My 9 Grief ‘Top and Not’ Tips…

On Monday, the 2nd of March, it would be Ned’s 9th birthday. I find it difficult to comprehend. Four years without him seems impossible.

As I’ve said many times during the last four years, writing blog posts about my journey with grief has helped me to try to make some sense of the swirling storm of thoughts in my head. So to honour Ned’s 9th birthday, I thought I’d write a blog about what has helped me, and continues to help me following Ned’s death. And on the flip side, what hasn’t helped/doesn’t help.

I still find a reluctancy to talk about grief and that it’s preferred to avoid the subject, or steer conversation away from it. I feel strongly about opening up to grief, sharing experiences, connecting, because grief is a very frightening place to try to navigate alone.

Once grief strikes, it becomes a part of you, it never goes away. It’s a lifelong journey. Some of my ‘tips’ refer specifically to the early days of my grief, others to the continuous journey, the right now. I hope they help, in some small way, those who find themselves needing to support a grieving person. Supporting a grieving person is tough and at times you’ll get it wrong, but that’s ok because it means you’re trying.

My ‘tips’ are numbered but they are not in any order of importance – they are of equal importance to me. And as grief is something so very individual, these are my ‘tips’, they’re the things that have affected my grief.

 

9 ‘Top’ Tips:

#1 (Early days) Having close friends and family in the house. I couldn’t bear silence. I needed there to be noise in the background. I needed there to be life. I couldn’t really face the visitors who came to offer their condolences, but whilst I lay on Ned’s bed, I needed there to be noise in the background.

#2 (Early days) Helping with Tomi and Cai, my two other sons. I could barely function, so those friends who took Tomi to their houses, or came over to play with them, were a godsend. Distraction was so important in those first weeks, especially for 8-year-old Tomi. They needed normality and I couldn’t give them that.

#3 (Early days) Bringing food. It really was appreciated. I didn’t know what day of the week it was, let alone be able to think about cooking a meal.

#4 (Early days) Helping with housework. Washing clothes. Loading the dishwasher. Small things that are huge in those first weeks.

#5 (Early days) Getting professional support for me. A friend managed, despite it being Easter weekend, to get in contact with my GP, who then came to the house. I can still remember the relief I felt seeing her walk into the house the day after Ned died. Here was someone I trusted, someone I knew would try to help me.

#6 Talking about Ned. Sharing memories and stories with me. Bringing me letters/pictures from his friends – they mean so very much to me. Telling me that Ned will always be in your hearts and never forgotten.

#7 Friends who text just to let me know they’re thinking of us. Friends who have no expectations, but simply keep in touch.

#8 Close friends who listen without judgement, who show understanding and empathy, who have shown me over and over how much they care. Even when they haven’t known what to say or do, when they’ve had to face me in my darkest moments, they have never turned their backs on me. They have been with me every step of the way.

#9 Finding the right therapist. I feel so very lucky to have landed on my therapist’s doorstep. She has kept me here, kept me battling, kept me moving forward.

 

9 ‘Not’ Tips:

#1 Staying away – I understand that coming here isn’t easy (especially in those early weeks/months), but staying away hurts. I have people who were a part of my life, who knew Ned, who have just disappeared. No contact at all. It has hurt deeply. And to be bluntly honest, I can’t take any more hurt.

#2 Avoiding me/crossing to the other side of the road. You don’t have to stop and chat. If you don’t know what to say, it’s fine. A smile and a hello is enough.

#3 Relying on me to turn to you for help. Most of the time, I can’t. Some days, everything is too much. Saying, ‘Call if you need me,’ is too much to ask of me. Or, ‘I’m here if you need me.’ When I’m completely overwhelmed by grief, I don’t know where anyone is. A ‘I’ll text you next week’ or similar is so different. And keep sending these little reminders. Don’t give up on me.

#4 Changing the subject when I talk about Ned. I want to talk about Ned, of course I do. He’s my little boy. If I cry, that’s ok. I’m hurting so much, but it’s the grief that’s hurting me, not you.

#5 Making flippant statements – telling me that I should be better by now, that I have to get on with life, that lots of people have lost children, that I have to suck up the pain, that I have to move on, that I’m not trying hard enough, that I’m not the only one who has lost someone, that I’m being over-emotional, that I’m attention-seeking, that I’m lucky I have two other children. I have had all these statements said to me, and many more, and believe me, all they do is knock me back down. I’m trying. It may not look like it to you, but the daily battle takes everything I have.

#6 (This one is very personal to me, but may be something others have experienced) Making comments on my appearance, specifically my weight. I couldn’t eat for weeks after Ned died, I was having perhaps half a slice of toast a day, if that. And yet I had some people say, ‘You’ve lost weight. You look better for it.’ I’m now on very high dosages of medication, my eating is all over the place, that initial weight loss has been re-gained, and a lot more too. I know this, I don’t need to be told.

#7 Not being held. I have spent so much time curled up with no one holding me, to give me that sense of being grounded, of not being alone. At times, when I’m falling apart, crying uncontrollably, I just want to be held.

#8 Stopping conversations when I’m near. It’s ok. Life goes on around me. Your lives go on. It’s not a secret. I’m ok hearing about things you’ve been up to. I’m ok hearing you laugh. It helps me feel normal in a world that doesn’t make much sense.

#9 Not really listening – my voice is small, don’t overpower me. I’m overwhelmed as it is. If I say ‘no, not right now’ I’m not trying to cause offence, I’m simply unable to do what you’re asking of me. Please acknowledge that and try to understand. I may feel differently in a week/month/six months. Keep checking in.

 

That’s it. I hope someone reading this post will gain something from doing so because supporting a grieving person may be one of the most important things you do in your life.

 

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Accepting Me

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, I’ve never really seen the point. But I do always have a think about what I would like to achieve during the year ahead.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot more than usual as we’ve entered this new decade. I’ve had a notebook on my lap, ready to write a list of my hopes for this coming year. The page remains blank. There’s just one thing that keeps coming into my head…

I want to start liking myself.

Some of you reading may not understand this statement, or you might think that it’s a cliched comment. Others may fully understand it because please believe me when I say it’s very real.

Over the past two and a half years I’ve been seeing a psychologist. During these sessions, I’ve come to understand just how much other people have had an impact on the way I see myself, from my childhood right up to today. Their actions are deeply embedded and have shaped my perception of who I am, and it’s very difficult to change this, to ‘unbelieve’ that these perceptions may not all be accurate.

I’ve spoken openly on here about being bullied during my teenage years, which not only had a huge impact on my behaviour at the time, but continues to do so. I hated the way I looked as a teenager because of the cruel words that were thrown at me – ‘fatty’, ‘tree trunk legs’, ‘ugly’. That loathing of my body-image has lived on in. I get paranoid that I must just be seeking attention, but when I look in the mirror, I hear the teasing taunts from my Secondary School days. I relive moments of humiliation and shame e.g one of the girls caught me doodling the name of a boy I had a teenage crush on (as does every teenager). She snatched it from me, laughing, ‘Oh my god! As if he would ever look at you!’. This wasn’t enough for her, she then told the older boy in front of everyone as he passed us in the corridor, ‘Hey ****, Sharon fancies you! She actually thinks you’d look at her.’ That feeling of being humiliated still washes over me and makes me want to crawl out of my skin.

I developed very unhealthy coping behaviours during my teenage years – I would binge eat after school and make myself throw it back up, then feel disgusted and ashamed.

That feeling of wanting to crawl out of my skin and disappear, it lives with me. I have social anxiety. I want to hide away at home. I don’t want people to see me. I don’t want people to have to be in my company.

I was a Primary School teacher for 13 years. It was a job I loved at the start, but the immense pressure of giving the job everything I had but it never being good enough whittled away what little self-confidence and self-esteem I had. The last couple of years of my career were hell. I drove to work crying every morning and cried myself to sleep every night. I came to completely doubt my ability to teach. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right and felt utterly worthless.

During this time, I was treated negatively by family members – ignored, belittled, mocked. Without going into detail, by the end of 2014, I didn’t want to exist anymore – it was the only way I could see to end the mental torture. I hated myself so much I couldn’t bear to be me.

But I’m still here because I’m a mam. Thinking about my boys pushed me through my GP’s door and say, ‘I don’t feel right.’ And as the tears fell, the words poured out too.

I started taking medication and saw my GP regularly. I slowly started to feel better. And then something wonderful happened – I got a publishing deal for the children’s book I had written. This was my absolute dream come true. I eventually made the decision to end my career as a teacher. Financially we would struggle, but for my own mental health, it was the only option.

No sooner than this decision had been made and I was starting to feel like me again, looking forward to the future, my whole world shattered. I lost my little boy, Ned.

When Ned died, I lost every sense of who I am. I blamed myself. If I’d been a good mam, this would never have happened.

When you lose a child, the you before no longer exists. You feel like you have no purpose. There is no reason for you being. I felt that everyone would be better off without me in their lives. I felt a burden on my friends. I felt that my husband and boys would be happier without me.

Having therapy has helped so much with these feelings and I’m certainly in a much better place than I was when I first walked into my psychologist’s room in August, 2017.

But I still don’t like myself. I understand that the years of other people’s actions towards me have affected me deeply, but despite this understanding, it’s a huge challenge for me to think differently about myself because I don’t believe it; I don’t believe that I’m not this person that I see as myself. So that’s my one hope for this year – that somehow, I can start to like and accept who I am.

How am I going to do this? I continue to have the support of my wonderful therapist for now, but to fully move forward, I need to be able to do this alone.

So I’ve come up with four things that I want to ‘work’ on. I don’t know whether trying to achieve these things will help, but they certainly feel like the right changes.

  1. ‘Me time’ – I don’t allow myself to have time that’s just for me. I feel guilty using time on myself. I don’t feel like I deserve it. But I know that I need this time. At times I feel desperate to have time alone doing something that I enjoy. But I push it away. I should be working or looking after my boys. That’s my purpose. But I’m slowly learning to accept that I have to have this time to relax – go for a coffee with a friend or sit reading. I need to learn how to be a little bit kinder on myself I suppose.
  2. Being an author – that’s my career now. As with any job, I need working hours. It’s not a ‘nice little hobby’ as some have referred to it, it’s my work. Yes, I love writing and feel lucky that I get to write as my job. But it is that, my job. I aim to be a lot more productive this year, stricter with my writing time. I would like to do more author visits to schools. This isn’t me being hard on myself. I want to make a success of being an author.
  3. Running – I know that running will help with my confidence and self-image. Last year I didn’t allow running to have the importance it should have in my life. I allowed it to be pushed aside. It was easy to say that I just didn’t have enough time to go for a run. I allowed everything else to come first, which has had a negative impact on me. Running makes me feel better. My husband rows and always makes time for his rowing. It’s an important part of his week. He’s disciplined and focused and I can see the way rowing has a positive impact on his mental health. I need to learn to give running this same importance in my life.
  4. Form new friendships – This is a tough one. I’ve lost friends since losing Ned, and I find it very difficult to accept that anyone would want to spend time with me. I have a couple of close friends who I know will be with me always, but maybe there are other people who I can start calling friends. Having social anxiety is a huge hurdle, but I’m not thinking about going out socialising in a large group of people – that isn’t me. But maybe I can nurture a handful of new friendships.

So there it is, my one hope for 2020. Will I achieve it? Will I end the year liking myself a little bit more? I hope so, because I think if I like myself, then I’ll finally find some peace. If I can achieve the four things I’ve outlined then I’m pretty sure that I’ll feel like a better person and if I feel like a better person, maybe I’ll start to see myself differently. It’s going to be a huge challenge for me, but I’m going to give it my best.

 

 

 

 

A Grieving Parent at Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year … but not for you. It’s one of the worst. Christmas is displayed as soon as the warm rays of summer begin to fade. You walk around trying not to see the shiny decorations and gift offers that crowd in on you. It can’t be that time again, not so soon.

You try not to listen as friends chat about their plans for the holidays. You see photos of friends and family, out celebrating at parties, and vaguely remember a time when you would have been included. Everywhere, you see smiling families. Your mind fills with happy Christmases … Christmases like you used to have.

You hurt – it’s a heavy ache in the pit of your stomach and a crushing pain on your heart. You feel guilty for not feeling any ‘festive cheer’. You berate yourself, tell yourself to make more of an effort, just try for goodness’ sake. You try to do what you think you should be doing, but it gets too much. You want to hide away, curl up under the duvet, hibernate ’till Spring flowers start to bloom.

You paste on a smile and carry your hurt because your children deserve the magic of Christmas. You go to the school concert and imagine him standing on the stage next to his friends. You visit Santa’s Grotto and make a silent wish, the one you can’t stop yourself from making every year … please bring him back.

You wander around the shops looking for gifts but can only think about what would he have wanted. What would he like now? What would his interests be? You leave quickly, empty-handed. You shop online, in the safety of home.

You decorate the house with the children and delight at their smiling excitement, yet feel a deep sadness at the same time. You place his special bauble carefully on the tree.

You lay his stocking gently on his pillow; you can’t leave it in the Christmas box, it’s not right. You check his bed on Christmas morning, just in case…

You smile and laugh as the children open their presents in a chorus of ‘Look what I got!’ You pull the cracker and wear the silly hat. You play games and watch a film.

You visit his grave and whisper ‘Happy Christmas’, then with grief’s gravity heavy, go home and light the red candle and remember as you gaze at the flickering flame. You remember the way he unwrapped each present slowly and carefully, his big brother emerging from his own mountain of paper urging him to hurry up, to open them quicker. You remember the way he worried about Rudolph and needed reassurance that the other reindeer were kind to him. You remember being whole.

You finally get to bed exhausted and let the tears fall silently in the darkness.

You hurt so very much, but still you smiled and you laughed.

You did it.

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Me and My Grief

*Some may find this post upsetting. I speak openly and honestly about my loss and mental illness. If you think that you will find these subjects difficult and distressing, I simply ask that you don’t read on*

For ‘National Grief Awareness Week’, I want to share what I know about grief, since losing my little boy, Ned, in a car crash on Good Friday, 2016. As the title of the post says, this is about my grief. Everyone grieves differently, there is no right or wrong way. This is my story…

Good Friday, March 25th, 2016 

11am: I waved goodbye to my 5-year-old son, Ned, as he set off in the back of his grandmother’s car, to go on an Easter Egg hunt. He smiled his dimpled smile and waved back. That was the last time I saw my little boy alive.

2:50pm: I had been at the hospital with my youngest son (18 months old at the time). He had croup and had been given steroids and an inhaler. My husband rang to tell me that Ned and his grandmother hadn’t arrived at the Easter Egg hunt that morning. There had been an accident on the road and my husband was going to drive along to see if he could find them. ‘Where’s Ned?’ I whispered. I knew. I knew in that second that he had gone. My body temperature dropped. My hands were freezing cold. Everything felt distant. Time felt like it had slowed. I was shivering. Because I knew. I drove to my mother-in-law’s house, hands gripping the steering wheel, tears streaming down my face.

3pm: I saw the flashing blue lights as I turned onto the street. Two police officers were standing on the pavement. I stopped the car and walked up to the policewoman. ‘I’ve lost my little boy. I don’t know where he is.’ They tried to get me to go inside but I knew what they were going to say. ‘Please come inside,’ the kind-looking policewoman said. No. Shaking my head. ‘Where is he? Where’s my little boy?’ There were tears in the policewoman’s eyes. ‘There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry. He’s passed away.’ Screaming and clawing at the ground. Being helped into the house. Struggling to breathe. Needing to get to the hospital to my little boy. The room too hot. Stifling. Suffocating. No. No. No.

7pm: I walked into the hospital room with my husband and the policewoman. My little boy was lying there, looking like he was sleeping. ‘Can I hold him?’ I asked. ‘Sorry, no. He has to have a postmortem,’ was the reply. ‘But he’s hurt. He’s my little boy. Please.’ A shake of the head and an apology. I didn’t understand. ‘He’ll need a light left on. He doesn’t like the dark. He has a nite light. He’s so cold.’ I pulled the blanket up further, tucked it in and kissed him goodnight.

The start of my journey with grief.

On that day, grief slammed into our lives with such force it knocked me off my feet. Three and a half years have passed since that day. I’m here, but I’m not. The person I was died on that day too. I’m different. I’m different because grief is now a part of me. Grief never goes away. It stays with you for the rest of your life. You can’t ignore it. You can’t get rid of it. You have to live with it.

So what do I now know about grief – this ‘thing’ that will be with me for the rest of my life?

These are 8 things that I have learnt about grief; the 8 main ways that my grief has affected me.

  1. Pain – The pain of losing a child is unbearable. I never felt the true meaning of the word ‘unbearable’ until the day I lost Ned. Losing Ned was too much for me to bear. The pain floored me. It had me on my knees. It had me curled up tightly on his bed clutching my stomach. It had me pulling my hair. It had me banging my head against a wall. It had me scratching away at my skin. It had me swallowing too many tablets. I still have times during the day when the pain strikes like a blow to the stomach, taking my breath away.
  2. Tiredness – I couldn’t sleep at all so I was given sleeping tablets. I’m constantly tired. I often fall asleep during the day. I still take medication to help me fall asleep at night. My body is tired. My muscles ache. I have difficulty concentrating for long periods of time. I’m simply bone tired.
  3. Eating – For the first few weeks, I couldn’t eat anything. The sight or smell of food made my stomach churn. I couldn’t swallow food. It lodged in my throat till I coughed it back up. I still don’t eat ‘correctly’. I struggle to eat a proper meal. My eating pattern is all over the place and a pre-existing eating disorder has become very difficult to manage.
  4. Crying – I cried. Endless tears. My heart hurt. I cried till my body ached with the exertion. I still cry. There isn’t a day that has passed that I haven’t cried.
  5. Memory loss – I remember the first couple of weeks after losing Ned, but then it all becomes hazy. About 18 months of almost nothing. I have recollections/memories of moments during those months, but mostly it’s nothing. I can’t remember. I still struggle with short-term memory loss. I often go blank, unable to remember the right word to use in a sentence. I forget what I did yesterday/last week.
  6. Mental illness – I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety 18 months prior to Ned’s death. His loss has intensified my mental illness. I have PTSD. I suffer with horrific flashbacks of the accident. I am fearful of life. There are many triggers to a panic attack e.g. the sound of a siren. My ‘fight-or-flight’ response is always on high alert.
  7. Social anxiety – I quickly became very isolated. I didn’t want to leave the house. I felt safe at home. I couldn’t face people. I couldn’t face life continuing outside my door. I would have severe panic attacks, sometimes to the point of passing out. I am still unable to be in a large group of people and only have a very close circle around me.
  8. Outlook on life – For a long time, I didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t want to live without my little boy. There are things that don’t matter to me anymore. Trivial things. Pointless things. Things that seemed so important before. Not now. I know what really matters to me now. You never get over losing a child. Never. My grief for Ned equals my love for him. It’s immense. I will never stop loving my little boy and therefore I will never stop grieving for him. But I’m learning to live this ‘new’ life, the ‘after’. I’m learning how to live with my grief.

And here are the 8 main things that have helped me get to this point; the 8 things that help me live, day-by-day, with my grief.

  1. Asking for help – During the night of Ned’s death, I sat on his bed staring out at the darkness, whispering, ‘Please help me. Someone, please help me.’ I was so very fortunate that my wonderful GP came to my house the following day. She referred me to the Mental Health Services. I needed professional help. I was placed under the care of the Crisis Team and a psychiatrist. I was, and still am, on high dosages of medication. After 12 months, I was discharged from their services (something I can’t write about here as it’s an ongoing legal matter). I had bereavement counselling for a year through Cruse. My counsellor was fantastic, but I needed more help. I needed help from a mental health professional.
  2. Therapy – Since August, 2017, I have been having weekly therapy with a private psychologist. I have had CBT and am currently undergoing EMDR therapy. I wouldn’t be here today without this therapy, it’s that simple.
  3. Family – my husband and sons are the reason I get up in the morning. My sons deserve the best life I can give them. They not only lost their brother on that day, but they lost me, the Mam I was. The new me is trying to be the best Mam that I can possibly be. And I am still Mam to Ned. He is still as much a part of our family as he ever was. He is still our little boy. He is still Tomi’s and Cai’s brother. There are family members who I no longer have any contact with because they’ve hurt me. They hurt me at a time when I’m hurting more than I could ever hurt. My therapist has helped me see that if the relationship is toxic, we don’t have to have someone in our lives just because they’re ‘family’.
  4. Friends – I’ve lost friends since Ned’s death. They disappeared from my life. I don’t hear from them anymore. They simply chose to leave. I have less than a handful of true friends now; friends who have been by my side every step of this journey, friends who I know will be my side for as long as I live. It’s difficult to form new friendships after the loss of a child. I find that many parents avoid making eye contact with me by the school, they rummage in their pockets as they pass me, eyes cast downward. Some cross the street when they see me coming. It hurts, but that’s their reaction, their choice. I can’t teach each individual person that avoids me, or finds it difficult to be in my company, how to react to my grief. I simply don’t have the energy for that. This is why work such as ‘National Grief Awareness Week’ is so important. This is why it’s so important that those of us who are living with grief speak openly and help to raise awareness, help people to understand.
  5. Writing – Writing has become my lifeline. Having this creative outlet allows me to escape from my life into my imaginary world. Writing helps ease my anxiety, it slows me down, it relaxes me. It also gives me purpose. It gives me structure to my day. I’m a children’s author, and so I need to write books. I sit at my desk after dropping my boys off at school and I write. I enjoy writing. In fact, I love writing.
  6. Running – My therapist has shown me the positive effect exercise has on mental health. She has got me running. It gets me out of the house. It clears my head. It allows me to be in the moment. It tires my body; I sleep better on days when I’ve been out for a run. It has connected me to nature – a connection that I didn’t have before Ned’s death. It has made me love the outdoors. I marvel at the natural world around me. It gives me peace.
  7. Acceptance – I’m learning to accept me as I am now. I’m not the person I was before. I never will be that person again. But that’s ok. I don’t need to be that person. This is who I am now. Some days are still so incredibly difficult, there always will be days like this. But some days are ok.
  8. Grieve – Grieving is natural and unavoidable. I allow myself to feel sad and cry. I allow myself to lie on the bed and be swallowed by memories of my little boy. I allow myself to do what feels right for me e.g. keeping lucky pennies that we find in a jar that we call ‘Ned’s Jar’ because he loved finding coins; lighting a candle on Ned’s birthday and singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.

So that’s it; my grief laid bare. No one else will ever feel my grief because it’s mine. But if I speak out, maybe I can help others to understand better. They won’t feel like I do, but they may start to understand.

Don’t allow others to tell you how you should be grieving. Your grief is yours and you’re the one who has to live with it. And by speaking openly about our experience, maybe we can begin to change things. I have come across awful attitudes over the past 3 years. I have heard dangerous phrases thrown at me, and I say ‘dangerous’ because they’ve come from medical professionals – ‘you’ll get better in time’, ‘you’ll feel better after a year’, ‘you have to get on with life now’, ‘suck it up’, ‘you’re not ill, you’re only grieving’, ‘you have to stop being so emotional’, ‘we can’t help you, we only help people with real mental illness.’

I have had all of these phrases said directly to me. I have been left floundering, suffering, lost. But I’ve been lucky. I have a GP who answered those first whispered pleas for help. I have a therapist who is with me every step of the way. I have friends who are here for me – they don’t always know what to do or say, but they are always here. I have family – my husband and three beautiful boys who I love with every ounce of my being.

I hope that my words will help someone – someone else who is grieving, someone who knows someone who’s grieving or someone who just wants to try to understand grief.

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(Ned Rhys Jones 2011 – 2016)

My Angel

A Magical Month

My second book, ‘Grace-Ella: Witch Camp’, published a little over a month ago. It has been a wonderfully magical month so I thought I would share some of the highlights…

The book launch for ‘Witch Camp’ was on the 28th of September at Waterstones, Aberystwyth. In the days leading up to the launch, I was a bundle of nerves and worries – What if no one turns up? What if no one buys the book? What if my anxiety gets the better of me and I can’t do a reading?

My wobbly worries were far worse with this launch than with my first book. I’m a perfectionist, my own worst critic. I constantly fear letting people down. I was afraid of letting my family and my publishers down.

My first book launch happened 6 months after I lost my little boy, Ned. I was on a huge amount of medication at the time and I felt disconnected to it all. When I think back to that day, it’s like I’m watching someone else. There was a huge crowd at my first launch, the signing queue snaked through the shop and out into the street. It was so very surreal but what grounded me that day was Dad standing close by, a quiet, settling presence in his red coat. I drew strength from knowing that he was there and that he was proud of me.

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I lost my dad suddenly on Easter Saturday, 2017, a year after losing Ned. His reassuring presence wouldn’t be at my second book launch.

(Book launch for ‘Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners’, September, 2016)

 

At 2pm on the day of my second book launch, the children’s section of the shop was bustling. I was touched that so many had come to support me. As I stood in the shop, reading a chapter from ‘Witch Camp’, I kept seeing flashes of red and my mind filled with Dad in his red coat. I stumbled over words, but I did it. I read to the end of the chapter.

And then it was book signing whilst everyone enjoyed cake and a chat. It was lovely. Really lovely. So I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who came – my family, friends and everyone else; you made a difficult day sparkle.

 

The official publication date for my book was the 30th of September. My publishers told me that it had been selected by the Books Council of Wales to be ‘Children’s Book of the Month’ for October. I was absolutely thrilled!

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Not only that, it was their number one best seller for September too!

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I couldn’t have wished for a more magical start. During October, I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of young Grace-Ella fans – at Ysgol Gymraeg, Aberystwyth, Aberystwyth Town Library and Aberaeron Book Festival. It is such a wonderful feeling to see children reading my books and telling me how much they enjoy them. This is why I write for children. There is nothing more magical than seeing that sparkle in a child’s eye and the smile on their face as they talk about my stories.

And there we have it, my magical month. It’s been a whirlwind and a rollercoaster of emotions. Thank you to everyone who has supported me and my book, both online and in ‘real life’. Thank you to my family for supporting me on this journey and my closest friends for picking me up, not giving up on me and for accepting me as I am. Thank you so much to my publishers, Firefly Press, for believing in me.

You all keep me going and keep me chasing my dream. Writing my stories is a lifeline for me and to see my books out there on shelves, being read and enjoyed by children is therapy to my soul.

So what’s in store for this month?

Finish writing ‘Grace-Ella: Book 3’…

 

Ned’s Jacket

I have been so overwhelmed by the response I’ve had to an online plea that I made at the weekend, I’ve decided to write a blog post about it because the experience has taught me something very special…

On Saturday, I was shopping in our local Marks&Spencers with my husband and two sons. I was carrying our coats over my arm. Just before leaving the store, I checked the coats and realised that the blue jacket that my youngest son, Cai wears wasn’t with me. I went into a panic. I couldn’t lose that jacket, it meant the world to me.

A jacket? Meaning the world to me? But it’s just a jacket, you might say.

Yes, a jacket, but not just a jacket. The blue jacket started life as my eldest son, Tomi’s jacket. It was passed down to his little brother Ned. It was worn to school by both and therefore had both names on the inside.

On Good Friday, 2016, Ned, who had just turned 5, died in a horrific car crash. Tomi was 8 years old at the time, and my youngest son, Cai, was 18 months old. Ned’s death has devastated us as a family. We live with a huge Ned-shaped hole in our lives. My husband and I have lost our beautiful, boisterous little boy. Tomi has lost his little brother, his best friend. Cai has lost a big brother that he will never remember.

It took me a very long time to be able to open Ned’s wardrobe and place his clothes into a plastic box. It was sheer anguish; pain so overwhelming that it took me hours. Most of his clothes I had to put away – the pain of seeing them was too raw. But I wanted Cai to have something of Ned’s to wear. I wanted there to be something that connected all 3 of my boys. So I kept the blue jacket out of the box.

A few months ago, Cai turned 5 and started to wear the jacket. I wrote his name inside, alongside Tomi’s and Ned’s. I told him that Ned had worn the jacket as well and he beamed at me. He said he loved the jacket and he loved reading out all their names. Every time I put the jacket on Cai, in my mind, it was Ned giving his little brother a hug. And just as Tomi had looked after his little brother Ned, when he had started school, in  my mind, the jacket came to represent Ned looking after Cai. This might not make any sense to others, but that is what the jacket means to me.

So back to Saturday …

We looked everywhere in the store for the jacket, but couldn’t find it. We asked members of staff on each floor if it had been handed in. Nothing. We left and returned after a couple of hours to ask again if it had been handed in. Still nothing. We searched all over, every rail, under rails, toilets, changing rooms, everywhere we could think of, but there was no sign of the jacket. A member of staff wrote down the details and took my phone number, saying she would phone me if it turned up.

That evening I kept checking my phone – no call. I wrote a post on Facebook and Twitter in the desperate hope that someone local would say that they had found the jacket and had handed it in.

What actually happened is utterly overwhelming…

The post began to be shared hundreds of times. On Twitter, messages started to flood in – strangers showing empathy and understanding and expressing their hope that the jacket would be returned to us. On Sunday morning, we had a message on Facebook to say that a jacket had been handed in at the cafe in M&S.

Before the store opened, Tomi was running a race. During that time a photo of the found jacket was sent to us. My heart sank. It was a different colour – it was pale blue whereas Ned’s jacket was royal blue. It wasn’t the jacket. But we returned to the store at lunch time, as soon as Tomi’s running event had finished, just hoping that it would miraculously be there.

A lovely member of staff told us about the jacket in the cafe. We followed her up to the next floor. We waited whilst she went to the back. She came out of the cafe carrying Ned’s jacket! Cai’s face lit up and he jumped up and down. Tomi smiled. My husband smiled. I smiled. My heart slowed down and my breathing felt easier. I had been so tense all morning. I took a photo of Cai with the jacket to post online and to say thank you to everyone who had shown their support. Cai put the hood on, leaving the arms hanging and said, ‘I’m a superhero in my jacket.’

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Throughout the day, more and more messages had been posted on Twitter. Welsh actor Michael Sheen had tweeted about the jacket, hoping for its safe return. Carol Vorderman tweeted to ask if it had been returned. But not just two famous names, but hundreds of strangers, as well as local people who know us, had taken the story to their hearts. Once I posted that the jacket was back where it belonged, the messages continued to pour in.

A journalist from Wales Online contacted me and asked if he could write a piece about what happened.

I have been completely overwhelmed by the response we’ve had. To see such empathy, kindness, compassion and understanding has been wonderful. The jacket is special to us as a family, and yet the story touched the hearts of so many. It has been truly amazing. It has shown me that there are wonderful people out there; people who took the time to send a message to a stranger; people who took the time to understand why the jacket means so much to us. It has been so very heart-warming.

I still don’t know who found the jacket and handed it in, but I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

As I put the jacket on Cai yesterday morning for school, I imagined him having the biggest hug from the big brother that will never be able to hug him.

 

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From one word to publication … my way.

As writers, we’re all different. There is no one step-by-step guide to writing to fit all. I’m stating the obvious I know. And yet (and I believe I’m speaking for more than just myself here), there is still a tendency amongst writers to compare themselves to others.

I used to do it a lot. I would read tweets from authors celebrating completing their daily 1000 words, or completing a full manuscript in a month, publishing more than one book a year … and I would feel very inadequate and a very large dollop of despair.

Then I learnt to stop. I stopped comparing my way of writing to others and I found what works for me. This is not a ‘how to write a book’ blog, but I wanted to show how learning to not compare myself to other writers has allowed me a refreshing freedom to be the writer that’s me.

We all have a time of day that we know we’re at our best creatively. For me, it’s morning. I can no longer do the really early morning writing that I used to do, but I’m still a morning writer. Once I’ve dropped my boys off at school, I come home and do a quick tidy-up. This is important to me; I can’t settle if I know that the breakfast dishes are still on the table and that there’s a load to go into the washing machine. These little jobs niggle at me so I know I have to get them done first if I want my focus to be solely on my writing. I aim to be at my laptop and ready to go by 10am (that includes having checked emails etc).

Just as I have a preferred time to write, I have a preferred place to write. If I want to get some ‘real’ writing done, I have to be by my desk, in my office, alone in the house, with no noise. I have decorated my office so that it feels like my writing space; a space I enjoy and feel relaxed in.

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Once I’m at my desk with a coffee next to me, I’m ready to go. I don’t set myself daily word count goals. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me. The pressure made my mind go blank and I would stare at a blank screen. The only goal I set is to write – that may be a few words or a few hundred words. Some days there will be no words added to my manuscript. And that’s ok. I can usually tell fairly quickly when it’s going to be a ‘no words written today day’. I don’t berate myself; I settle on the sofa to read, with a notebook next to me for jotting down things as they come to me. For me, it’s all part of the process.

I don’t plot my work in detail. I have a rough idea of what the plot will be and I just get going. I find that the story builds by itself. As I am currently working on a series of books, I do have to revisit the previous books to check on some details, but in general, I let the words spill out and the story to grow and take shape as I go along.

I’m also not a writer who can ‘just get the words down’ so that a first draft is complete. I have to be pretty happy with a chapter before I move on to write the next. Maybe this is a personality trait? I don’t know. I’ve always been a perfectionist and incredibly critical of myself, and just like I can’t settle to write if there are tidying up jobs that need doing in the house, I can’t move on in my draft until I’ve tidied up what I’ve already written. You may be sighing or groaning that you just need to get a first draft written and then start tidying up … like I said at the start, we’re all different and that method doesn’t work for me. Just like an untidy house makes me anxious and fidgety, so too does an untidy manuscript. I’m not talking about polishing to a gleam at this stage, just a wipe over to remove the cobwebs before I feel settled and ready to move on.

And so day by day, word by word, chapter by chapter, I write my story; I write it my way. And I absolutely love it. I wake up looking forward to 10am. I’m relaxed and I enjoy what I’m doing. Of course I have to have some sort of deadline to work towards – what works for me is an estimated deadline to complete a first draft. I take into account school holidays etc and take that pressure away from myself. I keep it realistic for me otherwise I know will buckle and get nothing done.

I’m certain that if I tried to write by following another writer’s rules – setting myself strict word counts; focusing on just getting a first draft written in any way, shape or form and then starting the tidying up, I wouldn’t get to the finish line any quicker. In fact, I don’t think I would get to the finish line at all!

So that’s me. It’s what works for me. It took me a while to discover and work out who me the writer is.

Writing is my lifeline. It’s something I have to do to feel like me. And most important of all, writing makes me happy.

So my simple piece of advice: only you know what works for you so give yourself the freedom to find your own writing you and enjoy!

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Moving Forward…

This week has seen me reach a new milestone in my writing: the cover for my second book, ‘Grace-Ella: Witch Camp’ was revealed. It will publish on the 30th of September this year.

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It has been a long and difficult journey getting to this point; not the journey I had envisaged when I signed the contract for my first book, back in 2015. I don’t want to dwell too much on this, as my aim is to try to write a positive blog post; a post that shows hope.

My first book, ‘Grace-Ella: Spells for Beginners’ published in 2016 with Firefly Press. When I signed that very first publishing contract in 2015, I had finally achieved my dream. I had written a book, and not only that, it was going to be published and my book would be standing on shelves in shops and held in the hands of children. I had done it and I couldn’t have been happier.

For me, the character comes before the plot, and once Grace-Ella had appeared in my imagination, I knew that I would have lots of adventures for her. So it was a double dream for my publishers to tell me that they could see its potential to develop as a series of books. I was beyond excited.

At the time, I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was seeing my GP regularly as well as being on antidepressants. Writing became my lifeline. I began writing ‘Witch Camp’ at the start of 2016. I was off work on sick leave following a hysterectomy and I had made the decision to leave my teaching position for the sake of my mental health. I was starting a new and exciting phase in my life. My depression was lifting. A future as an author beckoned and I was ready to embrace it and determined to hold on to it.

As I said at the start, I’m not going to write in detail about what happened next. But for anyone reading who doesn’t know, my little boy, Ned, died in a car crash on Good Friday, 2016. He was 5 years old.

That new beginning was taken from me. My world crumbled. I was broken.

A year later, on Easter Saturday, 2017, my dad died.

I was living in darkness with absolutely no hope for any kind of future. I was just about clinging on to life for the sake of my sons and my husband.

The turning point came at the start of 2018, six months after I had started to have weekly psychology sessions. For the first time in two years, I opened up the file ‘Witch Camp’ and my mind started to fill with words. Slowly, the words made their way onto the page. It was very much stop-start for a few months but I knew that it was coming back … my  imagination and creativity was re-awakening. I had truly believed that I had lost this part of me for good.

Once again, writing became my lifeline. It gave me purpose, but more than anything, it gave me an escape. Whilst I was writing, I could escape into my imagination and be cocooned from the dark reality of my life.

Towards the end of that year, I had finally finished my story and was able to send it to my editor. I want to say here how truly wonderful my publishers, Firefly Press, have been over the past three years. I have had their continuous support, encouragement and belief. They have kept my dream of writing further adventures for Grace-Ella alive. I’m so very grateful to them, especially my wonderful editor, Janet, who has met up with me on several occasions and shown me such support and kindness – I will never find the right words to convey my gratitude.

And so here I am – my second book only a couple of months away from being published, and starting to write my third.

I appreciate the smallest of things these days. I don’t compare myself to other authors; everyone’s success is unique to them. I know what’s important to me – that my boys see me continue to pursue my dream and not give up; that I can sit at my desk and write; that very soon, there will be two books with my name on them out in the real world, being read by children.

I think it’s so important to remember the real reasons why we do whatever it is we do. I write because I want to escape into my imagination and I want to see children reading my stories. I write because I love to write. It’s important not to lose sight of that and to appreciate and feel proud of every small achievement. I’m guessing it can be easy to continuously move the goalpost and never feel quite satisfied. Yes, it’s good to have drive and ambition but sometimes it’s worth stepping back and thinking why am I really doing this?

I’m no life coach but I do believe in these 5 simple statements:

  • Live in the moment, no one knows what lies around the corner.
  • Do what you want to do today and do it for the right reasons.
  • Find your dream and follow it.
  • Be proud of your achievements, big and small.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up, keep believing in yourself.

 

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Grace-Ella: Book 3…

 

I Run

‘You could give running a go. Don’t put any pressure on yourself, just go outside for a short run. I’m not saying it just because exercise improves mental health, but you might find that you enjoy it. You don’t need to join a running club. It’ll be something you do that’s just for you.’

I tie the laces of my trainers, tears blurring my vision. The waist of my new running leggings digs into the generous folds of my stomach. I stand and tug down my t-shirt self-consciously as the spiteful words from my teenage years fill my head – ‘fatty’, ‘tree trunk legs’, ‘ugly’…

I take deep breaths to slow my breathing, to stop the panic from crashing like a wave over me. I can do this. It’s just a jog, by myself. No one will see me. No one will laugh. No one will call me names.

I open the front door and step outside. I take a few more deep breaths then set off slowly. One mile, I say to myself, and then I’ll stop and get my breath back before returning home. The mile feels endless. I jog, head bowed, watching the never-ending tarmac beneath my feet, willing the one mile beep on my watch to sound…

I stop and hold onto my aching sides. My breathing comes short and sharp. My face burns. Sweat trickles down my spine. My legs feel weak and wobbly. Who am I trying to fool? I’ll never be a runner. I’m overweight and unfit. I think of the women I see from the local running club jogging jauntily, smiling and chatting. How stupid am I. As if I could ever be a runner. As if I could ever be one of them.

My breathing slows enough for me to start back and the stitch in my side eases. I keep going, eyes on the ground, knowing that each step is taking me closer to home where I can wrench these ridiculous clothes off and crawl back under the duvet and let the tears fall.

……………………….

‘It will take time. It’s not easy. Try not to give up. Pace, distance – none of that matters. What matters is that you keep putting your trainers on and going out, just for a little while. Try to trust me on this. It’s about getting you out of the house for a bit and releasing some of those endorphins.’

I tie the laces of my trainers for the second time this week. I open the front door and step outside. I set my running watch; it helps to glance at it, seeing the distance increase. I get to my regular one-mile turning point but don’t stop. I push myself to go to the next telegraph pole, then turn back for home.

The water from the shower soothes. I did it. I actually ran a little bit further today. I never thought I would. I thought that two miles was always going to be my limit.

………………………..

‘5K, that’s fantastic. And you’re enjoying it, in that strange way that we runners enjoy running. It never gets easy, where would be the challenge in that? And we all have our ‘running through treacle’ days. But it does give a bit of a buzz afterwards, even on the ‘bad run’ days.’

I tie the laces of my trainers three times a week. I set my watch and I run.

5k… 10k… 10 miles.

I’ve stuck with it. I set myself a challenge and I’ve done it.

………………………

‘You should try a different route. In fact, I think you should get off the tarmac. Try a trail run, something different. It’s just a suggestion. Have a think about it.’

I tie the laces of my trainers and glance at the clock. I have half an hour. It will take me ten minutes to get there. I fidget nervously and nibble my nails. I haven’t run with anyone before. I won’t be able to speak, I’m too breathless, too much huffing and puffing. I’m going to look ridiculous. I haven’t lost weight. I’m still fat. I’m not a proper runner. Those voices punch again – ‘fat girls don’t do PE’, ‘don’t try for the relay team, we don’t want you picked.’

Why have I agreed to this? I’m ok, running by myself along the same tarmac route. It’s safe, it’s comfortable. A trail run? What if I stumble and make a fool of myself? I know I can run a distance of 10 miles now, but I’m really slow, it’s more of a plod than a run. I shouldn’t have spoken so enthusiastically about running in my therapy sessions. She thinks I’m a better runner than I am. She’s going to be so disappointed. She’ll regret ever suggesting that she come with me on a trail run.

I sit in the car park, the anxiety building. I try to breathe it out before it consumes me. I can apologise when she arrives and say I can’t do it. She’ll understand.

‘Ready? We’ll just run/walk ok? It’ll be fine.’

She sets her watch and starts. There’s no time to explain that I can’t do it. I just follow.

‘Look at him,’ she says, bending down to pick up a little furry caterpillar from the path. ‘Isn’t he lovely.’ She sets him down gently in the grass verge. We keep going – running, walking, chatting a little, taking in the scenery, feeling the autumn sun on my face.

When we get back to the car park I’m breathless and sweating. It was tough, much tougher on my legs than my usual run, but I’ve done it – I’ve run my first ever trail run and I ran alongside another person, a person who I see as a ‘real runner’.

‘You smiled the whole way round you know,’ she says.

………………………………..

My feet beat a steady rhythm, my heart pumps in time with my legs. My mind empties. No crippling flashbacks of the car crash that took my little boy. No unbearable pain making me pull at my hair and bang my head against the wall. No rising panic suffocating me. No taunting voices making me withdraw into my shell. No darkness.

Sheep lift their heads from grazing as I pass and I say hello. A white horse trots to the fence and bows his head regally and I say thank you. Bluebells burst in clusters on the grass verge. The gentle swish of leaves soothes. Birdsong and chirrups echo in the air. The light breeze cools my flushed cheeks.

A Red Kite swoops and glides above me. I think of my little lost Ned and his pet Kite that still lives in the tree at the bottom of our garden, and I finally feel a moment of peace flow through me.

I smile.

I run.

 

To Dad…

It has been two years since you left us. Two years since a huge hole was left in our family.

Mam phoned at 8am on Easter Saturday, 2017.

‘We’ve lost him. He died in his sleep a few hours ago.’

I didn’t understand. You had only been in hospital for a week. I had texted you every night and you had told me that they were getting you sorted out.

I was coming to visit you on Sunday. I couldn’t come during the week. I was too unwell myself. I was trying to get through the week. I was really trying. But the darkness was closing in on me, suffocating me. I was in so much pain and I wanted it to stop. I was ill, Dad, so I couldn’t visit you. I was under the care of the mental health Crisis Team. On Good Friday they called a mental health assessment on me. The psychiatrist and social worker were in the house all day, debating whether or not to section me. They decided to let me stay at home. They knew I needed to be with my boys. I needed to be close to Ned.

I didn’t know how unwell you were. I phoned Mam every day. No one said you were dying. I didn’t know, Dad. I was coming on Sunday but I was too late and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that I didn’t see you that week. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t there, to show you that I was holding on, to tell you that you didn’t have to worry about me.

 

I can’t remember much of the year following my little Ned’s death. I have flashes of images in my head, unordered, jumbled.

I remember that every time you visited in the months that followed you went to the cemetery with your strimmer to ‘tidy the grave and have a little chat with Ned.’ That meant so much to me, but I never told you. I didn’t have the words.

Ned was your little grandson who sat in the little wicker chair next to you when we visited, eating Jaffa Cakes before bedtime. Ned was your little grandson who climbed onto your lap and rummaged in your shirt pocket for the remote for the garage door, ‘the zapper’. Ned was your little grandson who performed his shows for you. Ned was your little grandson who adored you, his Taid.

I wish I had sat down with you and spoken about Ned. I wish we had shared memories of him. I wish I had told you how broken I was. But that was our relationship – a quiet one. No lengthy conversations, but a calm quietness. An understanding with no need for words.

I think of my childhood often lately. I remember our Sunday evening walks to the park, playing mini golf and watching people playing on the bowling green. I remember holidays in the caravan, the evenings spent on the ‘teddy machines’ in the arcades. I remember helping you to build a hutch for my pet rabbits, first Snowy and then Smoky. I remember passing your office every day on my way home from Primary School and waving at you through the window and you waving back. I remember following you to the bedroom when you came home from work. You would empty the loose change from your pockets and I would scrabble about for the half pennies and you would laugh. I remember watching scary films with you, thrilling and terrifying.

In every memory I’m smiling. I was a shy child, painfully so. But when I was with you, just you and me, I didn’t need to worry about having to talk. I didn’t need to worry about anything because when I was with you I was safe and I was happy.

That’s how our relationship continued as I became an adult. You never made demands of me. You were just there.

On Good Friday, 2016, the policewoman uttered three words that destroyed me – ‘He’s passed away.’ I remember being on the ground then suddenly scrambling up, searching for my phone. I phoned you. All I could say was, ‘Dad, please come. Ned’s dead.’

A couple of weeks ago I finally opened up a wound that I’ve been carrying around with me since the day you died. I was with my therapist and I finally said the words that have been torturing me:

‘I made my dad ill. He couldn’t deal with the mental illness and grief that have destroyed me. I didn’t visit him in hospital that last week. Dad died because of me.’

‘NO,’ she answered. ‘NO.’

The tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t look at her but her words filled the room.

‘No. You have to listen to me and you have to believe what I say. Your dad died suddenly of secondary cancer. Yes, he may well have been struggling emotionally – he had lost his precious grandson and he knew that his daughter was suffering the most indescribable pain – but it was the cancer that took your dad. Your dad loved you. Your dad cared deeply for you. But the cancer didn’t. The cancer would have taken your dad even if that horrific accident hadn’t happened and you were 100% well and sitting at his bedside.’

And I finally believe her words, Dad. I’m sorry I couldn’t see you during that week when you were in hospital. But none of us knew how quickly you would leave us. You didn’t suffer. You died peacefully in your sleep and I believe that you have gone to look after Ned for me. Wherever you both are, I know that you’re together.

I know because you’ve always been there for me, Dad. Always.