It has been 7 years and 4 months since I lost my beloved mother to cancer. My journey started 12 years ago when I received the call on New Year’s eve 2009 from my father, informing me that they had found a lump on my mother’s spine and that it needed to be operated on, even then the dreaded “C” word was not mentioned. From that moment I entered another world, a one that I did not want to enter or had any control over. My life at the time was going well I felt settled and contented and I had a complacency about life that I would never experience again. As I write about this experience it still feels so fresh, that moment unknown to me at the time changed my life trajectory to one that I could only imagine.
My mother’s operation was successful and on the 8th January 2010, I was given the news that it was cancer and it was a rare form of blood cancer. My mum’s cancer was treatable but not curable. It was a terminal illness and that is what I struggled to come to terms with, along with friends and family. The fact that she was receiving intense treatment at a leading cancer hospital gave us the false illusion that everything would be okay. Yes my mum went into remission after 8 months of gruelling treatment: operation, intense chemo and finishing off with a successful stem cell transplant. But we knew that it would be likely to return. That’s when I really understood how one deals with uncertainty it was difficult to make future plans. I really learnt the meaning of mindfulness and living for now.
When mum went into remission some form of normality and routine took place. I was on a career break and I had the gift of time to really enjoy being with my mum. Even during treatment we made life count and just enjoyed the simple things. Our roles had changed I became the carer and supported her emotionally, mum became more reliant upon me. I would visit her in hospital, carry out additional research into her treatment, I became very knowledgable on cancer and knew all the current treatment options available.
My mum lived with cancer for 4 years and even though I knew that she would eventually die from this dreadful disease, I still was not prepared. I am fully aware of anticipatory grief, to be honest nothing prepares you for when you are about to lose the most important person in the world! When I lost her, I entered into another world one that I had no experience of before. Entering into grief has been one of the most difficult and painful experiences that I have ever had to endure. I knew what it felt like not to fit in, feel a whole host of strong and ugly emotions at any time of the day or night without any warning, the hours that I would weep and wail behind closed doors, I would often say to my husband I have cried an ocean of tears.
Losing my mother wasn’t just a fact about me, it was the core of my identity, my very state of being. As Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters states: “When a mother dies, a daughter’s mourning never completely ends. This is something motherless women have always intuitively known”. After a decade of grief I’m beginning to really understand the long arc of grief, you don’t get over it, you learn to move forward with it.
I entered into a new world, one of not my choosing or making and that is what I raged about. I was too young in my view to lose my mum which began when I was in my 30’s and she died when I was 42. We had a whole life planned together and she was like a mother and father to me, the head of the family. Mum was also a wonderful, kind, caring and loving grandmother to my son, she was like a second mum to him. My mum was my best friend, my champion, protector and my go to person.
From the day my mother died it changed me and I was not the same person that people knew and loved. Sadly my grief has shaped me but I try not let it define me. For the first 6 months I entered into a grey, dark fog where everything seemed hazy. I don’t remember very much, and I don’t know how I got through the day but I kept going because of my son. I couldn’t work for 5 months, I did not have the energy or capacity too. I also work in the caring profession and worked in a background of loss. This experience and knowledge base didn’t ease the pain, I accepted that I needed to just sit with it.
Sadly friends and family did not know how to handle the new grief stricken me, I was no longer the person who could care for people in the same way I had before. I needed people to be there for me, to bear witness to my pain and didn’t want to be fixed and I didn’t want my loss to be minimised by others. It became clear early on that society in general were uncomfortable with death and loss and especially the bereaved and I had people that would avoid me and or just give up when I didn’t respond to contact because some days I just didn’t know what I needed.
However, sadly our world has changed dramatically without any warning and we are experiencing unprecedented universal loss, due to the pandemic, something that we have not faced on such a scale since the Second World War. So many are facing loss in so many ways, death of a loved one, redundancy, loss of a home, relationship breakdown as well as stability and security. People’s mental and physical health is being effected. So many are turning to bereavement forums or social media platforms for support.
Mourning is not something that can be fixed or treated or overcome, but it is a Life- long process of accommodation and acceptance. There is no pill to treat it!
As David Kessler (Grief expert) - grief is a form of love and we don’t stop loving them and they don’t stop loving us. He talks about finding meaning in the loss as a way to move forward in our grief journey which is individual and unique to us.
Yes, I learnt very early on that I needed to front up enough to function and appear normal. But underneath that mask was utter devastation and emotional turmoil. Grief is invisible and this is greatly misunderstood. Each day I am reminded of my mum’s absence and how she is no longer in my life physically. I yearn to hold, touch and speak to her and for mum to know about her grandson’s achievements.
Grief is a lonely business and is so misunderstood. There is a grief phobia in our society, if they see a hint of it, you may be ignored, shut down or abandoned. I experienced this. Now as a society we are now confronted with grief like never before.
I never knew what envy felt like until I lost my mum and I was confronted with normal every day conversations and events regarding mothers and daughters. The pang of envy was an ugly feeling to experience. I found it difficult being around my friends that had active and involved mothers. I withdrew and isolated myself and made my excuses.
I was also struck by the secondary losses involved in loss, the impact it had upon my immediate and extended family and friendships. My mother’s death impacted upon me physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially. The change in the family dynamic became apparent during the funeral arrangements. At my own mother’s funeral I was not allowed to say in my own words what she meant to me or pay my own personal tribute.
Sadly I soon realised the role my mother had played at masking such a dysfunctional family. The death of my mother caused the family to fragment and conflict was very high. I tried for 18 months after her death to keep the family together, to offer support but during this time I was very badly treated and had enough and with the support of my husband and counsellor, I decided that I was going to set some boundaries around what was acceptable behaviour.
At this present time I am estranged from them as painful as that can be at times, it is necessary for my own mental health, a decision that has not be made lightly and with a lot of heart ache and tears.
Moving forward and creating another life for me: writing this article is a very big step forward for me, writing a narrative of your grief is proven to be therapeutic and healing. The message what I am trying to get out there is that loss is part of life and that we need to be open and embracing of it and not so afraid. I just want to normalise some of the intense emotions and experiences that the bereaved may have. We need to be kind, caring and compassionate to each other, reach out, ask for help and support.
In my view I felt very much marginalised and there was an unspoken expectation that I should be getting over it and on with life after six weeks. One close friend said to me, it must get better. I said no it does not, it stays with you, yes the intense feelings are less but you learn to contain and harness. It’s a life time of accommodation. Yes I still have my duvet days when I don’t want to face the world. But I am learning to look after myself and be in touch with what I need to aid me. This profound experience has shaped me as a person, I have a deeper understanding and I am able to help others when they experience loss.
Having a good counsellor to reason things out with has been a life line to me. I continue to have counselling, on a ad hoc basis now, during the first 2 years I had counselling on a weekly basis and this was my own choice, it helped me gain, insight, speak my truth, have my grief witnessed and validated. Over the past 10 years I have grown from this experience it has enabled me to have greater insight and awareness of my self and others.
Throughout my journey I needed my grief to be seen, heard and validated. I had to find a way to do this by finding myself again and creating a new identity. I still continue to have a strong bond to my mother although she may not be physically present but I will always have an emotional connection to her and I have learnt to have a different relationship with her.
My mother lives on beneath everything I do. Her presence influenced who I was and her absence influences who I am. Our lives are shaped so much by those who leave us as they are by those who stay. Loss is our legacy, Insight is our gift, and memory is our guide. (Anne of Green Gables).
As I approach a significant birthday, I wanted to share my story, to honour my beautiful mum, who would want to celebrate these special moments as well as what I have come through, with great resilience and insight and an ability to help others.
Dedicated in loving memory of mum
Written by Catherine.