No one tells you what it’s like to have a loved one die.
Halfway through my gap year, I decided I wasn’t going back to study. The allure of perpetual recreation and having enough money outweighed the idea of coursework and exams twice a year. I didn’t think I could do it, so why would I try?
Originally, I’d put off uni for a year because my mother was sick. Lung cancer. Two to three years in, it had already taken one lung, and much of her independence. “Just in case,” I decided, “I don’t want to have study commitments in case it happens.”
I didn’t expect her to die.
My brother, father and I were sitting in the hospital room, waiting to see what would happen next. This was the first time I’d ever experienced something like this, I didn’t know what to do. No one really tells you how to act. I looked across at my brother and father, sitting forward in their chairs, staring at my mother’s body. “It’s just us,” I thought.
“You only have each other,” Mum would remind my brother and I when we fought. I was so sold on the idea that my mother would always be there. Like, yeah sure, she’d probably die one day, but not before I’d moved out and shown her the life I could build for myself. Not before she met the love of my life and maybe our kids. Not before I was ready. But here we were.
I just wanted for things to go back to normal. At 22, I was trying to maintain some sort of independence when suddenly, the person I’d depended on most was gone. The week after her funeral, I went back to work and everything felt normal. I felt okay.
I would joke about her at parties. I’d take a drag on a cigarette, and when someone told me I’d get cancer, I’d laugh and say, “It runs in the family!” People would look at me, aghast. On one occasion, I made a guy cry because I was so nonchalant about the whole thing.
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you may have heard the following sentence a hundred times over: “Everyone grieves differently.” I figured I’d already grieved. I thought crying for a week and missing her every day was grieving, but it turns out that holding it together is vastly different to being okay.
Driving alone one night a few months later, it hit me. A wave of grief. I sobbed over the steering wheel, trying hard to keep my eyes clear and on the road. Somehow, I made it home safely, and collapsed into bed. That wave of grief crashed and dissolved, but it dawned on me that it wasn’t the last time I’d feel like that.
The lowest moments were the ones from which I grew the most. Crying in my room, I desperately wanted something to prove that I wasn’t alone. Anything to say she was still there. I sifted through every cliché, but no butterflies landed eerily on my shoulder. Instead, there was guilt. Tiny reminders every day that I hadn’t done enough. That I should have told her that I’d move heaven and earth to have her healthy. That I hadn’t shown her how to use the DVD player. That, at 4am when we received the phone call to say she’d died, I should have been there with her. But feeling guilty brought nothing back. Eventually, it led me to one place: there was no ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’. There is what has happened, and a million things that could have happened instead, but didn’t.
All my decisions began to have the underlying murmur of, “if not now, when?”. I realised that I couldn’t keep waiting to live my life. I was terrified to feel grief and loss, but it pushed me to want to do things I’d been too scared to attempt before.
I said “I love you,” to my boyfriend as he climbed out of my car after we’d had a huge fight. I was honest and open with my family, rather than closing myself off in an effort to maintain appearances. I started to try to move forward, even when it hurt to feel like I was leaving something behind.
What else was there to lose, except the people I loved?
I finished my degree in 2016 and picked up my graduation certificate from my dad’s house, where it had been delivered. He’d left the envelope next to a framed photo of mum, from their wedding day.
She smiled at me through the glass, and I smiled back.