Revolving Grief: Here’s what I have learnt
Why do birthdays often carry with them such a huge sense of excitement or foreboding? The Big 3-0? The Big 4-0? Comparing ourselves unwillingly to others and succumbing to the pressure of societal expectations to achieve looming life goals; culminating in an Instagram worthy montage of carefully edited posts (discarding the ones which don't quite live up to expectations).
On this special upcoming birthday, however, society cannot be held accountable for the impending trepidation that it brings. I am about to embark on my 44th year, which is something my mum never had the privilege of living. I will soon be the age my mum was when she died. I will soon be older than my mother.
Like so many people who have lost their parents, I feel a renewed sense of loss and abandonment as I am now approaching the age without even my mum as my 'future older self' there to guide me. The revolving doors of grief just keep knocking you back in for another round of hard, painful punches.
My mother died in 1994 from secondary breast cancer. I was 14 years old. I suffered from prolonged grief and depression for decades. Psychologists and counsellors helped along the way with little gems of wisdom but what really got me through was a sense that I knew my mother, I could feel her within me. I had an overwhelming sense of self which I gained from her. I aligned my values to hers because I respected the strong woman she was. I became a teacher (like her), married someone whose values didn’t align with my own (like her), had three children (like her), and divorced (like her).
I am also able to finally acknowledge that by following in her footsteps, I have never actually allowed myself to believe that I will live longer than her. I always believed that I would continue on the same ill-fated, pre-determined path, get breast cancer and die young, leaving my 14 year old daughter to cope with the same spiraling, revolving door of grief. I would become the poor victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy leading myself to an early grave, despite my best crazied efforts at the doctors demanding early mammograms and genetic testing. Let’s face it, not daring myself to dream that my future could be different has not been helpful to my career choices or life decisions. I now realise that it has been a complete waste of time to add to my list of regrets.
So on reflection (and several mini meltdowns later), I have come to the realisation that I finally have the chance to finish my own story, and thereby finishing my mum's at the same time. For the first time, I can actually carve my own path; free from the invisible chains that I found myself tangled in. I let myself imagine what might happen if I marry my fiancé, don't get breast cancer and we live to see retirement! I can finally dare myself to believe that a future exists, free from the burden of living up to my mum’s exemplar decisions and life choices and if I am strong enough to do that then I am pretty sure that societal expectations can totally go to hell! Secretly, for the first time ever, I am actually excited about the next ‘big’ birthday and what the Big 5-0 will bring, mainly because – let's face it - it is an absolute privilege to get there.
Revolving Grief: Here’s what I have learnt.
Each milestone in your life will sadly bring a new renewed sense of loss. You don't get over grief, you learn to adjust so give yourself time to recognise and process these new emotions whenever they arise.
Build meaningful connections in the things you do, people you meet and family you have. Even if these people never met your parent, participate in shared hobbies or talk about them so they understand just what a special person they are to you.
Establish a keen sense of self largely based on the values that have been instilled in you. Aligning your actions to something worthwhile or someone worthy of you. This allows you to continue to make meaningful, life changing decisions throughout all the different stages in your life.
Remember that you don’t just have to carry the grief alone and you are allowed to thrive in spite of it.