LOSS: HOW GRIEF FEELS FOR ME
I have wanted to write a piece about grief for some time now. And today is the anniversary of my mother's birthday, so it seems a good day to put pen to paper. Though I must admit that I don’t know where to begin, or what to write. It’s almost taboo in our stiff upper lip society to talk about death. No one wants to acknowledge it or say very much about it. I understand why. It’s depressing and no one wants to think about it, either for themselves or for their loved ones. Just think of our response to the standard ‘Hi, How are you?'. We usually reply ‘Fine, Thanks’, revealing nothing about ourselves and our emotional life. We don’t express how we feel. But death and grief is a topic worth peeling back the shroud for, and the only way to do this effectively is to write from personal experience. After all, all death is personal. Platitudes and poetry have their place as panaceas for grief, but we need testimonies, experiences.
My mother always talked about it, even when she was well. ‘It’s the one thing we can be certain of in life – we’re born and we die.’ I hated it when she would say this, very matter-of-factly. I didn’t want to think about a time when she would no longer be here. I was so close to my mum that I worried for years how on earth I’d cope if anything ever happened to her. I lost my mum last summer. But cope I have. And surprisingly well too. I have even felt guilty for how well I have coped. We get through grief in our own way, but we do get through it. And the best gift I can give my mum is to live and to live well.
THE CAREGIVER'S ROLLER-COASTER : FEAR, COURAGE, COMPASSION, PATIENCE, POSITIVITY AND LOVE
I suppose I should start at the beginning. My mother was sick with an incurable lung disease (pulmonary fibrosis), and for three years, I watched as the mother I knew was slowly taken away from me. From a vibrant, caring woman, maternal to the core - through she didn’t believe she was - with a smile that welcomed people and lit up rooms, to a fading star. Her brilliance diminished by the disease that gradually ate away at her breath, reducing her well-padded, cosy frame to that of a baby bird, frail, helpless and sleeping most of the time. As a woman who defined herself as a home maker and a born nurturer, to find herself reliant on the care of others for every little thing was crushing to her.
I watched as she suffered, more and more taken away from her over the course of time, and I watched as my father cared for her selflessly, losing weight himself. I worked and had my own family and friends, but I ran myself ragged too doing everything I could whilst still trying to do enough to help my parents everyday as a carer for my mum. She would do it for me, she gave me life, I had a duty and I wanted to be there to support her too. I remember the subtle roller-coaster of emotions that I experienced during that time: exhaustion, tiredness, fatigue mostly. Guilt that I felt that way when it wasn’t even me that was suffering. Guilt that I wasn’t doing nearly as much as my father was.
I remember the pep talks I gave my mum before sleep and morphine took her over and she struggled to keep her eyes open. Rallying speeches I gave her to buoy her up and boost her, motivating her. I told her that I felt she wasn’t going to die for a long long time, that I would feel it if she was about to. A small lie to give her hope as the doctors had given her none. Inside though, I knew she was going to die. And soon. I just wasn’t sure when. Medical brutal honesty was not a kindness when my mother was so young and not at peace with the thought of death. She didn’t want to leave me or my father behind; she wasn’t ready.
Because my mum was sick for a number of years, and I was becoming more and more exhausted but just could not get off the wheel, I feel that I went through day to day life in a haze. I think in order to cope, your mind and body anaesthetises you to the raw and terrible reality of what you are encountering. Terrible though it may seem, the nightmare becomes the norm, and you just get on with it. I think it’s a mechanism that kicks in to help you survive, drip-feeding you facts that you have to work with, such as mum’s in pain, mum needs her medicine, mum needs motivating, mum needs to eat. Ticking off the to-do list makes you feel you have done all that you can, when there is not much that you can do except be there and do these palliative things.
COPING AND CARE : “GOD GAVE BURDENS; HE ALSO GAVE SHOULDERS.” — YIDDISH PROVERB
Caring becomes all-encompassing and you can lose an element of the relationship you once had because it becomes all about the regulation of medicine, pain control, a log of medicine doses and 'build-up' drinks and raising or lowering the hospital bed that dominates the living room where we used to have fun as a family. But sometimes there were moments of stark awareness where I really opened my eyes and allowed myself out of autopilot and looked at the beautiful, delicate, strong, tired woman in front of me and thought, Dear God, This is my Mum. I grew used to doing less and less with my mum over time. We were able to take her out in her wheelchair to garden centres or shops on occasion, but then she could no longer manage that. Mum’s only days out were to be prodded at the hospital by teams who cared in varying degrees but could ultimately do nothing for her. So over time, I became used to doing less with my mum and speaking less with my mum, so it was less of an abrupt shock for me when she died.
I would sit next to her and read as she slept – her only relief from suffering was when she dreamed. I remember on the day mum died, I had selfishly wanted to pull her out of her unusually deep sleeps to talk to her, to feel that I was not wasting the short time we may have left together. I felt stupid that I hadn’t known that she was in the process of dying that day. I still do sometimes. The doctor had told us that she only had a few weeks left to live. I didn’t quite believe that it was only weeks she had left because my mum seemed to be more awake at times – even then, I knew that my hope was clutching at straws. When she passed and my dad rang to tell me, I was shocked but stronger than I ever thought possible.
What I had feared my whole life – losing her – had just happened, and it was ridiculous. You expect the earth to stop turning, traffic to stop in its tracks in the road, and everything to go silent. And everything does go silent and still – a moment outside of time – where you realise that this person no longer exists. She passed in her sleep thank God, and when we drove there (as I had only left a few hours earlier) she looked like she was asleep, a marble statue, pale and still and lifeless in the chair. But there is a sense that life is no longer there, even if they do look just as if they are asleep. An essential vitality is gone, an inanimate emptiness leaves a void.
THE LEGACY OF LOSS IS HOPE : 'FOR IN THIS SLEEP OF DEATH WHAT DREAMS MAY COME... ” ― SHAKESPEARE
I prayed for strength before I went in, never having seen a dead body before, but it wasn’t as horrific and abject as I had imagined. It’s only Mum, I thought, I can’t be scared of my Mum. She didn’t look that different, but I do remember the doctor checking for her heartbeat and me thinking for a split second that there might have been some mistake and really she was still alive. I also thought that they had put white surgical gloves on her hands and then I realised that of course they hadn’t – her hands were just so pale now. I prayed over her with my father and husband, but I did not touch her, and I chose (agonisingly) not to visit her in the chapel of rest. I logically decided that the only reason to touch her would be to comfort my mum (which it wouldn’t – she wasn’t there after all; she was free and everywhere) or to comfort myself (which I didn’t believe it would; I had remembered something my mum had said about when she had touched her dad’s hand after he had died and how it had shocked her that he felt cold as marble). Also, a friend had told me that her family had been shocked and upset when they visited their dad who had passed away because he looked nothing like he had done in life – I didn’t want this for myself, so I preferred to remember her as she was when she was alive, or just as she was when she had passed away and looked asleep.
I organised mum's funeral in a blur of to-do lists, creating order and form and structure out of something that could leave you reeling in chaos and emotions. I didn’t cry once that day –I wasn’t trying not to or to be brave, I just felt a strength and grace come over me, and for the most part, I have remained this way ever since. Since my mum’s death, I have become bolder: I am more empowered to speak my mind firmly and to say yes and no to the things that I want or don’t want; I am less fearful and more ready to really live.
SMALL SUGGESTIONS TO HELP GRIEF
Recognise that your experience of grief is personal to you and there is no right or wrong experience of it
When you are ready to, I would recommend opening up and talking about your grief. Allow yourself to be open and vulnerable – it is cathartic. I have never avoided talking about my mum to friends and family and I never will. People may sometimes shy away from mentioning our loved ones who have passed away because they don’t want to upset us or simply don’t know what to say. If you want to, just dive in there, break the silence and talk about them. But recognise that it’s OK if you don’t want to as well.
Do the things that you love; I enjoy writing poetry and non-fiction articles and my mum urged me to begin writing again in a cherished letter that she had given my dad to give to me after she died. So I have. And I wrote a lot of poetry in the immediate weeks after her death. Its catharsis for me and expresses the subtleties of feeling and connections that you don’t even know are there until you start exploring them in writing. It’s therapy. My therapy has been my faith, writing, talking, and my desire to live fully.
Travel; Go to new places. In the weeks after my mum had passed, my husband and I booked a holiday to Paris. I’m not a fan of flying, but emboldened by the fact that I am alive, I explored new places and felt a re-invigoration of the need to live and not just survive. I felt a re connection with the natural world that I am a part of, renewed my passion for writing and felt stronger than ever before. What a legacy for a mother to leave behind.
They say that grief has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but it is not a linear process. Grief is as unique as the person experiencing it. You may grieve for weeks, months or years; you may feel all of these stages, some of them or none of them. There is no right way to grieve – there is only your way and everyone deals with it differently. Personally, I don’t recognise these stages in my own grieving process – apart from the split second where I thought it might all be a horrible mistake when I saw the doctor checking her pulse, I have never denied it. I have had the odd moment where I have been deeply upset and as I wept there was a small amount of anger at God (why?’) and perhaps at my mum for having left me – as if she had a choice – but not really. I have prayed to God to help me cope with my grief occasionally, so perhaps this is bargaining. There has been the odd moment of depression; I can’t talk with her any more, I have lost a confidante and ally. But I wouldn’t want her back suffering the way that she was. I would rather leave her in peace.
And immediately after my mum had passed, the room was filled with light and a very deep sense of absolute and perfect peace. This sense of peace overwhelmed every single person that visited, and is what I remember most. That was just like my mum, I thought, to leave an atmosphere of nurturing warmth, light and love behind her. The main and overwhelming experience of my grief so far has been acceptance, peace and a renewed sense that I must grab life by the horns and live it to the full, fuelled by the legacy of my mother’s love. And love cannot die.
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