4th January 2024
2024 didn’t start the way we ever would have anticipated. My amazing mum died on New Year’s Day.
We are lost, rudderless, without her.
I’m not sure what my grief is meant to look like, and I’m not sure what I feel right now, but I think I feel empty.
Despite the turbulence of the preceding weeks, my brothers and I were not expecting the call from my Dad, telling us to hurry home to Essex.
The guilt of having rejected his initial calls on New Year’s morning, my thinking it was only going to be Mum and Dad wishing us a Happy New Year, is hard to bear. As difficult as it is to believe, I just didn’t think Dad would be ringing about Mum and her health.
I had called Mum less than 24 hours earlier, as she eagerly awaited Dad’s arrival to take her home. Her right main bronchus had been stented at Papworth just days earlier, but she sounded so happy, and well, and just so excited to be discharged home, to see in the New Year with Dad, when I spoke to her.
It had been such a normal conversation – our usual daily commentary, the update on the family gossip, discussion about our own New Year plans, and there was hope – a realistic hope that she might yet make it to the weekend away with Dad at the end of the month.
Hope that had been absent for the last couple of weeks, while in hospital awaiting the stent, following her emergency admission.
Mum was in a terrible way when we arrived. We suspect her lung had collapsed in the early hours of the morning. She had refused re-admission, and it was clear by the time my brothers and I had arrived that we were in a very different place than we’d ever been before on Mum’s cancer journey.
For me, it has been a struggle navigating the months since diagnosis, knowing what role to play – Doctor or Daughter. Emotionally, it has always felt easier and safer occupying the Doctor role. It felt like my “gift”, my “offering” to my parents and family – translating, explaining, and advising the best I could.
In truth, I think I was too afraid to fully embrace the Daughter role, worried the weight of my sadness would crush me.
Mum hated being a patient. She struggled to accept help and resisted it at all costs. Acceptance of help would be akin, in her mind, to saying “Cancer, come and get me”. And she was never going to take this fight lying down.
I never knew quite what to pray for with my cancer – I settled for grace and patience for myself. It’s what I ultimately prayed for, for Mum too – that and acceptance, that she would accept help.
Monday was the first time I felt I could be both Doctor and Daughter. Being able to pre-empt, recognise, and respond to her clinical needs in those final hours was a privilege, but I feel honoured, above all else, that she allowed me to help her, calm her in her distress, count with her through her breathing, massage her hands and feet. I think God finally answered my prayer.
The hospice nurses who cared for her in her final hours were amazing – so efficient, wise, and compassionate in their care. But the thing I am most grateful to them for? That they allowed me to be a Daughter and encouraged me to allow myself to occupy that role.
Mum, I feel sure, exerted some agency in the circumstances of her death.
Desperate to die at home, she ensured this was to be, refusing re-admission.
Wanting her husband and children with her, we were all at her side.
In rare moments of lucidity in those last hours, we rang her sister and brother. Mum spoke with them and told them she loved them.
She received the Sacrament of the Sick, and she was ready for her final spiritual journey.
She waited until the palliative nurses arrived before she died, almost as if she wanted there to be a sense of certainty. It was as if she wanted to limit our responsibility in noting the time of her death.
In those last thirty minutes, there was no distress. It was as if she had been ensconced in a divine embrace of calm and serenity. She quietly and peacefully took her last breath.
Mum insisted she would “die”. She would not “pass” (as one might pass Go on a Monopoly board), and we certainly wouldn’t “lose” her – that would be careless. She hated the euphemisms associated with death.
Mum wasn’t afraid of dying.
I don’t “feel” her spiritual presence in a way that I had expected, or hoped, that I would right now. But I see her everywhere – not in a Bruce Willis, Sixth Sense kind of way. It’s the scribbled notes, her books, clothes, shoes… her coat hanging on the door. The smell of her perfume lingers in her bedroom.
I see so much of her in my brothers and me. Mum’s example in life has clearly shaped our core values. The importance of justice, particularly, is so strong in my brothers and me. I see it in all the grandchildren – at times somewhat misplaced(!) – that is all from my mum.
Mum lived an incredible life. She and Dad had travelled the world several times over. She ran a successful business; raised 3 children, and lived to see her seven grandchildren all to an age where they will have lasting, fun, memories of her healthy. In the last few months, there was always a “next” event to look forward to. “If I can just get to…”…
They celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary in October – a truly joyous occasion; a wonderful week in Ireland in November; a magical snowed-in weekend in the Lake District in December with Dad and her siblings, that I was lucky to be a part of …
I am sure there was a divine hand in our being stranded in such a beautiful place.
She made it to Christmas, and finally, New Year, at home with Dad – by all accounts a beautiful, perfect evening.
Maybe we were being greedy, wanting just a little more time with her.
My dad’s grief is the hardest thing to bear. It is simply heartbreaking.
It is clear from all the messages we have received from family, friends and colleagues, that Mum achieved what I think we all hope for in life – to make a difference.
And my, what a difference she made…
Her candle may have gone out, but not before she had lit a thousand tea lights in the lives she touched.
My world, our world, seems a little smaller somehow, but it is, still, and will remain, bathed in her light.