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Kindness (Trigger warning: suicide)



February the 17th was Random Acts of Kindness Day.

I'm a bit funny about official (or randomly made-up) 'Days'. I can see the point of memorial days, and days that give charities more coverage and a platform to draw attention to big issues, I guess. But at the same time, where those Days draw attention to, say, bereavements, I suspect they may be salt in the wounds for those who feel the effects of those bereavements every single day, not just on a day appointed by - well, by whom? A charity? A government? Greeting card companies? What proportion of people are thinking, 'Yes, blimmin' well think about what some of us have gone through or are going through, you lucky unaffected souls!' and what proportion are thinking, 'I really don't want to be reminded of the tragedy that befell me just so people can feel good about themselves by sharing awareness banners on Facebook!'? Or would there be more people just taking the moment to reflect, depending on how far they have come since an event, and joining in with fundraising efforts on those special days? I have no idea, but as part of my long history of overthinking everything, these questions have most definitely crossed my mind and made me feel slightly uneasy. Pain sucks, and there should be as little of it as possible. But I've digressed here, before even really starting my post.

Back to Random Acts of Kindness Day. I've watched the Random Acts of Kindness movement as it has developed on social media, and wondered if it isn't just a little tragic that we have to make 'kindness' a thing to tick off a list, or some kind of wild aspiration? When did people stop just being kind as a matter of course? Just being kind because we're human, and it's easier to muddle along with all the other humans if we are kind to one another?  Whatever your view on that, I want to talk a bit about kindness at one particular moment in my life. 

What the heck has this got to do with Mum-Care? A lot, because if we can't recognise kindness, we are going to struggle to be kind to ourselves. (Actually this post just formed itself in my head and had to get written, and I made the link up afterwards. But it formed itself, I suspect, because I decided very deliberately to think about kindness as part of being more Person, better Mum and less Only-Existing-as-House-Slave.)

So, kindness. At university, I did a brilliant drama course within an English Department, where the exams were text-based, but the lecturer snuck in as much acting during the course as he could. I remember having a crack at the Blanche DuBois 'I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers' scene from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Not many years later, I found myself in a period of my life where all foundations had been swept away, and I experienced that very kindness. (No, I wasn't taken to a mental institution like Blanche, nor were the reasons for my lost foundations the same as hers.) The phrase came to mind again when strangers and near-strangers were keeping me afloat, and has never left me.

I haven't written about this experience or this topic before, but it's something I believe all of us should talk about more openly, so I'm taking a deep breath, pulling up the Big Girl Pants, and away we go. Shortly after I finished my grad year at university, the person who had been my boyfriend/partner/whatever-the-word-was-in-the-90s, moved away from our university town in New Zealand up to Auckland, to spend his holidays living with his sister and working. On the 10th of December, he put on the vintage dinner suit he'd bought to take me out to a formal dinner, and took his own life. Anyone who had ever loved him fell down the deepest, darkest hole you could imagine. And I then encountered act after act of selfless kindness. 

The very first and greatest act of kindness was that his sister called me. I was a recent ex, and although he and I had spoken the night before he died, I was still, to the family, an ex. Somehow, her heart was big enough to include me in what was to follow. After I heard the news, I ended up - I'm not sure how - wandering the halls of the university where both he and I had studied, and where I was working as a Research Assistant. I was wearing his t-shirt, enormous on me and not what you would generally wear to work. It still smelled of him, just. I needed to get to Auckland, where all of this had happened, but there were no flights available and I told myself that it wouldn't be right to intrude on the family in any case. On hearing this, one of the lecturers in my ex's Department rang the university travel service, pulled some strings and got me on a flight. A friend in Auckland dropped everything to meet me at the airport and take me to stay at her house. At home, somewhere amongst all this, a friend cooked me a vegetarian casserole at a time where vegetarian cooking was far from mainstream (I was a greenie freak in a land of farmers) and froze it so that I could eat it on my return.

In New Zealand, many families follow the Maori 'tangi' tradition of keeping the person you have lost with you for three days, so that they may be mourned, honoured and farewelled. Traditionally this would happen on a marae, but in this case our lost one was brought home to his mother and laid in a open coffin in the living room. Although his family knew about me and I knew much about them, they had never met me. And yet, they welcomed me in to sit with him. His beautiful sister asked me if she had chosen the right clothes - again, it was a shirt he'd bought soon after we met, in order, he said, to 'impress' me - and she listened and made the change when I said he always wore it tucked in. I wanted to be of practical use --  knowing that however deeply bereft I felt, I couldn't begin to imagine the family's suffering -- so a very welcoming, gentle family friend invited me to help with the endless flowers that arrived. When I talked in passing about how he had liked bunches of flowers to be all white, but that he'd accepted my 'happier' all yellow, this wonderful woman began to dismantle bouquets and said that we needed to create both white and yellow arrangements for him now. While we worked on this, sorting gold and lemon and cream and white, she told me that his middle name, Honomai, described 'a binding together' and said that he was the golden thread that had pulled me in to them, to her. I was allowed into a home where a family were suffering the deepest of bereavements, and although I wanted to stay out of the way, I was eventually given the greatest honour I could ever have imagined, but would never have expected: I was allowed to sit through a night with our beautiful lost young man, holding his hand and offering him quiet, watching his face change with the changing light, until I could feel that he had moved on. I was driven to the funeral, I was encouraged to speak early on in the space where family and friends were invited to share memories, and after the funeral I was taken to his childhood home of Waiheke Island, where I stayed with a number of kind family friends who let me waft through their lives when they themselves were seeking to sort up from down and back from front. Finally I stayed with the father I had heard so much about, in the Waiheke home I'd also been told all about. We cooked together, exhaustedly; we moved slowly and quietly, finding our way around each other in a newly empty world; we talked, exhaustedly once more, through the night, feeling that we were maybe not quite alone, yet broken by the realization that the person who had finally brought us together could never again be there. His father wore another of the 'shirts bought to impress', and the final one was drying outside. It felt like a loss, and yet right. (But also, how had our poor lost boy not noticed I was already impressed, and thought he'd needed three new shirts? We humans are strange creatures.) At some point on the Island, one of the father's ex-partners took me to a market, and I came home with a little piece of pottery that I have carried across three countries now, which was given to me because everyone at the market knew and loved the person we had lost, or at the very least his remarkable, generous father. I still think 'the kindness of strangers' to myself when I see it, and it reminds me of the generous spirits that carried me through those days where I no longer saw how the world could fit together, or how a future could unfold when that world had lost so much.

The kindness continued on and on and on, and when I was human enough to be able to give kindness back to others, I did. It is all we can do, surely? I know, at some point, I will write more about suicide, because it has haunted and terrified me for years, and as a mother of SEN children, there are statistics relevant to children such as mine that keep me awake at night, and CAMHS-related scandals that need to be discussed. Those of us bereaved by this one tragic act struggled immensely with the fact that our love and our kindness were not enough, but I do believe now that the love and kindness were appreciated, even if we didn't have the knowledge of mental health that might have helped us to reach further 'in', to ask some stark questions or to see that professional help was required. And I know today that a general 'default kindness' isn't going to save the world, but it's a step we can take, an act we can adopt, a way of being that does no harm to others. You never know what small act will be remembered long after you have forgotten it, or which words of kindness will stay with someone for decades.

The 'golden thread' and 'the kindness of strangers pot' will be with me forever, and I will always be inspired by them, and not only on February the 17th. (And yes, it's the pot in the picture!)

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A NOTE: IF YOU THINK THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE YOU WOULD BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT YOU, YOU ARE WRONG. I beg you to call Samaritans, call your GP, turn up at A&E and be brave enough to say why you are there, or tell someone close to you and ask them to get you the help. If you are at school or university, talk to a teacher or lecturer you respect. Tell someone if you need 24-hour company to keep you safe. There are other ways to stop the pain - you do not have to die. Please ask others to help you find them. People cannot see what is in your head until you share, and if you think it would hurt them to know, I can promise you that they would rather know and help than suffer a you-shaped hole for the rest of their lives. Just start by saying, 'I need help'. Please.


Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. It's amazing how much kindness people give when they are suffering. I totally agree with your earlier point that we shouldn't need a day to remind us to be kind it should be something we all do all day long xxx

    ReplyDelete
  2. So much emotion, can't even begin to imagine what feelings must have run through you then, and now. Huge hugs. You're right, we do all need to talk about all of this more xx

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