This year my mother passed away after a five-year encounter with liver cancer. I could use the word ‘battle’ and indeed, my mum did fight, but I would prefer to use the word ‘encounter’ as it sounds softer, gentler. The experience of enduring cancer, living with it, is hard to define and yet with cancer being so prolific and so common, it is not rare. Our society associates strength with physical brawn (think Arnold Schwarzenegger tackling space robots from the future) but we ignore the quieter, hidden strength that it takes to tackle illness, the perseverance, faith, hope and tenacity required to hold on in uncertain waters when you can’t be sure what weather will strike.
My mother fought cancer many times and when it returned for the fifth time, she gave her all in getting as much time as she could to be with her family, whom she loved so much. The loss of her is the rawest heartbreak I have ever known and through this difficult, daunting and wrenching time, I’m learning, slowly, lessons that I hope will help you if you also find yourself in the throes of grief.
Grief is not linear
There are five recognised stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We might assume that we pass through grief in a linear fashion, moving from one stage to the other, as if moving from chapter to chapter in a novel. The pattern of grief is not quite so tidy. Instead, we can flip from one stage to another, believing that we have reached acceptance before tumbling into depression or charging into anger. Denial can last far longer than we expect. We might imagine that our loved one is upstairs, in hospital or on holiday, anywhere but gone. Others may surprise themselves by progressing through the stages in a fairly healthy, speedy and proactive manner. For others, grief may linger for far longer, we may even find ourselves stuck in a phase of bargaining or depression. Grief is far more like a knot (it’s not always clear how we can begin to untangle it) or a rock (something that we learn to carry with us in time.)
You may be surprised by the memories that stick out to you
People say that just before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. We live long, rich life’s but we recollect it as a succession of short scenes, moments that stick out perhaps for their intensity or their ordinariness. When my mother first passed, my memories of her were centred on her as a young mother when I was in primary school. I remembered her picking me up after a bad day at school with a KFC takeaway and a copy of OK! Magazine, which I used to devour voraciously at the time. I remembered cuddling up to her in bed, the way she stroked the bridge of my nose and my forehead when I couldn’t sleep, her reading to me as a child. I then began to remember her when she was ill, feeling angry and cheated that such a beautiful and gentle soul had had to endure any pain, fear or suffering. Those pangs of anger and hurt were hard to bear. Everything felt so unjust. There’s almost a time lapse when you think back on someone you love. You remember them in phases, in snapshots, the mother when you were five, ten, twenty-one and so on.
You will experience grief in a different way to those around you
The bizarre thing about grief is that it is both a shared and personal experience. You share in the grieving process with all who loved the person who passed, and yet your memories and experiences with that person will be unique to you, seen from your own unique vantage point. One of you may be angry whilst another faces calm acceptance. Day to day, you may find that you switch stages of grief, oddly at odds with those on the same path as you. This is natural, grief hits us in waves, and it hits each of us at different times following different triggers. There are times when you feel united and understood by those around you. At other times, you may feel entirely alone and isolated in your grief, unable to relate to another’s happiness or sorrow. During these times, it is important to continue to comfort one another.
Grief is a lather, rinse, repeat process
Grief is not a job interview or a driving test. There is no clear conclusion. You can’t win or succeed at grief. Moment to moment, day to day, year to year, grief is something that we must walk through many times. ‘Ah, there’s that familiar feeling of anger, that flash of depression, that longing that they could return!’ You may cry what you think of as all of your heart out, only to find that an hour later, thinking you had no tears left, you still manage to cry yet again. It is the repetition, the monotony of grief that can be most challenging and eroding.
You must absorb the values you learnt
When a loved one passes away, we feel that we lose everything about them that we loved so dearly. My mum was my very best friend and one of my main sources of support, encouragement and love. In losing her I lost a huge chunk of my heart. My mum always told me that she would be on my shoulder, especially in times of anxiety or indecision. Now, when I think of her or miss her, I put a hand on my shoulder and speak to her. A great gift she gave me was telling me that that’s where she would always be. By absorbing the values and lessons of your lost loved one, you live your life in celebration of them and of the person they helped you to become. I simply wouldn’t be who I am without her.
Grief does odd things to us
Grief diminished my appetite dramatically, it affected my sleep, when ordinarily I can sleep for a solid eight hours no problem. It made me feel like a raw nerve, hyper-sensitive to touch, hyper-conscious of emotions, of the passing of time. It made me laugh harder, cry harder and scream harder. It made everything feel so much more intense and overwhelming, like looking at the sun without sunglasses. The world felt too much, especially seeing it go on. On other days, I felt despondent, numb and detached. I wasn’t sure how to relate or how to connect. I wasn’t in tune with myself. I couldn’t think about what I needed or wanted in the moment, and I proceeded on autopilot. Grief might manifest as a desire to run away or escape, over-indulge, be unable to listen to music or do things we love, make snap life decisions and changes, spur creative works and exercise or force us to do a spring clean. It can make us behave very erratically. It can also make the nonsense fall away, leaving us with complete clarity as to what we want out of life.
There is a silent strength that bubbles to the surface
On the morning of my mother’s funeral, I was gripped with an eerie sense of anxiety. Sitting by my mother’s casket adorned with lilies, I felt peaceful and serene. Being in close physical proximity to her made me feel safe. The silence didn’t feel heavy or oppressive, just calm. I was afraid to see everyone, to share in my private bubble of grief so publicly, to witness the grief of others. I slept for about an hour and a half and the little sleep I did get was plagued with nightmares. As the funeral approached, I felt composed. The things that I thought would frighten me, the watchful faces, walking into the chapel, ended up making me feel deeply connected to my inner strength, a strength we all have within us which emerges when we need it most. I did cry during the service, but I also felt such pride and love for the woman that my mother was and for all who loved her.
Grief is ugly and also beautiful
Grief can take you to some dark, deep places, low parts of your soul that you don’t want to stay in. It can make you question everything that you believe and thought you understood about the world. It can also be beautiful in bringing clarity, appreciation and a seize the day sense to your life. As you endure grief, survive it, you realise that you can only miss what you loved, making grief an acknowledgment of a true gift. If every emotion has an opposite, then grief is love with nowhere to go. It is a sign that you cared in the most profound way that a person can. After all, to not miss is to not care, to not feel. To feel is a sign that we have lived and loved.
You must go on
A death can feel like a full stop and it hurts, there’s no denying that, but you must find a way to go on, to live your life and live it well, to smile, laugh, dance, to have adventures, to try, to be you. Grief will catch us during all sorts of moments. A song, an advert, a chance encounter with someone on the street, a meal, can all bring back the pain of love lost, but you must go on and on, as your loved one would want.
In loving memory of Sheila Christine Parker, the best mother and friend I could ever have wished for.
All my love