Tag Archives: grief

Rising Again: My Year Of Spinal CSF Leak Recovery

“Time is not really spent. Instead, it is invested in a future we cannot see.” – Alicia Britt Chloe

When I read this quote recently in Alicia’s book ‘Anonymous’ it resonated with my perspective on life. Our time on this earth should not simply be ‘spent’ and should certainly not be ‘wasted’. Instead, all of our time is an investment for a future we cannot yet see – whether it’s intentional ‘learning or doing’, time invested in family and relationships, or facing a set of circumstances which force us to use our time in a new or unforeseen way.

If we can see like this, then we can know that nothing needs to be wasted. Everywhere our life takes us – both the good and bad – is an opportunity to learn, grow and invest into who we are becoming. It’s also an investment into who those we parent, lead and influence are becoming.

All life’s circumstances are opportunities to invest in the future – whether it’s ours, or others around us.

That’s how I’ve had to see the last four years of my life. Most of the first three were spent battling a debilitating spinal CSF leak, and the last has been all about investing in my recovery. Which has again required great patience, raw resilience and immense endurance.

The pathway of recovery, after a long term spinal fluid leak, is often a long, arduous and immensely slow process – even after successful treatment.

The wonderful news is that – a year on from my successful 4th blind lumbar (40ml) epidural blood patch (EBP) – I am doing comparatively well. I have been upright all day every day since mid December 2017 (some days recently that is from 4am – 11pm!! If I happen to wake up early and have to get up due to ‘lying down’ headaches).

I can walk for miles, happily drive locally, get a lot done at home and look after my children (now 11 & 13). I can cook & bake for our family and others, spend quality time with people, go on holiday, and invest increasing time in my life-calling of pastoring and helping hurting people, in and through our local church. This is currently mainly through a lot of one-to-one mentoring and personal development time with others, as well as teaching in small group settings. I also do bits of admin for our church. Thankfully this is all flexible and I can do what I can, when I can, without any added pressures.

I have so very much to be abundantly grateful for. Last year I was acutely unwell and utterly debilitated – initially by the spinal fluid leak, then subsequently by severe post-treatment rebound high pressure symptoms. For four months over the summer of 2017 I had to lie down flat nearly all day, every day, and could only manage an exhausting 10-30mins upright at a time. Then after my EBP I just had a pretty much constant debilitating non-positional headache – amidst many other symptoms (as I talk about in this post) – for months. It is hard to explain how extremely unwell you are with both those conditions, and how confusing it is to work out which is which after treatment.

They are both truly awful to endure!

The road to full healing, even after successful treatment, is not an easy one at all. After a while, you can see that you are making some progress – albeit slow – in moving up the mountainside from the darkness of the valley below. But even the mountain climb of recovery is utterly exhausting in so many ways. It continues to take so much endurance, patience and resilience to scale the never ending rocky slopes.

But I am getting there….

In the light of how ill I was for so long – I am doing exceedingly well! I haven’t been this well since my accident in January 2015. In the light of how healthy and busy I was before my accident – and the onset of the leak – I am still not fully well. But I’m increasingly heading in the right direction.

How ‘well’ I am now is all a matter of perspective. I have to keep focusing on the wonder of how far I have come and the fact that I can easily be upright all day, which is a small miracle to me. So I must embrace all I can do – which is comparatively a lot – and not resent or get frustrated with what I can’t!

The slowness of my recovery can certainly feel frustrating at times – to say the least. Who doesn’t want to get back to full health and be able to embrace more of the life they once knew? And yet I’ve begun to learn and see more of the wisdom that can be found in the slowness. It’s not just my body that needs to heal physically – I (and my whole family) have needed to heal holistically, in so many different areas.

Having lived with a chronic debilitating neurological illness for years, and then experiencing the slow process of holistic recovery, I believe in some ways the whole journey through illness, healing and recovery can be viewed in a similar way to grief. It’s a journey, a passage, we walk through. It’s not something we experience one day, then ‘get over’ it the next. It lives with us as we attempt to move forward with our life. We have to wholeheartedly face, embrace, and walk through what we discover on the journey of sickness and healing – whether traumatic, painful or beautiful. We must give it the time and attention needed to move ‘through’ it, as well as we can, and find more lasting healing in every way.

My mind, emotions, memories, and soul need healing just as much as my physical body. They have needed to find increasing restoration, fresh confidence and new freedom.

You can’t ‘rush’ holistic healing!

It’s a process of working through complex and traumatic memories, emotions and thoughts. Unless you’ve walked the spinal CSF leak road, or a similar long term debilitating illness, you may not understand the trauma involved at every stage. Simply the daily holistic trauma of living with the illness itself is enough. When ‘leaking’, simply being ‘upright’ is often utterly traumatic for our bodies, brains and minds. Then add in the trauma of trying to seek medical help and support for a condition that very few doctors really understand (IF you can get diagnosed and ‘believed’ – that is). And add to that the mental and emotional trauma of being so debilitated and unable to function, anything like normally, in the short and long term. With this combination you can see that there is a lot to work through – as I write about in one of my most widely read posts, Living With a Spinal CSF Leak.

Sometimes it’s not until you start getting well that you actually realise how exceedingly unwell you truly were for so long. This is traumatic in its own way. The fear of going back there again can be overwhelmingly crippling – especially in light of how long recovery takes. This isn’t helped when, like in my own case, multiple major relapses have been your very real past experience. Moving on from the fear of relapsing again is so very difficult. True freedom from this fear can only come slowly, as your confidence builds with the longer you go without getting worse again. These fears can also leave us completely confused and unsure of what we should allow our body to do or not do.

Rising Again verse copy

On a purely physical level, I have also discovered that, after years of leaking spinal fluid from your spine, your whole nervous, and intracranial pressure, system seems to be completely messed up!! Over the months and years of leaking I have become hypersensitive to even the smallest pressure changes in my head and spine. These physical ailments added immensely to the struggle to cope with even small amounts of stress and anxiety whilst leaking and during recovery. This is due to stress and anxiety naturally affecting intracranial pressure anyway, meaning that the physical, mental and emotional become even more intrinsically linked. Even more so because any heightened emotion, especially crying and laughing (or raising your voice in excitement, passion or anger), are brutal on our already hypersensitive heads.

I found the only way to try and deal with all this was by learning to stay as calm, peaceful and quiet as possible. (I already experienced this from leaking – as can be read in this article). This means we have to avoid stressful and anxiety inducing situations when we can – whilst ‘leaking’ and especially in the early months of recovery – which is not easy when we are trying to holistically manage and recover from a debilitating illness, still have to deal with medical professionals and hospitals, and have a family and home to look after (at the very least). It would be even harder if I had had to try and go back to any of a massive spectrum of jobs and careers which do not allow an abundance of time for calm and quiet individual activity. I cannot ‘multi-task’ anything like I used to be able to. Such things are still often way too overwhelming for my current cognitive capacity – although still obviously improving. Even now I also still struggle to ‘rush about’, especially in ‘busy’ or ‘bustling’ environments (even more so if I have to talk to and interact with others as well) so I have to try and maintain more order and calm throughout my life than most people.

Initially, even simply doing more ‘normal’ things again – like going to shops or being in an environment with lots of people – can induce anxiety. As it would for anyone recovering from a long term, previously debilitating, medical (especially a neurological condition). However, this then perpetuates itself because we are already so hypersensitive and thus prone to such things. These environments are already ‘taxing’ on our ‘foggy’ heads because of all the overload of mental stimulation. But having to interact with people and talk a lot can also soon leave our heads even more full of pressure and thus struggling to concentrate and cognitively process what is happening and how we need to respond. So we have to be careful about how much we subject our heads to.

This unfortunately meant I often found myself ‘avoiding people’ at times – especially for the first few months of recovery. This was truly heartbreaking for me because I really do love people and like to talk to them about their lives. But talking, for even short periods of time, would simply make my head worse. Although this has very much improved overtime, my head getting worse from simply talking can still regularly be an issue.

The other key problem with our recovery is that to improve our physical conditioning we have to exercise. But exercise involves exertion, which is another trigger for the higher pressure hypersensitivity. So again it’s a vicious cycle. After the first awful couple of months post-treatment when I still couldn’t walk far at all, I subsequently found that gentle, and initially slow, walking often helped my head more than trying to rest lying down or reclined. Since early December ‘17, I decided to keep my body upright all day and quickly increased the amount I walked up to an average of 3-5 miles a day over 2-4 separate walks. The walks started off very slowly – but my pace slowly increased as my head and spine improved. Long walks – alone – also gave me, and still give me, the much needed space to calm and relax my body and mind, as well as improve any anxiety and my general conditioning. Walking is also very liberating after the many months over the past few years I couldn’t really leave the house.

I did discover that walking was much easier on my head if I walked quietly (or normally listening to something uplifting, inspiring and calming on my smartphone) on my own. Due to the increased breath use – walking and talking at the same time are more of a challenge. I can walk much further more easily on my own than with others. Similarly, I can also get more done at home when I am not required to talk at the same time. Moving about a lot and talking (especially more loudly) can be a bad combination for my head. Although this slowly gets better over time.

Rising Again copy

Other ongoing physical symptoms include varying head pressure often felt mostly in the lower forehead and especially around and behind the eyes when worse. (When particularly bad it can feel like your eyes might burst out of your head). But I can also feel pressure in the occipital region (bottom of skull/ top of spine) and down the spine (especially in the lower lumbar spine). But it’s a slightly different sensation to ‘low pressure’ (leaking) occipital/ neck ‘pulling’ headache. Although harder to differentiate in the early days of recovery.

The main difference that slowly becomes clearer (after much initial confusion) with this ‘higher pressure’ type of pain is – rather than increasingly getting worse throughout the day (or even over a short period of time being upright) – like it did when obviously leaking, it tends to instead come and go at various points in the day according to what is setting off the ‘hypersensitivity’ at that time. Even now, it can still get worse until my head feels full, my ears crackle and pop and sometimes it makes me yawn a lot and feel rather sleepy – especially due to the pressure behind and around the eyes. It can also make me feel slightly shaky, rather detached from the real world, my vision can get slightly blurry, my cognitive processing gets a bit more sluggish, I can occasionally feel a bit nauseous (in the early weeks after my EBP it could often make me physically gag) and my heart can beat noticeably faster. Hence adding to an ‘anxious’ feeling. But this normally gets better again if I spend some time staying upright but being quiet, calm, keeping my spine straighter and move about more gently and slowly. If it gets too bad – often a quiet walk or sitting quietly for a bit helps.

The other main difference to ‘low pressure headaches’ is that it doesn’t get better lying down – although lying down may still rest your body somewhat – hence the confusion. I never lie down in the day anymore because it tends to make my head worse. However, all of these kind of reactions mentioned above are slowly getting less acute or intense and much more manageable as recovery improves.

Waking up in the mornings can also still be problematic at times because of the lying down. I still often (most days) have increasing headaches around and behind my eyes and in my lower forehead, and can sometimes feel slightly nauseous soon after I wake up (this is especially prominent if I try and stay in bed too long once awake). Unlike when ‘leaking’ – I subsequently find that I must get up once I have been awake a little while – whatever time it is. I am known to get up anytime from between 3:30am-8:30am depending on the day and when I happen to wake up (unless the 6:30am alarm on school days wakes me first). Once I do get up the main headache goes away quite quickly these days – although my head and spine can remain feeling strangely ‘full’ but without obvious pain. (In the initial weeks after my blood patch, the headache wouldn’t always ease much getting up – at least at first. I think the exertion of getting up and interacting/ talking with my family would complicate it and I could often feel very unwell and often feel sick and gag from trying to ‘do things’. So then I would then try and lie down again to be still and quiet – but would end up still feeling very ill and then simply continue to physically gag from the nausea and increasing pain from lying down (which simply adds to the exertion headache – perpetuating everything). It’s tormentingly confusing and very hard to get relief in any position in the early days of recovery. Medication (initally acatezolomide, then after 2 months a switch to nortriptyline, in my case) can help some of the underlying problem or pain. But not necessarily the hypersensitive reactions to changes in intracranial pressure. Which is why it is so utterly confusing and brutal on your mental health – which adds to the anxiety we are already prone to – as I write about here in my 6 month post patch update).

Bending my neck down to read, whilst walking or to look at things (like my smartphone), or bending my spine to do things – tends to also obviously increase the pressure in my head and make my ears feel full and pop. As does carrying moderately heavy things. So I am still super careful and gentle with movements involving my spine. I just can’t be sure that it’s OK to lift and bend much still, so I still self-impose many post-EBP style restrictions and tend to always kneel first to pick things up off the floor, unload the dishwasher or put washing in, or take it out, of the machine. Over time I have gently allowed my spine to bend and lift a bit more – but only very carefully and cautiously.

During my years of leaking and my experiences of rebound high pressure (post treatment) I always found sitting down would tend to increase the pressure in my head/ spine or increase my leak symptoms when leaking. So I used to stand a lot more when upright. This has improved so much and I can sit for longer and longer, but it is often still harder for me to sit (relaxed) for longer periods of time (the sofa can be the worst place due to the softness of the seat). I actually find I am better sitting with my back very straight and legs bent directly in front, with the soles of my feet touching the floor. Slouching, leaning back too far or putting my feet up is no good, at all, for my head or spine.

I know the sitting issues have also been aggravated too by the general ongoing tension up my spine. I personally hypothesise that much of this is probably down to the higher pressure/ higher volume of spinal fluid pushing against my nerve roots. But it’s obviously also linked to the years of pain and physical tension in my head and spine and also the lack of natural movement. It’s hard to know how to combat this much whilst still restricting movement. It improves little by little and lots of walking and the general rehabilitation of doing things around the house and going shopping (limiting how much is carried) etc helps it a lot, thankfully. But I have found that this can’t really be overcome by trying to ‘force it better’. Gentle movement and gentle lifting, whilst remaining very patient with regards to ongoing ‘pressure issues’ is so important. I just have to listen to my body and head. Trying to ‘push myself’ and rush this process of less pain and tension in my head and down my spine can just lead to relapse and in hindsight has probably contributed to my own before.

(In hindsight, I now think that I experienced rebound high pressure symptoms at least after my second (11 months post leak onset) and third blood patches (15 months in – when I was also treated with acetazolomide) but I always got worse again many weeks to months later. I do not know if I was also still leaking a bit too after any of my patches (apart from a bit after the first perhaps) or what exactly brought on the consistent obvious major relapses. (Apart from when I fell over again badly in May 2017). I always got much better after blind lumbar high volume EBP and could spend much more time upright – often all day – over the following weeks and months – but was never symptom free. But it’s all FAR too confusing to say for sure and the confusion only gets harder the longer you have been leaking. Medical professionals in the UK normally do not understand these medical conditions enough to support you well eitherWhich makes living through it immensely hard and another challenging battle to fight, whilst you are utterly exhausted and acutely hypersensitive to stress and anxiety anyway. This all contributed to a major crisis in my own mental health (see Breaking Through the Darkness), including acute suicidal ideation, 2 months after my second EBP. This almost reoccurred again 2 months after the 4th patch that sealed me, as I try to describe in my 6 month post patch update). 

Rising Again quote copy

However, regardless of all the immense and overwhelming challenges of living with a ‘leak’ for so long and now enduring the slow recovery process…

There is still so much from the past few years to treasure!

So it’s that which I want to focus on to finish…

Beauty can become even more beautiful once you have tasted of deep pain and debilitation – a theme that I wrote about in ‘Suffering into a Deeper Spiritual Awakening’. I have certainly learnt more about what truly matters in life. I see and notice beauty even more clearly around me – throughout creation and in other people. My heart is so much more tender and compassionate. I truly FEEL others pain much more deeply than I used to. My understanding of other people’s struggles is so much more profound.

If I could go back and had the choice to have or not have the leak – of course in so many ways I wish we had never had to walk through such an awfully traumatic and exhausting season in life.

And yet…

I would never want give up the beautiful lessons learnt or the wonderful people met. I could not deny the privilege of experiencing the depth of the valley of darkness – whilst actually being able to rise and recover again, as I hopefully increasingly move up towards more heights of better health. It has changed and increased the capacity of my heart in ways that I cannot even begin to fully explain. It has stretched my limited perspective and expanded my horizons. It has changed how I see and relate to others and deepened my love – for God and all people.

So with hindsight would I choose to personally go through such a desolate season of pain and suffering – because of what can be learnt and gained?

If I could have known, in advance, what the never-ending, deeply dark, valley entailed, I could not have chosen that road for myself or my family. Nor would I choose for anyone else to go through it either. Which is why I continue to raise awareness about the realities of living with the condition. In the hope that others will not have to suffer as deeply and as long as I have.

But… I would choose the new heights of beauty discovered in and from the depths of pain. Because they have transformed me for the better. They have brought holistic growth and resilience in ways I could never have achieved without going through such a raw deep struggle. I have also been able to connect and help others going through the same hell that I had to.

I have honestly been utterly shattered and broken by the past few years – in so many different ways.

And yet…

To be ‘broken and shattered’ is not always a bad thing long term. It strips you back, shows you what is truly important and gives you a new perspective on life and love. We can then hopefully one day, perhaps one day, become even more stable, loving, humble, understanding and holistically healthy people in the end. Until we can truly see that the years of pain become an investment for a better future – all round – that we previously could not see.

So for all those still suffering immensely with these awful conditions. I honestly feel the depths of your never-ending pain with you – but please take heart! And do not give up hope! Last year I wasn’t sure I could or would ever be well. I wasn’t sure that I had the strength left to make it through another day of fighting on so many different levels. I had again reached the absolute end of myself. But my journey shows that we really do not know what tomorrow might bring. That is why I have wanted to tell you my own story. In the hope that we will keep holding on and hoping for a better future – we cannot yet see – together.

“Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” – Richard M. Nixon

IMG_1644
Our family on a beautiful and very blessed holiday (fully upright!!!) in Weymouth, UK, July 2018! (Which we had to cancel in 2017 due to a complete relapse of my chronic spinal CSF Leak). Our children Aimee and Beth were 7 & 10 when this nightmare began and our lives completely changed, they are now 11 & 13.

Please do comment or ask any questions below. Or alternatively you can email me at beckyhillblog@outlook.com

To read more about my story of living with and recovering from a chronic spinal CSF Leak click here.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

Here is a medical journal publication about rebound intracranial hypertension (rebound high pressure) as a complication of epidural blood patching. 

Please see this new May 2018 medical paper about the 10 most common myths and misperceptions about spinal CSF leaks. It is by some of the top world experts in treating this condition. I was told so many of these myths by various neurologists, anaesthetists, radiologists and many other doctors during my lengthy and traumatic nearly 3 year battle with a spinal CSF leak. This kind of misinformation caused many delays, misunderstandings and great distress on my already immensely long winded and difficult medical journey.

We Are All Messed Up!

Do you ever wonder:
If other people are like you?
What their ‘real’ lives are like?
Who are they really behind that mask or behind those closed doors?

Do others really struggle like you do?

Over the years I have learnt that people are more similar than we might think. Although our lives and challenges are, in many ways, unique.

We ALL have struggles.

Life brings all of us both joy and pain.

Even those people who might want you to think that they have it all together. The ones who seem like life always goes well for them – the beautiful couple down the road and the perfect family next door.

Yes; they struggle too.

Their challenges will be unique to them and you will often never know they exist.

But I assure you – they are there.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato

from darkness

Over the years I have had the privilege to connect and build relationships with people from all different backgrounds and cultures, both here (in the UK) and abroad.

I love people. I love discovering who they really are and then helping them to reach out towards fulfilling their potential.

One of the things I have learnt is that although the world is full of diversity, which is wonderful, we are ALL actually more similar than we might think. Things are different outwardly for us all and yet inside we often face the same challenges, temptations and battles.

I recently watched an episode of a series called ‘The Tribe’ on Channel 4 about a native family living in rural Ethiopia.

It was fascinating.

Obviously their lives were completely different from ours. They lived in mud huts, kept animals, were self sufficient, had arranged marriages and yet as you watched it and listened to the translation you realised that families face a lot of the same issues.

Fear,
Worry,
Anger,
Insecurity,
Struggles,
Pain,
Rebellion (yes teenagers in rural Ethiopia like to push the boundaries of tradition and etiquette just like Western kids do).

In the episode I saw, one of the teenage girls used to love going to the market in the town to look at & buy new items of clothing. On this one occasion she ran off with some of her family’s money to go and buy colourful bras (even though the traditional dress was that women usually went topless). The argument that took place upon her return was so similar to arguments in many teen homes in the West!

We are ALL more similar than you might think.

FullSizeRender

There is a song by Lecrae, featuring Kari Jobe that really spoke to me following its release a while ago. It is all about the fact that we are ALL broken, messed up and in need of grace.

“Broken pieces actin’ like we ain’t cracked,
But we all messed up and can’t no one escape that…
… Ain’t a soul on the planet
That’s better than another
And we all need grace in the face of each other” – Lecrae

I love this concept.

We are ALL messed up in some way and in need of grace (undeserved kindness, understanding and forgiveness).  

Grasping this stops us believing there is a hierarchy of ‘goodness’. That some of us are just ‘good people’ and some of us simply ‘bad’.

The revelation that people are more similar to you than you think, is actually empowering because it makes us all more equal. It demands that we treat one another with grace rather than judging one another with faulty or hypocritical principles.

When we can accept that we ALL have weakness, vulnerability and struggles; our selfishness is challenged and we can actually become more compassionate.

It changes our pride into humility.

We stop rating ourselves as better or worse than others but instead recognise that we are all ‘messed up’, in some way, and in need of grace.

It levels the playing field.

As I wrote in Surviving the Storm Six months on, I have been faced with my own frailty and weaknesses this year, possibly far more than any other year.

This year has challenged my identity and chipped away at my confidence. Physical weakness can also challenge us mentally and emotionally.

You have less energy for life.

However,

I am learning that I need to embrace this process rather than fight it.

We must allow our own struggles to build in us authenticity and a deeper compassion and grace for others.

It’s a painful process.
It’s a humbling process.
But it’s also a beautiful process if we let it run its course.

In A Year Ago Today: A Journey Through Grief (about my Mum’s death) I wrote:

“Suffering can, if we let it, unite and draw us together in a way that nothing else can. It strips us of our titles and crafted exteriors and touches the heart.”

Suffering causes different things to happen to different people: Some people can become hard and bitter, consumed by their own pain and need. Others learn to direct their pain into compassion and empathy for others.

It is these people that find new purpose within their suffering. They have other people to think about and focus on which helps to heal their own wounds.

It changes our perspective.

Self pity; destroys us. It makes us miserable and angry.
Compassion; fills us with positive passion. It moves us to see others needs and make a difference in their lives.

Feeling compassion, for others, in the midst of our own struggles, brokenness and pain, builds bridges that helps us to identify with all sorts of other people.

from darkness

We are ALL messed up in some way.
We ALL have flaws.
We ALL get stuff wrong.
We ALL make mistakes.

Most of the time we will never know what has happened in someone’s life to make them like they are.

We ALL have a story;
Things that shape us.
Things that break us.
Things that heal us.
Things that strengthen us.

We are ALL more similar than we think and; “We all need grace in the face of each other.”

“It’s incredibly powerful- life changing- to be in a relationship where we can be totally vulnerable without fear, when the person knows the worst about us and still accepts us.” -Samuel Chand

Who could you show grace and compassion to today?

A Year Ago Today: A journey through grief and what I have learnt.

A year ago today we sat in an ICU relatives room being told that today was the day that they would turn off my Mum’s life support.

Those few days were a tough and exhausting journey.

In November 2013 we discovered that she had a brain tumour. On January 8th 2014 the doctors operated on it. The operation was complex and took 14 hours. In their eyes it was a success. However, the next 48 hours proved fatal as it emerged that she also had an infection in her pacemaker that caused septicemia, and this combined with the brain surgery overwhelmed her already fragile body.

Those few days opened my eyes.

This was my first experience of ICU. There were critically ill people everywhere. Attached to machines keeping them alive. Many of whom would recover and yet many of whom would not make it or at least only ‘make it’ through to a life dramatically different from their previous one.

Mothers,
Fathers,
Sons,
Daughters,
Sisters,
Brothers,
Friends,
Lovers,
Husbands,
Wives.

And the waiting room was full of people waiting for them. But unlike most waiting, it was often waiting to see whether a loved one would live or die. Waiting to see what that life-changing injury, illness or surgery would do. What it would look like within their family. To say goodbye or to welcome someone back. And even if they came back, their life may be radically changed.

And in that room it was different. A different perspective. An unsaid understanding that people were fighting a battle. That people were riding a storm.

Waiting.
Hoping.
Loving.
Holding on.
Surviving.

When you left that room and went out into the wider hospital or world outside, it was different. Staff at work. People visiting patients. A coming and going of life and normality….for some.

But our experience was far from normal.

There was a part of me thankful to have been there and seen it. To be there and remember & realise that while we go through our ‘normal’ lives, others are facing turmoil, crisis & pain. Sometimes it’s hidden away behind a door titled ICU in the middle of a hospital. Sometimes it’s in a hospice down the road. Sometimes in a house next door. Sometimes it’s hidden in the lives of those you work with, walk past, sit next to on the bus. The shop assistant, the teacher, the security guard, the single mum.
 
People are hurting even though you may not know.

wolken

We lost my Mum a year ago. A year ago I experienced my first real experience of personal grief, along with all the questions and thoughts that go through your mind.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.” – C.S. Lewis

For the first few days & even weeks after it happened, I felt an anxiety & what was like a ‘fear’ I hadn’t felt before. The above quote from C.S. Lewis resonated with me. It’s a feeling like anxiety and fear and yet you are not actually afraid. A heaviness. A pain within. A pressure that builds up inside you and you don’t know what to do with it. The thought of going out and seeing people you know can be hard. A ‘fear’ grips you. An anxiety I had not felt before.

And yet…

I chose to push through, to fight, knowing that I couldn’t let those feelings debilitate me. I had to push through, to break through. To discover purpose through pain. To face the questions. To let go of guilt & embrace the way forward. The way out. The way that sees good triumph over evil. The way that does not allow death to destroy.

I have learnt that the best way in life is not denial.
It is to face challenges head on.
Knowing that you will get battered through the journey.
But knowing that taking a battering and coming through stronger is better than allowing yourself to be destroyed inside due to denial.

So that is the journey I have walked. A journey that turns difficult things into challenges that make you stronger and wiser. A journey of self-awareness. A journey that helps you to feel more empathy & compassion for others. And a journey that becomes part of your identity, but that does not define who you become.

Some great words that someone sent me at the time that really helped.

So, one year on, I sit here and I remember the pain. I remember the exhaustion. I remember those days in hospital where my loving God was my only strength & the source of the deep peace I felt throughout. When words from the Bible, music & other inspiration carried me and become an anchor that held me tight.

I remember the relief when my husband, Matt, was able to come to London a day after my Mum died. I remember the drive back to Leicester in the car: utterly spent, physically & emotionally exhausted and yet finally being able to share with my husband the full journey of the last few days.

I remember when I got home. The desperate need to find a photo of my Mum looking healthy, so as to replace the image of someone who hardly looked human lying in that hospital bed. Grotesquely swollen from head to foot. Covered in wires.

I remember the pain, the questions & things to work through in my mind. The tears. The memories. The exhaustion of sleep lost, of pushing through.

But here we are a year on.
Today marks the anniversary of that day.

I have learnt that each person deals with and faces grief differently. There are few rights and wrongs. I have always felt grief was much easier for me than some. Partly, because I lived over 3 hours away from my parents. Our lives were no longer as intermingled as they were as I was growing up. I did not have to look daily at the empty chair. I was not reminded hourly, daily of the person lost. And perhaps because my relationship with her was quite complex anyway and had been for a long time. (Although that brings its own challenges into the grieving process).

And yet I know that what gets me through this, and all the things we face, is an ability to see the positive amidst the negative. A training of the mind to face challenges head on & to learn and grow through them. An inner strength that comes from my deep relationship with God. An innate gratefulness that there are always blessings, hope & joys in life to be found – even amidst the pain of death.

While we were in the ICU waiting room there was a couple waiting for their 20 year old son to wake up. He had been in an accident & was in a coma. They didn’t know if he would wake at all.

They waited,
ate,
slept,
and washed,
in that hospital waiting room.

They had been there about 10 days. They didn’t want to leave in case he woke up and they were not there.

On that Friday afternoon my family sat with my Mum as they turned off her life-support. An agonising time which seems to go on forever as the heart continues to beat for a good few minutes after the breathing has stopped. And the heart rate goes up and down until finally, agonisingly slowly, dropping to zero.

It was horrible.

I tried to put music on my phone and hold it to my ear to drown out the beeps of the heart monitor that lie to you that a person who is gone is still there.

However, as we left the ICU that day for the final time, I saw that couple we hardly knew still waiting for their son to wake. We had shared a connection. We had shared the pain of watching a loved one in the throes of death. And as I looked up at that mother she immediately knew what had happened.

That anxious mother, who did not know if her son would live or die, responded like this:

She held me.

In that significant moment, someone I hardly knew hugged me.
With a touch that I needed.
A touch that understood and felt the pain.

And I whispered to her, with all the strength I could muster “I really do hope things are different for you.” She replied with deep gratitude and briefly shared how touched she was for someone to say that in the midst of their own pain.

I will never know what happened to that family. But I do hope things went well for them.

Never let your pain define you.
Never become so consumed with yourself that you cannot feel another’s pain.
Instead allow your heart to become tender.
Allow yourself to reach out to others amidst your own struggles & vulnerabilities.

Everyone you meet is facing some kind of battle. Some are having to fight harder than others at that moment.

The beauty of humanity is that suffering can, if we let it, unite and draw us together in a way that nothing else can. It strips us of our titles and crafted exteriors and touches the heart. It has the power to break through masks, if we let it, because it touches who we really are.

And we all need that:
Sometimes our hearts need to be exposed.
Our weaknesses need to be seen.

Because it is then we realise that we are ALL just fragile humans. It is then we realise that we are ALL more similar than maybe we thought. It is then we know that we ALL face challenges and we ALL feel pain.

So let’s choose to journey through life with compassion and care. Understanding that we are not dissimilar. We do not need to fight one another. Instead we can support one another and choose to ‘hold’ one another even in the midst of our own pain.


Suffering can, if we let it, unite and draw us together in a way that nothing else can. It strips us of our titles and crafted exteriors and touches the heart.