The Art of Happiness

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I didn’t write When death comes knocking at your door on some idle Tuesday afternoon. looking for sympathy, its something that happened to us like it does many other people. This is just my story, one of many similar stories and just as devastating to those that have endured it. Everyone grieves differently. I have written it because, I guess, it was tragic and it was devastating but its life and we know life goes on.  I felt I needed to give background to my situation to those reading this that don’t know us. Many people over the years have asked me about it and how we dealt with it. I have been contacted by people who are now going through the earlier years of their grieving asking how did I manage the kids. What did we do? What did I do? I want to help and if this helps one person with their journey of grief then that’s a good thing. I didn’t do everything right, what I did was the best I knew at the time. That’s all you can ask of yourself.

Whenever we now hear of a fatality on the road or someones child has been killed by a coward hit or drug overdose or has been in a serious accident and in intensive care fighting for their life or see documentaries about people with terminal illness or similar situations we feel an empathy. We have come a long way, so far from those raw emotions of initial tragedy and the grief that follows after the initial  loss or incident. You feel for those families. You have been there, you know how painful it is and the hard road ahead and you sincerely with all your heart don’t want any other family to go through it. You wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. You know life will get better for them but you also know life has changed forever for them and what they will be going through now,  how that raw grief feels. The tidal wave of emotional pain that they are drowning in. The upheaval it causes to normality, the devastation, the missing, the wishing it hadn’t happened.

Moving forwards is about acceptance of what has happened and making choices and being proactive in moving on to what ever that place of calm is for you. Your happy place. How well we move on depends on how well we nurture the wounds as they heal, and how well we scar. We all scar differently.

Firstly you have to allow yourself to grieve. Jane sent me this and I agree with her. It describes grief  better than I could have written.

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Author unknown

I remember after Harry’s funeral. The wake had been at our home. I shut the door after the last person left about 8pm that night. I walked in to my room, I pulled down the blind. There was an overwhelming sense of being alone. I was alone. I had been with Harry since I was 16. For 17 years. I had grown into an adult with him. I felt loved and protected by him. I had never lived on my own. I left home to live in a dormitory situation to living in shared houses and then with Harry. I was alone and responsible for 3 children.

For a long time I would describe it as a feeling of, I felt alone.  Not lonely but alone.  I was 32 going on 33 in the big wide world alone and I never had been before. After a couple of years I began to feel lonely. I had gained independence,  I was doing ok, but I had started to feel lonely. Friends and family are great. But I missed the tenderness a partner offered, I missed having a confidant to come home and vent to about my day. Someone I knew what I said would go no further. With friends you may be cranky with someone in a moment and vent in private but there’s no guarantee it stays private, it is sometimes leaked an then theres repercussions of that. Your partner gets you and listens, and you move on. Venting done that’s all I needed.

Just prior to Harry dying I had gotten a recliner wing chair upholstered for our home for him. He never got to use it. I went to the shop to pay for it and arrange delivery after the funeral. The interior designer was an eccentric women. She said to me, you need to make yourself happy again, only you can do it, everyone else will move on and be happy and if you don’t you will be the only one unhappy and you may become bitter. It really resonated with me. Only I could make myself happy again.

I didn’t want to become bitter. This cancer had killed Harry and it sure wasn’t going to kill me. It wasn’t taking two of us down. That’s how I felt. I needed for my own sake to work on being happy again. I had to fight that cancer, fight the effect it was imposing on my ability to live a healthy life. I had to fight the mental effects, the by-product of it, the ripple effect it was having. We had to beat it. We had our own fight on our hands now from cancer, our own battle and I needed to arm myself with every resource possible.  I read the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness. I read lots of things and I sought professional help. Initially a counsellor from Fitzroy City Mission would visit me once a week. She did this for 12 months. This is one of the good things palliative care offered. They contacted me and asked if I would like a counsellor to come to my home to see me. We had someone coming from palliative care doing this in the last weeks of Harry’s illness. I said yes. This is one of the most positive things I have ever agreed to. I didn’t really believe in counselling before this. I was 33, young and had not much life experience to understand the benefits of counselling. If I had to go and seek one on one counselling I wouldn’t have. I didn’t have the energy to. I was just breathing, living like a robot. Living on remote control of household duties and getting kids to school.  As Tom Hanks says in the movie Sleepless in Seattle, ‘I just had to remember to breath’. That’s as basic as it was initially. Every week I would write a journal of how I felt and she would take it and read it and the following week we discussed it. I could be brutally honest with these journals and say what or how I really felt and not be concerned about hurting people’s feelings. She was a ‘third‘ person so to speak, to vent to. I believe you can’t avoid grief. At some stage you have to deal with it, face it and if it wasn’t now it will surface somewhere in the future. It was better to deal with this emotional pain now, face it and move on. No good putting it off. There were times when I was angry at Harry for dying and leaving me to raise the kids on my own, angry that my husband was the one who died, resentful that I had these 3 children to raise, I just wanted to be with Harry again.  The deep sadness I initially felt was overwhelming.  I missed him so much. The next wedding anniversary the following  year after Harry’s death, I booked myself in to The Old Melbourne Hotel and stayed the night. This was the place where we had spent our last night alone 12 months ago. I took myself out to the cinema, watched a movie then went out for tea and sat there on my own feeling so alone and courageously fought back tears as I ate my meal. Mobile phones weren’t as advanced as they are now or social media. I couldn’t distract myself in social media. I then drove to the hotel, checked in to a room with 2 single beds. That didn’t matter, I was the only one sleeping there, I watched some late night tv. I sat in the bed alone. Oh so alone.

That night would have been my lowest point in my whole grieving process.

People asked me why did I do it, why did I put myself through that. I just needed to, I needed to say good-bye one last time. I think being there alone really bought it home that he was gone and our life together was over. I needed to experience that shift. This place was the last place we were alone as a couple together and it was our anniversary. Now it was my anniversary again and it was just me. That was the shift and reality couldn’t have hit home harder! Your wedding anniversary is something only you as a couple celebrate. It’s extremely special to you two and only really you two. Most people don’t even remember the date you got married. So for me, it was my wedding anniversary, such a significant day to me and Harry and he wasn’t here and no one even probably knew it was our wedding anniversary that day. It took me a few years to not be impacted on my anniversary on some level of sadness. Now it passes through my mind each year and with a little pang but that’s it. However, even now when people announce how happy they are celebrating their 20th or 25th wedding anniversaries and how amazing their husbands are and post happy smiling faces on social media sites it’s like a knife slowly being pushed through my heart. I feel so cheated that  I never got the opportunity to celebrate a 20th or 25th wedding anniversary. My choice of remaining married was taken from me. I wasn’t one of the  lucky ones or blessed like them. We got pushed off that path 10 years into our marriage through no doing of our own.

There was only one way things could go from that point and that was up. And it did slowly but surely things got a little better.

You can’t undo the past but you can create a future. You can choose a future of happiness and that comes in many different ways. I always believed that I deserved to be happy. I was young and Harry would not of wanted me sad either. He wrote in a letter to his mum he hoped  if I was to meet someone she would accept them. He wrote a letter to his mum and three children what he wanted to say to them. I gave Archie his letter to read before he sat his final year 12 exams last year at the final school luncheon. The school requests parents write a letter to their child to read at the luncheon. I wrote one and also added his dads.  They were beautiful letters with the ending…….. love dad x.    Just those written words love dad in his handwriting are precious. Love dad. Dad, they don’t call anyone dad. Love dad. Its priceless. He had also bought 3 gold antique fob watches to be given to each child on their 21st birthdays, Archie is still to receive his. He wanted to buy something from him they could keep and asked me to give it to them on their 21st birthdays.

He said to me I am never going to able to have a beer with my sons or see my daughter grow into a vivacious young lady. These were his exact words. He said that I would probably meet someone and their values and morals would be imparted on them, not his. He was being cheated of seeing his children growing up and guiding them through life. He trusted me to see they were treated well. I took that seriously about his morals and values being imparted upon the kids. I use lines he always used to say like. ‘Good manners will take you a long way in life, and only gamble what you can afford to lose, for example and I make sure if I don’t agree with other well-meaning or not so well meaning people who I stand my ground and stick to how I think H and I would have done things. Good values, morals and work ethic were important things moving forwards. To surround myself with good people especially for the boys. And I am very lucky to have had amazing men in our lives. Our male friends have been wonderful to my boys. Neighbours who were our good friends took Rupert to soccer matches, watched Friday night footy with him keeping up a regular thing their dad did and even pulled the boys up at times and told them not to “talk to your mother like that”. All these things mattered and helped. The males in our life lead by example and really took my boys under their wings. Even the women. They nurtured my boys, with cuddles and one girlfriend taught my kids to ride a bike. All our friends and family played active roles. Strong women role modelling and good men. Thats half the battle, surrounding yourself with good human beings who are good role models to your children. At times when I was fragile and struggling friends and family helped hold the reins and guide us all in to the future

Initially we attended a grief counselling session called kids grieve too (KG2). The kids would go off with other kids and the adults stayed in another room. I remember our first session  3 months after Harry’s death. I arrived and sat down dressed in my very conservative clothing. Others started to arrive from all walks of life. It was a grief counselling group for parents who had children die or partners die, or children or partners that had suicided and the children affected by that. It was to help give the children and their carers strategies to deal with death and grief. It was a wonderful program.

As the people sat down I looked judgingly at them, particularly one girl with dreadlocks. Tears started to swell to my eyes. These people are nothing like me I thought, they will not understand what I am going through. What am I doing here. As I sat and listened to their stories I learnt something that changed me and for the better. I learnt that sadness is sadness no matter what your income, demographic, or colour of your skin. They felt the same sadness I did. We don’t all have the same strategies around grieving, that is individual, but primal emotions are the same for everyone. Humans are humans.

I believed I needed to nurture myself. I needed to look after my children. I decided I would get a facial once a month. I didn’t tell people I got these facials because I thought they would judge me. When you have a facial someone touches you softly, tenderly. Its relaxing and hopefully has the added benefit of warding of the effects the stress hormones are doing to your skin!! Ageing you before your time. Seriously though, the main therapeutic reason for the facials was the tender touch. Where I went they would play the same CD every time. I had the same facial every time. Most of it was that peaceful music but every time it was time for the facial mask to be left to work and the beauty therapist left the room it would play this particular song. The only song on the whole CD with lyrics. It had this sound to it that reached deep into my soul.  The words evade me now but they always bought tears to my eyes. I’d lay there totally relaxed from the tenderness of the therapist massaging and putting creams and various lotions on an off my face. And I would be alone in this room with this music, this song playing. I’m sure that therapist must have thought I was crazy coming back into the room with the women in tears messing up the face mask. I never ever told her I was widowed. I just wanted  to feel normal like a normal female having a beauty treatment. I wanted to be normal and this hour I had a facial was as normal as it got for me initially. I felt it wasn’t something a grieving wife and mother should be doing. Having something like a facial which most consider pampering yourself. But for me this $100 1 hour facial was the best therapy I could buy at the time. I loved them despite my mini breakdown I would have listening to that song each time! I was ready to fight on for another month

For me, I found happiness with friends and family and in my children but I loved sharing my life with someone special and I did want that again as time went on. I had had a wonderful relationship and the bar was set high. When I met Ted I was happy and  he was the cherry on top so to speak. Meeting someone else doesn’t make it all better. Only you are responsible for your own happiness. They are the bonus after what healing you have already done.

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Your friends and family are there to lean on to help us heal. They are our heroes. They are the ones who stepped up and carried us when we couldn’t carry ourselves. They helped us find our feet. We had incredible neighbours who were like family and our family were also our saviours. We pulled together. New friends came into our lives and they are some of the most important people in my life today.

Ultimately tho these were my children and my responsibility and I was always mindful that everyone was helping me but I was responsible overall for their welfare. There were times I would go to work with only 2 hours of sleep in my early months of grief. I wouldn’t take sleeping tablets when sleep evaded me in case the kids needed me overnight or they were ill and I needed to drive them to a doctor. I’d rather be sleep deprived than unable to care for my children in times they needed me.

I felt this huge responsibility. I was now a sole parent. I still feel this huge responsibility. As much as people are great there is no one that will love and do for their children what their biological parent will, and I’m it now. There is no farther to call in times of trouble to help pull kids back within boundaries especially during the rebellious teenage years. Its easier for someone who isn’t biologically connected to impose restrictions and punishments than it is for someone who has raised that child from their first breath, whose has your DNA coursing through their veins. As a parent you have an undying love for your child, an unconditional  love. Even through some of the difficult teenage years I can say I haven’t always liked my children when they have been giving me challenging times but I have always loved them.

I remember a person I was involved  with at one stage saying why are you going to pick them up at midnight. He was really annoyed with me like I was doing something annoying because it disrupted his sleep. Why do you let them go out or why don’t you get someone else to bring them home. He had no children of his own and different parenting values to me. I replied because they are my child and going out is what being a teenager is about and I don’t want some inexperienced driver driving my child home nor can I expect other parents to do the midnight party pick up all the time nor am I putting my kids in a cab at 16 or are they catching a public transport on a train line with a reputation of crime and unsavoury characters. When moving forwards with a new partner I feel its important that you stand your ground regarding your beliefs on parenting and if this is going to be a problem you need to move on. You have to compromise for sure, but stay true to your beliefs.  If I mess this raising kids thing up, I don’t get a second chance and I need to be assured that if they don’t end up good humans that it wasn’t because someone else told me how to raise my kids. I raised them how I believe children need to be raised. Raising children as a sole parent is one hard job.

I can’t call my ex husband and say hey can you talk to (whichever child), I need your help. Not all divorced people have this option either and I am sure they would agree that raising children alone is a hard gig.

Being in our situation created a unique bond. We didn’t always do things the conventional way. You are all in survival mode and initially your kids may have stayed up a little late or have taken away one to many times a week but there are evenings when other families were tucked up together we needed each other. We needed the comfort of each other and if that meant staying up late so be it. It’s not a crime. I know there were times people frowned upon some of these things.   It’s easy for couples living mainstream lives to judge and tell you how you should be raising your children like for some reason when my husband died I had a lobotomy and became incapable of parenting all of a sudden. That was something I found annoying. It was like I had now become someone who people could at times give their unwelcomed advice. If H had have been alive there is no way people would have handed out advice to us as a couple like they seemed to feel was ok now that I was a sole parent.  I’m sure they meant well.  I didn’t become incapable of parenting but my existence of family life as I had known it changed and I changed.  Until they have walked in my shoes they have no idea what it is like. We weren’t a regular family anymore. We were traumatized and grappling with what had happened. I was the parent and protector of my children but there were times when they comforted me. That’s what makes your bond and relationship with your children unique. When everybody’s gone home  it was just us 4. Some days were harder than others to bear. There’s a love for each other and understanding formed, a knowing that we are all hurting and that some days one of us was struggling more than the others. And that’s just how it is. I didn’t forget that young children go to bed at 7 pm. When people are sad you don’t separate into your bedrooms. You want to stay together in the same room. You need to be close to those who love, comfort and understand you. Normal ‘rules’ didn’t fit our family life right now. It is not normal for a father to die at 35. Normality left our family on the 7th of April 1999 at about 3.30 pm! We needed to pull together and find a new path with just the 4 of us now. This forged a unique bond because in our own unique way we all struggled and all understood that there was a sadness for one common reason . The fourth person in our family who we love individually was gone. We all had our own unique relationship but he was part of our everyday existence. Unlike others who may have seen him every few days or weeks for us we saw him everyday. And when they are gone it leaves a noticeable space in your day.

There were many nights one of the kids would come into my bed in the middle of the night. They came because they needed to be near me. I would let them stay with me. It was nice to have them cuddled up with me as it was for them. We all pulled on each other for love, comfort and strength. H not only wasn’t coming home to me but he also wasn’t coming home to them and they missed him. I was their one constant. Their mum. Some people thought I was making a mistake that they would get used coming into my bed and were making a habit of it. A habit I might have trouble breaking. As we built our resilience and began to heal and become emotional stronger and older things took their normal order. A teenage boy doesn’t want to be hop in bed with his mum like they do as younger children. And they didn’t. The kids as they became teenagers, even my daughter were happy in their own beds. Only good came out of comforting each other in times of need. I remember one night after my eldest son turned 18 he went out to a party. They always knew they could ring me to pick them up if they were ever uncomfortable or in need. I never drank alcohol so not being able to drive because I’d had a couple of drinks was never a problem. One night Rupert rang me intoxicated and said he didn’t feel safe staying at the house in the state he was overnight could I go and get him. Of course that was fine. The parents had gone away and I was pleased he rung me. He wasn’t used to handling alcohol and had clearly drunk too much and needed supervision overnight to ensure he would be ok. I wasn’t happy for him to be in his room at the other end of the house. I wanted to ensure he was breathing ok and not vomiting risking aspiration of vomit into his lungs. So I got his dooona and pillow and made him sleep on the floor next to my bed. He was 18. It would have been weird him sleeping on the bed next to me but I felt better and he did as well knowing I could keep watch on him until he sobered up and was out of danger. Kids experiment with alcohol. That’s normal. Knowing they can ring you and can be kept safe in those times until they learn about alcohol is what matters. So we survived the ‘oh you shouldn’t do that comments and came out the other side of it just fine’ we came out more bonded and healthier in mind because we comforted each other being in each other’s presence when we were sad.

It was hard. Young children think when a person goes away they will return. They don’t understand death.

I would have Archie see someone in the distance in a kahubra hat like his dad would wear in the garden. At the age of 2 this was his memory of his dad. One day I had a gardener come to the house and he had one of those  hats on and Archie started getting excited and saying there’s my daddy in the back yard. Another time we were camping and he saw someone in the distance with one of those hats and said theres’ my daddy. He grabbed my arm and was pulling it saying, ‘take me to my daddy, take me to my daddy’ and getting really upset with me when I wouldn’t as I tried to tell him it wasn’t his daddy.

Jane would sit in her room at night in the months after her dads death and look up at the stars from her box seat window and say I wonder where daddy is. I wonder if  he is one of those stars.

You are guiding your children through their grief at different ages and at different times. Even last year when my son got married this was a time he felt the loss.

Each year we celebrate balloon night on Harry’s birthday and anniversary of his death. The kids, partners and I go to their nans for tea. We all write a message on a helium balloon and symbolically release them and watch them float up to heaven to Harry. Each message is private but its a way of letting him know we still think of him and to say something we would like to if he was here having tea with him.

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