Having written about the serious asthma attack my Mum (pictured left with a 3 year-old me) had, and it’s consequences both for her and for our family, today I am moving on to something altogether more difficult, more painful.
I have never written about this experience before. But now, 12 years on, inspired by a Twitter discussion with a friend about a part of my mother’s story and writing a series about her and her impact on my life, it’s time.
Death and grief is something we don’t like to talk about, yet ironically it’s one experience that pretty much all of us will have to go through at some point in our lives, probably more than once.
Having been through the grief of losing a close family member at a young age, I’ve always felt it’s important that I use what I experienced to serve and bless others who may have been through – or are actually going through – the same. There were tears writing this story, I can assure you – but tears of joy.
As C.S. Lewis says in the film ‘Shadowlands’ (one of my favourite and most moving films, a great film about grief, love, faith and suffering):
“The pain now, is part of the happiness then”
How true that is.
It all happened in April 2000. I was living at the time in a one room flat in Ewell. Mum had visited me the night before to drop off some medication for my epilepsy. To this day I still have no idea where she got it all from – as she left we gave each other one of the biggest, longest hugs ever, what turned out to be our final hug. In hindsight, there was definitely something bigger and deeper about this hug. I looked out the window and watched her go and try to find her car.
This was the last time I saw her alive.
I woke up with a start the next morning, 29th April 2000. I’d been woken by my mobile phone ringing. I had no idea it was even on, I must have left it on overnight. I picked up the phone, half-asleep, and stood up. It was my Dad.
He said, quietly and gently:
“Your mother’s passed away”
I was shocked. Given my Mum’s asthmatic condition and how serious it was, there had always been an outside chance this could happen. Even so, I never really thought it would. I thought she’d live till she was 90 and confound them all – or maybe that was simply me trying to avoid the subject.
But none of that mattered now. Fact was that she had died, at the relatively young age of 52.
Immediately, I went onto autopilot. In hindsight, I can see I decided in that moment that I had to be strong for everyone else, that I had to make sure I was there for everyone, in particular my sister – who was in Thailand at the time. I didn’t even cry that day, actually not for 11 days, until we started preparing her funeral.
In hindsight, it is so clear to me. God sustained me. Gave me strength. Allowed me to go on.
The first thing I had to on the day Mum died do was go to the hospital with Dad to check the body. I met the minister of my Mum’s – and my previous – church, and went to see the body.
It was as surreal experience.
I looked at the body, and it was lifeless. She had gone. It was just a shell now. You hear stories about this happening, but seeing it in the flesh I realised how true this actually was.
Her soul had departed. There was nothing there but a physical body.
It wasn’t her.
It just looked like her.
Like me, my Mum was a Christian – and one of the things I held on to was that this wasn’t really the end for her, she had merely passed on somewhere else, and I would see her again.
Nevertheless, I still wanted her alive.
I didn’t want her to go to heaven just then, thank you.
I wanted her with me right then. Alive.
I had been planning to play cricket that day, but my mind wasn’t even there to play cricket. I think I actually forgot I was meant to be playing at all. My head was spinning, all over the place, I didn’t know what to do or think.
We went back to Mum’s house – which now would become the property of me and my sister – and had a look around. I remember distinctly my Dad at that moment being overwhelmed emotionally, and me having to hug him and take care of him. You’d think it would be the other way round, but that’s how it was. Despite their divorce, my parents were getting on very well and remained good friends – and he had known her for 28 years.
We decided for the next few days I would stay at my Dad’s, so I got some stuff together and went over to his. It was incredible how the news spread, we hardly needed to tell anyone, it seemed the news spread quickly – years before social networking sites.
Still though, I really didn’t know what to do.
I had arranged some drinks with friends that night. I was going to cancel but my Dad told me to go. He said it would be good for me to get out and get some space, and be with friends.
He was so right.
I will never forget that night. It was a truly amazing night. I went out to the pub. It had been a warm, sunny day and it was still very warm, so we sat outside, and the garden backed on to a river.
I sat with these friends, some of whom already knew. I told them what happened and about some of the practical stuff.
And they just sat with me.
They told me they were sorry for my loss and how great my Mum was – those who knew her – and bought me a drink.
And just sat with me.
They didn’t tell me it was all going to be okay. They didn’t say ‘Don’t worry, she’s in heaven’, they didn’t try appease me with platitudes. They simply sat with me, consoled me, and said ‘Whatever you need, we’re here’.
They didn’t demand anything of me. They let me deal with it in my own way, at my own pace. If I wanted to say something, I would. Then we just chatted about practical, day to day things, things you normally talk about with friends.
It was exactly what I needed.
I think God knew that too.
He was with me. I knew that. I knew I wasn’t alone.
In a night after a day where I had lost the most important woman in my life at the time, where suddenly everything I knew was rocked to it’s core and I simply had no idea of where to go…
…it brought some sense to the day.
I didn’t feel alone. No words were needed. Just presence. Just someone to say ‘I’m here if you need me’.
That’s what I needed. God delivered.
In that space, I experienced something of God’s divine comfort, a sense I was not alone, that someone was walking this journey with me. Something I felt for several weeks afterward.
The experience of that night is one I will never forget as long as I live.
It was such a help in dealing with my grief, in coming to terms with what had happened and being able to process it.
I am thankful to all who were there, to my Dad who made me go, and to God – for using it to help me in so many ways.
Above all, I am thankful for the people who simply said “I’m here if you need me”.
Who gave me space to breathe, to receive.
Space to grieve.
Psalm 23 v 4: “For even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”