Mother’s day & reframing ‘loneliness’

Today is mother’s day. It’s never been something mum or I particularly made a fuss about, though this will be the first year that I haven’t given her a card.

My sister and I finally plucked up the courage to visit her at the green burial site this week. It was a beautiful sunny day and it just seemed right somehow. The place was peaceful, the buzzards flew about our heads and at one point a magnificent hare popped in to check in on us (although the moment was eerily Watership-downy in some ways). There were no other humans around… at least not ones that were alive anymore.

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There were gentle tears as we chatted about general domestic and life admin type stuff over her grave. At one point my sister laid down next to the grave in order to take in mum’s view. We had no doubts that a Humanist funeral ceremony was right for her, but had been slightly worried about mum being lonely in this rather remote green burial wood. With all the animals and wild flowers growing all around, we both felt comforted.

Because, of course, we worried about mum being lonely at many points throughout her life. In some ways ‘loneliness’ has been the elephant in the room when talking about and remembering mum. Loneliness is a horrid, frightening thing that can distort judgement and play tricks on the mind. As she ‘imagined’ other people’s full and people-filled lives and relationships, so did she ‘imagine’ what other people thought of her. Forever drawing white sheep and then colouring one in and putting ‘me’ above the black one, the odd one out. She also wrote little things like the poem below, hidden amidst the crib-game scores and the hand-scrawled budgeting. Loneliness drove her to turn up on my doorstep very early some mornings, and guilt now haunts me about the way I selfishly reacted to that. Sometimes, all she wanted, all we want, is for someone to actually listen to us and to feel like another person has our back in some small way.

But, as the years went on, I noticed that mum was reframing loneliness and reframing being ‘alone’. She began planning weekends away, day trips to London and holidays way in advance. Filling her calendar with adventures and busyness. She was incredibly aware of the destructive powers of loneliness both for herself and for others. So mum was learning to enjoy her own company much more, through amazing art creations and always going on new art courses, despite great trepidation at some points. The nerves were partly because [I think] she was aware that her insecurities could manifest themselves in a peculiar defensiveness. In an attempt to get her to meet new friends by joining a local choir a few years ago, I introduced her to a neighbour who offered to kindly meet her at the steps before it started in order to go in together and meet the established choir group — her reaction was typically an abrupt ‘oh that won’t be necessary, I’ll just walk on in if I decide to go’.

The feeling of loneliness and feeling of not belonging has similarly haunted me, and I see it lurking in other people I love. People don’t just post status updates into the social media void because they want to boast or make themselves feel better, there’s always a loneliness factor driving them too (albeit subliminally). Recently I reflected upon a day where the only adult voice I had heard was the computer-generated voice at the Sainsbury’s checkout… and then I thought about all the days mum looked after the three of us entirely alone, without the internet, without a mobile phone, often without a car. And then I thought about the dreadful state her and I (and others) have got themselves into when the only voice they’ve listened to for a significant period of time, has been the chronically sleep-deprived and/or wine-enhanced one in their head.

But we don’t talk about it, loneliness, in the same way as we don’t talk about death and grief — the grief and loneliness taboos! And they’re profoundly interrelated of course, grief is intensely lonely and loneliness can involve the sense of a painful absence (as with grief). I watched the latest Age-UK advertising campaign recently communicating the chronic loneliness of some old people. Loneliness is strangely legitimised by old age — my advice to Age-UK is to not make it so age-specific, to open it up and interview the young, middle-aged as well as the old… most people know what loneliness feels like.

Fleabag has been one of my little joys this week. This second series just seems to get better and better at building the relationship between Fleabag and her audience. The most poignant part of this week’s episode was Fleabag’s confession in the booth, the life rant and hurt ending in her admitting that she just wants to be looked after, to be told what to think, to be told who to vote for. What I heard, what I related to, was a woman realising that she would never again experience the most powerful, unconditional love and support any person can have. Because her mother had died.

It’s been just four months since we buried mum. Just like Fleabag in series 2 episode 4, I’m only really beginning to understand the true impact this whole mum-dying thing is going to have.

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Educationalist & parent. Passionate about sustainability, wellbeing, lifelong & intergenerational learning. Exploring how to reframe resilience, grief & ADHD

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