I remember the light coming in from the landing and Dad’s silhouette in the door frame. “You better come downstairs, I think she’s gone.” It was about 5am, I’m pretty sure it was still dark outside and as it was August, it might have been even earlier than that. It was difficult to tell if she was really dead, the more you looked, the more you imagined you could see her chest moving up and down. I must have checked her pulse 3 or 4 times. I remember going into autopilot. Ok, what do we need to do – prepare the body for the undertakers, take off her jewellery? I remember unclasping the necklace and feeling sweat on the back of her neck. She was hot, why didn’t I notice and put a fan on? I remember waiting until 7am clocked by and calling family. Being as matter of fact as I could be. Apologising for ringing so early with bad news. I remember meeting the undertaker and later the humanist. Picking out flowers, discussing music. Describing Mum in past tense. I remember it being dark. It was summer but their house felt so dark no matter how open the blinds were.
Two days later it was my sister’s wedding. I remember thinking about what Mum would have done for her on that special day. I went through Mum’s jewellery and picked out a silver locket with a picture of my Dad and my sister as a baby. I gave it to her, I fumbled some words about maybe she’d like to wear it. It felt so small. It’s your wedding day and your Mum just died but here’s a necklace. It was no consolation. I remember greeting guests with a big smile. I remember acting happy. I remember feeling tired.
I am a pretty decent actress. I had perfected “the brave face”. It’s my default. “How are you?” They’d ask. “Oh I’m fine.” I’d say without a second thought. I still do it now, 7 years on. I never really spoke to anyone about it. The same week as the death and the wedding my best friend moved to the Caribbean. I might have spoken to her if she’d been in the same country still, I might not have. 3 months later my uni friend passed away. It was a lot, too much. I went to counselling once but I talked about other things. 5 years later I did telephone counselling. Again, I talked about other things. It’s hard, she’s dead, what is there to say? I didn’t talk about the guilt I felt for not being there more. For taking her for granted, for not telling her how bloody amazing she was, truly inspirational in every way. I wish I had read to her in those final hours. I shouldn’t have gone to bed. The hearing is the last thing to go, I could have comforted her. She was sedated but was she scared, lonely?
I think these are all normal thoughts and feelings. My Mum was dying and I was only 26. I had experienced death many times but not like this. I was bound to fuck it up and that’s ok. I did my best. I made her laugh when I could, I kept things light. Maybe I didn’t express it but she knew I loved her. She was my Mum, she could tell by looking at my face how I was feeling. I was there for my Dad, I kept my shit together. I didn’t use it as an excuse to go off the rails. I was back in work the following week and I didn’t take any sickness. I felt like I was dying inside. Mornings were the hardest. Literally dragging myself out of bed, painting my face on and acting all day. It was exhausting. The first 18 months were relentless. But I did my best. And that’s all anyone can do when they’re grieving. I look back and I can’t believe I got through it. I don’t know how I did it and I can’t even find the words to describe how bad it was.
I had no choice but to get through it. Life goes on and we keep moving forward. It may feel like we’re wading through treacle but everything becomes more manageable. My only real regret is not talking about it. I think it would have helped. It wouldn’t have changed things, the outcome would still be the same, but it would have got it out. My tip to anyone in a similar situation is to talk and if you can’t talk, write it down. Even after all these years, writing this is therapeutic. And when someone asks you how you are its ok to say “Actually I’m struggling and things are shit”. It won’t magically un-shit things but it’ll help to have someone to listen to you and to give you a hug.
We spend too much time showing our best side. Applying all those filters to make us look like we’re having the best time. Maybe because we’re all optimists and we want to spread positivity, but I doubt that’s true. It’s because we live in a society where being honest about how bad things are is seen as being weak. Stiff upper lip and all that what ho! Bollocks. It takes so much more strength to admit what’s really going on. So remember that. You want to be brave, then be honest. Because we’re all in this together, to help survive the character building times.