In October this year, we had an anniversary. It was a Libran birthday, my mother Mary’s. Marking the anniversary was a first for our family, even though her death was many many years’ ago. It wasn’t that we forgot, we just weren’t that good at talking about it. She died in March or April, I can’t exactly remember. I blanked out on the exact date, overtaken by grief, change, my first jobs, other deaths and migration. So I’ve always remembered her most on her birthday in October, and my parents’ wedding anniversary in June.
This year my brother John called. He calls me faithfully on my birthday, and I don’t hear from him much otherwise. But here he was, saying ‘Hello Big Sis, thinking of you on this day.’ We had a long talk. Among other things we recalled some of her sayings. As sure as God made little apples was one. Being a declared atheist didn’t stop her from being biblical. When I was a child I could see the little apples God made shining in the sun on their tree in my mind’s eye, and I simply accepted that things would turn out the way that they were destined to turn out.
When my mom became ill in my late teens, this was not how I saw it. I couldn’t handle it and neither could the rest of the family. We longed for it not to be true. And after she died, in some ways we went on longing for it not to be true. We didn’t talk openly about her being sick, and we didn’t talk openly about her dying, or being dead. We certainly didn’t plan on having an anniversary to remember her the following year. Rather over the years I’ve learned how we can do death better and to help others by offering a range of end of life services.
Now John spoke of his ‘little chats’ with her. Always in the kitchen, sitting on white wooden stools. When? I asked. After school or on the weekend, he said. I mentioned that I’d been thinking of her recently at my friend Nat’s 50th. Seeing how much work had gone into the games, decorations and food, I remembered how Mary used to insist that heaps of work be put into preparing for a party or you couldn’t expect anyone to have fun.
Hearing from John sparked a lot of memories. How she was liked by local shopkeepers – she developed strong relationships in her day to day interactions. How she let me be the first one to see the blue grape hyacinth flowers when they appeared.
I remembered all sorts of things: how she ruled out boring dinners; what she told me when Dr Hendrick Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid was assassinated; and how relieved she was when we could go by ourselves to the dentist.
Fleetingly I pictured a photo somewhere in a drawer of the man she might have or would have married, but he died in the war. This was another entree to fatalism, since if that lover had lived I wouldn’t have existed. But how did we know about him at all, since it would have been out of the question to talk about it? Perhaps my grandmother said?
After my mom died I’d visit my grandmother quite frequently. The reality of the loss hung heavily between us at times, but I don’t think we ever spoke directly about me losing my mother, and her losing her daughter.
We simply weren’t death literate, in today’s terms. We couldn’t bear tears and hurt and sadness. We had to turn away from uncomfortable choked up pain, and rush to talk about other things. We cared. I’m sure we did. We would have liked to say the right thing. We just didn’t know how.
My grandmother and I were able to comfort each other by being together. I don’t think this was the case with my siblings. Each opportunity to talk that we missed made it more difficult to address our losses. Each Libran birthday passed without us saying anything.
When John said that he thought my mom would be proud of what her kids had done I agreed. We made something of the values she valued – education, speaking out, facilitating connections, being worthwhile participants in one’s neighbourhood – and came to express them in Australia.
Today’s understandings of grief and loss highlight the important basics.
- Acknowledging the ‘D’ word. ‘I’m sorry to hear about the death’.
- Thinking well about sleeping and eating.
- Slowing down.
- Understanding. Everyone will grieve quite differently.
- Remembering. Having an anniversary brings people together and keeps memories alive.
Today it’s not thought strange that adjustment takes an extended time. I remember an era when it was generally believed we had to break bonds with the deceased and get on with it. Now I know death ends a life but not a relationship. In this spirit anniversaries like the one we tentatively marked this year are the occasion for being in touch and sharing stories.
We undertake ventures that make meaning of great losses. I felt a great need to do this and began Kinship Ritual. If you saw the ABC documentary with composer Nigel Westlake and musician Lior, I’m sure you would have been touched by the way a parent set out on a venture to honour his child. I hope you have time to have a look at it.
And then there are people like us. In our heart of hearts we wanted to remember, to mark the anniversary, and to talk. And we got there in the end!