Today, I am older than my mum. I have been approaching this particular anniversary of her death with a little trepidation. And since recently getting a taste for writing, I decided it was time to write some things about the long and winding road that is coming to terms with grief, especially when it comes to losing a parent.
Today, I am older than my mum. There. I said it again. Out loud. Phew. From now on, I will begin to look older than her in photos. Her image, frozen in time and burned into the photo bank in my brain will slowly become a little odd as I realise my face has become more creased than hers, my hair just that little more flecked with grey. The course I’ve been on to turn ever more into her image will now reverse. Family members will finally get an idea of what she may have looked like as she got older.
And there it is. The reason I do not regret my fine lines or first grey hairs. For growing old is a privilege denied many. I will embrace it and welcome it. For my mother never got to experience it, and I owe it to her to take it in my stride and be thankful that I have the opportunity to experience my mid and late 30s and beyond.
Writing this blog has become a place where I can share some thoughts on decisions I have made in my life (being tee-total), emotional journeys I have been on (to find body and face confidence) and experiences I have had (living in a refugee camp in the Sahara Desert) all of which may be of interest or use to people reading this. But now I’m taking it somewhere a little deeper (and scarier for me as a writer, publishing this), but hopefully it holds some advice for those in a similar place, who have lost someone they love.
Grief is the longest of journeys. It has taken me thirty years to put to rest some of the pain and anger that I felt having lost my mum when I was very young. But finding a way to let go of any anger and channel the tears in a positive way has finally meant I can let it all be. And whenever I find myself in times of trouble my mum really is always there for me, regardless of the fact I can’t remember her. For holding on to the idea of a person watching over you is an incredibly powerful way to channel the pain of grief.
A few summers ago, I saw an extraordinary piece of theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe. The most crying I have ever done in an hour-long piece of theatre (and I do like a cry in a dark space whilst being told a story). But it taught me the biggest lesson. That piece, ‘So It Goes’ by the talented On The Run Theatre, had no words but spoke thousands to me. It was about a daughter facing up to the death of her father and celebrating the life that he had lived. I had spent so long grieving the hole left in my life, being angry about the stories of my mum members of my family had that I didn’t, so long being sad that all of my friends seemed so very close to their mums when I was denied that opportunity. I had forgotten in all those years to be grateful for the person that she had been and to celebrate the short life that she had lived with all its wonderful twists and turns.
A similarly cathartic, difficult but ultimately important experience came one day at work. Unfortunately. I was attending a training day about supporting young people dealing with mental ill-health. We took a slight detour in the final session of the day and spoke about supporting young people going through grief. The insightful trainer took us through the many steps we should take with children who are grieving. Within minutes I had to put my sunglasses on indoors to slightly hide the tears streaming down my cheeks as the words made my inner child shudder: for not even one of those steps had been taken with me. Neither as a young child, nor as a teenager. I ached at the thought of how I had inadvertently been taught to bottle it all up through a family emphasis on not talking about things and the times as a teenager when I thought I would never be able to stop the crying in my heart from the pain that refused to leave.
There is no one to blame for the above, though. I have let go of any anger I had felt towards my family for the choices they made about the way in which their grief and my grief were handled at the time. I believe my people only ever did what they thought was best, or what they had the capacity to manage at the time. There was no handbook for anyone back then. All I can take from the experience of my tears in that training workshop is that there was a better way of doing things. I am happy knowing there is a better way being given to children now. And that I now have more knowledge for an open conversation with parents and families with whom I work about the importance of talking about death with children.
Losing a parent leaves a gigantic hole however old you are when they die but particularly when you lose them too young. I’m so lucky that I have had so many positive female role models in my life since my mum’s death, my relationships with whom are so much stronger and deeper than they might ‘normally’ have been because my mum wasn’t here. My aunties are incredible. My grandmother has been more of a mother and a grandmother than I could ever have asked. I had a lovely step-mum for a while. Mothers of my friends have always seemed to pull towards me a little more, hold me a little tighter, check up on me a little more often. And all these things are so important. And I am so grateful for these relationships. If you have the chance to be motherly/fatherly with someone who has lost a parent, I say: do it. Never ever worry that they will feel you are trying to replace someone. For you never could. But it helps.
So it is mothering that I now celebrate come Mother’s Day rather than ever feeling blue. For mothers come in all shapes and sizes and fathers and grandparents and aunties and uncles can be mothers. And instead of being sad about the space left in my life where my mum should be, I have learned to celebrate all the people who have filled that space in wonderful ways. The mothers who have chosen you are perhaps even more special.
We’re a little guilty in this country of tiptoeing around people who are grieving, terrified of saying the wrong thing and so therefore often not saying anything at all. But I say to people: never worry that you’re going to make me cry. If I cry, it’s because I need to. Never shy away from asking something or talking about something. One day it might make the person cry, one day it might be just what the person needs to talk about. And it’s not your fault if they do cry. You haven’t chosen the wrong day or moment or said the wrong words. There are no wrong days. They just needed those tears to fall.
So if you ever see someone you don’t know out and about who has just heard the most terrible news about a loved one, offer them some human kindness. One day, I was standing beside someone at a pedestrian crossing. She hung up from her conversation on the phone and started crying. I instinctively turned to her and said: “do you need a hug?” And she crumpled into my shoulder, whispering that she had just heard that her grandfather had died. I held her tight until she was ready to let go, cross the road and start to make all the plans she needed to to get on a plane to fly to her grandfather’s funeral.
I did that thing without thinking. But I also did it because no one did that for me on the day I found out my grandfather died. I was on a bus and my dad rang. I was sobbing from the moment I heard the words for the rest of the twenty-minute bus journey. And no one even looked up and gave me a comforting smile with a dose of I’m sorry.
I don’t hate any of the people on the bus for not doing anything. I hate that as a society we are often so worried about doing the wrong thing that we don’t do anything at all. Half the people on the bus were probably uncomfortable and didn’t want to do anything. But the other half were probably worrying about whether approaching me would make me feel uncomfortable and decided that not doing anything was better than making me feel more uncomfortable. Maybe I have too much faith in people but that’s what I believe. But what I say to people is this: if you see someone grieving in the street, I promise that the offer of any kind of human kindness, from a smile to a hug to a practical solution of “let’s call a friend for you” is better than pretending that person isn’t crying.
Grief really is the longest of journeys. Whenever I think I’ve dealt with all the ways I could possibly feel upset, a new era of my life arrives and a new challenge to overcome raises its head. I once said to a friend: “I thought I’d done all the life events that would make me sad not having my mum around: how can I be this upset still?” And he reminded me that nothing is ever over. In life, things will always be a never-ending journey. And he was so right.
Grief, I believe, is something we never get over. It gets easier over time, of course, but it lies sleeping, woken by a new grief, a fear of a future grief, a recollection of a memory, a cathartic opportunity to let some crying out or a random moment you could never have imagined would get you. Grief can never be something you should have forgotten by now; something you should be over by now. It becomes part of you. But that is a good thing. All part of being human.