Grief & Family Conflict – When death brings out the worst in us

Since losing my parents, I have talked a lot about how their death has brought out the best in so many situations, despite being the worst thing to ever happen to me. I have received support that I never expected, experienced acts of kindness beyond my comprehension, and grown as a person, hopefully for the better. However I have never really touched on how death can also bring out the worst in people and I think it’s an important subject to highlight, to show that it’s not uncommon, and does not have to reflect badly on us.

Death and grieving affect us all differently. For some people, death can be a painful experience which sends us into self protection mode and forces us to close off our hearts and emotions. For others, it is that pain which allows us to open our hearts to try and soak up as much that life has to offer, while we can.

It’s easy to believe that the death of a loved one would bring you closer to your remaining family, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that. Family feuds are very real and very common after a death. I consider myself lucky because my relationship with my sisters is possibly in a better place now than ever before but there was definitely a time when I wondered how we would get through it as a family once our anchor was gone.

Throughout the week that we knew Mum was dying, we were all crammed into her house, we were being told every day that she could go at any time so none of us were sleeping and tensions were high. I think at one point we were all arguing with each other simultaneously.

It’s strange how at a time when we needed each other the most, we all turned into the worst versions of ourselves. I look back and think how cross Mum must have been, laying there listening to us all bicker over nothing.

I remember when we were finally assigned a Marie Curie nurse. She came in and suddenly took over. She told us that we had to stop talking to Mum so much, that we had to give her space and let her go quietly and peacefully. She said that mum could hear everything that was going on, and it wasn’t fair. I was furious, who was this woman, coming into my house, telling us how to act around our mother. My mind was so clouded, that I couldn’t see that she was trying to help all of us. The atmosphere in that house must have been horrendous and she was just trying to calm us all down.

I stormed off to sob in my room. She followed me and lay down in the bed next to me and told me that she was also an adult orphan and that she knew how it felt to feel like you had completely lost control of a situation. She told me that she does the job she does, because she had once been in my shoes. We talked about family relationships, about the pressure that would follow after Mum had died, we talked about the role I would have to play as the eldest sibling in the country. She told me it wouldn’t  be easy, and that I would need to find support wherever I could. I felt like she was reading my mind, and there was a peace that came over me in knowing that she had survived what I was going through.

Her “pep talk” spurred me into organisational mode, I suddenly wanted to plan. I needed to know what was going to happen after Mum was gone. Of course, this sudden switch in behaviour essentially stepped on other people toes, and arguments about not planning before she was gone, and not discussing options until we had to, ensued.

And then Mum died. With no Will or Testament in place, Mum had no executor, so it was a free for all of ideas for what she would have wanted. None of us really knew, but having spent every day and every chemo session by her side for the last year, I felt justified in having my say. What I realise now is that as her daughters, we all had a say, and we should have been working as a team. If I could go back and rehash those conversations, I would do it all very differently.

I’m opening up about this because I want you to know that you are not a dreadful person if you said or reacted badly to a situation whilst you were grieving or about to lose a loved one. I also want people to know that there is light, if you’re in the midst of a feud, or if you’ve just lost your loved one and you’re arguing over funeral arrangements, expenses or belongings.

There are very real explanations for why we react in these ways and the one which resonates most with me is the biological impact of my loss. During times of emotional stress or trauma, our brain goes into recovery, or protection mode and the the area responsible for finding meaning, logic and self control can become overwhelmed in the midst of trying to make sense of the circumstances. Scientific studies of brain scans show that grief has a significant impact on both our emotional and physical processes and in situations where we may ordinarily react logically, instead our brain relies on impulse. With that said, is it any wonder that situations get out of hand and conflict occurs. Knowing this has allowed me to let go of a lot of guilt I’ve felt in the aftermath of my parents death.

As I said before, I am one of the lucky ones. The drama and stress died down relatively quickly in the months following and my tiny family circle is stronger than ever. I have also acquired family who aren’t related to me but have been by my side through it all. I know this isn’t the case for everyone, and unfortunately when it comes to grief, one shoe will never fit all.

My only advice is the same advice I give in most scenarios whilst grieving. Give yourself a break. Your brain is dealing with things in whatever way it can. Your body is doing the same. Take things slow, but also try to remember to communicate. Opening up and speaking about your feelings allows you to process them much more easily.

And while you’re being gentle with yourself, try to remember to be gentle with your family too. Grief and trauma make us do crazy things, so if your kind selfless brother has suddenly turned into a power-hungry maniac, try to remember that this is abnormal behaviour for him, and shouldn’t override the feelings you’ve held towards the brother you’ve known all your life.

Be patient, seek comfort and support wherever you can and know that you aren’t in this alone.

 

The mother-shaped hole in my heart

She was my best friend in the entire world.

I miss her everyday, but I’ve especially missed her today, on her day.

It’s been a long week. I got through dads anniversary but then was hit with International Women’s Day which I found tough, because my mum was my inspiration. She fought hard throughout her whole life, and made the best of every situation, so when I think of inspiring women, I think of her.

As the week draws to an end, Mother’s Day arrives and the realisation that, not only do I not have my mother around to celebrate, but I also don’t have my husband around to encourage the kids to make a fuss of me as a Mum myself.

The mother-shaped hole in my heart feels bigger than ever.

As a parentless parent, I drift between feeling like an orphaned child and an adult mother. I have been forced to grow into this role of parent and doing it without my own parents guidance has been hard.

It still shocks me that Mother’s Day is now mine. Instead of feeling like my special day, the run up has felt lonely and isolating.

A feeling common to so many today.

To those who have lost their mothers and would give anything to send one more card. To those who have lost a child and will never again receive flowers or gifts, to those who are struggling to conceive and are unsure whether this day will ever be theirs.

I’ve had time to prepare for this, but it still stings and so I just want to reach out to the lonely on Mother’s Day, please know that you are not alone. Please know that I am thinking of you and that I recognise your pain.

Please know that I am here for you.

My only advice; just be kind to yourself and allow yourself the space and time you need. Of all days, today is one where you deserve to ask for some time to yourself, to think about your loved one. To cry, to talk about them, to get angry.

It’s not easy, and it’s okay that you’re struggling. You don’t have to be okay today. Today is just one day, and tomorrow it will be over. The pain wont go but the sting will lessen.

Today I will be sad, but I will also celebrate the gifts that my mother left me. My strength, my resilience, my taste in food, in music. I will love my children even harder, remembering her love for them. I will eat food she would enjoy, I’ll listen to music she would love and I will remember that no matter where i go and no matter who I am with, a part of her will always live within me, and within my children and that is my way of keeping her alive.

Hug your mamas and your children tight, always. Having that ability makes you the luckiest people on earth.

I’m Coming Home..

After a year and a half in Dubai, we’ve decided the time is right for me to move home with the kids. Dubai has so much going for it but for me it was always just a stepping stone. It gave me the break I needed from Belfast, or from “life” in general. I needed to get away and distance myself from everything that had happened and it worked.

There are so many sides to Dubai. It is absolutely not what you see in the news and I cannot emphasise enough; the level of sensationalism that the media use against the Middle East. I have already been asked if, “I was allowed to drive out there” and if “I was terrified of being arrested for not covering my shoulders.” ?

It is also not always like what you see on Instagram and Snapchat.

It is the most diverse place I’ve ever experienced in my life and it has opened my eyes to just how privileged I am to live the life that I was born into. Not everyone is that lucky. So many of the people I met out there have humbled me, and I chose to spend my time in Dubai with the people that would help heal my heart, and not to live the life of glitz and glam.

With every big life change, there are struggles. Whilst the twins and I are moving so much closer to family and friends, it makes sense for Alex to stay in Dubai for now. People keep asking me how I’ll cope being on my own with the kids. I’m not going to lie, my anxiety has been through the roof for the last few weeks. Its definitely not going to be easy, but it’s the sensible decision, and I’ve survived a lot worse.

I always find that question about “coping” so strange. Do we choose to cope? I don’t think so? When you don’t have a choice, coping is your only option. For a long time I didn’t think I was coping. I didn’t think that I was a strong person because I was struggling to deal with my grief. I thought my experiences had made me weak. I felt that my heart was too broken to recover and that I would never be able to be “normal” again.

But the thing is, the further into this journey I go, the more I have come to realise that nearly all of us have a story. Somewhere along the line, we all experience something life changing or heart breaking and so in some ways, we are all “coping.”

I heard a quote recently that said “only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

I have realised now that being broken does not make you weak. It’s the broken who have been through hell and survived, who recognise the fragility of life, who love with all their heart because they recognise  its importance and who harness their despair and turn it into purpose. When we have been truly broken down, what’s left is the most authentic version of ourselves. It gives us an opportunity to rebuild ourselves in whichever way we choose and this is something that I have been working on a lot recently… then last week something pretty exciting happened.

It was one of those days where you just realise that everything eventually falls into place if you just give it time. As most of you know, Mum died of Oesophageal Cancer. After she died, I discovered a charity in Northern Ireland called OPANI (Oesophageal Patients Association – Northern Ireland) who focus on providing support for oesophageal cancer patients and I did some volunteering work with them. Together we raised awareness of the symptoms of oesophageal cancer, which is a big thing for me, as Mum was misdiagnosed for so long. Working with them sparked a fire in me that I hadn’t felt for a while. They were such a small charity, but I knew that they were making a difference and I had the opportunity to continue helping others even after Mum was gone. I was so sad to have to leave it behind to go to Dubai, but I really did need a break from all things cancer related, which had consumed my life for the last couple of years. Whilst I was away the charity received some media publicity and organised some big fundraisers. It was SO good to finally see oesophageal cancer getting airtime.

OPANI work closely with the research teams at Queens University and last week, whilst I was still deliberating as to whether I return to Dubai or not, Helen, the chairwoman, reached out to me and asked if I’d like to go catch up in their new office in the Centre for Cancer Research & Cell Biology.. obviously I did, and long story short, I’m now back on the team and I’m so excited for what the future holds.

I’m sure I’ll be inundating you all with the work we do over the next few months, but for now I’d be so grateful if you’d follow our facebook and website updates! There are some big things coming up that I am so excited to be a part of.

And so that’s pretty much where I’m at. I’m back in Belfast and can not wait to catch up with everyone. I’m still settling in and am probably a fairly rubbish friend, wife, sister and daughter in law at the moment, but I’m getting there and I know that once we’ve come to grips with this new chapter in our lives, it’s going to be a really really good one.

Cara x

A Letter to My Mum – 2 years gone, today.

Dear Mum,

I wonder if you are still here. After you died I felt your presence so strongly, every decision I made, I felt like I had talked it through with you. Recently I’ve felt more distant.

We’ve been in Dubai nearly a year, and I think the geographical distance has enhanced the psychological distance. Moving here was my way of removing myself from the heat ache I felt in our hometown. Everything reminded me of you and it hurt. I thought dubai was a happy medium, you lived here once and when I first arrived, I enjoyed seeking out the streets you lived in, or researching the landmarks that still exist that you would have visited. The sad thing is though, nothing in Dubai reminds me of you, and I’m starting to realise how those memories and those aches kept us connected.

You more than anyone know what I’m like. Distraction is key. I’ve always kept myself so busy and I still don’t know how to stop. You would recognise when I was burning out and you would have this unbelievable way of telling me everything was going to work out just fine, and I would believe you, and suddenly I could breathe again. Over here, the calmness of it all and the fact that I’m away from all my familiarity has meant that I’ve become more aware of the gaping hole that you left behind.

The strange thing I’ve found about grief is that when you’re in the depths of it, when you’re completely immersed in the dreadfulness of the situation, at least your mind is occupied. 2 years on, and yes I’m living with it, but the dull empty ache is even more apparent and continues to grow.

2 years, everyone told me, is how long it takes for you to start feeling like you can move on. I get what they mean, yes, my days are more normal, I don’t cry as much and I can go to work and get through most of my day without wanting to run home to hide in my bed. But the overall feeling that I get from reaching the 2 year mark is sadness. How has it been 2 years since I last saw you.

2 years on and I still need your advice. Alex’s contract is up soon, so what’s next? Should we extend and stay another year? Should we seek out a new adventure? Should we head home, and be with family and friends?

We have so many big decisions coming up and I’m entirely overwhelmed with our options. I like to think that you’re reading my mind as I write this and you’re going to send me signs. I’ll be watching out for them.

2 years mum. I miss you. The kids miss you. Scarlett’s still asking for new nanny Kim shoes. Leo has come on so much. You’d be so proud of him, he’s the easy kid now! Scarlett’s a proper little diva, you’d know exactly how to deal with her but I haven’t a clue so we’re just riding this phase out.

Writing to you has made me feel that closeness to you that I haven’t felt in a while. Maybe I should do it more often. You would be cringing and telling me to get on with my life, but without you as my driving force, it’s not that easy.

I love you. Keep in touch,somehow. Give dad a hug from us all.

Cara xx

Mental Health Matters – Living with Anxiety after Grief

Since my last post I’ve had a few worried friends message to ask If I’m okay because I said I was “going through a few things.” It’s mental health awareness week, and so I thought it was about time I responded.

The truth is, I struggled to respond to the “how are you?” and “what’s going on” questions. Whilst so well intended and so genuinely appreciated, when your problem is mental, and not physical, it’s much harder to describe. How much easier is it to say “ah, I haven’t been blogging because I’ve broken my arm” or “Sorry I’ve disappeared, I’ve had the flu” and yet, from someone who has had both of these things.. when my mental well-being has taken a battering, I struggle so much more with daily life than when my limbs are broken or I’m down with a virus.

I always wonder what an adequate response is to these questions.

“Are you okay?”

“Em.. no”

“What’s up?”

“Well both my parents are dead and I’m really sad about it”

“Ah, I’m so sorry.”

As someone who cares a lot about how others feel, I don’t want to make anyone feel awkward, or sad, so instead my conversations usually go:

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, getting there! How are you?”

So, when I said I was “going through a few things” what I really meant was my brain was completely overwhelmed and I was feeling… for lack of a better word.. crap. Nothing major has happened, I’ve just been struggling.. but I finally feel my head is back above water and I can start writing, responding and participating in the multiple missed whatsapp messages and chats again (sorry!).

Losing my parents has done many things to me. It has made me stronger, made me more resilient, perhaps even made me a better parent, because I treasure every minute.. however.. the level of anxiety it left me with is something I didn’t quite expect. The past few weeks my anxiety has been heightened. Sometimes something sets me off.. like big crowds or an impending social occasion. Other times I just wake up and know it’ll be “one of those days.” Living with grief sometimes feels like living on a tightrope. Each day could go either way and it’s very difficult to preempt which way I’m going to fall. On the bad days, nothing changes. I wake up and go to work or get on with my daily routine. As a grown adult with two little people depending on me, I have no choice but to get through the day. The people I come across will have no idea I’m having a bad day because I’ve learnt to cover it up but inside, my head is full of anxieties and fears.

Some days my anxieties are ridiculous, and I know it, but it doesn’t make them any less real. I worry about the ironing pile that’s waiting for me at home, or panic that I’ve left the oven on. I’ll get a headache and panic that I’m dying or I’ll wake in the night and have to go and check my children are still breathing. Strangely, my biggest anxiety attacks often come after having a “good day.” I know in my heart of hearts that my parents would never ever want me to be miserable and yet I often find that I scold myself if I’ve had a happy day, or I’ve not cried for a few days. The guilt I feel that I’m somehow able to “live happily” without my parents is something I’m struggling to deal with.

I have a few big recurring fears that my anxiety likes to prey on. One is fear of my own mortality. I am absolutely terrified that my children will have to go through what I have gone through. As a parent you do everything you can to protect your child, yet death is something I cannot protect them from. One day they will have to experience loss, and the thought makes me feel physically sick. I worry how they’d cope without me. I worry about my husband and how he’d cope on his own. My heart aches every time someone comes to visit because I know my children will have to say goodbye to them at the end of their stay. I really struggle to find the right line between over protecting them and allowing them to grow into strong resilient little people.

Another fear I worry about every day is that I am losing the memories I have of my parents. I am so afraid I will forget the way mum smelt, or the way dad laughed. I can feel my memories are fading as my brain creates new ones. I find the harder I try to focus on finding memories, the less I remember.

Which leads me to my ultimate fear…that I won’t be able to sufficiently portray how much my mum adored my children. They brought so much joy to her and I don’t know how to explain it well enough to them. How can I adequately describe the desperation when she wasn’t allowed in the ICU to see them on the day they were born. The adoration on her face the first time she ever held them. The fact she couldn’t go shopping without coming home with new clothes for them. Her excitement when she won baby bundles on eBay. All the times she cuddled them, took them out on day trips, made them giggle uncontrollably. Or the times when I was tearing my hair out because their dinner was all over the walls/ceiling and she would just laugh and plonk them in the kitchen sink for a bath.

I am so afraid that I won’t do her justice. The worlds most besotted grandmother and they won’t even remember her.

I talk about “Nanny Kim and Grampi” all the time. They still remember them at this stage and recognise photos and videos but I know that eventually their memories will be manufactured by stories I’ve told them rather than their own memories.

Before she died, one of the only times I saw mum cry, was when she said “how will they remember me?” It was one of the only times that she showed her weakness. We talked so positively until the very end, but she knew they would forget her and when she said it, we both just broke down and cried together.

S & L’s minds are so innocent and pure at this stage. I struggle to explain death to them. One day they both decided that Nanny Kim and Grampi live on the moon, and that’s something we’ve gone with. Now when we see the moon they blow kisses and wave. Their innocence won’t last long but for now it makes things easier.. most of the time.

On my way to my “motherless daughters” grief group the other day, my daughter had this conversation with me.

S – Where you going mummy?

Me – I’m going out to talk to my friends about nanny Kim.

S – Nanny Kim.. cool.. can you ask her to buy me some new shoes.. these don’t fit anymore (shows me shoes mum bought her)

Me – I wish nanny Kim could buy you some new shoes but she’s a bit far away.

S – Aren’t you going to the moon mummy?

Me – No baby

S – Can’t you put on your wings and fly to the moon and get my new shoes from nanny Kim mummy?

My heart broke and smiled all at once. If only it was that easy.

If you’ve lost your mum or dad, I’d love to hear how you keep them alive in your children’s memories. Do you struggle to do them justice too? Do you have photos around your house or routines that help them remember and recognise their grandparents importance?

I’ve never really opened up about my fears and anxiety to anyone other than my closest friends and family, so this is quite a big thing for me. It is so important to understand and recognise that our mental health and well being is as important, if not more so, than our physical health.

As I’ve said before, talking openly about our grief and how it affects us both mentally and physically will help remove the stigma and will help make life so much more bearable for those who are suffering.

Our mental health matters.

Approaching Mother’s Day as a Motherless Mother

Most of you know, I have twins, Scarlett and Leo. They’re 3 now. They were 1 when my mum died and they absolutely completely and utterly adored her. Scarlett especially had a real connection with her. When mum came home from her final hospital stay, Scarlett was waiting for her as they brought her out of the ambulance. The second she saw my mum she burst into this hysterical fit of laughter and sobs because she had missed her so much. In turn, the paramedic burst into tears because she said she’d never seen a child so overwhelmed with love. Looking back, I think she probably knew mum was nearing the end and her heart broke for my baby girl knowing she was going to lose her. For months after mum died, she stood at our window waiting for her car to pull up and any time one did she’d shout “nana, nana” until eventually she gave up.

I hadn’t planned on having children when I did. I was 23 and to be honest, until the day they were born, the thought of having children utterly terrified me. There are still days that I look around and wonder who on earth let me leave a hospital with 2 children. It still feels so strange that I have two little people who rely on me as much as I relied on my mum and yet if it wasn’t for them, I truly don’t know if I could say that I would be still here. You see, kids have this funny way of needing you to keep them alive, 24/7. They wake me up every morning by clambering on my head and demanding food, or Peppa Pig and so, because of them, I rarely wake up with that sudden dread of realisation anymore.

My daughter is sick at the moment, and it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing her. There is nothing I want more than to call my mum and ask her what I’m supposed to be doing. When you’re sick there’s no one you want more than your mum and when your babies are sick it’s no different. I’ve walked this parenting path without her for nearly 2 years now, and I can’t even describe how hard it is. I want to tell her how grateful I am for raising me, for struggling through parenthood. I want to apologise for all the times I was a whiney toddler or bitchy teenager. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that I’ve lost the woman that changed my nappies, bandaged my cuts and kissed my bruises. The woman that taught me how to ride a bike, helped me with my homework and threw birthday parties every year. The woman who encouraged me to go to university, held me when I thought my heart was broken, and laughed rather than judged when I fell through the door after messy nights out. She raised me through every milestone and I always presumed she’d tell me how to do the same with my children.

Being a mother is hard. My children give me an overriding purpose, but on a day to day basis I spend most of my time feeling like I might just lose my mind. A few days ago my daughter was shouting at me, probably because I cut her food up the wrong way, or I held the wrong hand, or I gave her the pink cup instead of the yellow one. She usually shouts and stomps and then gives up and runs off smiling, but this time she looked me dead in the eye and said “I don’t like you mummy, I like daddy.” I remember my mum telling me this would happen. I am so unbelievably grateful that I still had my mum when my children were born. I can’t imagine how it would feel to have had my children without her there. Some of the things I remember her saying are “just you wait until the first time you see your child look at you and their lip quivers and you realise that in that moment, you’ve devastated your child’s world, or “you think you’re doing okay and suddenly your child tells you they don’t love you” or “you go to hold your child’s hand and they shrug you off in horror and tell you that you’re embarrassing.” And so, when my daughter told me she didn’t like me, I remembered my mum. I remembered that I probably told her I didn’t like her a hundred times growing up, and my heart felt sad because I know how far from the truth that is.

My kids come first. They will always come first and as selfish as it is, the realisation that I no longer have someone who puts me first, hurts, because not only have I lost my parents love, but once you have children, your own needs get put on the backburner. I miss the days when I was allowed to feel ill and not have to get up and make breakfast 3 times until I’ve gotten their porridge the “right way.” Or the days when I’d get ready for work and leave in 30 mins, rather than getting up 2 hours in advance. So parenting without parents is weird, because as much as losing my parents put things into perspective for me and made me recognise how much I need my children, and how grateful I am to them, there are still days when I feel so resentful that I don’t have my own mum to do all these things for me anymore.

It’s Mother’s day in the UAE tomorrow, and my inbox and timeline have been flooded with advertisements for gifts and spa days. My heart plummet’s every time I see them because I would give anything to spoil my mum one last time. I usually spend mother’s day feeling miserable and sad, but I know my mum would never want that. So, this year, I’ve decided I’m going to try and put myself first a little and let myself enjoy mother’s day as a mother, because mothering is hard, and mothering without a mother is even harder.

So if you’re reading this as a mother, a motherless mother or a motherless daughter, I urge you to do the same. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to come up for air every now and again. If you’re lucky enough to still have your mother’s, then I urge you to spoil them, not necessarily with gifts or spa breaks… but with your love and appreciation, because not many have worked harder, and sacrificed more, than her.

To My Mother On International Woman’s Day

On International Women’s Day I feel it’s only right to pay tribute to the strongest woman I have ever known. Someone who never had it easy and yet loved her life until her very last breath. An incredible mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and friend. This is a woman who had her first child at 18 years old, with a man so cowardly that he ran away and left her and her unborn child with nothing. She made the decision to never chase him or demand anything from him, because she knew my sister was better off without him, and she knew she could do it better alone.

She worked tirelessly in every aspect of her life and gave her all. Her work ethic was like no other. She dedicated her life to working with children, and each of them meant so much to her.

Despite working every God-given hour to ensure she could provide for us all, she still managed to raise four strong, independent women alongside helping other people raise their children. She was there for each and every one of them, as much as she was there for her own.

There are not many people who could have children in their home from the first thing in the morning until the last thing in the evening and still find time to run after their girls, and take care of their sick husband. I watched her persevere over and over again, not once allowing the many trials and tribulations she faced to ever get in the way. I can count on one hand the amount of times I heard her complain or moan because nothing was ever too much for her. Whatever any of us asked for, she gave and whatever we needed, she provided.

I don’t know where she found time to eat, sleep or rest, in fact, I don’t think she did. Until she got sick, I did not realise that I had taken her for granted. She gave us her all, and left nothing for herself. She was always my best friend and biggest ally, and I knew I was lucky to be so close to her, but never did I realise just how much I owed to her. Growing up we believe our mothers to be invincible and it’s not until that belief is questioned that we come to terms with how vital they are to our lives.

I owe so much of my strength, resilience and heart to my mother. Her unwavering tenacity in paving a better life and a brighter future for her children did not go unrecognised.

She was the glue that held the family through difficult times, our voice of reason, our closest friend, and the one person we knew we could trust implicitly.

So on this day, March 8th, or International Women’s Day, I’d like to say to the women who question themselves every day and wonder if they’re doing enough – you are. My mother was not an academic, she didn’t have loads of money and she didn’t have all the answers, but she was everything, and more, than I could ever have wished for. One day, hopefully in the very distant future, someone will be paying tribute to you for making them who they are today.

I can only dream to grow into half the woman she was and so, on this day, I honour my mother. Let’s take a leaf out of her book and recognise how lucky we are. To my fellow women, let’s be kind to ourselves, and kind to each other. We are all someone’s daughter, mother or sister, and we are all enough.

 

 

One Year On..

One year ago today, I was told my dad was gone. It was almost 6 months to the day after I lost mum. This means I have somehow gone 365 days without hearing his voice, without receiving his daily voicemails that used to drive me mad, 365 days without seeing him take off down the street when his Parkinson’s meant his legs couldn’t keep up with his body, 365 days since I saw him sobbing uncontrollably as he tried to come to terms with a life without his wife.  I have had 365 days to learn how to live without my parents. Some days it doesn’t feel like living, but I know it is.  This time last year, I was sat shaking uncontrollably not quite believing the level of devastation that had torn through my life in such a brief amount of time. One year on, the thing that hits me every day is that, I survived.

Most people think it’s the anniversaries that are the hardest to deal with. I have managed all the “firsts” and have had the messages of sorrow roll in from people, on birthdays, holidays, special occasions. These days are hard, of course they hurt, but they are the ones I’ve seen coming, the times that I’ve had opportunity to prepare for.  On mum’s one-year anniversary there was one thing I kept hearing – “at least you’re past the worst now.” When I hear those words it’s like an unintentional punch to my gut because, for me, I will never be past the worst. The hardest moments are the ones we don’t see or can’t expect, the moments when tears just appear, or a flash memory leaves me shaking and nauseous. Yes, the fog of sheer devastation has cleared slightly but what I really wish people understood is that grief isn’t staged, it doesn’t pass with time. We don’t get over it, we just learn to manage it. This is the thing that’s been hard for me. It’s like everyone saves up their sympathy for the “big” days, so when you suddenly break down out of nowhere, you’ve not given them time to prepare their response. I find that my random sad days often result in people telling me I should consider medication or anti-depressants, as if to say I shouldn’t be breaking down anymore. Yet for me, I’ve accepted these sad days. These moments are part of my life now, and I expect to incorporate them into my future. I don’t want medication to stop them. I don’t want to numb them out forever. Don’t get me wrong.. I know with time they may get fewer and further between, but I will never not mourn my parents. There is no cure for grief, it’s a way of life.

I have always been an emotional person. I feel things strongly, I attach easily and I have always cared deeply. This is something I grew up ashamed of having frequently been told to “not take things to heart” or “stop being so emotional.” As humans we get to feel joy, jealousy, love, shame, happiness, embarrassment, sadness, anger, frustration.   Except, after my parents died, I realised that there are days when, despite all the dips and spins of life, I feel nothing.  I often take a step back and look around and see people laughing, screaming, and enjoying life, and I long for my previous life. This feeling of nothingness isn’t a constant, it comes and goes. Some days I’ll be laughing and finding joy in my children, and others I’ll struggle to find anything worth getting up for.

I put these feelings down to the trauma I have survived, and believe it is my bodies way of protecting me. Somedays I just can’t afford for my heart to hurt. It feels truly awful to feel nothing, and I am lucky that I don’t live with this on a daily basis.  Despite everyone saying that we “expect” our parents to die one day, it never feels natural. I didn’t class myself as an adult until after my parents died. Life loses a lot of meaning when you realise that you’ve lost your two main constants.

One way I deal with this is by trying to find more meaning in life by forcing myself to feel. I force myself to walk along the beach regularly and I stare at the horizon wondering how many other people are starring back from somewhere. I have started reading about astronomy because it helps me take in the fact that we are such a small piece of a huge picture. In order to survive my grief I knew I had to leave Belfast. Every day was a constant reminder of what I’d lost. My mum was a big member of our community and I’d see her friends everywhere I went. I’d see her car drive past and my heart would jump for a second before I remembered. My dad was a musician, so I’d be in Tesco and suddenly a song he used to play over and over would come on and I’d burst into tears. I thought leaving Belfast would help and to some extent it has. Being abroad puts a distance between me and my grief in some ways. Some days, it feels like I’m just… living away from home. My parents are back home and I’m just … away. Other days, the reality that I’m in entirely foreign land, with no support network, is a lot harder.

In this past year, I have come to realise that grief leaves an unfillable hole within you. I thought leaving Belfast would help fill that hole with other exciting opportunities. Grief leaves you with this overwhelming desire to find happiness so I spent the past year trying to seek change in new opportunities, however that hole is still there, and I’ve come to realise that it always will be. This was an important realisation for me, because it has forced me to find comfort in the present. In the people around me, and in my current circumstances. No amount of distance, change or excitement can fill that hole, so it’s important, for people grieving, to take that deep breath, and trust that you will eventually learn to live again.

Meeting and befriending people who understand my grief has become a huge part of my journey. These people get it, they understand how grief has changed us to the point that we will never again be the people we once were. These people have become one of my greatest comforts because they know my pain without trying to understand it. Unfortunately, there is a horrible peace in knowing you’re not alone.

That is why this blog exists. I truly hope that if you are a member of this morbid “club” that you know you are not alone. One year on, I want to say to anyone currently grieving — even if right now it feels unrelenting, overwhelming and all-consuming— I promise that you will survive, in your own way, too.

They’re still my Parents..

I’ve come to realise that death isn’t generally a welcomed topic of conversation in our society. Most consider it inappropriate or awkward and go out of their way to avoid eye contact, hush their voices or randomly apologise. Others avoid it entirely, almost as if it is less likely to happen to them if they just don’t bring it up. Like it’s taboo, don’t mention it or you’ll jinx yourself, or you’ll upset us, or you think once we start talking about it that we’ll suck you into our dark cloud of doom and gloom. It is completely and utterly abnormal to society, and yet death is the one absolute certainty in life.

I want to be clear that on the whole I’ve found people have good intentions, so if you find yourself thinking “oh god, I’ve said/done this” then please don’t over think it. For me this is entirely a societal flaw and not a personal one.

I talk about my parents all the time. I bring them up in conversation and relate things to them. I celebrate their birthdays, I buy their favourite flowers and cook their favourite meals. I do it because they are as much a part of my life now, as they were before. I don’t do it for sympathy. If I say “oh my mum loved those too” or “dad would do that” I’m not asking you to look at me with those sad sympathetic eyes. I certainly don’t want to hear “oh I’m so sorry” and for the conversation to abruptly end or change direction. We talk about them not because we’re sad or longing in that moment, we just want them to be a part of our daily conversations and routines. Sometimes I just want to talk about them within every day life..because they were, and still are, my “normal.”

For me, they’re still my parents. They might not physically be here right now, but their essence, their advice, their impact, will always live within me, so there will never be a time when talking about them isn’t normal. Death cannot take that away from me.

I think people panic that they’re going to make me cry, or upset me or that by mentioning them, memories will flood back to me. Trust me when I say that those memories haven’t ever left me. You aren’t reminding me of what I’ve lost, because I haven’t forgotten. By asking about them, or indulging me in two minutes of conversation, you are showing me that they still matter, that they’re still an important part of my life and my conversations. I’ll appreciate that you haven’t presumed that I’ve past that “initial phase” and must have moved on by now. Showing me that you know they’re still a part of me will bring me so much more happiness than avoiding the topic or changing the subject. Yes, there are days when just hearing their name will bring tears to my eyes and the impact of my loss hits at the wrong time. I know there are definitely others out there experiencing loss who can’t talk about it yet, maybe it’s too early or too raw, that’s okay, but at least sound it out with us. You’ll soon know where our emotional stability is at that time and we’ll appreciate you trying.

I’ve unsuccessfully tried to explain this before but I’m going to keep trying and hope it makes more sense on paper. If you were to die tomorrow, would you want to be spoken about under hushed tones and awkward silences. Would you want the world to try and blot you out of conversation as if to say “if you don’t bring it up it didn’t happen.” Or do you want people to talk about you? To keep your name alive? Surely you want people to smile when you come up in conversation, not grimace or shut down.

As a society we associate death with the elderly and we live our lives with the assumption that we have time to do all the things we want to do. We allow ourselves to procrastinate and avoid doing things because the idea that we might not have time is just too morbid to accept. This is partly to blame for the topic of death and grief being so widely avoided. By living that way, we’re essentially saying that it won’t happen to us, or at least not any time soon. Unfortunately one day you won’t be here, and unless you’ve talked about it, then it’ll be your name people are hushing under the carpet. I want to take the morbidness out of death, and live with the appreciation that life is fragile. Celebrate the people we’ve lost so that when your time comes, your loved ones will do the same. Make it normal, talk about them, talk about life, about death, and about life after death if that is something you find comfort in. For me right now, life after death is about the people left behind, the people who have to live with it. We’re all just trying to find ways to make it more bearable and this is how you’ll do it for me. Talk about them, smile about them, post their pictures, share your memories. They still exist..it’s just…different, now.

We Planned for Life..

Mum’s deterioration was so sudden that we didn’t have a palliative care team organised for her. We were in hospital when the doctor told us things weren’t looking good but we were told to go home, and come back on Monday to try radiotherapy. Mum was tired and sick, but we got her home. She’d been in hospital for a while so while she was there I had rearranged her house. I’d gotten rid of things that suddenly lacked any importance and I’d organised and tidied everything. I remember feeling excited to show her because mums house was always a bit disorganised and she always said she wanted to sort it all out. I had a plan, I wanted her to feel peace in her home so we could tackle the “big road ahead.”

We didn’t talk about death. We didn’t plan for death. We planned for life, we planned the future. When she got home, I’d moved her bed downstairs and made her a cosy bedroom. On that first night back in her house, I gave her a buzzer which I told her to press if she needed anything throughout the night and I went home leaving her with my sisters who still lived at home. I had plans for the next day so I got back early, and was met with sadness as soon as I walked through the door. My sister told me mum had woken up calling my name in the night. My heart broke at the thought of her needing me and me not being there. I decided I was going to stay with her until she settled into a routine (or so I thought.) I went to the shop and spent a fortune on things I knew she’d love around the house. I’m explaining this because these mundane things show how completely clueless I was as to how my life was about to change irrevocably. I got back and found a woman I’d never seen before in mum’s house. I walked through the door smiling but that soon stopped when I saw the look on her face. She was looking at me with a look that I’ve seen so many times since.. a look of sadness, of sympathy, of awkwardness. She was the hospice nurse. I couldn’t understand why she was there when we’d just gotten home, but we sat down to talk. She told us that she saw death every day and that it was her job to measure how actively people were dying. It was the first time anyone had talked about death. She told us mum was close.

How could she be talking like this, about the most important person in my life, with such ease. I wanted to tell her that mum wasn’t like all those other people but I suddenly felt so small, so stupid. I had been in charge until this point. I’d guided mum through various options, been by her side at every appointment, researched and read every book under the sun that could help us.. and in that moment, all control was taken from me. She told us that mum had hours, maybe days at best and she said we needed to start preparing our goodbyes, fast. She had this look of complete disbelief that we didn’t have anything prepared. It was a job to her, but how could I suddenly say goodbye to someone who I’d been making life plans with and discussing future holiday options with, an hour earlier?! The ache in my heart as she said it is an ache that hasn’t left me since and I’m not sure it ever will.  I understand entirely the word heartbreak because that’s exactly what it is. My heart has broken multiple times over the past couple of years and each time the ache left behind feels slightly different, slightly worse. The hospice nurse said her goodbyes and left us to ours. I breathed in and walked into mum’s room. I planned on talking to her about it all, I planned on telling her that it was okay if she didn’t want to fight anymore. Instead I walked into that room and tears tore down my face. Mum looked at me confused and asked what was wrong and all I could manage was “I’m just so sad..” she squeezed my hand and said “me too.”

I don’t know why, but I never managed to talk to her about it.  We talked about everything but death. I thought I was being strong for her, talking about life, the future, the past, but never death. But since she died I’ve realised I was being the opposite of strong. I was scared, too scared to face the reality and too scared to break her heart. Although I believe now that she knew what was happening, at that time I just couldn’t bring myself to tell my mother “you’re going to die.”

As I write this I keep thinking “why am I writing all this” and truthfully, it’s because I need to. I find myself telling everyone about my mum and dad. The parents in my work, new people I meet, the delivery guy.. and I watch their awkward responses, but for me, it’s showing who I am now. It’s almost like my introduction. Those days changed me as a person and I want people to know how and why I am the way I am.

Whilst there are many aspects of myself that I wish I could go back to, and many things I wish I could change, the only positive that I can take from my loss is the realisation that your heart cannot break if it is not full. Whilst it is so cruel that those who love the most, hurt the most, the fact that I have loved and been loved is something that many people don’t get to experience. I am so grateful for the time I had with my family and I am so lucky to have had a mum who was not only my mother but my best friend and biggest ally. It has reminded me to openly tell people how much I love them in the moment. I take risks now that I maybe wouldn’t have taken before, I push myself out of my comfort zones because it allows me to feel new emotions, and I try to live as fully as possible. Some days I fail, but at least I’m trying. This is something I wish was common knowledge because it isn’t something that should be discovered after death. I’m not saying we all need to live in an idealistic world where we never take anyone for granted and sing love songs to each other all day long, but I’m saying, make sure the people you love, know it, deep down. Arguments and fall outs happen with the people we love, but in those final moments, they are forgotten and what matters is that you know that your loved one died.. knowing they were loved. In the end, it’s not about money, social ties, followers or weightloss… it’s about relationships and I honestly believe that being loved and showing love are the single most important counterparts in leading a fulfilling life.  Trust me when I say that you will survive anything if your roots are grounded and your heart is strong.