Our Sharing Our Wellness conversation is about what keeps you mentally well and helps get through the bad days. I’m going to share something which has been going on for me this year and what helped….
Today is 28th November and I’m in work. That never happens. This is always the first Annual Leave day I book in every year because it's my auntie’s birthday. But this year is different. She passed away over the summer at the age of 102.
If we’ve ever, met you will probably have heard me mention Auntie Eil (my Great Aunt, technically - and metaphorically) who brought me up. My parents divorced when I was quite young and after a lot of uncertainty and mess, my sister and I went to live with my Grandma and her sister. They were both teachers, albeit well into their retirement by then, and they made sure we grew up in a safe home, where learning was valued, responsibility and conscience were important and hard work was rewarded. Auntie Eil in particular was tireless. When my Grandma suddenly passed away, Auntie Eil felt she had to fill a role as centre of the family and look after everyone - though she would have shied away from this if she'd felt able to. I think perhaps she never fully appreciated how good she became at it, in her own way. She'd seen all us of as children so she knew us with a truer eye than we sometimes saw ourselves. She was always great at little, magically timed surprises – with a crafty little smile as she pulled something out of a drawer that she’d had ready for months or even years. Listening, patience, effort, bringing a little joy to others, being kind. Even as she lay dying in hospital, she was still doing this. She wasn’t a gossip, she was more considered than that. She was what we'd now call a catalyst and connector. Finding out what everyone was up to, sharing and connecting, that was her way of keeping us all together as a family, even to her last hours.
Although I’ve had to deal with bereavement before, this was a day I’d been dreading all my life. For a couple of months before she died, I struggled to hold it together: I would be at work knowing she was running out of time, stuck in the hospital bed she’d always wanted to avoid (and managed to, living at home up until those final few weeks). But then, Auntie Eil would be the first to tell me - and she did - that work was where I should be: focus on what you can do, what's needed, don’t worry about her. So I kept giving my performance of the role of CEO of Macc - the character which is sort of like me but not quite. As the days passed, I noticed it was becoming harder to be positive and friendly in meetings. As Auntie Eil was, I’m basically a shy person who makes the effort to be more outgoing. A key part of my job is to build relationships and influence. You have always to balance keeping a positive attitude and being challenging where that’s the right thing to do. That takes a lot of emotional energy and I was using all mine up. Fortunately, I have very supportive colleagues at Macc and beyond. They know me well enough to know when I need space and quiet time. Work helped keep me focused on something practical and productive when I was essentially powerless.
When Auntie Eil died at the beginning of June, my role at work gave me some solidity – it helped my sense of identity and clarity of purpose at a time when the landscape of my life seemed to be shifting around me. Working in a small charity is never ever dull: there is always something more to do, more opportunity. That momentum helped. I’m lucky to have a role where it’s about making a difference for others, even if it’s in a more indirect way than most other charities. That helps keep some meaning for me, even during the darkest of days. I'm still relatively very privileged and lucky in so many ways. But in those weeks, I was especially grateful for purposeful, meaningful work.
One thing I’ve been surprised to learn about myself is that the memory wrapped up in objects really resonates for me – not valuable things, just little associations. In my office at Macc now there are a few things which we rescued from being thrown away when clearing our old family home in Birkenhead. They’re familiar to me and it’s nice to see them being used. At home, as well as my Grandma’s old digital alarm clock (great bit of 80s tech!) I've now got Auntie Eil's bedside lamp. The pair of them see me off to sleep at night and are there when I wake. Allowing memories to keep coming back is important: they’re how I got to here and now.
We expect people to display a level of “OK-ness” a lot of the time: Auntie Eil would have quoted her own mother and said “muna grumble”. I’m forced to recognise that I’ve probably not been following a lot of the advice I’ve given to others in the past about taking time out, having space to remember and reflect, having conversations….but then I think you have to find what works for you. Even the decision to write this was something I worried about as I’ve really struggled writing anything at all this year. Have I really got anything helpful to say? Is it sharing too much? I don’t know that I have any special insight to offer except that I’ve learned there is no “right” way to deal with grief to support someone – even if that someone is yourself. It comes down to listening. For me, it was recognising that being at work and getting on with doing something useful has probably been the single biggest help of all. I know who I picked that up from.
In memory of Eileen Quinn 28/11/1915 – 09/06/2018