Living with Cerebral Palsy 🍋🍋

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Saying goodbye..

It's taken me a while to write this and I didn't know if I would write it at all actually, because I couldn't seem to formulate the words.
You might have picked up from my previous post that a month ago one of Elin's little friends passed away. Her name was Eleanor Rose Wheeler, but everyone called her Ellie (or Ellie-Moo or Moo, or Moo-ster), and she was beautiful.  In 2011 Ellie's parents, Richard and Annie, got in touch with us not long after Ellie was born, through a mutual acquaintance. Like us before them,  they had been catapulted into an upside-down world that made no sense after their little girl was born with profound brain damage. Like Elin, Ellie has Cerebral Palsy in it's most devastating and severe form. The similarities between newborn Ellie and our two year old Elin were such that Annie and myself christened them the 'cosmic twins'. They even looked quite alike, especially when they were both little, though as she grew there was no mistaking Ellie's amazing trademark wild curls.
Ellie's death hit us hard, though she had been bravely battling against all the odds for some time. It was a testament to her strength and incredibly courageous character (echoed by the strength and bravery of Richard and Annie throughout her life) that she continued to defy the predictions of the medical staff for so long before she passed away. As we said goodbye to Ellie eleven days ago it struck me that most people will never have to attend the funeral of a child in their lifetime, a good thing obviously and a position I envy acutely. When you have to say goodbye to a child you have known it changes you. It makes the world seem an (even more) unfair and sinister place. Nothing makes much sense. It makes you question everything you know. You never forget the details of the day, the sheer magnitude of the situation. It's devastating in the truest sense of the word.
 I thought of that poem I hate as I stood in Ellie's beautiful funeral service "Welcome to Holland"( If you don't know it, it is basically a massive extended metaphor for the life of a Special Needs Parent. I hate it because even though I applaud the sentiment, it simplifies the depth of feeling and complexity of emotions that this life brings with it way too much. I do agree that the only thing to do in life is to make the best of a bad situation, that yes our path has deviated from the 'norm' but that it can be just as wonderful. Except that quite a lot of the time, it isn't. It just isn't that easy. As I watched Ellie's family saying an unthinkable goodbye to their daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece and cousin I thought it's not like being in Holland, parenting a child with severe disabilities. Sometimes, it's like being in hell. A hell which no other parent can begin to truly imagine, unless they have been in the exact position themselves.
This is where we are bonded together as parents of children with similar conditions, in dealing with the initial horror of a life changed and then gradually coming to terms with our 'new normals'. We have all been through the same patterns. The obliteration of any kind of post-natal joy, the constant stress from the word go, the fights for help, the hospital stays (and Ellie's Mummy and Daddy had more of these than you could imagine), the helplessly watching your child suffer, the worry, the equipment, the medication, the home adaptions you never believed you'd have to have, the blessing of every birthday, the sorrow of what could have been. We know one another because we are each other.  In the realms of our exclusive little world, in the family of parents we have become, bound by sorrow and despair and great joy that no ordinary parent could ever understand, we are all one person, one child, one family. So when one is lost, then we are all at sea.
Despite this exclusivity of fully understanding the deepest depths of parenting a child with complex needs, I think most people instinctively understand the bravery and courage of kids like beautiful Ellie and their impact on the world around them. Something that will stay with me always from Ellie's funeral were the descriptions of how happy she made everyone around her. How she bound people together with her smile and how she was able to provide a new perspective on the world for all who cared for her. Just how special her place on this Earth was, how important. Six years is not long enough for any child to live, but how Ellie packed such a lot of love into those six years! There are plenty who could only dream of having such an impact after a whole lifetime.
We will miss and remember you always, Ellie, you gave the world so much more than you could ever know. You changed us all for the better and you did it all in six years. Elin's little cosmic twin, you were a shooting star in the universe of all who knew you- shining too briefly but so magical, brilliant, luminous and unforgettable.
Everyone was proud to know you and we are all richer people for it. This is your legacy.
Rest in peace, little Moo.


Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Manual For Heartache


Years ago I read an article about a condition which is prevalent in parents of severely disabled children, 'Chronic Sorrow Syndrome' , which really resonated with me.
Chronic Sorrow is the presence of recurring intense feelings of grief in the lives of parents or caregivers with children who have chronic health conditions. It runs alongside your everyday life, you may not be fully aware it's there a lot of the time. It’s like a virus running alongside a programme on your computer. It’s each time you have to attend yet another medical appointment, its each time you watch your child struggle or worse lie in a hospital bed for days, each time a friends child reaches a milestone your child never will. Its seeing children the same age as yours in the street and feeling the massive chest blow of comparison. Its filling in endless forms, its finding more space in the house for more specialist equipment, its ordering the nutritional liquid feed which is the only thing keeping your child from starvation, ordering repeat medication at a rate of knots, homing specialist syringes and feeding equipment in the kitchen. It's selling your beloved car and getting a mobility car. It's having tracking hoists running along your ceilings. It’s looking for a new house when you never want to leave the place you call home. It's seeing nothing but a black hole of uncertainty past education where University and adult life would have been. It’s a calendar so full of appointments you can no longer read the dates. It's watching Elin suffer when her dystonia takes hold. It's saying goodbye, as we have had to do again this week, to another beautiful little friend of Elin's and watching amazing parents you have befriended in your joint despair having to cope with the very worst possible case scenario imaginable. It’s having to face the thought of your own child’s death. It's a never-ending oppressive thoughts that can sometimes get the better of you.
My friend Anna bought a book for me recently that has helped me to see this kind of 'chronic sorrow' grieving for what it is and which provides advice on how to deal with bereavement of any kind, as well as touching on different kinds of  anxiety disorders and depression. 'A Manual For Heartache' by Cathy Rentzenbrink focuses on dealing with loss and grief and the ensuing feelings of anxiety and depression that sometimes never go away after experiencing a life changing incident. The author's 19 year old brother was involved in a car accident when she was 17, but lived on life support for the next eight years before he died.  Her first book 'The last Act of Love' which I haven't yet read, charts this part of the story and then this book  describes how the author has subsequently dealt with what happened and forged a life in the wake of her devastation.
I would recommend this book for anyone dealing with any kind of grief or loss, or tragic incident, however long ago in your life it occurred. Mostly what she writes is common sense but there is something very comforting in reading what you know to be true written down in a simplistic, logical way by someone else who has been through something unspeakable. The writing comes from a place of bleakness, but turns into a tender appreciation of life’s beauty.
At one point she thinks of Nancy Mitford saying that though life is often dull and sometimes sad, there are currants in the cake. “Look for the currants.” Ultimately, we might never fix our broken hearts, but we can still live, and our hearts can grow and appreciate life’s wonder. That is the feeling the reader is left with. 
I found this book comforting for many reasons. I'm not sure how useful it would be in the immediate aftermath of something horrendous, where even the suggestion that a book could help you get through it would probably seem laughable. But for me, I think I really would have benefitted from reading it in the early years following Elin's birth, during my grieving process for the daughter that was never born and whilst I was trying to negotiate what I now understand to have been pretty severe but undiagnosed (largely because I wouldn't talk to anyone about it) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder whilst trying to care for a very sick baby.
Grief is such a strange beast isn't it. It is almost entirely universal but affects everyone so differently. No one-way of dealing with grief is correct, but I was glad to discover that the classic 'five stages of grief' are no longer really being referred to in psychological circles, since the more modern realisation that grief is a fluid, chaotic crazy mixed bag of emotions that sometimes never actually ends.  Thats good, it means anyone suffering does not have to feel like it is time they 'moved on' or 'were over it'. Sometimes we just have to learn to live with what has happened to us and accept we will never quite be the same. 
Obviously I am a "look for the currents" kind of person.  Or at least I am now, perhaps less so in the immediate wake of what happened to Elin. It takes a long time to come to the conclusion that you can't change your loss and so the only way forward is to accept it. But very occasionally, even after all this time, the loss will resurface and can be almost as ferocious as it was initially. Apparently this is common and known as a 'second drowning'. I think I have experienced this once or twice in the past nine years. The times when you are struck dumb by the magnitude of what happened and it's a struggle to get out of bed. The way your heart aches for the child you almost had and then aches with guilt for the betrayal of Elin as she is now by feeling that way. 
Both the article on Chronic Sorrow and the book have helped to re-focus my attention on managing my thought processes lately. They make you realise it's not just you, it never was and it never will be.  The phrase "Do not ask 'why me?' but rather 'why not me?' " is a simplistic but effective way of thinking during black moments I think. As I grow older, so many of my friends confess suffering from anxiety or depression or, PTSD or Post Natal Depression or even just ongoing worry about things which they can't control. I am glad we are able to openly talk about this stuff, as we may not have been years ago. So I share this information in the hope that we can all, whether navigating tragedy or not, somehow take back a little bit of control for ourselves by not being ashamed of looking after our mental health the way we would our physical health. We all know it's just as important. 
As the author of 'A Manual For Heartache' writes 'Something that always consoles me, that never fails to throw a chink of light into a dark day, is remembering that others have walked this path before me. Even as your heart breaks and aches and you can't imagine how you will ever feel better, you can know one thing for certain. You are not alone"
Such a simple yet powerful and important message.

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