Sam Freeman

Theatre | Comedy | Marketing

Category: Uncategorized

Thank You For Your Complaint

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for getting in touch to tell me how outraged/disappointed/angered (delete as applicable) you are because we no longer offer [insert complaint here] any more – I understand how frustrated you must be and I’m glad you’ve got in touch with me, a “moron/so-called expert/failure of a manger/incompetent pen-pusher” (delete as applicable) to inform me how you could do things better, how things were better in the past and how I should change everything back to how they were straight away.

Your e-mail, laced with moral indignation, passive aggression and entitlement is exactly the sort of thing a liberal snowflake/unsympathetic money-grabber (delete as applicable, or, keep both) like myself needs to get this issue sorted as soon as possible.

But how about this.

How about we push through this a little. Move past the dance, where we move face to face, reaction into reaction, pleasantries hiding truth. How about I tell you what I’m actually thinking when you write to me and tell me how frustrated you are.

I am frustrated too.

I am frustrated that you feel we’ve let you down.

I’m frustrated that we make compromises and they’ve not benefitted you.

I’m frustrated that the world is not a fair and just place, and that everyone isn’t equal, not by a long-shot.

I’m frustrated that I will spend my time explaining how and why we work in a specific way, trying to concisely articulate the nuance and complication that working in theatre, indeed life entails, that the thing that’s offended you has been thought out and that, while it may be something that’s different for a few people it’s, in fact, been done for a greater good, and that after you read my 1,346 words crafted over 35 minutes, sent to you to help answer your query I will be met with a responding e-mail simply saying “Disappointing”.

I’m frustrated that every year is battle to break even so that we don’t have to cut a budget, or a member of staff, or two from the cast of a show, or a show.

I’m frustrated that I frequently look at sales figures and feel physically sick, not that they’re bad (as you, the sales expert tell me), but because I feel I have to obsess over them or all this might crumble.

I’m frustrated that you can’t see that some people got more than others, and those winners are predominantly older and white, who got houses when they were cheaper, University educations when it was free, the world when it was less carboned, who are obsessed with blaming the young for all the problems in the world and don’t seem to see that maybe it’s the person who mixed the ingredients rather than the people who take it out of the oven are responsible for how the cake tastes.

I’m frustrated because I didn’t mix the ingredients better.

I’m frustrated that there are people who can’t see shows, because they can’t afford it. More than that I’m frustrated that people can’t afford their bills, to heat their houses, to feed their kids, and suddenly theatre feels pointless in comparison.

I’m frustrated that it feels like over every horizon is a cut and someone pays for it. Over every horizon is a cut, there isn’t enough money, not for this, we only have money for bailing out banks, for the economy, for what?

I’m frustrated that noone seems to realise that growth-on-growth-on-growth cannot last forever. Not without crushing people.

I’m frustrated that I’m tired all the time. And that I feel helpless and hopeless increasingly. And that writing this will undoubtly piss someone off.

I’m frustrated that we’re not doing well enough. Not just you and me, or the town, or the theatre, or the arts, or the UK. All of it. The world. We’re not doing well enough. We get one chance at this and this is what we have.

I’m frustrated that you wrote to a stranger, who’s doing their best, who works their arse off, with a tone that you wouldn’t use in real life, you made them feel shit, you made their drive home feel sad and 99% of time your mind is already made.

I’m frustrated that I’ve probably done the same thing sometime before.

So I’m sorry. I honestly am. I’ll do my best for you, I’ll try and make you feel better. But let’s be realistic, we’re all just doing our best trying to navigate an uncharted land without a map or compass, let’s show a little more compassion right?

All my controversial thoughts about how to run theatre right. Not wrong. Like you might do it. Yeah you.

So, here it is, strap in, I’ve got some truth bombs to release, I’m going to let rip, welcome to the fast lane of opinions, the deep fat fryer of fact, I may even use CAPS LOCK, or maybe Randomly Capitalise Words for little or no apparent reason, underlining get ready, CRTL + U, prepare to have what’s morally right smeared into you face, yes you, in this blog.

Are. You. Ready. For. Controversial. Opinions.

***silence from the crowd***

Are… You… Ready… To… To… Ermm… Hello…

Oh, wait a second, hold on a moment, it turns out I don’t have any controversial opinions about Theatre, Marketing or pricing, nor do I have any truth bombs to let off, I’m not even sure where the fast lane of opinion is.

Now obviously I’m being a knob – maybe you were lured in by the possibility of conflict – it’s exciting right? No such luck.

There have been a few posts of late with people slagging off how other people run their venues. I mean don’t get me wrong, everyone does it, it’s just rare it’s as up front on twitter. That said we’re closing in on Christmas, and sure, if I’d spent the last 9 months obsessing over panto sales I might release some opinion grenades too.. So… My take..

For all policies in theatre (and for the excitement levels you hoped for prepare for them to slide from this point onwards), and particularly in relation to pricing and how it’s done there isn’t, I don’t think, a right or wrong answer, it’s a hundred shades of grey, a complex mix that relates to and encompasses the audience demographic, the organisation, the type of work they show, the funding they get, the pressures they’re under from outside stakeholders and the aims and objectives of the company – that’s not even the full list.

Every policy (and almost every decision that is made in theatre, and, probably, in life) always, has people who benefit and people who don’t – all of which don’t just relate to audiences and accessibility but also the ability for an organisation to stay open, to pay staff and artists fairly, to meet funding demands, to make sure that the creative engagement work in the community (that is key and vital) still happens, maybe even the number of actors you can afford – that’s not even the full list.

We (subsidised theatre) should, absolutely, and unambiguously, be responsible to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the work on stage – we should be enabling the most vulnerable in our communities to access arts, culture and theatre. We should be doing our best to help those who need us.

But, in a world where arts salaries are not excessive, teams are often slim, arts people work regularly above and beyond and organisations operate to break even, we should remember that despite that decisions are, in my experience, for the most part, made with audiences at the forefront of the mind, but also bearing in mind that…

  • Accessing theatre is harder if the theatre is closed down.
  • Accessing theatre is harder if the subsidy is reduced to an extent where offering any discounts is impossible.
  • Accessing the arts is harder if to keep a theatre open all the education, access to the arts and creative engagement teams are cut.
  • Using the arts for real good and change can be impossible if engagement projects with the most vulnerable groups don’t happen.
  • Accessing theatre is harder if infrastructure is cut so that people don’t know what’s on, there’s noone operating the venue or noone is around to chat to audiences and be that reassuring face.
  • Audiences don’t always do what we want them to, don’t always think about the bigger picture, aren’t all socialists and want the best for society in general (but many do!).

What works for one venue mightn’t work for another, but it feels tricky to deal in absolutes, to say what one organisation does is wrong or right.

There’s a clarity question of course, decisions we make we should be accountable for – if we say tickets are From £XX we should be able to tell people how many tickets were that price, how to access them, why the prices work that way and, if people can’t get prices at that starting price then what other options are there to help those who can’t afford to access the arts if not instantly, then in changing and motivating behaviour. (I also suspect we spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on price as a barrier to engagement while the art itself gets off quite lightly…)

I spend my life desperate for simplicity, but simplicity isn’t always easy or, indeed the right solution when the overall picture and process to reach a decision is complex and nuanced.

I have huge admiration for the work of many theatres, from those who make decisions to have single ticket prices with discount/concession led additional access points and those who use dynamic pricing to offer a wider range of prices providing access points in a different way. Which is right? Who knows, possibly one of them, possibly neither, possibly both.

So there we go. I’ve said very little, had few firm opinions other than to say, context is important.

Here’s a final little sign off though – if theatre’s are being forced to act more commercially than ever before, if there are more in need than ever before, if we feel tired of always having to make compromises to get by, if we frequently have to get by, then maybe the problem is society, capitalism and the world in general.

So that’s depressing.

Night x

P.S. As a serious note, if you read this on twitter and decide to retweet it then make your tweet magical – along the lines of “You won’t believe what he has to say about Arts Marketing” or “The bad boy of Arts Marketing speaks again” or “So. Fucking. Nuanced” – Any of those will be fine x

All the things that make me cry.

Things that make me cry or weepy (updated list):

  • Babies being born and handed to sobbing fathers/mothers/relatives
  • Outstanding sporting achievement against the odds
  • People passing away and everything that goes with that
  • Chipped goals by Lionel Messi against Real Betis
  • Not knowing what to do next at work
  • Having to ring the gas/electricity/council tax/broadband people
  • Any film that uses deliberately emotive music, often a string quartet, to indicate a character losing or gaining everything.
  • Puppies and kittens or really old dogs and cats.
  • Peaceful sleeping babies in documentaries fronted by Kathy Burke

I’ve been feeling a bit sad recently – it’s not just crying. There. Said it. I’ve been feeling a little bleak, a little miserable, occasionally quite anxious, not feeling great about myself, with niggling doubts and this dark fog that seems to drop down and cloud things around me. It’s not unusual. Sometimes I go through periods, where I feel sad and there’s no real reason for it. That’s what I tell myself – there’s no real reason – or that it’s a thing that just happens semi-regularly or, or… Or is there? Is there a reason why life feels hard?

I appreciate this is a little bit of a soul-crushing opening to a blog post – this is a bit of a post for me rather than you dear reader. So here’s the stuff that’s got in my head at the moment – some are rational, some are irrational, some are silly and some are sad.

  • Someone from work who I didn’t work closely with but who was always lovely and nice to me and was a good, moral, selfless, honest person passed away unexpectedly.
  • I’m feeling like I’m drowning a bit in work, but, unlike when it’s happened in the past, i feel stuck and inert in my ability to do anything about it.
  • My wrist hurts (insert wanking joke here) – it’s either Carpel Tunnel, a sprain or a minor break – but it hurts and is annoying.
  • My asthma cough has upped its game a bit.
  • I’m missing meals, getting distracted by things so not eating or drinking enough.
  • When I do gigs I can’t see anything good in what I do but at the same time miss gigs if I don’t do one. I consistently feel like I’ve let everyone else down.
  • I feel both exhausted and out of my depth.
  • I’m writing a story and I think it both might be good and also shit. I suspect noone will ever hear it and that I’ll never finish it because the voice that says “you’re not good enough” won’t shut up and I don’t feel like “a creative” – working in a creative organisation in a non-creative role is, incidentally, inadvertently terrible for creative confidence.
  • I’m obsessed with what happens when I die. Is it a void of blackness or what? I find getting to sleep each night hard as I don’t want to close my eyes and not see my other half again. I feel acutely that I have no faith – I don’t believe in God or Jesus or Allah or anyone really – I feel hollow for it and surprisingly alone – conversely though faith has to be found rather than told it’s there.
  • There’s no houses coming up for sale where we want to move to at the moment. It’s stressing me out – I took this big step and saw a mortgage advisor and felt ready and it’s ground to a halt with twatting-Brexit.
  • Achievements don’t make me feel good, just stressed and anxious that the only way is a steep descent. A sell out show or show doing well at work is the worst for this.
  • I’m worried I’m wasting my life – particularly with my career.
  • I’ve become incredibly broody – we watched a programme about babies being born and I had a cry all the way though.
  • When the gym stopped accepting upfront payment for using the gym and instead insisted that I get a direct debit. I was furious. Stormed out. Fuck them and there stupid system. I’ve now rejoined because all the other gyms are dicks too, but at least this gym is a dick within walking distance. I also only go swimming there.

Them, the things swirling in my head. When I write them down and think about them it feels easier somehow. I think about the solutions or remedies. But I also realise how quickly stuff can build up and overwhelm me if I’m not careful. I have ways of dealing with this stuff but if they start to slip or get sidelined then it turns into a house of cards on a windy day. I deal with this stuff by:

  • Regularly having a walk at lunchtime
  • Eating breakfast.
  • Having lunch and a break of at least 40 mins every day.
  • Finishing work at 6pm
  • Going swimming on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday to do 30 lengths
  • Taking my inhaler everyday.
  • Going to bed and to sleep before 11pm.
  • Only doing gigs when I can leave work early and go in my own time or on my own terms.
  • Gardening.
  • Cleaning my car.
  • Doing all my work invoices.
  • Having holidays
  • Having weekends with nothing on.

How To Annoy Everyone In Arts Marketing (or, Arts Marketing’s Technical Problem)

I got back from this year’s Arts Marketing Association conference feeling quite pleased with myself – this is unusual – usually I return with feelings of inadequacy or guilt, and/or the feeling that tweeting at post 11pm, half-cut on cheap white wine “My Harsh Opinions About Everything People Are Doing Wrong” wasn’t, after all, such a smart idea.

Instead this year I returned home actually having actually enjoyed the conference, having felt actually inspired by some terrific actual speakers and with the solid knowledge that the one brutal tweet I’d actuallybeen tempted to send had been intercepted by one of my colleagues when, in a rare moment of clarity, I asked “if this would piss everyone off”.

As I write this now there are two things you should know.

  • I’m unsupervised.
  • I’ve not drunk any wine (white or red).
  • I write this as a memo to myself as much as a thought for others to ponder.

Or three maybe.
So here goes.

I’ve had lots of conversations in the past month about Arts Marketing, the career I have chosen and the industry in which I work. I’ve been struck by the huge number of passionate, theatre-literate, creative, enthusiastic people who work in the arts – it is both humbling and inspiring – I look at these people with much admiration – if theatre marketing was powered by passion, enthusiasm, theatre-literacy and creativity alone then our auditoriums would be full with smiling, Guardian-reading joy-mongers, Brexit would never have happened and we’d be talking about what to do with all the renewable energy we had left over over a bowl of home made hummous.

But it’s not – and that’s where this blog post gets problematic.

Let me start this with a caveat – being world-class (or even just good) at some of what I’m going to talk about is not essential for all job roles in arts marketing – teams need balance and too many of one thing can be a bad thing, but it’s useful to have some of what I mention in every organisation (I think).

I will also say that writing this makes me feel slightly uncomfortable – not least because I realise skill deficiencies in myself and my ability to lead effectively sometimes. I’ll also say that writing this had helped me appreciate more the brilliant mix of skills and balance I have in the team in which I work and how they help drive us forward (as well as hide some of my glaring inadequacies).

We absolutely need people with empathy, skilled networkers who can juggle companies, artists and performers, people who can write copy to make your heart sing, and those who can look after and manage the egos that frequent our organisations.

But it seems that there’s a lack of something else – the less arts side, the side that’s marketing and not just arts – I’m talking about technical skills.

Arts Marketing as a discipline has changed immeasureably over the past 10 to 15 years – when I started we had a small group of digital marketing people across Yorkshire venues (myself at York Theatre Royal and Alex Croft at West Yorkshire Playhouse being part of the core group) who would share our ideas about the new digital dawn that was errupting around us – we’d chat about, play and experiment with new technology – E-mail, Myspace, Bebo to name a few – they didn’t all last.

Like many people I learnt on the job supported by random courses every three months, supported and encouraged to try new things by incredibly foresighted managers, and, like many people of a similarly geeky disposition I was drawn to the new tech. I had time to experiment, to try new things and learn what I was doing. I factually don’t know whether arts marketing has become a faster moving, more intense, more relentless industry since 2005. It feels like it has, and having spoken to people returning after a while away, they seem to think so too.

That relentlessness means that more is expected of everyone. It can seem that after 10 – 15 years of regular salami-slicing of budgets and staffing that we carry more weight than ever before. So it also feels that time is even more at a premium and, consequently the ability to learn skills isn’t there as much.

Here’s an exercise for you to mentally try – how many of these can you , or can someone in your team do, both strategically but also in implementation to a high level? How many of these could you innovate with, to really use to make a difference tomorrow (if you had to)?

We’ll start easy and get gradually harder.

  • Boost a facebook post
  • Create a twitter ad
  • Create a PPC facebook campaign
  • Implement facebook remarketing
  • Create a PPC text google adwords campaign
  • Create a PPC display google adwords campaign
  • Optimise a PPC campaign (facebook or google)
  • Analyse a facebook or google campaign
  • Set up remarketing
  • Distribute a podcast or video campaign
  • Know your CSS from your HTML
  • Know what the facebook pixel does.
  • Conduct data analysis of all the trends in your organisation
  • Use google analytics to find problems and opportunities
  • Add personalised recommendations to a website
  • Send highly segmented, audience-defined, personalised mailings.
  • Make (film & edit) a short interview video
  • Measure the ROI of mailings and e-mails
  • Successfully be able to measure ROI of any of the above
  • Identify success based on metrics for any of the above

Talking to people at the AMA Conference, more often than not these technical skills seemed lacking – they were in the “we must get on that” category of to-do jobs – the problem is these need to be the job.

Of course you may be sat reading this thinking – “actually dickhead” (because you’re pissed off with the tone of this article) “I think you’ll find we outsource lots of these things to external companies – we don’t need those skills inhouse”.

Don’t you?

Let’s say that we don’t need those skills in house – that what we need is the ability to co-ordinate and manage a range of skills – after all, we don’t print our own brochure – most of the time we don’t design it? But with both those things I would argue that we can come to a quick and effective aesthetic and creative judgement about quality (even if they are based on opinion and not fact) – our bullshit detectors are much more refined – these are areas that are our bread and butter.

I once sat in a meeting virtually (Skype) to discuss the progress of a marketing campaign for a big show i was tangentally connected to. As the conversations progressed I found myself hearing phrases like “that was a good ROI”, or “it’s getting impressions but not clicks which is great” – all I could think was “prove it” – prove that it’s a good ROI, that the “impressions but not clicks” are actually great.

The more I listened the more I felt intimidated and flummoxed by the jargon – the more I listened the more I realised that the digital campaigns being paraded as successful fact were evidenced little more than a print distribution campaign – but I said nothing – after all who are we, the non-experts, to challenge those reading numbers off ipads?

You might contine to ask:
“Do I need to know the intricacies? That’s what experts are for?”

How do you know if what an expert tells you is true?

We all bullshit with confidence from time-to-time – the question is who is doing it too much and writing cheques they simply can’t cash – how do we tell? Also, and let’s not forget this, not everyone can afford to work with a digital agency, or pay a consultant, or hire someone to manage their PPC campaigns – it’s expensive and we’re all, largely pretty poor.

Of course everything can be monitored to an extent. Accurate (or quite accurate I should say) ROIs can be created – it’s just that most of the time we don’t because it’s relentless and checking on the success of one thing that’s done is delaying the creation of something that’s not done. I think that in a time-poor world the tools that’ll help us find peace and better numbers are the tools we don’t have time to learn, don’t have time to do and are the tools we’re ill-equipped to use.

So where’s this tech deficit coming from?

I also have a suspicion that we as an industry are not all that fond of outsiders. I know of a few people outside the arts who’ve had extensive marketing experience, but little experience “in the arts”, or who can’t “talk in depth about their long-held love for theatre”, or who “have qualifications in what we do”. They’ve not got interviews – “not worked in theatre”. Maybe I’m being unfair – and there is a possibility that I’ve happened upon a particularly small sample – and don’t get me wrong as a failed director arts marketing has provided me a place within theatre – but shouldn’t we be hunting for marketeers to join us as much as arts lovers? Balance in arts marketing, as with the force, needs light and dark, good and evil.

Perhaps I’ve stumbled on a few exceptions. Maybe they generally simply don’t come to us because we don’t offer enough as a career? If you’ve the technical skills what’s the lure of a badly paid, often underappreciated, long hours job in the arts where your creative ideas will be often ditched because someone WITH THE TITLE OF CREATIVE thinks they know how to do the job better than you. Hard to work out why they’re not joining us. And god forbid (for most people, I feel like an exception for this one) anyone would have an opinion on what we actually make. What are the five P’s of marketing again?


As a tangent but still part of the same thing…

I also noticed that as I looked around the AMA conference that I am increasingly feeling old – it felt a little like Arts Marketeers are taken out to pasture at 50 and are never seen again – but where is that experience going? Are we losing talent and experience because the job is grinding people down? Are we losing talent and experience because the job (which has never been 9 – 5) is incompatible with a healthy life, with family life? And if that’s the case don’t we have a shitting massive problem?

I mention this because how we work and our ability to retain people has an effect on the strength of our industry – if people are lured away to pastures greener (and I don’t just mean Spektrix) – then are we losing that experience and mentoring ability within the sector?

So here’s my thoughts:

One, we need more technical knowledge in our teams.

Two, we need time to be able to analyse what we do and we need the skills to do that properly and make proper judgement calls.

Three, we need time and the only way to get more time is get more tech skills, find more time to analyse and then to learn what to stop doing more effectively.

Four, we need to work out how to diversify our teams and attract those who generally avoid us – and how to work out how to make what we do more attractive and better without simply screaming “but you get comps”.

So what else… The solution?

That’s how these are meant to end. With solutions and vision. So here’s two ideas, simple, actionable (if you happen to run an arts council or two) – you’ll read it and think I’m an idiot pointing out the obvious, or that you already do it (in which case tweet me the link!).

  1. More technical courses – simple stuff – all at a low cost and delivered regionally so people can get there. A series of simple 5 hours (bring your own lunch) on “how to set up analytics” or “facebook ads beginners” or “reporting a mailing’s ROI” – all hands on, instructed, with no inspirational stories of outcomes, just raw, bloodied raw technical learning.
  2. Quantitive, large-scale research on communicating with audiences (not just the audiences and creating another bullshit segmentation model that, frankly, puts an individual’s face on someone you’ve never met and are making broad assumptions about) – what’s the best method of reaching people on X, Y & Z. We’ve hundreds of venues. Then use that to feed point 1.
  3. A Balance Of Inspiration and Learning – The AMA conference was great, but it was predominantly inspiration with occasional learning by proxy – let’s throw a few brutally hands on sessions in there. With worksheets. Or a Quiz. Maybe?

That’s all from me. TBH I struggled writing this post – let me know what you think – it’s not one of my finest or most useful I suspect.

Gig Report: Warrington – 8 May ’19

I’ve not written a gig report for a few years – when I first started I used to write them after every gig, but then as 10 gigs became 20, became 100 I stopped – I think I stopped because I stopped progressing and feeling like I was getting better – of course that may be because I kept changing what I did constantly… Anyway, it’s back (for new readers wondering if i’m going to write about other acts I was on with, I’m not, this is a self-critique not a comedy wank-off).

Tonight’s gig was in Warrington, the site of many a fun gig for me, 90% of which have been at the Albion Pub, and 10% of which someone offered to sell me meat, or, more specifically, four steaks that they’d nicked from work.


The gig was a pub gig, the type where you arrive and think “holy fuck how am I going to get through this”. Let me set the scene – flat stage, next to a busy bar, chairs facing away from the stage – table of six at the front all hammered (at 6:20pm) on 4 separate bottles of white wine, the football playing the Champions League (sound on) on 3 TV screens, people bringing their own fruit (easy-peel oranges), a man asking me if these “so called comedians” would be “good or alternative” and a league pool match in the next room.

So how was it?

Actually quite good fun, the room was distracted and hard to be honest, I got a massive boost from the MC who threw every adjective in existance into my introduction which really helped. I decided on a strategy of hitting fast, hard and silly. Essentially trying to pull concentration on to me by talking to audience members with single comments, doing a bit of material, more comments, a bit of material, all with the air of desperation to try and get the “we’re all in this together feel”.

I also deliberately sped up – there’d been quite a lot of backchat earlier in the gig and I wanted to control the space and mute it as best I could.

It nearly worked. A few mistakes on my part. Firstly I’ve not had a solid defined set for a few years and it really shows, remembering what I can go to and from is essential, there was a bit of note checking. Secondly I kept getting focus but then either stamping on lines OR, worse, getting distracted and talking about something else. Thirdly, I don’t trust my flights of fancy enough – there was real potential for playing with the idea of a Travellodge penis (opposed to a boutique penis) that had fun and stupidity in it, but I chickened out a bit and went to material, that FELT like material. Killer. I was hampered a bit by Tottenham scoring in the 97th minute (not my fault), and my exit offstage was a bit shabby (I tried to get booed off and they didn’t really go for it) and I also chickened out of a few jokes, largely at the landlord’s expense that I suspect would have smashed it or got my face smashed in.

Overall a fun evening, the first time in a long time doing a stand up set and not storytelling or musical stuff, but also a fuck-load of fun. So yeah, ask me to do a gig.

Night x

Grief’s early days.

I’m conscious that I don’t often write deep and meaningful blog posts – let’s be honest, it tends to be mildly amusing arts marketing observations, occasionally stuff about life as an open mic stand up and then the annual new year’s resolutions that I’ve failed to keep. I mention it because this is, or, more accurately, might be, one of those. If you’re wanting amusement then this probably isn’t for you.
Thanks, Sam x

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief recently and, more specifically, how to write down my feelings on grief, what it means to lose someone and how it changes your outlook on life.

A month or so ago Mark, the brother of my other half Louise, passed away unexpectedly. He was 31. There were no warning signs, there was no long illness or gradual fading. One moment he was there and the next he was not.

Last year he’d married the love of his life in Abu Dhabi, and together they were in the midst of planning their English wedding this summer. He was enjoying life in Dubai, the business he ran with a close friend was doing well, his beloved Tranmere were winning and he was happy, you could see it – when they both stayed with us at Christmas, when we went to watch Tranmere and when the three of us argued over what to watch on Netflix before all falling asleep – happiness.

I’m not going to go into the details of what happened. It was quick, he was with people he loved and who loved him and, mercifully, he would have known little, if anything, of what was unfolding.

I was with my Louise and her Mum and Dad as the news came through and it was something that will haunt me for a long time. The anguish of losing someone so young, so unexpectedly, is brutal, it’s crushing and it makes your soul break and your heart cry. A mother losing her baby boy, a father losing his son, a sister losing her best friend, a wife losing her husband, and a family losing the future they all dreamed was just around the corner.

Over the last weeks I’ve watched the three of them deal with this tragedy, been to the funeral which was one of the most touching, graceful and warm occasions, and seen steely-eyed determination to get through it. People with broken hearts have shown humility, generousity and humour – when you can still smile, and look to find the good in even something so horrible then, I think, you are, undoubtedly, a great person.

I was trying to work out what to write – this blog is where I do my mental reconciliation, where I try to work life out – not writing something for so long felt, feels, increasingly weak. Mark was a teacher, his passion and job was around education, about learning, so, I thought it would be good to write a few of the things I’ve learnt through this – so that if you, god forbid, find yourself in a similar situation, supporting those you love and feeling helpless at times – so that you’ve a few thoughts to help make the first few weeks not better, but manageable.

Eating is important
Noone wants to eat anything, it’s entirely understandable, but people need to or they get tired, stressed and even ill. Soup is a good starting point, as is pizza (I found) and other savoury foods. Avoiding sugar is probably a good move as it’s bad for sleeping.

If you ask people if they want something then the chances are they’ll not be interested or say they’ve eaten (when they haven’t properly) – instead, make it and give it to them on a plate. Make the “we’re eating now” decision a few times, you might get rejected a couple of times, but ultimately it’ll help.

Decaf Tea
Buy and distribute decaf tea – I wish I had. Sleeping will be hard enough without the effects of caffeine. Also not drinking too much too late on – waking up at 3am for a massive wee and then having your mind run wild is exhausting – rest and the relief of sleep is really important.

Everyone grieves differently
Some people are really vocal, some people are quiet. Some people grieve in public, some alone. All of them are fine and right. It’s important to let people know that, and also that people deal with things in different ways and that’s fine also. Sleeping more and not sleeping at all might be reactions that are polar opposites but are both equally valid reactions.

There’s no right answers
This I found really hard – you want to answer the questions you’ll be asked – the why’s and the speculation – I think sticking to what you know factually is a good start – faith and religion might be useful, but I think that’s for the person you’re supporting to decide. We live in a universe that is near-infinite, where the possibilities are endless, and we are a small grain of a sand in a huge desert – we don’t know what’s next, what’s right, wrong, what’s a bigger plan or what isn’t – what we know is fact.

Get some indigestion pills
This is a really odd one and it might just be me. I found that I was eating really irregularly, feeling stressed and panicked at points and was also eating late at night and crap food (don’t do this). I got terrible heartburn and felt ill and my stomach was a mess. The heartburn made me a bit worried about my health (because we never think it’s the most likely thing – aka heartburn). Rennies helped, Gaviscon was better.

Time is measured in months and years not days and weeks
I noticed that with grief and loss the way we relate to time is different – times that were previously innocuous suddently take on new meaning – new sadness-filled anniversaries begin – one day since, one week since, this time last month – you question when the pain with go away (and people do and don’t want it to go away), and people don’t believe the pain could ever lessen.

Be patient, accept that there will be pain, you will suffer on anniversaries (but that you have a choice whether you observe them or not) and that a month, a year later it may suddenly feel fresh and painful again. Then, be more patient.

Switch off the TV, go for walks
TV storylines are invariably morbid – you don’t notice until it’s the one thing you’re looking out for – switch it off and walk in fresh air, go for a coffee, eat an ice cream and visit parks. Talk more than watch, about anything. Maybe even go to the football.

Don’t feel guilty about not crying
I don’t cry when grieving. I stare at things. I feel I must be stoaic and do the right thing. I concentrate on not missing things: work mostly. I don’t cry. I make stew. I clean my car. I cut the grass. I don’t cry. I felt bad about it. Turns out I’m an inside myself mourner and that’s okay, but…

…you might just be building it up inside…
Putting off grieving, or ignoring how you feel while focusing on everyone else is that, like the magma chamber in a volcano you’re liable to errupt without warning in floods of snotty, uncontrolled tears and have to hide in the gents at work for half an hour.

What I’m saying is that you need to find some time for yourself too. Find someone to chat to or someone who can just give you a hug and say are you okay. Tell them early, tell them you might need a chat and occasional pep talk and it’s easier. It makes a tremendous difference.

© 2019 Sam Freeman

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