Mum’s treatment plan was six chemotherapy sessions, each spaced three weeks apart. She started them in January 2017, due to finish in mid-May. We had to attend a chemotherapy workshop beforehand – side effects, dos and don’ts, what to expect etc. It was a lot of information to take in, and we had lots of paperwork, leaflets, and even a cook book called “Recipes for People Affected by Cancer” – most of the recipes were for foods that were really easy to eat so they didn’t put pressure on the mouth and teeth because chemo can make your mouth ulcer and your teeth fall out…cute! We brought all this stuff home and read through it, cover to cover, ten times over. Mum and I knew what to expect…but it still wasn’t easy.
She went in for her first chemo treatment and it went pretty ‘smoothly’ (if that’s the appropriate adjective?). Mum had all of her treatments at the Jigsaw Building at Royal Bournemouth Hospital, which by the way is staffed by angels. She brought her laptop, got her IV line in, had a coffee, sat in the recliner chair for a couple of hours and then came home! She was a bit drained coming home, so had a nap but she was pretty much fine when she woke up.
Mum had asthma all her life, and a couple of days after her first chemo treatment, she started to feel a bit short of breath. It was in one of her special leaflets to alert the chemo clinic if that happened, so I called them and as I was on the phone to them, Mum got worse. In retrospect, I now think she was having a panic attack brought on by the realisation that she was going through chemotherapy. She was seen by paramedics, taken into hospital, stabilised, and brought home.
Two weeks after Mum’s first chemotherapy treatment, she asked me to pamper her and help her feel and look herself before the chemo had the chance to make her look “sick”. Mum was in the bath and called me in, crying, as her hair had started to fall out in her hands. I knelt down alongside the bath and held her as she just sobbed. When she was ready to get out, I dried and styled her hair, did her make up, and took some nice photos of her.
Mum’s treatment was difficult. She got so weak. She got so dependent and was constantly in and out of hospital. There was one incident where she needed to go in to have a blood transfusion before a treatment, as her platelets were too low. Her veins had taken so much that it took three nurses and two doctors to get an IV into her arm. Mum was shaking and crying with pain, I’d never seen her like that and I won’t ever forget that moment. I couldn’t help her. It was arduous and demeaning for my Mum to feel as though she didn’t have independence. I missed her.
My heart ached for her to get better and be my Mum again.
This is Mum and Grampa on her wedding day in November 1988.
Around 6 years ago, Mum and I were having one of those silly chats about my “dream wedding day”. She told me that she had saved her wedding dress for me to wear on my wedding day, however she’d since put it in the back of a closet and I didn’t know where it was. Then she passed away in 2018.
When we moved house last year, I came across her wedding dress in the closet and felt overwhelming emotion about it. I got it out and it felt so delicate, like I’d found a long-lost treasure. I stood in front of the mirror and held it up against myself, giggling to myself at how short the dress was (I’m 5’9” and Mum was 5’4”) and admiring how full and swooshy the skirt was. I knew through looking at photos of my Mum and Dad’s wedding that;
Firstly, it just wasn’t my style – the 80’s Princess Diana influence was still going strong (note the puffy sleeves…)
Secondly, my Mum was bigger than I am, so it was too big.
I was so touched that she kept it in pristine condition all these years for me to use one day, but I couldn’t exactly lug it around until I get married (a hoop skirt wedding dress in its box isn’t exactly rental friendly).
I wanted to find a way to keep something of it. I could perhaps keep a piece of material from it to use for myself one day, but the entire gown was silk with a lace overlay with pristine stitching so I couldn’t take anything from the main dress easily. I spent about two hours one afternoon just staring at the seams of the dress, working out which bit I could use. I got my sewing kit out and painstakingly unpicked and detached the continuous piece of lace that ran around the shoulder (like a peplum). Mum taught me how to use a needle and thread, sew and do simple alterations to garments, so this process made me feel connected to her. I detached the piece of lace and have kept it safe with her silk peony bouquet and her gorgeous beaded head piece for myself one day, they are all safe in my ‘Mum’ box.
I wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of it. However, I’m a huge believer in “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and I had this fantasy that if I shared it on a local community Facebook page, perhaps someone would stumble upon it and it would be their dream dress. About five minutes after I’d posted it online, a lady called Kirsty messaged me asking if she could have it and the reason she asked was just so beautiful that I could not say no; she hand makes burial dresses for babies who are premature, still born, or die shortly after birth.
I felt that this path was “meant to be” for Mum’s dress. Mum and Dad’s first born daughter, Krystyna, passed away at five months. After her death, Mum and Dad raised thousands of pounds for The Lullaby Trust which is a charity for those affected by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I think that Mum would be delighted to know that her wedding dress was being used to create something beautiful.
Kirsty soon messaged me after she’d collected the dress from me with an update of what she was working on. When I saw this image, it broke my heart because it was so beautiful, and I could never imagine the colossal heartache of losing a child. I cried for the parents who have lost a child, I cried for children who have lost parents, and I cried for my Mum.
“A wedding dress is both intimate and personal for a woman — it must reflect the personality and style of the bride.” — Carolina Herrera
Watching Mum die from a terminal illness was the most emotionally stressful situation I’ve ever been through. Everything that happened from 5th November 2017 (the day it had been discovered that Mum’s cancer had spread and was incurable), was so difficult that it is beyond comprehension.
Mum was in a hospice for a few weeks during November after her diagnosis, and she was so happy there. She felt so cared for, and had the assurance that any issues she had with medication, pain, or discomfort were able to be resolved pretty quickly. A few days after she arrived, Mum told me that one of the other patients at the hospice got married to their partner, and that the patients could have visits from their pets too! She absolutely loved it and she kept saying “it’s lovely here”.
I will never forget what Mum said about the hospice staff-; “I think you must have an extra lovely bone in your body to work here. They’re all like angels”. I think that will always stick with me and it brings me comfort to know that she felt so cared for whilst she was in the hospice. In my eyes, it was the best place for her to be.
Mum came home about two weeks before Christmas, and slowly the medical paraphernalia started to pile up. The little straws with sponges on the end to keep her mouth hydrated when the ulcers got so bad that she couldn’t drink properly. The incontinence pads and underwear because soon she could no longer stand up to take herself to the bathroom. The hundreds, maybe even thousands, of tablets that started with mild pain relief but ended up being sedatives. The devices to monitor her blood sugar and the insulin needles to control it. Her bedroom, which used to be a place where I would marvel at her high heels, her party dresses, her make up, and feel safe to laugh and cry (and everything in between) just didn’t exist anymore. Her bedroom wasn’t her place anymore. It became a place to store medical things, and that is not reflective of a warm, welcoming, and supportive environment.
And it didn’t stop there. Extra banisters were installed along the stairs so she could hold herself up properly as she ascended the stairs. A toilet frame appeared in both bathrooms so that it was easier for Mum to lower herself down. A seat was installed for the bath and shower, but unfortunately Mum was never able to use them. Left there for me to battle during a quick “pits n bits”wash. The walking frames with the little wheels on to help her meander around the house, left untouched, gathering dust and instead being used as a portable medicine cabinet.
The incredible care workers who came twice every day to help Mum be clean and dressed had to start being increasingly more gentle with what they were doing. It became less about personal hygiene and appearance and more about “what position takes the pain away Susan?” so they could move her with (hopefully) minimal pain.
Nothing about my home felt like my home anymore. Mum’s presence had withered away because of the cancer, so she wasn’t there. It had broken her, destroyed her, and laughed in her face as she desperately tried to regain any control over her existence. All of this made me very aware she was close to death, and still I needed her to magically recover.
And then the day came where I started to want her to die.
I wanted her existence to be over so that she wasn’t in constant pain and misery. So she wasn’t embarrassed about needing to ask to have her incontinence underwear changed, and so that she had some release from the shit show that had engulfed her. And I think she felt that too. I think there came a point that she started to wish the end of her life would happen because of the awful state her existence was in.
I write a lot about how I feel, about who I am and my story with grief…but what about my Mum?
My Mum was my best friend. I can’t really encapsulate the essence of my mother into a legible series of words, as I’m sure is true of any attempt to summarise the complexities of a whole person. However, I’ll give it a bloody good go.
She was friendly, silly, and approachable, with a warming presence and an ever so slightly inappropriate sense of humour. She loved music, introducing my brother and me into a lifelong infatuation with reggae, ska, rhythm and blues, disco, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, and Motown. She loved Elvis, The Beatles, Madness, Chaka Khan, and Janet Kay. Mum loved a party, being able to socialise, and spending time with loved ones – especially if there was free food! Her skin was always warm, and she wore Chanel Chance. Mum loved jewellery and wore mostly gold. She also loved a novelty earring, some of her favourites included pink Barbie doll shoes, teddy bears holding presents, and Christmas baubles bearing the inscription “I ❤️ XMAS”.
Susan Janet Geary – Sue to everyone, hence the exquisite pun for my website name – was born on 2nd August 1963 in London. Second and youngest child of my Nan and Grandfather (his name was Mike Geary, he passed away in 1966) little brother to Michael junior. Mum was really switched on when it came to maths, being offered a job by Barclays Bank as soon as she left school aged only 15. She passed her driving test on April Fool’s Day 1981, thus becoming the designated driver for the rest of her life as she never drank a drop of alcohol (except for that one time she had a piña colada whilst we were on holiday in Turkey one year, vomited, and then had a hangover – that was a F U N day). Around Mum’s teenage years, my Nan met my “Grandad” and married him. He would become a father figure to my Mum and uncle, and later lovingly known as Deda by all four grandchildren.
My Mum met my Dad in 1984 when they both worked for the Post Office. They married in 1988 – Mum became Susan Szumowski – and they had their first child, Krystyna, in January 1990. Krystyna passed away on Wednesday 9th May (my Dad specifically told me it was a Wednesday), at five months old. Mum and Dad went on to raise thousands of pounds for cot death research. They had my brother, James, in September 1991, and I followed in July 1994. We lived in London, and would holiday in Highcliffe each summer, which is on the south coast in Dorset. My Dad had an affair and my parents split up in 1997. My Dad left our family home and left my Mum with two kids, grieving both the loss of their first child (which I’m sure one would never recover from) and the end of a marriage.
Shortly after this happened, my grandparents retired and moved to Dorset as they knew it was a nice area. My Mum soon followed, as she couldn’t be a single parent financially supporting a family in London. Mum moved my brother and I down to Dorset into my Nan’s house, got us settled into school, but stayed in London herself whilst she sold the house and lived out her notice period at work. She would travel to Dorset to spend time with us every weekend, and eventually found a house to buy for the three of us to live in. Lots of journeys between London and Dorset in the back of my Mum’s little red Citroën Saxo or Deda’s black cab – once we got a few roads away from home he’d let my brother and I take our seat belts off and sit on the flip down seats that face backwards so we would flop around the back of the cab in fits of laughter.
My Mum lived an extremely difficult lifestyle. We were poor, there’s no debate about it. She worked full time, paid the mortgage, bills, and general costs of life completely by herself, and only just managed to scrape by. I didn’t know this until I was about 18/19 years old. She would borrow money from my grandparents, at one point she had three jobs, and she would go without to ensure that my brother and I were able to have and access everything we needed. She always, always encouraged us to pursue our interests and wanted us to experience anything that we could (realistically within our means of course).
Mum was a “Mum” in every sense of the word. Loving, generous, welcoming, selfless, and a damn good cook. She taught me how to read, how to swim, helped with homework, made me things from scratch, soothed me when I was unwell, took me places to learn, and became my friend. Although my Mum and Dad had a tumultuous relationship once they’d broken up, Mum never allowed her negative view of Dad taint my view of him. She never spoke badly of him, and allowed my brother and I to create our own relationship and image of him.
In my later teenage years, my brother moved out of the house, pursuing fancy writing courses at a college in London, then studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (he’s very clever, is a published author, and the amount of words he’s written in his life probably isn’t even a real number?). When my brother moved out, Mum and I had the opportunity to become super close and spend loads of time together. We were together constantly.
We listened to each other’s moans and groans about work, colleagues, friendships, other family members, and how some tights always seemed to have a hole in at the toe? She taught me how to cook, how to apply lipstick, she was always the first on the dance floor, she helped me apply for jobs and learn how to drive, she always came to the pub for mine or my brother’s birthday with us and our pissed friends, we bought each other presents, recommended books to each other, went to vintage fairs, out for lunches and afternoon teas, spa days, cinema trips, and one time we went clubbing together.
I could always count on her to be on my side, to give me a cuddle, to listen to me moaning about my issues. I sometimes reflect on times that I feel I was so selfish and unaware of what Mum was going through and I feel guilty about these moments. I know that as my Mum, she would have forgiven and forgotten almost immediately, but I wish I could tell her I’m sorry for being an absolute stroppy cow sometimes.
What made it hard to lose her was that she was all of these wonderful things and more. She was an incredible woman and an amazing role model. To not have her unconditional love, warmth, and guidance anymore is heartbreaking. How I wish I could tell her all the new exciting things that have happened, hug her, or even just get a text from her about what she had for lunch. I will never again experience the love that my Mum had for me, and I have nowhere to “put” the love that I have for her.
I was raped by someone I knew, had known for over a year, and considered him a friend. I was comfortable around him and I had never felt uncomfortable when we had been alone before. On the night that he raped me, we had been out together for the evening in a big group of people. By the time we all went home, a few of us were staying together in one person’s house. We were all back at the house (6 of us), and hanging out in the kitchen. I’d had a bit much to drink that night, and I started to feel unwell. I took myself to the bathroom (which was being renovated and didn’t have a lock on the door), and I sat in there for a little while because I felt like I was going to be sick. He let himself into the bathroom and apologised because he needed the toilet. I said it was fine, I moved away from the toilet and turned away, using the edge of the bath to try and help myself up. He flushed the toilet, and then stood behind me. He pulled my jeans down as I was “standing” on my knees, and I distinctly remember saying “No, TJ, I don’t want to” I tried to move away from him but this didn’t deter him.
He raped me anyway.
I felt so uncomfortable and insignificant. He finished and left me in the bathroom. I stayed there for what felt like hours, before returning to the kitchen. Upon returning to the kitchen, one of the people said “guys if you’re going to do that could you at least be quiet about it?” everyone laughed.
I didn’t laugh. I hadn’t made any noise. I didn’t want it to happen.
I said no to him. I moved away from him.
I said no.
I blocked this experience out because it was uncomfortable and honestly, it took me so long to figure out that I had been raped. Rape culture was so embedded in me that I felt as though I was making it out to be worse than it was, that I was overreacting to it.
Years went by, and by this time I had learnt so much about consent, about asserting one’s consent, about people disregarding your boundaries, about rape culture, toxic masculinity, and the boundaries of sexual assault. This also happened to be the time that my Mum was being diagnosed with cancer. So as one can imagine, I was majorly preoccupied with Mum’s treatment and I pushed the rape realisation to the back of my mind. I pushed it so far aside because I was angry about it.
I was so angry. I got angrier.
I got angrier about my Mum being unwell, I got angrier about not being able to do anything. Then she got better and I was so happy that she was getting better that the rape didn’t matter anymore.
Then she died, and I got angry about being raped. I got angry that I never told my Mum. I got angry that I allowed my anger to surface when anything in my life, my friends lives, and the media even remotely related to consent and assault appeared and I couldn’t do anything about it.
I got angry when I was having a picnic with my friends and one of them brought his name up (because a few of them are still friends with him), and I took that opportunity to tell every single one of my friends to their faces that he raped me, and not one of them asked me how I felt about it or how I dealt with it. And they still haven’t.
I watched Michaela Coel’s incredible “I Will Destroy You” and I felt angry every single fucking episode. It was getting too much. I called the rape crisis helpline and I’m on their waiting list to receive counselling.
My experience with Mum’s death and grief closed this down and then opened it up again. I wish to the edges of the universe that I could tell her. I should have told her. I’m on the right path to counselling with regards to my feelings about this, and I really hope it helps even just one other person by telling this story.
The last Christmas that my Mum was around for (in 2017) was a very difficult day.
Christmas had always been something we cherished together. We had always loved doing Christmas shopping, wrapping presents, trying new festive foods, going to Christmas markets, making dinner, watching films together, driving around just to see Christmas lights, and visiting family around Christmas. It was like it was our thing.
We always spoiled and surprised each other, we were best friends and really got each other.
There was one Christmas (I’ll always remember this), where 13 Going on 30 had just been released on DVD. It was a film that we both wanted to see but we just missed out on it at the cinema, so she bought the DVD for me for Christmas. My brother was upstairs playing whatever PlayStation game he’d been given that year, and Mum and I were downstairs tidying up and didn’t have anything to do when we’d finished.
Our Christmas tree was placed so that it was in the middle of the wall beside the television and in front of the sofas. Mum and I put the DVD on and watched it together, in our pyjamas, eating crap, sitting on the floor against the sofa under a blanket with the Christmas tree lit and the big light turned off, as if it were our own little sleepover. We laughed and chatted, and she plaited my hair. It was perfect.
The last Christmas we had with her was so far from 13 Going on 30 that I struggle to believe these two situations happened with the same person.
She was always so excited to wake up and open presents, one year she couldn’t wait any longer and woke me up at 7am because she’d been awake since 5am! In 2017, I had to wake her up and bring the presents into her bedroom because she didn’t have the strength to come downstairs.
She always loved a fry up for breakfast and would have everything going. In 2017, she had a special nutrition milkshake for breakfast and brought half of it back up, needing to change her pyjamas.
One year, Mum went shopping at 5am on Christmas Eve because “we didn’t have enough pigs in blankets and Sainsbury’s was opening extra early!” She got back at 7:15am, when I was getting ready for work. I’d been tip toeing around that morning to be extra quiet as I thought she was still in bed, and when she threw herself into the house with 5 shopping bags she scared the life out of me (which she found hilarious). Christmas Eve 2017, I’d been at work all day and got home to my Mum sleeping in exactly the same position she’d been in when I left that morning.
Every year since I’ve been able to, I’ve gone to the pub with my friends on Christmas Eve and my darling Mummy would come to pick me up to make sure I got home safe (often past midnight so we’d always wish each other Merry Christmas when I got in the car.) In 2017, I was too mentally and emotionally worn out to even think about going anywhere. I sat alone in my bedroom.
Every year, she would ask what I’d be wearing on Christmas Day and would get excited to wear a party dress just to sit at the dinner table. In 2017, she had sent me out a few weeks prior to get her a dress because she’d lost so much weight that nothing she owned fit her anymore. Mum’s body had started to very slowly shut down, and because of this she was too tired to get changed again after being sick, so she stayed in her pyjamas all day. Her 2017 Christmas dress never got worn. It stayed hung up on her wardrobe door, forlorn and empty.
Mum had always loved sneaking a roast potato before dinner, and she would have 100 on her plate if she could. In 2017 she managed to eat two.
We usually had people round – my Nan, my brother and his girlfriend sometimes, my Mum’s best friend and her family, so some years there could be ten people in the house for Christmas Day. In 2017 there was three people because Mum was too tired, too weak, and vulnerable to infection.
Mum always watched Christmas specials – Emerdale/Eastenders/Corrie, the Queens’ speech, her favourite festive films that were on, a comedy special. In 2017 she took herself to bed at 4:00pm, so promptly I did the same. I was too sad to be around this and watch her not enjoy herself. I cried all afternoon in bed by myself, I cried myself to sleep.
I wish I would have told her that I was sad that day, and that I didn’t want to see another Christmas without her, but I didn’t know how to. I wish that our last Christmas together hadn’t been so heart-breaking and difficult. I wish I’d have asked how she was feeling and spent more time talking to her about our feelings.
I’m so thankful that Mum always tried to make Christmas so magical and enjoyable for me. Her infectious enthusiasm for giving and seeing other people happy will echo throughout every important occasion in life.
This might sound like a super weird analogy, but working in Early Years Education for nine years has exposed me to lots of theories and research surrounding development. Early Years research has found that the first 1000 days of a child’s life (which counts from conception to age 2) is a critical phase for the foundations of a child’s development to be laid.
Today is my 1000th day without Mum.
The research suggest that exposure to stress or adversity during the 1000 day period can result in a child’s development falling behind their peers. Experiences left unaddressed, such as abuse or conflict, can stay with children throughout their lives, cause harm to them and to others, and might be passed on to the next generation.
Is it also a crucial amount of time for grief? Are the ideologies of “stiff upper lip” and “put on a brave face” in the first 1000 days of grief as impactful as the first 1000 days of life?
A lot of the older generation aren’t as open and vulnerable with their grief and how it manifests itself, is this because the experiences and conflicts they had in their first 1000 days of grief remain unaddressed? Causing the emotional pathways to be interrupted, blocked off, possibly creating future trauma. This may cause harm to the griever and future generations for their grief journey.
I asked my lovely instagram followers to weigh in about this and 98% said that they have an older relative who has lost someone close. Out of those older relatives, a whopping 84% who had lost a family member were not very open about their grief. They suppress their grief, keep their feelings in, and don’t open up about how they feel around their loss. They act like the person they lost didn’t exist, they never talk about that person, they have a stiff upper lip, they shut down their emotional responses, and have a desire to keep their grief to themselves. Was their first 1000 days of grief very much like this? Don’t show your emotion, move on, or perhaps even get over it?
In my 1000 days of grief, I’ve been through some real ups and downs. I’ve been to counselling twice, I’ve lost my positivity (and found it again). I’ve had disagreements, arguments, I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, I have felt vulnerable, useless, and at dead ends. I have also felt positive and I have had incredible experiences. I have felt isolated and unsupported, and done something about finding my place again. I have made some incredible connections and friendships and really found a purpose within the grief community.
I think that 1000 days is a crucial time for me personally. I have recognised, modified, and implemented attitudes and behaviours for myself when I’ve realised that something is or isn’t working for my well being. At the moment I’m in a positive space within my grief journey. Nearly all of my days recently have been positive and enjoyable. I will always miss Susan and she is on my mind every moment of every day, but my current state of mind is that I am so lucky to have had 23 years of an incredible relationship with her. My life is infinitely better for those 23 years with her than it would have ever been without her.
I was walking in Battersea Park the other day and I saw a bench with a plaque that was dedicated to a woman who had passed away. It was written from the point of view of her children and they’d written something like “Sit here and chat to one another, have a happy time, Mum would love that, as she loved this place.” which filled me with a warm emotion of knowing that this place brought such comfort for somebody. That another person in the world who is going through this difficult situation had somewhere to go that could offer them reassurance, and I felt that kind of warm happy heart kind of feeling for this complete stranger who I was imagining in my own head.
But not for myself.
I don’t have a special place for Mum. I can’t go somewhere specific and feel connected to her through that location. One of my friends has a bench with a plaque that sits atop a cliff on the south coast and overlooks the sea. It’s gorgeous and that area means a lot to her and her family (here is the view). I see other people visit calming places that are filled with serenity and offer that special connection to their loved one. Now whilst of course, beaches, nature spots, and forests played a big part in my childhood and I remember many, many fond times of being those places with my Mum and grandparents, I don’t feel that those places are anymore significant now that they’ve passed away. A portion of Mum’s ashes were interred into the grave alongside Mum’s father, and Krystyna (Mum and Dad’s first born). I’m glad that there is a designated space for Mum’s remains to be at rest, but it still doesn’t feel like a comforting place.
Every time I visit somewhere that I last went to with Mum and/or my grandparents, I feel a slight comfort because it’s almost like I’m stepping back in time and remembering her presence for a split second, and then it goes again. I thought maybe one day I’d have an epiphany and realise that I’d forgotten about this place and that would be my special connection place, but then I realised that I’ve absolutely got one. I’ve already got this special place and I’ve had it for years.
It’s my dressing table.
My Grandma gave me my dressing table when she was moving to a new house in 2007. I’ve had my dressing table for thirteen years. She’d had it for ten years by the time she gave it to me. Even before Grandma died, I would think about all the times she’d sat there and gotten ready at it in ten years. The chair I have for it doesn’t exactly scream glamour but it’s Deda’s (my Grandpa) chair. It’s the one he would sit in to listen to music or watch TV. After he died, my Grandma moved it into her office and used it every day. She’d sit at her desk and make/create things, and write her “autobiography” (which is incredible to read and I think my brother has plans to adapt it into a novel).
But what about Mum? If it weren’t for Mum letting me play with her make up from a very young age, teaching me how to apply lipstick, encouraging me to love myself and how I can enhance my features, I don’t think my love for cosmetics would have developed the way it did. She instilled the infatuation I have for a classic nude lip, and to be unapologetically glamorous whenever you fucking feel like it. Overdressed for what, am I right ladies? I loved getting ready with Mum, I adored being able to spend that quality time with her, just the two of us together in our own little world of beauty, sitting at my dressing table.
It’s old, the drawer knobs are falling off, the wood is discoloured and covered in make up stains, nail polish, and burns from heated hair tongs. It has scratches in the surface and there’s 35p stuck to the top because I emptied my purse onto it once whilst there was wet nail glue on the surface and I’ve never been able to get them off. But it’s so special. The little red handheld mirror belonged to my Grandma, and I have a pair of Mum’s earrings on one of my cosmetics stands to remind me of her (they’re the pink Barbie doll shoes). I’ve had chances to, but I don’t think I will ever want to get a new dressing table.
My lovely Nan, Patricia Dowell, died in April 2019. She had just turned 80 years old, and both her physical and mental health had started to decline since my Mum died little over a year earlier.
Nan was always there, no matter what we needed. She was a great cook, seamstress, a fierce friend and a strong disciplinarian. She was an incredibly hard worker, an idea she instilled in my cousins and me. Nan had a wickedly quick wit and sense of humour. Always a welcoming host, she accepted all of our friends, no matter their colour, creed, sexuality or family background. Everyone was welcome at her table, so long as they washed up afterwards! She had a hard-wired honesty about her and a painfully sharp tongue at times, she demanded respect and hard work. For my brother and me, she was like our second parent whilst we were growing up. When Mum and Dad broke up, it was Nan who would pick us up from school, make us our tea, we’d be with her over school holidays, she’d take us on days out. If Mum was unable to do something for us (because of work commitments, financial issues etc), it was Nan who we’d go to first. When we lost her, it felt as though our whole parental unit had gone.*
In the final year of her life, I spent a lot of time with her. I knew how lonely she had felt since both Deda (my Grandad) and Mum had both passed away, and I wanted to make sure I could help her and be there for her. We sometimes clashed, and there were times I felt like I was annoying or frustrating her. A couple of weeks after she died, when I was calling relevant companies to inform them of her passing, one of the women I spoke to on the phone told me how much she’d heard about me from Nan, how warmly she spoke of me and how proud of me she was. It really touched my heart and made me realise that I was more important to her than I had previously realised.
In December 2018, Nan had been having headaches, felt generally ‘unwell’, and her vision was funny. She had some tests done and found out she’d had a really minor stroke. This started the snowball of her health decline. The doctors advised her not to drive for at least a month – which, for a very socially active woman, can be really demoralising, and caused her to feel lonely and almost “trapped” in her own home. That month, I made sure to see her a few times a week, and I would take her somewhere every weekend. Thank goodness she was able to drive in January again.
In February 2019 was her 80th birthday. I arranged a surprise party for her with 20 of her closest friends and family. She loved seeing everyone (and not having to clean up at the end!). Shortly after her birthday, she started to feel unwell again. She went into her local hospital on 5th April 2019, and was diagnosed with vascular phlebitis. Her blood couldn’t get around her body properly, so soon she needed to be on dialysis treatment.
She got transferred to a hospital that was over an hours’ drive from where I lived, and over 3 hours’ drive from my uncle and cousins. I tried to see her as often as I could, but around working full time, I could only spend time with her at weekends. Other family members went and saw her during the week which kept her spirits up, but it was difficult knowing how lonely she must have felt during that time.
I saw Nan on Saturday 20th April and she was in good spirits. It was the Easter weekend and she asked me to bring her a hot cross bun with some jam and butter, and when I got there she told me she liked the colour of my nail varnish and asked me to bring it back next time I saw her. So on Monday 22nd April, I visited Nan with my nail varnish. She was hooked up to the dialysis machine as I arrived and she looked rough. I painted her nails and spoke to the nurses. The nurses reassured me that when people are on dialysis, it takes them a bit of time to “get over” each treatment because it makes you feel awful. I felt eased by what they said, stayed with Nan for another hour or so, and then had to leave.
And then she said “don’t go Rosie, I don’t want to die on my own.”
I will never forget those words, they were the last ones she ever said to me. My heart shattered hearing those words come out of her mouth. The strongest and most fiercely independent woman I’d ever known.
Nan died the next day. I was in the hospital with her when she died, with my cousin and uncle, but Nan was heavily sedated and I don’t think she knew I was there.
Dealing with Nan’s death put my grief journey right back at square one, and I lost myself in grief for a short time. I felt sad and empty for a little while after she died, and I needed to do something to get myself out of that wallowing pit. The inheritance I got from my Nan paid for five months worth of private counselling sessions with an amazing counsellor who really helped me turn my grief around and get back to feeling like myself. With Nan’s inheritance, my partner and I also booked a holiday to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco (now to be taken in 2021…hopefully), which we see as an homage to my grandparents who went on a two week California road trip for their honeymoon.
I miss gossiping with her, her teaching me something new, and our shopping, tea and cake, or dinner dates.
Patricia Ann Dowell, 15/02/1939 – 23/04/2019
* Since losing Mum and Nan, my relationship with my Dad has been rekindled and he is very much active in my life.
A couple of weeks ago, Chelsie from Bereavedat22 tagged me in a post headed with the above question. It got me thinking about what I have learnt, and how I can grow and share to support others. I have focused on three main things that I’ve learnt along my grief journey so far. You can read part one here, and part two here.
Number 3 – The pain of grief is unpredictable
Wildly, unforeseeably, irrationally unpredictable. I wasn’t aware that the pain could manifest itself at whatever time of day or night. Grief doesn’t have a regard for your schedule. It doesn’t care about deadlines, commutes, appointments. It will make you cry on your busy train at 7:30am, it will make you cancel your dentist appointment, and forget when you need to pay your council tax.
The pain that accompanies grief is overwhelming. Not just the sheer void of heartache you have from missing your loved one, which – some days for me – feels like my whole existence is filled with sorrow. Sometimes it lasts for a couple of days, sometimes only twenty minutes. It’s always that desperate longing to speak to her again. I just wish with every piece of my being that she didn’t die.
Then there’s the physical pain, which I never expected to endure. I’m sad because my Mum died, but why does my belly feel knotty? Oh it’s because I’m sad that my Mum died… I never realised how much emotional turmoil, stress, and pain can have a direct effect on your physical state of being. Obviously I was aware that the two would interlink somewhere, but I didn’t ever expect to feel physically unwell because I was having a sad day. I usually get a headache, a knot in the pit of my stomach, or pain behind my eyes when I’m having a griefy day. I don’t always know when it’s going to happen, so it can be difficult to manage.
The second thing I’ve learnt since losing my loved ones is the realisation that not everything about them was good. People are people, they have good traits and bad traits, and dead people aren’t an exception to that rule.
The things I would sacrifice to experience one more hug from my Mum, or have my Nan’s home made lemon meringue pie once more, or sing along to Tony Bennett with my Grandad again. Of course I will miss my Mum and my grandparents endlessly.
But whilst I miss the good things about them, there are things that I won’t miss. Just to be clear – this post isn’t going to be name calling and throwing them under the bus for their mistakes (sorry Susan but ur #cancelled), it is a post coming from the realisation that my loved ones were not perfect human beings who should be constantly held in the highest possible regard.
My Mum was a hoarder, no doubt about it. She could not say no to a bargain, or if someone offered her something they no longer had use for. My Nan was one of those people who was constantly getting rid of things. She’d offer them to my Mum who obviously said yes, and our house just kept filling up with random stuff. I don’t miss that.
Mum was also very stubborn and it’s a trait that has rubbed off on me – I’ve learnt to argue like her. Which, when she was faced with my Dad’s stubbornness right back at her for the 12 years they were together, it caused her argument to be extremely defensive. I’ve had to really try to get myself out of that mentality and reassess my emotional response to confrontation, which I never would do when Mum was alive. Because it seemed like the right thing to do from my role model.
The guilt that crept in and accompanied my thoughts earlier on in my grief when I didn’t have to clean up Mum’s crockery in the kitchen before I made something to eat. She’s dead so I don’t have to clean out her coffee mug, result! But also how dare I find a victory in the fact that she’s dead?!
They were all lovely people who achieved some brilliant things, taught valuable lessons, and had amazing experiences throughout their lives, but they also had flaws – like everyone does. And it’s okay to realise that. I miss them all so much. Some days it does quite literally seem as though there’s a Mum shaped hole in my life. But at least now I don’t have to clear her hair out of the plug hole anymore.