Friday 18 January 2019

Tanya Sweeney on the grief of losing her mum: 'Sometimes it felt like I'd never see daylight again'

On the fifth anniversary of her mother's death, Tanya Sweeney feels like a survivor.

Tanya Sweeney and her mum
Tanya Sweeney and her mum

Tanya Sweeney

Last Tuesday was probably an ordinary day for you. And in many ways, it was for me, too. I got up, made breakfast, checked Facebook, rolled my eyes at the Trump-related headlines.

And then I remembered. It was a death anniversary; specifically, five years to the day since the death of my mother. It's amazing the difference that five years - almost 1,900 days - can make. And then time, reminding you of its rubbery and fluid ways, can make five years feel like a fortnight.

Some things are seared on the memory, and this day is one of them. The slow horror, the uncertainty, the feeling of moving underwater. The amazement I felt that everyone else around you is having a relatively normal day. Because I, in a hospice room, felt as though I was stuck at the bottom of a well of shock and grief. As anyone who has lost a loved one will know, it sometimes felt like I'd never see daylight again.

I've already written a lot about that experience of grief and loss, but this experience - the calm, the acceptance, the feeling like a survivor - is a relatively new one.

But last Tuesday, as my family and I huddled into a small Dublin cemetery, we were very different people to the ones who were there five years ago.

Because 1,900 days has a way of doing that to people. We're sad of course, and we still watch the ground, trying to figure out exactly what sort of mysterious horror lies beneath the flowers and the neat gravel.

But the memories that come to the surface are happier ones. They're not of morphine pumps and holy water, but of birthday parties and the hilarious day my brother wrote 'I love you Mummy' on the wooden spoon as a defence measure.

We joke with each other. We're more relaxed with each other. We went to the pub after the cemetery, had tapas and watched football. A few glasses of Rioja in, and I remember being overcome with relief and gratitude that those around me, eyes fixed on the TV screen, were healthy and happy.

I took a moment to escape to the bathroom and have a little cry. But even I could tell that these were tears of happiness. Trust me when I say, I've done the field research on this one.

Knowing what I know now about loss and grief, I'm even more afraid of another close family member dying. I worry I don't have the reserve of strength; that mine has all been used up. A more logical part of me knows that this isn't true; that there's no such thing as a limited amount of strength.

Five years ago, we stood around the very same spot in the cemetery, fiddling awkwardly with our own personal grief and torment. We couldn't help each other.

We were afraid, or maybe unwilling to. We were fragile, and unnaturally delicate around each other. This is not how things are done in my family, and while it was lovely at the time, it also felt weird. But it looks as though we've all washed ashore now. We're back to punches in the arm and trying to get a rise out of each other. Just as it's always been.

And then, there are days when you realise that the storm isn't fully yet over. That really, there's no such thing as a full, fuss-free recovery.

A few days after the cemetery and tapas hijinks, I am searching through old emails for something work-related, and an old email - just over five years old - pops up from my mother. Not thinking too much of it, I pop it open, although I am floored when I read it.

"Please, sweetheart, don't ever be frightened or scared, I can take all this. I have so much gratitude that you kids are reared," it read. "Thank you for loving me so much, as I love you."

A more superstitious type would say that it was a message ferried from beyond the grave. But there was a different kind of shock; remembering the first moment, years ago, when I read it. For a split second, my body recalled the dread and stress I used to carry around all day long.

It had settled in every nerve ending and every bone back then. But five years on, the feeling came and went momentarily, like a hologram. Even feeling it for one second was truly dreadful.

I don't write this column to say that dying and grief is dreadful. That's a bit like saying Kim Kardashian likes attention.

It's stating the bleeding obvious. What's less obvious is the idea that life will return to something resembling normality. The final, acceptance part of the grief process isn't a myth, and I'd really believed for so long that it was.

It's not an end point. It's not the finish line in the worst, most gruelling marathon you've ever run. But as milestones go, it's more enriching and profound than you'll ever know.

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