I was fifteen when my mother died. It was not sudden, or entirely unexpected. In fact, I have come to realise that I knew that it would happen, was happening, even if it was too much to admit at the time. The important thing to know is that she was simply perfect.
I don’t use perfect to mean flawless, because there are a hundred and one things that she could have done better – like all parents. We didn’t have the kind of ‘tell me all your secrets’ mother-daughter relationship that you see on television dramas. Her version of ‘the birds and the bees’ was to buy me a book, and firmly instruct me to read it. She was moody, strange and a bit of a bitch sometimes.
Yet, it is only now that I have grown up, and started to understand just how difficult it is to be a human being sometimes, that I understand just how wonderful she really was. This strange, kooky, conflicted, exciting, funny, weird, remarkable person – my mother. In about three weeks, it will be the next anniversary of her death. As such, I want to take a look at this tricky little bugger that we like to call ‘grief.’ This will be no sob story, no plea for sympathy. I am twenty three years old now, and I have had every opportunity in the world. I have a degree, a great family and a happy life – all thanks to the work of both parents.
If anything, grief fascinates me on an intellectual level, as well as a personal one – particularly in terms of the discrepancies between what people imagine you are feeling, and what you are actually feeling. The thing about grief is that it makes you invisible. There are the inevitable apologies, and endless platitudes about how ‘they will always be watching over you,’ but it is surprising how rare it is for these self-serving responses to be followed by a genuine interest about who they were, what they were about, and what they meant in terms of their own little world. It is steadily approaching a decade since my mother died, and it is surprising how rarely I get to talk about her, because nobody ever asks. They assume that the memories are too painful, that grief is a one way process.
They seem to believe that grief is something that a person carries around with them always, like a rucksack filled with sand. For me, the reality is very different. After so long, it is as if the loss itself has become a sort of façade. It barely feels real to me, in the same way that I often struggle to remember what my mother looked like, what she sounded like, the way she smelled, and the tone of her laugh when she was amongst friends. The really frightening thing about grief is that it is more than just the loss of a physical body, it is the annihilation of an entire world. As anybody who has ever lost somebody close will know all too well, memory and reality are two very different things. I know what my mother looked like, intellectually, but I can no longer interact with her face on an instinctual level. It is only ever a recall, a memory. It feels like a construction, like a dream almost. It feels like forgetting.
For me, the frightening thing about grief is how easy it is to carry around. I don’t actively avoid thoughts of my mother, quite the opposite, but life just goes on. She fades, I grow and the bouts of crippling sadness that still hit me from time to time get further and further apart. They say that time is a healer, and they are right. These days, the memories of my mother are not a weight. They do not drag or pull, but fill me a sense of purpose. I am her daughter, she was my mother. She died young, but we will all be dead one day, and I cannot express how grateful I am for the time that I got to spend with her.
The older I get, the closer I feel to her. I know it sounds weird, but I recognise her in myself every day, and it makes me realise that her death was not a big nothing. She is everywhere, she continues – not as some pseudo spiritual bullshit about guardian angels, but as a part of myself. She made me, and she made me who I am. It is a realisation that makes the hard times easier, because there are hard times. Whilst it is not a lie to say that it gets better, neither is it a lie to say that it never gets better. The spaces in between the hard times may grow ever larger, but when they do come, they hit as hard as ever. A couple of times a year, I still find myself completely overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of my grief. It will reach me, from some deep, dark place that I thought I had forgotten about. The sense of loss will knock me for six, and I will temporarily become fifteen years old again, with a grief gnawing at my heart, a grief so powerful that I can’t imagine ever getting over it. For an hour or two, I will be broken – a motherless child. And then it will pass. The demon grief loosens its grip on my chest, I take a deep breath, and I get up and keep going – because she is gone, and I am still here.
I am her, and she is me. We are all each other – nothing but fragile pieces of matter, monkeys in shoes. We mean nothing at all in the grand scheme of things, and that is precisely what makes our little worlds, and the people in them, so extraordinarily special. I miss her, god do I miss her – but what happened to my mother was just a fact of life. It happens to millions of people every single day. As the late, great Robin Williams so eloquently put it, ‘Death is nature’s way of telling you that your table is ready…’ and you don’t get to choose when it’s time to eat.