Do you remember this music? It was playing in my dream today…
Sometimes feelings are too complicated to explain. The emotions are so overwhelming that your nervous system circuitry just shorts out with the overload. It’s like trying to use the satnav calmly when the kids are playing Incomprehensible Finnish Death Metal at volume 11. That was this how I felt this morning.
Before I even got coffee I had a small meltdown, of the kind I’ve written about before. The details aren’t important here because these things no longer surprise or concern me — they’re just part of the process. Though they don’t happen as often these days, they underline a fallacy held by the ungrieving; That there is a neatly drawn line that you cross where it’s all better and you are ‘over’ the death of someone. There is no line. It’s a collapsing wave function. Somehow this became part of my dream too.
These meltdown moments can be difficult to understand until I unravel them carefully, pick them apart, figure them out. Writing things down here helps me understand. Sometimes the whole explanation is there, just waiting for fingers to furiously fill in what my head has already written . The rest of the time, I just start laying a word bridge plank by plank in front of me to a distant shore, the final comprehension waiting for me, if I can just keep nailing one board in front of another.
It’s funny what materials your mind will reach for to knit together the stories of your subconscious; Whatever obscure crap is there, regardless of the decade or significance, will get sucked into the little pattern machine and becomes part of the narrative.
So it started with my dream last night. The storm, the sea and the shore, again and again and again.
Julia couldn’t swim and I’ve never been a strong swimmer either. So what would be a perfect nightmare? Something involving water. A repeating dream where we’re thrown off a boat in a storm? Perfect!
First, she trips and falls into the water. I just see her falling but I’m too far away. I have no idea why we are on a boat but that doesn’t come up in the dream — I’m just terrified, watching her vanish. Then the boat flips and I’m slammed into the water myself, hearing her cry and unable to get to her.
Always the same result. I can’t see her, find her and I can’t breathe properly, the waves slamming over my mouth as I try to shout and keep afloat. I eventually black out.
Every time I wake up on the beach to feel sand in my fingers, I seem to be further up the sand dunes, as if each time the dream plays, the waves have washed me higher. Each repetition of the dream only varies in my perspective from the beach as I lift my head. Weird.
And when I raise my head, what stares back at me is an alien and frightening view. A lush canopy of vegetation and huge mountains stretching to a higher plain behind. It doesn’t smell, sound or look like anywhere I’ve ever been.
Scanning the view with an odd mixture of wonder and fear, I can see tiny birds circling high above the mountains and a deserted shore for miles in either direction. There is nothing and nobody here. I feel a sense of *something* forming as I look at the landscape and
The dream cuts at the same point and starts all over again.
The only difference is that every time I’m thrown up the shore, I’m a bit further away from the sea. Each time I can see a different perspective. The landscape changes, I can see further, capture more details.
The message of this dream and my meltdown this morning are related, of course. I’m just missing Julia badly today but I understand and accept that I always will. I’ll just miss her in a different way as more time passes, that’s all.
We get a couple of weeks off work when someone dies. That tells me that we’re pretty cruel as a society at dealing with the repercussions and shockwaves of death. There are all these people who are impacted, the ramifications rippling out from the seismic shock, the point of impact, to give everyone their very own personal earthquake:
This is the graph of my grief in a way. There’s the big explosion on the left, way back in time. This is the event that everybody else sees and remembers. They think it’s essentially over at that point, give or a take a small amount of time to ‘get over it’.
What I’ve realised now is that everyone misses all these aftershocks that radiate from that point of impact. That you’re always riding the waves of grief a bit like my dream, sucked back in to that moment and the massive impact shock, again and again. I am always tossed in the waves of that original event, rippling out from when it happened and reaching the present day.
The dream is maybe also the realisation that my daughter got the grades she needed for her first choice University. My wife couldn’t be here to see her achieve this but with my daughter leaving home, it somehow amplifies her absence. I know that this is an end of something, a beginning of something — just two wave functions rippling out and touching, born from that initial explosion.
My feelings are complicated here, because they contain multiple states. It would be a lie to say that I don’t fear missing my daughter when she leaves. It’s quite a scary and upsetting prospect, because it’s so bound up with many other feelings.
I know we will still need one another very much as we do all our friends and family. I know we will continue to survive, live and do well — but it’s just going to be a very different life for us both. I always have one great answer to the fears I hold here; That I should use the tools and skills that I have learned, to master and overcome these worries.
My fear of the future are those unknown jungle and hills on the shore I’m washed up on. Behind me is the sea of grief and waves of my past life. Out there in the darkness and time is where I lost my wife on that stormy night.
And here, right now, back on the beach, as I get a bit closer each time, what is it I’m going towards?
I don’t know.
As I look up at that jungle and mountains, the scale of the view, there is a swell of curiosity and excitement there for me to fill in the unknown. The rest of my life lies wrapped there in that one simple pang of emotion.
Every episode of my dream ended there: looking up at the mountains and jungle, wondering if this was an island as another thought overrode it:
“There’s only one way to find out”
Hope you liked this. There’s normally a disclaimer on TV shows offering advice or support on issues raised. If you want to chat about how nice it will be to do less tidying or not take 5 hours to clean one livingroom table, please overshare or get in touch. If you have children and still like them after 18 years, there’s some useful thoughts below.
Your child(ren) are not leaving. They are transitioning. Life is a series of big tumultuous events with large periods of boring crap where not much happens inbetween. Unless you plan to be the kind of parent who has little contact or pleasure in the company of your children, loving and needing each other is completely location and time independent. The situation may change over time but love is far more durable. Things will not stay as they are and this is why change is hard — because sometimes we don’t want the change.
To become confident, you need to give your child freedom. For them to ride a bike, they need to all off. To learn, we need to let them make their own mistakes. To see them become adults, we need to let them go in even more ways than we knew before. All mums & dads eventually know these things but this is just another part of that tension of being a parent — the first time we let them stay over at a friends house, or knew they were drinking, or they went AWOL, or they told you they took drugs, or you didn’t like the company they kept.
Nobody apart from a parent will understand the worry or the stress we endure and that this (the leaving home thing) is another situation that we, the parents, must adjust to — as we’ve done admirably for 17 or 18 years already. This stuff is way easier than projectile vomiting or PTA meetings, stop kidding yourself. Think of all the time you’re going to save!
Leaving can be a change that’s a little like grief — because we end up missing *(or expecting to miss) the life we had or the time we used to enjoy with our children. Change is hard for both of you but your child may find it especially hard to cope with, despite what they say. Ask Good Questions. Listen. Things may be different than when you were young but change is always tough and whilst acknowledging your loss, reach out to help your child.
All of us parents need time to get used to this and you’ll probably need to make changes to adjust, fill in and change things — sometimes for the better. I will miss the joy of a simple meal, sitting in the garden, discussing politics and business, walking the dogs and watching a film together. All of these changes require time, patience and adjustment for me, because she won’t be here nearly as much.
Now I’ve lost my wife, it’s natural to expect this would be scarier but who knows — I think if she was still around, it wouldn’t be easy either! Over the last two years and through many adventures, I have made so many new friends and companions that I’ll never be lonely. Don’t think of this as the end of something. This phase of your child’s life needs a different type of support and set of efforts. There is no end or beginning — just changing circumstance and how we adapt, grow, and learn from these decades long projects we kicked off, called kids.
It’s exciting to see how this young woman I have brought up, starts making the world her own place (and a better place too). Don’t look back on the past 18 years as the model for how your life might be with them in the future.
Like my dream, they’re looking up at the rest of their lives in wonder, so try to see things a little more like them, that this is a scary and exciting beginning for you both, not the end of anything.
There are two sets of footprints leading away from the beach.