There is a chasmic, cyclical, unquenchable grief. I wish for the hands of time to unwind. Then I would reclaim that unique moment I felt adequate peace. A point in history where I could embrace my mum, wrapping my hands around her stomach, nestling my head under her arm. Instead, the last time I held my mother’s body was when my sisters and I were given the task of washing and dressing her ready for viewing. In the instant she drew her last rasping breath I saw what I had only seen once prior. I had experienced it with the passing of my grandfather.
At the moment of death, the body lay unrecognisable, with every pleasant, warm and vibrant feature suddenly evaporated. The corpse becomes an empty shell that once housed a spirit. The bodies of those bedside also expel air. Their bodies are not wholly void of spirit, but an energy drains, never to be regained. The bereaved have not only lost their loved one, but part of their own aching soul has departed. Unmistakable and apparent, something seemingly extinguished from the physical world has now been transformed into the unseen.
It’s said there are five stages of grief. Some would say seven. Since my mum died, it seems my mind oscillates between believing I’m stuck in one stage, to reluctantly imagining I’m moving through hundreds of stages. Perhaps they are like steps. I climb up and trudge down in determination to not reach a destination. The end point is too jarring to find. I don’t want to move on. I don’t want to go forward.
Funerals have the potential to create a space to soberly reflect on the life of our loved ones. A scurried attempt to capture all that is to be told. The service takes place only days after their end, when our bodies are still running on adrenaline. By the time our mortal frames have caught up, we realise that the funeral could not have been timed otherwise. Any later and our bodies would not have the capacity to step up, to show up and to face the day. Once the condolence cards have stopped filling the mailbox we lay in a heap, unable to move.
Our best friends offer sympathy, but this is rarely significant. Whilst their efforts are accepted, they aren’t acceptable enough for the situation of lost meaning and purpose. Hallmark cards contribute words in a font of understanding. Yet the only measured consolation for a fragment of the pain, would be to suggest that the friend actually doesn’t know what to say. Truly, there is nothing that can be said. Phrases of comfort or verses from poems or religious texts are overlooked by those left behind. Because during this step, nothing short of our loved one’s resurrection could bring sufficient solution.
The family unit now feels small. At a time where family seems to be the only source of relief, we realise we are stepping differently through our stages. Why can’t we all grieve at the same pace? Why do some members accelerate and others lag in desperation? Soon enough reality creeps in. There is a recognition that while blood is thicker than water, blood leaves a permanent mark. We know that an integral piece of our family is no longer and now the roles require redefining. The matriarch has gone. The person who assumes her role draws criticism from all angles with their mismatched abilities.
The flavour has leached out of life. Taste-buds readjust to a simple diet of burnt toast or soggy cereal when the body gives way to hunger. Olfactory glands sense that something has changed. Hints of smells from the past evoke a memory. Sweet smells can be offensive in the griever’s mind. It’s too soon to smell her familiar scent, her favourite dish or something that was long forgotten till now. Our breaths are shallow, as our lung capacity seems restricted by our intention for our own breath to cease.
If only we could have taken their spot. If only we could have battled the disease on their behalf. If we could have exchanged places, it seems I would. The sorrow shifts the mind to consider ending the pain through my own accord. It seems valid enough, as what I am living now is not life anyway. The mind retorts back that this idea should be suppressed. It was never a true option. Although the ruthless act may feel justified, I could not bear for my poverty of spirit to be the emphasis.
Silence, a symbol of unanswered prayers. Petitions for healing are long gone. Now I request for my fragility to be mended. A stitch in time can save nine. If I don’t choose to act, I’ll unravel. Or worse, pull the thread tightly till it snaps. In a call to persist, I move. I want the energy to be redirected to grip strongly onto what Mum would have wanted. Her best interests for me, always captured a truth I couldn’t see for myself. While it is a startlingly foreign concept, a sudden shift did not occur. Rather, a gradual transformation of self was held on offer. A glimmer of hope in an otherwise pit of darkness.
Routines and rhythms are begging to be restored. My body yearns for nourishment. The morning cuppa. Warm showers. Regular showers at least. Moisture to be replaced in the skin. Some Vitamin D, not packed commercially, but from sitting beneath the sun. A return to cooking meals. The chance to focus again at work. Afternoon walks through my neighbourhood. The choice to smile and force a laugh. This bodily response will require more repetitions before it responds again naturally.
Anniversaries provide a context. They invite a practice, a symbolic gesture, rituals. It’s not only the anniversary of your death that will be observed. Each anniversary shares a new meaning. Whether intentional or not, your birthday, my birthday, your wedding anniversary, Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas all acknowledge that your presence is missed. We would have celebrated together. Now, without you. You would have remembered the dates that were significant, rather than calendars or Facebook revealing these to those here on the day.
New events carry on without you. The birth of my first child. My pregnancy alone was unbearable. I wanted to search your mind for questions that the midwife requested. I wanted to search your mind for questions that I had for the unknown. I named my daughter with you in mind. I cannot wait to be asked by her the significance of the choice. I cannot wait to share stories before bedtimes of who you were. Hopefully these will permeate our dreams. I find that the dreams of you provide a balm to the wound of your absence.
I see her look from her cot at the ceiling and giggle. She’s chatting away to someone and I know it’s not me. As she develops I recognise a mannerism, a microexpression, even a delightful squeal which indicates that somehow she has a connection with you. Some things have skipped my generation and you two share a sacred bond. Her smile reminds me of yours. I catch sight of a photo as I scroll through my phone and it’s uncanny how she resembles you.
Grandparents Day will be on the school calendar. Only then will my daughter compare and contrast. She will realise that her friends may have the luxury of four or more grandparents. She has been wonderfully supported by her father’s parents and her solitary grandfather. Yet what’s normal for her is to ask questions and recall the stories of Granny. Although never truly seen, you are intact in her mind through photos and videos. Her present is mixed with the past in a natural and familiar way.
Her adorable infancy will come to an end. We will both enter her teen years well before we’re ready. She has a sass about her that could be described as being strong willed. She will likely colour her hair to something unnatural. We will start to bicker and fight when I’m tired and she’s filled with determination. She will slam her bedroom door. I will start to believe she has shut me out completely. This is all ahead of me.
While you have been my past, she is my future. You have donated your wisdom to me and I’ll try passing this on to her. Although you aren’t here to offer a quick solution, I know you. I know what you would have said. I know how you would have encouraged me to keep going. Time functions as it should, moving forward with continuity and control. It manages to heal unexpectedly so that I can look back with nostalgia and forward with contentment. There is no contest to compare the past with the future. But at the point of their meeting is the present. Somehow their intertwining creates that adequate peace that I had almost forgotten.
I slouch in the lounge after a tiring week. My daughter nestles under my arm, wrapping her arms around my waist. There is a chasmic, cyclical, unquenchable love.
Elizabeth is a Mum to Grace, step-mum to Will, wife to Ricky. She is very changeable. Sometimes she'll identify herself as a social worker, other times as a writer or even as a Christian. She loves her town of Dubbo, New South Wales. Elizabeth studied a Bachelor of Social Work at Charles Sturt University.