Wednesday 21 August 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: Love, loss and the memories of mum that will never die

Grief and loss are emotions that can lie dormant, and then return to pack a powerful punch
Grief and loss are emotions that can lie dormant, and then return to pack a powerful punch

Ciara Kelly

We read my mum's will last week. She is dead a year and a half now but these things take time. Putting affairs in order. Probate. I'm still not sure what that is. Not until now were we ready to go through it all and look at what is left behind - in financial terms - at the end of her life.

It felt cold. Reading the words of her very simple will and the words of my father's too, written before I was even born. Them reaching out from wherever they are, to bequeath to their three children whatever they'd accumulated over a lifetime and left behind them.

I found it surprisingly hard. It's been 18 months and I have come to terms with the loss. There isn't much else you can do anyway but let the person go. But I suppose it is a final farewell in a way. A last chapter closing. And I missed them both in an acute way last week that made their passing feel more current than it actually is. I was sad about the will part and I wished they were here to talk to about it all. Which, of course, they can't be - or there'd be no will. So I was sad. It makes no real sense.

But grief and loss are peculiar things. They lie dormant in us as we muddle along through our lives and only rear their ugly heads occasionally. What is always surprising, though, is when they do, they still seem to pack a powerful punch despite the passage of time. So last week on occasion while out walking or driving in the car, as I often am - I'd find myself suddenly in tears at a certain song for no reason or just feeling a profound sadness lying in bed at night.

We chose her inscription for the headstone last week too. My sister picked the words and they are perfect. "All the world was her stage." Which if you knew my mother, you would know how well that suits her. In some ways, funnily enough, I think that was even worse than the will. Because it brought her back as a real person.

When someone dies with dementia, they have been leaving you for a very long time. It is the long goodbye. So the Julie who left us at the end of that May was not Julie as she truly was. The Julie who left us - I was prepared and able to let go. She was old and very frail and confused. It was time for her to go.

I remember holding her hand and telling her it was OK to go, she was tired now. We didn't lose that Julie - for her, it was that real thing, a happy release.

And for a long time - maybe up until last week - I have felt a disconnect with the Julie whom we did lose. The path through dementia is complicated. The grief is muted in a way. But those simple words, "All the world was her stage" reminded me of who she used to be. Who she was really. The big character. The feisty, talented, clever, charismatic handful that we all loved and still miss. The Julie who would hold court, tell outrageous jokes, was irreverent and full of mischief. And, to be honest, was someone whom I don't think I've ever met anyone else like in my life.

That's who I realised I lost last week. And she wasn't here to talk to about it, which makes it all the crappier. I wondered sometimes during the past year and a half how I was coping so well with mum's passing. I chalked it up to maturity and resignation. But I'm now wondering if I am just very slow at processing this one. Is it only starting to sink in now - the magnitude of the loss, shrouded as it was in the confusing ambivalence of dementia? It's so hard to really know when you see them go through it, whether you want them to stay or go, that when they finally do go, you feel a bit numb to it all.

I'm sure this pocket of grief will recede again shortly but in the meantime, there is something almost good about the pain - like jiggling a sore tooth.

In that, if only briefly, I feel reconnected to her in a way that wasn't possible immediately after she died.

The old Julie is reasserting herself in my mind and she is a welcome arrival. The likes of her may never be seen again, but the memories, the love and the loss are real.

@ciarakellydoc Ciara presents Lunchtime Live on Newstalk, weekdays 12-2pm

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