Threads of love: From He Died Waiting to They Died Waiting (and beyond)
It’s a year since He Died Waiting: Learning the lessons – a bereaved mother’s view of mental health service was launched. In this blog, I shall reflect on a year of change and surprises. It feels like the different threads of my life are coming together in a purposeful way. I shall begin with one of my most used quotes from the book:
"Anyone who has experienced loss will find elements in my narrative to relate to. But this is not a grief story. It is a love story. The intensity of my love for Tim correlates to the pain of my grief. My love of, and for, my family has kept me strong. They are my reason to continue. And I am theirs. I feel a sense of love for my fellow humans. I empathise with them and react emotionally to their pain and loss. It is this love that underpins my passion for practice and social justice. In the end, what matters most is love." (Aldridge, 2020 p319)
Ever since I became a mother, I have been picking up threads in my life that connect me to who I am now personally, professionally, and academically. What started as the tentative strand of first-time motherhood, gained strength because it was wrapped around a core of love. Through the twists and turns of life, other threads have joined and spun together to form a cord. Each of my children added threads that are cleaved with my own. Sometimes, pieces (such as jobs, people, or experiences) have become tangled in. These may have become ongoing or more short-lived filaments. Positive or negative, gossamer thin or slubby, light or dark: they all add texture. Cords of my career and education entwine with my personal, colourful and multi-stranded, life-cord.
In 2014, when my eldest son Tim died, his thread remained securely attached to mine. An integral part, that initially was hidden in the depth of stigma, shame, and grief, it gradually spun out onto the surface. Concurrently, other threads of my life changed. I changed.
Reflecting on this, I can see that my cord had become a heavy rope. I was carrying too much and needed to let go of what was weighing me down. I recognise that I am not very good at saying 'no'.and I can get caught up with things that i do not have the capacity to hold. Prioritising what, and who, I had energy for became critical after I sustained a head injury in 2018 and I adjusted to having a disability. Trimming the parts that over-loaded me was not a straightforward, or particularly conscious, process. It was counter-intuitive. Not everyone appreciated or understood that I could no longer incorporate their messy cords with mine. I was reluctant to discard elements that were exhausting me but my inability to perform all the functions I once had meant some ripped their cords away from mine. Overall, it was a painful and untidy unpicking of snarls and knots.
Writing He Died Waiting was important part of processing the loss of Tim and adapting to my physical limitations. I started writing as part of my neuro-rehabilitation. On an emotional level the book was a way of coming to terms with my grief, though that was not my intention. The journey from conception, through publishing to working on a sequel, has created an unexpected thread – 'independent author'.
One of my motivations for publishing my story was that I felt I was not making any difference. In the last year, I have had unsolicited feedback, about the difference He Died Waiting has made, from so many people. I was surprised by how well received the book has been and heartened to know that it is being used to support positive change. I gained a sense that the book, with its key themes of love, kindness, decency, and valuing people, has become my guide. Last summer, I took a brave leap and followed where He Died Waiting was leading me. I resigned from my substantive social work lecturing post to become a freelance trainer and speaker. This was definitely not the plan I had in mind when I published He Died Waiting but it feels the right thing to do.
Between writing and publishing He Died Waiting, I enrolled on a professional doctorate in health and social care. I wanted to research how professionals and organisations could ‘learn the lessons’ from bereaved relatives after an unexpected death. I quickly realised that there is a dearth of research evidence about the bereavement experiences of relatives when that death is associated with mental illness. My research focus needed to shift to finding out what the lived experiences of bereaved people are. How can professionals and organisations respond to bereaved relatives in helpful ways if there is no evidence to draw on about their specific needs?
If I am honest, I did not think I had the emotional stamina to engage directly with people who had had traumatic bereavements. I was worried that it might be triggering for me and my bias would influence the research process and findings. Through a two-year process of immersion in the literature, creative activities, and deep reflexion, I have embraced my bias and refined my research question to an exploration of bereaved parent’s experiences. I will be using an innovative ‘patchwork’ methodology and trauma-sensitive participatory textile making methods.
When He Died Waiting was published, I was surprised to receive hundreds of messages and emails from people who had had similar experiences to me. Some were heart-breaking, some were encouraging, most showed how hidden my bereaved peers are. And how silenced and abused they feel. Ignoring these messages was not and option for me because my moral compass has ‘love’ as its ‘north’. I felt compelled to respond and discovered that I can cope with engaging with people who are heartbroken and lost in grief. More than that, I have gained strength from these interactions. I have been inspired by, and learnt from, those who have been generous in sharing their experiences with me.
A thread of ‘researcher’ entwines with the ‘independent author one. They are separate but closely aligned. Between them sits the sequel to He Died Waiting, which is being co-edited by Emma Corlett (someone who operates out of love) and due to be published in early 2023. They Died Waiting: The crisis in mental health – stories of love and of hope brings together narratives from bereaved people with those who are working preventatively or reparatively. Most of the contributors who are writing about their prevention or postvention work are motivated by their lived experience of bereavement. Each of the stories is emotive, inspirational, and hopeful. They will provide rich learning opportunities for others. Not least because They Died Waiting will be bursting with lived experience of people whose voices are seldom, or even never, heard. It is so humbling and encouraging to be supporting people to tell their stories loudly and with purpose.
The ‘golden thread’ in my cord of life is love. I have received the unconditional love of family which provided me with core strength. When threads break it is love that helps repair them or maybe to let them go. There are some threads which time, distance, or death cannot sever. Their colour and form changes but they remain part of me because they are bound to me with love. The love and encouragement of others enabled me to write and publish He Died Waiting and to take my next steps. The love and empathy of friends and family, and sometimes complete strangers, fanned the sparks that remained when times were tough. I am so truly grateful to everyone who has supported me. It is the love I receive, and my love for others, that fuels me, gives me courage, and sustains me. In the end what matters most is love.
You can follow my journey on Twitter - @waiting_he on Facebook and LinkedIn - @Caroline Aldridge and Instagram – @hediedwaiting
You can read about He Died Waiting in my blogs:
He Died Waiting: a book with a purpose:
He Died Waiting: book review:
You can watch this free webinar about using the He Died Waiting to support good practice:
And the supporting blog here:
You can read more about my creative approach to research in these blogs:
From about April 2022, you can follow the progress of my research on Twitter and LinkedIn using the hashtag #PiecingTogetherQuiltProject