The Oxford English Dictionary defines grief as ‘intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death’. Yet even these words cannot sum up the strength and breadth of feelings invoked at the loss of a parent. After more than thirty years I am still grieving for my dad, and this is compounded by the passing of my mum barely three weeks ago.
We all deal with our sorrow and cope with mourning in different ways. No two people will experience the same range of emotions, distress and pain in the same way, and these feelings frequently change from hour to hour, day to day and week to week. Different societies and religions have their own rituals and practices for coping with bereavement, and the support of friends and family members can often be a huge comfort. We can ‘mark the time with fairest show’ as Lady Macbeth advised her husband when they were plotting their murderous deeds, but later on in the same play Macduff, after learning of the slaughter of his wife and children, is advised to ‘Give sorrow words; the grief, that does not speak, Whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break’. Shakespeare was equally aware of the importance of displaying the pain of loss in order to begin the healing process, and I have been repeatedly told that tears are good and necessary.
Mum’s health had been deteriorating to the point where she became bedridden in the middle of August (about six weeks before she died) and this gave me an opportunity to think about the end of her life, her death and her funeral. But envisaging an event can never prepare you for experiencing it when it happens. I was upset when I visited her during her final days and was unable to hide my tears from her, much as I tried to turn my head away and dab at my eyes. She spotted my distress and asked why I was crying and her quick-thinking carer responded that it was hay fever.
I parted from her about 10 hours before the end. It was obvious that it was imminent and she was suffering a huge amount of discomfort. Her eyes were like those of a sick dog who is pleading to be put out of his misery and when she dozed briefly she muttered ‘take me there, take me there’ and a little later she opened her eyes and pleaded to be knocked out or put to sleep. Her cat also remained close to her during that final afternoon, so I didn’t need a crystal ball to know that she didn’t have long left. Yet life without mum is something I had never experienced and wasn’t something that I could imagine.
When the phone call came at 6 o’clock the following morning I was flung into auto-pilot. There was an urgency to be with her and to say more farewells and goodbyes, except that these would be final and not mere adieus. I would no longer be able to bid her to take care and do as she was told. Of course the tears flowed of their own volition, both whilst driving to reach her flat, and once I was there. They continue to find their own journey down my cheeks when I least expect them, but there are also glimmers of fond memories when I can talk about Mum without getting upset.
She had the Jewish funeral she had requested, with her eldest grandson saying Kaddish five times over the course of the day. Then she was laid to rest in the same cemetery as her brother, the person she had fallen out with before his own death, and with whom she had not made peace in their own lifetimes. The rituals were a comfort to me, as were the condolences and wishes of Long Life from friends and family.
But life goes on for the living and the days seem to follow in rapid succession. I can still mark the weeks since her death and the funeral in single digits, but the year is fading and then there will be the usual milestones where she will be remembered and missed. Although we are Jewish, Christmas was always an excuse for family get-togethers, and in later years was just lunch at our house with Mum always present, and exhortations from us to her to eat a little bit more. Next year will see Mother’s Day come and go without her (and the memory that she broke her hip two days before that day last year, scuppering our plans to take her out for lunch) and then her birthday in May, when she would have celebrated her eighty-ninth anniversary.
So how do we cope with the grief? The tears help, although there is often a perception that they won’t stop. There is a strong need to talk about her, her life and her final days, and in my case there is also a cathartic outlet provided by writing these blogs. I want to dismiss the memories of her last uncomfortable, distressing and distressed days, and of her lying at rest in bed at home, another feat we were able to help her to accomplish. She refused to enter a care home and I’m so glad she remained in her own flat, with a carer by her side during her final moments. I can take comfort from all of that, and from the reminders of others that we did everything that could be done for her, although there are still the nagging doubts that I could have done more, visited more frequently and reminded her of how much she was loved. But our family was not one to express our feelings although they were tacitly observed and understood.
The recent trips to clear out her flat have not been too harrowing either. I think it could be because we were with her there after she passed, we said further goodbyes, kissed her numerous times and I stayed with her whilst the Rabbis removed her for burial. Although she was finally at peace I don’t want to remember her face in death and would rather return to the photos I have of her that celebrate her life and vitality.
I also find that my religion, lapsed as it is, is somewhat of a comfort. My belief in God, or a greater, supreme presence, has been strengthened. I believe that death is not the end and that Mum’s soul is now in a more beautiful, peaceful place, where she is reunited with her family and loved ones and that I will also be with them one day. In the meantime I have been to Shul once to celebrate Simchat Torah, joining in with the songs and prayers that I remember from my childhood. That afternoon the words of the song ‘Shalom Aleichem’ (Peace be upon you) that we had all chorused so joyfully kept running through my head and I found myself singing it out loud: the first time I have felt able to sing anything over the last few weeks. The next morning I was looking out into the garden and I saw a flock of doves flying backwards and forwards beyond our fence.
Life is for the living, but the dead remain in our hearts; nobody can erase our precious memories whether they invoke tears of sorrow or joy.