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When Grief Equals Love book launch at the Chip Lit Fest

I arrived at Chip Lit Fest on Friday afternoon. Despite growing up in Oxford, I hadn’t been to the village before, but it’s lovely. Cute little shops, friendly and well to-do! I took a couple of photos for social media and then went into a local pub for a pre-event Diet Coke.

I didn’t know a lot about the events I’d chosen for the evening. I browsed the listings on the festival’s website and chose events with themes that interested me. I didn’t want to do too much research, I just felt like being around authors and hearing about their books and life stories.

As a thriller writer, I’m quite drawn to dark themes so I’d gone with two death-related events: When Grief Equals Love with Lizzie Pickering and What Remains? with undertaker Ru Callender. I read a little more about the events while I had my Coke, asked the barmaid for directions to the Town Hall and off I went.

I was about twenty minutes early and so bought a copy of Lizzie’s book and nabbed a seat at the front. I read some of it while waiting for the event to start. It’s written in a very open and conversational way which immediately drew me in. Very sadly, Lizzie’s son, Harry, was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy when he was 17 months old, a condition that doctors described to her at the time as ‘uncurable, untreatable, terminal’. Lizzie and her husband Hugo had moved from London to the Cotswold’s to start their family and Harry was their firstborn. Their whole world, which Lizzie describes in her book as ‘pretty idyllic’ was suddenly turned upside down overnight by Harry’s diagnosis.

Harry needed a huge amount of care and multiple invasive treatments and sadly passed away at six years old. Lizzie began keeping a diary a month before Harry died in which she chronicled her feelings and her family’s reaction to Harry’s death. I opened the book to these diary entries, which were intimate, real and incredibly touching.

I experienced grief at 24 of a very close friend and rarely speak of the loss. As a writer, I’ve always written about things I’ve been through, even through my fiction. My personal life is in all my books in some way, but I’ve never written about my grief. It's been a no-go area for a long time and I still can't look at photos of the person I lost. They're in a box and have been for 12 years. Like Lizzie, I kept a diary at the time. Mine was in the aftermath, when it felt like everyone was moving on. I’ve never shared this diary or looked at it since.

As I read Lizzie’s diary entries, I was struck at the bravery and kindness of opening up something so personal to others. I think grief is often swept under the carpet. It’s considered too sad, too depressing, too difficult to talk about, so people just push it away, even the bereaved. Reading Lizzie’s diary made me feel comforted, that grief isn’t shameful. It can be shared and acknowledged and talked about. Even years after the person has passed away.

The venue filled up and Lizzie came on stage with host Alison Gomm (who was a great interviewer!). The first question was about Harry, what was he like. Lizzie descried him as ‘a yellow person’, ‘joyous', a 'cup half full person, he loved life'. The way she spoke was so touching, heartfelt and eloquent.

She described finding out about Harry’s diagnosis - the moment grief first struck the family - and the care Harry received from local children’s hospice, Helen House, which provided huge support for the family, with many staff members in the audience. It was clear that Helen House was a lifeline during such a difficult time (Harry’s care required him to be turned every hour on the night, and Lizzie referred to the sleep deprivation). They provided emergency care around the clock all year round as well as respite stays and it was evident they’d offered great empathy and emotional support too. Lizzie even ended up working in fundraising for the charity for twelve years following Harry’s passing.

Years after Harry's death, Lizzie shared her diaries with Sister Frances, the founder of Helen House, who, with Lizzie’s permission, began using them in talks on grief. Although Lizzie had never intended to share the diaries in the public domain, she began considering it in 2016 and edited them down to 60,000 words. Yet something didn’t feel right and she decided not to move forward with publishing them.

Lizzie then spent several years working on a film about the Holocaust, which dealt with themes of trauma and loss, and provided a backdrop for Lizzie to process her own loss even more. It was at this point that she realised that what was essential to her in her own journey with grief was community: the people at Helen House, the support of family and friends, and organisations like The Good Grief project, whose founders are now good friends. Lizzie understood that the reason she hadn’t wanted to publish her diaries was because this community aspect was missing. She wanted to incorporate other people’s experiences, ways of coping and learnings into her book.

So in lockdown, Lizzie carried out 23 Zoom interviews with other bereaved people she met along the way. And with the inclusion of these interviews, she was ready to publish the book. Since the event, I’ve read some of the interviews and they're so open, moving, and comforting.

One of the things that really resonated with me during the talk was when Lizzie spoke about the sentiments around grief that haven’t rung true for her, such as the concept of seeking closure or time being a healer.

Lizzie pointed out that most bereaved people don’t want closure, they want connection. She referred to the concept of ‘continuing bonds’ suggested by organisations like The Good Grief Project, offered instead of the notion of ‘closure’. I love the idea of seeking a continuing bond rather than closure.

Lizzie read this page from her book, which describes her feelings so well:

'More than two decades on from Harry's death, after much listening to the stories of others, talking and reading, my greatest realisation has been that the amount of pain we experience often represents the amount we loved the person who has died... This realisation has helped me find the balance between living with the trauma of my son dying alongside my love for life and wanting to live it well. I don't want to be sad, I never did. And that is the dilemma for people dealing grief. We want to grieve our loss and then live our lives but the great shock is that the loss doesn't change. Finding that balance of the two can take a lot of work and investigation. If we're able to face the pain, thinking of it as love, somehow the two can meet and live alongside each other. They don't negate each other but there is a match made somewhere along the line.' In my case, the pain represents the love for my son and it feels right that it should be experienced fully, but these days there is parity between my joy for living, breathing, loving and creating.'

So moving! I think approaching grief as equal to love, and accepting that like true love, grief can last a lifetime, is a very real and honest way to approach it. Accepting that enjoying life is important too, and that honouring your grief can go alongside leading a happy and fulfilled life is such a validating and empowering message.

I hadn't expected to feel so inspired from the talk, but Lizzie has proved to me firsthand the value of community and learning from others. And I think at some point soon, I might even open the box of photos of my old friend, without feeling quite so uneasy.

When Grief Equals Love, is published by Unbound, out on May 11th.

Pre-order here.

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