I dreamt of mum nearly every night for months after she died. In the dreams she would be in her final days and we would all be very aware of it; much more than we actually were in real life. I’d be distraught and overcome with the knowledge that time was running out and I only had ‘x’ amount of days left of mum being alive. I felt this huge pressure to do something with that time and would often wake in the morning with a really sad and heavy feeling that would take a moment to place.
In one of the more unsettling dreams, mum was giving me some final words of advice. I was away on holiday at the time, and this moment in the dream was fittingly happening while we were sat on sun loungers by a very deep pool. The only words of ‘wisdom’ I can remember from our final dream chat were ‘don’t speak too fast’ which, while not as sentimental as I would have liked, was funny because, like mum, I can speak very fast sometimes and it was weirdly comforting to get some realistic advice from her again (albeit in dream form). However, after this dream, I was so struck by how lifelike mum had been and how real the conversation was that all I could do was go on a run and then have a huge cry at the end of it (an example of the limited number of things to ‘do’ when you really miss someone that’s not here anymore). I did actually spice up my established run/cry routine by going for a naked swim in a secluded part of the beach on my way back. When I mentioned this to my brother Tom, he said it sounded like a moment in a film where my nakedness would have represented my emotional vulnerability at that point.... In reality though, I didn’t spend long in the water because it was a bit cold and I was quite conscious that the further I swam out, the further away I was from my clothes. Maybe there was something deeper going on in my subconscious, but so far that has been the only time I have solo skinny dipped and sobbed (!)
It’s been interesting reflecting on the two years that have passed since mum died and how my understanding of what it means to grieve has changed. For starters, I don’t dream of mum nearly half as much as I used to, and if I do they have moved away from being set in her final days (which is a relief). I think this has something to do with being more aware of this new reality, which to begin with took a lot of getting used to. A big part of grief for me at the start was trying to wrap my head around the significance of what had just happened. I still can’t really get my head around how I haven’t seen mum in over two years and I’m still frightened by how life moves on without her, but I no longer wake from dreams of mum in the morning having to actively remember that she’s not here anymore.
To begin with, if someone asked how I was, I wouldn’t hold back in telling them that mum had just died. I’d meet people on a dog walk who had perhaps met mum a handful of times, and after asking after her I’d just offer up lots of details about how she died. I’d meet friends and feel like I wanted to tell them absolutely everything about those final days, no detail spared. I met a tutor for a catch up session, who previously didn’t know my name, but now knew the circumstances of mum’s death and its intimate details (I think he was as shocked as I was for this level of openness). I remember going back to London the week after mum had died and on the escalators from the tube out to London Euston saying the words ‘my mum died last week’ over and over again in my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about this huge new fact about myself. I would pass people in the street and think that they have absolutely no idea of this terrible thing that has just happened in my life. I really couldn’t connect what I was saying to how I felt and I’m sure saying the details out loud was a way to try and make it real (although it was sometimes quite exhausting). Maybe the dreams were also a way to try and ease me in to this new reality and bridge the gap between a life when mum was alive and a life without her. I’d have my days without mum alive, but then I could be with her at night, in my dreams.
Of course every time I mentioned mum dying, it would be met with huge sympathy, but I couldn’t match all the sympathetic looks and condolences with how I felt in that moment. There were times when I felt like I was cheating because surely I should feel worse than I do. I’d think am I even upset enough by what has happened? I recognised that it should be sad, and that it was sad, but I didn’t feel it properly just yet. Only now do I realise it’s such a long process (with many sad days to come) and in some ways the start for me was the easiest bit because I just (naively) decided I’d be fine. I didn’t give myself any space to not be ok. I actually didn’t know how to not be ok, and I actively didn’t want to feel this foreign feeling of profound sadness. I had no experience of loss and so no reference point on whether I was doing the right thing (as if there even is a right thing to do). I just stepped into immediate coping mode. The depth of what had happened was too overwhelming to comprehend so it was just shut out and given out in manageable doses, which to start with were few and far between. Also, I didn’t really miss mum too much because I had only seen her the other day. She could just be on a work trip for a few weeks…
Now, saying my mum died two years ago as opposed to last week, or a few months ago, has added a new dimension to grief and how I talk about it. I hold back a lot more in telling someone my mum has died. I used to feel (and still do occasionally now) that when I meet someone, however honest I am about other things, I’m a bit of a fraud until they know this huge thing about me. I’d have always described myself as being an open and honest person, however this was the first time I had been confronted with having to be selective with what I told someone. It was first time I had made up white lies or vague generalisations (‘family things’) to skirt around having to say ‘oh because my mum died’ and risk bringing the conversation to a much more serious note.
I really appreciate that hearing that someone’s mum has died recently is not something that is easy to respond to, and at the start especially I’d feel quite bad putting someone in a position to hear it. It was never because I wasn’t comfortable saying it, it was just I wasn’t really comfortable with the bit after saying it when I had to react to the other person’s reaction. Now two years have passed, saying ‘my mum died’ doesn’t have the shock factor it once had, but when it was really recent people would look at me with a ‘how are you ok’ expression on their face and huge sympathy. Of course sympathy is lovely, but it just meant I’d repeat my well rehearsed post-mum dying script and conversations would just morph into the same thing (often with me trying to offset the seriousness in their faces with a positive ‘but I’m ok’ and ‘we’re staying strong as a family’ etc). I’d sometimes want to just tell a story and the ‘mum dying’ bit not be the main part, but of course it always was for whoever was listening. I need to add though that I don’t think this can ever be avoided and it is part of what happens in the initial months (and if there hadn’t been a sympathetic reaction that would have its own issues!). A lot of it was down to me figuring out that I don’t need to add any extra detail if I don’t want to, or feel as responsible for the other person’s feelings on hearing it. I can simply just say ‘well my mum died 2 years ago and so…’ rather than feel I need to give more of an explanation about it. The fact that mum has died is a bit of general knowledge about me, like the number of siblings I have, but it is also a very dynamic piece of information, and the potential source of hugely intimate chats. I’m still getting used to that balance.