Archive for December, 2008

Merry Christmas and Good Mental Health

I’m out of the illness woods, honking cough notwithstanding. It’s been a long bout, which totally scuppered my pre-Christmas plans for prancing around the Christmas Market, partaking in twinkly Christmas shopping, getting drunk at work and so on (for all its frustrations, we do occasionally have, at the Sausage Factory, a drinks trolley in the office. Which, you know, makes it all worthwhile). Poor G was struck down too, and we’ve been muttering darkly in Scottish accents about The Virus. I had The Virus. I wasn’t immune. I survived. (You have to watch Survivors to get it).

So for the last few days the heat has been on to get all my pre-Christmas preps done. Astonishingly, I’ve managed to get by so far without a grief-related Christmas meltdown. It’s the fifth Christmas without my sister Helen. The fifth! And that’s the worst thing about losing someone: they don’t come back. Dozens of Christmases will pass without her.At this time of year I’m usually to be found frozen to the spot in a department store, suddenly about to sob, having been assaulted by some syrupy Christmas song about it being a lonely Christmas, or a  blue one, or all I want for Christmas is you. Instead, since I’ve been mobile post-Virus, I’ve been pottering around our local shops, buying beef joints and smoked trout and two types of pastry. In the kitchen, Nigella and Delia have been competing for my attentions  (Delia’s Amish-like thrift and list-making vying with Nigella’s habit of throwing two pints of cream into everything and popping cherries onto her nipples)and both of them have been winning. I’ve been rustling up cranberry and beetroot soup, frangipane mince pies, and mulled wine by the gallon. Today’s projects are smoked trout pate, apple and mincemeat strudel and fiddly, twirly little puff pastry nibbles. I’m also going to decorate the Christmas cake with tiny little presents made of marzipan. Eek!

I’ve pronged my fingers countless times sticking cloves into citrus fruits; I’ve baked orange slices and hung them on the tree with cinnamon sticks. Yesterday I even made a centrepiece for the table which comprises  orange slices, cranberries, star anise, cinnamon sticks, figs and sprigs of greenery (it’s so sprauncy, I might take a photo and post it on my blog to show off). And we’re not even hosting Christmas dinner. I’ve clipped Christmas cards to silver twigs with tiny gold pegs (squee!) and hoovered and dusted with greater enthusiasm than I ever usually show for such things.

And- apart from an awkward moment in the queue at the butchers, in which John Lennon or similar attempted to floor me with a plaintive line about another year being over and a new one just begun, and I had to cover my face with my scarf so I didn’t suffer the indignity of wailing whilst surrounded by raw meat- I have been relatively sane.

I don’t think I need to point out that I”m absolutely a Christmas person. I come by it naturally: my Mum and Granny must be direct descendants of Santa Claus, such is their love for all things Christmassy. I think in years gone by I’ve felt guilty about throwing myself into Christmas- how could I enjoy it, with Helen not here? But now I embrace my slightly manic Yuletide persona. It’s better than crying. For the bereaved, Christmas can be really hard. I know I WILL cry buckets several times over this festive period.But in the mean time, stick a sprig of holly in my hair and pour me another mulled wine. I’ll raise it to Helen, to Christmas and to life, for all of us who are lucky enough to still be living it.



Nothing to report I’m afraid, since I’ve spent the last four days crawling from bed to sofa; waking up every hour in the night from feverish dreams in which I have to direct an army of tiny doctors to different parts of my body to cure my ailments with tiny hammers and saws; texting my mum with pitiful messages like “I am despairing of EVER feeling better”; and rueing the day I ever thought time off work sick would be fun and relaxing. It is not.

So my news is this: today I have clothes on! Granted, I am still lying on the sofa with a hot water bottle, under a blanket. But I am not doing it in pyjamas, and that is progress. I just ate two crumpets and put some washing in the machine, so things are looking up.

Still, though. Am terribly sorry for self.


I don’t write much about Mr. Bokker- or to give him his full title, The G- on my blog. This is partly because a relationship is by definition private, and also because it makes me feel a tad queasy when bloggers sport their relationships like the latest It Bag.

But I find myself laid up with a nasty virus, and my boy has been looking after me in the most caring and attentive fashion. It puts me in mind to write a post about love, and how it can survive even when one partner needs looking after in ways far more complex and long-term than filling a hot water bottle and fetching tea and hugs.

It’s hardly surpising that relationships don’t face great odds when bereavement strikes. I can’t imagine what it must be like for parents who are in a relationship when a child dies. But I do know what it’s like when a sibling dies. One of the frustrating things about losing someone you love is that people look at you and say “she’s coping so well”. The truth is that there’s no option but to cope, short of never getting out of bed. But while the person themself may be holding together, it’s probably the case that elements of their life are falling apart: work, social life, looks (in my case, weight control), and, if great care is not taken, love.

G was there when I found out that H had gone, and though the exact course of events is a blur, I know that he literally picked me up off the floor, calmed me down and pulled things together in order to get me back to my home town.  He  stayed by my side for days, when I couldn’t even have a bath on my own. There have been times when he has persuaded me to get dressed, and countless occasions when he’s just let me cry and cry. He has never told me to stop crying, or cheer up, or that I should be doing better. Whatever I’ve been going through, he’s accepted.

In a way, though, the nurturing is the easier part. What has been harder for both of us to cope with is the nitty gritty of grief. The irritation, the grumpiness, the feeling that I don’t want to talk to anyone but her, and she’s not here. The blackness, the early days when it was all I could do to get home, have a glass of wine and a bath and go to bed. The fact that each of us has had our own grieving process and nobody can understand anyone elses’ grieving process. The listlessness and unpredictability of how I- or he- would feel on any given day. Nobody tells you that grief brings out the worst in people, and we’ve seen the worst in each other at times.

But wouldn’t it be sad to let death kill something good? I believe that loss is make or break for relationships, and if you make it, you can be stronger and richer and have something which goes deeper than it did before. It’s been very tough going at times but each hardship we’ve faced is another thread binding us closer together. I suppose this is the case with any relationship over the course of years, but with something as big as bereavement it’s faster, more intense, more extreme.

G has been instrumental in helping me to balance loss with moving forward: in creating a lovely home together for us to share, in building a future, encouraging me in my career and just having fun in the usual 20-something ways. This light is so important to offset the shade.

And a final thought- one thing I love is that G loved H and she him. She was 12 when I first introduced him to my family and quite shy. But she accepted him straight away. They bonded over computer games and sandcastles on the beach, and she made fun of his hair. They knew each other for four years and I know they would have been closer than ever had she lived. He misses her too, and that means a lot to me.

This post isn’t intended to be showy-offy at all. Make no mistake: neither of us are perfect and we have all the usual bickers and snags of any relationship. I’m not claiming that losing H has made us into this all-embracing, zen-like Super Couple. I’m just saying that we’re proof that a relationship can survive a traumatic loss and be stronger for it. We’ve faced the worst, and we’re making it.

For What It’s Worth

Since in my last post, I appear to have appointed myself Queen Of Everything What Knows Everything, I thought: why not carry on dishing out unsolicited advice? In fact, why not continue doing it for ever? Or at least for a few blog posts? But this time it’s much more important than offering pointers on the Seriously So Hard life of a TV monkey (after all, who cares about us really, right?).

Sometimes I get hits on my blog from people who have googled  “sibling loss”, “sibling grief”, or, heartbreakingly “my sister just died”. I think some of these readers have stuck around, and I’m so glad about that.

I have been there too. When my lovely H died suddenly, I found myself plunging into the web like never before, looking for something to soothe my ravaged soul, some building blocks of sense and order with which to start scrabbling together the huge bombsite that my life had become.

Four years later, I still sit googling her name at work sometimes. Or trawling through deeply depressing grief websites. Or typing “crying” into Last FM. 

As I wandered the web in those early days,  I was looking for someone who understood, who had been there, who could tell me that I would not always feel the way I did then. I could not believe I would ever feel OK. I remember saying to my dad, quite matter of factly “I’m 23 and my life is over”.  I wondered how I would fill the years that stretched ahead, before I died too.

What I found were a lot of other people who were also spinning around desperately, looking for the same thing as me. And I found advice for looking after bereaved children whose siblings have died. Which was sometimes useful, but, you know, I don’t think my mum would have been quite happy to instigate the advice “let your child sleep in your bed if she wakes with nightmares about her sibling”. And there was advice for old people whose spouses had died.

Their was nothing for people like me: young enough to have decades to map out without my darling sister, to have a career to build and my own family to make, to want to go for cocktails as well as cry; old enough to not be able to climb into bed with mummy when the going gets too rough to cope with. 

 The fact is, most people don’t die young and in tragic fashion. Though the papers seem full of such stories (and how I scoured the newspapers after her death, comparing the losses to my own, relieved to find that people went through worse), it’s really quite unusual to see your own sister’s face on the front of the paper, aged sixteen and beautiful and gone.   So it’s really hard to find any voices to relate to.

So I’m going to try to write a few posts that might act as a sort of Bereaved Sibling’s Guide to the Galaxy.  It’s not a great galaxy to be in, let’s be frank, so I hope that by being the voice I spent so long looking for, I might help maybe one person, maybe two. Who knows. It’s why I add tags like “sibling loss” to my posts about H, and it’s why I want to attempt this little project.

I’m not the world’s leading expert on the matter, and not everything I say will apply to everybody. But I lost my little sister, and I miss her so much. I’ve been going through the grief process for four years, and I’m fairly confident in saying that I have established a New Normal, whatever that is.  I’ll never get over it, I’ll always be sad. But I know now that I can be happy too, alongside the sadness.  So I think I’m as qualified as anyone to share my own experiences.

So, if you have just lost a sibling (or, actually, anyone you love deeply) and you’re feeling as much of a big mess as I did four years ago,  let me begin with the one thing you desperately need to hear, which I believe is true despite the fact that no, you will never “get over it”:

It does get better. I promise you it gets better.

You will not always feel the way you do now.

I’d like my future posts to be a little longer than three sentences! So please if you are reading, and you’re newly bereaved, and you’re thinking “oh god how do I deal with Christmas parties in this state?” or “gosh is it normal to listen to Without You quite so many times on repeat?” or “why can’t I stop eating cake, the least I could hoped for was that the grief would make me skinny!” or just “how do I keep breathing?”- whatever-  e-mail me at or leave a comment here to let me know what you would like me to write about.


Ass: kicked

I can’t write too much about work, as you know. There are Rules. All you really need to know is that my nerves have been battered, my body run ragged and my creative capacities stretched this week in order to produce the package I’ve been working on. The outcome of all this sleep deprivation and stress is a piece of television of which I am quite proud, whilst at the same time sllightly crushingly aware that most people will watch it with one eye as they do the ironing.

From my recovery position on the sofa, I would like to impart a few words of advice for those who seek to work in “The Media”- a sort of online careers talk:

Working in television is not remotely glamorous. This is not said in the manner in which celebrities claim they have “normal lives”. It really isn’t glamorous, in fact I’d go so far as to say I’ve had my least glam moments ever in the line of duty. Mud, sick, shouting. Service stations, packet sandwiches and 5am starts. Rain, sleet, cagouls and wellies. You get the picture.

You don’t get to meet that many famous people, at least not in current affairs. And when you do, they’re more likely to demand why their tea is not the exact shade they desired (a desire which you clearly should have absorbed telepathically, since they didn’t deign to open their mouths to voice it), than to swap mobile numbers with you. They’ll speak to the air at the side of your head, rather than looking at your face. The ladies amongst them are mostly the size and build of small deer and as shiny as a new penny, making you feel like a gigantic, crashing buffalo-type creature with scraggly hair and unacceptable eye bags when you stand next to them.

Sometimes you feel like a parasite. Say for instance when someone is sitting in a hospital with blood pouring down their face, while an overworked nurse treats them. Right at the moment when you crash through the blue curtain with a camera and ask in an apologetic, harried tone if you can film the exchange- at that moment, you feel like a parasite. Or for example when tears well in an interviewee’s eyes, and instead of offering an empathic hug, you make a mental note to use that bit of the interview. Or when you start to refer to people as “stories”.

You will be worked to the bone. Especially as a newcomer to the industry, there will be times when you forget what day it is, what time it is and what your name is. You can make social plans but be aware that they can be shattered with minutes to spare. When you should be in the pub/visiting Granny/doing the gardening you’ll find yourself down a mine/up a tree/in an abandoned tower block, waiting for a car thief/red kite/dangerous dog to appear.

You’ll also find yourself losing sleep over the most ridiculous tasks (“find me a golden 70s games scoreboard by tomorrow” was one example). Depending on who your boss is, sometimes you feel you’re living The Devil Wears Prada. Without the Prada.

Telling the stories of real people and opening the public’s eyes to important issues is one of the most rewarding things I can imagine doing, for me. Meeting all kinds of people who you’d never normally come across, from all parts of society and with all kinds of passions…. Capturing reality through a lens and reshaping into something compelling, while still retaining the truth, is a complex and creative process which I love.

To surmise: if you’re thinking about a career in television, you have to really want it. Not as in “I really want this and will do ANYTHING TO GET IT even if it means standing on other people’s heads”. That is not the way I roll at all (but be warned: more than a few people in TV do roll that way, so that in some production offices, honesty and genorosity are a Unique Selling Point rather than a bare minimum)

No. You have to want it as in: “I really want this and I will grit my teeth as truckloads of shit thunder relentlessly onto to my own head”.

A final word of advice to would-be telly types: stay nice, unless you’re willing to trade in your soul as well as your sanity and your youthful complexion. I can’t count the number of people who have told me to “toughen up”, “grow a thick skin” and even become aggressive. Though I’ve become stronger inside, I refuse to grow a cold hard shell, and this lady’s not for turning.