14 years: my experience of grief

Mum's garden on Mull

We are at home on the Isle of Mull, a small family gathering, the occasion just beyond the reach of my memory. Mum is speaking to someone, laughing, in her distinctive tones. English accent, spirited, wicked glint in her eyes. I don’t know what she is saying; words are irrelevant. Her hair is short and mottled grey, post-chemo, but she is aglow and she is here.


I realised that she had made it after all. She was one of the 4%; the fortunate minority of women who overturned the stage four ovarian cancer death sentence we understood from Google. I remember thinking if anyone could it would be Mum – Mum the hardy mussel farmer, Mum the yoga teacher, Mum the botanist and nature lover, Mum the gardener, Mum the salad and veggie fanatic. She’d proven us right, mercifully.


Her presence was the centrepiece in the room, simple joy for being around her children, her sense of fun and adventure back with us fully after being dampened through months of intensive treatment. I am lifted with relief. Her death was a terrible imagining.


Back in the bedroom, I’m awake and disorientated, the tendrils of reality creeping around me. A familiar sense of both longing and comfort coming into consciousness. The feeling of having my mother close by still permeates my mind like a shaft of dawn sunshine through the windows, and I know from experience that it will follow me through the day ahead.


Maybe three or four times a year, fourteen years after her death, I have this recurring dream. It is almost identical every time, and strangely therapeutic. I remember my step dad Don telling me that not long after losing his first wife, suddenly and at a young age, he felt her with him in the room. I wished many times that I could feel Mum’s presence tangibly, and in this way I guess I have.


What shape has my grief taken over the years? Talking to guests on the podcast has prompted me to reflect on it. In the year Mum died, my messy lack of direction in life was a perfect match for the ugly grief of losing her. I was 19 when she was diagnosed, and had just turned 22 when she died. I was at university in Manchester, although working four nights a week in a nightclub and going to warehouse raves often took precedence over studies; I was wading knee deep through a sticky social circle of hedonism and extremes that I thought I wanted to experience.


In the week she lost consciousness in Oban Hospital my brother and I bought a bottle of whisky and drank most of it in one sitting. That night, although my mind was muddied, I remember so clearly how dark the future felt. I couldn’t imagine not having Mum in our lives and I couldn’t contemplate feeling like things were ok. My hangover was so bad the next day I had to leave the hospital room.


I wasn’t there when she died. My brother and I had been alternating nightshifts by her side with our stepdad, with other visitors including my Dad, aunt and uncle and old friends in between. The nurse had said it would be ok for us to leave that night, but early in the morning at my boyfriend’s house in Tobermory my mobile lit up. She was gone.


In the months after I remember crying a lot, uncontrollably, unexpectedly, remembering nightmarishly what she had to endure in that last month. I made impulsive decisions, went travelling for six months, spent more money than I had. I stopped writing a diary, and filled myself up with distractions. I wanted more people to ask about Mum; what she had been like, what the world will miss out on.


My response has changed over the years. I don’t allow myself to slip down the slope of thinking about those last weeks as much. I guess I’ve processed and accepted this to a degree. I still get hit by waves of great sadness at random times. Recently my boyfriend Duncan suggested we do a meditation together. He chose one from his app. I’d had a tough day at work and was feeling delicate, and when the teacher began speaking I realised it was a body scan-style meditation. Almost instantly I felt that familiar well of tears rising, the explosive sort you have to let go. I left the room and dissolved. In her yoga classes, Mum always took people through a body scan as part of shavasana. It remains the best shavasana I’ve experienced. Duncan and I have since laughed a little about it – beware of the body scan. He lost his Mum in primary school and we feel free to laugh, cry and talk openly about our experiences. So I know now the body scan is a trigger, possibly a means to a helpful cleanse.


Times like this feel as hard to me as the days we are expected to feel the worst; anniversaries, birthdays, Mother’s Day. Mum’s birthday was yesterday, and I thought about her a lot, yes, but probably not much more than on any day of the year selected at random. Although this last Mother’s Day felt a struggle. I made the mistake of scrolling Instagram, reading post after post by friends spending the day with their mothers or children, and memes about how important mother-daughter relationships are. Point of sale marketing in shops was also relentless – cards, gifts, reminders to reserve a table.


Recently I listened to Kelsey Grammar’s Desert Island Discs. When he was a kid his father was shot dead and in his 20s his beloved sister was raped and murdered. Kirsty Young asked if he was still working his grief out. His reply stopped me in my tracks. “You will always miss them. You’re just left with it. I cherish her memory and a great love that we had. I continue to carry the joy I felt in knowing her with me and I continue to carry the loss of it. I don’t let it disrupt me or destroy me.” Of course, most of us are fortunate enough to not have had someone taken from us in such a violent, sudden way, but I identified with his depiction of what grief feels like after the passing of time.


There are many things that still make me sad today, and these won’t change. Mum can’t know me now, as an evolved adult person, and I can’t know Mum now. She didn’t deserve to lose her life. She was a generous contributor to the world in so many ways: environmentally, socially, in the community. And although Mother’s Day felt hard, I often remember Mum more at other times:


· In beautiful greenspace (like right now, in old growth redwood forests in California)

· In the last few miles of trail races

· In April, her birthday month and favourite month of the year

· When I talk to people about my phobia of earthworms, clearly picked up from Mum's own phobia when I was little

· Every time I have a relationship or friendship dilemma

· Practicing yoga

· When I hear Moby’s Play album

· Watching Bohemian Rhapsody

· When I hear I want to break free by Queen, or anything by Queen. Mum knew categorically she wanted this played at her funeral

· With my brother’s kids, one of the biggest joys in my life. My niece Abbie looks a little like Mum when she was a girl

· When chopping ginger and juicing fruit & veggies

· Discussing sustainability or environmental issues

· Reading Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins

· When I see that car she loved, the one I can never remember the name of

· When I hear about rescued greyhounds

· Anything to do with owls


A few links


· How to be a good grief ally by Poorna Bell (this is so good!)


· Women’s Hour feature on Motherless Daughters


· Grief Encounter


· Kelsey Grammar on Desert Island Discs


· Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins


· The Griefcast


Armstrong Redwood Reserve, California

​Proudly created with Wix.com