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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

Is your grief soft or spiky?

My Why audio version of this blog available here.

Last week as I was typing up my blog in our Pod Oom… I should probably pause to explain that. For those of you that haven’t read C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ when Lucy first discovers the magical world of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe she meets a faun called Mr Tumnus picking up parcels he’s dropped at the shock of seeing a human. When he asks where she came from she replies:

"I - I got in through the wardrobe in the spare room," said Lucy. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

He replies:

“...Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?" C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Hence, many people call their Spare Room, Spare Oom, hence us having a Podcast Room which has become Pod Oom.

Anyway, that's enough hences, as I was saying, last week I was typing up my blog in our Pod Oom when a very soft, delicate, white, spiky thing, floated through the slightly open window and landed on the black cloth of our podcast desk. I'm aware this sounds like something I just made up for the purposes of a blog but it is stone cold true. Fascinated by its aim and navigation skills I trapped one of its small legs under my coaster and kept it there for the day before deciding to release it later through the window to continue its journey.

Now this phenomenon is not new around here, at this time of year these unique seeds are found on the air all day long. They are trapped in spider’s webs, on flower heads, on gate hinges, in trees, in ponds, and in the corners of house floors. I wasn’t entirely sure where they came from but yesterday Chris and I took advantage of the nice weather and went for a short walk and behold, not far down from our house, against the side of the road were hundreds of fluffy thistle heads, all releasing their floaty seeds into the air. The thistles were dry looking, like a lot of our plant life this week because we haven’t had much rain for a while, with the odd pop of purple from the flowers they sprout alongside the fluffy seed heads. There was so much of the fluff that the ground underneath was covered in a white furry blanket of them.

Even as I look out of the window now I can see them floating past. I was thinking about the different journey each of these floaty, spiky things has. Some are flying high moving with air currents over houses and gardens off into the blue sky, some have been trapped under the plant they fell from, some are caught in weeds on the floor, some are unwanted hostages in spiders webs, some have found water and drowned, some travel miles, some millimetres, and some are held in the hands of children and wished upon (I heard that there is actually such a thing in the US as capturing one of these, or a dandelion seed, and making a wish, and it’s called - wait for it, this is fantastic - ‘when you wish upon a fluff’!)

So I was pondering, if I was a small piece of fluff, what sort of journey have I been on? It’s a healthy exercise for you to think about for a second too. You might even get an immediate sense of it. Have you been caught in web unexpectedly when you were hoping to fly high? Are you stuck on a car bumper being dragged along at a speed you weren’t made for and having no idea how to get off the roller-coaster? Are you literally caught on a roller-coaster car? Do you feel like you got trodden on while exploring lower ground? Did you fall from the thistle and get caught amongst a load of other people with low ambitions who didn’t get far? Are you comfortable? Or longing to be free? Are you attached to the wrong crowd and trying to break away? Did you try something you weren't made for and drown in the water? Did you get captured by someone else who’s holding you against your will?

What is your fluff journey?

I find sometimes when you allow your imagination to connect with imagery like this, it helps to realise where you are and what you’re feeling in a clearer way. It can be easier to imagine something visual, one step removed, than just trying to explain or unpick your emotions by just thinking about big broad, vague questions like ‘where am I in life?’ And the good news is that it’s all hypothetical, so don't be afraid of what you might discover about yourself, because you can change that narrative, it doesn't mean it's the end of the story. The piece of fluff stuck in a spider's web outside my window might not be getting free, but you can. If you feel stuck, just recognising it means you can start to change it if you want to (of course, there’s always someone that's just content for their fluff journey to consist of being stuck to the back of a hedgehog).

Thankfully, dreams can change. If we'd all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. Stephen Colbert

And if you’re flying high and loving it, it allows you to realise that, and appreciate it. In my curiosity to find out more about these pieces of fluff, I did some research. Firstly, I discovered they came from thistles from our walk, which I didn’t know before. Now, I’m not sure about you, but when I hear the word 'thistle' I already know they’re not that popular, they just seem to have a bad press.

However long the sun shines upon a thistle, it will never become a rose. German Proverb

I don't know who decided the rose was the bees knees, but here’s a couple of reasons why thistles are probably not people's favourite plant…

They’re spiky! Properly ouch-spiky. I referred to the floating things as spiky but actually they’re very soft, it’s just a description that suits them, but thistle stems are proper spiky. And why are they spiky? Well, like most spiky things in nature, it’s to protect themselves.

He that will bare-foot go must not plant a garden of thistle. French Proverb

They spread far and wide. In fact, one thistle plant is capable of producing thousands of seeds.

It's seen as a weed. It has a very stubborn root system and can be difficult to get rid of, even leaving a little bit of root the ground can mean the thistle will grow back in force the next year.

But they do have good things about them too.

They are clever. The fluffy tentacles that help the seeds float on the wind are there to disperse the seed, which is at the centre. The soft strands are called ‘thistledown’, because of its light fluffy down-like exterior. For some thistles this is its only way of dispersing seed.

They are a national flower.

The prickly thistle has been used as a royal symbol of Scotland since the rule of James III in 1470, and it’s the oldest recorded 'National Flower'.

An Ode to a Thistle by Frank Maguire Such honour is bestowed on her As she wears her crown so well So proud she sways among the breeze On every hill and dell The emblem of our country There for all the world to see She is the bonnie thistle Growing wild and growing free

Not just spikey, they also flower. Thistles actually bloom in a range of colours including white and yellow, but they’re most commonly seen in shades of purple. And they're actually part of the daisy family, so they do have some very popular relatives.

They have a lot of medicinal uses.

Lots of wildlife, goldfinches in particular, love them.

I actually have an image of a purple globe thistle with a bee on it as the profile picture for my personal Instagram account ( - and it’s one of the loveliest nature photos I’ve ever taken. And last year I planted some of them in my garden, which I'm just starting to enjoy now, but they’re a very different kind of thistle, the beautiful one in the family, even though the leaves are still spiky looking.

I think thistles are a great representation of grief. As you may already know from the podcast we’re looking at loss, all kinds of loss, so I don’t just mean those of you going through the loss of a family member or a bereavement. I also mean you - who didn’t get the career you always thought you’d land, you who look at your family and it’s not what you dreamed it would be, you who feel alone in the world and have no idea how you got to this point, you who lost a friendship and you’re not talking to anyone about the pain, you who lost aspects of your health or physical movement and feel it keenly, you who worked so hard for something you’ve had to choose to let go, you who just retired and have no idea what's next. In all of these areas you are facing grief and just like the thistle is common, so is grief and loss.

And there are 3 thistley things that grief might have produced in you.

  1. Maybe it’s made you spiky. I see this in me, I get spiky around certain areas of parenting or people who have things that I wanted or that I’ve lost. I get less patient with their concerns and hurts, putting up spiky barriers because I haven’t dealt with my own pain. Sometimes spikes are good, they’re protective, without them thistles get eaten and pulled up more, and hedgehogs get attacked, we walk into scenarios and conversations that hurt us further. But humans aren’t thistles and we’re not supposed to scare off others, we’re supposed to love others, so we need to learn when it’s ok to have spikes for protection and when we need to take them down because they’re actually stopping the right people, who could help us, get near. Spikes might protect one party (like the man who wants to stop the pigeons pooing on his roof), but they injure and hurt the one trying to get near (in said example, the pigeon). I know throughout my battles with menopause and the knock-on effects of it affecting my mental health, that if I didn’t recognise this and take them down occasionally, I’d have pushed everyone away and potentially broken my marriage. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary to learn the difference.

  2. Maybe grief’s made you soft and fluffy. Sometimes our grief makes us softer, not in a door mat bad way. Poor door mats. It’s funny how some items get a rough deal and others get put on a pedestal through no effort of their own. How come the doormat is seen as a pathetic, passive loser but sliced bread is put up there for all great inventions to be compared to?! Anyway, softness. Grief can soften us, like the fluffy thistledown that covers the grass beneath the plant. It creates softer corners of our heart which are more open to love, joy, hope, and simple appreciation for the air we breathe, the nature around us and the people in our lives. It can make us more aware of those hurting around us, more attuned to the needs of others and more thoughtful. Grief is great at knocking off all our hard edges, reprioritising all the unneeded clutter in our lives and helping us to focus on what’s important, while making us more appreciative in the process. However, soft and fluffy is also vulnerable and we have to be careful to not get trodden on like the soft flying, delicate, thistle seeds. And just like those seeds, those who have been through grief (which is all of us at some point) can release things into the world that float away from us and bless others in ways we might never know, it might be your words, your actions, your art, your voice, your kindness or a million other wonderful things humans are capable of sharing with the world.

  3. And lastly, grief might have created beauty in you. The thistle, for all its fairly neutral colours, and leaves, and seeds, has beautiful flowers. Mostly purple, is there a colour more adventurous, daring and bold than purple? You must have heard the poem Warning by Jenny Joseph? I’m going to finish today’s episode with it, because the thistle has chosen to wear purple. Are there any other obvious common flowers that come to mind that wear purple? Not straight away, unless you have plant knowledge. Purple was my favourite colour as a child, I had purple Ascot boots, purple jeans and a purple belt at one point, I couldn’t get enough of it. I think it’s taken a hit over the years, the pastels being more in vogue but I’ll always gravitate in some way to a nice dark or bright purple for some things in life. Thistles have a beautiful side to them and so do people who have grieved. In fact, I find that I can almost spot someone who’s grieved the minute I speak to them, and it’s why I love the podcast so much, I get to speak to people like that every week, and even better - no small talk. I know for a fact that grief releases, encourages, inspires and produces beauty from people, and in so many different ways. Bold, bright, brilliant, purple beauty. It lowers spikes in others because people want to be near it, it attracts others like thistle flowers attract bees, and it spreads far and wide, like thistle seeds leaping into the wind.

What I've found overall is that griefy people rise from the teary mess, and bit by bit they navigate the confusing path of how to be spiky, soft and beautiful all at once. And so often I believe nature actually plays a part in this healing journey. Thistles attract wildlife, griefers are attracted to wildlife. Griefy people are always finding solace on the outdoors, nature, pets, horizons, the sea, the mountains, the fresh air. Maybe it's because nature is no stranger to grief. It doesn't hide it, it runs with it, accepts it (yearly, monthly, daily, hourly, minutely sometimes), it accepts that night will always come, but so will the moon. It accepts the sun will set, but it will always rise again. Grievers have to accept that night will come, darkness will fall, tears will rise, pain will occur, but so will hope, love, faith and joy, and if all else fails, we can always grab life by the horns and…. wear purple.

Warning by Jenny Joseph When I am an old woman I shall wear purple With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter. I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells And run my stick along the public railings And make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain And pick flowers in other people’s gardens And learn to spit. You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat And eat three pounds of sausages at a go Or only bread and pickle for a week And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes. But now we must have clothes that keep us dry And pay our rent and not swear in the street And set a good example for the children. We must have friends to dinner and read the papers. But maybe I ought to practise a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

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