Some of those who read my blog will remember that about 18 months ago I wrote a piece about my dear old Mum, and my feelings at being left a middle-aged orphan as mum kept saying she had ‘had enough’ and was beginning to seem truly ‘old’. She began to appear frail, a word you would never have previously used of Mum and regular infections were bringing her low – physically and mentally. In the last 18 months we have had some good times, and some very bad ones, but mum always seemed to pull through. Five weeks ago she was struck down once again, and this time there was no pulling through. She died, peacefully, on the 30th May.
Peacefully at the end maybe, but the previous three days over the Whitsun Bank Holiday had been very distressing for Mum and left my brother, sister and I traumatised by an experience that saw us grieving and exhausted, having stayed with her for 3 days and nights, sleeping when and where we could. There was nothing noble in any of this. It was horrible and we had no kindness to share with each other as we focused all our efforts on being there for mum.
We did, of course, realise she was not going to be with us forever, and indeed there have been times in the past year when we wished Mum could have slipped away without suffering. But instead of that gentle acceptance of the inevitable, the quiet grieving, we were left in shock.
So as always, I have turned to poetry to help me feel I am not alone, and there isn’t anyone better than Emily Dickinson to express that numbness I have been left with – the funeral has been and gone, we have said our goodbyes, and ‘did her proud’ and I for one now feel utterly lost.
After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes
By Emily Dickinson
After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?
The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
Dickinson describes how I am ‘going through the motions’ perfectly in the second verse. The third I am a little ambivalent about, as it suggests there is the possibility of being so overwhelmed by one’s grief that outliving it might not be possible. The last two lines might even describe how final that grief could be – as exposure overwhelms the person trapped, perhaps in the freezing wilderness of their loss.
I am sure that I will outlive this. I know this is all a natural process, and I know from my own experience of depression that this grieving is something quite different, but it is a struggle to keep anxiety levels under control as emotions are so near the surface and I am relying on reserves built up through a successful final year of therapy. I need that reserve to be like Mary Poppins’s carpet bag – bottomless.
My wonderful husband and friends have listened as it all comes out in a splurge – all the horror and unhappiness and frustration and deep, deep grief at the loss of someone who was such an important figure in my life. Sleep has been difficult and dreams have been horrible; not all related directly to Mum they leave me waking with a sense of dread that stays with me for some time afterwards.
And there is also a sense of grief at the knowledge that, in the order of things, it is my turn next, I am ‘top of the tree’. Of course, I hope it is many years until that is a worry, but a long life like my Mum’s isn’t a given. This would be the moment to say ‘treasure every minute’ ‘live in the moment’ and tens of other inspirational phrases. But I can’t say very much at all. There is a lot written about the stages of grief, but I don’t know where I am, let alone what stage I am at. Basically it seems you just have to crack on until, as Emily Dickinson suggests, survival is possible.
So that is what I will do.