A month has gone by since my mum passed away.

I returned home two weeks ago and, since then, the intensity of the whirlwind which was her final few days has loosened into an ever-present anxiety about completing the clearance of her flat at a distance.

To do so has relied on the kindness of strangers (lovely removal men, who brought a number of her possessions to me last week), and the kindness of an old friend who – as I sit here, and only just realise – I have known for 30 years this September.

It has been painful, unsettling, and revelatory to discover that I can rely on others to do the things that they promised to do, without resentment or passive-aggression on their part. To be in exhaustion and overwhelm over how much was yet to be done at my mum’s flat, and to have my dear friend Bronwen reply to each new realisation with “Not a problem x”.

It is a form of love which perhaps others take for granted. To me it feels so contradictory to the stories I tell myself about the world, that my nervous system struggles to process it.

As it does with my mum’s death. What a strange sentence to write; undeniably true, and yet seemingly impossible.

I am grateful that the Google algorithms took kindly to me just as my mum passed, and pointed me to a brief overview of Mary-Frances O’Connor’s new book, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss.

In the article there are 5 key insights, from how grief is different from grieving, and how the latter is a form of learning.

But the three which I’m taking comfort from are, firstly, that it’s normal to feel my mum’s here and not here simultaneously. Memories of her passing conflict with the bonding which believes she’ll always be here;

“We don’t have to rely on being in their presence for this belief to endure. We could never go our separate ways to work every day if we didn’t have a deep belief that we would come back together again at the end of the day. If our loved one isn’t here, our brain believes that they are simply somewhere else, and motivates us to seek them out, or get their attention so they will come back to us.

But these two streams of information—from our memory and from this attachment belief—conflict. We hear grieving people say, “I know they’ve died, but it just feels like they will walk through that door again any minute.” That is because the grieving brain can hold these two mutually exclusive truths at the same time. The brain has a hard time figuring out how to operate in the world when experiencing two conflicting streams of information.”

Mary-Frances O’Connor, Next Big Ideas Club

Secondly, that regretful thinking is normal. I have found myself ruminating in the quieter moments, wishing that I could have reached her sooner, that I should have known that she would pass so quickly after I reached her (despite her medical team being caught by surprise, too), that I should have done more despite my own health challenges and the constraints of the pandemic. But as O’Connor points out,

“The trouble with not living in the present moment is that, although it contains grief and anger and pain, the present moment is also the only way to experience delight and connection and love and silliness and pride.”

Mary-Frances O’Connor, Next Big Ideas Club

I’m aware that when I ruminate a part of me is unsure whether it’s okay to find joy in the moment after such a loss, or to feel relieved to be in my own home again, and is asking: am I a good person, despite the choices I made? How could I not know how things would play out? Could I have been a better daughter? These are questions designed not to be answered, for the outcome cannot be changed now, but to self-punish; knowing that they’re normal allows me to access a little self-compassion through a sense of shared experience and common humanity.

And finally, the one which perhaps brings the most bittersweet of comforts; that bonding with someone, loving them, physically encodes them into us;

“Our brain is different because they loved us and we loved them. Those changes are a physical manifestation of our love, forever allowing us to connect with them through more than memories.”

Mary-Frances O’Connor, Next Big Ideas Club

While there are visible physical inheritances I’ve received from my mum (being a carbon-copy of her skeletal structure, and replicating the moles on her left forearm, being the most obvious), she is also folded into the very proteins of my brain. I carry her with me, literally, as I carry with me the imprint of all those I have loved and, indeed, have lost.

What a painful, powerful, beautiful gift that love leaves us with, when those we love leave us.

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Photo by Mayu via Pexels

2 thoughts on “After the storm

  1. When a woman is pregnant, her cells exchange with those of the developing foetus constantly. You and your mother share(d) actual physical matter that makes you up. You have a piece of her living within you, thanks to human biology.

    1. Thank you. And, as the eggs in her ovaries were formed when she herself was in utero, I guess I carry some of my grandmother with me, too 🙂

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