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Every day is a school day

It’s something I say all the time, “always learning”, it’s one of life’s great joys to be constantly discovering new things. Sometimes the lessons aren’t always easy though.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past 4 weeks since Pete received his terminal diagnosis:

  1. Control is an illusion. I sort of knew this already. I remember saying it to a friend as we walked the streets of London a week before Christmas, she’d taken me for something to eat so I could have a brief break from supporting my sister as my brother-in-law lay dying in London Bridge hospital. I remember very clearly walking down the street with Christmas going on all around us, while the most terrible thing was happening to my sister and saying, “We think we’re in control, but we’re not”. The idea that we’re masters of our own fate is an illusion. Luck and circumstance play more of a part than we’d care to admit, and the imminent death of a loved one, particularly if it’s well before their time brings this into sharp focus. For someone like me who likes to juggle lots of different roles and responsibilities, meaning that I have to have a sense of order and an element of control, this is a terrifying thought. But there it is.  We’re not really in control at all.
  2. Every grief is different. I’m no stranger to loss and grief, a few short weeks after my brother in law died (on Christmas eve of all days) we lost our beloved dad, and I’ve lost several friends to untimely deaths, as well as the inevitable loss of grandparents, colleagues, former pupils. Nothing has prepared me for what our family is going through right now. Some of the feelings are familiar, but the imminent loss of a life partner is different, or at least it is for me. Odd thoughts pop into my head. What will I do when I text and he doesn’t text back? who will I share my random thoughts with? No one is ever going to love me the way that Pete has. Who will I even be when he’s gone?
  3. Grieving whilst trying to support my children is also a real challenge. We have been honest and told them to ask any questions. Last night after the football match I sat up until well after midnight with my youngest. Will Dad still be here at Christmas? (I don’t think so darling) will he be here for my birthday? (I can’t say, I’m not sure) what about for the six-week holidays so we can do some things together? (I hope so, but we might need to do different things this year if he’s tired) Will we still go on holiday after he’s gone? (of course), What about work? Dad always looks after me when you’re away (I have no idea but I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it and I’ll be here for you) What will we do for money? (we’ll find a new way of working, don’t worry about money.) Who is going to watch Star Wars with me? (I will, even though I’m not as into it as you and your dad). Every question breaks my heart. Every answer breaks hers. Honesty is important but it’s also bloody difficult. She tells me that she can’t bear the thought of being at his funeral without having him there to hug her and comfort her through it. Strangely this thought has crossed my mind too. Every challenge I’ve faced Pete has been by my side encouraging, supporting, helping.  We talk about the fact that although he won't be there physically, the way he has been with all of us while he’s been in our lives will mean that we can support each other in the way that he would have supported us. That who we are is because of who he is, and that won’t ever change.
  4. I tell her that I’m trying not to focus too much on what will be and live in the moment, making the best of now. We’ll cross each bridge when we come to it. We talk about the fact that we’re lucky. We have good people supporting us. I tell her that this is because of the way we’ve always tried to treat people. Pete is one of the most selfless people I know, and his attitude of always helping has meant that when the chips are down, people have rallied around.
  5. People are ridiculously and infinitely kind; friends started a fundraiser to support us while we can’t work, one Twitter friend gave us the keys to her house so that we could have a final family holiday together, and wasn’t phased by the fact that our best friends wanted to join us, with their dog. The heads I worked with in Kent had a whip-round so that we could do something special as a family together and sent lovely messages of support, some friends have stepped in to fulfill some of my writing commitments despite being snowed under themselves, heads have understood when I’ve needed to cancel work, the gifts and cards just keep coming, a  friend pops round for a cup of tea after work every day just to see how we are, a friend turned up on our doorstep with milk and bread after the epic 10-hour drive home from our holidays. People I’ve never met ask how we are, people send me direct messages on Twitter telling me that I gave them some advice a few years ago and they’d like to offer any help and support they can. Work colleagues have been willing to change everything so that we can be together, friends who have offered to do all my admin for free. I could go on and on and on. People are beyond kind. The only positive of this situation is that Pete has seen how well-loved we all are, and that has given him great comfort. Old college and uni friends have sent photos and reminisced, former colleagues have got in touch. I posted about Pete’s illness on the local school reunion page and the messages from his former pupils and their parents were so touching. A man in his 30s remembered that he’d been quite a challenging pupil, but that Pete had noticed his interest in art, knew he wouldn’t have any materials at home, and put together a pack of materials that he could take home and use. More than 2 decades later he remembered that. A parent sent me a message to say what an important role model Pete had been to her son, who lost his own father aged 2. “Kind, caring, gentle but firm” was how she described him. “I don’t think Peter realises just how important he was in my son’s life, he’s at university now and those early years made all the difference”, former colleagues remarked on how much he obviously cared for the children and for the others he worked with, how he was always willing to step in and do duties when people were snowed under, and always tried to help and support others. Everyone mentions his wicked sense of humour. How lucky are we to know how well-loved and respected he is and be able to talk about it together now, rather than after he’s gone when it would be too late?
  6. Some people aren’t kind, it may not be deliberate, but when this is pointed out to them, they don’t acknowledge the hurt they cause. They’re best ignored. Life is too short to focus on them.
  7. Everyday life carries on. This is weird. My world is falling apart but the washing still needs doing (and then the washer breaks – great) the bills still need paying, the hoovering has to be done… it’s surreal. I find myself mopping the kitchen floor and thinking, “what the xxx am I doing, I should be spending every waking minute with Pete” but stuff still needs to be done.
  8. Sometimes things feel normal. This is also weird. We can be sitting playing games or watching TV and just for a moment I forget. How can I forget something so momentous, even for a single second? Grief is a weird thing.
  9. Cancer makes people bone-tired and this is frustrating – time is precious and there’s so much we want to do, but fatigue means that the bucket list is more limited than we first thought. There’s a sense of grief and loss with the realisation that some of the simple pleasures; a meal out, a day trip, cooking together, etc. might not happen now. All we can do is accept it.
  10. I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m only just starting on a journey I never wanted to take. But here we are, I’m on it, there’s no choice. So I have to accept it and go with the flow. I know I will get a lot of things wrong, but that’s how we learn.
  11. Every day is a school day.
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