Dear bloggers, I'd love your help

Since losing Neil I've slunk away from life. I used to feel that I was part of a lovely online community of parent bloggers but lately my presence has been sporadic and jumbled. I really haven't shared much online about how we've been doing -- give or take the few posts here.

As well as doing my best to get through everything that has been thrown at us and sorting out all a lone parent needs to get on with, I've been hiding. I have watched Homes under the Hammer and Pointless until I can tell within seconds of the opening credits whether it's a repeat. The same goes unfortunately for the Millionaire Matchmaker. Did I really just say that out loud?

I've had lots of ideas about things I would love to do, stuff I would love to write, but I haven't quite got there.

Now I am finding my focus again. It's just two and a bit weeks until we head to Africa and I would like to throw myself hook, line and sinker back into the parent blogging community and ask for help.

Here's what we are up to:

In loving memory: our visit to to South Africa

Please can you help?

Here are three ways you can:

You could donate

I still need sponsorship to help fund our journey. I've been carbooting (is that a word?) and eBaying (that can't be) like mad to pull money in and am hugely grateful for donations from all the kind individuals who have contributed so far.

But I wouldn't be giving it my best shot if I didn't make one last shout out for support. Thank you so very much if you can donate, it really is appreciated. There is no minimum amount, every little helps. Thank you so much.

You could send me some old clothes

Seriously. Do you have any old stuff that you just don't need any more that you have been thinking about recycling but not got around to it? I will very happily take it off your hands -- whether it's for kids or adults. Please email me (linaitchison at gmail dot com) if you would like to send me even just a single garment, and I will send you my address. I can make use of these, taking some over to Africa, as we can leave the clothes behind when we come home, or by taking them to Cash for Clothes before we go to help fund the charity. If you email me, I can explain more. Thank you!

You could buy a copy of my book on freelance writing at a knock down price

I'm selling a small number of my book, called Freelance writing, straightforward advice from a woman who knows (such a modest title, I know, I know) for just £7 to include postage and packaging. The RRP is £9.99. If you would like one, please click on the donate button and when you get through to the actual donation part, add a little note that you would like one of the books. Or please email me after you have donated to let me know you would like a book -- thanks a million.

It would also be wonderful if you could look out for my posts when I'm back and help share the children's stories.

Thanks so much for reading.

What not to say to a bereaved family

A couple of weeks back I wrote a piece for Parentdish on this very subject:

What not to say to a bereaved family.

It was something I really wanted to write about and it was quite a cathartic process. My friend Helen read the piece before I sent it and said that I sounded very angry.

I think that's a key aspect of grief that can be overlooked. People think you will be sad, despairing, heartbroken you name it, and of course you are, but rage can be equally overpowering.

Think about it. Perhaps like Lisa, whom I quoted in the article, you lose your husband 24 hours after learning he is ill, you are 35 years old and you have two young children.

Then someone tells you: "I know how you feel, my rabbit just died."

I think you'd be pretty angry too.

It's a puzzle to me as to why we don't talk about grief much. I'm grateful for all the kind words and concern people have shown me over the past year or so. I'm sorry I sound so angry.

But I'm getting there.

Thanks for reading.

Getting on

Last night I dreamed me and Neil were renewing our wedding vows. There was a lot of kissing, laughing and cuddling and our girls were with us, smiling and so proud.

As I began to wake, I fidgeted a little in bed and reached out my arm to where Neil would lie. That brought me back to reality with a jolt and I cried my eyes out.

I dream about Neil regularly. There was a massive difference though this morning as after my tears I smiled and thought about how much we loved each other. So you could say my dream was a comfort, rather than something that only made me sad.

My wonderful friend Kim has always told me that when we dream about someone we love who is no longer with us, that means they are still here and want to remind us of that. She says Neil is telling me he still loves me and right now I choose to believe her.

In general things are getting better. I have had pneumonia and whooping cough and had to have tests on my heart, these proved to be absolutely fine so that was one hell of a relief. With a period of prolonged illness and the repeated experience of sitting in medical waiting rooms, there was a lot of time for memory and reflection -- much of it all-too painful.

But on a hugely positive note, my flashbacks have lessened.

People have been telling me for months that the "first" of everything after someone dies is the hardest -- a birthday, a Christmas, anniversaries and of course the day your loved one was taken from you. But I wasn't prepared for how much I would be bowled over by being ill. The reality of being a single parent and having to get on with all that involves really hit home, as well as the absence of a "rock" who has been there for so long, offering unconditional support emotionally and practically.

Then my girls went on a school trip for a week so I had the opportunity to head for Wales with my mum and our dog and I slept for days. I must have so needed it.

I feel like I have turned a corner, having recently spoken directly to a doctor who caused us untold anguish. When he apologised to me, I felt 10 feet tall, I came out of his room and said under my breath to Neil "I told him Darling, I bloody told him." That's after five pages of apology from the hospital, the spark for so many of my flashbacks.

I've also organised for a bench to be sited in a place that holds lots of precious memories for our family, with a plaque saying 'In loving memory.' This also brings me some comfort.

Day to day I am getting on, I have had a first session with a grief counsellor through an emotional well-being service and she couldn't get a word in. She said that it was very early days for me, that I am "incredibly self-aware" and that I am doing "amazingly well." I don't mind admitting that is good to hear.

I cried my eyes out in her session and when I asked her what she wanted to say to me as well as listen, she said: "What can anyone say to someone who has lost the love of their life?"

Then she told me it was okay for me to be happy again.

Whaoh, that's the big one. I think I'll get back to you on that x

Thanks for reading.

In loving memory: Our visit to South Africa

Thabo, Believe and Tholiwe. Photo from 2012 Link 4 Life project. 

In July this year, Melissa, Emily and I are heading for a remote area of South Africa, called Bush Buck Ridge. While there, we will meet children orphaned by HIV and Aids and help care workers who look after them day to day.

The reason behind our visit is uncomplicated -- to meet the children, be at their side and help tell their stories.

This is designed to be a lasting connection. There's no big charity fanfare, no massive building project, no international marketing effort, just the prospect of helping. You can imagine how much that appeals.

Each day, we will be guided by a team of care workers to let us know what needs doing and we will get on with it.

Experience of previous visits has shown that this is likely to be helping feed the children or washing clothes, plus a load of other straightforward tasks to lighten their day.

Me, Melissa and Emily have also been set the task of listening to a child's story and helping share it. It's as simple as that. And as someone whose life has been largely taken up by telling stories, it's a role I relish.

I'm doing this in Neil's memory. I hope that one day, maybe not this year, but one day, there will be an element of our involvement, that I can put his name to as a lasting reminder for all to see of his decency and compassion. It's such a cliche, but I know he would like that.

We're members of a 12-strong group travelling to meet and help the children, under a project called Link 4 Life, helping charities called Hands at WorkMercy Air and the Baby Bear Project.

Our stay comes days apart from a visit from my children's school, where older pupils, plus teachers, will also contribute.

Fellow team members have been so very kind to us, assuring us that our presence is special and that we will bring with us an empathy for children who have lost a parent. That makes me feel useful.
There's also an opportunity to visit a hospital in one of the country's poorest areas, where babies are now sent home clothed, rather than in newspaper, thanks to a group of knitters, some of whom are just streets from where we live. This is the Baby Bear project.

I find it amazing that such an unassuming, modest group of people should make such a difference and honoured to be allowed to walk alongside them. It's hard for me to imagine that mothers have so little that their newborns are sent away from hospital wrapped in newspaper but amazing to consider women in my village are easing this burden.

There's a yearly commitment for contact and support with the people in this part of South Africa from the Staffordshire villages of Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay. Some people come from our local churches, where we have been sporadic visitors over the years, some from business and some from schools. The aim is to forge longstanding links that will build to bring fruitful relationships.

Already young people from Cheslyn Hay and Great Wyrley are spending longer periods in the community to complete much-needed practical tasks.

Neil and me first heard of Link 4 Life in 2009. We were both interested in taking part, as we worked together from our offices on voluntary publicity material for local media about the project, led by local vicar Richard Westwood.

We looked forward to a day when our girls may be able to join a school group and chatted about how realistic a possibility either or both of us getting involved could be.

Richard was always hugely grateful for our help with fundraising and publicity and I don't think there was ever a time we spoke that he didn't tell me that. As non church-goers our paths didn't cross that often but we kept in touch to follow the progress of Link 4 Life.

And then, in the blur of all that has happened, Richard became a remarkable source of support -- for Neil, me and our wider family.

He married us in January and just months later, led Neil's funeral.

He spent time with us in our most desperate hours in a hospital room.

I can't remember when exactly the idea was mooted that the three of us should join Link 4 Life this year, but it was Melissa's idea and we have stuck at it.

So this has become our "thing", a focus for us to work towards. In our grief and shock, our commitment hasn't lessened. I'm not as far forward as I would have liked to have been with officialdom to do with the visit but I'm catching up now the best I can.

How you can help

I would like to ask for your help if I may, and this is connected with fundraising towards our trip. My daughters have plans of their own with the help of classmates and teachers.

I have £637 from the wonderful journalists' community at JournoBiz and we even went and packed bags at Asda. (I never thought I'd see the day.) We lasted at least an hour.

But now I need to step up my fundraising efforts. I'm going to self publish a book of short stories if enough people are interested, to help, and hope to tap into my lovely works colleagues' expertise for more ideas on generating some cash. The stories are a bit rude (as in earthy humour) and have been received well.

In the meantime, I have set up a donate button on this blog. I know that times are very, very tough for people, but if you would like to help me do this in Neil's memory, I would really appreciate any amount, however small, you can send my way.

You just need to click on the donate button and you will be taken through how to make a secure payment.

The button is here and also in the top right of the blog:

If you'd like to help but would prefer to send me a cheque, please email me linaitchison@gmail[dot]com and I will reply with my postal address.

Please also email me if you are interested in knowing more about the form my book of short stories will take.

This will be put towards airfare for the three of us. Should there be enough funds raised, more money will go towards local feeding programmes.

Thank you for reading.

Sometimes it's okay not to be okay

I can't remember which kind soul once told me this.

It was in the days I was blogging about mental health, having worked with a branch of Mind.

Now I have found myself reflecting on this simple yet striking sentiment many times in recent weeks.

I have been having the most vile flashbacks to things that happened to our family and feeling overwhelmed by sadness. My memory continues to be very problematic. This has made my usual daily routine of writing and looking after customers, almost impossible.

Being keen to continue at work has created more problems than it has solved. It's a bitter pill to swallow.

I so want to wave a magic wand, to feel okay, to live life to the fullest for me, my children and my lovely Neil, and find it very hard to accept that it's not possible. So I end up beating myself up for being useless. This has to stop.

Last night as I lay in bed, memories cascaded through my mind. But they were happy memories. This has to be a step forward. I have been trapped a little in bad, bad memories, genuine, aching trauma that my mind and body has struggled to process.

After an initial burst of getting on with things at work and declaring I was now going to be 'braver' in business as a result of my situation, I have come to a grinding halt.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, I can't make my mind up which) medical professionals agree. I am clear and they are clear, that I'm not depressed, but I continue to feel anxious and invent negative scenarios purely through stress. My GP sent me to an emotional well-being service (lovely name, so much better than mental health) where I burst into tears at the start of the session, when the question "Who do you live with?" was the trigger. It didn't take long to be told I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

People who care about me asked what happened next and how this will be treated. It makes me laugh that actually I can't remember! I think I'm on a waiting list.

Meanwhile I fight every urge that says PTSD is a load of nonsense and urges me to get a grip.

I've also been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, following in the footsteps of close family members. My high blood sugar levels have affected how tired I have been feeling and I'm on medication.

This makes me feel crap too - I have been overweight for far too long. But the tablets are working and I am starting to feel more alert. The connotations of laziness and greed that lie behind a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis inevitably play on my mind but I have to be positive and optimistic about my health. For me and my girls it's imperative, now more than ever, that I continue to lose weight (I am a good two and a half stone lighter than I have been.) I don't want to stay on the medication long term and have already significantly lowered my blood sugar through a change in eating habits.

So often I have dished out advice, to family and friends that they need to be kind to themselves.
I need to do the same.

I've been told everything I'm doing, including work and going on holiday is a distraction and that I need to grieve properly. "Shut the door and cry," were the exact words.

So that's what I have been doing. My head feels like it's full of candy floss. 

I've also booked some complementary therapy. What would I say to a friend who has been through all I have? I'd say give yourself a break and stop judging yourself so harshly. Give yourself permission to take time to heal.

Grief is something that has to be let in properly to then be let out, this I try to understand. When I think about what I'm still seeing, I have to acknowledge overcoming that needs strength. But that strength means being strong enough not to pretend to be okay. My neighbour tells me even being upright when faced with such pain is an incredible achievement. 

I need to start to believe her.

It's okay to not 'get a grip' or 'get on with things' or pull myself together sometimes. I am doing my best and that will have to be good enough.

Thanks for reading.