor about it because they’re so busy with everything else. We have a houseful, so it’s not caused by loneliness, simply not having breathing space and time to think. I’m finding I sometimes just have to walk around the garden alone and talk myself out of the way. I feel we’re all grieving as well as my nana died recently, so keeping busy is my only way of getting through it apart from my 10 minutes out time. Not sure how helpful this is, but helps to share how I feel and not feel like a failure as a person and mother.

Joy: For a couple of weeks leading up to lockdown I was really anxious about going into lockdown. I stood and cried in the chemist queue. I knew I was getting very low and feared what lockdown would do to my mental health. To be honest I envied two people I knew who had passed away before this. I was becoming forgetful, forgetting things like bringing the washing down in the morning which i do I every morning, and forgetting to take my daily medication which included anti-depressants which also didn’t help my mental health! Once I realised this was an issue I gave hubby permission to remind me every morning. First week of lockdown I woke up feeling quite panicky, but got better as the day went on. I’ve had to learn not to put myself under pressure to achieve anything great. Getting through the day is in itself and achievement. I always use my one allowed walk each day. Three weeks into lockdown and I’m doing better than I thought I would. I can now get my head round cooking proper meals, but still can’t keep on top of housework. Initially, I was more anxious about lockdown, now I’m probably more anxious about the virus. Sorry it’s a long one but it’s done me good to share.

Paula: I’ve found it hard, but have found incorporating daily exercise and limiting the wine has helped! I’m still working, and so is my husband, so that has helped keep some sense of normality!

David: I’ve not struggled as much as some, partly because I’ve been working from home for three years now. I have my own business, so actually having work to do every day has filled my day. So, in a sense, I didn’t expect to struggle, but there have been a few for me, just the unsettledness of the situation has had an effect on my concentration levels. I’ve been used to my daughter being out at school every day and my wife in and out all the time. Now there are three of us rattling around this modest 3-bed semi, it’s really strange and has taken some adjustment for me.

Kate: I’ve been up and down through this so far. Trying to keep busy, but there’s only so much to do. It’s the isolation that’s the hardest. I’ve been exercising a lot, which helps, and playing lots of music. And also allowing myself to feel a bit rubbish, because it’s a rubbish time. It’s ok to struggle a bit, it’s really hard.

Kevin: It hasn’t really affected me, I’ve spent a lifetime social distancing anyway. I think though if you are suffering, it probably helps to keep busy. Writing a blog or an online diary documenting your feelings and day-to-day experience is a good idea. Something you can share that might help others, who in turn can help you. There’s always cooking, gardening and a myriad other hobbies that needn’t cost a lot.

Kerrie: I’m an introvert and enjoy time at home anyway. I’m never bored and could often go a weekend without speaking to or seeing anyone, but having a two and a half-year-old on my own, and as a key worker also trying to work from home I’ve found it very hard. I don’t have time to do all of the things I can see others doing, such as reading and other hobbies. My mum can’t come and help at all as she’s on the vulnerable list. Getting shopping is difficult. I don’t drive and I’m a single parent now, my daughter also has a heart condition, so don’t want to risk taking her into shops so I rely on friends to get what I need and just muddle through. I feel huge guilt that I’m not doing enough with my daughter and also huge guilt that I’m not doing enough with my work. I’m a Domestic Abuse Practitioner and I know this is increasing at this time, but there’s little I can do with no childcare and a toddler on my own. My mum doesn’t have any facility to video call and we both don’t drive so are cut off. But I think of Anne Frank, Terry Waite and others who had to endure far worse and know we have to keep on keeping on.

Heather: For me physical exercise truly helps. As a nurse I encourage grounding techniques, there are many suggested. I also recommend: Headspace. Helpful techniques.

Finally, Sarah helpfully suggested some advice being given out to students:

  1. Reach out before you freak out! Call a friend, a family member, pastor (teacher in our setting) or a hotline – it’s better to talk before it’s too overwhelming.
  2. Be gentle with yourself. If all you managed to do today in this pandemic was make it out of bed to go to the bathroom or grab a glass of water or something to eat, well done – your survival brain is working hard enough for you so take the time to rest.
  3. We are all in this together – no one has it all together right now no matter what Facebook or Instagram says, this is an unprecedented time we are all trying to figure it out.
  4. Stand outside and ground yourself for at least 5 minutes (15 is better). Feel the sun/wind on your face. Touch the plants. Take your shoes off and let your feet feel the earth below you. This is a scientifically proven technique to assist mental health, grounding is vital.
  5. Finally, just know that you are not alone. Reach out before you Freak out!

Thank you everyone for your contributions, feel free to add any more thoughts in the comments. Be affirmed, John.

All-Day Breakfast Pasta Bake

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In the current coronavirus pandemic lockdown I’m managing food very carefully to minimise my visits to the supermarket, even though they’re doing a great job of social distancing. It’s a case of the less direct human contact the better to reduce the spread of the virus, especially as I’m in a vulnerable group because of my age and (albeit well-controlled) asthma.

Yesterday, my little food notebook told me I needed to use up some bacon and eggs, and so I decided on an all-day breakfast pasta bake. My young children love pasta so I knew I was onto a winner, a 100% comfort dinner on what has been a colder day than we’ve generally been having in lockdown.

I was asked for the recipe by a friend, although I was just making it up as I went along, but here’s the ingredients and what I did anyway.

Ingredients (serves 4-6 depending on appetite and portion size)
375 grams of Fusilli pasta (or whatever you have)
250-300 grams diced bacon (I used smoked, but use what you prefer or have)
8 large free-range eggs (medium will be fine)
1 large tin of baked beans with sausages (I didn’t have sausages readily available)
1 tablespoon of cooking oil (any will do) and salt
Salt & pepper (to taste)

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water for 8-10 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, chop up the bacon (unless already diced) and gently fry in the oil until cooked. Add the beans and the sausages (chop in the frying pan) and heat through. Transfer this mixture to a preheated (200C) oven dish and spread evenly. Add half of the cooked pasta. Carefully crack the eggs (evenly spaced) onto the layer of pasta. Gently cover the eggs with the remaining pasta. Cover the oven dish with kitchen foil and cook at 200C until done. Enjoy!

Note: Obviously other ingredients could be added or substituted.

Four by Four and Four by Sixteen

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Photography (a smartphone is all you need by the way) and writing, whether personal or for work, are two of the things that are currently helping me maintain my mental health and sanity in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

Partly by accident, but also by design, I’ve developed a way of posting them on social media and here. I take four square photos and then stitch them together with an Instagram app to make a four by four photo which I share then to Instagram (and automatically to Facebook and Twitter). I repeat this three more times, and then stitch the four stitched photos together into a four by sixteen photo. The above stitched photo is today’s offering from my afternoon walk in Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend.

I then add all the individual photos to a Google Photos album, and you can see the ones from today here. I’m particularly pleased how the dandelion shot turned out, I spotted it in a ray of sunshine that didn’t extend to the background, making it stand out dramatically.

I also took four photos of some fungi on a tree stump that I’ve stitched into a standalone four by four one. Again, you can see all the individual ones here.

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Oh, and even though I concentrated on nature, I was with my family. Here’s the one shot I did take of them (Naomi was taking photos of the children), and I immediately loved it.

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A Year of Us (Naomi Ager)

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Naomi and I have been considering the adverse effect the coronavirus pandemic lockdown can have on couples, especially those (like us) with young children. I posted something to this effect on Facebook today, not because we had fallen out, but because we both recognise that couples need to work harder on their relationships in times of crisis. This is her guest post. Thank you Naomi, I love you.

I saw this book on Amazon and, given the stress we find ourselves under as a family, but more so as a couple in these days of lockdown, I thought engagement in a couple’s journal together might work in some way to deepen our connection and allow us to explore each other and not lose sight of ‘us’.

There’s always something else you can learn about the person you love whether you’ve been together for a week or 60 years. By sitting together each evening to explore the 365 interesting questions laid out in this book, I feel it will give us a beautiful insight into our hopes and dreams, as well as our most desperate needs that perhaps are going by the wayside right now.

I’m personally finding it difficult to do something as simple as engaging in meaningful conversation when the children have gone to bed. But, having explored this book prior to us starting it together, I think it will give us the opportunity to bring up issues whether deep and heartfelt or more whimsical in nature.

In this period of lockdown, it’s more important than ever to maintain healthy discussions as a couple and to ensure important things are openly talked about. Things such as family finance and sex life (for example) and hopes for now and the future when we are eventually released back into the big wide world again.

It’s also important to talk about our hobbies and interests with each other, and in turn to encourage the person we share our lives with and love with the things that interest them. I want to take even more of an interest and have a better understanding of what interests John. So maybe I’ll read up on stars, planets, space and the universe or listen to one of his weird and wonderful music albums.

Making time to talk about our interests outside of homeschooling the children and general survival at this time, in my opinion, can only solidify the foundation of our relationship and improve life massively, especially whilst living under such pressure.

I plan to share a lot of the daily questions with my friends on Facebook, so they too can sit with their other half, turn off the television, put pen to paper and learn a little more about each other.

Therapeutic Nature

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I’ve had a couple of bad days in lockdown, but after getting our children into bed I was able to enjoy nature just a couple of hundred yards from our house while I walked the dog – and it did me the world of good.

Looking closely at nature and capturing its essence in the evening light, all on my smartphone. That’s all you need, although a steady hand also helps. The above photo is a composite of the photos I took, you can see them all here. As they say, nature is cheaper than therapy. Next time you’re out for a walk (with or without a smartphone) look closely.

Companion piece: Morning walk in the early light

Note: all photos unedited except one to reduce brightness slightly.