Monday, 28 October 2013

Reasons to be Cheerful

I had a nasty accident ten days ago.

I was knocked off my bike in town by an unobservant driver, ending up in a dramatic pool of blood in the middle of the road. Broken nose, teardrop fracture to my 7th cervical vertebra, lots of lacerations and bruises, and a fair bit of post-traumatic stress.....

But also many reasons to be cheerful.

1.     It could all have been so much worse. I’m still here. No brain injury (thank you, crash helmet). No spinal cord damage.
2.     The kindness of strangers. I’ve written about this before, and here was living proof of it. Within seconds I was surrounded by passers-by making sure I was alright and got the help I needed. Top of the list of good Samaritans was Tracey Saphier, a nurse on her way home from work, who took charge of the whole scene, making sure I didn’t move, mopping blood out of my eyes, talking to Sue on the phone, checking on ambulance arrival time. Thank you kind people of Liverpool, thank you Tracey. 

3.     Our NHS is great in a crisis. It really is.  Forget the bad press it gets these days.  The ambulance team who got me onto a stretcher and secured my neck; the amazing trauma team in the Royal Liverpool Hospital who checked me out from top to toe in a matter of minutes (while chatting to me about bikes and cycling gear); spinal surgeon Marcus de Matas who took all possible care of my neck fracture; and the staff on Ward 4a who looked after me while I couldn’t move for three days.  I needed their help, and they were there.   

4.      Sue is wonderful in a crisis. She really is. She arrived at the hospital before the ambulance, fed me yoghurt when I couldn’t reach the hospital food, guided me through a psychic meltdown, and now is getting me back on my feet at home. I needed her help, and she was there.  

5.     The love of family and friends. Thank you all for being there, for your kind words and actions, for looking after Sue as well as me.  

6.     My neck brace. My exo-skeleton (non-biologists, google it!) for the next three months. It’s keeping my neck and back safe, and is deeply reassuring.  

7.     Time out. Now I can watch all five seasons of Breaking Bad in one go.  

All of the above (well, maybe not the Breaking Bad bit) are parts of something bigger, something that I haven’t quite worked out but seems profound to me.  For a while there, lying in the road and in hospital, I was in a real mess, completely helpless and utterly dependent on the care of others - something I’m not at all used to. 
And it was OK. In fact more than OK, it was liberating. I didn’t need to try and control my own destiny, it was fine to let go. I could relax.  I felt – no, I knew – that I was in safe hands. 
So, one final reason to be cheerful.

8.     Being alive is wonderful.


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

How long does grief last?

My brother Steve died two months ago. Those of you who’ve been following this blog will know this is a big thing for me, and explains why I haven’t posted for a while.  I’ve been mourning him. Life hasn’t been much fun.  I’ve been trudging through treacle. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning in it. 

But the past couple of weeks are better. An evening in London with Anna and Tom. A long weekend with Sue in Andalucia.  A new grandchild on the horizon. Walking the Bounding Ridge of White Nancy (yes, really – google it) last Saturday. My wellbeing recipes are starting to kick back in. I’m feeling lighter.

So for me, this time round, the worst of my grief lasted six weeks or so.

Which is interesting. The Orthodox Christian tradition is that mourning lasts for 40 days. The soul of the departed is thought to travel around during that time, visiting places of significance in its life. I wonder where Steve’s been visiting: no doubt Dublin, Corbridge, Cambridge and Newport.  I’m sure he’s called in to see us in Liverpool.   

However, as anthropologists tell us, there are many different cultures of mourning. In Victorian Britain, for example, mourning after the death of a sibling was expected to last for 6 months. So maybe I have a while to go yet.

The American Psychiatric Association would have us believe that if grief lasts for more than 2 weeks – that’s not a misprint, not two months or two years but two weeks – then we can be diagnosed with a depressive disorder and offered medical treatment.  So absurd it’s hard to believe, but it’s there in black and white in DSM-5, their current system for classifying mental disorders. 

This is dangerous nonsense.  It may help big pharma to sell more pills, but it stands in the way of realising and accepting our loss. It sanitises sadness. It medicalises this normal part of what it means to be alive, to love.    

A friend’s wife died just over a year ago. He’s beginning to think about going out with other women, but he knows he’s not really ready yet.   Someone told him ‘You should be over your grief by now, you need to see a psychiatrist to sort yourself out’.  He asked me what I thought.

My answer was simple: ‘Absolute rubbish! You’re still grieving. You can’t rush it. Take your time. You’ll know when you’re ready to move on.’

Grief is the price of love.

It drags us down. It drains us of energy. It hurts, physically. As CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, time may be a healer but he’s not a very good anaesthetist. We just have to hang on in there, hide under the duvet and let it wash over us.  Grief lasts as long as it lasts. There’s no timetable, no deadline.  

But then, eventually, one day, it starts to get easier. 

If you are grieving now, I hope that day is not too far away.