Mothers and daughters

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To be serious for a moment…

My mother died in April. She was 83 and had pancreatic cancer, which was expected to kill her within weeks, but in fact she survived nearly five months. It is an ugly disease, and we feared the worst, but she remained independent almost to the end, only entering a hospice, and then a nursing home, in the latter few weeks of her life.

Not long afterwards, my friend C’s mother died of oesophageal cancer at the much younger age of 70. C was with her at the end, and was able to nurse her, but was devastated to see her suffer over a long period of months. Then a couple of weeks ago, T emailed to say her mother too had died. Age 85, this was not from old age, but in a terrible accident. T and her sister – all that’s left of the family – are in a state of shock.

Then there’s my friend F, who is losing her mother inch by inch to Alzheimer’s. In her heyday, her mum was a real force of nature – a tough and sassy businesswoman – but as the disease takes hold, her increasing neediness and fear are breaking F’s heart.

The fact is that we are reaching that age when we lose our parents and there’s nothing we can do about it. For T and myself, this is the second parent, and we both find ourselves ‘adult orphans’, to quote a phrase. Neither of us has children ourselves, and that is perhaps hard – we don’t have their futures and achievements to look forward to. But C and F have the more difficult task – that of aiding their ageing fathers through their own loss and bereavement.

The death of a parent is always a turning point, but losing one when you’re middle-aged yourself provokes much more reflection than when you’re young. I was 24 when my father died of a heart attack, and although the shock was awful and I miss him to this day, I didn’t feel brushed by the hand of mortality in the same way as when my mother went. Now, with her gone, I feel far more keenly that I am the next generation over the edge of that inexorable conveyor belt.

I have no religious belief – I think that when you’re gone, you’re gone, and that lack of belief in itself brings a kind of peace. But when she was diagnosed, it was a struggle not to be angry, to accept the inevitable. My mother had lived a long life – outliving my dad by nearly 20 years – and death comes to us all in the end. But it’s still hard when it’s your mother, and my mother was enjoying her life, her outings, her circle of friends. She was not ready to die.

Nor were we close, which complicated matters in a family that had never been happy. When your mother’s sick, you’re expected to fall into line and behave a certain way, especially as a daughter. But our relationship had never been good and she and I had never been friends. I left home as soon as I was able, at the age of 18, and had seen very little of her since. But nevertheless I did not wish her ill. I did not want her to die.

In an attempt to get my head around some of the emotions I was feeling, and being the bookish type, I read several books that proved very helpful. The first was the classic by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying. Somewhat dated now (its ideas were once considered revolutionary, but are now standard practice in hospitals and hospices), this was the first book to outline the ‘five stages of grief’ – disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. At the very least, it helped me to understand why my mother would never admit to me that she was terminal, whereas she talked with my brother, her executor, quite readily about her funeral arrangements.

When You and Your Mother Can’t be Friends, by Victoria Secunda, however, was a real help to me, if only to know that I was not alone in having such a difficult relationship with my mother (in fact, this book is now doing the rounds in our neighbourhood, where so many daughters seem to have trouble with their mothers). Like myself, Secunda had undertaken the last-minute rush to the bedside of her estranged mother, and she too had gained little from it. When I visited my mother in the hospice, it was the first time we’d met in 15 years and her seeming indifference to me took my husband’s breath away (I assumed it was her illness, but then she had always been the same). I said goodbye with relief, and although I did not see her again, if I could not be loving I tried at least to be kind, and sent her books and music, and the flowers that she loved, until she died a few weeks later, just before Easter.

Losing Your Parents, Finding Yourself, again by Secunda, is another good book, though not as good as the first (it’s the earlier work, and it shows). This outlines the differences that losing a parent makes in your life, and it was interesting to see how for so many people it had been a watershed – a catalyst to marriage, to divorce, to changing career or starting a family. Many people said it had been the biggest change in their lives.

I don’t know if there will be any great change in my own life, but the truth is that with my mother’s death in some ways I feel relieved of a burden. I no longer have to beat myself up about not being a ‘good’ daughter, about avoiding her phone calls, about pretending there’s someone at the door to cut a conversation short. Our relationship was what it was – and I wish it had been better. But now it’s over and I am grateful to longer have to worry about it.

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