The writer Matthew Parris wrote in August 2009 about the grief of losing his father several years on, and I so wish I could send him a letter. If I could, this is what I would say.
Thank you for your wonderful essay about losing your father. I think what I was so grateful for was the permission your piece gave to feel exactly as I do feel about my own mother's death – that there really isn't a single right way to feel or to grieve. I know that rationally of course, and tell others this all the time. I was surprised to read your piece and realise how easy it is to feel that one's own way of grieving is somehow wrong, or 'not good enough'.
Your writing about what it is like, five years after losing your father, and your memories of what it was like straight after he died, gave me the space to feel my own feelings, some two months after losing my mother, and offered me the huge consolation that I do not need to worry about forgetting, or feel guilty about what might have been (or no more than one's unconscious mind already beats one into feeling). There is no need to beat oneself up, or experience certain things, and feel that one has failed if one does not...
I find that I feel 'wobbly' in myself a lot of the time – it's almost physical – and as though slightly removed from the world. I go about my daily business, I nod, and smile and talk to others, and do my work, and life looks from the outside as if everything is back to normal.
It's just that it's not – everything, for me, has changed. It's like the magician's sleight of hand – the frame has moved slightly to the left, and so what I see through the frame looks like a completely different thing now. Mum was my frame, and now she both is and is not my frame. She still is, because she always was, but now it is I who have to go on adding little bits and pieces to that frame, I have to go on building it by myself, because I am the frame for my children.
I accept it, I had the time to accept that things would change while Mum was ill, and now I live with the change, but I won't know, really, how to do it until I have come to the end of doing it. That's what is new: I have had certainty, and now I do not. Except that, of course, I have it in my memory.
I also have the certainty that this is the greatest grief of my life – and, in a very strange way, this too is a consolation, to know just how important she was, through the magnitude of the grief.
Except that this 'magnitude' doesn't translate into 'drama', not in any direct sense. It is very quiet. And it is not 'pain' in any sense that I have known it before. I understand a little now about physical pain (although still not very much, thank goodness). And I've experienced several kinds of emotional pain in my life, and assumed that grief would feel like pain. But it doesn't.
I've been overwhelmed by my feelings so often in my life, but grieving for Mum isn't overwhelming me in that sense. I'm not washed away. That's the whole point. I remain, because she built me, and made sure that I could stand on my own two feet, no matter what came at me, even losing her, even facing my own mortality. That is her legacy. She needed and needs me to pass that test, not to be washed away, in order to live on herself. If I collapse under the weight of my grief, then what will be left of Mum? The point is the continuation. She has taught me that – I didn't know it, or couldn't feel it before she became ill, perhaps because I didn't need to learn that lesson, I could still rely on her.
All my life, I have looked at life as though it were a series of exams to pass, long after I stopped actively passing exams. And each time, the exam was the end in itself, and also the end of the world. I would put everything into passing, without ever really stopping to think about what lay beyond. The end point and the goal were the same thing as the timer in the exam hall. That was my perfectionism, and it's always been my blinkers, what kept me safe, but also blinded me.
I will always have that tendency to treat life like an exam, but now I see that the point is to examine life, not to be examined. Mum judged herself by the scale and quality of what she gave to others, not by what she acquired or achieved herself. The acquisitions and the achievements came alongside her generosity to others.
I found it painful that she put others' needs before her own, even when she was very ill. I wanted her to put her own needs first, or express them more, or be demanding, when she had every right to be demanding.
But now I think that perhaps, in fact, she met her own need by putting other people first. She was happy when she did this. Her need was to be needed.
And she was needed, very much.
Now I have to face life accepting my own version of this – my own need to be needed, which I know is there, and believe in, but have always sat on, because I fear that it turns me into a doormat or a martyr. Now I see that it doesn't – that that quiet inner certainty is the prize. I have always longed to be a calm person, like Mum was – and I am not a calm person, because of course I am not my Mum, I am different, and myself. But her voice is inside me, that I know, if I can only listen to it.
So that is where I am, Matthew. Measuring the loss, knowing that it is loss, and knowing what there is to make of that loss, not haunted or beset by regret, just sad, somewhat lonely, a little worried, but knowing that my worries are minor. Afraid of being wrongfooted by things around me, and swept away, yet more certain than I have ever been of what is right, true, good, through having lost it.
Like you, I know that I will live with grief for the rest of my life, but I do not see that as a prison sentence. Grief is not something to be recovered from. It is not an illness. I'm lucky to have this grief, lucky to be able to know the quality of this feeling. I did not know that, whatever else it is, grief is what sustains us in the face of loss, and compensates us, like a comforting touch, for that loss. Loss comes, and goes, anyway. Grief remains. We go on with it.
Thank you so much for your essay, Matthew. It helps so much.