Our befrienders share some of the hurdles and tripwires they have faced, and how we can care for ourselves as we negotiate them.

In our bereaved parents’ befriending team we have coined a phrase ‘hurdles and tripwires’ to recognise events we go through on this bereavement journey.

There are many days in the calendar which we know will be difficult and come around every year – our child’s birthday, the anniversary of their death, Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. There are also those family events such as weddings, graduations, new babies and other funerals. As bereaved parents we can anticipate these like hurdles coming up in a race, which a runner paces themselves for and prepares to face each time.

Our befriending team have shared their thoughts about some of the hurdles they have ‘jumped’:

Janet:
At both of our daughters’ weddings, I gave a toast to ‘absent friends’ and did a special piece about Peter, saying how much he would have loved to have been there and how much we miss him. I told a little story about each of the girls involving Peter and what he might have said on their wedding day. Both girls also asked for donations for The Brain Tumour Charity in memory of Peter instead of presents.

Jane:
For several years after Ben died, we had an ‘open house’ for a few hours on his birthday. We had tea and cakes and the children often played upstairs together, sometimes with Ben’s toys, sometimes in his bedroom. It was a time when people shared stories about Ben and we felt free to laugh and cry together. We found it not only helped us but helped others who also wanted to recognise his birthday with us.

Philippa and Graeme:
Soon after our son died, we had our other son’s wedding to cope with. We were so happy for him and our lovely daughter-in-law to be, and our hearts were also broken for our son, Jim. How do you be happy and allow the sadness at the same time? Whatever we do, it will be difficult.

For me, the best thing is to admit this uncomfortable reality. Conflicting emotions are very tiring and draining but I think they are better acknowledged than ignored. Best to face it in advance as you prepare: cry and talk as you need to. When the day comes there will likely still be more tears, but hopefully they will feel softer and less choking because you’ve already ‘said hello’ to them and the emotions they represent. Our son Tom did everything he could to ‘bring’ Jim into the wedding – the fact he wasn’t there was not swept under the carpet as an uncomfortable truth but fully acknowledged instead.

Catherine and Nigel:
Our advice around hurdles would be to tell people how you are feeling – what you are finding difficult and what would be helpful. I remember times when I was so hurt about the way people behaved and when they said or did the ‘wrong’ things. But over time I realised that if I haven’t told them how I feel and what I needed, they can’t be expected to automatically know. So be honest with people.

You don’t have to go to something or do something if it is just going to be too hard. Be kind to yourself. If you are only able to go to part of a wedding, stand at the back of a school event (and cry!) or can’t go to a family event that is just too tough – that is OK.

Different family members experience these hurdles differently. Talk to each other, including siblings, and find out what works for you. Remember, pretending a hurdle isn’t there will inevitably result in a stumble; you’re much more likely to jump it if you look it in the eye!

While a runner can prepare for hurdles, sometimes they trip over something they haven’t seen and couldn’t prepare for. Some of our team have reflected on ‘tripwires’ that they have experienced

Rachel:
I recently dropped a card and gift for my god-daughter’s 21st birthday party. Ethan died aged 2 and a half, and now here we were, looking at pictures of my lovely god-daughter whose family we had spent a lot of time with in those early years. I was suddenly struck that of course we wouldn’t be celebrating Ethan’s birthday in this way.
As I drove home, I reflected on how I felt and decided that it is something we need to give thought to. The tripwires never go away but I am kinder to the people involved and to myself these days, resolving to use these experiences to either sit with the uncomfortable feelings or make changes to avoid them next time!

Catherine and Nigel:
It’s hard to think how to better cope with tripwires – other than to recognise that they are going to happen and are painful. Be kind to yourself. I remember after a ‘tripwire’ thinking, ‘why was that so hard?’ and beating myself up about the way that I reacted, but being honest with myself and allowing myself to feel the pain was far more helpful.

Tripwires can be triggered by all our senses: sounds, smells and touch as well as sights. It could be a song on the radio; their favourite food cooking; a simple trip to the supermarket and a sudden jolt that you don’t need to buy certain products; booking a table for a different number of people or their favourite team winning (or losing!). A common tripwire is hearing of another child’s death in the news or seeing a picture of a place they loved or the place they died.

So, how can we handle something which we can’t predict or can’t stop? On one level it’s a silly question – there is nothing we can do. What we can do, though, is choose to take care of ourselves afterwards. As Catherine said, ‘be kind to yourself’ and allow yourself to sit with it for a while without feeling frustrated or angry with yourself. Acknowledge that it has happened and maybe share it with someone else.

Strangely, in time I have found that tripwires can sometimes be met with a smile – it’s another connection with the child we have lost. They will always happen, but with time they do become less frequent and more manageable. We can learn to negotiate them along this unpredictable journey of grief.

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