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Rocking with the Reaper: One Nottingham Psychotherapist on How Brushes with Death Gave Her an Optimistic Mindset

12 June 21 words: Jayne Pigford
illustrations: Jenny Mure

Over the last three decades, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Jayne Pigford has endured a persistent battle with her physical and mental health. After adopting a routine of meditation and mindfulness, she’s been able to reroute her mindset from pessimistic to positive. Here, Jayne discusses the main themes of her new self-help guide, Rocking with the Reaper… 

I’ve been ‘dancing with death’ for thirty years. I had blood clots in my legs at eighteen and 21 and a diagnosis of Lupus (SLE), followed a decade later by an unbelievable seven months in Queen’s Medical Centre. I suffered everything from internal bleeding, pneumonia, strange ‘irregular bleeding’ and MRSA to a heart attack, massive brain haemorrhage and complete organ failure. My loved ones were told I had about ten hours to live.  

I left the hospital alive, but as a yellow, moon-faced skeleton with a prognosis that I probably wouldn’t play tennis again (I’d been attractive and sporty) but may have a “reasonable quality of life.” I was retired on ill-health grounds from my fulfilling job as a social worker, given the devastating news that I’d never be able to have children, stopped in my global back-packing tracks and swapped for a healthy model by my then-partner. 

I’ve hardly been away from hospitals in the 23 years since that time; excruciating bleeds, traumatic and painful procedures, two life-threatening gut operations and nearly losing my leg and hand. I started haemodialysis in 2011 and for seven years have – terrifyingly – dialysed at home, alone; my chances of a transplant are very slim due to all the blood transfusions I’ve had, and I doubt I’ll reach a very old age.  

So, on paper my quality of life could be seen as less than ‘reasonable’ with death constantly on my trail. You’d imagine I’d be as miserable as sin and yet, physically excruciating episodes apart, my life’s been rich; I have played tennis and I’m generally pretty chipper with a great love of life – hence my writing a book about my experiences and naming it Rocking with the Reaper

I wanted to encourage fellow patients – or just anyone who’s destined to die. I reflect on the trauma of being a helpless patient but also explore two illogical episodes of great peace that I had on death’s door. For my psychotherapy MSc dissertation, I researched near death experiences and discovered common love and peace related themes, and how a brush with death can transform people. I was excited, as I could completely relate to these changes; I too felt less materialistic, egotistical and driven, craved deeper, more ‘real’ relationships with myself, nature and other people, and had even more passion for wanting to help bring kindness and care to our crazy world. 

In the midst of my research, my microbiologist friend Matt happened to talk about us being ‘historically overdue’ a mass pandemic which sparked my thought: “That’s it. We need a global brush with death to wake us all up to what’s important and to save the planet.” Hmm…

In my book, I outline neuroscience’s notion that we’re biologically ‘wired’ to connect and be loving – something I felt on my death-bed, when my ego had been smashed to pieces and as exemplified by our amazing NHS. It made me question whether COVID could be our gateway to challenging our current ‘neo-liberal’ cut-throat system which brings the worst out in us, and to create a new world based on our true, loving natures. 

If I am kind to myself and allow myself the space for a good sob, a wild dance or a ‘shriek-a-long’ to loud music, I always feel better

But, of course, looking death in the eye isn’t easy. The (scientifically verified) art of mindfulness has helped me to cope with ‘the beast,’ and I’d say my main life-saver is being grateful. Having travelled in Kenya, South East Asia and Central America, I’ve seen that we live like kings and queens in the UK and every time I turn the tap on or use my loo, I know how lucky I am. I’m also grateful that I can speak, eat, walk and breathe – after having been unable to at times. When I remember to look, there’s so much I’m grateful for, even on a bad day.

Mindfulness has also given me the gift of living in the moment, where I try not to think about the past or the future but focus my attention on my body and senses. Have you noticed that it’s hard to feel unhappy while eating a good meal, listening to the birds, watching a sunset or feeling the warming water while taking a shower? Getting lost in thought and living in virtual realities cuts us off from the pleasures of our bodies and miraculous planet. 

And can’t our virtual reality make us miserable?! I used to spend so much of my precious life worrying, saturating myself in potentially lethal stress hormones, and wasting time planning, organising and trying to take control of my life when actually ‘life’ – and side-swipes like illness or COVID – mostly decide what happens. 

Of course, real physical and emotional pain is a part of life, and having self-compassion is absolutely central to my well-being. I was brought up in Yorkshire where ‘being soft’ was deeply frowned upon, but I’ve discovered over the years that if I’m not kind to myself (getting carried away on habitual, self-critical thoughts) and don’t allow myself the space to ‘sit with’ my emotions, I can feel anxiety and a low mood-building. If I am kind to myself and allow myself the space for a good sob, a wild dance or a ‘shriek-a-long’ to loud music, I always feel better, as tears and movement literally release sadness and stress from our bodies. Mindfulness is all about accepting things as they are, and regular meditation is the key which expands our capacity to ‘stay with’ what is happening in any given moment. 

Sharing your pain with others supports research that shows that a problem shared really is a problem halved. On the face of it, mindfulness is a solitary practice but Buddhism (the root of mindfulness) has ‘three jewels’: the Buddha, his teachings and ‘the sangha,’ or a supportive community. As my book argues, we need connection to feel at our best. My final coping mechanism for when I feel overwhelmed is to remind myself that millions of other people are feeling similar pain at any given moment and that this too will pass. 

So, Dastardly Death is maybe not so dastardly; he’s got me to write a book, makes me value every moment and reminds me every day of the miracle of life. 

Rocking with the Reaper is available on Jayne’s website and from Five Leaves Bookshop. A portion of the proceeds will go towards renal charities and research.

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