Grief. Chapter 6. April 8th

April the 8th is my father’s birthday. That’s tomorrow. He would’ve been 63. In six weeks, it’ll be six years since he died. No matter how many times I say it, it still feels strange to say that my Dad is dead. Normally when people asked me about my family I talk about my Mum and siblings. Most people do not register the fact I haven’t mentioned my father, or they choose to ignore it. I preferred it that way. It helps avoid the awkwardness of people trying to find an appropriate way to react. But now that my Mum is dead it’s harder to be so dismissive. People notice when you don’t mention either parent.

I don’t mind others knowing my parents have died. What I hate is the compensating I feel I must do once someone hears the news. The awkwardness is painful. Sometimes the other person reaches out to comfit me, often they stammer through saying something that comes out as half-hearted and jumbled. Coming face to face with someone else’s pain can be confronting. I know this. It’s not an easy task to see into another’s grief. It’s even harder to find an appropriate response. I guess that’s the thing, there is no need to come up with the right response. The best thing to do is to be genuine.

Friends that have sat with me in silence have given me more comfort then those that have scrambled to find words. People who have been vulnerable enough to acknowledge that they have no idea what to say or do are comforting. Because I don’t know what to say or do either. All I know is that there is a physical pain in my chest, it’s like these emotions are tearing me apart inside.

It’s not always like this. Today I’ve had some emotional moments but I’ve also had some wonderful ones. My grief was once all consuming. Now it’s like a song that has gotten stuck in my head. The tune is always in the back ground, but I don’t have to sing the words if I don’t want to.

So, this is where I am. My father is dead. My mother is also dead. I have a beautiful daughter, a job that allows me to live the life that I have and the most incredible friends a person could ask for. Life has been harsh but that does not take away from any of life’s goodness. I have things to look forward to and goals to achieve. As for tomorrow I think I’m going to see how things go. All I ask of you, of anyone, is to be authentic. Don’t fake it until you make it. If you’re not sure, ask. If you’ve got no idea what to say, don’t say anything. Show up, be present and be kind. Not just to me, do it for everyone. After all, we’re in in this together.

Death and all his friends

I think a lot about death. Mainly about how it happens. Not the physiology, more the spiritual side of things.  Do we realise our bodies are losing consciousness? If we have a soul is there distinct separation as we float off into the spiritual world? Is there a light we walk into? Is death a being which comes to greet us? Or are there different spirit guides depending on our chosen religion? Do we just wake up in heaven or hell?  Or do we cease to exist the moment we lose conscious connection with our body?

As a child I would have told you that when you died you woke up in heaven or hell. It’s what my parents and Sunday school taught. I would not have told you that I had a fear of being buried alive, that one day I’d wake up dead and buried but still present in my body. I spent hours wondering about what happened when you died. Even more trying to figure out who created God because if God created the universe, who created him? At the age of about six my church ran movie nights showing a series of apocalyptic movies. The plot centred around people that had been left behind from the rapture. It freaked me out. Quiet moments would cause me to panic and run to find someone else, anyone that I was convinced was a good person. Someone that God wouldn’t leave behind to suffer with the rest of us.

By my late twenties I was questioning the beliefs I had been indoctrinated in as a child. It wasn’t easy examining beliefs I had unconsciously adopted. It was like tearing apart the foundation of a building while everything else tried to stay intact. As a child I was willing to believe that the world was a simple place. Sinners went to hell while Christians went to heaven. I’m not so sure anymore. I’m not even sure if there’s a hell. There’s too much contradiction in the idea that a God who is the personification of love, would create humans, give them free will and let them live out complex lives which would determine whether they would be eternally rewarded or made to suffer infinitely. As I have grown, the world which was once so black and white is now all shades of grey. There’s a handful of truths that I still cling to, but I've let go of most of the theology from my childhood.

It is at the point of death that religion hands out the ultimate reward. Christians go to heaven, Muslims find themselves in paradise, Hindus are reincarnated into something better, the atheists disappear and everyone else suffers as the eternally damned. That is very generalised but the only way of knowing whose religion is right is to die. I’m not willing to lay my life on the line to find out the truth. Therefore, my musings remain a shallow exercise in philosophy. Even if the truth was confirmed I’m not sure there would be much comfort because death is still an ending. A separation from the ones you loved and a life you know. Maybe the only comfort that can be found in death is the knowledge that you have lived well, embraced your truth and loved to the best of your ability.

Chapter Four. Happy Birthday Mum.

Today is my mother’s birthday. It would’ve been her sixty first. We didn’t do anything big to celebrate her sixtieth because we weren’t sure she would be up for it. As Mum dealt with complications associated with the chemo and the colostomy bag she preferred to not have people around. The milestone went by quietly. Today was another quiet day. There’s been no celebrations, just reflections on a life that was.

Death is so confronting in its finality. There’s no gentle distinction between being alive and being dead. Even when a person is unconscious, the presence of their body gives some comfort. To be able to touch them, sit and talk to them even if they are unable to respond. Just to be in their physical presence may be heartbreaking but it’s better than the absolute absence that comes with dying. It is difficult to process the fact that the physical remains of my mother are contained in a small space behind a plaque on a brick wall.

Even though her physical body is gone, there are so many ways in which she is still present. My habits and interests were strongly influenced by my Mum. I like making things with my hands and giving handmade gifts. Things that Mum made are scatted around my house. A lot of my favourite recipes came from her. There’s the memories and the photos as well. There's so many other things but my brain has shut down for the night.

No matter how much I wish my Mum was still here, she is gone. She will never age past sixty. I won’t pretend our relationship was perfect. We were as much the same as we were different. I’ve been told many times that we had the same personality. The most important factor was that we loved each other fiercely. My only wish is that we had more time to work things out. Who knows what could have been?

So I sit here alone on the night of her birthday. I wanted to do something to celebrate but I had no idea what to do. The weight of missing her sits heavy with me tonight. I know there is nothing I can do to bring her back. I can only remember the good times we had together. How happy she was to be a grandmother. Because even though we were robbed of the future, the past cannot be changed.

 

Chapter Three The Power of Vulnerability.

I spent the first week of July driving around the incredible country that is north of Auckland. It was a holiday for just Lucy and I.  All the research I had done told me that it was a beautiful part of New Zealand. It’s so cliched but I have to say it. Nothing prepared me for how beautiful it was. Hiring a motorhome meant no strict itineraries. Being able to make plans up as I went along was exactly what I needed after the crazy that has been this year.

On the second morning I was making breakfast. The previous night we stayed in a caravan park I found by surprise. It was off the main highway going north, down a twisty steep descent which ended at a grassy area between a cove and a small beach covered in black shiny rocks. I had parked the motorhome with the back window facing the small cove. It was beautiful. That morning while cooking breakfast, the new album from Florence and the Machine was blasting through the speakers. During the second song Florence sings ‘we all have a hunger’. I was dancing around like an idiot in the tiny space between the stove top and the bathroom door. Lucy was on the floor laughing that baby laugh. There was so much happiness in such a small space.  And then the tears started.

I cried and kept crying throughout that trip. On the way to Cape Reinga I cried while driving down tiny roads surrounded by chicken farms. At night when Lucy had gone to sleep in the back, I sat at the front and cried in the dark. In the country that my mother was born and left before she was a teenager, I found it possible to start grieving her death. I also found the ability to really enjoy my daughter’s presence again. I found the power of vulnerability. To honestly sit with my emotions and just let them be.

In the last few weeks things started getting hard again. I was already struggling to deal with the weight of everything when we hit a period of teething followed by the flu. The lack of sleep made it next to impossible for me to regulate my emotions. I felt sadness waiting to engulf me like a tidal wave. I tuned out. I was tired, I was numb, and barely functioning. But then a small moment broke the dam wall. Something Lucy did made me laugh and the tears came as a relief. I started engaging with the world again instead of just going through the motions.

The thing with emotions is that you can’t just numb the ones you don’t like. I know because I’ve tried (and if we’re being honest, I’ll try again in the future just to double check). Shutting out the sadness meant shutting out joy. The world went from being full of vivid emotions to a watered down, grey colour. And that was fine for a while because I had some tough times to get through. Planning a funeral and telling people of your mother’s death requires a great deal of resilience. I’ve used the strategy of shutting down so many times in my life. This dysfunctional emotional regulation resulted in years of dysfunctional relationships. I needed a way off of the merry-go-round of dysfunction so that I can be a positive influence to my daughter. The last thing I want is for this crazy to be passed onto another generation.

The only way out is vulnerability. Sitting with and acknowledging emotions. Not necessarily buying into or investing in each emotion, but seeing their worth as they exist in the moment. Vulnerability is hard. It’s near impossible to keep up at all times. But if there’s a choice between actively engaging in life and shutting down, I know what I’m choosing.

Don't send the flowers. Send Love.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when I received the phone call that Dad had died. It came as a shock. He had been in palliative care for several months, but it had begun to feel like he was never going to die. That night I crashed at a friend’s place. The following week I completed the ten-hour drive to Mum’s for the funeral.  

When I arrived at Mum’s house it felt like there were flowers everywhere. With a strange pride she gave me a grand tour of who sent what. Each day as new flowers arrived, another tour would be conducted. Statements of people’s condolences were written on the small cards. It made Mum happy to know that people cared.

After Mum died flowers started arriving. It was lovely that people thought of doing something nice. After one particularly large delivery I found myself getting annoyed. It wasn’t that I dislike flowers. I love flowers. As a little girl I was the horror child stealing them from people’s gardens. Now I’ve got a garden bed of my own  planted with colour. It doesn’t matter how beautiful a floral arrangement is. It does little to help reprieve the hurting during a time of grief.

When I got home from helping sort out Mum’s estate, one of my friends arranged to have a cleaner come to my house to help sort out the mess it had become. Another regularly babysits so that I can have some alone time to grieve. I’ve had friends cook for me and bring me coffee. All these practical things left me feeling loved and helped with the healing process. All the flowers did was die and leave a mess.

Don’t send flowers. Send love. Engage you brain. Use your imagination. Figure out a gift that will help.

   

For my Mum

Tuesday morning we said goodbye to my mum and Lucy’s grandma. As far as I’m concerned the day came too quick. While I’m grieving for the mother and grandmother that we have lost, I’m also grateful for the time we were able to spend together.

One of the clearest childhood memories I have was laying on my Mum’s bed and laughing for hours. It was beyond the point that anything was funny, we were just having fun. There were also times when I was quite young, that I rode around on the back of her bike in one of those children’s bike seats. At the time I thought it was an exciting adventure. But now I suspect it was because they couldn’t afford to have the old brown car fixed.

I have no doubt that my mum loved me and was proud of me. Last year I graduated from university, Mum was there to cheer me on and take a thousand and one photos. That night at the celebratory BBQ she barely ate anything because she was too busy talking to everyone letting them know she was the mother of the graduate. She also spent a good amount of time interrogating everyone there. Who were they, how did they know me and if they were male, were they possibly single?

When I fell pregnant with Lucy Mum was so excited. Although she couldn’t be there with me, after every appointment there was a phone call. My brother’s wife was pregnant at the same time as me. Mum considered herself a bit of a soothsayer. She insisted that I was having a girl with curly hair and my brother was having a boy with ginger hair. So far we’re three out of four. Just waiting on the curly hair.

Speaking of curly hair, until I was in mid primary school I thought Mum’s hair was naturally curly. Getting old enough to learn about perms was a bit of a shock. As an adult she would ring me all excited about the new way which the hairdressers had done her hair. I could never tell the difference from one perm to the next so I just agreed until I could escape the conversation.

Mum was a very conservative, straight laced Christian lady. Growing up this meant dressing up for Sunday church, no drinking, swearing and no gambling. Until my friend Mia came along. IT was my older brother’s birthday last year. Handing out $1 coins Mia suggested it’d be a lot of fun if we all went and played the pokies. Mum’s reflex was to say no. Mia worked her magic and soon my little Christian mother was learning how to play the pokies. It was the first and only time mum played pokies. She was so chuffed to win ten dollars. Mum even insisted on paying Mia back her dollar. She was an honest woman after all.

Even though mum has been taken from us too soon, she left behind a strong legacy. Currently I’m sorting through a mountain of quilts, unfinished projects and a seemingly endless stash of material. We will never be cold. I also learnt to speak my mind, even if I look like a crazy lady.