In a dreadful parody of the Richard Curtis film, I recently had cause to attend three funerals between 25th March and 19th April, with nary a wedding in sight: one of my late mother’s brothers aged 89, my late father’s only sibling aged 82 and a friend in her fifties. I was reasonably OK with the first two to be honest. They were a great opportunity to catch up with family and, let’s face it, hymns, tears, laughter, a drink and a big family party, there’s something reassuring about the rites and rituals of a funeral.
Not so the third one. That was just plain sad and despite seeing lots of friendly faces who I hadn’t seen in years, many of whom couldn’t remember my name and just called me The Accountant, I couldn’t wait to get out of there after having paid my respects. It was also a freezing cold day which never makes a funeral any better, bitter as they already sometimes are for myriad different reasons.
At the funeral of my auntie in North Wales, on a lovely sunny Spring day and in a pretty village where everything was within walking distance – her house, the church and the pub where we had the family party and caught up sharing fond memories, often from childhood, I was attempting to explain something reassuring to her two bereft sons as I was leaving. I was trying to share something of the wisdom of one who has lost both parents. I was saying that whilst the grief is awful and, no, you never get over the loss of your mother, with time the worst of the pain does pass and you realise that despite now being in the front rank mortality-wise, you are in a new and liberating phase of your life.
You no longer have to factor in respect for your parents’ worldview before you do, think or say anything. And you are liberated from the burdens, if any, of caring for elderly parents and they can be many, as you can no doubt imagine; you don’t need me to list them. The fact is that while our parents are alive, they need to be factored in to a great many decisions and opinions and life moves. And that’s just fine. It’s a quid pro quo. In return you have their company and their love and often much more than that too.
And then they shuffle off. And you are initially cast low but, speaking personally, I am in a newly liberated space now. I am freed up for the first time in my life to live my life 1oo% for myself, precisely as I would wish and perhaps not as selfishly as that sounds. It is a unique form of liberation.
I was aware that, as I was trying to explain this to my cousins, I was being overheard by another family member who had lost her own mother only eight months before and was still in the early phases of mourning and grief. So it may have been still raw for that person and quite possibly hard to hear my own thoughts and feelings, those of an “orphan” since 2005, a bit long in the tooth with it now and fully reconciled to my loss.
I really think the best thing we, the bereaved, can do is to help others for whom the pain is fresh and – as I say – raw, help them over the initial humps, providing a listening ear, helping with tricky decisions and reassuring. I can remember all too readily precisely how it feels though I am out the other side, for sure. I knew I wasn’t doing a particularly good job of explaining my experience and I suspect, in hindsight, they probably were just nodding and smiling politely rather than taking in what I was trying to say. You often sleep-walk through the days of your parents’ funerals. It can feel like being in a strange play where you are under-rehearsed, thankfully.
After returning from North Wales, I read something which precisely explained what I was trying to say. It was a quote from Jung in a book called Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott which I heartily recommend:
Jung, sometime after his beloved wife died, said “It cost me a great deal to regain my footing. Now I am free to become who I truly am.”
And there you have it. It may cost you a great deal to regain your footing but then you are free to become who you truly are in a unique space and time in your life. This may be less true if you are a parent than single, like me, because you are not yet generation-less, nor will you ever be, but I think there is some truth in it, well lots of truth in it so far as my own life experience goes.
Have you discovered the freedom to become who you truly are after the death of your parents, or after any life circumstance come to that?