I place my bones on the riverbank, and shed the last layer of my skin.
The wound where my heart used to be is a punctured place,
filled with stale blood and things left unsaid,
I cannot breathe.
I’m becoming a creature of the Underworld.
Transparent and raw, like a pupa,
Shimmer on the water; a sea spray in the air.
A lightning sprite across the African sky…
That’s where it went.
The other part of me that used to be,
Slowly, I’m rebuilding my voice,
with the rustle of the birds, and the humming of the trees.
New bones forming with the mud from the riverbank,
heavy with minerals, and aeons of ancestry.
This Underworld me is stronger,
softer, more open.
Fortified with Time, and Memory, and Silt.
Ready to be reborn, now of a different sort.
Loved ones gone before carry me home with the river,
I am whole again.
I wanted to write a piece about 2020 that was upbeat. Jolly, even. But the words that came out just felt clammy, and lifeless.
So instead I’m going to show up raw, and be real with you. That means these words won’t be even remotely jolly, but they will be vulnerable, and perhaps more importantly, honest.
My hope is this piece will offer solace to anyone who isn’t ready to reframe the loss of a loved one yet, or indeed the loss of a part of themselves that they miss deeply, and that has long been buried.
My intention is that these words act as a companion piece to encourage you to simply be with yourself through the muck of it all, and know that how you feel is valid, even if you only have enough energy right now to get through one day at a time.
So this is where we begin, regardless of how loudly my inner critic shouts at me to stop being self-indulgent.
There’s a global pandemic in 2020, and I’m an orphan at 40.
Like many of you, I had plans at the start of 2020.
Those plans changed dramatically when a visit to South Africa to see my Dad took an
What seemed like a regular overnight stay in hospital to observe a swelling on his leg, turned into the blur of the intensive cardiac care unit, 6am phone calls from worried nurses, and a deep, deep sense of uncertainty.
After four days of back and forth hospital visits to see him, all the while hoping he’d
miraculously wake up one morning feeling a whole lot better, at 2:30pm on March 5 2020, my dear Dad died.
It takes my breath away that a whole, entire person – with full spirit, and personality, and undeniable presence – can be here one moment, and gone the next.
Dad had been in late stage kidney failure for 9 months. He was on dialysis every second day, and along with his loss of mobility – which is a common side-effect of kidney failure – he’d also been suffering with debilitating pain from unhealed necrotic ulcers on his legs. He was by no means well, but I guess my naivety, mixed with a heavy dose of denial, meant I’d struggled over the past 9 months to come to terms with the reality of my Dad being this way, and as a result I felt utterly unprepared for his death.
Nicky, the fiercely compassionate, kind and superbly efficient cardiac nurse who cared for him in those four short days, said he woke up in the morning on March 5th, ate his breakfast, and then decisively announced, “Right, I’m leaving today.”
It was his heart that went first, in the end.
My sisters and I arrived at his bedside 15 minutes late.
A week after Dad’s passing, I turned 40. My aunt made me a cake, and we had a small, quiet meal together as a family before the funeral the next day. Having lost my Mom in 2015, all I kept thinking about was that I never imagined I’d have buried both my parents by the age of 40.
“What about all the children who’ve lost their parents before they’re even old enough to go to school? Stop feeling so sorry for yourself!” my internal Pity-Party Monitor hissed at me from the Judgement seat in the back of my mind.
I calmly told her to fuck off.
When I returned to the UK on the last flight out of South Africa before both countries went into lockdown, I landed in a new 2020 reality.
“It’s a nightmare here, you’re going to struggle just to find toilet paper,” the taxi driver
muttered on the journey home from the airport.
As the days and weeks went by, it seemed all anyone could talk about was Covid-19, and the lockdown, and the panic buying, and the social distancing, and the hand washing, and the furloughs…and all I wanted to do was stop everything and scream,
“Just-shut-the-fuck-up-and-don’t-you-know-my-Dad-died!?”, because to be candid here, it felt like there was a massive change in my 2020 reality that had nothing to do with Covid-19, and everything to do with a gaping hole that I wasn’t ready to accept.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that if Covid-19 was a character in a play, it’d be the
overbearing, inappropriately intrusive relative who hijacks everybody’s grieving process and makes it all about them.
I’m ashamed of how selfish that sounds.
Especially in the midst of a world that is in such a state of flux.
There’s something to be said for the painful, clumsy vulnerability that comes with not knowing how to process grief in the midst of a pandemic. At times it’s felt impossibly difficult to navigate graciously. I’m confident that I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to processing grief in the 2020 landscape.
Just writing that helps take the pressure off of feeling the need to reframe how I feel into some sort of bloated, half-decomposed meme.
What a relief, to simply allow all parts of me to be openly expressed, without feeling the impulse to brace myself for the well-meaning, but empty pseudo-spiritual platitudes so often regurgitated to fill the void of awkwardness that inevitably arises when other people don’t know how to act around the bereaved, and are terrified that you’re a super-spreader, and they too, might catch grief.
When Mom died unexpectedly in 2015, I couldn’t stop crying. I wept on the Underground. I sobbed in the grocery store. I wrote reams of notes about the shock of her loss in my journal.
This time in 2020 it was different.
There was no weeping, no sobbing, and no writing.
Days and weeks went by with no emotion. Sometimes I’d sit quietly by myself and try to cry, but all that came out was a thin, hollow sound that made my chest hurt.
So instead, I stayed busy. To fill the punctured place where my heart was.
Make a podcast. Launch a YouTube channel. Create courses. Teach courses. Show up,
smile, everything is OK.
Grief, I’ve learned, has many different guises that you cannot anticipate, or rush your way through.
Along with a sense of upheaval and uncertainty this year, there’s also been a powerful undercurrent of tenderness, solace, and grace. Certainly there have been moments of gentleness and heart-opening kindness that I cannot not reflect on.
I’m floored when I think about the sheer elegance of timing that allowed me to spend four days with my Dad while he was in hospital, where I got to hug him and hold his hand.
The kindness and generosity of my neighbour and friend, Amy, who stepped in without
question to take care of the cats when my husband, Craig rushed onto a last minute flight out to be with me for the funeral.
My aunt and uncle, who supported me with strength and gentleness as my sisters, and Craig and I packed up Dad’s house, and had those uncomfortable but necessary conversations with estate agents, probate officials, and funeral directors.
And Craig, who held me while I fell to pieces, and loved me anyway despite the cracks.
The day my Dad passed, my sisters and I came home from the hospital in the evening and sat in silence on the wooden deck in the garden of our family home, watching the sunset kiss the muddy banks of the Kromme river where Dad had loved to sail his boat, and where he and Mom had met by chance as teenagers, all those years ago in the 60s.
In that milky twilight space – when the sun dips down just below the horizon and all the creatures of the river fall silent – we were greeted by the softest rustling of giant wings, as a rare African Spotted Eagle Owl pierced the night with a haunting cry, and landed a few feet away on a branch of the tree that Dad and Mom had planted together a few years prior.
Now, I want you to know that I’m sceptical about what happens after we die. My own belief is not yet firm, hovering somewhere in-between the realms of the mystical and the realism of science.
Yet that night, seeing the Eagle Owl so free, and wild, and powerfully alive, I felt comforted.
My feeling of anguish met with another feeling of quiet peace, brought on by the thought that life continues on in a strange, beautiful momentum that I don’t fully understand. Perhaps the conclusion of one form just leads to the next.
Not gone, just different.
The exquisite, unknowable grace of it all.
2020 has taught me that Death is our greatest teacher about Life.
We don’t just mourn the physical death of loved ones, we mourn dreams that lose
momentum, and ways of being that get buried under rules, and restrictions, and “new normals,” too. We mourn the endings of relationships, careers, parts of our identity that fall away, and friendships that fade over time.
Death of any sort, can feel soul-crushing and heart-breaking.
In our modern society that seems to have a process for everything – including grief – I want to tell you that it’s absolutely normal to feel knocked down by the loss of someone or something, or indeed, the loss of a part of you that once was.
You haven’t fallen through the cracks if the processes don’t work.
You’re in what I’ve come to know as the Underworld, and the Underworld operates on its own Time.
My Dad was a Scientist, with a deep love and reverence for the Natural world. There’s one
scientific law that he held in the highest regard his whole life, that I was reminded of that evening with the Eagle Owl, and I want to share it with you:
“Energy cannot be created, or destroyed. It only changes form.”
2020 has taught me that life itself is in a constant state of reinvention, one way or another.
We’re all in a perpetual process of shedding one layer, growing the next, and on and on.
In 2020, I fully surrendered to the Underworld. I let it unpeel my layers and consume me, and I emerged from it a different sort.
Softer; more gentle. Accepting of my own magnificent paradoxes.
If there’s something I’m going to take with me from 2020 into 2021 it’s this:
However many times the wheel turns…however many times you, or I, find ourselves
surrendering to the mud of the Underworld for the next phase of reinvention, and the next; we cannot be destroyed.
Photo of the Kromme river, taken at 5am on March 6th, 2020
This piece features in the compilation book, ‘#2020VISION’ from The Unbound Press.
#2020VISION is a time capsule like no other; filled with stories and memories, and great wisdom captured from this time.
The book is now available for pre-order (both Kindle and paperback) on Amazon: