Updated: Oct 21
What I learned from the most important women in my life, and how the story you tell yourself about loss shapes your reality.
I remember the first time I was asked who my inspiration was. I was only 17. Some 90’s corporate team building exercise. To be honest, coming from a small village with little exposure to anything remotely linked to “personal development” I felt really intimidated by this question. That’s probably why I still remember it so well. Whilst others reeled off famous names and impressive quotes, all I could think of was my Nan.
Phyllis Ruby Joan. She was such a character. Her name sounds quite cool now, but she just liked to be known as Joan.
I would characterise my Nan as an Adventurer. In the 70’s and 80’s my grandparents visited places most people would never dream of going back then. Global travel was relatively new, countries weren’t as open to tourists and money was tight. They visited over 30 countries together, including Thailand, Russia, Japan, China, Egypt, Israel, Nepal and even Greenland! It was so exciting as a child to hear their tales and see photos and videos of unfamiliar lands.
Her day job was pretty normal, working in a warehouse for a stationery company. I had the most amazing pen & pencil collection, perhaps that’s where my love of stationery and writing was born… But outside of that she had a zest for life and loved to try new things. She got a moped. Made her own easter eggs. She had the latest knitting machine. A remote control for the curtains. The spare bedrooms full of experimental grapevines and orchids. She dealt antiques. She had a love of gambling, from entering every single competition in piles of magazines to the slot machines of Vegas. She was 100% convinced she was going to win big. She never did.
We lost Nan 8 years ago.
She’d been in a lot of pain for years. One botched operation after another. A stream of related health conditions. Ever increasing doses of painkillers seen as the solution to the point where if she tried to cut down, it nearly killed her. And then cancer.
But she never complained. Ever. She had the most amazing positive attitude and such a vivid imagination, that even when she ended up confined to her armchair, with a body that wouldn’t do what she wanted, she was still going on adventures in her mind. Dreaming of what she was going to do when she felt better. The trips she would go on, the places she still wanted to see, the new self-sufficient life in Spain she was going to create. Even when she got rushed to a Spanish hospital in severe pain after trying to reduce her painkillers, she told me how she’d seen a lovely area to live in from the ambulance window and went back later to check it out!
This determined, strong, young at heart, ever hopeful woman got up every day, put on her make up and her favourite “bling” (think bright colours, glitter and gold) and embraced what she had. Even though she knew she could only sit in her armchair.
And then there was my Mum. Similar in nature, but more subtle.
She too had a sense of adventure, but her world was a bit smaller, her dreams more tentative.
My childhood was spent enjoying the freedom that growing up in a village brought in the 70’s. My parents both worked day and night and I often looked after my younger brother. Although mum worked extremely hard, she always had time to take us on an adventure, along with many of the other kids in the village.
We’d go on long bike rides, frequently getting lost because we didn’t really plan where we were going. We’d sit on hillsides with a picnic working out where our dream house would be built when we were rich. We’d get chased by horses, cows and farmers when we ventured into the wrong field. We were highly trained in spotting and retrieving suitable trees for firewood or useful items from the unofficial “tip”. Our favourite haul was a consignment of wooden tennis rackets and a rather nice crystal serving dish. That dish is still in the cupboard and I still can’t pass a fallen tree without thinking “oh that would make a good bit of firewood”.
We were always looking for ways to earn money. This came in the form of “golf balling” (where you trawl the golf course for lost balls and sell them back to the owners) , hand pulling wild oats out of cereal fields for farmers (rouging) , and helping Mum in her cleaning job (I’m very good at cleaning brass). We were pretty resourceful!
We always had an annual camping holiday, usually to Devon, and packing 4 people, 2 tents and camping equipment into a Robin Reliant was a fine art, and an experience we’ll never forget (and for those of you who don’t know what a Robin Reliant is, think the yellow 3 wheeled van out of Only Fools & Horses).
My childhood gave me fun, freedom and stability. I learned to be self-sufficient, hard-working and grateful.
Mum died suddenly last year. She was only 68.
She was on holiday in Spain, her favourite place. We got to see her when she was on life support, it was a shock. But the truth is I started to lose her 2 years earlier after a series of strokes took away her health and her spirit. Her spark had long gone.
And now for the lessons.
“Be the things you loved the most about the people who are gone”
Both my Nan and Mum had an adventurous spirit.
My Nan was an expansive thinker, with no limits. She would still be galivanting (her words) around the world trying to cross off a never-ending bucket list if her body had let her. Mum was more practical, preferring small moments of fun and silliness and the comfort of her family and friends.
Mum told me I’d do well to get a job in the supermarket. Nan told me I should be abroad doing something amazing.
Mum instilled in me a good work ethic and a real empathy for others. Nan encouraged me to ditch the norm and reach for more.
Both of them had an infectious sense of humour and an ability to laugh at absolutely nothing. I’ve lost count of the times we all ended up snorting and crying with laughter in some of the most serious, inappropriate situations.
So, I got to take the best of both. I’ve always had a belief I’m meant for more. I have big dreams and won’t settle. I remain resilient and positive, despite life dealing me more than my fair share of challenges lately. I’m driven, focused and self-motivated. I’m always learning and connecting with new people. I invest in friendships. I’m supportive, compassionate and loyal.
And the laughs? If I’m honest it’s been a long time since I’ve felt enough joy to honour the sense of humour they blessed me with. Some of my friends may disagree that being dry, sarcastic and generally socially inappropriate is a blessing and be grateful for the time out (LOL) but I know that’s grief, and I’m just going through it rather than around it, and that’s OK. The sadness will lift.
If you’re supporting someone who is dealing with the loss of someone or something special to them, remember this.
We don’t need advice. We don’t need to be told to “pull yourself together” and that “they had a good innings” or that “time will heal”. It’s not that we don’t know this, but we don’t quite believe it yet, and we are struggling with a shift in our identity. We’ll be back soon, maybe not quite the same, but be patient.
And what’s an Armchair Adventurer?
Your imagination is one of the most powerful tools you have, yet it must be used with a positive mindset or it just becomes anxiety.
The story we tell ourselves about our life is key to happiness, or at least, when that seems too distant, coping with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s up to you how you choose to see the world, how you show up in it, and how you keep your dreams alive.
My Nan chose to be an Armchair Adventurer, right to the very end.
Now more than ever when meeting In Real Life is a novelty, when freedom is restricted, when loss is hitting harder, we could all do with a bit of adventure, even if it’s only in our dreams. Just for now.
The type of loss you experience when you lose such strong women in your life is hard to put into words. It’s like becoming orphaned, like part of your past has gone missing forever. All the questions you didn’t know you wanted to ask flood your mind. Their struggles and sacrifice become glaringly obvious and you wish you could just tell them they did OK. They were loved and appreciated. They were good enough.
So, I wrote this poem for them. And for anyone else who needs it. I think these simple words are enough. Don’t you?
That’s the Rules
Why did you have to go so soon?
Life can be so cruel
I know that people come and go
We all know that’s the rules
Grief is such a lonely place. The loss is hard to bear
One day I know I’ll have to face
That you’re no longer there
Time heals they say. Let it go. Learn the lesson
But it doesn’t lessen
The feelings of sadness and despair
People come and go
We all know that’s the rules
So how do I stay strong and grow
When life seems to be so cruel?
The good the bad, the happy the sad, it’s all part of life’s plan
I know it’s up to me to live the best life that I can
So, what story shall I tell myself?
That life’s hard? Unfair? Or sad?
Or shall I believe it’s meant to be and embrace what I still have
Life doesn’t always go the way, we planned out in our head
It gives and takes and twists and turns
Down different paths instead
So, I choose to live on your behalf, and remember you with care
Keeping with me in my heart
All the memories we shared
Every day I’ll do my best
To get through all the pain
And live the best life that I can
Until we meet again
That’s the rules.