Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Five Years On: My Reflection
Today's blog post is from our intern, Olivia Tilton talking about her experience of grief having lost her own mother 5 years ago to breast cancer.
We all knew it was going to happen.
After all, everyone has to die.
I just wasn’t prepared for it. In any way, shape or form.
She had been in a hospice for around two months. She had litres of fluid surrounding her lungs and heart. She was so, so exhausted. It was staring us right in the face. But still, at midday on the 10th of November 2010, my whole world seemed to collapse in around me when my mum died.
Two years and two months previous to this, I was annoyed at having to walk home from school having called both of my parents for a lift home. They had put the phone down on me... pretty rude, right? When I got home my sister Alice, had also noticed that something wasn’t quite right. Our friend’s mum, a GP, ringing that morning and my mum hurriedly taking the phone off me and locking herself in the bathroom. Stunted conversations: no lies wanting to be told but the truth not quite ready to come from their lips. Something wasn’t right. That evening we learned that she had found a lump in her breast.
She was diagnosed with stage 4-breast cancer.
Chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy. Repeat on the other side.
Life went on. My sister started university that year 3 hours away from home. I started my AS-Levels. My dad continued working. But things had changed on a deeper level. Almost every night Alice Skyped home. My relationship with our mum was the best it had ever been- I told her my secrets and we would nap on her chair, squeezed in together completely ignoring how uncomfortable we both were. And my mum had changed. Her value for life and all it had to offer had switched. Suddenly she became the number one in her life, rightfully so. She quit her job: Apparently listening to people whine about having their teeth pulled out when you have cancer is a bit of a bummer. She went to see Razorlight the same night as her first chemotherapy session and got annoyed that the lead singer didn’t take his top off.
For the next two years, the subsequent elegance with which she handled the shit hand that life had given her, was utterly inspiring.
Two years later our family had the chance to spend 6 weeks in Ecuador and Peru. That is the last time I remember being utterly at peace. When she was later in the hospice, I would wonder to myself how on earth this woman had climbed Wayna Picchu, 10 steps at a time whilst my sister and I had raced off to the top, or how she had trekked through the rainforest for a whole day without a single moan (I moaned enough for the both of us).
Looking back now, I am 100% sure my mum knew that she would die soon after returning home back to the UK.
Two months later, the inevitable happened. In a weird way, it couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was midday, the rest of the family had left the room, leaving my dad, my sister and myself, and the sun had begun to shine through the November clouds. She would have liked that. The rest is a bit of a blur.
Life went on. People rallied around us in whatever way they thought was helpful. Friends came round with food or climbed into bed with me, ate cold baked beans and watched Harry Potter. A teacher of mine waited outside of the church after the funeral. From across the road, she waved to me as we left. This was, for me, one of the most emotional, raw and truthful signs of solidarity. Not wanting to confuse her own need for grieving for a woman she did not know, but the need to show that she was there with me is something that will always stay with me.
Selfishly though, it was comforting to see so many people hurting. I wanted the whole world to hurt as much as I was hurting.
Many people tried to rationalise my mother’s death, or tried to fix my grief in an attempt to help. In trying to ‘fix’ a person’s grief you deny them of the right to be human, precisely when they are at their most fragile. The last thing a person ruined by grief needs is advice. My world was shattered when my mum died, so trying to fix or rationalise this only deepened my pain. It was not comforting to hear “I’m so sorry”, “I know how you feel” or, “you’re being so strong”. Sorry for what?! Is this your fault?...No, you have absolutely no idea how I feel, you can never begin to imagine what this feels like, as if a limb has been torn off from my body... “Strong”?! I am simply getting through each day, because I have to, not because this is a conscious life choice I have made.
Comments like these put a wall between that person and me. It was as if they, unconsciously of course, wouldn’t allow me to speak of it, putting me on mute.
Comments of “RIP” or “Hope you’re okay” on Facebook or by text felt dismissive, belittling of who my mum was and what I was going through. Writing this now, five years later I realise how ungrateful this makes me sound. None of my friends at this stage had ever been through something like this, so how could I expect them to know what to say? The truth is, I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say to myself even. But selfishly at times like these, for me anyway, I expected the world to stop, for everyone to put their life on hold and feel it. To feel the world like I did without my mum in it.
Almost immediately, whilst my loss made me acutely aware and empathetic to the pain of others, and gave me life skills I didn’t think I would have to learn for a good few decades, I also became more cynical in my view of human nature and gained a greater impatience for people who are unfamiliar with what loss does to a person.
Everybody handles grief in his or her own way. Me? I started a new school to retake some of my A-Level modules. Alongside this, I continued working at two restaurants, visiting friends at university and planning my trip to South East Asia, which I would embark on in the summer. I was a ‘keep-yourself-as-busy-as-possible-so-the-realities-of-life-never-catch-up-with-you’ sort of griever. In other words: I didn’t allow myself to grieve. Memories were repressed and my body went into shut down mode for about two years.
Life went on. When I eventually did begin to fully let myself grieve, I was in my second year of university. I had a boyfriend who allowed me to fully give into this need. He saw how closed up and broken I was and provided me with a space in which I could let go yet this was still difficult. It was like pulling stitches out. One by one peeling away the pent up emotions. It wasn’t pretty. There was a lot of crying. A lot of not going out with friends and closing in socially. A lot of dependence on The Boyfriend who eventually broke up with me because I was too emotionally unstable- Wow.
After that I had a ‘need-to-sort-your-life-out’ moment. I got it together a bit. I decided that whilst I couldn’t ever begin to get over what had happened, I could live with it. I gained a bit of perspective. I entered back into what the real life of a 20 year old should be. I began to participate in my own life. I took my place within the new roles that our family had had to step into.
Life went on and it always will, never relenting no matter how much we don’t want it to. If someone asked me whether I would want to continue with my life, or stay in that hospice room with my mum forever, it would be a heart-wrenchingly difficult decision. We have a ‘thing’ we do in our family. My dad likes to say, “We need to move on”. I am always quick to reply, “No, we need to move forward”. I don’t want to move on from my life with my mum. I had only 18 years with her. That will never be enough for me. She didn’t see me graduate. She will never see me get married or have children. She didn’t even let me move next door so we could have daily coffee mornings (Yes, when I announced this was my plan when I was little I saw only fear in her eyes). I didn’t get to make up for all the stroppy teenage years, make more family dinners or bring her more morning cups of tea in bed; life moments that not only am I sad for myself but am so devastated for her too as I know how precious they would have been for her (Okay, maybe not me moving next door…).
But those 18 years are something I hang onto. Those are moments that I cling to when I feel like I am losing parts of her from me. Rummaging through memories mixed up in the chaos that is my brain, looking for her words of wisdom. But still, I know I need to move forward and so everyday, I do a little bit. Never forgetting, never losing sight of my mum, but always forward.
Whilst writing this, I realise how robotic I have become. I guess that kind of describes my version of life now, ‘robotic’. Life goes on, we do things, we laugh, we cry, we have fun. But it’s not the same not being able to share it with my mum. For the past five years, the biggest struggle has been that life will never be the same. Accepting that is no easy feat. I still don’t know if I do. But acknowledging this does so many things for me. It allows me to grieve for the past and the life we used to have as a family, it allows me to miss my mum, but it also allows me to keep going. And whilst it can seem all encompassing at times, it is also freeing. I can survive. I can keep moving forward.
So, what has the last five years taught me? It’s taught me to give in to grief, because whilst we are a ‘glue-it-back-together’ society, some things in life cannot be fixed, they can only be carried. It’s taught me to be human, to be vulnerable, and to give in to my emotions. Grief is heart-wrenchingly painful and to acknowledge this is the greatest thing you can do for yourself. And in reverse, acknowledgement of this pain is the greatest gift you can give someone through this journey. To do this, only requires you to be there, with the person, in that present moment. Be there with them, not there for them. Because, to stand with a loved one, to suffer with them, and to allow the world to stop for them even just for a moment is incredibly powerful. In doing so, you allow the grieving person to enter into the shadows of pain that we so rarely allow ourselves to enter- to go where the beginnings of healing is usually found.
So, be that person for those in that time of need: climb into bed and be there with them, then maybe watch Harry Potter (cold baked beans are optional). And in the meantime: life is too freaking short, so just do what makes you happy and make your loved ones lots of cups of tea in bed. Always see the good in life and have courage.