Archive for August, 2016

5 things it’s okay to do when someone’s grieving

shutterstock_55969696In the last few days I’ve had the same few situations crop up several times, so I’m guessing these are probably really common in times of grief. I posted this little message to my friends on Facebook — a bit of ‘grief etiquette’, at least from my perspective right now. Five things I think it’s okay to do or say:

1. It’s okay to be having your own problems and you don’t need to hide them from me because “it’s nothing like what you’re going through”. I’m not inviting everyone to pile on with ‘dumping in’ (and I’m not in a position to be of much help right now, or to take on added personal stress) – but when we’re talking if you’re upset about something in your life that isn’t ‘life and death’ but is nevertheless upsetting or worrying or stressful, those are completely legitimate feelings. It’s not a problem competition. Yes, this is really bad here now, but grief comes to all of us at different times, and three weeks ago I didn’t have this problem myself, so don’t worry about that.

2. It’s okay to cry in front of me about what has happened. It doesn’t mean you’re making it ‘about you’ – you’re just being empathetic. Feel what you’re feeling freely and don’t try to be strong on my account. I’ve noticed this is happening a lot the first time people come over or see me somewhere, and that’s okay – I’m big on tears myself and it means you really care.

3. It’s okay not to know what to say. Just say, “I don’t know what to say”. I never know what to say either – there is nothing TO say, really, and all that matters is your presence.

4. It’s okay to put your foot in it. You might say “I nearly had a heart attack” or “I almost died” etc. We’ve said these things ourselves – they are throw-away lines and not offensive. We handle it here by saying, ‘oops – poor choice of words!’ and moving on.

5. Please don’t avoid sharing happy or good news, or talking in a loved up way about your partners or your plans or posting nice things and things to celebrate. I love to know that you’re happy and things are going well. ‪#‎lifeaffirming‬, right?

How my husband’s death is bringing me to my feet …

flowersMy family and I did the City 2 Surf yesterday, almost three weeks after Jeff died. Taking Seb (five) away and feeling the sand under our toes and watching the waves crash on the beach was exactly what we needed.

Completing the race was a welcome physical challenge to balance the emotional one that’s weighing so heavily. Doing it with my sister and her family symbolised walking together over the last three weeks, one step at a time.

Along the way, I noticed a phrase printed on the back of someone’s T-shirt. It said, “Brain cancer didn’t bring me to my knees, it brought me to my feet.” That’s exactly how I’m feeling now, while trying to come to terms with what has happened.

When Audrey and I interviewed Rebecca Sparrow for our ’15 Minutes that Changed My Life’ speaker series a couple of years ago, Bec told us about losing her baby daughter, Georgie. “Somehow, Georgie was going to turn the light up in my life, not down,” Bec had said.

That’s how I’m feeling about Jeff. I want to be a better person. I want to do more. Experience more. LIVE more. Turn the light up because he died, not down.

Losing him has shown me the fragility of life. It’s made me value every breath I take much more highly. For the last six months, my body has been screaming at me with a combination of high blood pressure and a persistent, unidentified, stress-related rash. I was letting things get to me that weren’t worth the effort, and finding myself in a high-pressure pattern that wasn’t healthy.

In three weeks, so much has already changed. Most of it is for the worse, but some of it is for the better. I’ve realised I can grieve standing still, or I can grieve while moving — the pain is the same either way. I have a young, vibrant family whose broken hearts need time and love and routine and some special things to do, so I’m choosing to keep moving.

We decided on the night after Jeff’s funeral that we would do one life-affirming thing every day, no matter how miserable we might be feeling. It began the next day, when we pulled apart all the flowers we’d been given, made fresh bunches, wrapped them in pink tissue paper and cellophane and delivered about ten gorgeous bouquets to the hospital where all the kids were born.

Every day since, we’ve done something that makes us feel alive and grateful or helpful. It’s my belief that, if we just keep doing this — really living, despite our grief — at some point the unbearable ache might start to dull and some moments of happiness might peek through.

When you lose the love of your life, it can bring you to your knees. It can completely destroy you.

Or it can bring you to your feet. I’m feeling a strong calling to honour Jeff’s memory by becoming the best version of myself possible, in the precious time that I have.

Someone wrote in the condolences book: “He changed the way I see the world.” That’s something that he did when he was alive for me, too, and it hasn’t stopped since I lost him. He changed the way I see the world, and now I want to change the world as I see it. One step at a time — the way we tackled the City 2 Surf, and the way we’ll tackle every day to come.

Join me?

Choose one life-affirming thing to do, every single day, not matter what sort of day you’re having or how you’re feeling — and no matter how large or small. It will change everything.

To the man I love …

0-EmmaJeff-901Two weeks ago tomorrow, the fabric was ripped from my universe. I lost my darling husband, Jeff, suddenly, unexpectedly and inconceivably. There is much I want to say about how I have survived the worst two weeks of my life — most of it involves being carried by my sister, friends and even strangers, when I felt I couldn’t breathe. I’ll write about that in the coming weeks, but, for now, please indulge me while I share with you the words I spoke at his memorial service on Friday.

The weekend before Jeff died, I told him I had a flat tyre.

‘Call the NRMA,’ he said.

‘I’m not a member.’ I told him. He rolled his eyes, frowned at me and sighed. And then he looked at me and said, ‘Well you should be.’ (Thanks to my brother-in-law, Paul, for changing my tyre for me.)

In the days that followed his death, as we walked around the house, trying to piece together some semblance of understanding about what had happened, and how it could possibly have happened … We also had to piece together the house.

There was a smoke alarm sitting upturned on a pile of books in his study. The oven door handle was on the kitchen bench with the broken lint cover from the dryer. The towels were on the bathroom floor on top of the towel rail which Seb had ripped off in 2012. The television channels left us three years ago …

My husband was a man with a long history of leaving things broken around the house. And now he’s left us broken.

When someone like Jeff is taken from our lives so unexpectedly, everything appears in sharper focus. How much we loved him. How much he accomplished. How much his enormous brain had left to think, and how deeply he intended to continue loving and inspiring us.

He was a man who died with a to-do list a mile long — and I don’t mean domestically, I mean in all the ways that truly count. Books he wanted to write. Places he wanted to see and revisit. Children he dearly wanted to love deeply for decades to come, whose lives will somehow continue to unfurl without him, in ways that would have brought him immeasurable pride.

When Jeff asked me to marry him, it was less of a question and more of a demand. ‘Marry me,’ he said. And I said, ‘what’s the magic word?’ Our bond was as writers, and we admired each other’s work immensely. It was his brain that I fell in love with first, and one of my proudest moments as his wife was watching him deliver a very warmly-received lecture at Oxford University in 2011.

He often told me he couldn’t write the way I write (which I think he meant as a compliment!) and he read my teen romance novel with a hot pink cover on the flight to the most recent Society of Military History meeting in Ottawa. He took great pains to point out afterwards that, while he wasn’t the target audience, he thought it was good. Complex. He enjoyed the villain, in particular. (I think I have an understanding of how his students must feel receiving his unembellished and fair feedback — which of course is exactly the sort of feedback we really need.)

But there was a lot more to Jeff than his towering intellect. For the last two years, every single week, he cooked two meals for my parents — who absolutely adored him. He was a much-loved uncle to my nieces and a strong presence for my sister. He gave me not just a son, but a step-daughter and step-son who mean the world to me, along with their partners Jake and Meg — whose strength this week has brought us through.

I posted something only a couple of weeks ago on Facebook publicly thanking Jeff for the sacrifices he made in recent times to give my family the stability it needs on a number of important fronts.

I said, “What you do as step-dad on a daily basis in large and small ways to support my girls isn’t unnoticed, by any of us. Things aren’t easy, even as a natural parent, and it takes someone really amazing to love the way you do, and to put up with the deep array of ‘gah’ in our household.”

That’s when he delivered a reply that I will always remember as the best line he ever wrote: “And here was me thinking it was in the job description.”

After he died, a friend described our relationship in a post. “They were the perfect couple, living a life together with the rarest bond of mutual support and love that I think I’ve ever seen”. Another said that she thought our regular interactions online were the most romantic thing she’d ever read.

Something that gives me immense comfort now is that Jeff knew exactly how I felt about him. I told him, regularly. I told everyone else, regularly, and I wrote a chapter in the upcoming book that I’ve co-authored, about exactly what he means to me.

He hadn’t read the whole book, but he did read that chapter, and while he wasn’t into public displays of affection, he did approve of those words.

I’m going to have to re-write the end of that chapter now. After that, I’ll have to re-write the story we imagined for our future.

The night before we lost him, during an uncharacteristically long hug with Seb on the couch (almost as though they knew), he told Sebastian that when he was older, we’d take him all around the world to see all the cool places Daddy loved. The morning after, when Seb first opened his eyes, he put his arm around me, smiled sadly and said, ‘Mummy — let’s go out into the world together.’

Jeff had every confidence in me, that I could wrangle myself out of an unexpected plot twist and he’s now handed me a scenario more unexpected and shocking than something out of his beloved Game of Thrones.

We as a family will scramble out of this wreckage together, because he left us with helpers. Hundreds and hundreds of helpers who loved him and who love us, who will help us now. You already are.

I had the rare good fortune to be loved by a man who knew how to challenge my thinking and push me out into the world to do hard things. He always used to tell me before I went and did anything professional, or nerve-wracking: “Be brilliant.”

So I think we owe him that.

Be brilliant. Love fiercely. Squeeze every last drop out of our lives right up until the final breaths that we take just as he did. Let’s be the highest versions of ourselves that we can be. Let’s borrow from his favourite quote and ‘reach beyond our grasp’.

And let’s write stories in our lives that would have made him proud.


You can enjoy the slideshow of images we showed at the service here, and for something truly special, you can listen to the piece of music our dear friend Sally Whitwell composed in Jeff’s honour.

And here’s an obituary, if you’d like to learn more about who he was, career-wise – but my favourite place to visit is this link, in which colleagues all over the world shared memories of the kind of man he was.