Friday, 23 June 2017

On National Pink Day: A funeral for a friend

I don't know where to begin with this one, but I must write it today, even if I can't write it as well or thoroughly as I'd like to. Apologies in advance for the clumsy nature of my writing in this post, and most of the photos are at the end if this post is too long/upsetting to read and you just want to see pretty photos.

The last few posts here have been about loss and that's no accident - losses or pre-losses have been a significant factor in my life for the last year. It's one reason I haven't blogged much.

When I told my friends I was doing a floristry diploma back in 2011, a few got excited and said I could do their wedding flowers if they got married. Others got excited and said I could do their funeral flowers. I remember those conversations, because I wasn't excited at all by the idea - I didn't want to think about my friends dying and I didn't enjoy doing funeral flowers anyway. But that was a long time ago - I've since finished my therapy degree, worked for three years as a voluntary bereavement counsellor at St Christopher's Hospice, and processed my own bereavements from long ago. I've also come to - I can't think of the right word. Not "enjoy" exactly, but I've become much more comfortable with doing flowers to do with loss, and have found beauty and love and human connections through that work.

And so I have done wedding flowers for a few friends, birthday and anniversary flowers for others, but no funerals for friends - until this week.

Vicky came into my life a few months after my partner and I called off our wedding. I was in a state of not-quite denial at the time - constantly doing new things and meeting new people and not wanting to sit with my pain because I worried if I sat with it too long, I would fall apart and be unable to piece myself together.

I was at the Depressed Cake Shop in Sundridge Park in August 2013 - and I've just remembered that it was only 100m up the road from the flat where I lived with my (ex) partner. I was there all day, and Vicky turned up in the middle of the day. All I can remember about her that day was how friendly she was, how she seemed like she knew me already, how many photos she took, and her nails were painted pink and blue. I wish I had photos of her from the day but I don't.

We became firm friends at once, and although the shop was supposed to be about fundraising and awareness, it was also the place that brought two women who were often crippled by depression (and anxiety) together. She was a troubled sleeper like me, and we would often write crap to each other on our night-time Facebook posts or text at odd hours. And, like in maths where two negatives make a positive, our mental ill-health seemed to cancel each other's out, and we would feel so comfortable and often joyful with each other. I told her father recently (he encouraged me to write this post today) that being friends with Vicky in my late thirties was like having a childhood friend to go shopping with in the 1980s - we never went anywhere especially exciting, but we both liked pretty, kitsch, weird things, we had a sweet tooth, our favourite colour was pink, and with her I felt the closest I felt to being a little kid and getting excited about pick 'n' mix and Easter Eggs and Adam and the Ants records in Woolworths. The one time Vicky and I went out for my birthday, last autumn, we asked for colouring-in posters and crayons and we sat in Giraffe eating our dinner and colouring in monkeys and elephants (and lamenting that there was no pink crayon).

Only four months after we met in 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After initially being told she would make a full recovery within a year, she was then told that actually she had secondary breast cancer - that's what the pain in her shoulder was - and at the age of thirty she suddenly had to get her head around the idea that her life expectancy was only another 5-10 years. That turned out to be an optimistic prognosis. I don't want to write about her cancer now because there is SO much to say, but I will just say that her attitude and her kindness and generosity of spirit during the last three and a half years are beyond incredible. She remained a support to me, with my disabled sister, with my mental health, with my lack of self-esteem and confidence, with my other loved ones with cancer, even while she was so ill herself. She never wanted to die, until right at the end, when she was in so much agony and the brain metastases, radiotherapy and steroids had left her in a terrible state. She shared every medical update with her friends and family on Facebook and sometimes in her exquisitely-written blog, and so we were able to support her (and each other) as much as possible. Because of this, many of us connected during her last five weeks in St Christopher's Hospice, and continued to do so after she died there three weeks ago.

During one visit to the hospice, I sat in the room while Vicky slept, and I talked to her mother. Her mother told me that Vicky had told her she wanted me to do a coffin spray for her. I was choked by this - Vicky and I had never talked about funeral flowers and I had no idea she wanted me to do hers. She gave me a free hand as well, which was - as ever - a sign of her love, trust and generosity to the people she cared about.

I'm so tired now, I can barely write...but I want to try to explain why I chose the flowers I did.

Vicky had asked me to source striped roses before, and I used some in the bouquet and posy I did for her 33rd birthday. I ordered "Angry Bird" white and red striped roses for her funeral flowers, but they were unavailable, so I had "Frou Frou" pink and red striped roses instead.

I wanted lots of beautiful roses for her because she loved them and they're a symbol of love and grace, so I ordered "Charity" David Austin roses because of their scent, unusual appearance with the bright green stamen inside, and the name - Vicky was the embodiment of charity in the biblical sense, and apart from the coffin spray she didn't want any flowers but rather donations to St Christopher's and to cancer charities. It was also a thank you to the hospice that cared for her over three years but especially at the end.

I also ordered "Tess" David Austin roses, because they are named after Tess of the d'Urbervilles who's one of my favourite fictional heroes - so loving and tenacious. They're not especially scented, but they are such a gorgeous, sexy dark red, which is a colour I associate with Vicky even though I don't think I ever saw her wear it.

There were bright pink "Dr Alexander Fleming" peonies because she was so appreciative of medical research and because peonies are symbolic of a few things, including anger, and I am so angry she got this horrible illness and died so young. There were pale "Shirley Temple" peonies because of her playful, child-like side.

I did order "Karma Choc" dahlias (which look like and smell of chocolate) and bright "Labyrinth" dahlias (because she liked David Bowie, a "fellow cancer patient" as she called him, and was gutted when he died), but that bloody heatwave pretty much killed the dahlias, despite some great advice on keeping them cool and hydrated from Sara at My Flower Patch (it was at her flower patch last year that I smelled the chocolate-scented dahlias for the first time). I snuck in a few not-too-shabby chocolate dahlias so Vicky could have one last chocolate fix, and I used a few buds of Labyrinth which had lasted better than the main flowers. Dahlias symbolise dignity amongst other things.

There was jasmine from the garden, which started flowering the day after she died. It symbolises attachment and amiability.

There was also ivy, which is sign of love and fidelity, magnolia (more dignity), eucalyptus for protection, fern for sincerity, rosemary for remembrance, and mint for protection and warmth of emotions.

It is British Flowers Week, so I bought lots of flowers from Zest on Monday, including achillea which the Victorians called "a cure for a broken heart", astilbe, and brodiaea, as well as giant alliums and scented dill. The last two were a tribute to one of Vicky's wonderful sisters, who organised the funeral (pink hearse and pink cupcakes and all) and who grows organic vegetables. There was also pale pink malope, which I've grown from seed for the first time. It was also Zest where I ordered her roses, peonies and dahlias.

It was an honour and a privilege to do this for my friend and I am so glad she let me. I listened to Nirvana and Radiohead and Joy Division while I worked in a dark garage. It was hard at times - I suddenly started crying when I had to use a measuring tape and long stems of rosemary to measure out the size I would be working to, realising that I was measuring my dead friend's body. It was horrible. This was a flipping world away from doing wedding flowers for a friend.

I need to finish now, but not before sharing a few links.

Firstly, the funeral directors Varley and Varley who were so personal, intuitive, and sensitive. Clayton Varley is an exceptional man.

Secondly, St Christopher's Hospice - if you have been bereaved of someone who received care there, you can request bereavement counselling if you would like. You can also help with fundraising or become a volunteer as I was up until a month ago. It is a lovely place to work, as well as an amazing place to receive care - Vicky and I would sometimes have lunch together when her outpatient appointments and my supervision meetings were on the same day.

And finally, the Samaritans on 116 123, because cancer, death, depression, all of it is a shit, and if you need to talk to someone, they are there.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Love and loss with flowers

Mother's Day feels like so long ago now - but it was only a few months ago. 

The alternative flowers workshop went well. I had rosemary and forget-me-nots for remembrance, mint for warmth of feeling and protection, ranunculus which says "You are radiant with charms" according to the Victorians. And French lavender, just because it smells beautiful.

There were people who'd lost their mother and people who'd lost their child, but everyone connected and shared their stories. I went down to get more tea after we'd been chatting for an hour and before we started the floristry, but when I came back up, everyone had got stuck in and started making posies. There was flower-swapping and jar-swapping, and beautiful, scented posies were made for keeping and others were made to lay in memory. It was heartbreakingly sad at times, but it was also wonderful. The talking, the connecting, the kindness, and the grounding qualities of flowers - all of these things did their bit.

If you would like support with the loss of a child, Child Bereavement UK have resources here.
For other bereavements, you can contact Cruse here.