Loss is a soul-shaking sensation. And coping is its unpredictable cousin. The two often travel inseparably, one looming in the shadow of the other – an all-consuming barrier on your path – making it near impossible to predict how they’ll manifest themselves within you when they strike, or which direction they’ll shoot you off in as a result.
I’d experienced both in small amounts as various difficulties emerged over the years, but none with the ferocity that came in February 2018. I can still feel the hollowness that punctured my chest, the weight that dragged me to the floor, and the seemingly never-ending lack of distinction between emotional and physical pain. During that life-changing phone call, I learnt that my childhood friend Gemma had died in hospital after being in a car accident ten days earlier. I felt empty for hours.
Those hours turned into days, and then weeks and long months of the varying stages of grief – my mind yo-yoing between anger and acceptance; being at peace and then seconds later at war with the irreversible information I’d been handed.
I said my goodbyes, shared my memories and strung limp sentences together which dusted the surface of how I was feeling, but these tactics were always followed by the ‘what next’ syndrome; a dull ache which seems to take pleasure in pushing any kind of closure to the furthest ends of the earth.
As the year anniversary approached, I began searching for a cure capable of transporting me to that destination. I knew it would be a slow and uncomfortable journey, but it was important to me to just get moving and to be active in the driving seat of my own healing.
From this came the big idea – 19in19. 19 challenges throughout 2019 to channel the daring, fearless nature I admired so much about my friend who we’d lost at the age of just 19.
Here’s how I got on…
1. Dry January: A whole month without drinking alcohol – a challenging yet healthy way to kick off my fundraising.
2. 19 Gym Challenges: 19 reps of 19 different gym exercises live on Facebook! It certainly wasn’t easy, but I was well supported and encouraged by my friend and Personal Trainer, Simon – watch it here.
3. 19 Days of Gratitude: I posted one video per day for 19 consecutive days highlighting something in my life that I’m grateful for. It was a great way of noticing the small things that make a big difference, and not allowing the negative to always take over. You can watch them all here.
4. Meat-Free March: I went a whole month without eating meat, which was actually so eye-opening. I tried lots of new things, and surprisingly didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. Since then, I’ve been regularly cooking vegetarian dishes, although I haven’t made the big commitment full-time.
5. 19 Mile Walk: Joined by my parents, we walked the 19 miles of Jersey’s north coast – it took us just over 8.5 hours and a lot of will power! The weather did a great job of demonstrating all of its extremes, meaning we got absolutely soaking, but that also resulted in the reward of a rainbow at the finish line – it felt like Gemma was acknowledging our efforts.6. Abseiling: A team of us abseiled down a war bunker on a cliff face in Jersey. If the height wasn’t daunting enough, the high winds certainly added that final scare-factor – watch it here.
7. Summer Sea Swims: Over the summer (June to September) I tried to swim in as many bays in Jersey as I could fit in. It was really therapeutic and certainly a hobby I’ll be carrying on.8. Leap of Faith: This one came completely out of the blue when I was filming at a youth group holiday club for work. The instructor asked if I wanted a go, and I couldn’t resist – watch it here.
9. Skydive: A skydive from 13,000 feet is something I’ve always wanted to do, and it was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped it would be – especially over Jersey where you could see most of the Channel Islands and the French coast. Watch it here.
10. NYC Landmarks: Being lucky enough to experience a holiday in New York, I wanted to feel like Gemma was a part of it. So, I had my photograph taken in front of 19 different landmarks for challenge number 10.
11. Niagara Falls Zip Wire: Again, this was a case of seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and taking it! While visiting the famous landmark, I signed up to zip wire over it – watch it here.12. Coffee Morning: As my resolution for 2019 was to learn how to bake, I put my skills to the test by holding a bake sale and coffee morning at work. My kind colleagues donated £100 to the cause on this day alone.
13. Danceathon: Gemma and I attended the same dance school back home in Rotherham (Janet Mitchell’s School of Dance) so I got all the girls back together to try out 19 different styles of dance. This was one of my favourite challenges, simply because of the pure warmth and love you could feel in the room. 14. Sleepout: I took part in a sponsored sleepout to film a news story for work, but as I was going to the effort of taking to the concrete for 12 hours with nothing but a sleeping bag, it seemed like a great opportunity to tick of challenge 14 while I was there.
15. Santa Dash: Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like running through the town centre dressed head to toe (beard included!) as Santa – watch it here.16. Ice Skating: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared of ice skating. So, I made it my mission to get over that this year. And I did… Live on the TV! Watch it here.
17. Horse Riding: I’ve always been curious about horse riding, and am really glad I gave it a go, as I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you to my friend Gemma and her mum Karen for helping me enjoy a stunning Saturday morning under the winter sun.
18. 19 Positives from 2019: Personally, I’ve found 2019 to be quite a difficult year for all sorts of reasons. I’ve faced various struggles, which have often led to feeling down and being quite negative. Reflecting on 19 positive things that have happened to me this year was a really useful mindfulness exercise, and I’d certainly recommend it to others needing to regain a bit of perspective – watch it here.
19. Blog post for Gemma: That leads us to the present day and this piece of writing – the final chapter of my 19in19 adventure.
To those who’ve sponsored me, supported me, spurred me on and even joined me in my challenges – thank you. You’ve helped me to raise over £2,000 (so far) for the brand new charity set up in Gemma’s name. That money will help to give performing opportunities to young people who might not have been able to afford them without financial support. She would have loved that.
To those who knew Gemma and are experiencing similar waves of emotions to me – let’s keep talking, sharing and remembering. A part of that pain may never go away, but more importantly neither will the love we all have for her, and the love she gave in return.
And to Gemma, wherever you’ve found yourself – hopefully somewhere with a dancefloor and an open bar – I miss you. I wish I could have done all of these crazy things with you, and not in your memory. I wish more than anything that you weren’t gone. But honestly, in spending this year how I have, it feels in some small way like you’ve always been with me, and that’s stitched up a huge hole that left with you.
That’s why I plan to keep going. I’ll keep setting challenges and facing them head-on. I’ll keep raising money for your charity to help others who share our passions. I’ll keep telling people all about you and our memories for as long as I possibly can – until one day in the future when we’ll hopefully dance together again.
You can donate to my fundraising page here: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/19in19