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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 25-Feb-16 17:59:47

From grief to empowerment

In an ocean of grief, can you choose not to sink? We hear from Paul Heiney on the voyage that helped him through one of life's greatest tragedies.

Paul Heiney

From grief to empowerment

Posted on: Thu 25-Feb-16 17:59:47


Lead photo

Paul Heiney

I was talking to Terry Waite the other day backstage at a public event. A little small talk passed between us, and then Terry said, "What have you been up to?"

In that moment I realised that there were several answers to this question and that I must choose one to suit the moment. Was he really interested, or just being polite? If I'd thought it was merely a polite query I would have given my stock answer and, with a shrug, replied, "oh, I've just sailed to Cape Horn and back on my own little boat. 18,000 miles. Nothing much, you know. Everyone's doing it."

But I sensed a genuine curiosity and so I said, "Terry, I've had this idea. It's about getting hold of grief by the scruff of the neck and saying to it, loud and clear, I will NOT be defeated by you!" He jumped to his feet, almost cheering, "yes, yes, YES!" he cried.

It all stems from the loss of my son to suicide at the age of 23, and in a strange way intertwines with one of the world's greatest sailing adventures, which is to sail around Cape Horn.

One of the earliest things we agreed on after his death was that neither of us would be broken by this, and that would be our tribute to him.

There was plenty of adventure, both of the body and the mind, on the way there and on the way back. But ocean sailing, particularly if you are alone as I was for 11,000 of those miles, gives you much space for the deepest of thoughts.

Within days of his death I decided I didn't want to go in for self-pity and tears. That was not for me, nor would it have been a tribute to Nicholas who would never have wished to do anyone else any harm by his action; he saw a gathering mental illness and stepped aside. It was as simple as that. It was not done to punish anyone, certainly not me or his mother. In fact, one of the earliest things we agreed on after his death was that neither of us would be broken by this, and that would be our tribute to him.

He was with me for many of the long miles of this voyage, but because I refused to allow grief to turn to misery, his was always a joyful presence. We shared jokes as much as we did when he was alive. I always thought that in his short 23 years he had gathered more wisdom that I had in certain areas of life, and so he was always there to make me snap out of any melancholy, which all single handed sailors are prone to. The time we were able to spend together, albeit with him as a figment of my imagination, led me to the conclusionwhich I shared with a delighted Terry Waite.

Nicholas wrote poetry, fine poetry appreciated by his Oxford tutors but only discovered by us after his death. One of those poems was called The Silence at the Song's End and to try and fully understand it I spent many hours under both tropical night skies and grey, stormy clouds. And that's how I came to my conclusion, through his words and my thoughts, that grief can be empowering and need not be crushing. We all have different ways of dealing with grief, but that has been mine.

Paul's book One Wild Song is published by Bloomsbury and available from Amazon.

By Paul Heiney

Twitter: @ReedsNautical

Imperfect27 Thu 25-Feb-16 18:18:37

Completely agree with that drive not to be defeated. Our children would want us to live a full life and be as happy as we can be.

Imperfect27 Fri 26-Feb-16 09:52:14

I've thought a lot about this blog and my first response overnight and I want to add to it.

First, I really do applaud anyone who goes out and does something amazing on the back of losing a significant family member. This can be a wonderful way of paying tribute to them and also a way to address / meet head on the pain that comes with grieving.

Within a year of my daughter dying in a tragic accident I took on teacher training. I worked an average 60 hour week - and have done ever since. This means I don't have time to 'wallow', but I am also conscious that I don' have time to grieve as I need to on occasions.

And there is the need to grieve - to process and move on through the pain, the anger, the loss and the upending of our lives at the deepest level in order to accept the reality of what has happened. This is not being defeated by grief and it is not wallowing in self-pity, it is just a natural process, a journey that we need to make for our eventual recovery and future well-being.

I do think we can make positive choices to 'not be beaten' - I did. I promised my daughter on the way to the police car that was to take us to the hospital where her body lay that I would not be broken -for all our sakes, but actually, that has been a very hard promise to keep at times. And I chose to be busy, to fill my life up with doing - but actually this is also avoidance at times.

I just wouldn't want anyone who is reading this blog to feel somehow inadequate because they are struggling with grief and experiencing nothing but the pain of it. They have enough to contend with without being made to feel they are failing in some way because they haven't done something 'amazing' when just putting one foot in front of the other on some days is a herculean effort.

So yes, well done if you feel you have 'defeated' grief - nine years in I learn new meanings of loss year on year and I just think you might need permission to have totally difficult days too.

grannyactivist Fri 26-Feb-16 10:21:04

Imperfect, you have articulated very well my own response to the article.

When my daughter was widowed six years ago she did something positive and remarkable in her grief that resulted in a change in the law, but was nevertheless mentally broken by her loss. Grief still occasionally takes her (and me) unawares and catapults her back into a tremendous sadness and 'brokenness'.

Imperfect27 Sat 27-Feb-16 07:44:16

Thank you grannyactivist. I am sorry to read of your daughter's loss of DH flowers. Grief does indeed creep up on us and catch at us again from time to time. xx

Luckylegs9 Sat 27-Feb-16 07:58:25

Your loved one would want you to be happy again. Admire so much what Paul did and that he and his wife were not beaten by their loss. How on earth you cope in the middle of an ocean in complete solitude I cannot imagine. It is so hard not to be beaten right down when you cannot see a life without the one that died that it has to be a positive decision To make a new life. I did as Imperfect did and became extremely busy and decided to travel as much as I could and it opened a whole new world. Grannyactivist, amazing that your daughter did such a good thing getting the law changed that will impact on others, as a result of her husband's death. However together people might seem after such a great loss and other people think how well they have sorted their lives out, under the surface that great big hole the loved one had left is there appears and has to be dealt with. I have developed my own method of coping when it happens so it never gets hold. To those going through grief at the moment, hang on in there, everyone has their own way of getting through, keep trying and you will make a different but happy life for yourself.

Cagsy Sun 28-Feb-16 16:00:13

I'm so grateful that I've not (yet) had losses like those you've talked about above ladies. I have lost my parents and all uncles and aunts but so far no one of my generation or younger. The loss of parents is awful and I do recognise those stages of grieving but in a way that's what we expect isn't it, but to lose a child must be the worst grief ever. The thought of losing my DH or either of my sisters fills me with horror too.
We are all mortal so no matter how rich or poor, powerful or powerless our lives will end, I guess we just have to make sure we live, love and laugh as much as we can while we have the chance

Blinko Mon 29-Feb-16 11:08:53

I lost a dear brother in a road traffic accident some 40 years ago now, and gave birth to a stillborn son a year or so earlier. I think it is wonderful that Paul Heiney and Libby Purvis are able to articulate their grief in such a poetic way and to share it and their son's work with others. I heard Libby Purvis broadcast her tribute to their son and was so moved by it. I'm sure all our thoughts and good wishes are with them.

Dee Tue 01-Mar-16 11:19:31

Thank you so much Imperfect27 for your wise words.
My lovely husband died suddenly in our kitchen 2 years ago and I was completely overcome with the most terrible grief. I've not had a trouble free life and have coped with some bad times but this was a whole other level of horror.
What I did learn was respect and admiration for friends who had been widowed before me. I had thought I understood how they felt but I had no idea until it happened to me.
I've been blessed with good friends and two lovely children who miss their stepdad every day, we have clung together and survived. You never get over this sort of thing but you do get through it, older and wiser.
I choose to celebrate the wonderful years I had with my husband, I'd had a bad marriage before and know the value of a good one.
And thank you gransnetters too.

shelana Thu 03-Mar-16 11:31:15

I have recently lost my second husband and am going through the grief process.As people have said, sadness can come upon you suddenly -like a physical pain.I try to counteract this by remembering the happy times we spent together.Sometimes it works...I have found great consolation from family and friends-particularly in the local church.There are many people there who have shared such grief and understand when to allow you to talk about a loved one or just to give you a pat or a hug!Try not to be too alone.Gransnet is helping too!

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Mar-16 13:03:01

To lose a son to suicide at the age of twentythree must be the saddest thing in the world. I don't think I could be empowered by it. I would rage against whoever let a mentally ill young person sink so low in this day and age. I'm not really judging because I don't know enough about the circumstances, but no way could I take it on the chin. I would sink under the weight of it.

downtoearth Thu 03-Mar-16 13:41:29

I am in the same position as paul and Libby my daughter aged 23 committed suicide due to Domestic in the beginning I volunteered with groups who dealt with the victims ,so strong was my anger,and later family groups trying to support others,2 years on I suffered a breakdown,but lived to fight another day,then had to undergo the horrors of the trial,custody,and coroners court,it lasted 6 years,it is so different to a death due to illness there is shock,guilt,shame,and an ache to know why,that you can never find out....GN helps because the subject is discussed anonymously and bit by bit you are able to let some of it out..I often feel that people are irritated or bored by my story,some may be unaware of it..jings you may surprise yourself,you have no choice but to go on especially if you have other children an adults relying on you.

Riverwalk Thu 03-Mar-16 13:51:55

downtoearth believe me no-one on GN is irritated or bored by your story .... the idea of your 23-year old daughter taking her own life because of domestic violence must fill the heart of everyone with sadness flowers

And we know that you continue to struggle with bringing up your DGD - I shouldn't presume to speak for others but I think it safe to say that we are inspired by your efforts. smile

downtoearth Thu 03-Mar-16 14:03:04

Thank you RW GN is a safety valve for any one in difficulties,a place where the strong can renew their energies,and I hope I can offer as much support to others on here as I receive xx

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Mar-16 14:44:10

I don't remember asking anyone's opinion on my post. I was replying to the blog post.

downtoearth Thu 03-Mar-16 15:40:28

do you have to be so rude and abrupt jingle

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Mar-16 17:29:39

I am sorry if that was hurtful downtoearth. I think it's too sensitive a subject to comment on other people's feelings though. That's all.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Mar-16 17:34:58

Maybe Gransnet should put a bit more thought into the choosing of these 'blogs'. At our age we are likely to have been through a variety of life experiences and some things are bound to touch nerves.

They are only adverts for books anyway. Kerching! hmm

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 03-Mar-16 17:35:37

Sorry again downtoearth. flowers

downtoearth Thu 03-Mar-16 18:24:20

thanks jingle wine all forgottensmile