Feb 3, 2020
Welcome to episode 23. I find myself in a pensive mood as I record this episode. The 31st January was a very difficult day for me and millions of others, and the 3rd of February - today - marks the 10 year anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in my family’s life.
At this point, I need to give you a trigger warning: If you have suffered a bereavement you may find parts of this podcast episode difficult to listen to.
Regardless where you live, you’re almost certainly aware that the UK left the EU on Friday 31st January. I’m not going to get all political in this podcast, though I make no secret of the fact that I see Brexit as a mistake of unprecedented proportions and I am devastated that it has come to this. This weekend has therefore been emotionally difficult for me, and my mood is all over the place, compounded by today’s anniversary.
On the morning of 3rd of February 2010, my then 12-year-old eldest daughter Charlie suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in her bed. For eight days we didn’t know whether she would survive at all. She then spent another eight days in hospital while they first worked out how to prevent it happening again, then operated on her to insert a state-of-the-art defibrillator to keep her safe in future. 16 days after a cardiac arrest she wasn’t supposed to survive, let alone survive unscathed, she came home. Today she is a happy 22-year-old woman doing a job she loves, living independently of her parents, and I am grateful every single day for the way things worked out.
I am telling you about my political inclinations and current state of loss, and my experience in 2010 when we nearly lost our daughter, because I’ve been reflecting on my methods of coping, and how these are reflected in positive psychology. As a teacher, you are a human being first and foremost and you, too, will go through seemingly impossibly difficult challenges from time to time. You, too, will suffer setbacks, disappointments and loss. And so will your students. I hope my reflections today on how I deal with these can help you cope with your own personal circumstances or in supporting your students through theirs.
On Friday night, when the moment I had campaigned so hard to prevent for the past few years was upon us, I was at a party. The grassroots campaign group I am chair of held a #ThankEU party with European food, drink and music. I gave a speech just before 11pm - the time when the UK left the EU - and at 11pm we sang ‘Ode to Joy’ together. There were a few tears at that point, but for the most part, the event was joyful. It celebrated all that we valued about the UK’s EU membership, the contribution of EU citizens - of which I am one - to UK life, and we focused on being together to help each other through this difficult time. In my speech, I talked of what we had gained, as well as what we had lost: The discovery of strengths and skills (and in my case courage!) many of us didn’t know we possessed, new friendships and even romantic relationships in some cases forged through our shared campaign activities, and the creation of a national pro-European movement unprecedented in this country and unparalleled in the rest of Europe.
When Charlie, my daughter, nearly died ten years ago, I remember sitting by her side, hopeful on one hand, while silently planning her funeral in my head on the other. Yet I remember very clearly that even in those darkest days, I found myself thinking how grateful I was for the twelve years we’d had with her and the joy she had brought us. The old saying “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” had never rung so true.
Except I’d been in a similarly terrifying situation years before, when our youngest daughter, Hannah, stopped breathing in my arms as a result of bronchiolitis when she was just 10 days old. We had been initially advised to have a termination halfway through my pregnancy, due to the severity of her heart condition, so when she stopped breathing and her heart subsequently stopped, I didn’t even think it could be linked to the bad cold she had. I thought it was her heart. In those moments before my wonderful midwife Angela arrived for what had been planned as a routine check-up and revived Hannah on my living room floor before the ambulance arrived, I remember thinking “I’m so thankful for these ten days we’ve had with Hannah. I’m so glad we got to know her.” Hannah is also thriving now, as a 20-year-old 2nd year medical student, working hard and enjoying the wonderful friendships that student life can bring.
Throughout the difficult times I have described to you today, there is a common thread that got me through: Hope that things would get better, the love of friends and family that I could wrap around myself like a warm comforting blanket, and a deep sense of gratitude for what I’d had, even if I was about to lose it. I’ve also grown stronger and more resilient through each of these experiences, and there is interesting research emerging from the field of positive psychology on post-traumatic growth.
So, this has been a slightly longer than usual episode and I hope you will forgive me for this, but I hope you have found my deeply personal musings useful in helping you in your own life and when supporting your own students. Whatever is happening in your or their lives, you can get through it with the loving support of others, by holding on to a sense of hope, and by focusing on things you can still be grateful for. And it is possible for you to come out stronger and more resilient than you were before.
As always, I look forward to catching up with you next week and, until we speak again, For Flourishing’s Sake, have a great week!