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  • Writer's pictureelmarfleet

September: Visiting Hours

Updated: Nov 18, 2021



"I wish that Heaven had visiting hours..."


It gave me such a shock to hear the opening words to Ed Sheeran's new song this month. I wasn't prepared for where his words would take me but there I am, hurtling down that stomach clenching rabbit hole of realising once again what I miss and what I want but will never have again. It's not that I ever forget, I never do but grief kicks you harder sometimes. It's like being winded and you have to work so hard to regulate your breath again to calm the panic boiling up inside. Others see nothing happening and you know that you can't double up onto the ground or scream aloud in pain, but inside you are working incredibly hard to stabilise those emotions, to numb those feelings - to keep calm and to carry on.


September has always been my New Year with very few years of my life spent outside the education system. This year, Sam starts a new Key Stage in Year 1, Matthew starts Year 4 and Daniel moves to secondary school to start Year 7. I've become used to making appointments to meet with my children's new teachers at the beginning of each school year. I've done so since Tom's diagnosis five years ago. I like them to get to know my child first and rely on those hand over notes between last year's teacher to this year's. Then I meet with them a couple of weeks on to explain what we're going through as a family and how firstly terminal illness and then bereavement has affected the child who will be in their care for the coming the year. It's handing over a delicate chrysalis to someone I don't know and hoping they will protect it as I do; that they will support and encourage my child's growth and development so that one day they can fly with faith, hope and wonder like any other child who hasn't experienced extreme loss and grief.

But it's exhausting.

I'm becoming used to hearing the words that I say and experiencing how our story is received by someone new. I try to focus. I wonder what you would do Tom, if our fates had been the other way around. I like to think you'd do the same. I know that I'm doing right by you and right by our boys but if only Heaven had visiting hours... There is so much I would ask you.


"...I wish that Heaven had visiting hours

So I could just swing by and ask your advice

What would you do in my situation?...

What would you do? 'Cause you always do what's right..."


It's tough being a sole parent in so many ways and it's harder than you can possibly imagine until you are there. There is only so much you can prepare for coping with when your life partner passes away and it's the smallest of things which feel the hardest to cope with. Here we are though, in September. That New Year point and getting three boys ready for their new school years. I cope with everything all parents deal with at this time of year, but it's lonely doing it by myself. I'm lucky I have my parents, brothers and close friends to share stories and frustrations with - setting up new payments for school dinners because they've changed the system they're using yet again, making sure the boys have the right clothes and stationary for their new classes, sewing/ironing on name tapes, polishing three sets of school shoes and realising at 10 o'clock the night before term starts that I haven't taught Daniel how to tie a tie... I can do it all. I've done it before. It's just that I miss talking about it to Tom.


"...Can we just talk a while until my worries disappear?

I'd tell you that I'm scared of turning out a failure

You'd say, "Remember that the answer's in the love that we create..."


After all that though, it's with pride that I walk my boys to school the next day. Clean uniform, clean shoes, PE bags, school bags, stationary, water bottles and snacks all ready. I'm proud of them and I'm proud of what I've done but I carry more than just a normal parent's anxiety to school that morning. I carry hope that their grief will be taken into consideration and looked after alongside their academic learning. I say goodbye to them at the school gates and watch as they go into this year's new environment. Be brave, be kind.


I read Sam an incredible book this month. When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland "explores the emotion of sadness, and the importance of accepting it." I love the simple illustrations of a child learning to acknowledge their sadness and finding ways to live alongside it. Sadness itself is depicted as a large and looming green blob-like creature who gradually becomes a more accepted presence in the child's life than a threatening one. We talk about what we can do when we feel sad and Sam has lots of ideas: play Lego, draw pictures, watch a movie, look at his books and cuddle Mummy. I like the book's suggestion of, "listening to music... or drinking hot chocolate." Although in reality I drink wine more than hot chocolate and I'm not sure listening to music like Ed Sheeran's is a lot of help... but he speaks my words and in so many ways, that's ok.


"...I wish that Heaven had visiting hours

And I would ask them if I could take you home

But I know what they'd say, that it's for the best

So I will live life the way you taught me

And make it on my own..."


I am on my own, but I have support. Like a polo mint surrounding me. Like a lifebelt keeping me afloat. My boys are a huge support too and although they are only 11, 8 and 5, they are the ones who make me feel strong enough to carry on. They hold me, comfort me, make me smile, make me happy and make me proud. We're in this together and our bond is loving and tight. Only yesterday I was sitting with Sam at the kitchen table when grief kicked me hard. He was drawing and I was having a coffee. The radio was on, U2: I can't live with or without you.

"Mummy, why does your face look like that?" he asked.

"Because I'm feeling sad. I miss Daddy." I answer.

He hops down from his seat and walks past me out of the room giving me a sideways glance. I feel bad and hope he's OK but I'm trying to cope with the overwhelming grief kick. I don't want him to feel anything but OK. A few moments later he comes back with the photobook I made Tom when he went into the hospice. It's a mini moments board book with photos of our family and it stayed with Tom after he passed away as comfort that he's not alone and that he's loved. I keep it by my bed now to see him before I sleep and when I wake up. Little Sam overcame his nerves of being upstairs by himself to bring me my 'Daddy book'. He saw the grief kick I thought no one could see.


I read The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf to Matthew and Daniel this month. It's an incredible story of a Refugee boy joining the narrator's class at the beginning of a new school year. It's about learning and listening, and empathy and friendship and it's a joy to read aloud to my boys. Onjali is a brilliant new storyteller and love her writing style as well as her ability to give a nine year old a believable voice. On page 35 we learn that the narrator's dad has died and how this experience has shaped and is continuing to shape her. And it's good. Bereavement is a barrier to so much, to new happiness, new friendships, relationships, conversations, learning, new experiences... the list goes on but in this book I see for the first time that it can be a bridge too in so many ways. We cannot help what has happened. It is what it is. But we can use it as a bridge to understand and appreciate so much more than perhaps we could before death touched our lives so painfully. The narrator knows what personal tragedy and pain feels like and she uses it to open up to learn about another's experience. It's a connection, not a comparison, there's no competition and no judgement; it's empathy, it's listening, really listening and it's learning; it's connections.


I'm affected by how chapter 23 starts: "There are some days that you never, ever want to forget. Like birthdays and school trip days and adventure days. And there are other days when you want to forget everything that ever happened. Like when a bully bullies you, or a grown-up tells you off for doing something you didn't do, or when someone you love most in the world suddenly dies." This is what my boys and I have experienced. No other day can be as bad as that one. It's as bad as it can get. I will always remember climbing into Tom's side of our bed next to a sleeping Daniel on the morning after the night before when Tom had passed away at the hospice. Our home had been rearranged to accommodate a hospital bed and equipment for Tom as we hoped he'd be able to come home. It wasn't meant to be, and our beautiful 8 year old was sleeping on my side of our bed and I knew what I had to tell him when he woke up. It was that day - the day when he would be told that someone he loves most in the world had died. It changes everything but I thank Onjali for her words and I want to shift my view that this can be a bridge now and not a barrier.


At the end of September we took part in a Shinnyou Lantern Floating Festival and it was exactly what we needed to complete this month. The leaflet tells us that, "the floating of lit lanterns traditionally offers a moment to pause, reflect and appreciate; creating a natural sense of connectedness with all - past, present and future." It's that connectedness that I realise I am actively seeking for my children and for myself. It's a desire to have an ongoing relationship with Tom and it feels like the most natural thing in the world because my feelings haven't changed and are very much still alive inside me. I felt hugely privileged to learn about this Buddhist tradition from the Shinnyo-en community and thankful for my friend inviting us to join her and her daughter to remember our families' daddies. We decorate our lantern just as we want to and together float it out onto the lake to join the others. Each one representing someone special who is no longer with us. No longer with us in person, but very much with us in spirit, in our feelings and still in our lives. This is not about living in the past but about recognising how bonds formed in the past can influence our present and future and how they can provide solace and support for easing the transition from past to future.


"...And I will close the door, but I will open up my heart

And everyone I love will know exactly who you are

'Cause this is not goodbye, it is just 'til we meet again

So much has changed since you've been away"

Ed Sheeran


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