This week, the 13th of October, marked 9 years since my mother died, and so it's made me reflect again on the whole grieving process and thought I might share a few thoughts from my own experience and talking with others who have experienced a big loss.
Nine years seems to have gone by fast and in the time, of course, your feelings evolve. As time passes you can start to see things from a distance and understand your experience in a broader context. But despite time passing, the feeling of loss, though maybe less intense, does not go away. For me, it could be best compared to losing a limb. It's never going to grow back and you will never be the same without it, but you find ways to compensate for it and to deal with that loss so you can move ahead with life. You get better at dealing with it, but you can't forget what's missing.
The first year or so was very intense. In fact, it didn't feel real. Although I had had a decent period to prepare for mum's death, it's a bit like watching a giant wave coming towards you. You can brace yourself for the impact as much as you like, but when it hits you it still smashes you off your feet. Add to that that in that first year you have many things to deal with - executing the will, dealing with property and belongings and just generally sorting out loose ends. People were very supportive and caring towards our family. You're dealing also with huge emotions of sadness and pain and I don't think for that year I ever had an undisturbed night's sleep as most nights I would either wake up in uncontrollable tears or forced to wake by some disturbing nightmares.
But in that first year, I had people to talk to, people who were sympathetic and willing to listen. Also, I expected to be sad and feel the way I did. What I was feeling seemed normal, natural, considering what had happened. No one can expect you to just "snap out of it" and you just have to give yourself time to learn to cope. I think often in our society, people don't know how to deal with the bereaved and there's a pressure for the bereaved to "get back to normal" , when there is no going back. You shouldn't have to hide your grief or put on a mask just to shield others from some discomfort. Personally, I didn't feel that, at least not for the first year.
And that brings me to the second year, which many say is more difficult, and that was certainly my experience. People, whether they mean to or not, sort of assume you're "over it" now, but in many ways this was the period when the reality really hit. You're not dealing with all the "admin" and practical issues that occur after the death of a family member, and suddenly you have time to think and reflect. It's like when the anaesthetic wear off at the dentist and suddenly you feel this absolutely unremitting pain and anguish. You realise that the person is no longer there at those key moments, your realise that little things that you will never experience the little things they used to do or say that you now discover were so precious to you.
I remember taking a few months to travel overseas, thinking it would clear my mind, but if anything it heightened my feelings of loss. Whenever I had travelled overseas before, Mum had kept in touch, sending emails or calling me. She had a love of travel and other cultures and would always be interested to hear where I had been or what I'd been experiencing and try and put me in touch with her many friends around the world. When you are on your own far across on the other side of the world is comforting to know there is someone thinking of you and to hear their voice or to get their messages. I remember sitting at a computer in a hotel in Oslo, I was tired and stressed after having my laptop stolen from my hostel room the day before, and as I was checking Facebook when I got a message from one of mum's old friends reminding me that that day would have been Mum's 66nd birthday. Whether I was feeling a bit more vulnerable at that moment or not, that's when all the emotions of the last 8 months just smashed me and I felt tears gushing uncontrollably. I just sat there in a public place with tears flowing down my face, never feeling to alone and lost.
That was many years ago now and the intensity of the feeling has, of course, diminished. But in that time I have seen others I know, some close, some not so close, lose loved ones and I can sense familiar feelings and experiences to what I have had. So what have I learnt that might help others ?
Firstly, sadness is normal. We live in a society which seems to treat happiness as our normal default condition. But if you've lost someone as close to you as my mum was to me, how could you feel anything but sadness. You have to take your time and realise you will always feel the loss in your heart, but you will reach a point of being at peace. For me, I forced myself to change my behaviours in certain ways. I am generally a very introverted person and in times of difficulty or emotional anguish I have a tendency to turn in on myself, to withdraw from social activity. I now recognise this trait in others - the excuses, the isolation...I found that when things looked bleak, time sitting at home on my own it seems all the more bleaker and lonely. When I started to make an effort to seek out others, just dropping by friends houses socially, and having the ability to talk, I felt my perspective changed almost immediately and some of the anxiety melted away. But it has always been a thin line for me between the worlds of darkness and chaos and calm normality, so I knew I had to be proactive, not sit back and hope others noticed something was wrong. We can complain about others not understanding or not being real friends, but they can only help us if we reach out.
For me, spending time with kids was amazingly therapeutic and life affirming. I don't have my own kids, but I have 5 young nieces and nephews ( and one older one), with who I was involved a lot in their younger years. Occasionally they would remind me in the most heartbreaking way of "Mawa" ( a kid's nickname that I think was coined by my brother, the master of unconventional nicknames ), such as when one nephew ask nonchalantly : "When it Mawa going to stop being dead ?" or a niece saying "I wish Mawa was still alive"....It reminded me of when I visited mum at the hospital a week before her death and when she was feeling particularly distraught from lack of sleep I think and she burst into tears as a tried to comfort her with a hug and she cried that she would never get to see her grandchildren grow up. As I mentioned before, I forced myself to suck up my tears at that moment and knowing how she felt about family, the kids remarks really hit me in the soul.
But what my time with the kids showed me was how a physical being may disappear from your life, their sp
irit, their experience their values can be seen in the new generation. I could see the remarkable empathy in my nephew, Donald, amongst other things, and it reminded me that the cycle of life continues through death, birth, death and rebirth, very much like the water cycle of which the waterfall is one part.
And that brings me back to where I started, sitting by the waterfall where we scattered mum's ashes almost 9 years ago and contemplating that eternal cycle of life and death and how each one of us is but a drop of water in the great ocean of life.
RIP Mum and my best wishes to all those others who are on the grief journey, no matter how many years it has been and I hope if you've read this far that you've got something out of my words.