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The changing perception of loss

15 Mar

gravestone

I like to wander around old graveyards. Not in some macabre way (an unhealthy resurgence of my death-obsession),  I just find them fascinating, thought-provoking and strangely comforting.  To ponder how people lived, loved and died alongside their families, to witness how their remains have married with the earth, weeds growing round and into and under the headstones, destroying yet throwing forth life.

In the quiet and the stillness I always feel like an intruder, an interloper on past griefs.  Memories and emotions once so raw now mere whispers on the morning air,  dissipated and unnoticed but now momentarily disturbed by the inquisitive trespass of a stranger.

Thought-provoking and chastening that things once so important should have been brought to this.  And yet such a strangely reassuring display of the natural passing of time.

Do events and feelings and lives become irrelevant when there is noone left to remember them? Does it even matter?

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The other day as I ambled through the graveyard of my local church, my two dogs aroused by the smells of morning dew,  I came across the headstone of a Victorian lady that had lost her husband in his forties, only to lose her 1 yr old child less than 4 months later, and a few years later her 10 yr old daughter.  Unconvinced that I could find another loss to beat this one (a sick graveyard game I often feel compelled to play), I  stumbled upon another grave erected to mark the passing of a young couple’s 3 girls who had died just 3 months apart.  10 months, 4 years, 6 years in age.  Cause unknown.

Sometimes my loss feels so enormous, and yet so small when I read of other families devastated like this. To lose a mum at 71 would have seemed mere fantasy 100 years ago. To get through life without feeling the loss of a child? Blessed good fortune.

And as I turn on the television tonight to hear of the plight of those in Africa, thousands dying from Malaria and Aids, I realise this luck isn’t only divided by time, but by continent too.

And  I feel acutely my luck, rather than my loss.

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Don’t forget to donate to Comic Relief this Red Nose Day. 

The Lovely Bones: the film and me

21 Dec

image courtesy of grahamowengallery.com

Christmas is rushing at me at a hundred miles an hour I hardly have time to breathe, let alone think. Except people keep reminding me of the significance. Telling me how sorry they are, how difficult it must be, how much I must miss her. Somewhere below the surface I sense the gaping hole, but I am being carried along by the momentum of childhood.

And thank God for that ceaseless wave of agitation that rolls up and down but is never one way for long.

I watched The Lovely Bones for the second time the other day and I can’t stop thinking about it. How dark and menacing the world can be, but how beautiful things can come out of that tragedy. New relationships can form, old ones strengthen, your focus crystallised on life’s brief flashes of wonderment.

You can’t keep looking backwards with regret and loss, you must look to the future and allow yourself to be swept along in the tide of life.

I’m not sure if that IS what the film was about, but it’s what I took from it. A sense of magic, mystery, hope sparking free amongst the ashes.

Yes Christmas will be difficult this year, I miss my mum every day with an aching that never dissipates and I am still incredulous as to how I got here and just how much I’ve lost.

But living in the here and now, treasuring the precious moments with my family and especially my beautiful boys – well, I have my own lovely bones right here.

Thanatophobia

5 Aug

A couple of years ago I went through a period of acting a bit strangely.

I’d been in the middle of a third life crisis for a while , and I think in hindsight I was also struggling after becoming a mum the second time round. Little Milk had been testing to say the least – “a big character” some might say. “A frickin lunatic” I’d proffer.  Off the career ladder and looking after pooing/screaming kids 24/7 and I found myself asking “is this it?”. Somewhere in the midst of all that soul searching and quizzing and introspection the subject of my own mortality came up, as if it was the only major milestone left I could think of. Not exactly rational. But I was hooked.

I just couldn’t stop thinking about what it was going to be like when the time came, how it might happen, and when.  I also became unhealthily fixated on obituary sites. Now if you’ve never visited a site like “Gone too soon” (my favourite) let me explain. They’re a chance for people to write memorials to the recently deceased, or to commemorate the anniversary of an old passing, or to mourn the loss of a baby born pre-term.  The title is a clue to the fact that most of the deaths are unexpected, sudden, shocking; due to illness (usually cancer), accidents (fires, car crashes) and a really surprising amount to murder. Many are described in horrific detail and many put to music, most commonly “Every breath I take” by The Police. Needless to say they are heart-wrenching, deeply upsetting and reflect a horrible part of life that you usually try to ignore.  That is, evidently, unless you are me.

For a while it was all I thought about, and it scared the shit out of me.

Thankfully there was some forced intervention this obsession slowed and I got on with living.

In any case, when my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer I was a bit worried to say the least. I expected my fear of death to my dragged up again and to find myself rocking back and forth in a darkened room, curtains billowing and Police on the stereo at full blast.  But I didn’t, and I haven’t.

Actually I’ve been pretty sane. In fact I was thinking today, it doesn’t scare me anymore, the death stuff. I think the thing is, the more you cope with, the less you fear. It’s somehow easier to put it in perspective and be stoical. Now I just find myself thinking – “Either there’ll be nothing and I won’t know any different (in which case, duh, get over it), or I’ll get to see my mum again”.  And that last bit just makes me smile. Wouldn’t that be something.

Thanatophobia “An intense fear of death”.

Next post: Not about death. I PROMISE!

Back to normal

25 Jul

I’m back to work tomorrow after 3 months off.

It didn’t quite turn out the way I expected.  I took the time off to help my mum through her treatment, but then she went and died on me after only a few weeks. I decided to the take time off anyway, to give me the space to adjust,  to let things settle, as well as time to go through all her things and get the house ready to sell.

3 months on;  the house is still unsold and we have sorted through only a fraction of her things. And the grieving? I’ve hardly started.

I’m lucky. Not everyone could have taken this time out. It’s given me the space to think, to digest and start to process all the memories, a finite store of memories now so precious to me. But like the house, I’ve merely scratched the surface.

For others life has moved on. People have stopped asking how I am, or they ask expecting some other, more mundane explanation. PMT or a difficult exchange with another mum at the school gates. For them, my mum’s passing is no longer headline news.  For me the newsflash still plays over.

But life must return to normal. I have to earn money, start to contribute again.

Tomorrow I will get up and put on smart clothes and do my hair. I will get on the 8.02 train to Charing Cross and walk the 20 mins to the office. I will say hello to the same people, sit at my old desk, write a new list of things to do. I will plan and discuss and prioritise, just as I did before.

And yet nothing is like it was before. My world is altered like a refracted image in a cracked mirror.  A distorted world that I am still struggling to make sense of.

I wonder if anyone will notice.

A good death

30 Jun

Obviously I should have run a mile but in typical Milk style, the other evening I sat down to watch the infamous Terry Pratchett documentary on euthanasia. I breezed through with surprisingly few tears until the final scene where you see an assisted death played out. I didn’t cry because it was horrific or wrong, I cried because the last and only death I’ve ever witnessed was my mother’s, just 2 months ago. So it was pretty raw. But I also cried because the ending of a life so stoically and peacefully was strangely beautiful.

For once my opinion is absolutely steadfast on this one. I cannot see any single legitimate reason not to legalise euthanasia in this country.

Sure there were unnatural, unnerving things about the way it was being done in Sweden, but they were all down to logistics, not morality.  Hidden away on an industrial estate forced by law out of the residential areas, a strange, artificial, psuedo-house. Not a place you would choose. Not the people you would choose. A horrible unfamiliarity. And people were choosing to go too soon, when they still had legitimate life left to live, through fear of leaving it too late.

All these points could be solved simply by allowing people to die at home, in their own country, in their own bed, surrounded by the ones they love.

I feel passionately that everyone deserves to have a good death. Noone should be forced to eek out some miserable existence, painful in spirit or in body, right to the end. To die without dignity, without personal choice; to me that is truly inhumane. 

My mum had a good death, and I am thankful every single day for that. There was no pain, no real distress, just love. My sister and I took the decision to withdraw medical treatment and my mum died a few hours later. Our decision was taken swiftly, with little of the expected agony, because we instinctively knew it was absolutely the right thing. She had told us herself hours before “I am dying, do not cry”. Had clearly accepted that it was the end, that there was no more fighting to be done.

I would want everyone to have the opportunity to pass away peacefully as my mother did. Despite the devastation and the agony of losing her, the anger that the bastard Cancer could do this and so swiftly, it is an enormous source of comfort to me that she slipped away like this. And really not so different from the man in the documentary.

There are loads of arguments given against legalising assisted dying. Let’s consider the three most popular ones.

“Voluntary euthanasia is the start of a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia and the killing of people who are thought undesirable” This is simply bollocks. This hasn’t happened in any of the countries where it has been legalised; it is based on some kind of fatalistic assumption that morality and civility will decline if you open the door just a little. Beware the Frankenstein monster.

“Euthanasia weakens society’s respect for the sanctity of life” But what about the sanctity of a peaceful death?

“Euthanasia affects other people’s rights, not just those of the patient” There’s no denying that a death makes ripples far and wide, but how much worse to watch someone you love die a slow and painful death, or to find them strung up against a tree driven to brutality through desparation?

The truth is, most people will cling to life even when there is little hope. Survival is the strongest instinct there is. So in reality, and given the choice , most wouldn’t choose to die. But if an individual chooses it for themelves, with full knowledge, careful thought and freedom? Tell me what is so wrong about that?

I am grateful

9 Jun

There has been some anger. Intermittently. Less than I expected. And yet, as I described in The natural order of things, there is nothing so grossly unnatural or twisted about losing my mum now.  Losing her is devastating of course, unfair, paralysing, and the rollercoaster hurtles through panic, fear, inconsolation, desparation, anxiety and more. I shouldn’t be an orphan at 34. And yet, despite how quickly and harshly the progression of the last few months, despite 71 being no age to go, despite 2 months not being in any way long enough to say goodbye, despite all this, there is an awful lot I am grateful for.

I am grateful that I had a mum so utterly dedicated to her children. A mum with a natural instinct to love and protect.

I am grateful that we had 34 years – rich, memory-filled years full of poignant, sometime magical moments.

I am grateful that my mum was here to welcome both my boys into this world. I am grateful for the tears she shed, and the cuddles she gave and received.

I am grateful that my mum saw me married. Watched as my family was built on love and trust, and that she was reassured at the end, that I was in good hands.

I am grateful for the precious few months we had before she went. The time to talk, to tell eachother all the things we needed to, to express our love in moments of enforced clarity.

I am grateful that I was there at the end. That I got to hold her hand as she passed away. That the moment was peaceful, without pain or fear, that she was surrounded by two proud, loving daughters, the air filled with the music that she loved.

I am grateful for that music. That when I listen to it I can feel connected to her in a way that is indescribably perfect,incomparable to any physical thing, spiritual even. A truly wondrous gift.

I am grateful for her strength, pride and devotion; for the lessons she taught me, and the person I was able to become.

I am grateful for all these gifts, and more.

Many people don’t have half of what I have. Some much less. What a lucky girl I am.

Life, death and lies

28 May

Big Milk “Are you sad because you didn’t get to see grandma when she died?”

Me “No, I was with her when she died darling, and it was very peaceful”. 

Big Milk  “What happens when someone gets died?”

Me “They get very sleepy and quiet and eventually they take their last breath and  fall asleep and don’t wake up. ”

Big Milk ” And then their body disappears and they go to heaven?”

Me. “Umm, no their body doesn’t disappear exactly.”

Big Milk “Well where does it go then? Does your body fall through the bed and then melt into the carpet?”

Me “No, umm, well yes it does kind of disappear, like eventually.  (not even a lie my friends- bodies decompose and that’s kinda like disappearing right?)

Big Milk  “So you waited for a bit and then Grandma slowly disappeared and then the bed was empty. Was there any smoke?”

Me  “Well, hmmm, not really like that darling,  I left before anything happened to her body. Her spirit had gone to heaven  and she wasn’t really there anymore, plus I’d already said goodbye”.

Big Milk  “What’s a spirit mummy?  Did grandma turn all white like a Scooby ghost?”

Me  “Ok, ahem, lights off baby. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow”

This explaining death thing isn’t easy for an agnostic.  You swear you’re not going to lie, gloss over things with euphemisms or “easy lies” because they’re handy and comforting. You’re supposed to “tell them how it is”, not hide the true nature of nature. I had my own smug, self-assured commentary down –  “Some people believe X, others Y, this is what I believe, you must decide for yourself”.   But the truth is, it’s never that easy.  The heaven lie came out early.  I was tired and it’s just such a nice idea, isn’t it?  Fluffy clouds, everyone decked out in persil whites, angels with 24 carat halos and harps that play themselves   You can’t quite bring yourself to tell them the truth – it’s a bit too, well, real.  In any case, you’re still struggling with it all yourself, and you don’t want to land the burden of accepting mortality on them just yet.

So it seems I’ll be trotting out some fanciful niceties for some time to come; in any case, my hole is already half way dug. But i reckon, his grandma’s just died, if he needs a bit of heaven in his life than let him have it.  I could do with a few candy floss clouds myself.

The natural order of things

22 May

Losing my mum stinks. I miss her with an ache, an emptiness that throbs away in the pit of my stomach, a sadness that never dissipates.   Tears are rare for they seem pointless.  I have nowhere to go with my grief, cannot replace what is lost, or make it better with a good cry or a restful night’s sleep.

But sitting alongside and comforting me, holding my hand and pushing my chin up, is the sense that somehow at least, this is the natural order of things. A few years too early – ten, maybe even twenty years but not unnatural, grossly distorted or sickeningly unfair.  Every child must lose their mother. Though I wouldn’t choose it, I can carry it.

If I had lost my mother just 12 months ago, 6 months even,  I fear I would have fallen apart. Still lacking confidence, unsure of who I was or what I would become. But things have changed for me this past year; I have felt myself grow stronger, more centred, calmer, and I seem strangely prepared, more accepting.  More than this, since the day my mum died I have felt as if all her strength, dignity, calm has been transposed into me. Her gift. And it seems to carry me, even in my darkest moments.

Every child must lose their mother, and it is the task of the parent to prepare them for that. To give them the skills, the fortitude, the drive to live their lives.  My mum gave all this to me, and  though I ache for her, long for it to be different, I  sense that this is my time, that she is there willing me on, that this is what life is about. Me and my babies. Nature’s cycle.

And I think about the infants that lose their mothers before the nurturing has come to an end.  To me that is unnatural and devastating. Everyone must lose their mother, but not before they have given their blessing and passed over the mantel freely and with love.

In Memoriam

8 May

It was a beautiful, special, poignant and most importantly, really happy day.  A day about my mum, for my mum, in memory of my mum. That might sound odd ( it was her funeral after all) but believe me most other funerals I’ve been to could have been about anyone.  Tom, Dick OR Harry.

After this experience, I’m not sure why anyone would choose a standard church service.  Okay, that’s easy for me to say – I’m not religious, and I’m not desperate to make things right with God and send mum off to an eternity sitting on fluffy clouds and eating honey from golden spoons. (I’m being facetious of course, my lovely churchy friends). It’s just I remember my Dad’s funeral – held at the church where he had attended for years – and you’d never have known that the vicar had even met him. His name just cut and pasted at the top of his sermon.

My mother’s, on the other hand was a humanist service, filled with the usual tributes and poems and music (but beautifully written, expertly chosen and exquisitely read of course), and with the added treat of a rather remarkable humanist celebrant. This lovely, kind lady held it all together expertly, speaking eloquently in length about my mum, negotiating the usual unexploded familial landmines like an unshakeable divorce mediator.  She was sensitive, humorous, respectful, despite never having met her.  She’d come to visit us for 3 1/2 hours the week previously and listened as we rambled on about anything and everything to do with our darling mum. Cheap therapy.


After the service we’d invited everyone back to my mum’s house for a reception surrounded by all her things – photos, music, cards – memories of a life lived, things achieved, struggles fought and won.  We’d half expected noone to come back, or to visit for just a respectful glass of water and an exchange of a few, brief pleasantries. You  never know with these things.   But it was packed to the brim with sandwich munching, wine guzzling,  (rather a lot of wine guzzling in fact) and happy revellers, enjoying the moment, celebrating a beautiful lady, bidding farewell to a much loved friend.

My mum would have been truly proud.

Angry

29 Apr

I’m ANGRY.

Angry that the grandparents my children will know, grow up with, remember, won’t be MY parents. That the one they will call Grandma won’t be MY mum, the one they will know as Grandad will be someone else’s.

I’m angry that my Mum will be a hazy recollection, snapshots – splintered and one-dimensional – just as my Dad is now just a photo on the fridge. Their absence juxtaposed against a life filled with love and cuddles and memories from their other, “real” grandparents.

I’m angry that it won’t be my mum that picks them up from school, that wraps her arms around them and asks them what their day was like. That she’ll never see the expression on their faces as they unwrap her carefully chosen Christmas present, or heap praise on them when they read their first words.

I’m angry that I will have to live more of my life without her than I have done with. One of the most important people to me – my mother, my best friend – here for just a fraction of my life. Killed off after only the first few chapters.

I’m angry that the person that has been at the centre of my universe for 34 years has been snatched away from me, cruelly, suddenly, and that I have to relearn to live my life without her.

I’m angry that at just 34 I am an orphan.

I’m angry that my “go to person”, my reference point for all the decisions I make, the person at the end of the telephone when I’m feeling unsteady or unsure, has become unavailable. Permanently engaged.

I’m angry that I have to make sense of all of this by myself.

I’m really fucking angry, and my rage is selfish and personal. For now it’s all about me.