Originally, this post was meant to be about the perfect way to pack for your holidays. Offering practical advice for parents, it was to include savvy secrets only stylists like myself are apparently priveé to; space saving tips like rolling your clothes instead of folding them or how to tie your beach sarong in at least 25 different ways.
Saved article for later
In particular, I’d planned to recount in detail a particularly disastrous long haul flight to the Philippines as an example of how not to after my second born – who was two at the time – proceeded to projectile vomit and suffer from diarrhoea just 90 minutes into a 19 hour flight!
After requiring at least 15 changes – and when I say changes I mean she needed a full body wash in an airplane toilet whilst running a fever – the nightmare finally ended with all of us landing safely at Manila airport, albeit a right sweaty mess, covered in vomit and smelling of shit!
And so with our half term trip to Spain booked, I was all set to share stories of what was packed, what worked, what we forgot, all in the hope it might provide sound advice for any anxious soon-to-travel parent.
I packed meticulously as always, typically, starting weeks in advance. As we got closer to departure date, the suitcases began to resemble a nearly completed, code breaker puzzle. With everything neatly packed in its perfect place and logically laid out in precise order of use because after a delayed flight, when everyone is hanging, no one is in the mood to play “Now where did I pack the PJs?”
However, all this advice that I’d planned to post along with funny anecdotes of past experiences travelling with the little people never happened because after just three days into our holiday, we found ourselves throwing, chucking, squashing and ramming everything back into our cases. Minus any of the precision as to how it had been painstakingly packed just 72 hours previously, my husband, two children and I grabbed what we needed from the studio we were renting, locked up and left. Just moments earlier, I had been stood in the same spot where my Dad made his speech at my wedding two years previously and it was there, in that exact same place, that I had just received the devastating news that he had suddenly passed away.
When I think back to that journey home, I really struggle to find the words. I remember feeling strangely calm and in control – a discipline I’d surely mastered from a career driven by deadlines and the need for results regardless of the obstacles. And even when the howling waves of grief would try to take me down, as we went to each airline desk to try and find a flight that would take us all home, having to explain why it was urgent, having to utter those heartbreaking words that felt so unreal for me to have to actually speak. But I kept feeling a sense of something bringing me back to the business at hand and that I was somewhat protected. As the plane took off into the night sky, it felt as though we were sailing through the stars. I remembered the infamous Rod Stewart song my Dad would sing to me when I was little, as he’d cuddle me in the darkness when I refused to go to sleep and instantly, I felt closer to him. It was as though the universe had heard my cry, sensed my pain and understood the urgency and had sent back up that I needed to get back home. And quick. We were on a fast track travellator, a moving walkway through the night sky and it was then, in the silence of the cabin, wide awake and counting down the hours to landing, that I began to build up this chatter in my head with my Dad, asking for his help, willing him to stay close by and guide me and my family safely back home to him.
Children and grief
Many assumed our youngest, Evangeline, being three, wouldn’t be that affected and probably wasn’t even aware of the situation – but she was because my Dad was her bestest friend. Hardly a day went by without her seeing her Granddad, or ‘Lolo’ as we all call him. From nursery pick-ups to feeding the ducks – they adored one another and loved to just hang out together. Watching them play was like rewinding my life back to when I was little and in hindsight, I’m so grateful of the special times they shared. But now that Lolo was gone, so too went our confident little girl. A classic case of second-child-syndrome, Evangeline was the type of child who would happily toddle into nursery without even looking back, but now she was understandably frightened to let go, incredibly clingy and terribly insecure.
We were all struggling to understand how one minute we could be excitedly saying our goodbyes on the front porch. I remember kissing my Dad whilst reminding him to feed the cat and pick up milk and bread for our return in a weeks time. I cannot stress how everything was so incredibly normal. No one would have guessed that three days later I would be crying over my father’s 67 year old, lifeless body as he lay in a mortuary, taken so suddenly from a silent heart attack.
Perhaps in Evangeline’s young mind, saying goodbye at the nursery gate prompted a real fear that the same thing might happen again. Her way of dealing with this sudden loss was to not chance saying goodbye and after several attempts at drop-off, always ending in tearful struggles, we decided to give nursery a little break.
During this time out, if she ever overheard us talking about Dad, she’d proudly announce her understanding of the situation by blurting out “Lolo is dead”. Familiar with the word itself and feeling a sense of achievement that she now had the attention of the grown-ups and was involved in our conversation, she still struggled to comprehend what this all actually meant.
One day, after yet another albeit unintentionally, but nonetheless abrupt “Lolo is dead” announcement, I looked softly at her chubby little face and wonky fringe – and with the heaviest of heart, agreed with her. Fighting back tears that I thought would never stop if I gave them a chance to escape, I gently explained to her that Lolo was now up in heaven and although we couldn’t see him like we used to, it didn’t mean that he’s not still here with us.
The day I caught her looking up at the sky, calling out to my Dad to proudly show him the new hair clips we’d put in, was the most incredibly bittersweet moment, but the smile on Evangeline’s face showed me that she had found her Lolo again and this had allowed her a way to move forward.
For my 10-year-old son Noah, unlike his little sister, he could process more of what’d happened, but still visibly struggled with the shock.
At times, he’d try and be very grown-up, puff out his chest and bite his lip, then there were moments where he’d cuddle his teddy and revert to being half his age. Any loving parent would pick up on the fact that he too couldn’t comprehend what the hell had happened and on a deeper level was fearfully trying to deal with the sudden shock of loosing someone so special. This was to be his first real experience of death.
With a steely determination (wonder where he gets that from?) he wanted to go straight back to school, in a desperate attempt to return to normality. However, halfway through the day, just as I was about to step into my local funeral directors to discuss the arrangements of my Dad’s burial, the school called me to pick him up. The very moment that the receptionist buzzed the door open, Noah collapsed into my embrace. All over his face was fear and sadness. I felt his hurt and as I squeezed his trembling body, whilst wishing I could take away his pain, I also understood that it was important for him to release his grief for this very, very special bond he shared with my Dad. Up until he was five years old, I’d brought Noah up as a single parent, so my Dad, to him, was a father figure. I’ll never forget over-hearing my Dad, asking Noah one day, that if he wanted, he could call him Daddy instead of Lolo. I snapped back at the sheer absurdity of it – I mean what on earth would people think? But that’s my Dad all over, he’s never thinking about what others might say or judge, because he’s always coming from a place of pure kindness that prevents you from placing these preconceptions on people. He just wanted his only grandson to feel love. No better or worse or different than anyone else and it’s the innocence of that very gesture that reminds me of what we’ve lost now Dad has gone. If ones character is hugely defined by those who love us and influence us, then I feel blessed that the children have grown with their Lolo’s patient love and positive influence and it’s this that I shall miss the most.
A time to grieve
The biggest struggle (as I’m sure most parents of young children will agree when life throws a curve-ball) was trying to keep their world from falling apart, when mine had been completely shattered. From the offset, when they place your child in your arms, you know that’s it. From now on, their needs are always going to be more important than yours. Grief is the same. I found myself stealing moments carefully, away from their little eyes, sometimes even just to catch my breath when I caught Dad’s picture in a reflection or found a handwritten note from him. Whether it’s brushing your teeth and crying, staying a minute longer in the shower to hide the sobs or hunched over the steering wheel at school pick up before you put on that smile and ask them how their day has been.
It’s not so much that I’m trying to paint a picture of normality for them – one thing’s certain – nothing will ever be the same again. The landscape of our lives has changed forever and they can feel that, it’s just finding ways for them to come to an understanding and move their young minds away from all the heartache. They’d already seen too much. When I got the phone call about Dad, we were all together, happy by the pool. They saw their Mummy break. That was enough.
So, instead, we try to uncover ways to encourage them to be open about how they feel – and whether you love it or loathe it, I cannot commend Disney enough for helping us do this. Late to the party with Frozen, Evangeline gladly lost herself in the ‘Let it Go’ magic and the fact that Elsa and Anna lost their parents, gently reinforces for her the reality of death. And then there’s The Lion King. Special, family moments have been shared watching this since Dad died. The beauty of Disney is that it offers so many levels of understanding, so they can both relate to it independently and it releases emotions and provokes questions that they also can’t comprehend and when this happens, we as parents are there to hold them, reassure them and make them feel safe.
We didn’t think it was appropriate for the children to attend the funeral, however, we wanted to give them a separate opportunity to say goodbye. So together with my Mum, husband, brother and his fiancé, we held our own little service at Dad’s graveside, the day after the funeral. The kids brought a little toy each to place on the grave along with tubs each of bubbles to blow – something they always did with Dad in his back garden. As the bubbles and giggles floated into the warm, blue sky, we lit candles and brightly coloured incense sticks. Even though emotions were still so raw for us big people, it was a beautiful day in June and as the sunshine beamed down on us, we leaned on each other and found the strength to smile and share the good memories we all had. They are now all that we have left.
And that is how we find ourselves moving forward. We take each day as it comes, giving into the crap ones and learning to smile on the ones that were actually OK. Loyal friends and family have rallied round in our darkest moments and many offer sincere reassurances that this sadness and pain will eventually subside. Several clichés that were once empty and overused now carry some substance and real meaning, but at the same time, we are all on a personal journey and everyone’s grief is different. What works for some, doesn’t for others. For me, with a busy family life and working too, it’s not that I don’t have time to grieve, it’s just not always possible to drop everything and crawl back into bed because I just want to see my Dad and the crushing realisation that I can’t, breaks me. So I’ve just learnt to cope and carry on wanting to just see my Dad and the crushing realisation that I can’t, breaks me.
And like most things in life, as my Dad would always remind me, it’s about learning to appreciating the simple things. And so I’ve discovered that sometimes, it’s better to just not talk or even try and work things out, offer solutions or even attempt awkward words of self-encouragement. Silence can sometimes be the best thing and it’s often in those precious, quiet moments and in that stillness that I can hear my Dad’s voice.