Category Archives: Grieving

On becoming a funeral celebrant

Here’s the second update.

There’s no doubt that the death of a loved one, and particularly one as loved as Nicky was,  changes everything. I have written a lot about the family and our grief, about sadness and in recent times our gentle rehabilitation but I haven’t talked about about the wider impact of her death on our lives. I haven’t once mentioned work. Practically too her death changed everything.  I could no longer commute daily to London, I could no longer find (much) meaning in (much of) the media work I have done.  When our lives were eviscerated by Nick’s death all my established perspectives on personal ambition, professional achievement and the pursuit of wealth became like strange derangements. So for both practical and personal reasons I could no longer do what I did.

I should say at this stage that I am grateful to old friends and colleagues who have helped me out with offers of work over the last few months, it’s kept me afloat. Thankyou.

But I needed to find a new thing.  Something that I believed in, and genuinely believed I could be good at. Something that was important, meaningful, and that was inherently of value. Something that employed my love of people, of listening to them and writing about them. Something that deployed my skills and pleasure in recounting stories and my aptitude for organising events. Critically too it had to be something that acknowledged and responded to the events of the last year.  I had to find a positive in something so negative and do something creative and useful with that experience, Nicky asked me to do as much as she died, but at the time I didn’t know what it was.

Simon Smith, Humanist Funeral celebrant, in his suit, in the park.

Simon Smith, Humanist Funeral celebrant, in his suit, in the park.

So, over the last six months then I have been in training to become a Humanist Funeral celebrant and I am now qualified as one of Brighton and Hove’s two funeral celebrants accredited by the British Humanist association.

WTF?

Yes, it’s a strange thing I know, and I am sure there are some raised eyebrows out there,  but believe me, this is the best thing I have ever done. Humanism has for a long time provided a philosophical framework for my beliefs, and when Nicky was dying it was a source of great comfort for both of us.

As a funeral celebrant I will create non religious services for cremations and burials. The training has been brilliant and has allowed me to face up to and understand more about my own and others’ bereavement and grief. I am not troubled by other’s grief, it’s not mine, but it is an honour and a privilege to make my experience of use to others, and to perform the simple and meaningful task of organising a funeral service that celebrates the life of their loved one.  Rituals or  rites of passage are fundamental to our ability to face transitional moments in our lives, they are for the living, not the dead and they should be beautiful, memorable and meaningful. That’s my job. This is part of recovery, to face up to death with a life that acknowledges death for what it is, and makes the best of it.

I am freelance, to get work I am on the BHA website and market myself to Funeral directors as a celebrant. Brighton is of course knee deep in celebrants of one flavour or another, but I am very happy to be specifically  a Humanist one and will I hope, be able to do this until someone is around to provide the same service for me.

In due course I’ll be doing weddings too, that’ll be more fun.

Taking off the grief coat.

It is 16 months since Nicky died. I have shared much of our experience of that, our journey into and through grief and written too about the process of recovery. Recovery. Readjustment. Restoration. There are many words that are helpful here but the one I prefer most is rehabilitation. Learning to live again.

In my last post I hinted at something. ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’. You’ll have to ask a scientist about why this is the case, I’m not equipped to explain, but I know it’s true. I also know that a year ago the space Nicky left in our lives felt like a vacuum.

Now, 16 months on I am amazed and enchanted by the resilience of life, the tenacious way that it has swirled around and scratched at the bell jar of my sadness and found the chink.  Amazing too is the capacity we have for growth, recovery, change, evolution. We humans, we are extraordinary. Really, we are.

There’s two significant updates to come. Here’s the first:

I said a year ago when I bought the big yellow bike that I believed it would be our salvation. In the sweetest way it gives me hope and happiness as we ride around on it. But, beyond that it’s been a catalyst to change. A change of wardrobe if you will.  I am no longer wearing the grief coat quite so much.

The grief coat. I have written about this before. The grief coat hangs about the shoulders of the grieving. Absorbing light and energy it does the opposite of sparkle. I see them on others still,  I recognise the stance, the burden of this heavy vestment.  In Scotland recently I spoke seemingly at random to two strangers, within a minute we had clocked each other’s coats and shared our stories of widowhood. One, a farmer, 20 years alone with two young boys grown up now and fledged, held his life in memorial to a wife who still brought a smile to his face and whose loss a tear to his eye. His eyes betrayed the vulnerability of loneliness and the wisdom of loss. The other a woman, fifty odd, whose life at once upturned a dozen years ago had fled to a farm on Skye to bear her grief. She, by contrast, looked at me and twinkled. “A man came to mend my fences” she said. “He never left”. Stroking the hair of her ten year old lad she said, “I’m so lucky, to have loved not once but twice, lucky”. With that she left. And her grief coat had become an iridescent suit of armour.

When she was dying Nicky said more than once that I should not grieve alone for long. “You’re too good a man to be on your own.” Was what she said. Perhaps what she meant was “You’ll be shit at being on your own.” Either way I hope she had a point.

In early March not long after we gave Nicky’s ashes back to the earth we were
cycling along the sea front on the big yellow bike. Someone yelled out ‘nice bike’, we all returned the look and smiled. Now I’ll spare us all the detail of how we came to actually meet but the ‘nice bike’ yeller recognised us from a picture. Those of you familiar with the practicalities of modern courtship can fill in the gaps. I’ll spare some blushes too.

Now, Don’t get me wrong here. ‘Grief is forever’ I wrote that in the depths of it. I hold to it still. I, we, will alway grieve for Nicky, for what might have been, for the future lost. But I believe now that we the grieving have a choice. We can choose to inhabit the grief coat, to live in it and let become the costume of our lives. (I understand why some might do this, the grief coat becomes strangely comfortable and the bereaved are rightly forgiven a multitude of sins, why give that up?)  Or we can let life back in, let life rush in to fill the vacuum.

France_May_2015_1020836

Arriving back in Newhaven after 3 days in Normandy

I wrote this blog as a means of sharing our recovery as a family. And that is happening, the girls are getting stronger, fitter and funnier.  I am no longer entirely alone. I’ve met a woman who Nicky would have liked, who the kids like, who makes me laugh and does the things I like to do. I feel stronger and happier, and I am a better Dad. We have all been camping together, and we cycle together and even combined the two. We can laugh about that.

A few of you have met Rona, some even know that she’s become a significant other. I think you’ll agree she’s good for me. Gentle, wise and kind. I built bridges for Nicky, Rona is mending my fences.

Stretchy Fabrics – anniversaries and memories

What were you doing this time last year. Think back. Remember. It’s hard, isn’t it? To place an event in a specific time or place. The stretchy fabric of time gets a bit saggy as we get older. We lose the detail of our memories. Islands of Meaning become lost in the Sea of Insignificance.  Unless of course an event is so meaningful that the stretchy fabric of our memory becomes in some way ossified, brittled, fixed, unwilling to let its charge be returned to the miasma of everyday recollection.

Tree planting

Tree planting

Betsy reminded me this week of the day that Mum ‘got ill’. “You remember Dad. Your back was bad so you went to the back doctor, and then Mum and Tilly and me drove to pick you up, it was sunny and we were on Harrington Road.” She continued filling in the detail for me. “Mum parked the car but she couldn’t do the gears properly and then she couldn’t  put the brake on and the car rolled back and hit another car and Mum said “Don’t tell Dad”‘.

It’s all in there. Everything. Crystal clear.  I didn’t know about the car rolling until this very week. Maybe Betsy has realised that Mum’s not going to mind if I know or not now. Closure brings relief.

The anniversary of Nick’s death was brutally and unexpectedly hard. Subliminal triggers that cast me back to that three weeks in February last year are everywhere. Crocus, snowdrops, early daffs, the first warmth in the thin sun, and birdsong bounce me back , and forever will, to that terrible time.

 

We all need... something to lean on.

We all need… something to lean on.

On the 2nd of March 2014 our world changed forever. Three hundred and sixty five days and a few hours later we got together to give the remains of her body back to the universe. The earth had travelled around the sun.  The planting was haphazard and socially clumsy; she’d have loved it and laughed. The tree in Blaker’s Park is a fitting and delightful place for her ashes to be reabsorbed into living things.

This simple act has brought some closure. It’s as if the final ceremonial part of our process has been done.  Indeed it probably has. Never again will so many people who knew and loved her will be in one place. Thankyou for coming and bringing your wonderful collective memory bank of Nicky. Would that science fiction had allowed me to suck in all your memories, I’d love to see her now again through your eyes and see what it was that made her shine for each of you who came. Today, right now, I’d escape this world and wrap my self up in the fabric of your recollections. Just for a while, just to say goodbye, because I can’t have her back.

IMG_3648

Memory planting.

Closure is a good thing.  Tilly is better, moving on, getting stronger (if not Stringer – for the locals, that one) by the day. Betsy is talking more, remembering and asking questions, she’s funny. They both are, like their Mum. For me it brings relief. Whilst her remains remained nothing was complete. Now,  it’s done. It feels like the morning after the mourning. We’ve got through the year.

The future is not the one we all imagined, but I can’t  stay wrapped up in the fabric of  the past.  I really can’t. I am going to turn that blanket into a sail. Head up, Smith, shoulders back. We can start to build from here, and besides, there are some cycling trips to plan.

Thanks to Cath Newell for the pix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 370 – Theatre Red

REDThere is something fundamentally annoying about painting and decorating. You can’t rush it but I so want to get it over with. It’s a job I have always rather hated, and one that Nick would cajole me into. It was a job we’d always do together.

Paint is  also really bloody expensive. So, I am in Brewers, the nearby paint shop, asking for the colours that Betsy has asked for in her room. It’s a paint called ‘Theatre Red’. It’s red alright.  It was a decision made in an instant yet she’ll have to live with it for the next 5 years. I hope she really likes it after all. The guy in the shop tells me that it happens all the time…Dad’s come in and ask for the most ridiculous colours to keep their children happy, to allow their ‘creative freedom to express themselves through the medium of bedroom wall colour’. I just had to grin and bear it knowing I was one of said Fuckwit Dads. I got the feeling all the sales team in Brewers were about to explode into laughter the moment I left the shop.

 

It’s a year  and a few days since she became ill. It is day 370 of this story.

Humphrey the puppy is a good distraction. Several people have asked me how come we called him Humphrey. Well it was a name that Nicky suggested, written down in the last few days of her life. We can’t wait to take him walking in the park. He’ll be good and ready for the tree planting. I hope he doesn’t wee anywhere inappropriate. Awkward.

 

 

 

 

Bereavement is the acid. Grief is the rain.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything down.

I’ve been a Dad. Slagged off TopGear.  Burnt some clocks. Had some Lovely Holidays and got though Christmas.  I’ve done some work and have started posting stuff about the kid’s achievements and fairy cakes on Facebook, which is the true measure of a functioning family, right? Fuck, I even went on a date! It all sounds pretty wholesome. Right?

wholesome flotsam jetsam partsome

The Rolling recovery is stalled. Anxiety, depression, anger – they are all here or hereabouts. Today I played the girls audio recordings that Nicky made for them when she was dying. It was the first time they had been played. Tilly is anxious and losing weight and  Betsy is often sullen, so we listened to mum’s protestations of everlasting love together to acknowledge that all our crazy fucked up behaviours can be explained by the events of last year. I’m not sure it helped.

Time to get back on the bike and write. (Forgive me)

So I guess there’s a bit of catching up to do. A few things that I need to clear up and get out of my head. I started writing this blog in part to help me get some perspective on events through the act of writing them down and in part as a document to help others who are dealing with or affected by grief. So. Lessons from the last few months.

  1. Time doesn’t heal. It’s a fucking lie. Healing implies a restoration, a return to a previous state. That is a fanciful pile wishful shite.
  2. We don’t grieve. Grief does us. It will have its way. Whatever strategies we employ, whatever tools we deploy it matters not a jot. It does us. If you do the right thing at the wrong time you’re fucked, the wrong thing at the right time – equally so. Strangely, the wrong thing at the wrong time serves as a useful reminder of the awfulness and brings a moments peace through forgiveness. The right thing at the right time?  It’ll take years ’til my little family finds out if we ever managed that elusive bond. It will have its way.
  3. Grief and bereavement are not the same.  There was a time when I used them interchangeably but they are distinct. Bereavement has its time, Grief is forever. Let me explain. When Nick died we all lost some one and some things:   a friend,  a lover,  a daughter, a mum, a sister, a future, a laugh, a light, a wise counsel, a creative spirit, a pure and gentle soul are a few you’ve mentioned. So, bereavement I believe is the discovery  of what the loss of those things actually means to each of us.   What was it that she gave to me? to us? to you? What do we miss? And, most importantly, what does that feeling of loss tell us about ourselves?  I have been counselled through my bereavement and thus I think it is over, I understand and now face what it is that I and we have lost. I guess you may have already done the same.  It is uncomfortable. But if Bereavement is the acid, Grief is the rain.     Grief is forever.  I understand now that grief for Nicky is intrinsic to the world I inhabit,  and every day for the rest of my life that same spectre will remind me of what is that I and we have lost. It will have its way. Unfortunately, I still don’t think I am a single step closer to learning to live with that understanding.
  4. Except perhaps an acknowledgement that words alone have not been an answer,  so I am embarking on some new action adventures to help us find within us that which is lost.  I’ll keep you informed as we orienteer this strange new landscape.
  5. It takes a long time to get anywhere when you take three steps forward then five steps back.

It’ll be a year since she became ill soon. And then, at the beginning of March on the anniversary of the day she died, we’re going to scatter her remaining ashes in the sea and under a tree. The earth will have travelled around the Sun and Spring will be upon us.  Time for light and reflection. Join us if you like?  Drop me line and I’ll send you the details.

 

Hitler on one wheel and the not so #BBC #TopGear

This is a different post. I hope you like it. I started writing this blog because I believed that two wheels would be our family’s salvation. I still believe that and  I want to share an experience that in some ways reflects how one wheel (as opposed to two) is not enough. And how the great institution for which I worked (and still do) and the behaviour of one production in particular has left me questioning more than ever the state of the BBC, the media, and significantly my role in it. It’s a funny tale mind, absurd and faintly alarming.

I left my staff job at the BBC in September 2013. At the time it was a simple decision, a resignation, because I didn’t like the way things were going in the department I was working in. One day in December I literally bumped into Paul Ellis. Paul is an entrepreneur and  he had spotted a potential product to import from China, an electric, self balancing unicycle. Paul is a lovely man, kind, open and enthusiastic and he asked me to help him market this strange machine with him.

Together we made a video:

Not three weeks later we get an email from BBC TopGear.

Hello,

I’m working on the latest series of the BBC motoring show Top Gear. We’re currently filming a cycling-related feature for the new series, to be broadcast mid-February on BBC Two.

Our director brought the Yocycle to our attention (he’s a cycle nut and huge fan), and the promo video shot in Brighton’s been doing the rounds in the office to great acclaim! With that in mind, we’d really like to get one down to our track for Jeremy and James to have a go. We’re filming this Thursday 30th Jan – do you have a model available that we would be able to use?

Don’t hesitate to call if you have any questions.

Now incase you didn’t know TopGear is a big BBC brand, it has a global audience of hundreds of millions. It was a major invitation. Sure, there was every chance that the show’s stars would ridicule the thing but even a few seconds of the Yocycle on air would give the product and the brand considerable reach. Besides, Clarkson or May struggling to find balance would surely have been Youtube gold.

Paul and I set about securing UK distribution rights, negotiating with the manufacturer, contract lawyers et al. Of course I was mindful of the possibility that this may come to nought so we didn’t actually sign any binding contracts….

So the great-day-of-the-shoot comes. Paul and I arrive at the Dunsfold Aerodrome at 8am. We’re directed to the Green Room in the charmingly ramshackle collection of portakabins that are the TopGear production office. We wait.

And wait.

Sitting waiting with us in the green room are two actors. One is dressed a Jesus, the other as Hitler. We wait together and the entire morning passes with barely a word spoken to either Paul or me. In the absence of any communication from the production team I decide to keep my 10 years at the BBC quiet too.

And then things get really surreal.

At Lunchtime a hue and cry goes up. “Hitler can’t get his boots on!” The phrase flies around the portakabin like salacious gossip. There’s a bit of blaming going on too which ends up with the actor and the assistant’s assistant, people who clearly “Should’ve checked!”

Panic stations! “Hitler can’t get his boots on!” Within a moment or two everyone is being asked the question…”What size are your feet?”

Now I have big wide tens, but Paul cuts a nimble stride on his delicate sevens. He tries them on. They fit!

“Will you do it?” the assistant’s assistant assistant asks. It’s truly a Cinderella moment. Nice, kind Paul agrees to play the part to help them out and is whisked into make up faster than Jeremy Clarkson can say “Sieg Heil”.

hitler

Minutes later my business partner, friend and aspiring entrepreneur who has been invited on to the show to help demonstrate a new product is dressed as Hitler and is cycling up and down the runway in the driving rain. I said it got surreal.

The sequence is shot and we are returned to the Green Room. We asked the obvious question more than once….”When do you want the Yocycle?” Reflecting back I don’t think anyone actually ever answered.

At 5pm the light had gone and the persistent rain ended a miserable day. “I’m off” said Clarkson. The production manager (who had kept Paul in his scratchy hair Hitler shirt all afternoon ‘in case we need you again’) turned to us and said. “You’re Wrapped”. That was it. “You’re Wrapped.” Paul had no idea what she meant.

So he changed, and we left.

Of course we followed up with an email:

Thank you for the invitation to bring the Yocycle to Top Gear.
It was evident that the weather played big part in making yesterday pretty challenging for the crew. Even with Jesus, there were no miracles for us.
It was a pity that we weren’t scheduled at any point, but I’m glad I was able to assist however by stepping in at short notice as Hitler. It’s not quite how I thought the day was going to go but was happy to get you out of a hole on a difficult day.
You can imagine we were rather hoping to get the Yocycle seen on the show, which was afterall our primary objective after your kind invitation and, as you appreciate, it’s certainly a device your audience would have an opinion on. It would be a shame to give that up because of the weather.
We’d be happy to bring the product up again, complete the Hitler on a bike gag in the live show, or take part in a feature on E-vehicles.
Please let us know what the next step is and when we might participate..
Kind regards,

We never got a response.

Why am I writing this now? Well the very next day following the shoot was the day I took Nicky to hospital. The start of the most hideous three weeks of my life. Looking back it was surreal day. It left me angry but nothing compared to anger of grief that was to come. As a grieving person one has to get used to being upended by reminders. For me, the top gear experience has become one of those reminders and everytime the show or its stars are in the press I am back there, the day before the world imploded.

In recent days I have been working again for the institution that I love and have committed the best part of my working life to. I am grateful for that, I need the work and the kids need to eat. I’m wary too, criticising Topgear when you work at the BBC is like shooting the albatross. But, if I am the ancient mariner (and, yes,  I am all at sea) and you are the wedding guest who hears my tale I guess this story will simply leave you sadder and wiser too.

What of the Yocycle? Paul and I have decided that one wheel is against nature and don’t plan further investment of time or money.

GSOH

7 months. Seven months. People who know of these things from their own bitter experience warned me about now. “Watch out” they said, “At seven or so months you’ll really be on your own”. They were right. Forgive this indulgence.

I’m irrational, alone, chaotic, scared, impulsive, and volatile. Last week in a single day I signed up for four separate dating websites. Ludicrous but illuminating.

Have a  fun profile picture that demonstrates your personality!

Have a fun profile picture that demonstrates your personality!

When Nicky died the lights went out. I was left standing in the dark. Despite cycling across France I stood still for a long time. I’ve now become fully accustomed to the darkness, and over time, started to explore around me. This new world is similar to the old one. Gravity remains, objects and people are familiar. Relationships with friends and family endure. Up is up. Down is down. I can cope with this I think. And so I can and so I must. Fact is, I have I believe become used to her not being around. I have become used to sleeping alone, to clarks shoes, dentists appointments, impromptu play dates and rifling through school lost property bags in search of discardigans. Seven months on I am still standing in the dark but I know where I am.

And then. And then. And then in an instant the familiar becomes distant and I find myself somewhere totally terrifying because of its strangeness. Because, simply, she is not here. Or there. I guess I am now beginning to explore the even deeper darker corners of this new world without her. Deeper and darker. And it’s in the detail. What will the rest of my life really be like without her? Whose hand can I hold?

Hey, Simon 47 in Brighton!
Describe yourself to your prospective dates!
Tell them about what you like!
Describe your perfect date!

“I’m a sad widower before my time, hollowed out by grief, missing love and laughter, broken, lonely, scared of the future, living mostly in the past, besotted with my dead wife. Two kids at home. GSOH”

Seven months brings change. It’s easier for those around us if we’re ok. I know. We all know it. The kids as well. So we repair on the outside faster than on the in.
And we are all getting better at hiding him and his work, even from each other, but we all know he’s still around. The Grief spectre. He still saunters through the house from room to room, hiding notes, letters, cards, gloves and old diaries in drawers and behind books. Some of these mementoes can raise a smile now which is good I guess, others remind us as viscerally as ever that the life and the love, the stories we shared, and the experiences we all built together, have gone. And nothing, and no one, not one even amongst the many millions of love seekers currently online out there, can do anything to change that.

I’ve deleted the Accounts.

A homeopathic sea of Nicky

As Nicky was dying she told one friend, Laura Danks, “Phew, I think I have managed to get out of cycle camping.”

Illustration by maddie mcclellan

Life is too short for Cycle Camping

Nicky tolerated camping, she got used to (and even began to enjoy) cycling but she simply couldn’t abide a combination of the two. Cycle camping was an anathema to her. It inhibited the freedom of the ride with luggage, and it meant camping became a Spartan, puritanical affair. Living without toiletries, pillows, extra blankets, books, camping chairs and hot water bottles was not a holiday for Nicky.  On the contrary, for me, the reduction of luggage to its basic functional minimum was almost an obsession. I carry  only what is necessary for sustaining life; warmth, shelter and food. Ridiculous, how on earth did we come to love each other so much?

The prospect of this ride across France and cycle  camping for a month would leave her aghast. “No way I am doing that,” she’d say, “Over my dead body!” Well, Nicky. Ha! You are coming with us. Here’s why.

As she was dying she told me first that she wanted her ashes to be scattered under a tree, but because a location for a tree seemed hard to find she changed her mind and asked to be scattered on the sea. Her rational was simple,  “The sea is everywhere” she said, describing a single connected entity.  “Put me in the sea, and I’ll be in all seas”. We talked a lot about carbon and energy (another cycling post to come here).

I’ve been thinking about her  sea theory and it occurred to me that even though I’ve never been a fan of homeopathy and the ‘more dilute the mixture  the stronger the effect’ school of science, there’s a parallel here, somewhere. I am about to drop half a bucket full of Nicky into the sea. Will her molecules therefore inhabit the whole sea?  What would the homeopaths say? A dilute homeopathic sea of Nicky. Sounds good. But what of the Mediterranean with it’s infinitesimally small tidal change, surely even the most ardent homeopath would balk at such a dilution? This is an unacceptable risk, what are the chances that she comes up the Suez or crosses the straits of Gibraltar? Not great. Surely? We’ll visit the Med in Future and we’ll want to KNOW she’s there, dammit.

So I am going to take a little of her remains on the ride.  If ever there was a reason to get over my Spartan camping orthodoxy now is the time. It means that I must for a month pack and carry an unnecessary vessel. Useless, Lifeless, Precious. I will carry in my panniers my wife, in death, like she often carried me in life. When we reach the Med the girls and I will scatter  these ashes on the azure waters of the Southern French coast.

Of course it also means that Nicky will after all get to go cycle camping,whether she likes it or not.

 

Life is Too Short for Cycle Camping