There is a dreadful loneliness in grieving. Even though my whole family were grieving for the loss of a brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, aunt, brother-in-law, sister-in-law it became a strange solitary process where we were united in our tragedy but it all seemed so abstract, so detached and we were unable to console each other, such was the magnitude of our loss. My head kept replaying the awful truth - two deaths in one night, three deaths in a week and four deaths in a month. It was as though my brain needed to constantly replay the whole catastrophe in order for it to make some kind of sense before I could start to come to terms with my loss. I clearly was still suffering immense shock and I reeled from the intensity of it.
On the day that my mother died, the journey home to Scotland was arduous and protracted. I wept over and over as my partner patiently drove the four hundred miles or so in one long journey so that we could get there as soon as possible. I felt bad that my step-brother and his wife had to deal with undertakers and such like on my behalf and I needed to get there to relieve them of such a dreadful burden. It was particularly hard for them as my step-father lay dying whilst his wife had passed away in the next room. I couldn’t imagine the torture this must have created for them all.
It was with a very heavy heart that I knocked on the door of my mother’s home. Knowing that it wouldn’t be her opening the door to me as she had done a hundred times before made me weep at the finality of it all and I leaned heavily against the door frame to steady myself. My partner seeing my distress came swiftly and engulfed me as he held me tightly because he knew I was dreading so much and this was a first of many things to dread. The door opened and the ashen faces of my step-brother and his wife said it all – they’d no doubt had better days in their lives and what we were now experiencing was staring them in the face too. They ushered us in and I quickly went to see my step-father for I was concerned as to how he was coping.
Oh this gentle man who had loved my mother so late in her life was but a shadow of himself and in little more than a week since I had last seen him. The events of the day had taken their toll and the sparkling light in his eyes that was his love for my mother had faded with her passing. I saw my own deep grief in his eyes and it was the most painful reflection that I have ever seen. It was like shards of glass lacerating my heart, death by a thousand cuts, all over again. I hugged his frail, cancer ridden and emaciated body, careful not to break him, and we were silent in our grief but tears rolled down my face as the damn burst yet again.
Where my father had been a violent controlling man, H was as gentle and fun loving a creature you could ever meet. My mother blossomed in his love and care and he in hers. He was a true gentleman to whom people turned for advice and help and he never failed in his duty to be a good husband, brother, parent, friend and neighbour. He was a dapper old soul with exceptional manners and I was so grateful that he was in my mother’s life. He gave my mother a future full of love, hope and laughter where all she had known with my father was fear, pain, physical and mental torture. Her premature death at the age of 64 meant a cruel twist of fate that robbed her of perhaps the best years of her life. But in time I came to be grateful that if she was to die at that time then it was better she went first rather than her witnessing the painful and deeply sad passing of her husband.
It was a long night fielding calls from brothers, sisters, relatives and friends. My head felt like it would burst having to repeat the details of her death, plans for funeral arrangements over and over again. It was like planning a military operation simply because my mother had 9 surviving children, two sisters and one brother and a smattering of other relatives and they all needed to be at her funeral. Finally the phone went silent for the night and myself, my partner, H’s son and daughter in law got down to the business of drinking ourselves to a standstill as all good Glaswegians do in times of sadness, happiness or indeed just because the sun rose again that day. We don’t need much excuse to get ‘tired and emotional’ as it is called back home - the opening of a crisp packet would probably make it onto the list of things to pop a can or two about. I badly needed a drink as all day emotions were running high and simply because I was the one there, answering the phone to my grieving family, I became by default the counsellor, mentor, parental figure for my siblings who were so deeply lost in their grief too and looking for any kind of reassurance that the world wasn’t imploding in on itself. When I replay this day in my mind, I am incredulous that I survived it, as to take on the grief of your siblings as well as your own seems almost too bizarre to comprehend. I clearly remember almost standing outside of myself as autopilot kicked in and I took call after call after call. I can only think that my years of being a senior manager in a professional environment and with all the training that went with that privilege had kicked in and I treated the whole scenario as a project, problem solving exercise that needed to be addressed. It was clearly a coping mechanism that got me through those few distressing hours.
The funeral took place some seven days later; an inordinately long time for my mother’s body to remain unburied but as she had died on a bank Holiday weekend, as coincidentally had my father the previous month, then everything ground to a halt as arrangements could not begin to be made until the following Tuesday. I felt such immense frustration and there were times I got cabin fever from being holed up whilst giving my step family some respite by helping to take care of my step-father as he fought his battle. The funeral arrangements were not without problems and as with all families there were misunderstandings, petty grievances from years before aired once more, alliances rebuilt only to be broken down the next day because grief is a hard task master that demands maturity at a time when all that surfaces is a lost, bewildered and angry child needing the safe haven of a parent to run to. It is almost ridiculous to feel like an orphan when you are in your mid 30’s but simply put that is how every one of us felt at the loss of both parents in such close proximity.
Shortly before the funeral my step-father’s family took him back to his old family home where they provided round the clock care and to allow us to grieve with some privacy. It is with great respect and with some discomfort that you dispose of your parent’s worldly goods. Rooting through drawers and cupboards throws up a mixture of old bric-a-brac, old photographs of happier times you forgot or sad fearful times you can’t forget. It took a few days of constant graft, giving possessions to charities, throwing out things that you hope they would approve of as rubbish and not something that harboured a dear memory for them, allowing family to choose a treasured piece of jewellery to remember her by. But none of it really matters in the scheme of things for possessions are meaningless clutter and it is your memories that keeps them alive; their names uttered on your lips as you talk about them with others who share your loss and share your history and share your deep personal grief.
Finally I left her house and turned to close the door behind me. The home that was once full of love and warmth now echoed a barren and empty sound as the door closed heavily. She was gone from this place and the realisation filled me with dread for the future because I knew that she was no longer going to be part of it. I had closed that door knowing it would be the last time I would hear the peculiar noise it made as the dodgy latch kicked into place; I had closed it knowing that I would never see that door again; knowing that I couldn’t ever come home again for a wee cup of tea with my wee Glasgow mammy; knowing that I would have to find my own sense of ‘well done’ because she was no longer there to tell me that; this was going to be a mammoth task because no one told me ‘well done’ quite as good as my wee mammy ever did - I wasn't up to the task.
Several hours later, several drinks later and sobbing uncontrollably in my home in England, I picked up my phone and dialled her home phone over and over but no one answered. I knew her home was dark, empty and completely abandoned but grief made me hope against hope and with complete irrationality I wished to God that she would pick up the phone and tell me that she lived to fight another day. I understood just how helpless my brothers and sisters had felt when I’d fielded their calls but this time there was no one to answer the phone to me. Oblivion called.