Category: Bereavement


With so much bad press about Twitter and Facebook, trolls and abusers, it is nice to realize once in a while that it is not all bad.

I have a few main areas of interest on the social networks (mostly Facebook) – these include humour, photography, injustice (and lately politics), music and mental health, care and disability issues. Yesterday I posted something on Facebook about how things have been for me recently – mentally and emotionally. The response to it was quite amazing to me: very moving and humbling. I am lucky to have such good friends on and off there. It is worth copying the post here as well as one comment that summed up the general feeling I got from the responses and my reply to it.

I’ve been going through a ‘volatile’ patch lately in terms of mental health. Thankfully some of the time I have had things to do and to distract. Today was particularly low when I woke from what was without doubt the most horrific, cruel and sadistic dream I ever had.

I haven’t been able to understand WHY I’ve been going through it, and sometimes it takes someone else who knows you (sometimes better than you know yourself), and knows your ‘history’ to figure it out.

Today I was reminded that this was the time of year that, after everything else had been tried, and after becoming as resigned as anyone ever can be to the last stages of a terminal illness, Helen came home from the Marie Curie Hospice. I never forget that time, but sometimes I forget the timing. Does it help to know what is behind this miserable feeling? Absolutely it does! It helps to allow myself to grieve, to remember the wonderful times with a wonderful person; it helps to move on in the small way we all have to at every key point in the years that follow loss.

So wholeheartedly I can say Thank You to Frankie [my girlfriend] for reminding me and helping me through.

I often worry when I post items like this that it may be seen as self-indulgent, or self-pitying and sympathy seeking. I never see it that way myself, and it only comes into question when I read it afterwards as objectively as possible (which is admittedly not all that). By the time I post things like this, I have usually worked through the issues that are mentioned in it (although the horrific nightmare that woke me is still haunting me now!).

My view is that by sharing such stuff, such experiences and the coping and support strategies that come into play in these situations, it helps in the gentler side of campaigning to de-stigmatize mental health issues. The stigma around them has decreased significantly in the time that my life has been blighted by depression, but of course, it still has a way to go. Especially under a political regime that is working hard to ‘re-‘stigmatize mental illness, disability, poverty etc.

Thankfully, I think most of my friends on FB don’t see it as self-pitying – I get encouraging comments about my honesty and openness. I also get a lot of supportive comments too. To me it shows the better side of Facebook.

The selection of friends that commented is notably diverse too. There are friends from college, 35 years ago, that I haven’t seen in all that time. Until we were back in touch on FB, they had no idea of the loss of two of my partners in succession, or the depression that resulted (although I suspect those that knew me well could discern the potential for depressive issues even back then). There are people that I have met in and around Liverpool in the years since Helen (my second partner’s) death, then there are those around this country and abroad – many of which I’ve never met in person.

Of course, no post about social networking should go without some warning about self-disclosure. As vulnerable people, it is far too easy to give too much information away. We should always be careful not to give addresses, phone numbers and other personal information out publicly online. Sometimes we can do this almost unknowingly. It is always worth checking privacy settings frequently and for each post you add. The trolls, abusers and other undesirable elements are out there and they do watch. So we need to be cautious.

To end back on a positive note, here is the comment I mentioned just now. It is from one of the people I knew at college:

Catherine Francoise: I have only recently been back in touch with you through the wonders of Facebook Marc but I absolutely love your honesty and your ‘realness’ in being brave enough to say how you really feel. I am also struck by the absolutely awesome friends you have in your immediate circle! We forget how much past experience will still affect us now so no wonder you are in a more difficult place right now ~ but holding on to the wonderful things your life with Helen brought you both will eventually pull you through this ‘throwback’ time. You have such a great heart Marc ~ keeping you in my thoughts and payers right now xxxx

Facebook really doesn’t get much better than that for me, and the rest of the thread is equally supportive. Here is my reply:

Marc Fraser: Catherine – thanks for all that. Sometimes I worry that my honesty and realness border on self-indulgence. I don’t post stuff out of self-pity: usually by the time I post about things related to depression, I’m over the issue. Depression and related conditions really have overshadowed a lot of my adult life and it’s only in the last few years that I have started to turn it around and put the experience to some – hopefully – good use. When I was first diagnosed (which in all honesty was probably long after I had the condition), nobody talked about it. It was a thing people were ashamed of. Even my psychiatrist – my PSYCHIATRIST! – told me to pull myself together. Over the following years, that stigma has been reduced greatly, and the support network, certainly here in Liverpool, has developed into something amazing. However there still IS stigma attached to it, and my posts about it here and on my blog are an attempt to help in de-stigmatizing it. If it really does help other people that have been through similar issues to read about it, then none of the experience has been wasted.

Off Guard

Today reminded me of how easily the slightest association can catch us unaware.

In the time after Jacquie (my wife) then Helen (my second partner) were taken by cancer, I have gone through the regular ‘triggers’ – birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases, places, songs and so forth – that can spark feelings of unbearable loss; it is like the removable of a large part of your own soul.

I went through the various days and events in the first year after each death. The following year would be a lot easier to deal with – almost like forearmed is forewarned.

Then in Summer 2013, I came off the anti-depressants (gradually – I can not emphasize enough to anyone who may read this the folly of suddenly quitting anti-depressants completely, or quitting at all without consulting your G.P.). So last year it was almost like going through those things for the first time. I was experiencing them raw, without the cotton wool protection of Prozac. I got through though, and I believe I came through more or less a stronger person for it. I say more or less, because there are still emotional ‘frailties’.

I experienced one of those frailties today – completely unexpectedly. I did my regular Friday morning volunteer shift at the Marie Curie hospice. I hadn’t considered the time of year – I was only aware of an intense sadness, which I put down to the usual Winter Blues. Then it hit me – like a brick. This is about the time of year when Helen was admitted to the hospice. Although the shift wasn’t busy, I found I was struggling with it.

The one salvation – always – is the process of meeting and greeting people attending outpatients appointments. Having been on that side of the reception desk so many times with Helen and being in awe of the friendly and welcoming demeanour of all the staff – from volunteers, to permanent admin to nurses and doctors – the joy of just a little friendly chat is priceless.

And as with other milestone events throughout the year, if I’m still there next year, I will have been through it once and the sadness will be very much easier to deal with. Such unguarded moments also bring home that recovery from depression, whatever the cause may be, is never a straight path.

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Wellbeing Part 3

At times I feel I should change the title of my blog to something along the lines of “Diary of an infrequent blogger”.  As this is Mental Health Awareness Week, it seems like a very good time to post and finish off the posts about my condition so that I can move forward and write about the positive things I have been doing and experiencing during the last 12-18 months.

Helen and Liverpool

I met Helen about 2 years after Jacquie’s death. We hit it off immediately, although both of us had misgivings initially about the relationship. She was concerned that it was soon after Jacquie’s death (although she said I was remarkably on top of it). I was worried about getting too close to anyone after the experiences I had already had.

Initially Helen said she was ‘in awe’ of me. She used to call me ‘posh geezer’ (mostly because of my Southern accent and knowledge about classical music, classical literature etc. – certainly not because of any kind of class or status). Being put on a pedestal is immensely flattering, especially when it is by someone you are falling in love with; but it is also somewhat worrying. As I told her, there will come a point when my wry sense of humour and eccentricities would no longer be funny or interesting to her – that when the rose coloured glasses were off, and all my flaws were on show, she may feel very different.

Of course, I was spot on, but what I could never predict was how extreme my ‘fall’ would be. That doesn’t mean that she wasn’t extremely supportive – she was. But it was almost impossible for her to contend with the depression that hit after I moved to Liverpool.

One of the last coherent things she said to me as she was dying was “I was really horrible to you over the depression.” It was a heart breaking moment. I had never thought she was horrible, just an ordinary person trying to deal with something she had no direct experience of in someone she loved.

Over almost 11 years together, we had many challenges, but also we shared many great times. She saw me through the depression, subtly and without always expressing (or indeed hiding) the frustration she felt at undertaking such a task. And as I started to show signs of slight improvement, she was diagnosed with bowel cancer and I became more supportive for her – at least that is what she said and it is what I hope.

She fought the disease for five  years before we heard the words nobody wants to hear – there was nothing more they could do for her other than make her end a comfortable and dignified one. As little as three months before she finally lost the use of her legs, we were travelling around Cornwall and then around Paris. She loved life and made an adventure of it. It was a joy to experience – especially not knowing what was about to happen.

In the last six months of her life, we had some of our most telling conversations I think. We both sought forgiveness for our shortcomings with each other – not that we ever asked each other for it. One thing she asked of me and I tried to promise (unsure of whether it was a promise I could keep or not), was that after all the hard work (and yes it often was hard work) she had put in to getting me to ‘live’ again rather than just exist or subsist, I wouldn’t sink that low again. I have often thought about those particular conversations as I have started to ‘live’ again after the devastation of losing her. She finally passed away on the 3rd June 2011.

Of course I had some very difficult and very empty months after her death; BUT – aware of the hard work she had put in to keeping me out of a psychiatric hospital, I was determined not to sink that low again. I owed – owe – it to her.

PSS have played a huge part in helping me stick to that determination. I am very proud to be able to take an active part in World Mental Health day on Friday, 10 October by helping with PSS’s stall in Williamson Square for a couple of hours. If you are around there, take a look – they are really a fantastic organisation.

So that is how I have got to where I am now – well almost, I will do some updating about what I’ve been up to over the Summer and things that are going on now and in future.

Okay – four months since I lasted posted here. Life has been, and continues to be, full of shifting currents. So this is largely a catch up post.

Last year was such a momentous year for me, the three ‘key events’ being 1) coming off the Prozac (that has not always been an easy ride, but I still don’t regret it); 2) the life-changing trip to the USA; and 3) buying the synthesizer as a kind of ‘commitment’ to working on music again.

Depression has been described (notably by Winston Churchill as well as by Matthew Johnstone in his ‘Black Dog’ books). Personally that is not a description that resonates with me, as I associate dogs with either unquestioning affection, or fear (if they are aggressive).

My visualization of depression is more like being submerged in muddy, polluted water. As your mental health improves, the waters clear, as it worsens, you are enveloped in a murky darkness. It isn’t even pure black – I think ‘black’ is a definite, non-scaling, non-changing colour (or quality if you prefer) – the pollution of depression is not quite black – not quite any colour. This is probably something that will be difficult to follow if you haven’t walked the fine line between sadness and depression…

Enough to say that after Christmas and almost until Easter this year, I slipped back into depression to the point where I considered going back on anti-depressants. I am thankful that I didn’t. I realized at some point that if I did so, it would represent to me a huge failure, which would feed the demons of depression plenty of food for torment. Of course, it doesn’t help that one of the elements of my particular condition is SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder). But I have learned from it that the bad weather is a ‘challenge’. I can’t avoid it – nobody can – so I need to be vigilant and use tools such as mindfulness, visualization, and creative work to carry on and flip dismal weather the bird.

Another surprise came at some of the ‘occasions’ this last year. Christmas and New year (which was also my wife Jacquie’s birthday, then my birthday, then Helen’s birthday were all marked this year by intense sadness – grief. It struck me that I had been leaning on the crutch of anti-depressants since Jacquie’s death in 1999. In many sense this has been the first year that I have been grieving for both losses with full awareness. Of course it made for an emotional rollercoaster!

So here I still stand, strengthened by the challenges I have noted… And progress continues.

So my second week in the process of quitting Prozac ended yesterday. It was quite a test as it was the second anniversary of Helen’s death (see previous posts). Of course, there was a lot of sadness – a lot of horror too – at the memory of just watching her slip away, there was bound to be. Depression, Prozac, or no – you would have to be lacking something human not to be affected by that memory.

However, overall I have fared much better this week. Last week was a week of painful ‘lows’ in mood. This week I have started to glimpse some benefits of what I am trying to achieve. I have had more enthusiasm, more aspiration – and a remarkable feeling (lost for so long) of spiritual, emotional and creative clarity. For me, spirituality and creativity are intimately linked – the element in my psyche that gives me a sense of spiritual wonder is the same element that makes me want to communicate through the arts in some form or other. It has been more depressing to realize that that element is locked away because of the drug. After all isn’t that supposed to be the thing that ‘fixes’ me?

I had an appointment at The Umbrella Centre here in LIverpool yesterday. I reached the end of my counselling sessions last month and my counsellor referred me on. One of the questions I was asked was

“Do you consider yourself disabled?”

No. I have two chronic conditions (COPD and Chronic lower back pain), which are a hindrance, but I don’t see them as disabling yet.

“How about the depression? Do you feel you’re disabled by that?”

I prefer to think of it as ‘recovering’ rather than disabled – now. It’s quite a realisation that the treatment has robbed me of feeling for way too long.


This is a huge change from – even a month ago. All in all, so far so good…

Memory

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It’s that time of the year again. The past two years have been the embodiment of that paradox: time has flown, and yet it has also crawled.

This year I have found a lot of solace in the celebration of Helen’s life rather than the grief of her passing.

I have also prayed (to the God of common sense, compassion, humanity – wherever ‘God’ is) that research into the cure for cancer will become a higher priority than research into destroying perceived enemies with ever more sophisticated weaponry.

How many more beautiful lives have to be cut short by the shortfall in the former and the over-abundance of the latter?

Snapshot Stories

I went to the submitter’s preview of the FAB Colletive’s Look 13 exhibition at the Domino Gallery here in Liverpool. I have the photo of Helen at the Eiffel Tower in the exhibition and it was a humbling experience seeing that photo alongside 23 other photos – all of fantastically high quality. It was also a very emotional experience to see it in another context – and at this time too, so close to the second anniversary of her death.

What I enjoyed about the exhibition was thinking about the story behind the photos. A photo is like the crystallized presentation of a story; unlike in a story, which unfolds over time, a photo can (if it is effective) condense that story into a static ‘moment’.

In the case of the photo of Helen, the story is very poignant. As long as I knew her, she had dreamed of going for a holiday to Paris (and since meeting me, I’m pleased to say the dream was to go with me); How ironic that we finally got to go, and it was her last trip. Within a few short weeks, she was paralyzed from the waist down and within a few months, gone.

Displaying the photo has, for me, been a very fitting tribute to a wonderful woman.

The exhibition is on until the 1st June. There is a great cross section of photos within the 24 displayed. Well worth a look!

Here are a few photos I took yesterday – it was a beautiful clear day here. There are also a couple from the exhibition.

 

Walk again, Helen – your path is lit by the light of angels.

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It’s hard to believe that this picture was only taken in November last year. It was the last night of our enchanting trip to Paris, and I snapped this photo from the Eiffel Tower. Helen had such a look of childlike enchantment throughout the trip as well as a sadness that seemed to feel what was to come.

This post – which will probably be my last for a while – is to say farewell to her and to allow friends on and off line to post something to thank God for the gift of such a loving, generous, compassionate person in our lives.

She fought cancer for five years so bravely, bouncing back from setback after setback. She decided that last year she was going to travel while she was still able to – the last trip being this one to Paris in November. She was determined to see her son Alex’s 18th birthday – which she did. That was on 26 December 2010. On the 28th, she had a party at her home for him. Only then did she start to feel some loss of sensation in her legs. She described it as ‘weakness – like something is not right’.

By 10 January of this year, she was completely paralyzed from the waist down, and was in for a week in which every ray of hope was ripped from her. The cause of the paralysis was a tumour that had resumed its growth after being zapped with radio therapy. It had compressed on her spinal cord. That was the first blow, but the medical team still felt there were options. Surgery – that was the first to be ruled out as it was too dangerous being so close to the spinal column. Chemo Therapy – that was next to be ruled out. It would just make her feel awful with little effect. Radio Therapy – because she had already had radio therapy in that spot, having more there was not an option.

The end of that week presented her with three choices: 1 – stay in the general hospital, 2 – go to the hospice or 3 – go home. It was something of a no-brainer; she went to the hospice, where after a few weeks, she decided she wanted to come home to be with her family and to be looked after by me.

So she came home at the end of February.

She was baptised also at the end of February, went to her nieces sons’ christening in March and that was the last real outing for her.

From then on she grew weaker, more lethargic and more frustrated with her increasing lack of energy. Her birthday was celebrated at home. We had planned a party for her, but two chest infections made it impossible at that time, and when she finally recovered from them, her condition had deteriorated enough that she would get out of bed once more on Easter Monday. After that we watched with such grief as she simply withered. First her body became so fragile and weak as to be heart-breaking. Then confusion came and she was in mental turmoil. Finally there was quietness for a few days before she passed in the early hours of Friday morning, 3 June 2011.

Helen touched the hearts of so many – her friends, family, workmates – as well as those who knew of her on line. She endeared herself immediately to just about everyone she met, and where people would visit her in recent months to cheer her up, they would usually go away smiling because she had cheered them up.

I am missing her terribly – like a huge hole has opened up in the foundation of my life. But I know that is my selfishness because she was suffering and she is not now.

Please feel free to leave messages for her family and her memory in the comments here.

Bye bye Helen – you were unique and made the lives of those who knew you that much better. Rest in peace.

06 June 2011, 20:19:56Here is an album of photo memories of Helen.