A few weeks ago, my mother died. Oh well. I’m a middle aged woman. She’d been ill for a long time. It happens. But it has taken me by surprise, this grief. Mum had been suffering from dementia for a long time. While friends sent messages sympathising at the loss of my mother, the truth is, I had lost her long before. The woman who died recently was a pale, hollowed out, tiny, Bonsai version of the infuriating, funny, busy mum I loved.
Even so, I’m surprised at my reactions. Not much has happened in the keening and rending of clothing line – for me at least. While I wept for days when my little dog died, Mum’s death left me feeling (uncomfortably) numb. Nevertheless it cannot be said that it’s been business as usual here at Maison Mutton.
Here are some things that have taken me aback about this long expected and, let’s face it, within the natural order of things, bereavement.
I was expecting to feel sad, but in fact I feel like I’ve had flu. And like all viruses there’s nothing you can take, you just have to wait it out – while suspecting you’ve got it worse than anyone else. My other symptoms include a total loss of concentration and co-ordination. In the time between my mum’s death and her funeral, I broke toes, lost keys, left wallets in odd places, fell down stairs, overbalanced while standing completely still. And as I was leaving to travel to her funeral I walked, slap bang, into a cupboard.
Symptoms may vary.
Of course not all bereavements, nor all bereft are the same. When Mum died my predominant feeling was relief. Finally her horrible illness was over. It was cut with a slightly shaming curiosity about the process of dying – I had never been close to someone who had been so recently alive. It wasn’t frightening as I feared. Instead it was a serene, sad, intimate time. At first Mum’s death made me feel stronger. With everyone else falling apart, I felt I was holding it together, grown up and dignified. This did not last long. Forget the Kubler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief – they can all happen in the space of a thought.
Everything seems wrong.
All the paraphernalia of death – dying, the coffin, lying in state etc – felt as if I was in a film called, “My Mum’s Just Died”. I could barely take it seriously. Even when she was lying, cooling, as I was stroking her hair, I kept expecting her to sit up and flick my hand away.
Beware, short fuse!
In a miracle of reverse menopause, resurgam. Welcome back pre-menstrual tetchiness! If people are even mildly curt, I burst into tears, lash out like a harpy, often both. So far I have had arguments with complete strangers who must have wondered how their casual umbrage turned me into mad Mrs Rochester. I want everyone to know “My mum’s just died”. But I don’t want to tell them.
Despite wanting everyone to know and make massive allowances for your bereavement, actually telling people about it is rather embarrassing. Then you are forced to deal with their sympathy and shock. When I almost missed the train for my mum’s funeral, I didn’t like to tell the taxi driver why I was getting stressed and ratty. I couldn’t cope with his reaction. It’s too big a deal for ordinary life.
Some people will want to counsel you. The “call me, let’s talk about it” approach is quite tricky to deal with when you’re in the ‘stubbed toe’ phase of grief and can’t even articulate what you’re feeling.
I hoped it would make me carpe all the diems.
In the delay (it was quite a long one) between my mum’s death and her funeral, I was a whirlwind of ‘carpe diem’, tackling jobs I had been putting off for years. Then shortly after the funeral, I became overwhelmed. Now everything that isn’t strictly necessary is exhausting. Some days I can barely finish a sent…..
Some very old mud has been stirred up.
Mum’s death has dredged things up. When she was alive, everything – old history, grudges, ancient regrets, family skeletons, dirty laundry – all stayed firmly locked up. But her death has pulled away the table cloth from under us. Not very efficiently, mind you – nothing’s in the right place.
In the North, the tradition is that we wait to discuss these issues at the funeral. This is when, famously, things kick off. Pork pies, pints and punches, that’s the way we send them on their way in the North West. There were, I’m happy to say, no actual fist fights at my mother’s funeral, but we had our moments.
Grief is a state of temporary insanity and we were all doolalley. Through its lens you lose all perspective, especially on things. It’s as if we demand compensation for our loss in trinkets and teapots.
It’s me next.
There’s no denying it. Once your parents go, you are firmly next in line in a queue you don’t want to be in. Seeing my sons carrying my mother’s coffin was most moving, because I knew that in all likelihood, one day they will be doing the same for me. Terrifying. As CS Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”.
No one else quite gets it.
Grief is like being in labour. You are in the grip of something so all-encompassing you can’t believe other people don’t feel it. But they don’t. However sympathetic people are, they just want you to go back to normal as quickly as possible. Once the funeral is over, bereavement can be rather a lonely time, where life seems a little grey and flat; you’re not your usual fabulous self but friends keep asking if you’re feeling better yet.
Life goes on.
Of course it does. And that is also a comfort. Getting back to your routine even if you are off kilter and strange, distracted and mad, is helpful. Now, disentangled from that distressing, destructive dementia, I hear my mother’s voice clearer than I have for years. Like all of us, she did her best, with the best of intentions and a lot of love. I am, now, vividly aware of her influence, her love and how that has shown up in me. And for all of that, I am so very grateful. Thanks so much Mum.
Barbara Howe, nee Scahill, 1936 – 2017