This is about loss. Right now, with a third of the world’s population in some form of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a sense of loss might be something many of us are feeling. I know I have. It should also be said that I am no expert, this is just my experience of grief, as the result of bereavement. I hope that sharing it might be helpful.
My mum died just before Christmas 2018, unexpectedly soon following a cancer diagnosis earlier in the year. From the age of 10 I had been raised single-handedly by my mum. We were incredibly close as a family unit (my mum, sister, brother and I). The reality of the scale of loss didn’t sink in quickly. Reflecting back I think my first strategy for coping with loss was distraction.
Mum loved Christmas, and we wanted to honour her by going ahead and celebrating Christmas the way she would have done. It involved church services, feasting and presents. Her birthday also fell between Christmas and New Year, and she always had a big house party then. So we went ahead and threw her one anyway. Whilst celebrating Christmas and New Year we were also having to make sense of the administration involved in death. We had to plan her funeral. We were surrounded by the kindness of friends and strangers. One of the things that was really hard though were the people trying to offer messages of support and kindness, but without really understanding what the experience of losing a parent is like. Worse still were the people telling me how I would feel – in the short- or long-term future.
” I really must tell Mum…”
One message though, which has stayed with me, and was offered with the genuine warmth and sympathy of experience. It came from the Funeral Director, who had also lost their parent at a young age. “The moments in your life, that you want to tell your mother about, won’t go away. You’ll catch yourself thinking ‘I really must tell mum about this’ before realising that you can’t.”
My distraction technique continued: alongside having to pack up and sell our old family home I continued with my Masters degree in London. Then there was the rapidly accelerating career in porn. Then there was the feeling of anger around doing my Masters degree: I wasn’t thriving. My tutors and I discussed deferring but I wanted desperately to continue. I had a couple of months of sessions seeing a counsellor at the university. However the loss of mum seemed to get in the way on my ability to focus on my Masters degree, and I wasn’t succeeding in the way I had imagined going back to university might feel like. Reflecting back, I see it the other way: my Masters degree gave me a framework to hold my grief. It gave me a path forwards, without the pressures one feels from a job.
The Dead Mums Club
Spring came, and I remember looking at the blossom in the trees. I was thinking how this felt like the first year that signs of new life wouldn’t be shared with mum. But the blossom was still beautiful, the world was still full of beauty, kind-hearts, and adventure. I came to realise that I was not alone. It seemed somehow that I increasingly met people who had also lost their mothers prematurely. And it felt so good to talk to other people who understood exactly what it felt like! We joked about being in the “Dead Mum’s Club”. Finding people who understood was such an important part of coming to terms with my loss.
The hardest part of my grief-process came when my distractions came to an end. When I was sat at home on my own trying to work. I didn’t notice it at first, but in the solitude my loss rose up around me, slowly, like the tide coming in, until I didn’t realise it and the water was up to my neck and I was starting to drown. The problem of relying on distraction was that it wasn’t really helping me process anything. It was just putting off the inevitable wave of grief as mum’s absence became unavoidable. Shortly afterwards my boyfriend broke up with me, and this double loss became almost too much to bear. Until this point my boyfriend had been supporting me magnificently through my grief process; and in all previous. With break ups my mum had always been the person I turned to for comfort.
“Engaging with my loss”
I think I possibly had or came close to a total mental breakdown at this point. I shared a lot on social media (maybe too much). However, to be open and vocal about my experience did help me to process it rather than bottle it up. One of the positives that came out of that was finding a therapist (recommended by three of my Instagram followers). I began embarking on a journey of properly engaging with my loss, my emotions, and my experiences. Seeing a therapist is something I can’t recommend highly enough. I regret that I waited until things got really bad before I did this. Now I see my therapist once a week (now via Skype). It gives a focus to all of my thoughts and worries rather than them spinning around my head all week long.
In the end I did defer my Masters degree (I am due to go back in the summer to finish my dissertation). It was a tough choice, but the right one for me. I needed to prioritise my mental health, and allow myself to really feel and experience these emotions. Emotions that I had been putting off for the best part of the year. I had booked a holiday to New York for when my Masters had finished. Both my sister and brother had gone on extensive travel earlier in the year, and I had felt very jealous. I was yearning for the chance to escape from the feelings of loss I associated so strongly with geographical places in the UK.
The Beauty of Spring comes round again and again
In New York, ten months after mum’s death, I unexpectedly felt closer to her than I had throughout the year. I remembered that when she had been young and carefree she had been to New York on her own, and danced at Studio 54. Suddenly my own holiday, dancing with newly made friends, didn’t seem so far away from the adventures she might have had. Walking the crisp, autumnal streets I felt like I was sharing my holiday with her. Like the funeral director had said, there had been plenty of moments I had wanted to tell mum about. But maybe that was a sign of how many wonderful moments were still to be in my life?
I’m not an expert. I think I still have a long way to go on my journey with grief, and to understand and accept the loss I feel. If I had to summarise my experiences so far as a “how to” cope with loss, I’d write them as follows:
- allow yourself to be distracted, and don’t beat yourself up for it
- find a structure (be it a schedule or timetable) to operate around
- find people who understand your experiences, maybe they are friends, or a formal support group
- talk to someone about your grief!
- treat yourself to an experience you’ve always wanted: maybe for you its travel, or maybe its something else.
- remember that, even though it hurts so much that someone is gone that life continues, and the beauty of spring comes round again and again
And in this time of loss due to lockdown, really do be kind to yourself. Try to focus on what you can control, and find ways to keep connected with the people and parts of the world that are important to you. Stay strong.