I smile and offer some semblance of a “Fine! Thanks for asking” each time somebody enquires after my well-being. It’s what I have always done, and likely what I will always do. What else should I say? If I tell the truth, the enquirer’s eyes will glaze over; they will nod in certain knowledge that they know exactly how I am feeling right now; they will likely offer condolence or even a general guide to how long this will last.
Our emotions don’t come from the heart even though there is most definitely a link between our state of mind and this powerful organ. Its not called a broken heart for nothing. While women of a ‘certain age’ can apparently suffer most often from the aptly named ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ almost anybody can be affected and it is often caused by a massive elevation of stress hormone.
Grief has been labelled as ‘post-traumatic stress’ and while this might seem extreme, when you are experiencing it for yourself, it is a very real and very powerful feeling. The strongest of emotions can leave their mark on a healthy heart and the vacuous, constricting, powerfully desolate feeling of loss is among the deepest of traumatic stresses one can imagine, while far removed from war and terror.
Seven years is a long time. You would imagine it to be long enough to come to terms with the fact that a close loved one is going to leave you. You would imagine it would be easier; having experienced the absolute pain that comes from consultant after consultant sitting you down to tell you that your loved one is unlikely to make it through the night or beyond. You could imagine that after being told this on several occasions, the likelihood of being prepared for the end would be high. You could imagine this; but you would be wrong. Each time that loved one is brought back to us, lives to experience another morning’s air, is able to return back to their home until the next ‘episode’; each time is another time that we are filled with the false hope that they will be here forever. The hope that the consultants are wrong, because they were ‘wrong’ every time before.
So, when the call finally arrives, the call you have dreaded but also the call you thought would never come; when that call comes and a stricken voice at the end of the phone tells you, “I think she is dead.” When that call arrives, you go through the motions of arranging what has to come next. Auto-pilot kicks in but you still don’t accept that the unexpected has happened as it turned out so differently every time before.
There is so much to arrange. As next-of-kin and executor to the deceased’s Will there is everything to do and nothing but sadness to be gained. Our loved one will not return, the death certificate will be delivered, copies obtained, the Will executed, the house and contents to be dealt with and finally sold, personal effects to be distributed. Auto-pilot continues on – day after day – doing what is necessary, making sure everyone else is ok, keeping everyone sane and comforted.
But she is surely still not gone. The unsettling feeling that she has not passed away, she is still there waiting for that catch up phone call; waiting for that visit with food carefully prepared and frozen for her, waiting for those visits where we could only speak through a closed kitchen/conservatory window, those visits where we could not hug our loved one who was desperate for just a little touch, some human contact after those lonely pandemic-ridden months.
My heart. That swollen, constricted but empty feeling in my chest. It, too, is still there. My chest rises and falls, unaided; my lungs feel unable to empty and involuntary huffs escape my mouth at times unexpected. I speak to a professional. No apparent reason for those huffs can be explained.
I stop asking the professionals – they think I am clamoring for attention. They should read my file. I rarely contact them. Don’t they know that I am screaming out for help, for advice, to know that I now feel so much more mortal than I have ever felt in my life? My blood pressure is raised, my ears regaling me with a monotonous, non-stop, high-pitched ringing that is with me day and night, offering me the assurance that I am still living and breathing. My head relives every moment of our last encounter, my head relives every time I spoke an angry word, my head relives every negative moment we shared. My head is driving me mad. I want to make things right; to apologise for being a brat as a teenager, to apologise for not understanding the dreadful loneliness of those final years, to apologise for not being ‘there’ more.
My heart responds with the happier memories; the memories of a happy childhood, memories of hospital visiting where we put the world to rights as she lay there for days on end, bled dry by her debilitating illness, memories of far more happy times than sad times, of a mother who cared so deeply yet reigned back her emotions to allow us to find our own path. A mother who is no longer here. Yes, I said it, but my head is overcome by my heart and I still reach out to pick up the phone every lunchtime to have a quick catch-up call, to arrange when we will bring the next batch of home-cooked food, to try to persuade her to come out with us for a drive and get some fresh air, to simply make sure she is still as ok as she ever will be.
Every time I reach for the phone or allow my thoughts to take centre-stage is another time to swallow back the rivers of tears I still have left to cry. I have to block out thoughts of my own mum for fear of losing control. I need and want to cry but fear the tears will never stop. But when you ask me if I am ok, I will continue to answer, “Fine!” because its what we do.
The house, her house, the house where I was born, the house where my brother and I enjoyed a normal, happy childhood. ‘The house’ as it has become, will be sold soon. The house where our whole lives were shaped and where both of our parents lived until the end will no longer be ours to frequent. We will no longer tend the garden because the young couple who are just starting out on their journey together will move in. They will change it; modernise it; make it their own and no trace of our former lives will remain.
I wish I had been given the chance for a final chat, a final hug, a final anything, before she passed away so suddenly and, in my mind, so unexpectedly. Yes, I knew she was ill, very ill, and yes, I knew the time would come one day, but I still didn’t expect it to happen the way it did; alone save for her poor little dog and, I am certain, frightened. I would have been there had I known, but we don’t know. We don’t know when the unexpected is going to happen, we can’t plan for those final moments. We never know when a broken heart will strike and how long it will remain broken.
Hug your loved ones often. Call your loved ones often. Tell your loved ones that they are loved and cherished – often. Pay attention to what they are saying – listening is different to hearing. Those unanswered questions will remain unanswered when they are gone and their chair will be forever empty. Be there for your loved ones because, believe me, a broken heart takes forever to mend.