Winter is a difficult time, but it is just a season. David, our Bereaved Parent Support Coordinator, looks at some of the common ways of considering grief from his personal experience.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really enjoyed winter.

The short days and lack of sunlight seem to drain my energy and while there are opportunities for brisk walks, once you get cold and damp it is hard to enjoy it. A German friend once told me, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes!’ To be honest, I was never entirely convinced.

In the dark days of winter, I begin to long for the first signs of spring … an unexpectedly mild day, or the first appearance of snowdrops giving a promise of warmer days ahead.

We sometimes think of the flow of seasons as a smooth linear progression: winter changes into spring, then summer, autumn and back to winter again. This may be true of some places but it certainly doesn’t represent the weather here in the UK! I vividly recall as a child sheltering in a beach hut in the middle of August watching a hailstorm turn a summer’s day beach scene of deck chairs, buckets and spades into a frozen winter land of ice and freezing winds.

In 2003, our lives were plunged into a cold winter of grief when our middle child, Ben, died suddenly. It seemed like even the simple things took far more energy than usual and our family of five, always so full of fun, laughter and intense activity became a family of four, a place where overwhelming sadness seeped into every aspect of our lives. As the weeks turned to months and the months turned to years, it seemed that something vital had been sucked out of our home. It was just too quiet, too sad.

It was hard to understand what was happening to me and even harder to believe that I could ever be happy again. I’d learned about the ‘stages of grief’: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, but I didn’t find this way of thinking about it in the slightest bit useful. It simply didn’t correspond to my experience as I seemed to miss some stages out entirely and randomly bounced around from one emotion to another. It was confusing and exhausting, leaving little space for hope that things might one day be different.

Had I thought more about the analogy of seasons, it might have made more sense. Seasons don’t switch from one to the other at the turn of a calendar. A slight thaw is followed by an intense blizzard, and a surprisingly sunny day holds out the promise of spring only to be followed by weeks of cold penetrating rain. Even when there is blossom on the trees and new life all around, a sudden cold snap makes it feel like winter has returned. It’s not linear and it doesn’t follow the prescribed dates on the calendar, but imperceptibly the time does come when you realise that the season has changed, the cold days of winter are behind us and we can begin to put away our hats and gloves.

I remember one event that did give a glimpse of hope was a support day for bereaved parents. It wasn’t necessarily what was said, but the chance to meet other parents who had lost their child or children and had somehow managed to carry on with their lives. On that day, I learned to see grieving in a different way – not as a path we have to walk through until we leave the pain behind, but as a process where the pain of loss is always present, but our lives expand around it. From the point where grief dominates every thought and emotion, I found that I began to have the capacity to manage other things, such as returning to work or taking pleasure from something I had enjoyed in the past. I remember how guilty I felt the first time I laughed out loud; it felt wrong somehow, but there was absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. As the years went on, I discovered that there was space in my life for fun and laughter. We still have ‘Ben days’ – a shorthand we all understand as a day when for whatever reason, we find ourselves remembering our loss and ‘what could have been’ – but even these days are now bittersweet as it reconnects us with Ben. Understanding grief in this way answers those two big questions many bereaved parent have: ‘Will it always hurt like this?’ and ‘I’m frightened I might forget’. It answers both with a very firm, ‘No’. As our lives expand, we find we do have the capacity to enjoy life again. Our grief will always be part of us and we can pick it up and remember our child as though it was yesterday, but our lives have grown and there is space for other things as well.

Many years later I came across a third way of thinking about grief that helped me understand why I seemed to be thrown back, even years later, into the pain and confusion of those early months. It helped me to imagine that there were two places I could be – one focused around my loss and the emotions of losing someone I loved so much, and the other focused around rebuilding my life and beginning to develop a ‘new normal’. Both of these states are equally valid but over time, I found myself spending less time in the grief space and more time in the rebuilding space. The moments where I found myself back in the emotions of those early days were entirely normal and not a failure. Sometimes I could identify a trigger and began to learn to expect and even prepare for those moments, but often they seemed to come out of nowhere. These moments were nothing to be ashamed of, rather they were a welcome reminder of how much I had loved.

One thing we do know about the seasons is that however erratic they feel at the time, the time will come when we find ourselves in summer again. Looking back on those darkest days, I wish I’d known that summer would come, that the time would come when life would be full and rich and fruitful again. Winter has passed.

Find out more about our support events for bereaved parents by visiting our bereaved parent support page.

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