Yesterday I was quite moved by an article I read about a children’s book that deals with grief. The Flat Rabbit is by Scandinavian children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson. A dog is taking a walk when he discovers a rabbit lying completely flattened in the road. He is quite disturbed by the find and is soon joined by his friend the rat.
“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her. “Do you know her?” “Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”
They imagine lying flattened in the road is no fun so they think they should do something for the poor rabbit. But they are not sure what. They go to the park for a while to sit and think. The dog finally has an idea and they return and collect the rabbit from the road. They work all night in the dog’s workshop and build a kite. They lovingly attach the rabbit to the kite and then, after many failed attempts they get the kite and the rabbit flying.
Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time. “Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog. The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there. “I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”
I was quite moved by the story because it gently explores the real messiness of grief and loss. Those left behind seldom know what to do, yet feel they must do something. Grief has been a huge part of my story and, watching the dog and the rat struggle to know what to do with the rabbit, I see a reflection of my own confusion about what to do with grief. I’ll be thinking about the flat rabbit and her friends trying to cope with their loss for weeks to come, I think. The Flat Rabbit is available on Amazon here.
The three short years of my son’s troubled life were torture. I thought the bad days would never end. His deformed heart would suddenly cause his blood pressure to drop and he’d pass out. He was in and out of hospital all the time.
Various medicines had to be taken several times a day to keep him alive. When we went out as a family we took a whole pharmacy with us wherever we went.
After he died, shortly before his third birthday, I entered a dark place of not coping that, thirty years later, is only just coming to an end.
When you are going through something frightening or unpleasant, it sometimes feels that this bad period of your life will never be over. Often it feels like the good times play out too fast and the bad times play in slow motion. Life doesn’t have a fast forward button.
Sometimes it feels like our ship has sunk and we are cast adrift, swimming in an endless ocean with no sight of dry land. How long can we go on? But I have learned to look for seagulls.
We may not see the dry land of hope yet, but seagulls never fly too far from the shore. Even a lone seagull can give us hope. Then a few more appear in the sky. Land must be near. Our trial will soon be over and we will stand on solid ground once more.
I don’t know what trials you may be facing today. But don’t give up. Look for the seagulls. Look for a small sign that something is changing for the better.
You may not yet have what you hope for but the seagull means you’re not far off. Hang in there. Dry land is coming soon.
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We all want to be a ‘valid person’. But most of us have some little (or large) secret insecurities. These can make us nervous about being ourselves. So there is a human tendency to seek validation from others. Comedians seek laughter. Actors seek applause. Craftsmen seek appreciation. And so on.
I think for most of us this seeking of validation starts when we are small. Do we fit in? Are we popular? Or are we on the edge of the crowd? Are we sometimes shunned?
I remember when I was at primary school and we’d have a medical check. When they did the hearing test I tried really hard to hear the quietest sounds. I was always hoping the nurse would say, ‘You have incredible hearing. I think you’re unique.’ I hope she’d tell others and officials would come and visit me at school and say, ‘Your hearing ability is so amazing, the Prime Minister wants to meet you.’
Needless to say that never happened.
But seeking validation can be very dangerous. Sometimes we give the power of validation to the wrong person – the overbearing parent, the judgemental friend, the unsupportive spouse.
And that’s what we need to understand – we hold the power of our own validation and we choose who to give it to. Be careful.
Many men suffer because they gave the power of validation to their father but he never validated them, never said well done.
In Paul Merton’s autobiography he tells how he sought his Father’s approval but it never came… until his Father was dying. At the last moment in the hospital he tells him how proud he has been of him. After his death, when the family are clearing his Father’s house, they find a scrapbook with every newspaper article about Paul Merton. His Father had been a secret admirer all along.
Many men and women give the power of validation to one parent or other and sometimes the approval never comes.
In some ways we are all seeking a mini-validation by getting the thumbs up ‘like’ on Facebook, or the favourite star – or even better a RT – on Twitter. I’m hoping for a few on this article! But if not, I’m not bothered.
I sometimes get people giving me the benefit of their opinion on my life or work. Here’s a news flash for them all – I haven’t given you the power to validate or invalidate me.
I choose to let history / God / the Universe validate me or not.
The group of people that irritates me the most is those who think they are something special when they’re just like the rest of us. They assume that their opinion is of more value than mine. They spout their opinion as though it was an inarguable fact, when it is just an opinion.
People told me I couldn’t go to the Third-World to help the poor. People told me I couldn’t write a book. They told me I couldn’t start a Charity, or buy my own house.
So I did.
Be careful of those who try to hold you back. They may be trying to keep you down in order to lift themselves up.
You have the power to validate yourself.
While it is always helpful to have a few wise counsellors around you, you need to be true to yourself.
We are all looking for someone to believe in us but be very careful about letting others validate you, because one day they may decide to invalidate you.
You are unique.
Go and be amazing today!
Well limbo is coming to an end – those few days between Christmas and New Year. As Ian McMillan put it:
‘At the tail end of December, the days huddle together for warmth.’
– Ian McMillan
I don’t know how you feel about 2014 but I have mixed feelings about it.
Several friends were diagnosed with life threatening cancer in 2014. So there has been lots of prayers and visits to different parts of the country. So far so good.
This in turn made me get myself checked out. I’m not very good at going to the doctor – I average one visit every decade. But this time my visit turned into blood tests, scans and having a camera shoved up my rear end!
Fortunately, it turned out I only have a slight problem with my prostate but nothing serious. Old age apparently.
But remembering that gratitude increases happiness, what am I thankful for in 2014?
At the beginning of May I finally gave up alcohol. And in September I gave up caffeine. These were two things I’d been trying to do for years, so well done me! (Pats self on back).
(By the way – if you want to quit alcohol all together but you are finding it hard or impossible, I can recommend Jason Vale’s book Kick the Drink Easily! Lots of people think they could just stop if they wanted to, but find it’s a lot harder than they think!)
In November I began keeping a food diary again, which is the only way I’ve found to lose a bit of weight.
I took more exercise this year specially cycling to work more.
All that has given me an increased feeling of health and wellbeing, so I plan to stick with all of those things.
These are things I sometimes have as New Year resolutions and then fail to achieve.
Resolutions never work unless we are prepared for a change of lifestyle.
Dieting for a coupe of months achieves nothing, if we just go back to unhealthy eating at the end of it.
As ever, I am very grateful for a loving family and the friends I have, and all the great supporters for the work we do in Africa and the UK.
I want to continue to take more simple steps to improve my life every month, so that the accumulated effect of these simple steps becomes transformational.
I’ll be putting together a FREE e-book and also publishing a more substantial book on Simple Steps to Improve Your Life in 2015.
If you want the link to the FREE e-book, it will only be available to members of my email list. They also get a FREE extra thought on life improvement each month. One email a month. No SPAM. I NEVER pass on your info to anyone else. Period.
One click unsubscribe option in every email.
You can sign up for FREE here.
Happy New Year! All the best for 2015!
There is a lot wrong with the world – that’s true. There have been a lot of wrong things in my life, things that really hurt me, not least the loss of three family members back in the 1980s. That is also true.
For the last twenty years, a big part of my work has been helping adults and children in Rwanda recover from the horrors of genocide. I’ve seen some horrors in that country in the aftermath of the killing.
BUT… and it is a big BUT!
There is a lot we can be grateful for in the world. It doesn’t deny the injustice or the suffering in the world, but it does help.
Here’s the thing:
One of the steps of my own personal healing has been to learn to be intentionally grateful and thankful. I’ve spent years being depressed by what I lost. But I can’t change the past. By focussing on what we no longer have, we often miss the many things we do have.
Something happens when we give thanks for good stuff – it enriches our lives and releases joy in our spirit.
Over the next seven days, I am going to write down something I am thankful for each day.
We may have moments when something good happens that we are grateful for. But I am talking about being intentionally grateful, everyday.
If you woke up in a bad mood today – give thanks that you woke up today. Not everyone did…
If we want to build our gratitude muscle we have to nurture an attitude of gratitude by listing the things we are thankful for each day. As it gets stronger, it will bring us joy and happiness.
I once heard about a man called Tom who was always thankful. When he had an accident and broke his arm, his friend commiserated with him about his broken limb. But Tom said it was the best broken arm he had ever had!
Perhaps that is a little extreme but here is a short video to get you started.
What are you thankful for today?
At the start of 2014 I wanted to confront four addictions in my life.
Why these four things? I observed that many, if not most, of us in the UK live as though these are daily essentials. They are also four things where the negative effects outweigh the perceived benefits.
Maybe you think that ‘addiction’ is too strong a word for our relationship to these things, and maybe it is. But the vast majority of people seem to struggle to get through the day without all four.
We are surrounded by plastic. It is a useful material and is used to great benefit in many areas of life. I’ve not got a problem with that.
However, we are generating millions of tons of waste from single use plastic items like water bottles and milk containers and carrier bags and… And most of it ends up in the ocean.
There is so much plastic waste in the ocean that destroys life. Fish are eating it and when we eat the fish we are eating our own plastic waste.
That’s why I’m trying Plastic Free Tuesdays. It’s quite hard and requires a lifestyle change. We consume a lot of sparkling water, which previously came in single-use plastic bottles. So we switched to making our own sparkling water with a Soda Stream gizmo – one small example of how we have reduced our plastic waste. We are still working on this addiction.
Like most people, I really thought I needed that hit of caffeine first thing to crank up my body to face the day. But caffeine is a strong addictive drug. It is the fact that we are addicted to it that makes us think we ‘have to have it.’
Caffeine is in coffee but it’s also in tea – lots of teas not just ‘normal’ tea. It’s also in cola drinks and most energy drinks.
It might come as a surprise that caffeine is not just an addictive drug, it’s also a model drug of dependence
Caffeine is produced by more than seventy-five plants, which use it as a pesticide. That’s right – a pesticide! When we consume caffeine, our body thinks that some kind of emergency is happening. It floods itself with dopamine, epinephrine, cortisol, and acetylcholine. That’s what gives us that feeling of stimulation and being wide-awake and alert.
It takes about 24 – 36 hours to come off this drug so, if you are a daily consumer, prepare for a serious pounding headache for a whole day. Once you are off the drug, you’ll feel calmer, happier and less irritable. I quit thirty-six days ago and I’m not planning to go back. I no longer wake up with caffeine cravings and I can even have a cup of decaf right before bedtime and it doesn’t keep me awake.
I know I’ll have very few takers on this one! But… the whole nation has been brainwashed about this drug. A few facts:
- Each year more than £800 million is spent on advertising alcoholic drinks in the UK, with the global estimate approximating $1 trillion.
- In 2013 the UK government made £10.5 billion in tax on alcohol.
- Average alcohol consumption has gradually fallen in many OECD countries between 1980 and 2009 with an average overall decrease of 9%. The United Kingdom however, has seen an increase of over 9% in these three decades.
For me, the thing was that alcohol is a big fat liar!
It’s a lie that it helps us relax – if alcohol caused us to relax then, when two drunks get into a fight on a Friday night, we would give them some more alcohol to calm them down… We associate it with relaxation because we often consume it in relaxing situations, and in moments when we are in relaxation mode.
It’s a lie that it ‘takes the edge off.’ If there is an edge, it was probably caused by the effects of alcohol the previous day. A healthier diet can produce a steady feeling of calm.
As I said, I’m not expecting a queue to sign up to this one(!), but having eliminated it from my life 198 days ago, I have to say that life is better. So many are cranking themselves up with caffeine in the morning and then calming the feelings of irritablilty that causes in the evening, by using alcohol numb their feelings. This pendulous swing in our metabolism places stress on the heart and other organs.
If, like some people I know, you have a small glass of something once a year if you remember to, then it isn’t an issue you need to think about.
Here is the one I thought would be easiest and has proved to be the most addictive and difficult drug to kick. Our body needs some sugar and we can get the healthy version of this from things like fruit and honey. It’s the refined sugar that we get addicted to, and some have suggested it’s as dangerous as heroine.
Now the point of this blog is to suggest simple steps to improve your life. Tackling these three big beasties all in one year is a huge challenge. Also it may be possible to restrict or reduce them rather than giving up all together. So maybe pick the one that you think will be the easiest for you and see if you can go a week, a month, or a whole year without it.
I’ll let you know when I manage to kick the sugar (and the plastic!).
How many of these would you struggle to let go of?
Last week, I started the ‘no complaint diet’ – where you abstain from complaining for seven days. If you start to complain you have to start the seven days again.
Here’s the thing: it’s really hard to never complain. So I had to keep starting again. I think I complained yesterday so I’m back on day one.
Obviously, the purpose isn’t to abstain for seven days and then say, ‘Great! I can start complaining again.’ The purpose is to make you aware of how much you complain about things and people. It certainly did that.
Every time I started to complain, I was aware I was breaking the diet. Sometimes I kept my mouth shut and didn’t complain so there was a small reduction.
I’m carrying on with it because, like any exercise, the more you do it, the stronger you get.
How about you? Could you go a whole week without complaining?
I always try and be authentic on this blog. I try not to write about life improvements I haven’t personally tried. But like everyone else, I’m still keen to learn new things. So here goes.
I’ve recently started listening to James Altucher’s Ask Altucher podcast. James and his wife Claudia talk about going on a ‘no complaint’ diet.
What that means is, while you’re on the diet, you abstain from complaining for seven days. If you slip and start complaining you have to start again at day one, until you’ve gone seven consecutive days without complaining.
The thing is, it is really hard to avoid complaining all together. So it’s an alomost impossible task to complete. However, the purpose of the no complaint diet is to give you more energy and happiness because complaining is draining! Complaining delivers very few results most times but makes us feel drained emotionally.
Take yesterday for example. We have a franking machine at the office, that my little charity bought to save money on postage. When they were selling us the machine they told us we would save a lot of money on postage. However, what they didn’t tells us was they would charge us for all sorts of extras which means we aren’t saving much money at all.
Yesterday, they sent me an invoice for a service contract for £165. This was something we had never asked for. I called them to tell them to cancel the invoice. The man on the phone was apologetic that we had received a bill for something we didn’t want and agreed to cancel the bill.
That could have been the simple end of the story. But I went into complaint mode and told him how unhappy I was about all the previous hidden charges. He couldn’t really do anything about the past so he offered to put a message into the managing director’s office. A lady called and I complained again. She said she would see what they could do as we were a small charity. She phoned back and said she’d sent us an invoice for £135 and added a few extras to the service contract. Now I got angry and told her to stop sending invoices for things we’d never asked for. The conversation reached a stalemate as I began to sound like Basil Fawlty. I came off the phone frustrated and exhausted.
Here’s the thing. Had I been on a no complaint diet, I could have just called and cancelled the original mistake and got on with my day. The energy I expended on ranting about unfair charges – which produced nothing but a feeling of frustration – I could have used for something more positive.
Now, there are things wrong in the world. I remember the good old days when companies promised nothing and delivered that nothing with added poor service with a smile. We didn’t expect good service and we didn’t get it. Everyone was happy.
Today, all businesses promise the world and few deliver. The rule is over promise and under deliver – which always disappoints. There a few companies doing the better thing – under promise and over deliver. I find companies like Amazon often do that. The goods come sooner that promised and are sometimes better than described.
My point is that we may have to draw attention to a fault with a product but we don’t have to start the complaining rant. More importantly, some people we chat to during the week start complaining to us about another person, and want us to join in. That’s the moment to say, ‘I’m on a no complaining diet so I don’t want to comment.’ As we avoid complaining and make that a habit, we will free up more of our emotional energy for more constructive and creative things. Maybe we could encourage a friend, compliment a colleague or start a new hobby.
I’m going to give it a try. I’m not sure I’ll get through the day but I’m going to give it a try.
Like all new habits, the more we do it – the stronger we become in that area. To be accountable, I’m going to attempt to report back on how I did by next Friday. Why not join me and abstain from the complain for a week because complaining is draining!
‘Do everything without complaining.’ – St Paul
Don’t let anyone tell you how you should grieve your loss.
Thirty years ago my Mum died suddenly after a short stay in hospital. She was 57 – too young to die.
Later that same year my Dad suddenly died of cancer. He was 57 – too young to die. Not so much like having the rug pulled out from beneath you – more like the whole floor falling away.
A couple of years later, our son died during a heart operation shortly before his third birthday. He was nearly 3 – too young to die.
The first arrow never kills you. It’s the second arrow that kills you. Incidents and tragedies happen, that’s the nature of the world. A tragedy won’t kill you. But the second arrow – how you respond to the tragedy – that can kill you. Perhaps not physically, but emotionally and spiritually it can kill you.
Here’s the thing.
People tell you there are five stages to grief and that you’ll need to work through them in order to recover from your loss. The stages are:
Can I just say – that is a load of bovine manure. Excuse my French. No doubt you will experience some or all of those things during a time of bereavement. Unfortunately, psychobabblers have taken a helpful observation and turned it into a series of hoops to jump through. This was never the intention of its author.
The stages of grief were developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross over 30 years ago, as she listened to and observed people living with terminal diagnoses. Since the publication of her book On Death and Dying, the ‘stages of grief,’ as they are known, have become the gauge by which all grief is measured.
In her later years, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote that she regretted writing the stages the way that she did, that people mistook them as being both linear and universal. Based on what she observed while working with patients given terminal diagnoses, she identified five common experiences, not five required experiences.
The important thing is to find a place of peace and healing. For decades my grief felt like a block of concrete I had to carry everywhere. It weighed me down and affected everything I did. It drained the energy from me everyday.
My experience was mostly anger, but an anger I never wanted to express so I kept it bottled up. I numbed the pain by over-eating, over-drinking and escapism.
The thing is, no matter how far you run, you can never run away from yourself.
This year, thirty years after my son died, I think I am finally coming to terms with it.
The thing about emotions is they are like little boxes that turn up to the warehouse of your body and mind. We need to process them. If we don’t the new boxes of emotions keep turning up and soon we run out of room to store them. At some point, the warehouse will collapse and all these unprocessed feelings will explode into the outside world.
How did I come to terms with my grief? You may well ask.
Firstly, I’m still in that process. I’m not sure it’s all worked through.
It was on hold for twenty-eight years, so excuse me if I’m a little confused about what is the effect of the grief and what is the effect of the ups and downs of life generally.
I don’t really know.
But here are a few things I observed over the last few years.
1. I decided to be intentionally thankful for what I do have – even saying a little prayer of thanks sometimes at the end of the day.
I have a nice home, a loving and patient wife, two great daughters and a cool grandson. I have some friends who really care about me, even if they don’t always say so. I don’t live in a war zone. I am not crippled by poverty but I can help those who are.
2. I decided not to be a victim. There are too many people walking about banging on about what a bad hand life dealt them and all the ‘poor me’ stuff. They throw a pity party and are disappointed when they are the only ones who turn up.
I am not a victim. Bad stuff happens to good people everyday. That’s the first arrow. That won’t kill you. How you respond – that’s the important thing. I chose to get on with my life while I worked out what to do with the heavy load of grief that attached itself to me. I don’t want to be ‘under the circumstances’ I want to be over the circumstances of my life.
3. I decided in January this year to change my life and habits. I lost a stone in weight and took more exercise. I quit alcohol all together. I gave up caffeine. I am working on giving up sugar and losing a bit more weight. All that makes me feel healthier, happier and more able to cope. I’m not sure if that came first or I came to terms with grief first. I think they went hand in hand.
4. I decided to value myself. I put a higher value on myself even when others didn’t.
5. I decided to start saying No to things and people I found unhelpful or draining.
But here’s the other thing. That’s what I did. It will probably be different for you. Try some stuff. Keep chasing your healing and wellbeing.
Did I pray? Yes. Through all the years of loss, I did pray but sometimes praying for things doesn’t always give us the answers we want.
When the prophet Isaiah foresaw the coming of the Jewish Messiah, he described him as
‘ A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’
Book of Isaiah, chapter 53
That tells us that joy and sorrow may be two sides of the same coin.
The four seasons, that visit every year, speak of the miracle of birth, growth, flowering, decline and a death that sows new seeds of hope for the future. I need to fully learn what that tells me. Still working on that.
So my advice if you have lost someone – grieve in the way that works for you. Don’t think there are five steps to work through, but know that what you feel has almost certainly been felt by others before. You are not alone. Get help. Talk about your loss.
You would think that the older you get, the easier it is to make friends. But often the reverse is true – it can be harder to make real friendships.
When you were little it was fairly easy to make friends with anybody. You always had something in common – you were just a kid. When you are a kid anybody can be your friend. If they are standing outside your house, they’re your friend!
I remember a boy from the next street walked over to me once. I was test-driving my new wellies by walking in a muddy puddle. He came over to watch. He wanted to walk in the puddle too but he was only wearing shoes. I tempted him in. He had a great time but ruined his shoes. His Mum went mad. We became friends from that day. But when we left primary school, we lost touch.
From your teens into your twenties you are exploring the freedom of adult life and are likely to ‘try out’ lots of friendships. It’s a time of experimentation and friends are in great supply. You’re often spoilt for choice.
In your thirties you find you have a set group of friends. They know the places, the food, the ‘in-jokes’. It then becomes hard to make new friends. We now have emotional baggage and we have found a few people who understand us, or at least tolerate us.
We experience internal shifts in how we approach friendship. We move from self-discovery to self-knowledge, so we become pickier about whom we surround ourselves with. We become less tolerant of those people who engage in toxic behaviour – like constant negativity, victim mentality, repeated angry reactions and putting others down. (We’ll explore those in another post).
The manipulators, drama queens, and egomaniacs will eventually be sidelined by most people.
When we find true friends, it is important to invest time in those relationships. Spending time with a true friend is never a waste of time. An outside observer could view the time I spend with true friends and think they were watching two people waste time – nothing really happens. But actually it does – something deep and unseen.
I used to have a friend who lived just round the corner. We’d call on each other and have a chat and drink coffee.
One day he became ill and went to hospital. Soon he moved house and his sickness became terminal. It was devastating to watch this guy, who was only a couple of years older then me, physically decline.
When he died, I conducted his funeral.
I miss him dreadfully. Every time I walk past his old house I remember the days of laughter, discussion and friendship.
And that’s the thing, when you get into your fifties, some of your friends pass away.
Those sad moments make me realise that actually we are all one. When I was little, my Mum told me never to speak to strangers. But you know what? I’ve started doing just that – saying hello to strangers I meet in the street and on walks in the countryside. We are all human and many are lonely.
Earlier this year, we arranged a reunion with a few friends from college days. I’d not seen some of them for twenty or so years. We picked up the friendship like we’d seen each other yesterday. We are going to meet more frequently now.
These men were really three clowns. (I’m the fourth clown.) We were and are a bunch of clowns. But those friendships are special.
As we drove home from that weekend reunion, I remembered that, back in the 80s, when our son died just before his third birthday, these three guys were the ones who came to visit us when no one else did. They didn’t come with an agenda or advice. They just came to be with us. They still clowned around but with a deep respect for us. It brought a bit of normality into our tragedy. One of them came to the Coroner’s Office and helped me register the death.
These days I think I have friends for different needs. It may sound a bit clinical or efficient but it isn’t. I have writing friends, a few coffee friends, some lunch friends, a swimming friend etc. Some of those friendships overlap, which is even better.
If we want friends, we need to be a friend. We need to invest in time together, create memories by doing things together, and build a shared history.
Facebook tells me I have 170+ friends. I haven’t. I know 170 people enough to chat to them when we meet – and it’s rare that we meet. Those are really acquaintances.
True friends – in whose company we can just be ourselves – are few. And that’s true for most of us.
So what’s the simple step on friendship? If you want a friend then be a friend to someone. Invest time in your best friendships. Make time to hang out. Look at yourself and ask if you frequently engage in toxic behaviours of negativity, anger, ranting, or the ‘poor-me’ victim mentality. If you do, stop it. Be positive. Don’t take things too seriously. Be the type of friend that you would want someone to be to you. Who do you plan to spend time with this week?
‘You are my friends.’