To those of you who know me, you are probably taking part in my fantastic Friendship 50 plan this year to celebrate a milestone birthday. I’m so glad I came up with the idea. It has more than met and exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next. For those of you who might not know me, let me explain a bit about who I am and how and why I’ve invited fifty friends this year to take me out of my comfort zone by challenging me to a new task, challenge or adventure. It’s a story about love, loss and moving forward because really, when it comes down to it, I believe each of us has only got one life and I’m a firm believer it should be lived.
To the hard part first. I lost my husband John to pancreatic cancer over a year ago and it was tough. Tough for me and devastating for our three teenage children. But John would have wanted me to get on with life and that’s also something I expect of myself.
I’d prefer to say moving forward in life. Not moving on. You don’t move on from someone you love and nor do I ever want to. John and I were childhood sweethearts. We met when we were just 13 and his memory, the many happy years we had together, I will carry gladly with me every single day. Grief is a strange emotion. I think it was William Spence who wrote: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” I believe it can go somewhere though, and that somewhere is talking about it, harnessing and putting it to good use.
I tell my story at speaking engagements now because I know it helps comfort and support people who have been or are going through the furnace just like our family has. It’s in my DNA to want to help, to bring hope, to tell people there can and will be better days ahead but vulnerability, I’ve found can be exhausting and comes at a high personal cost. I’m also using what I’ve learned through John’s illness and death to advocate for better patient-centred care and for improved support services for young people who face trauma at such a young age.
Being a Positive Intelligence Coach (PQ) has helped. I’ve trained with Shirzad Chamine, Chairman of CTI, the largest coach training organisation in the world. He uses breakthrough, research-based tools to strengthen the part of your brain that serves you and quieten the part of the saboteurs, helping people to handle life’s challenges with a more positive mindset, and less stress. We call this mental fitness.
I’m part way through my own programme, What’s Holding You Back? just now. It’s aimed at helping people get through difficult life junctures. I can’t recommend the PQ programme highly enough to anyone feeling stuck or wanting more out of life and work.
I’m really aware that negative emotions, including stress are the result of self-sabotage. We often work so hard on our physical strength without paying too much attention to staying mentally strong. Getting the balance right, I believe is key to achieving your goals and living the life you really want. It’s about putting the hard work in and creating the daily habits to move forward one step at a time. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Personal resilience, showing up for yourself, leading your best life, giving generously of yourself to the benefit of others are themes I have coached on with clients for many years.
This thinking, which for me is also a way of life, helped to form my Friendship 50 plan. Grief, I’ve come to understand can co-exist with happiness. They are not mutually exclusive. So, to celebrate my 50th birthday this year, I’ve asked 50 friends to push me ‘out of my comfort zone’ and challenge me to an event, task or adventure I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Courage being my watch word for the year.
So far so good. I’ve already taken part in a Greek night preparing food with my good friend Ani Kanakaki, attended a charity RNLI Cullercoates Ball in North Shields with lifeboat volunteer, Deputy Launch Authority (DLA) Mike McGuire and even though I can’t draw a stick man, had an art class and the best craic with the incredibly talented artist Aly Harte. John and I had previously asked Aly to paint Castlerock Beach for us, a place John loved. It had meaning for him and is now a legacy piece for our children. In all these experiences, I take the learning. For example, when I won a prize at the RNLI ball, Mike Maguire came up to me and said: “You are a lifesaver.”
The four words gave me goosebumps and brought a tear or two. Such clarity of purpose. It got me thinking about what would prompt people to put their own lives at risk, without prejudice to save at sea, the life of another human being?
How clear is your purpose? Have you reflected on why you do what you do? Who benefits and what is it about that benefit or reward that matters to you?
The Friendship 50 tasks and challenges are coming thick and fast now and I am determined to have the courage to take on every single one of them especially when friends have taken the time to think about and plan for our adventure together. That’s very special to me.
Thanks to Nuala McMenamin for the master class in eye-make up. Lots of fun and no better teacher on how to do an eyeliner flick. Back on more familiar terrain with Nic McHugh for a trek up Sleve Bearnagh and a birthday cup cake and candle in the great outdoors. What’s not to love about that?
I’ve even learnt to knit under the watchful eye of my good friend Dorcas Crawford but won’t be a candidate for the Women’s Institute any time soon. Although, I might have had a glass of wine before it.
I love this quote from John O Donohue: “No person is a finished thing. Each one of us is in a state of perennial formation. You develop and change constantly; each new experience adds to you and alters your shape and image.” It’s so very important, particularly during turbulent times to surround yourself with the right people, develop supportive networks, be among those who will hold you up when life isn’t so good and always have your back and best interests at heart. Because nothing prepares you for grief, for raising teenage children who have lost their dad, for the rawness of their emotions.
In early May, I shared my story and spoke about post-traumatic growth at the Social Media Savvy Conference in the Titanic Hotel in Belfast. It was the opening talk on the conference’s theme, Resilience and Recovery.
I asked the question: “What will you do with the life you have been given?” The feedback was positive. I like to think each time I share my story it might reach someone, who in that space and time needs it most but as I’ve said before being vulnerable can take its toll.
Travelling to Portugal for another two Friendship 50 adventures was just the thing I needed to relax rejuvenate and reconnect with some old and very important friends. On the day I was flying out I took a call from Ulster Tatler Magazine to say I’d been shortlisted for the Women Who Have Overcome Adversity Award at the magazine’s prestigious Influential Women of the Year Awards 2022. I’m up against my friend, the powerhouse that is Orla McKeating and goodness knows who else. It seems to have impressed my kids and for that alone, I am grateful.
What can I say about Portugal! It was just what the doctor ordered and my friends Terry and Elaine Hamill and Christina Ridley Thomas did not disappoint. I was apprehensive and excited about going back to Portugal where as a family we had spent some of the happiest years of our lives when we moved there for John’s job in 2012/13. We met Terry and Elaine because their children attended the same school as ours and were in the swimming team. We became really good friends spending time together at swimming meets which took us all over Southern Europe.
Terry and I became business partners in Portugal. He also helped me get set up in business taking on the Asentiv franchise when I returned to NI. Without him, I wouldn’t have my own coaching business now. What was lovely back then, was Terry kept saying, you have a really great way of building connections. You can see how connections work. You would be really good at helping businesses build better connections. So that’s how we ended up being in business together. I helped his wife Elaine, a palliative care nurse who had worked in Liverpool for 20-years and who had moved out to be with Terry to set her own business up. She teaches first aid and is still going from strength to strength.
These were reciprocal, encouraging, connecting relationships.
They knew I loved Lisbon so they combined their love of art with my love of walking so we did a street tour in the Graça area in the baking heat looking at lots of legal and some not so legal street art. The whole day spent with Terry and Elaine was about the importance of investing in relationships. I’ve stayed in touch with them. They’ve come to Belfast to visit and although Terry and I are no longer in business together, we still encourage and support each other. What I learned from Terry, what he taught me right at the start was to talk less and listen more. He showed me the art of asking really good questions and to listen to what people have to say and making connections so you can be helpful to them.
My second Friendship 50 adventure in Portugal was with my good friend Christina Ridley Thomas. We met in a bizarre way but that’s a whole other story and for another day. When we relocated to Portugal from Italy due to John’s work, I remember Christina coming round to my house to welcome me. From that moment we became friends and it became her custom to come round to my house on a Thursday night. We would share a bottle of wine and I would cook for her. In turn, she would take me out to off-the-beaten track Portuguese restaurants. Her family own a farm in Portugal. Soon after we became friends, she invited us to meet her parents there and with three kids we had truly magical experience.
So it’s very unsurprising for my Friendship 50, she would conjure up a food and wine experience. During my visit, she picked me up and drove me to a Roman town in the University City called Évora and booked a tasting menu at Tua Madre; an Italian/Portuguese fusion restaurant. That just about sums up all my foodie loves. It was a wonderful day spending time with her. I hadn’t seen her in six years. It was one of those experiences that met all the things I love, friendship, food, good wine, a gorgeous environment.
Simple, fun, enjoyable.
What I’ve learned from working and being friends with Christina is: Expand your mind. She really showed me a different side to Portugal when I lived there. She introduced me to some eating places I would never have found and wines that I would never have tasted. I learned from her to try and make friends with people in your locality and really get to know the history and culture of where you live. I guess the question I am asking is to think about what’s on my own doorstep to discover?
Now, I’m getting ready for the next round of Friendship 50 and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.
I’m not just getting by with the help and I have to say ingenuity of my friends, I’m still standing, still giving back, still pursuing joy and happiness.
I’m living my life despite some pretty awful circumstances and taking the joy and gifts where I find them.
I’m also just a little bit proud I have put into practice what over the years, as a coach I have preached.
To my friends, I am forever grateful and know that I love you all.