Pieces Falling Into Place

A complicated puzzle became both a memorial and an allegory for my grief journey and my life.

I’ve been working on a beautiful jigsaw puzzle over the past month. I chose it in honour of Helen, because she and I often did puzzles together. In fact, this was the first jigsaw puzzle I’ve done without Helen in probably twenty years. I also chose it for my dad, who would have loved both the map and the fact it was created by a Dutchman. 

The image is an antique map of the known world, complete with solar systems and representations of the four elements; highlighted with gold embellishments. It was created by F. De Wit in Amsterdam in 1663, and the puzzle was produced by Hinkler Mindbogglers. Boy oh boy, did they get that branding right! 

It really was a mind boggling challenge. Intricate lines, many pieces that still looked almost the same, and corner and edge pieces that were almost identical to one another made putting this puzzle together quite the labour of love. 

Mind boggling, to say the least!

Piece by piece, though, it started to happen. It is no understatement to say that I felt a profound sense of achievement when I finished a section and could anticipate how beautiful the whole thing was going to look. 

Piece by piece, it started to come together…

Doing the puzzle in honour of Helen and my father gave me purpose, but the concentration it required and the distraction from other things in life gave me a sense of mindfulness and peace that really helped me in my day to day life. 

Almost there! But those last couple of hundred pieces were the hardest!

Dealing with my grief and managing tasks related to Dad’s estate were somewhat complicated by the challenges of teaching online again during Victoria’s second major Covid-19 lockdown, but working from home also gave me the space I needed to do those things and start to heal. 

In many ways, that puzzle became an allegory for my own life. I was putting those pieces together too, seeing how things fit and getting an idea of how things would look. I too have intricate lines and a complex design that needs to be observed carefully in order to achieve the desired outcome. My life is full of pieces that fit together neatly, and it’s up to me to make sure I get that right. 

So, while the puzzle on the table is complete, the puzzle that is me is still a work in progress. 

A beautiful picture indeed!

Today marks thirteen weeks since my dad graduated to heaven. Thursday marks the same interval for Helen. 

Three months seemed like an appropriate goal for completing the puzzle, and I feel a deep sense of satisfaction at having done so.

This week, I will make arrangements to have it framed. 

When it is hanging on my wall, it will be a daily reminder that doing life well is a process, not an event. It will remind me that every piece matters. And it will remind me of my love for Dad and for Helen, of their love for me.  

I am so blessed to have known and loved them both, and to have been loved by them. The pieces they contributed to the puzzle of my life have helped to make it a thing of beauty. For that, I am very, very thankful. 

I know that as the pieces of life continue falling into place and fitting back together, my grief will remain present, but it will change. It will transform to become a part of the bigger picture, while keeping its own shape and character. In time, it will be differently painful, but the picture of my life would be incomplete with out it. In its place, fitting in with the pieces that represent joy, achievement, love, and hope, it adds its own detail, texture and embellishment to the canvas. 

Happy National Teddy Bear Day!

Happy National Teddy Bear Day!

This is a celebration I can get right behind, because every day is Teddy Bear Day in my house!

I actually have a beautiful collection of Charlie Bears, who not only adorn my house but help me market my books on Instagram.

To see all my beary bookish posts, follow the hashtag #abearandabook on Instagram.

They are beautifully made and delightful to hold, and their faces are so expressive!

Some of my bears mark special occasions. Others are rescues, having been adopted from other people who no longer want them. As I keep telling my husband, our home provides an important service as a refuge for orphaned bears. And others, I have bought because I just fell in love with them when I saw them.

Benson: my first Charlie Bear.

If you’re interested in seeing my bear collection, there are photos of them all on my Pinterest board titled ‘Bear Collection’. There are some that are not Charlie Bears, because I already had a small collection of other bears before I discovered Benson, my first Charlie Bear, in a shop and was forced – forced, I tell you! – to bring him home with me and love him forever.

In additional acts of service to teddy bears, I’ve inspired my cousin and my sister to start collecting Charlie Bears. Between us, we’re saving the world, one bear at a time.

And in case you were wondering, the collective noun for teddy bears is a hug.

Good Grief! Getting Through My First Father’s Day Without My Dad.

The challenge: dealing with my feelings on a day I’ve always enjoyed celebrating before.

Over the past few weeks, I found myself growing heartily tired of advertisements and posts about Fathers’ Day. 

I sincerely wish all the dads out there and their kids a very happy Father’s Day, and I truly hope they can spend some quality time together. I hope kids of all ages cherish their dads and make the most of every opportunity to spend time with them while they still have them. 

For me, though… it just hurts. This is my first Father’s Day without my dad after 53 years of having him in my life. It has only been 11 weeks since he died and I miss him enormously every day. 

Dad enjoying a great coffee at Camperdown Bakery in March 2020.

I have so much to be thankful for. Dad was wise, and funny, and encouraging, and consistent, and caring, and always there when I needed him. I loved being able to care for him and provide for him, to spend time with him every day, and to take him to the places he needed or wanted to go. We were father and daughter, but also great companions and partners in laughter, day trips, good coffee and sweet treats. 

All of that is why I miss him so much. And while everyone else is celebrating their dads as they absolutely should, it feels empty for me. 

So, I spent part of my day commemorating my father. 

I went to visit the grave where both my parents are now buried. I placed flowers there, took some photos, and had a big howly cry. 

There was a young guy nearby, placing something on a grave — maybe his own dad’s or grandfather’s resting place, I don’t know. He approached me gently and asked, “Are you okay, miss?” We we’re both wearing masks, but his eyes were kind and I could see he was genuinely concerned for me. I thanked him and explained it was my first Father’s Day without my dad as he died in June, and he nodded. “He was lucky to have a daughter who would cry for him,” he said. Then he patted my arm and walked away. What a kind, compassionate soul! 

As I calmed my breathing and emotions, I took some photos for the family. 

My next stop was the Camperdown Botanic Gardens. I love walking there. It’s so pretty and there is always something lovely to see. It was the perfect place for reflecting and mindfulness as I walked.  Surprisingly, I was the only person there: everyone else was missing out, because it was an absolutely glorious day. There were blossom trees covered in buds and blooms, new leaves on limbs that have been bare all winter, a glorious grove of bluebells, pretty tulips and cheerful daffodils and jonquils. They were all sights that were good for the soul. 

My third destination for the day was the nursery: I wanted to buy a tree to plant in memory of my dad. There were some lovely options – silver birches, ornamental pears, weeping cherry blossom, and a range of decorative blossom trees. In the end, I couldn’t decide between the crabapple and the Persian witch hazel, so I bought both. They both have leaves that change with autumn colour, and pretty blossoms to give cheer in late winter and early spring. 

There was one funny moment when the lady who runs the nursery suggested a maple tree. I had to confess to her that I adore maples — they are my favourite tree— but I couldn’t get a maple this time because nobody would believe I bought it to remember Dad. A maple would definitely be just  for me. 

It has been an emotional roller coaster of a day, but I have tried to fill it with positive things and happy memories instead of dwelling on the past or wallowing in misery. I experienced a beautiful moment of kindness from a stranger, enjoyed fresh air and sunshine on an absolutely cracking spring day, and I have two lovely new trees that will brighten the garden and my life. 

The crabapple has been planted, and the Persian witch hazel is just waiting until tomorrow evening for its turn. 

Counting my blessings instead of my tears is definitely what Dad would have wanted me to do.

So, once again, job done.  

My Souvenirs.

Yesterday, I wrote about completing thef tasks I needed to do after my father’s passing. That included rehoming a number of his things, including two bookshelves that have been in our family longer than me, the art prints that Mum and Dad loved to have on their walls, and personal things like his bed and his walker. 

I don’t know how many times I told my siblings that I wasn’t sentimental about giving away things we didn’t need, or selling the things worth money, via buy/swap/sell groups on Facebook. There are people out there who needed them more than we did. That was mostly true. 

I have kept Dad’s hat and his walking stick. I don’t need them, but they are so iconic of him in the last few years that they are deeply meaningful to me. Those are things that he held and wore most days. They identified him at any distance, and had become part of his identity to everyone who saw him when he was out and about. 

My beloved Dad in March, 2020.

These things are my souvenirs, tangible holders of memory, and valued physical symbols of my no-longer-present, much loved father dad. 

Job Done.

Today my best friend and I went to visit my parents’ grave to see the new plaque that has been added for my dad.  It signifies another landmark, of you’ll pardon the pun: all of my responsibilities for Dad’s funeral and memorial have been met. All the jobs are done. 

Photo: Joanne Van Leerdam

The past few weeks have seen the dispersal of the last few things that needed to find new homes. Dad’s bed and walker went to an elderly chap who will benefit from them as much as Dad did. The last things to go were some bookshelves, some framed art prints, an organ stool, a couple of shower chairs, and an odds-and-sods collection of Tupperware containers that are too good to throw out but surplus to our needs. 

The plaque was the last thing that needed to be finished. It looks lovely, and matches Mum’s plaque perfectly. It’s completion leaves me with a profound sense of achievement and satisfaction, but also one of being at a loose end. Those tasks have kept me busy and feeling like I could do something useful to help process my grief. When I took the photo of the finished headstone this morning, and placed one of my own beloved wombats beside it, I knew it was all done. 

And now I don’t know what to do with myself. Oh,  I have work and books and all the demands of life to keep me busy, just as I have always done. But that sense of purposeful mourning has run its course, and I am not sure what comes next. 

I guess I am about to find out. 

This afternoon I was talking about these feelings with my best friend as we drove home. We were blessed with the most beautiful, bright rainbow — not in the distance, but touching the side of the road as we drove. At one point, we could see the whole rainbow just outside the front and side windows of the car, but I couldn’t successfully take a photo of it. 

Image Joanne Van Leerdam

“After today, and everything I was just saying… it’s like God telling me everything is going to be okay. It sucks that Dad is gone, but I’ll be alright.” 

“it absolutely is,” she said. “You’ll be alright. We all will.”

And when we got home, we were greeted with another rainbow.  

Image Joanne Van Leerdam

Grieving From A Distance.

While I’ve been on my own grief journey recently, many others are experiencing grief of their own.  And in this time of social and travel restrictions in Australia and elsewhere, people’s sorrow and grief is being complicated by distance and isolation. 

I have seen this happen multiple times within my own circle of family and friends in just the past few weeks. 

My brother in Canada lost his own brother a couple of weeks ago. It was unexpected, and therefore an enormous shock. 

Talking with my brother and trying to support him via instant messaging has been a blessing for both of us – to share the pain eases it somehow, if only slightly. But what I really wanted to do was get on a plane and go there to hug him and support him in person. Even if I couldn’t go immediately, the knowledge that I’d be there at some point soon would encourage him enormously. 

Sadly, it’s just not possible. My state is in lockdown. We are under strict conditions for leaving home. International travel for personal reasons is not possible. Heck, going anywhere at all beyond my local supermarket or pharmacy in the time of COVID-19 is ridiculously problematic, and probably not really safe given my lousy immunity. As it is, I have to stay here and he has to be there. 

He knows I’m with him in spirit, but it just doesn’t seem enough. I know how hard it was to lose a loved family member and a close friend within five days of each other, and his brother was both those things to him. I know how hard it was to deal with the trauma, and I had my family around me. I’ve been painfully aware of the fact that he lives on his own, some distance from the rest of the family, and hasn’t had the close support that I’ve had. 

After losing our father in June, my sister has lost two good friends and another friend she has known for more than forty years in the space of a month. I’ve been able to talk with her and listen to her express her shock and sadness, but I haven’t been able to hug her or help her in any physical way because we’re hundreds of kilometers apart.

A friend lost his uncle this week, and be there to grieve with his family because his uncle lived interstate and our border is closed. It doesn’t matter to the authorities how close he was to his uncle, nor do they care that his uncle was a father figure for him and helped raise him. The rules apply to everyone, regardless of personal circumstance. It’s understandable, but it makes the pain and misery so much worse. 

It’s not just immediate grief that is complicated by distance, either, My beloved late friend’s husband and son have both had birthdays in the past couple of weeks, and  I would have so loved to be there to support them as they struggled with not wanting to celebrate, and not being able to see the rest of the family because their lockdown restrictions are so tight. They’re all dealing with curfews, stay home orders, and only being allowed to travel within five kilometres of home for essential purposes. It’s not so restricted here, but nobody is allowed to visit Melbourne for social reasons, so that’s that. 

The result for all of them, and for everyone experiencing grief in the time of corona, is a vicious cycle of mental and emotional distress as sorrow and isolation feed on each other. The effect on one’s wellbeing is profound. 

My heart aches for everyone in that situation. I can’t imagine how much worse it must be for those who have actually lost loved ones to the virus and haven’t been able to be with them, or with their family members as they grieve. 

We are all struggling with the impact of the virus and the social restrictions it has brought to our lives, but let’s remember that there are some who are really, really doing it tough. It certainly puts the inconveniences of wearing a mask outside of home and sanitizing our hands fifty times a day into perspective. 

It may not seem like much, but a phone call or message to someone can make a huge difference in their day and in their mental and emotional health. Being willing to care and to listen is an act of love and support of immense value. 

On Eagle’s Wings.

Today’s important task was to finalise the wording for the plaque on Dad’s half of the headstone he shares with Mum, so that we could order it and have it done. 

Most of the inscription was easy enough – name, dates of birth and death, and “loving husband of Anne”. 

The challenge for my brother, sisters and myself was which bible verse to include. We knew Dad’s favourite passage was Romans 8, but that was way too long, and far too complex, to include or even simplify. We’re limited to 10-12 words, so it needed to be short but still meaningful, and reflect Dad’s faith as his final message.

There were some really good suggestions made. 

This morning I texted my siblings a list of the “top eight” for their consideration and vote. 

As it turned out, the decision almost made itself when my sister asked, “Why don’t we just continue the verse that’s on Mum’s?”

The simplicity and beauty of that idea took my breath. Mum’s side of the plaque has the first line of Isaiah 40:31 “They that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength”. 

It was the verse that Dad chose for Mum’s inscription, so we knew Dad would have approved. It was a way of embracing their unity, too. They shared 58 years of marriage, they shared five different homes in that time, and they shared four amazing and super-talented children. Now, their earthly remains share a final resting place while their souls share eternity in heaven. Sharing such a beautiful Scripture on their headstone seemed to be a lovely reflection of their shared faith.

Still, it was another reminder that Dad is gone, another challenge to meet head on, and another emotional hurdle to overleap.

Feeling the weight of the moment, I went for a drive to one of my favourite thinking places: on top of Mt Leura, overlooking Camperdown and the volcanic plains and lakes of the area, where I have sat and thought, or taken photos, or walked, or written, or listened, or prayed, or rested,  or had dinner before a theatre company rehearsal, at least a hundred times. 

The inscription we chose for Dad’s plaque.

I typed up the text of the inscription for Dad’s plaque, ready for ordering. I knew the words, and I am pro at typing, but still, that was hard. 

“Maybe I shouldn’t be on my own right now,” I whispered to nobody but me. 

I got out of the car, and walked the short distance up to the top of the lookout.

And then, for the first time ever in all the times I have been there, a wedge-tailed eagle flew overhead, soaring in the sky above me. 

It was there, and then it was gone. I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t even manage to get my phone out of my pocket in time. I so wish I had, though. 

I’m not the biggest believer in coincidences. In that moment, I accepted it as a sign: a reminder that although I was by myself, I wasn’t actually alone at that point in time. 

Hm. I think there’s a poem in that.

On Eagle’s Wings.
#TrueStory #MyLife #grief #coincidence #eagle #personal #blogpost

Upside Down.

Image: ©2020 Joanne Van Leerdam

My father and one of my closest friends recently passed away within five days of each other. In fact, Helen died on the afternoon of Dad’s funeral. It was too much loss. It was too painful. It was definitely too soon and too final. And “upside down” is exactly how I felt then and still feel now.

As always, my feelings have turned into poetry.

I wrote this poem on the morning of Helen’s funeral. It was impossible to contemplate one without revisiting the other in my mind.

So, this poem is for both of them.

Upside Down.
#grief #emotions #poetrylovers #poem #personal #blogpost

Image: ©2020 Joanne Van Leerdam

I don’t know how to do this.
I don’t want to say goodbye,
But I have no choice,
You have taken your wings,
And I have to let you fly. 

In a moment you were gone
And life turned upside down;
Too soon. Too final.
And now we gather to lay you
To rest in the lonely ground.

The grave seems so absolute,
Stark proof you’re really gone:
It’s a mystery
That your life can be over
And yet, your soul lives on.

Your life is now in heaven,
Eternal peace and rest,
My comfort is knowing
You’re in Jesus’ arms
Safely treasured, fully blessed.

Life here without you is hollow,
The days all seem so long,
I have grown weary of cliches
And platitudes
That feel so empty and wrong.

The future is bleak without you, 
I don’t know what life will be, 
But…

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Remembrance, Always.

Always & Remembrance: are the two Willow Tree figures I have chosen in memory of two significant people in my life: my father, and one of my closest friends, who graduated to heaven five days apart.

These two lovely figurines now have pride of place in my special cabinet to remind me daily of these beautiful people and the incredible love I have for them both.

Mourning Song

Image by Joanne Van Leerdam. June 24, 2020.

I wrote this poem back in 2016.

These words have been in my mind again the past couple of weeks, following the death of my father and the passing of one of my closest friends on the day of his funeral. Losing them both within five days of each other was more painful than I can describe.

Photo artwork by Joanne Van Leerdam. June 24, 2020.

Tears fall,
Can’t stop them,
Can’t hide them.
You’re gone,
Can’t bring you
Back again.
Why am I always the one who is feeling
The pain of the wrenching and tearing of leaving?
Why must this pain be so raw deep inside of me?
My heart
Misses you
Desperately.
Please say
That you won’t
Forget me.
I can’t imagine my life without you in it,
Bereft of the light and the joy of your loveliness,
Every room filled with the echoes of memories.
Never
To be the
Same again.
Tears fall,
Into the
Loneliness.
You’re
Gone.

©2016 Joanne Van Leerdam

Mourning Song.
#poetry #grief #Emotions #poetrylovers #personal #ReadAWrite

This poem is included in my collection titled ‘Leaf’.

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