Eight weeks ago my Mum left her body before my eyes, but my grief didn’t start that day. When someone you love is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, your grief starts there – a shot to the heart – your whole world falls apart. You can feel the shock coursing through your veins, your fists clench and your whole being is panic stricken. From that moment forward, there is a veil of sadness over everything you do; anticipatory grief. I hadn’t heard of anticipatory grief before Mum’s diagnosis, similar to ambiguous grief, it is the strange but very real process of grieving for someone who is still alive. The sinister foreboding that death is coming. I can remember the phone call from my Dad like it was yesterday, I had been in the garden with Ruby – the sun was shining – they had been waiting for her scan results at my local hospital. Before heading back home my parents called in to see me, Dad was anxious but was trying hard to be positive for our sake. Mum seemed so calm. It was as if she already knew what the results were going to be and there was an unbelievable sense of acceptance in her at that stage. I sat next to her on the sofa as close as I physically could and took her in, everything about her; her smell, the feeling of her hand in mine, her voice, her breath. I don’t think I had ever experienced another human with such a sense of presence. When someone you love is dying, the present is all you can rely on, tomorrow is not a promise and for the first time, I realised fully that it never was. From that day, I had a new appreciation for the time we had and whenever I felt I was crumbling under the immense pressure of it all, I would remind myself that she was still here – Mum is here today and that is what matters. There will be plenty of time to crumble further down the line.
This wasn’t to be the only lesson in grief my little family suffered that summer. Just before heading to bed on the 18th of July – at a much later time than usual – our otherwise healthy 9 year old dog, Bingo, suffered a seizure. A sight I will never forget, we held his fitting body and reassured him whilst making sure he wasn’t going to hurt himself. It was heartbreaking to feel so powerless. Over the next 24 hours, having seen the vet, Bingo suffered multiple seizures whilst we cared for him at home. We don’t know exactly what happened to him except that it was most likely brain related. Bingo went to sleep for the last time after my husband Alex had taken our daughter Ruby to nursery, I was glad to see him get some rest, initially unaware that he was slipping into a coma. At 5am on the 20th of July, I put my hand on Bingo’s head, with my thumb resting between his eyes and said, “I love you”, he didn’t take another breath after that. He passed peacefully at home. When Ruby woke up, just moments after he passed, she came downstairs and gave him her Teletubby toy and said, “I love you Bings”. She spoke so lovingly towards him that morning as we waited for the vet to open, singing him songs, playing her ukulele and leaving her most treasured toys beside him. I will never know how much her two year old brain really understood that her best friend had gone forever but she displayed a moving outpour of affection that still brings tears to my eyes. I have a beautiful photo of her clutching her ukulele, sat by his body as he lay peaceful in his bed – surrounded by toys. This was a very cruel lesson that came at both the worst and best possible time. It was impossible to ignore the ways in which Bingo’s death would help us prepare Ruby’s intelligent young mind for the reality of losing somebody you love. This was to be her first encounter with grief and the weeks that followed taught us all more than any expert could about dealing with tragedy together.
On Mum’s diagnosis, Dad made the immediate decision not to go back to work, a choice that set a precedent for the 9 months that followed. We had a positive outlook, facing cancer head on, looking it in the eyes and saying, not yet, we’ve got plans. We enjoyed so many days together, days at the garden centre, barbecues, Butlins and even raised £8000 at various fundraising events for Mum’s favourite, locally run charity, Lincs2Nepal. Mum was taking oils and eating well, we all had hope. Having decided not to have chemotherapy, Mum was open to alternative routes. We were all happy with her decision, treatment would have possibly extended the end of her life by three months, in exchange for three healthier months. She was not willing to swap the precious time with her Grandchildren and I am so grateful she made that decision, it wasn’t an easy one.
Summer flew by and over time it became clear that Mum wasn’t going to be improving or even stabilising her condition no matter what she did. She was losing weight and becoming much less mobile faster then we feared. Mum was given a year to live, she got just nine months. She achieved the goals she had fought so hard to reach, my sister’s wedding, Christmas, New Year and on January the 3rd, with her family around her, she passed away peacefully. Mum died as she lived, surrounded by pure love.
My sister Jess and I took great pride in planning Mum’s funeral with Dad. Learning along the way, about a lady we had never really considered too much, our Mum before us. I have included a tribute to my Mum that I wrote for her funeral….
I can’t sum up in words how much Mum meant to me, how could I ever do such a love justice? It is with deeds, not just words that we will truly carry on her legacy. The everyday actions of life remind me constantly of our loss, already I miss our daily texts and sending photos of Ruby’s artwork. I miss Mum’s advice, she always knew what to say. The ripples of her kind heart spread far beyond the people she knew personally, she would chat to anybody, something we all found very embarrassing but we will now continue with pride. As a close friend recently commented……’It is a cruel irony that it can take a horrendously unfair event to make us reflect on someone so fair and special.’
Those that spend their time with the dying, often comment on the spiritual journey we embark on when we die naturally. I read up on this and it described Mum’s last days perfectly, from fiddling with things that weren’t there and looking through old photos to choosing the exact time to die and the people she wanted around her. Maybe the most touching of these things was that Mum saw my dog Bingo who passed during the summer, in the early hours on the morning Mum died she told me he needed help as he didn’t have anybody and called out ‘Bella, Bingo is here’. It is quite beautiful that she went through the process so exactly and that Bingo helped her in her last hours.
I would go through it all again, with every member of my family if it meant they could die so peacefully. We must remember to observe the beauty that surrounds death as well as the pain. The compassion and unity of family, and the countless lives altered by Mum’s existence. The lessons we have learnt about what is important and what bears little importance in the end. When you approach the end of life with someone you love, it really does put things into perspective. We had the best team a person could ask for, led by our wonderful Dad. Even with her eyes closed in those final minutes, Mum’s heart was open, she could tell exactly who had left the room and asked for me and Jess, respectively, when we had briefly left. ‘Well at least let me enjoy my last five minutes’, she commented. We proceeded to reassure her, tell her how much we love her and how she will live on in our hearts and our faces. We assured her we would keep her traditions alive. I never thought I would long for her peace so strongly, even pray for it. It’s a day I will never forget. I am unbelievably proud of my siblings and couldn’t wish for a better family to have shared this truly majestic act of love with.
Who knew that on New Year’s Day, we would get to witness our parents getting married for the second time, in the front bedroom, with Aunty Julia as head bridesmaid, Aunty Jayne giving Mum away, Tony as best man and Uncle Darren as the minister. It was a joyous moment and I will cherish it forever.
After Mum passed, we gathered the notes and letters she had left behind. Letters for each of us, wrapped in red ribbon. Among her notes was a list of things she wanted to do in life, I was moved by how wholesome and mindful her list was. No grand trips abroad, nothing extreme. Included in the list were the following aspirations….I want to rescue more dogs, I wanted to be an old lady cutting the grass, I wanted to knit little hats for premature babies, I wanted to have a perfect garden tended by me, I wanted to bake with ALL of my grandchildren, I wanted to retire and do fun stuff with Kevin…..the list goes on. I beg you all to appreciate these seemingly small pleasures in life, tomorrow is not a promise, do the things you love.
In my letter from Mum, she expresses concern for me, ‘Katy, I love everything about you, I am so so proud of you. I worry for you too, that you are a perfectionist and you put a lot of pressure on yourself sweetheart.’ Having read this, I intend to work on it but for one last time, I intend to use that flaw fiercely for good and give you the send off you deserve. I will carry on rescuing dogs for you Ma, I will speak about you every day and I will tend to my garden with love (or lovingly watch Alex do it, you two always had that in common!). Mum, I love you to the moon and back, infinity.
Amongst Mum’s notes (and there were many) I also found this perfect piece of advice which read…..
“All I want is to relax with a glass of cold wine in a comfy chair in my immaculate garden with a really good book. Do this all you can. Enjoy every minute of your life. Don’t let anything stop you. Housework is for morons. Possessions are shite.”
On the day of the funeral Mum’s energy surrounded us all and lifted our spirits. We decorated the room with hundreds of hand chosen photographs for the wake and enjoyed a true celebration of her life and all she had given us. It is still the most enjoyable day I have had since her death. After the funeral, there is a real sense that you are entering a new chapter of grief. I know I will never be the same person I was before Mum died. I sometimes look at photos of myself, envious of that care free person I barely recognise, but deep down I know I have only grown, despite the suffering. Mum is with me in whatever I do because love is how we live on. Some days are dark but there is always light even after our darkest moments, hope beyond the tirelessly hopeless. Looking back at the last week we spent caring for Mum and each other, I’ve realised that in the face of what is happening there is a certain amount of freedom. You have to do what is in front of you and be within this particular frame of feeling, there is no choice in the heat of it, no greater commitment. You belong in that place fully. But afterwards, that’s when it really hurts, when you are no longer expected to be in a place of grief. The frame falls apart and you are left behind, broken. I am different now – I suppose in lots of ways I am a ‘better different’. Of course, I’m sometimes unimaginably sad but I try and respect that feeling and let it flow through me because it’s there for a reason and it is okay to feel sad. There is light and it will help you grow.