It’s only been two months since mum suddenly died. Possibly the strangest two months of my life so far.
The first month or so was a period of survival and numbness. The shock was profound. This was followed by a bizarre Christmas period where, to some extent, I was on auto-pilot doing the usual sort of stuff ‘for the kids’. And yet, during this time, we rather miraculously managed to firm up a hitherto meandering decision… to move nearer London. Now I’m caught up in the administration of this daunting task.
Many themed monologues have taken place in my head during this time — they would have made fantastic blogs had I had even an ounce of energy to translate them into such. One would have been on regret, one on fear, and one most certainly on empathy. The theme I want to focus on now is bravery.
The phrase ‘feel the fear but do it anyway’ has been one of my little catchphrases these last couple of years or so. As my siblings and I have come to realise whilst wading through her various projects, plans and general (messy) life-admin, it was also one of mum’s.
With ageing comes a recognition of how profoundly interlinked the cognitive and the physical are, especially in relation to fear and worry. I’ve come to realise that until fairly recently my rather naïve understanding of fear was dominated by a perception of physical pain, no doubt derived from childhood experiences (and I’m a redhead so have a much lower pain threshold than other hair colours… and yeah that’s a thing, there’s scientific evidence and everything that we experience pain ‘differently’). There have been a few key points over the last 10 years where I have been so vulnerable in the face of an intense mish-mash of both physical and emotional pain that I’ve belatedly woken up to the fact that you rarely have one without the other — childbirth, panic attacks, coming round from a major op with ineffective anaesthesia and morphine, and, most recently, the physical pain caused by the trauma of losing my mum.
The hardest pain of all though? The pain, fear and worry caused by those pesky invisible heartstrings between my children and I. The fear that my action or inaction will cause one of them distress — that is the hardest fear of all because it involves risking the harshest pain of all. The sproglets only need go vaguely near a cliff edge or retell their story of anguish and my groin area aches (yes really, this is also a thing), my heart aches and this crap sleeper, sleeps even more, erm, craply. Only now do I truly understand what mum was going on about for all those years!
I am taking on two major projects which involve being very brave (ok so I’m not risking my life to save others here, but it’s all relative right?). Number one — relocating and moving home, involving moving kids’ schools. Number two — putting my all into a new work project which will likely involve huge amounts of work, risk and starting a company.
They are both enormous undertakings, but I’m ready. I think mum has made me ready because, amidst the pervasive, inescapable sadness and loss, I have learnt to ruthlessly prioritise what is truly important. The happiness of my family is right up there, as is my need to be involved in a project with social justice and intergenerational collaboration at its heart. And it might cause some short-term pain, but it WILL be worth it. To throw in another fine (albeit a smidgen clichéd) saying at this point, ‘the only risk in life, is to take no risk at all’.
The other thing that has emboldened mine and my partner’s decision-making, has been the reflective reading of a quite lovely book. ‘Dear Sugar’ by Cheryl Strayed is a beautifully written collection of advice columns on life, death, grief, infidelity, parenthood and a whole bunch of ‘the harder side of being human’ type stuff (a great overview of which is given here). Its humanist-style philosophy and advice, embracing the warts and all of humanity, involves regular reflections from the author about her own life experiences (and mistakes). She gradually shows how she has learned, over time, to be kind and magnanimous, and now advocates this strategy in different ways to those that bravely offer up their painful stories — acknowledging that this might often mean taking the hardest road in the short term. A poignant extract from her reply to a letter from a woman who lost her daughter stood out:
‘This is how you get unstuck, Stuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away from the daughter you loved, but so you can live the life that is yours — the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter, but is not arrested by it. The one that eventually leads you to a place in which you not only grieve her, but also feel lucky to have had the privilege of loving her. That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really fucking hard to get there, but you can do it, honey. You’re a woman who can travel that far. I know it.’
Bereavement entails being incredibly brave. From making yourself get out of bed and take the kids to school, to informing the deceased close friends about the loss… to just simply facing the fact that you will never speak to that person ever, ever again. I now have a mountain load more empathy and respect for the brave people who have lost close loved ones. It is of no surprise that those who have recently lost themselves, have been the ones who’ve kept up the messages of support, even two months on.
One of the bravest things I have had to do recently is to sit facing a bunch of 34 inspirational people (who in normal circumstances I might like to impress), and let them see my disobedient tears roll down my cheeks. When it was my turn around the circle to talk, the wave of grief was so immense and all-consuming that I could no longer speak, damn it — an inability to talk with confidence in public is not something I’m so familiar with! It was intensely uncomfortable for a time, but by surrendering myself to the fact that I had no control over my tears and emotional state, I was in fact bizarrely empowered.
The other brave and uncomfortable thing we need to do in grief in order to heal is use the word ‘I’ a lot, the self-indulgence of it all is also something you also have to surrender yourself to. For example, I should not feel ashamed of the fact that this blog is all about my feelings right now — but I will temper it by recognising, as always, that I am hugely grateful for so much and know very well that I’m extremely, absolutely, incredibly fortunate.
By being aware of all that we already have, by being aware of what is truly important, by being aware of the wisdom provided to us by our past experiences (as Strayed helps us realise), and by being aware of our own unique potential to make the world better for others… by doing all of these things, ‘being brave’ becomes that little bit easier. It becomes less about fear, and more about just moving forward, trying new things, and not stagnating.