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My grief journey

Last night I listened to Reverend Richard Coles and journalist Arifa Akbar talk about their journey of grief as part of Bradford Literature Festival.

Rev Coles spoke of the death of his partner Rev David Coles to alcoholism in 2019 and Arifa Akbar spoke of the death of her sister aged just 45 to tuberculosis.

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the death of my own mother who died of non-hogkins lymphoma aged just 51. Here is my story of grief. 

In 1999 as a 23-year-old trainee newspaper reporter at the Harrogate Advertiser I took a call that was to change my life forever.

The call was from my older brother. “You need to leave work,’ he said, “the doctor wants to see us about mum, I think it’s worse than we thought.” 

At the time, my mother, who was 51 was having treatment for a type of cancer called non-hodgkins lymphoma. She had been diagnosed in the May, it was now just a few weeks later in early July. 

I knew my mother had been poorly but I had assumed everything would be fine, she would recover. She just had to.

I took the 45 minute journey from Harrogate to Bradford Royal Infirmary and was taken into a room with my Dad and two brothers.

“There’s nothing else we can do for her,” said the doctor, and the rest of what he said I simply cannot remember.

It just couldn’t be true, it had to be a mistake. Mum was our rock, she was the glue that held us all together she was our everything. She was the strongest woman I knew, this could not happen. 

I stood at a window looking across the hospital car park and said to my brothers. “What do we do now.” 

The thing about death is lots of things need ‘doing’ and it came as a huge relief to us all that much organising now had to take place.

We wanted her home; a bed had to be brought for downstairs bedroom, our cousin Lisa who is a nurse agreed to come and stay and help.

We had to dash back and forth to the pharmacy, people had to be phoned and told what was happening. 

She came home on the Thursday and for the next few days my Dad, Lisa and I cared for her in every way we could, day and night. 

At the time it felt like burden too difficult to bear, later I was to realise it was in fact the greatest honour of my life to care for the women I so dearly loved in her last few days. 

She was home for less than a week but it seemed to last an eternity. Nurses came and went, family brought quiches, friends visited, endless cups of tea were made.

My desperate need to see her out of pain jarred with my fear of having to say goodbye to this woman I loved so very much. 

On the morning of Monday, July 5 I was sleeping on the floor next to her bed when my cousin urged me to get some proper sleep.

“Go upstairs,” she said, “I’ll come for you if anything happens.” 

I felt like I had just shut my eyes when Lisa came in the bedroom and said: “Rose… it’s time.”

I went downstairs and sat next to her bed to watch her take her last few breaths before she was at last out of pain. 

My brothers were called and we all stood in our family home drowning in grief and stunned at what had unfolded in the previous few days.

For reasons I can’t remember her body was kept in our house that day and that night.

Later that evening I realised that she didn’t have any nail varnish on her toes, my mum always had bright pink nail varnish.

So that evening I quietly crept into the room and I knelt down and painted her nails, it felt like the last thing I could do for her and I know she would have been glad of it. 

My journey through grief has been long, difficult and unrelenting at times. 

I now know when you love someone so deeply, grief is not something you ‘get over’ but rather a constant companion you have to learn to live with.

I have had to sit with the excruciating pain of grief while thinking it might consume me completely and have raged at grief and the unfairness of it all. 

I have clung to every last drop of her, I have walked where she walked, watched films she loved, listened to her favourite music just to be near to her. 

I’ve sat with a stash of letters she wrote to me and poured over them and spoken endlessly to about her. 

Over time the harshness of grief has eased and I am now able to look back fondly on our time together, smile at happy memories and be grateful for the time I did have with her.

Occasionally the sharp pain of grief reappears, ironically it is often at the most joyful times in my life; the birth of my two sons in particular.  

What I do know is that no matter how painful it has been along the way I was more than prepared to endure it to have her in my life, to feel her influence and her love in those 23 years. 

Grief is one of the hardest realities of our lives but something we just cannot avoid if we want to love deeply and wholly as we all must do.