Today is three years to the day that Mum died. She was in a care home and died alone in her room. We never did discover a definite course of death, but were told it was most probably a heart attack. I have gone into some very dark corners of my mind since that day, wondering what her last moments were like. Did she have time to feel pain? To feel fear? I think I am more horrified at the thought of her being alone and frightened than alone and in pain.
Perhaps this is why Mum’s death felt so much more like a body blow than did my dad’s two years before. I had sat with Dad as he took his last breaths. I had had all the chances in the world to say the things I wanted to say to him as he was dying. Sitting with Dad and letting him leave this world was a process that I felt I saw him through; much as I was involved in my children arriving here. The two events have been entangled in my mind ever since: dying and birthing. Both equally painful, both equally exhilarating and life-changing.
Mum’s death was different. She just went. Like that. Out like a candle flame, caught in a gust of wind. People have tried consoling me, telling me that is the way she would have wanted it. No fuss. No long-drawn out suffering. Such platitudes have only made me angry. How do you know? I have wanted to snap. In life Mum loved a fuss; she loved to feel loved and fawned over and cherished. Why should her wishes for death have been so different?
Today I am thinking of all those who have died like Mum: alone, probably in pain, very probably afraid. There have been so many in these past twelve months. And their lonely, frightened deaths have left so many more people in pain with a grief that cannot be consoled. Whatever anyone might think about Mum being ‘lucky’ to die quickly ‘without fuss’, no one can say the same about the hundreds of thousands who have died from Covid with none of their loved ones there to hold their hand.
Today I am also thinking of the people left behind. The people grieving grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, daughters and sons and lovers and friends. I am thinking of those people who, like me, woke up one day to a phone call to tell them that their loved one, their most precious friend, lover or relative had died. I am thinking of those who, like me, have sat and stared and wondered How? I have nothing to offer these people but my thoughts and my sympathy, both of which are useless. But perhaps less useless than focussing on a number. Or a photo in a newspaper of a shameful man with his head bowed in mock reverence.
The one thing I can perhaps offer, though, is a focus on this thought: that each of the people left behind is feeling what I have felt, am still feeling – a deep, aching sense of loss. Every single person who has lost someone in the past year is hurting, badly. And, looking at the figures published this week of the number of people who have died (not the number of ‘deaths’, but people), this means there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands more who are deep in grief right now. You and I will probably walk past a few of them today without even realising it.
So, what can I draw from this, on a day when I am allowing myself to revisit my own grief? I think, maybe, the importance of kindness. The importance of gentleness and love and understanding. The importance of empathy. Because, whatever our lives are like today, one day we too will come face-to-face with grief and loss. One day we too will lose someone we love. Just like that. Out like a candle flame, caught in a gust of wind.
In memory of Gillian Hankey, 12th August 1943 – 28th January 2018