Elliot's dad John shares his lived experience of losing his son
It felt a privilege to be able to go along to the Child Bereavement UK study day in Glasgow and speak to the delegates about my personal lived experience as a bereaved father recently. The theme of the day was ‘helping men cope with grief’ I also had the chance to contribute to the panel discussion to help round the event day off. It was a packed and varied agenda, a good mix of theoretical work and peoples lived experience of Grief. The audience were made up of professionals from health and adult mental health, a mixture of bereavement and none bereavement charities, the hospice sector, palliative care and paediatric professionals.
From a theoretical and academic viewpoint, questions considered were, what are some of the Physiological, Psychological and Sociological factors that affect the way men grieve? What are the societal expectations on men at times of grief? How do bereavement professionals best look to try and engage men and young men? What methods and activities could work well? How do men deal with grief in custody? What is some of the latest thinking and work around suicide and men?
From a lived experience perspective, it was powerful testimony to hear from Laurie Dunshire about the devastation and great sadness of losing their precious baby, born sleeping. The delivery of his account was raw, unfiltered which made it compelling and powerful account. Likewise, to listen to the account given from Stephen Smith from a young carer’s perspective. It highlighted the very real challenges of being a carer whilst simultaneously being a lovely tribute to his mother.
I had the chance to talk about my personal lived experience, I looked to give an account of a very normal family day which turned into the trauma of losing Elliot and the great sadness and challenges around into a ten-year journey of grief. I looked to highlight the challenges around the workplace, relationships with myself and others, and dealing with other challenging life events such as redundancy with the often-reduced capacity to cope well with such circumstances. I also looked to highlight some of the things that I felt have helped me in this journey.
I recognise that grief is an individual experience and we all process and deal with things in different ways, so what are some key issues for me looking back and still dealing with things ten years on? How can I look to gain some kind of peace, control and acceptance of these circumstances?
I think that a recurring theme for me would be avoidance. Especially in those earlier years, I may have had the tendency to deal with those negative emotions and feelings by bypassing them totally by just processing things with my head. I think in hindsight it could use up vital capacity and lead to a head full of clutter and reduced ability to solve problems. I just totally cut my heart out! Hardly ideal for me and those around me. It can be the real temptation to avoid problems, issues and gain emotional respite by eating and drinking too much alcohol. I get why a bereavement counsellor would advocate a mindful approach of confronting and sitting with your feelings instead.
I think the struggle with grief can be exacerbated by further negative life events, like redundancy, relationship issues with yourself and others. Trying to deal with this from a hurt and vulnerable place can understandably lead to struggle. I think being kind to yourself is great advice that I received. I think this sort of situation is fertile ground for the self critic to feed and grow. Being your own worst enemy is something nobody needs. So the spirit of self kind language over taking on board self critical perspectives must surely help our grieving soul. I have to admit to not finding this easy and it remains an ongoing project.
Finding solace in doing things you enjoy? I am a football fan and am amazed by the skewed importance, power and headspace my team can take up. But the life of a football fan tends to be tribal and stressful but I suppose once a fan always a fan.
I have enjoyed getting back into music. I am having a go at strumming my guitar and singing. I am sure that there must be therapeutic qualities to singing, finding your voice, going out of your comfort zone, having a creative expressive outlet. I find the real joy is a new appreciation in those songs, the melodies, connecting with those lyrics of loss and sadness.