Twelve years ago, my mum died after a six-year battle with cancer. She was forty-four: young, healthy – before the illness – and she left behind six children. I was eighteen when I lost her, and as a result some of my most formative years were marred first by illness, and later by loss.
When I started to write this post, I wanted to share some sort of advice. To tell people going through the same thing that it does get easier, that you can make it out the other side. But the more I tried to write, the more painfully I felt that I am in no position to dish out advice.
Instead, these are a few of thoughts and observations about my own experiences.
The Side Effects of Grief
There are side effects to loss that no one tells you about like the way grief has its own calendar. My year is marked with a handful of black spots, days that always feel more sharply painful than others. Mother’s Day every spring. July 6th, her birthday. My parent’s anniversary. And May 2nd, the day she died.
I always feel sadness in the run up, before I even register that the day is coming. As though my body tracks a physical, internal version of the calendar. Every year without fail, around the end of April, I will spend a few days feeling sad without knowing why – and then I’ll realise the date that’s coming and it all makes sense.
It’s hard to explain, but for me those days carry an odd, complicated mixture of pain and a kind of weird, uncomfortable satisfaction. Because those are the days you are allowed to be sad. I can’t help but feel as though it’s expected for me to be fine most of the time. The significant dates are an exception to that. On those days, if I cry or cancel plans with my friends or spend the whole day in bed, people understand why. For some reason, the same excuse doesn’t hold as much weight on “normal” days.
But grief keeps odd hours, and I can feel sad on any day. Around the approach of Autumn, for some reason. On days when my housemates are out and I don’t speak to anybody. When I’m shopping and see a girl my age choosing something with her mother. Whenever I hear the phrase “mother of the bride”. For absolutely no reason at all. Because I woke up sad.
It took me years to learn that you are allowed to be sad whenever you feel it.
Mother’s Day is the worst. A bombardment from all sides: TV, radio, friends, emails. A day for marketers and card sellers to cash in on all those lucky people who still have their mothers, never considering what they do to those of us who don’t. I try to ignore them, to avoid card shops. I try not to flinch at the messages, but it’s hard. It’s been twelve years and it’s still hard.
It Gets Easier
Someone asked me last year, having just gone through the same thing I did, if it gets easier. I told them yes, of course it does. Because it does. I promise you it does. But also, in a far-too-difficult-to-explain way, it doesn’t.
Days pass and over and over you’re served with the reminder of what you lost. What you lack. Being a girl without a mother is a terrible thing. It’s tough and it hurts, and it gets better but it never gets completely good again.
It hurts to tell people. Actually speaking the words; that one can still be tough, even after twelve years. But the more I’ve talked about it, and about her, the easier it’s become. I spent years unable to get out any words about what happened without crying. What I realised is that it takes practice. You need to rehearse the lines, to settle on the story you’re capable of telling. And the more you say it, the easier it becomes to do so.
Other times it hurts because of a song or a smell or because something on TV sparks a memory. Cancer Research ads should carry a trigger warning. In the early days, I’d try not to react. Try to keep things bottled in for hours, even days, until I I’d let everything out in one big, exhausted sobbing session in the privacy of my room, lasting hours.
But I’ve learnt that it’s better to feel each memory and emotion individually, rather than compile them into something bigger than I can handle. Dorchester Train Station used to make me sad every time I saw it, because that was the train station I had to get off at to see my mum in hospital on the very last day of her life. Eventually, I stopped trying to ignore that pain and just accepted it. I let myself feel the sadness, let the tears come, and then carried on. Over time, the strength of that particular trigger died down. I pass that station every time I visit home and today I barely think about it.
Songs are the worst offenders. Some songs will forever be irrevocably tied to memories of my mum. The Other Side of Summer. More Than a Feeling. Manic Monday. Savage Garden’s Affirmation.
For years I thought that the best thing to do was hide from those songs. They were painful to listen to, they’d make me cry. But the memories they are tied to are happy ones. Mum filling the house with All Coming Back to me Now by Celine Dion on repeat. Mum doing the ironing and watching Queen music videos. Mum singing the Beach Boys.
In the end, what stopped those songs from being triggers was simply listening to them, over and over, as often as possible. Reclaiming them. Because no matter how tinged with sadness the memories of a loved one who is gone may be, they are still memories of joy. I missed those memories and I wanted them back, so I had to reclaim them from my grief.
There are still days that I feel miserable, for no reason at all. A counsellor told me once, several years after my mum’s death, that I could be experiencing “Delayed Grief”. As though pain has an expiration date. As though I was outside of the expected timeline for my personal heartbreak. But the truth is simply that the grief of losing of my mother is too enormous to ever fully subside.
Some losses leave scars that stay with you forever. They shape you into who you are. What you can do, what you can always do, is focus on the positives. When I look back now I can see how much of me as a person is formed by the marks she left on me. Perhaps I wouldn’t have embraced the things she taught me to love and believe in as passionately if she had not died.
Today I am tougher because of the years of grief I lived through. I’m also one of the more positive people I know – usually – because nothing bad ever feels as bad as the worst day of my life. Because I am determined to live my life to the fullest and to enjoy it as much as possible, after seeing first-hand how short it can be.
So yes, it does get easier. I wish I could say it won’t always be a bit hard – but that’s not true. It does, however, become so much easier. If you want it to be, and you let it. My trick is to seek out joy, no matter how small.
A really good meal, a nice view, a moment smiling because the sun is shining. I can’t focus on the pursuit of happiness, that feels too big, too long-term. Instead, every day, I simply try to make sure I have more moments of joy than of sadness. It’s a small thing, but I live my life in small steps now. Small steps were the only way I could reach the end of a decade, or start a new one, without my mum.
And with each small step the next one gets fractionally, invisibly easier.
-Bloom From The Darkness