DEAR FRIEND, WELCOME TO THE CLUB.
I’m sorry to say this is not the good kind of club, where your membership gets you into fancy restaurants or sends you a bi-monthly gift in the mail or provides discounts at your local supermarket. No. Unfortunately no one wants to be a part of this club.
When I joined, over 20 years ago, I was the only member. None of my friends or acquaintances had had any experiences with grief. As a 16 year old, I navigated the murky waters of “WTF IS this??” on my own. When I went back to school to start Year 11, friends busied themselves with things in their lockers when I walked past, people I’d never spoken to stared at me and whispered to each other behind their books, teachers gave me pitying looks and laid their hands on my shoulders in a ‘there, there, everything will be ok, let me know if you need anything, you’re really being very strong’ kind of way. I realise now that most of my teachers probably had no idea what grief felt like either. One girl in my class, not knowing what had happened in the early hours of December 31st, asked how my New Years Eve was. “My mum died,” I told her, and opened my maths book.
I waded through these new feelings as if through mud. I wore a mask. Some days I cried and cried and cried. Some days I walked out of class and away from school, spending the afternoon wandering aimlessly around the streets of Canterbury, or just sitting in a park, plucking blades of grass out of the ground. Some days I pretended it had never happened and I laughed with my friends and thought ‘this is fine! I am FINE!’. One night I stayed at a friend’s house and, while watching Heartbeat with her parents, I started giggling during a scene where the main character lies dying, her policeman husband sitting mournfully by her side. I remember it so clearly. I laughed, locked eyes with Claire’s mum, and burst into gut-wrenching sobs. I ran to Claire’s room and lay on the floor and wailed; her mum came in and sat on the floor next to me, stroking my back and making soft cooing sounds, as if trying to soothe a baby.
Well-meaning mourners at mum’s funeral told me I was strong; that I was a pillar of strength. You’ve probably been told that too. I didn’t feel strong. I wasn’t strong. I was a 16-year-old kid, trying to process that fact that my mum wasn’t here anymore. That everything I had wanted to say to her, I couldn’t. I’d missed the boat on asking her questions about her childhood, or about her aspirations, or about how many boyfriends she’d had. I wouldn’t get to rub her feet anymore, or read to her from a book, or sit beside her and pose for one last photo. I look through photo albums now and there’s not one nice photo of just the two of us.
The club welcomed new members when I was in my early 20s, when two of my closest friends lost their mum. “I’ll be able to help them through this,” I thought. “I know what grief feels like. I’ll know just the right things to say and do. I’ll know not to tell them they’re pillars of strength.” But, of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t help them at all. As I get older, I meet more people whose mothers have died. Whose fathers have died. We do that thing where we suck in our lower lips and nod at each other, our eyes wet with tears.
I have no advice or words of wisdom. I have no idea how to ‘fix’ things, or make you feel better. I don’t want to tell you it’ll get easier. Although it will. It’ll take a while – a year, several years – but it will. Your grief will also catch you unawares. Years after my mum died, I still have days where I’m gripped with an indescribable sadness and loneliness. Where everything hurts. Where I just want one more hour with her, to talk about the things we didn’t get a chance to discuss when she was alive. Occasionally I have dreams about her; it’s so nice to be back in her embrace, smelling her skin, feeling her touch. And when I wake up, it takes a few seconds to remember, and the ache returns.
Talking helps. Writing helps. Crying helps. Sometimes breaking things helps too. Bottling things up doesn’t. Pretending you’re ok doesn’t either. It’s highly likely that the people you talk to will have no idea what to say to you. It’s highly likely they’ll say stupid things that’ll make you cry more. But remember that there are no magic words. Even other members of the Dead Parents Club stumble over their words and resort to clichés and accidently tell you ‘you’re strong, she’ll live on inside you, you won’t ever get over it – you’ll just learn to live with it’.
But you will. You’ll get to a point where you can remember afternoons at the park, throwing a ball for the dog and laughing as he races across the grass towards her, or that cheeky glint she’d get in her eye after a few glasses of wine, or her truly wicked sense of humour, and you won’t feel sad, or lonely. You won’t feel that dull ache in your heart. You won’t feel like crying. You’ll feel like you’re ok, and you’ll know that you are.
The club welcomes you with open arms, but I’m so, so sorry that you’re here.
All my love,