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.