The changed nature of happiness

2012-Feb 2014 1852As a child, even a life experience-short teenager I held to the belief that happiness was an attainable, permanent state. I thought a husband, some children and a house in the country would tick all the joy boxes and once ticked, I would float on my feel-good cloud forever. The fact that the precise moment I had all the above was one of the most miserable of my life is not ironic, it’s almost inevitable. Expecting these elements to be the magic wand was one of the reasons it was not.

As the grey scales fell from my post-natally depressed eyes, cautiously I found joy in my three children again. I believed I had survived the worst and for a while I relaxed. We risked trying for another baby. Surviving that dark period had made me stronger, and on learning that Juliette had leukaemia a year later, I believed we could survive that too.

When Juliette died at the end of nineteen months on treatment, it was a betrayal of my belief that life was essentially good and fair. I did not expect to be happy again. I did not even want to be happy. The fabric of happiness had been ripped apart, revealed to be false, and the vast ugliness of life was all too clear.

In my darkest moments, I wanted to be wherever Juliette was. But I had other children. I could not condemn them as I was condemned, so it was duty that got me out of bed in the morning and duty that made me put one foot in front of the other. Strange, how these insoluble moods become soluble. I didn’t notice how and when this happened.

A year after her sister died, Celeste was born. She smiled, laughed, and I could not help but respond. There were moments of a tainted, guilty happiness. I channelled this into becoming the ‘perfect’ mother, believing I alone could minimise the effect of Juliette’s loss on her siblings. I took up running, completing two marathons for Juliette with a fervour that bordered on self-punishment. More than a small part of me blamed the blood in my veins for continuing to pump when hers had stopped. My daughter had suffered so much worse than burning muscles and lungs, so I pushed myself harder. This, and suppressing grief while I ‘perfectly’ mothered four children, undid me. I wrote about it in my first posts here.

It’s been five years since then, and in three weeks time I will be running my third London marathon, but this time it feels different. During countless completed miles over the past three months, I’ve had time to wonder why. My conclusion is that it’s entirely down to my changed perception of happiness.

The past two years have been an odyssey. Next month marks a year in a job I could never have imagined myself doing in my ‘old’ life, and I am grateful beyond words to have found a role working with vulnerable and often challenging secondary school students. I still do creative writing work with prisoners as well.

I’ve learned the pursuit of perfection, like the pursuit of happiness, is something of a poisoned chalice. As far as perfection goes, good enough is, well, good enough. So I’m not the perfect mother, but I look at my survivors and I am proud of the people they are becoming. I relish the sound of Pierre’s voice from Italy, putting into words his new love for a language and country. After her two years of illness, I feel unadulterated joy watching Elodie dance in her pyjamas on a brief visit home from university. I listen with pride as Raphi describes match goals saved, and thrill at Celeste’s laughter as she thrashes me yet again at snooker. It’s not an accident the charity I’ve chosen to raise money for this time is an organisation that supports children who have been affected by loss. (There’s a link to my marathon page on the right).

Oh yes, and this time I am actually enjoying the marathon training. Working four days a week, I can’t manage the five weekly runs I did last time. Sometimes I only manage three, but it doesn’t matter. Tomorrow I’ll run 22 miles before winding down the training, and I know I’ve done enough. I may record a slower time in the end, but the significance that I can even think about running another marathon is immeasurable. At least it is to me. I know Juliette would be proud.

I make memories now, not tomorrow. Like Juliette years ago in our little London garden, I take time to watch petals fall. Happiness is a work in progress – a journey of steps, some of which have been harder to take than others and more often than not, I’ve had to lay parts of the road myself. More than anything, it is my road and my journey. It’s been a humbling lesson.

Lovely mothers

vodka1I am lucky enough to be a member of a closed online group of mothers (and fathers) who have lost children. It’s a place for bad language, irreverence, virtual drinking and fabulous mutual support. My only regret is that it wasn’t around in the lonely, early days after Juliette died. We bereaved parents need groups like these, because more than any other loss (yes, it is worse than any other) it’s rare to find a person who understands the myriad, ongoing resonances of losing a child, unless they too have suffered similarly. When Juliette died, I really thought I was going mad. I had no idea whether what I was feeling was normal because at first I knew no one. I haven’t hidden the fact that I had written about my experiences, but no one from the group had read my manuscript before this week. I wrote the book with other bereaved parents in mind, because when Juliette first died I remembered how desperate I was to see my experience reflected in the writing of others, and most of all I needed proof I could survive. In writing this book, I wanted to be honest about how hard it has been at times, but also offer the hope for my family’s future that I myself had craved in earlier days. Most of the parents in the group have lost their children more recently and I did not want to add to their pain, so it was with some trepidation that I asked whether any of them would like to read it. I’ve been overwhelmed and tearful at the feedback.  After the relief that (so far) my sometimes overly honest account has not hurt anyone, is that what I’ve written resonates with a group of people who although many of whom I have come to care about, I have never met in real life. These are some of the comments they’ve made so far, in private messages to me and on a discussion thread…

I’m on chapter 4 and it’s so beautifully written. I feel as though I know Juliette but the whole time I’m wishing for a different outcome…

I’m struggling through chapters eight and nine. It’s so familiar, especially coming home to everything looking the same. I’m glad you could write this down so eloquently…

I finished it this afternoon through tears and full on sobs. I can’t think of anything I’ve read about losing a child that I identified with as much as your experience. The parts about your feelings towards Elodie, Pierre and Raphael gave me goose bumps. I felt exactly the same way about Isla once Jude died. I cuddled her and smiled at her but it was just an act at first and often when I held her, I closed my eyes and imagined it was him. Thank you so much for making me feel less guilty about that. …I so wish my friends and family could read your words so that they could have half an idea of how I feel. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time and I really feel as though I know Juliette. I’m so sorry that you no longer have your beautiful, brave girl with you but I can’t thank you enough for putting it all down and sharing it with us. Fiona

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Wow what a read! The first half of the book I felt as if I were reading a fictional novel almost, getting to know Juliette and your family. I was interested although interested isn’t really the word I’m looking for, to read about how her diagnosis affected you all as a family and about her treatment- I had no real idea at all about what a child and their family go through when you have cancer, I think I just believed in the romantic ridiculous notion that a little bit of chemo and they would get better- I really was that stupid. I felt as if I was really falling in love with Juliette I was really hoping that she would be ok. But when she died I felt myself right there with you in the hospital, I felt rather than reading about Juliette and your family I was reading a parallel story of my own. The second part of the book was a lot harder for me to read than the first because that grief I completely understood and I felt that all over again. So often in fictional books when a character dies the death is almost romantic and brushed over very quickly, this tells it how it is. How it affects every moment and every breath in those first weeks, how as a mum to other children you have to get on and do certain things and how it affects deeply every single relationship in your life.

I was in tears from the first chapter but compelled to read on which is one of the reasons I was still awake at 3 this morning.  Sally

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I fear I won’t sleep tonight, I can’t stop reading. It is very eloquently written.

I just finished, and of course, I had to google Elodie and her torch run. I love the Olympics. I named Bodie after an Olympic Gold Medalist. How awesome that she got to carry the torch. The book was so poignant. I knew what the outcome was going to be, but I kept hoping for Juliette to recover. There is a market for this book, this group is proof of that.  Amanda

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Half way through chapter 2 and already gripped…it is heartbreakingly beautifully written…

 

Have just finished it Geves, what a wonderful tribute to your beautiful special Juliette and to you Steph and the family…Thank you for sharing your book with us.  Heather

 

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Geves, I started reading last night. As a result I’m tired today because I struggled to put it down. You write incredibly well. Thank you for telling it how it is…

I’ve just finished it. It’s so beautifully written. Thank you for allowing me to know your amazing family. I’m so sorry Juliette is no longer with you.  Beverley

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A harrowing read…but also amazing. Geves, I was so inspired by all you are doing now, especially your work in prisons. Anne

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Have read first two chapters, cannot put it down.

Oh Geves I am reading this in tears most of the time, but (and I hope this does not offend) I did laugh out loud when you were describing the birthing pool chaos! I am in awe of how you managed to write this.  Eleanor

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I’ve read it all today! Seth was a touch neglected and watched lots of Peppa Pig…

I loved reading about your life with Juliette, and getting to know her a bit better. She was Max’s age when she was diagnosed, so I recognise some of the traits and cute ways of pronouncing words…

I coped very similarly to you after he died. I drew no comfort from his brothers, they actually made me feel worse, and got pregnant very quickly after. I struggle day to day as well, and Elodie saying to you that she is the person she is today because of Juliette made me cry, I hope that Aaron can say the same. Elodie and Juliette sound very similar to Aaron and Max, you didn’t really get one without the other.

When writing about your reactions and the things people say to you, your change of friends, your change of personality, all resonate with me too, it sounds like I could have written it.

I think it is a beautiful book. You describe my life really….I think I will read it over and over and over.  Jo

 

I could not have wished for better reactions. Thank you, lovely mothers.