In the golden evening light, Embury Beacon was a peaceful and enigmatic place. There was no one else around. A few grass-covered mounds are all that is left of what would have once been a large and bustling settlement. I explored in a reverie, wondering how it must have been to live in this exposed spot 3,000 years ago. It might have been a trick of the light, or more likely my distracted mind, but I climbed up a mound to where I thought I would rewarded with a view of the whole site. Instead, I found myself teetering on the edge of an abyss – 150m of plunging black rock. The far half of the mound I had so confidently strode up had fallen into the sea and my momentum very nearly took me the same way, into the crashing waves below. I instinctively fell to my stomach and clutched the edge. It was as I peered down that I realised the patch of earth I was lying on was actually a crumbling cornice of sandstone. On my belly, I inched slowly back a couple of metres onto firmer ground and lay very still for a good few minutes.
The walk back to our cottage that evening was a little, for want of a better word, ‘trippy’. I was certainly not lost in my thoughts anymore. I was very alert. The colours of the sky and the wildflowers in the hedgerows were vivid. Hundreds of butterflies rose from the long grass and the bird song around me seemed orchestral. Of course, I know the biological cause of this hallucination-like state was the adrenaline coursing through my body. But still, it was something special.
I can’t say that I made any huge decisions that day that have changed the trajectory of my life in a dramatic way. But it has brought a shift in focus that has subtly influenced my decisions and a commitment to live with a little more vibrancy.
Because the uncomfortable truth is that cliff is coming for us all one way or another. I was just fortunate to be gifted a visceral reminder ahead of time.
In August 2023 I saw a friend's Facebook post about a Winter Swimming challenge for charity I thought 'sure, why not?'. Let’s bring a bit of an edge to this drab wet Auckland winter. I am not a strong or regular swimmer. I figured I would contribute my $50, squeal through a couple of quick cold dips, and move on.
Instead, this past 4 weeks has turned into the most wonderful period of conversations, friendship, and community which has enriched my life beyond all expectation.
For starters, I met Nic Russell founder of Kenzie's Gift.
It is impossible to spend any time with Nic and not have your appreciation for life super-charged. Her story is hers to tell so I won’t try to do it justice here, but in her own words she has ‘danced with death her whole life’. She is a cancer survivor, a recent heart transplantee and she lives with Parkinsons. She is also a bereaved mother. Her daughter Kenzie died of a rare cancer aged 3. Nic swims in the ocean every day. She established Kenzie’s Gift in 2006 to provide support and 1:1 grief counseling for children, helping them to build the coping tools they need, and reducing the risk of anxiety, depression, anger, and isolation that are linked to childhood trauma.
Nic herself would say that therapy is not for everyone and that not everyone needs it. Had I been offered therapy at age 14 following the death of my mother, I doubt I would have taken it. I was fiercely private and proud. My school friends were my unpaid, unqualified therapists and they did a bloody good job. It was later I sought professional support and it was life-changing.
It's often younger children that can be most helped by grief counseling. My sister was 8 when our mother died (pretty much the same age as my youngest daughter now). When I think of that my heart aches. I deeply wish grief counseling had been available to her. Mental health services here in Aotearoa/NZ, as in much of the world, are under immense pressure. The work of Kenzie's Gift is an important lifeline for families going through life's toughest times.
So far our Winter Swimming team has raised $7,350. The support and generosity of friends and strangers have been uplifting and a reminder of how kind people can be. Thank you, thank you to everyone who has supported us. It has meant the world.
If we can get to $8,000 by the end of this month that will be the icing on the cake. $8,000 will provide a 12-session program of professional, evidence-based, age-appropriate therapy for 4 children.
Aside from the fundraising, the benefits of this challenge have been very personal too.
Physically I feel good. Like really, smugly good. My skin is glowing. The effects of cold water swimming on the immune system are well understood. Immersion in cold water helps to boost your white blood cell count, over time enabling your body to become better at activating its defenses. It also improves circulation and helps remove toxins.
Mentally, I feel more alert and I have abundant energy. There is something about repeatedly overcoming the instinct to recoil from cold water which makes you feel super-human. Cold water swimming releases endorphins. It is really addictive. As of today, I have swum in the ocean every day for 10 days and I don’t intend to stop yet. I used to roll my eyes at those Wim Hoff evangelists but I am all-in now.
But, by far the biggest gift has been to the spirit.
There has been such great support from the community for this challenge. People getting out of their comfort zones to literally jump right in with us - wigs, jellyfish and all! Honestly, left to my own devices I can be a bit of a ‘erm, maybe, we’ll see, ask me next week’ sort of person. Bless those people in our lives who say a big YES when there are many reasons to say NO. They inspire me to become one of them.
This month I have had conversations I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I have heard from people I have not spoken with for years. I have learned things I did not know about people whom I have known for a long time. Wonderful new people have come into my life. I have begun new friendships and deepened old ones. This has been a rare treat at this stage of life. I am immensely grateful for all of it.
And it’s been so, so much fun. Anything that gives you an excuse to don a bright pink wig during the day in public is to be embraced wholeheartedly.
I have also had more conversations about grief and death this last 4 weeks than in the last 10 years. Some of the conversations have been very, very funny. I have laughed a lot - sometimes at dark things. And I have cried too.
In my cultural landscape, grief largely occurs in the private sphere. It can be hard to talk about. People can shy away, afraid of saying the wrong thing. When we sit with another person’s grief, when we make room for it, we cannot help but be reminded of our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of all those we love. It can be uncomfortable.
What this month has taught me is how many people are longing to talk about their dead loved ones. I have reflected on how the Western, atheist tradition, which is my own cultural inheritance, is lacking in the language, structure, and rituals for grief to be expressed and experienced in community with others.
Our deep discomfort with the topic is reflected in the sheer number of euphemisms for death. From the irreverent ‘kicked the bucket’, ‘snuffed it’ ‘popped their clogs’ to the saccharine ‘slipped away’, or ‘passed on’. Indeed, in my first post at the start of the challenge, I wrote that I had ‘lost’ my mum. As if she had slipped down the back of the sofa with the car keys and old pennies. As Nic says often we really do struggle with the dreaded D-word.
But whatever words we choose to use, we need to talk about death more. And it seems to me cultures other than my own do this better.
I have often envied the Mexicans for their Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) when the border between the spirit world and the real world is believed to dissolve. The spirits of the dead return home, to be welcomed in by their relatives. A reminder that death is an integral part of life.
The Jewish tradition has a highly ritualised structure for dealing with grief, including sitting shiva for the dead which helps see mourners through the first days of intense grief and onwards in a process that helps the bereaved gently return to the world of the living.
I am not familiar with grieving rituals in Te Ao Maori but a tangi ceremony spanning several days, with its protocols and defined roles, strikes me as an eminently more sensible way of honouring the dead and caring for the grieving, than the typical English-style funeral…90 mins followed by a cup of tea and a sandwich.
For those of us without the embedded cultural structures to help guide our grief, we need to learn and build it for ourselves and for each other. This is not easy, nor comfortable but it matters.
My school friend Lisa, whose son Joe died 3 1/2 years ago, wrote to me a couple of weeks ago when she learned about the Winter Challenge. She talked about the ‘cavernous loneliness of grief’. I will never forget those words. They reconnected me to my 14-year-old self alone in my bedroom, feeling numb.
Grief is unspeakably lonely but it is also what connects us to each other. There is no path through life that avoids it. Unless we choose not to love, and that’s no life at all. David Whyte, as always, says it much better than I ever can and I will leave you with his words at the end of this note.
My mum has no gravestone, no fixed place for me to visit to commune with her. My father scattered her ashes in the places she loved and that meant something to our family. Some on Stannage Edge in the Peak District, one of the places I love most in the world. Some on Hartland Point – curiously, a short distance from where I had my cliff encounter.
Living in NZ, those places are far from me. For now, the ocean is the place I will go to remember and speak with her.
My own ritual will be, whilst I can, to swim through the winter remembering the dead I have loved and embracing the life that is left to me. And welcoming open-heartedly anyone who wants to join me.
The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.
David Whyte – from Consolations