My mother died when I was 15. She had known she had terminal cancer since I was 8 — I had only known she had cancer since I was 14. I was never told it was terminal. But I didn’t probe or ask any questions, I was told the news, I nodded and smiled and hugged my mum, and went to my friend’s house. The news didn’t cause me to go off the rails; it didn’t cause heart-wrenching agony and neither did her death.
This was my mother on holiday 2 weeks before she died. Strong but scarred. On that holiday we went jet skiing, played tennis, swam in the ocean, and she participated and threw herself into every activity and every day of that holiday. Her death came as a shock.
I’m not implying this is what it is like for everyone, but for me, there was no period of mourning that was intense, heart wrenching and agonizing. I just carried on my life. But the effects of losing my mother were much more subtle, and became intertwined into the person I have become and forever a part of me, as she will be.
5 years on, there will be some days I do not think of her, and others where I cannot stop but think of the things I miss about her, and those things she has missed in my life. The word to describe how I feel about my mother’s death is definitely not sadness. Sad is how I feel after an argument with my boyfriend, sad is how I feel when I’ve gained weight, and sad may be how I describe the times I feel lonely. Sadness is usually transitory and short-lived. Mourning is perpetual; it is not sadness, but a feel of longing to share and exchange memories, emotions and happiness with them.
I feel this mostly when I am with my boyfriend. We’ve been together nearly 4 years, but they had never met. Yet there are so many similarities between the two of them and maybe that is what drew me towards him. From their shared love of Doctor Who and weak tea, to a love of astronomy, and their sarcastic sense of humor. So many intricate similarities in their personalities, that when I hear him discussing his passions and ambitions, I am forever wondering what her opinion of him would have been. There most definitely would have been things about him that she wouldn’t have liked, but I can almost imagine them sitting together, discussing , debating and laughing the way he does with me. His personality constantly reminds me of her; in the same way I’m sure my personality reminds many of my mum.
I can see the ways I am like my mum – our ambition, our strengths and our insecurities are both the same. Yet, in a self-reflexive way, I can also see how much her death has changed me. Anxiety and insecurity overwhelm me, and I can be cynical and unsympathetic in a way that she never could. Anxiety even now impacts every day of my life, and it used to be far worse. I was constantly was on edge. If my dad was home one or two minutes late, I could hear the tick-tock of the clock slowing as time passed, and my heart racing. Within minutes, I’d have rang him to check he was on his way. I was forever frightened at being away from home, scared about what would change or what could happen. The first year of university was a milestone for me. Although even now, I get a nagging doubt when I haven’t been home for a while or my dad hasn’t replied to a message. A fear will always hang over me; that I will have to deal with the death of more people I love.
It has also made me cynical. Someone says cancer, and I think death. For me, I never believe anyone will recover. And yet I find it difficult to empathize with many about cancer. Many friends turn to me to talk if they are dealing with a family member having cancer. They expect me to be knowledgeable, to know the treatments, the process, and the time they have left. I have very little knowledge of any of these things. They expect me to empathise and console, to have words of wisdom. I try my best and I will listen, but I have little better advice than everyone else. I can talk about my own experience, but as I was told little, understood little, and even worse, remember too little, I have little advice I can give. I will always try my best, but I feel for many, I fall far short of what they expect.
I have a letter written by my mum when I was 9. She had had an operation she didn’t believe she would live through. She wrote ‘darling, don’t worry because everyone that meets you will love you’. And her death has only served to enhance that insecurity. I can see in myself that I crave love and affection. I guess her death created a void, one which my unaffectionate father could not fill. I felt a constant need to prove myself to him and to everyone else. And over time, the void widened. I ended up full of guilt, that I hadn’t been good enough, strong enough and loving enough while she was alive, and constantly felt the need to make up for it. It is always difficult to let go of the past, and to learn to value yourself without the recognition of others. Only I dealt with this much earlier than most have to. However, as with all of the ways her death has affected me, I have battled each problem, fought anxiety, striven to help others, and waged war on my insecurities. Her death caused long term changes in me, not visible to most, and certainly not immediate torturous sadness. But as I have fought each change, I have dealt with her death, mourned losing my mother, and although I may not be the care-free and easy-going person she was, I have become the strong, mature and determined daughter she would have been proud of.