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Are you boxing yourself in?

I have spent most of my life, fighting my way out of boxes.

Most of the time, other people boxed me in, with the certainty of science and plenty of experience behind their thinking. They told me with clarity and conviction that I belonged in this box and that being in would dictate the limitations to my abilities.

I knew they were wrong, of course. I knew they had spent their lives living according to the boxes they’d also been put into by others. What did strike me as odd, on occasion, was how these highly qualified and respected people who could change and even save the lives of others, were happy to accept the box existed and, even more surprisingly that they belonged in it.

There never was a box.

It can feel easy and safe to put things in boxes, to label them and say things like ‘we’ve always done it like this’ or ‘everyone with this condition will behave this way and have these outcomes’. The thing is, it just isn’t true. These boxes are, more often than not, actually a way of putting aside something we don’t know how to deal with, or wish to pretend isn’t real.

It is far easier to tell someone ‘this is how it’s always been’ than to listen when they challenge the status-quo or show different results than you’re used to. If they don’t fit the mould you have, then how are you supposed to work through the problem?

And as we are bombarded by the boxes, from when we first start school and we’re put into boxes like ‘challenged’ or ‘disruptive’ or ‘prodigy’, we start to own them and become what is expected of everyone in the box. We take on the characteristics we’ve been told are part of who we are – simply because we’ve been told that’s what it means to live in this box. We start to box ourselves in.

When I was told, often with a total lack of empathy or compassion, about the more alarming parts of my health issues, I knew I had to break out of the boxes before I started to believe them to be my place.

When I was in my early twenties, I went to a ‘support group’ meeting for people with my genetic condition. I hoped to meet like-minded people of my age who had overcome the challenges I was facing and who might have words of encouragement and hope. The meeting was full of people who had decided this was their place, who had lost all hope of challenging the anticipated path for us and had become accepting of the outcomes their medical professionals predicted when they put them in the box.

It was a game-changing moment for me. I knew I could never go to another meeting like that, and I knew I had to decide that day, this was not going to be my future. I was not going to be sat in agony, covered in braces and having constant surgery. This was not my box. I had to find medical professionals who didn’t want to box me in, or tell me that I could never break out.

Which box have you become comfortable in? Which box could you do with breaking out of? It will feel scary and exciting in equal measure and, at times, you’ll hear yourself saying all the things that you say to stay in the nice, safe box. That’s okay. That’s what we all hear, every time we challenge behaviours or habits.

It takes time and practice and often, when you really believe that you’ve broken free, you realise you’re climbing back in and looking for a dark corner o feel safe. That’s okay too. It passes. It takes time to break down boxes that we’ve been building for years.

When it feels overwhelming, I remind myself; there never was a box. It was all in my imagination, or the text books that my doctors read, the lessons my teachers taught us and the language in my own head.


Let’s talk about death, darling

Talking about our inevitable death and our wishes after the event, is not usually included in recommended light conversation for date night.  Even amongst those who work in roles where you’d expect talking about dying to be something they’re trained in, and despite us all knowing that we will, at some point, die, many of us never let our family or close friends know if we have any special requests for our own life celebration service.

As a Celebrant, I often have detailed conversations with family members to ensure every detail of the service we put together is exactly in line with the wishes of the departed loved-one.  An integral part of writing the ceremony, is often including particular words or music that meant a great deal to everyone present.

Despite this being such an important part of creating ceremonies that help the family move forward, I realised last weekend, that I had never spoken in any real detail with my husband, John, about what I would like for my life celebration.  Even with my experience and training, I found it slightly difficult to pick the right moment to suggest we ought to make it clear for those left with the task of arranging our funerals, if there was anything particularly important to us that we’d like them to include or consider.

I am pleased to say, that once I got over the initial “this isn’t the most positive thing to talk about over pudding, but I’d like to talk about death, darling” John and I had a constructive, positive and at times even funny conversation.

We talked about where and how we wanted to have our bodily remains left, and both agreed we liked the idea of being cremated.  John has always said he’d like a Viking send-off, but after giggling about sending him down the garden stream in a log boat, set alight with his charcoal, we got a bit more practical and agreed a Life Celebration where we were by water would be more manageable.

We talked about who we’d love to have there, and why.  We shared ideas on who we’d want to speak and what stories they might share.  I was reminded of my first experience speaking at a funeral, when John’s dad died and I was asked by his mum to write and deliver the service, with just two days to prepare.  Before long we were remembering holidays we’d shared before his dad became ill, and it was one of the most positive conversations we’ve had about him since his death seven years ago.

One of the big things we acknowledged, was that the service is really for the people we leave behind, not for ourself.  We wanted to be sure the ceremony would be positive and uplifting for our daughter and friends, we hoped the people we’d ask to read would share joyful and happy memories and be there to offer a hug and support to our family.  By preparing as much as we could in advance, we were removing some of the burden for those that had to plan and make arrangements during a challenging time.

I made him promise that, if he is around to help plan my service, nobody would read “Stop all the clocks” by W.H. Auden; it would have our daughter in pieces.  By the same token, “The life that I have” is far too much like him for her to cope with it at his service, so we’re planning on short, simple and possibly even comedic poetry, with a leaning towards Pam Ayres.

And all the time that we talked about these plans, we held each other’s gaze; we smiled and listened intently.  We cried a little too; the thought of being here without each other brings no joy and after over 30 years together, I don’t spend time imagining a life after John. Yet this evening’s conversation, heart-wrenching, laughter-creating and above all, surprising, had proved to be soothing and calming, leaving me with a sense that, despite the fear, we can talk about death; even with those we fear leaving the most.