Big experiences in challenging circumstances
Hopefully the last few months will be a singularly unique experience for us all, one that we don’t have to experience again. The loss of freedom, services and social contact has, at least for some of us, also brought with it the benefit of a richer relationship with ourselves, a new-found respect for our ability to adapt and an awareness of just how much we take for granted in terms of our privileges like hanging out with our loved ones, doing our shopping when we want to or seeing the doctor when we need to.
For some of us, we’ve also had additional challenges that will forever be defined by the context of lockdown. This could be contracting COVID-19 or having medical treatment for other conditions put on hold because of the virus. Some have had big life events like childbirth take place in a vastly different way from what we’re used to and then there are those of us who have lost a loved one during this time. It is my sense that having had such experiences in the context of lockdown has impacted these ‘bigger’ experiences in ways that would have been impossible to imagine without the lived reality that we have now come through.
Grieving in lockdown
My dearest friend Jenny Wade died at the end of April. It was sudden and unexpected and not COVID-19 related. She was 49 years old, a few months older than I am. Jen as she was called by her nearest and dearest, had come to the First Aid Kit for Feelings workshop in May 2015. In her video testimonial at the end of the day, she said, in a very ‘un-British’ way, that she liked me and wanted to meet up for a meal. I was game and we met up a few days later, at the Peacock’s Tearooms in Ely. This was the start of a beautiful friendship. We shared a delight in living our lives with intention and at times searing honesty. We had the trust and kindness to be the mirror the other one needed in order to see ‘the back of our own heads’ and the behaviour patterns we kept tripping over, as well as our strengths and glories. All this was done with delight, humour and sensitivity, as well as love and with the sole purpose of helping each other grow.
As I was setting up the social enterprise that became The Helpful Clinic at the time we met, she was keen to get involved and took her seat in the Advisory Group right from the first meeting. She was a leadership consultant and trainer, which was invaluable for a fledgling clinic. Over the years she helped steer and shape the Helpful mission and she was a staunch advocate of both the clinic and the mission. She was one of the facilitators at the Helpful Impactathon in January. Here she shares with us her take on the day:
As her funeral took place during the ‘depths’ of lockdown, only a handful of her nearest and dearest were able to attend. I was in contact with a couple of her friends that I know and between us we supported each other through messages and contact to help make sense of what had happened and that we were all processing this experience and coming to terms with it in solitude. We deliberately took the day off and celebrated Jen and her presence in our lives in our own ways. I lit candles, browsed through my album with her photos and videos and watched a Sadlers Wells dance production. She was a big fan of Sadlers Wells and going the theatre and so it felt apt to connect with her in this way.
I feel lucky that in our last Skype conversation we had been laughing about how much we enjoyed each other and what a privilege it was to have such a loving and solid friendship. I have a lot of photos and videos of her from all her work with the clinic and it has been helpful for me to connect with her by looking at those. There’s also been nourishing contact with her husband, friends and family which has helped us all as we’re grieving in such solitude and unfamiliar circumstances.
In many ways I feel that I’ve been able to adapt my grieving and tend to my loss well within the restrictions of lockdown but in one significant and subtle way, I have not and that’s in terms of touch. The absence of casual touch and contact that we have when we come together to grieve and reminisce has been so difficult to deal with. It’s both in terms of hugs and those more deliberate touches but also that light touch on the shoulder as someone walks past to put the kettle on. It has been surprising to me to notice just how big the impact of not having that actual physical contact has been.
Even though I knew her for just shy of five years, she had a profound impact on my life as she so quickly became one of my closest and dearest friends. Writing this blog is a way of honouring her presence in my life as well as her contribution and legacy for The Helpful Clinic.
Here are her three tips that I’ll remember her by.
LIVE the LIFE you LOVE
This was Jen’s maxim and she had this phrase framed in her kitchen. She was deliberate in her activities and how she chose to live her day, who she spent time with and to unapologetically live her life on her own terms. She would make choices based on whether it would move her closer to the life she loved or not. It wasn’t that it was always easy or clear or that she didn’t at times compromise, but this was her guiding principle so to speak and one that we shared.
You know you’re gonna be alright, right?
She had a habit of putting the word ‘right?’ at the end of her sentences with that inflection that denotes a question. You can even hear it in the video earlier on in this blog. Her confidence in my ability to find my way through whatever challenges I was facing was reassuring and so straightforward that it cut through doubts and overwhelm and helped me reconnect with my more resourceful self where I also know this to be true. We all need someone to remind us of this when we disconnect from this knowing.
Selection and maintenance of the aim
If I remember correctly, she’d picked up this phrase when delivering leadership training at Sandhurst Military Academy. This phrase cuts through to the key question of what’s the actual aim here. Then once the aim is set you can bring in or take out choices and actions as needed. She often challenged me when make decisions for the clinic to make sure that what I was thinking and doing was aligned to the ultimate aim of Improving Health and Wellbeing through increased Health and Emotional Literacy.
Creating the Jen in me
As she is no longer here for me to hang out with, engage with and reach out to, I am now actively developing and integrating my own version of Jen, in me. I frequently have imaginary conversations with her and hear her wisdom echo in my own mind. My memory of her grounds me in what I know of her and I feel the strength of the bond we build between us. With her in my mind and in my heart I lean into trust, both my own trust and her trust in me.
I’m ok enough…
Last Christmas, everyone in the Helpful crew got this puzzle for Christmas. Jen was a puzzle fiend and she was definitely the first one out of the starting blocks when it came to actually doing the puzzle. Here’s her photo of the progress she’d made. This was one of her favourite Helpful phrases.
To everyone who’s struggled with significant experiences of loss and gain throughout the last few months, my heart is with you as you find your way through and forward.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor