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August is the month my life changed

I’m writing this in mid-August.

August is the month my life changed - 13 years ago.

I was a happy and fulfilled working mum, – juggling a satisfying career with bringing up 3 boys, which was stressful at times, but I was managing fine.

I work on a freelance basis and always took August off to spend time with the children during the summer holidays. That August we had been camping in a very wet and muddy Devon and had returned to the mad rush of getting all the back-to-school stuff sorted before I flew off to cover a conference. Joe (11), my eldest, was starting secondary school, so there was lots of new uniform, sports kit, etc, to purchase. I was running around sorting everything out as was my norm.

Then, wham. The day that changed everything. Joe died. He had an out the blue, completely unexpected, asthma attack and literally fell down dead.

My life also stopped that day. How do you move forward after something like that? I didn’t know. I was paralysed by grief. I was a complete wreck. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t stop crying. Making a cup of tea was an enormous challenge. How could I possibly look after my two younger sons who were 7 and 8, cope with my grief, and their grief, earn a living. How could I even stay alive in a world without Joe? He was such a kind and sensitive child. He was turning into a wonderfully emotionally-intelligent young man. He was my best friend and a fantastic big brother to Jack and Ben. I didn’t want to live without him. The mountain ahead was just too enormous, and I didn’t have the energy or the inclination to try and climb it.

It’s now 13 years later. How did that happen? I’m honestly not sure. I can’t remember a lot about the first year or two. I know I was very dysfunctional. I couldn’t work, so I didn’t. I didn’t care that we didn’t have any money and the bills were piling up. I somehow managed to do the do the basics for my other two boys, in between long bouts of painful tears.

Finding TCF was an absolute Godsend for me. Friends and family didn’t know what to do with me. They couldn’t understand why I was wasn’t “getting better”. I needed to find others who had walked this path – how did they do it? I remember going to my first TCF group meeting. Walking in and seeing all these people who looked normal, they had nice clothes on, and they were LAUGHING with each other. I remember thinking I couldn’t have come to the right place. These couldn’t possibly be bereaved parents. And if they were, they couldn’t have possibly lost a child they loved as much as I loved Joe. But when they started telling their stories I saw their emotion and realized their losses were similar to mine. How on earth were they still here and able to smile?

I came away from that first meeting with some hope – if they could do it, so could I. I felt a little less lost. One of the phrases I heard a lot at TCF meetings was “one day at time” and that became a mantra for me. I got through the next few years one day a time. Just doing the basics. One small task at a time. I would write a list of things I needed to do each day – have a shower, do the grocery shopping, cook dinner, pay a bill, and congratulate myself of achieving each one. Small steps.

Looking back, I believe my life did end on that August day in 2008. But then my new life began. The life I didn’t want and spent the first few years trying not to have. But I had to learn how to live it. And I believe I have learnt how to do that. It still isn’t the life I want but I think I have now accepted that it is the one I have. There are good things in it. I have learnt to enjoy small pleasures, such as a sunny day, a walk in a beautiful place, the company of a good friend. The pain and sadness of losing Joe is still there and always will be, but I seem to have got used to it, and have learnt how to live with it and around it.

Joe is still an enormous part of my life. He occupies more space in my brain than anybody or anything else. But it is not all pain and sadness. There is also my love for him. Huge massive wonderful love. That has not died. If anything, it has become stronger.

So here I am, 13 years on. It’s that time of the year. Facebook is full of family camping trips, and I’m seeing all the “back to school” clobber in the supermarkets. Those things used to tear me apart. But I seem to have developed a tolerance to them now. My other two have grown up and are leaving home. My new life is moving forward, and Joe is there right in the center of it.

TCF is still a big part of my new life. I run a local group in Marlow, Bucks, and we support each other so well. I still cherish the times I spend with my TCF family, who I think are the only people who really understand me. So, thank you TCF for being there in the beginning when I was completely lost and for being a constant reassuring presence as the years go by.

by Sue Hughes, Vice-Chair and Trustee of The Compassionate Friends

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