The transparent space

The question of who we really are, the truths we seek from others and the reality of what we know was tested last night when I went along with some mates to see Transparency….as much as the subject matter was heavy the underlying questions of how well we truly know each other, or even how much we really should know about others in our lives was so well portrayed that it had us all talking over a long coffee and a slow drive home….as a social worker and as someone who is invested in understanding people’s narratives my pursuit of the truth sometimes takes me to places I dont want to go to. Even in my personal life I’ve often found myself asking questions and then bracing myself in preparation of the answer – the more I ask, the harder it is to stay silent. For me the space in between truth and trust is about being prepared to hear the answers and I must admit that sometimes not knowing is better than knowing.

This all might sound a little like gobbledigook….the play looks at the unravelling of a man’s life after the disapearance of a small boy in his community, it looks at the impact of the loss on the uncovering of key truths from a man’s past that in turn unravel the lives of those around him…I sat still for the whole performance, tightly gripping my hands, arms folded almost to protect myself from where I could see it all heading. It reminded me that in life the keeping of secrets always leads to confusion and a more complex web that over time gets harder to escape…

What do you think about truth – is it overrated or should it be embraced at all costs??

That squiggly line


When I was little I remember staring up at my parents large bookcases in the lounge room – titles that to this day I havent read, covers that were well worn and a clear mix between both my mum and dad’s tastes. Soon after my grandmother died my mum came home with a book that took its place on the second shelf from the top, I can remember saying its title over and over in my head but I dont ever remember lifting it down to have a look. It was Kubler-Ross’ book on death and dying – it obviously stuck in my mind because when I started my Social Work degree it was one of the first books I borrowed.

For a really long time I thought that the idea of grief as an index where we could tick off each phase was the way that people could be helped through their loss – rather than with their loss.  It seemed like such a neat idea for such an all-consuming human experience…but clearly the first day I actually sat down and spoke with someone about their loss I quickly tucked any reference to death and dying back onto that second shelf and I let it collect dust.

Mary Grogan’s recent article in Mindfood nicely articulated the realisation I came to along time ago…’that the stage theory is not indicative of the majority of people’s experiences’….people all respond to death and loss in their own ways – the idea that we need to bang down the doors of a counsellor or a support service is actually not the way most people live with loss. In fact the literature says that most people do tend to manage well long term when a sudden loss occurs, it changes the shape and feel of who they are but they go on to live with that loss and they manage it. The idea that we have to tick each ‘stage’ in order to progress always perplexed me. As a competitive person I could almost imagine myself saying ‘well I did anger really well, now on to bargaining…’

A friend who lost someone a few years back explained to me that in the early days he lived with the loss being a big ‘chunk’ of his life – it consumed him, it was all he could think about but that over time, by giving himself space to remember his brother in different ways (other than only about those last few moments) his ‘chunk’ got less and his life started to take over again. He said that these days the chunk still exists – it gets bigger from time to time and then at other times it just sits in the background – its part of him, but not the whole of him.

So if you think about grief as that squiggly line where sometimes it takes you on a wild ride and then at other times its a little smoother then we wont all have to show each other that we’ve ‘processed’ it because loss is part of life and life is full of loss…

Have they eaten you alive??

When I started to think about the space in between as a mum it got me thinking about the gap between leaving your old life and introducing yourself to the big goopy mess of your new one – a life that involved large handbags full of mismatched baby socks, wet wipes and rescue remedy…for me that is, not the baby.

I was reading an article about the disasters that strike when you become a new mum, and it reminded me of the urgent sensation I lived with in those first few weeks willing myself to make it to six weeks – for me the mythical six week milestone was when breastfeeding would get easier, when disjointed hours of sleep would settle down and when I could work out how to make life normal again. The writer* spoke about the trauma of ending up in hospital at that miracle six week stage with a burst caesarean scar and a misplaced nipple shield. The part that stood out for me was this…

After a week in hospital, endless drips and managing a baby quite distressed from the antibiotics in his system, I was discharged, even more uneasy than the first trip home from the maternity ward. I sat on the front fence of the hospital waiting for my husband to locate our car. The breeze was warm and the street front alive with pedestrians fixed on their own agendas. I suddenly experienced deep pangs of jealousy for women in high heels click-clacking the pavement, even the taxi drivers meandering through the heavy Sydney traffic. Echoes sounded of a Gwen Harwood poem I studied once at school about a mother, sitting in the park with her daggy clothes and her three children, when she has a chance meeting with a past lover. Her past and present worlds collide. Identities lost. Opportunities missed. Things left unsaid. When he leaves, she is nursing her child and To the wind she says, ‘They have eaten me alive.’

…and thats when it struck me, the space in between is the space new mums have to navigate between packaging up and storing away their old lives (I often fantasise that mine is in a giant space bag, sucked dry by the vacuum cleaner) and acknowledging, no admitting, that their new lives are filled with a whole different kind of crazy. I’d forgotten the gripping fear I felt when I too stepped out of the hospital 48 hours after having my first child, I was scared to rejoin the world…the sun seemed brighter that it had been two days before (although I had lost my favourite sunnies as I walked into the maternity ward – actually I think I had flung them across the garden mid contraction).

Watching people get on with their lives became a past time I embraced after the birth of both my babies – so on those days when it does feel a little too much, when it feels like your old life is lost in translation, perhaps embrace a little of Gwen Harwood and just whisper ever so quietly at those passing by that they too ‘have eaten me alive’…


*the writer was my sister…nothing like a bit of cross promotion!

PS for mums struggling with their ‘new’ lives pop over to Gidget Foundation for some great resources if you need to reach out

Closure…is there ever such a thing?

A couple of weeks ago I had my first freelance piece published at Mamamia. Click here if you’d like to read the comments from Mamamia readers if not here is the article…

Social media provides an instant platform for people wanting to respond to tragedy and trauma. No matter what type of loss we might be witnessing the same words tend to swirl round and around – we rally at the injustice of ‘bad’ happening to ‘good’ people, we tell each other to hold our babies tighter to remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have and we commonly fall prey to the word closure….closure for the losses we experience, closure for the packaging up of unimaginable traumas into a neat little box and, my personal favourite, closure as a way of signaling that people need to move on.

Watching the world of Facebook, Twitter and a plethora of sites respond to the news that a man had been arrested for the murder of Daniel Morcombe over the weekend it was clear to see that the community wanted to respond by declaring that closure may have been in sight for the family. As a society we don’t cope well with loss but responding to an ambiguous loss may be even more challenging for us to comprehend. The counselling world (and their love of labels…) use the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to define those losses where there is no finality or certainty that a loss has occurred, which is what happens when someone is missing. Images of missing people are part of our history; we grow up remembering the faces of those that are lost. We have our theories as to what has happened to them, we wonder about the grief, the lack of closure these families may be struggling with and then when we hear news that confirms the finality of their loss and we tend to fall quickly into the clichéd responses.

In my experience of supporting families the news of the location of a missing person does not create closure. It just creates another tragic layer within a complex web of loss that families have to contend with.

Each year in Australia about 35,000 reports are received by the police regarding a missing person and 1600 people remain missing long term. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know Bruce and Denise Morcombe along with many other families whose lives have been frozen by that moment in time when someone they love vanishes – some are the victim of a crime, some disappear after struggling to live with a mental illness, some choose to walk away and some just leave – we don’t know why. Of those 1600 people the publicity that surrounds certain cases varies. The photos that the families choose as their missing persons picture becomes symbolic and is emblazoned in our minds, inviting us to ‘know’ the person being searched for. The pictures are powerful reminders of who was lost and possibly who may be found.

Grief has no hierarchy; we know that in any person’s lifetime they will be faced with sudden and unexpected challenges. We lament how bad things happen to good people. The loss of a person who is missing creates an additional complexity – it is no worse or better than any other loss but it is different. It is different because families of missing people are forced to live in that space between the possibility of life and death. A place where some days they imagine the return of a loved one and then other days they are hit with the stark reality that that person may not be coming back. Regardless of what they feel on any given day the ‘missing’ part does not allow them to speak with certainty about their loss. They can’t bury their loved one with dignity, they don’t have access to all of those rituals like funerals, death notices or even permission to talk openly about what’s happened as others do when they are faced with the stark finality of death.

So whatever the outcome the Morcombe’s are faced with it is clear that as a community we want answers for them. Closure may never come for those who endure ambiguous losses. The loss may be extended over months or years with little hope that one day the truth may be revealed.

Social media can provide some answers – I did hold my kids a little tighter tonight when I put them to bed and I was reminded that the world is an incredibly unfair place. As long as we try to keep supporting each other through whatever losses, the ambiguous and the more clear cut ones, we can only create a better community that is open to thinking realistically about loss and all of the complexities that come with life.