Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Rites and rituals

For the first time in five years I am conscious it's the anniversary of my mum's death tomorrow. I have remained stubbornly hazy on the date and defiantly busy or oblivious up until now. There are very mixed motivations at work here, I think. Partly I don't feel it's a date that particularly merits imbuing with special significance (her birthday falls only 7 days later, and is surely more worthy of marking), partly I am terrible at the rituals, of which more later, partly, oh, I don't know, I just want to avoid feeling bad? My chest gets a tight, compacted feeling when I think about it, and I try to push the feeling away by thinking about whether we need kitchen roll, and if Lashes's eczema is getting worse and if I paid the gas bill. I kind of knew it was the 28th, but I still felt compelled to check.

So now I know. What now? Nothing, probably. I can't ever find a meaningful way to mark these occasions. I've lit candles, many many candles. My mother was always finding a church wherever she was (despite being an exceptionally lapsed Catholic) and lighting a candle for some or other person she was worried about. We went the morning after she died and lit candles in York Minster and though the gesture was absolutely right, one she would have absolutely done herself, it was hollow for me. Everything I've tried feels empty. I've sat in the undertakers with my sister and a Diptyque candle, and a coffin, neither of us quite sure what we thought we were doing, I've been to a tree planting, I've been for ceremonial afternoon tea at Bettys Tea Room, to Quaker meeting once, and several times, uncomfortably, awkwardly, to the cemetery. I feel like I'm trespassing; I hover around uncomfortably for a couple of minutes, my eyes swithering away from the headstone because it makes me feel odd, and leave. It feels artificial if I bring flowers, crass if I don't. I can't connect with any of it. I could read poetry or listen to music; she loved both passionately. I can't. It's not even like I hate all ritual - I treat birthdays with elaborate reverence, mark Advent, Christmas, Easter, with huge enthusiasm. But I can't find a single thing to do on these days that feels right for me. I suppose I still think there's nothing right about her dying; a decorous, fitting tribute feels inappropriate. It suggests a finality I don't feel.

So here I am, this lumpen secularist, atheist, without the tools or the vocabulary to mark days like this. It's a bit bleak - I feel like I'm lacking, somehow. Spiritually barren. I almost wish for the codes of Victorian mourning - full, second, half - with a dress code to match. I'm good at black. Add some Whitby jet earrings, and I could at least feel I had the comfort of a prescribed ritual. Grief doesn't have rules or a roadmap, we hear all the time, but I find myself wishing it still did.

At least I'm not pregnant this year. I can comply with age old Yorkshire custom and get properly drunk. It's what she would have wanted.


justme said...

As usual, I have nothing useful to say at all. But I feel for you. I have just come back from a trip north to sort out my mum's stuff.....I feel as though everything I feel is wrong. Hugs. Virtual hugs. Its all I have to offer...

Belle_Lulu said...

I often read your blog Emma, and I sometimes find myself caught up in your clever quippage and intellectual banter on Twitter too. I would love to have the quickness of wit and the facility of language you seem to inhabit with such ease. But never before has a blog of yours had such an impact on me. I too struggle to understand grief, my own or that of others. I seem strangely unable to access the tears and sniffles appropriate to loss and distress. I find I can cry along with TV heroines who receive the news that their cancer is terminal, but fail to find the requisite emotion when my beloved aunt gets the same news.

I don't understand it either but I do at least now know that I'm not a strange aberration. Or at least that if I am, I have a companion in this!

L x

carla_fern said...

Days like this are meant to pass with memories of a dear person who you shared your younger years admiring, trusting and loving with all your heart.
The poetry, her laugh and the way she made you feel have all become a part of you.
You have become the focal point of your children's lives, it is as the Lion King says 'the circle of life'.

Celebrate the bond you and your mom had and believe that you are who you have become as a direct result of it, certainly not the black sheep of your family, as you tweeted earlier but a woman with memories, love and a mind of her own.
Have that glass of wine and thank her for helping you become who you are today, you are wonderful.

justarabbit said...

My gran is in the kitchen. She'd never go to the funerals of those she loved, instead she'd stay busy in the kitchen making sure everything would be right for afterwards. But even though I know that's where she is, I'm always left with the feeling that I can't find her. I'm hoping for some kind of reverie, but it's not there. She's gone. I've got memories, lots of them, but not that feeling of connection.

I'd hoped that an annual Day of the Dead ritual would help, but it feels hollow to me. I wish I had more to keep me connected.

Anonymous said...

I think you've just done her proud with this post personally.
Have a drink for me,

fountain pen sue said...

You write so beautifully. I have nothing useful to say either only that we do not mark anniversaries in our family. We send them on their way and we remember them with honour and love. You are doing what you need to do. It doesn't get easier but we do find a way to deal with it, eventually, or so I tell myself. I am thinking of you. x

citycas said...

Is this a catholic guilt, that you should be feeling more spiritual. Surely the humanist view is much more approriate?

When some one we live passes away, the sadness is often selfish but understandable. When it is some we admire so much, there is the regretfulness, that it was too soon, that grand-children or more of the world should appreciate that person. If this is the case, then the person obviously lived a very full and meaningful life, and that should be remembered fondly and celebrated, not mourned.

A parent that loved must have been tremendously influential in your life, in how you think, act and react. Just being yourself should be fitting tribute in itself.

Get yourself a glass of wine, raise it to your mothers memory. Think about what she'd be tilling you if she read your blog tonight and realised you were low.

Anonymous said...

Fran is right - you are talking about it with all us peoples of the internet, which in itself is a more eloquent way to talk about remembrance than any number of quaker/cemetery/flower fests.

When my granddad died I didn't speak at the funeral - it was a hideous way to remember him. It was held at a david lynch inspired welsh crematorium with my dad in tears and the vicar literally hogging the pulpit (he wouldn't MOVE when my dad did his reading - he just sort of made him share - it was hideous) I was a pallbearer - but my grandad had a big wicker coffin, so my dominant memories of the day tend to focus on thinking about how I effectively carried my grandad in a giant picnic basket.

I digress - instead of doing a reading at his funeral I made him a webpage (www.housers.net) on which I put lots of pictures of him and his memoirs (which are actually rather good)

This was in 2004 - its still there, and I did it because it would have tickled him. He would be chuffed that he is up there in digital perpetuity - Its a more fitting place for him than in his urn, which was being used as a doorstop by my grandmother the last time I checked.

So you talk about how you feel on the internet - really bloody well, who says that isn't just as effective as anything else.

Love from Dougie x

Anonymous said...

If you can't go somewhere where you can remember her (and I don't mean a cemetery - I can go to my mother's to remember my dad - I can picture him sitting in his chair,and I like to sit there. I don't exactly have to go far to remember my husband) then think of her, look at her photo, wear something of hers. Just let the memories flow. It doesn't need a ritual. Just think.

Hänni said...

You have not had an easy time of it lately, have you? *Hugs*

annie said...

I think the empty's what there is, because they're gone. empty is what's left, and the ritual is so that other people know that you have empty and you don't have to perform grief on their terms, you just have it on your own terms in your own time. that was the truly excellent thing about proper mourning - it gave form and process to something inherently massively destabilizing. all that black, and you didn't have to take it off until you were done. now it's the uniform of the sleek young hipster and just everyone all the time. also, the texture of victorian crepe is vile.

We're sort of incompetent in my family. We can get our dead people cremated, but then we can't get organized, even, to decant them into nice urns or tins or really anything. And this means that you can basically check out the ashes of the dead person you need to have around, if you need them. which can be useful.

Probably 12 years after my uncle, who was to all intents and purposes one of my parents, died, I took his ashes on a road trip. There were big changes afoot in my life, and I missed him terribly. At the end of trip, I was strangely comforted - not really for myself, but somehow the desperation and the hollowness of my grief was gone. I do still miss him, especially as I am older now than he was when he died and I get angry that he missed so much life when he loved it so, but somehow even though the symbols and the rituals remain irrelevant, I have some peace around the loss of him now.

and the whole thing really was absurd. absurd. my car broke, and I borrowed the once and future's convertible, so it was me, a dog (surprise!), and that absurd brown corrugated box, layered in ziploc baggies from maine to san diego and back again. and I knew it was absurd, ridiculous, nothing to do with anything at all and the opposite of practical use, but I couldn't do anything else, and it was - well, I don't know what it was. helpful, is what it was.

so to the extent that I'm capable of ever making a point today, there's no way to grieve. it's not math or the law, and you don't get scored on it. there's just what you do because you're who you are, and eventually you will land on the thing that works for you, and much of that has to do with surviving it and not punishing yourself for surviving it.

Liberty London Girl said...

I am thinking of you, thinking of your mother. Much love LLGxx

katyboo1 said...

oh my love.
You could always try smashing something.
I spect that's what I'd do in the circs.
And then get drunk, as you say.
Love, Kx

Unknown said...

My Dad died 5 years ago last June - the anniversaries pass and they are ok, not great but ok. I am aware of them and I think of him but it is when something good happens - an achievement for me, or my husband who he respected, or the kids that I miss him so badly. I am 42 years old and the need to make him proud never goes away. We have tried hard and worked hard and had some luck and achieved some things and he would have enjoyed those so much. When your Mum was alive it was the day to day things that mattered, not the anniversaries. That hasn't changed now.

MargotLeadbetter said...

I agree with the idea of marking people's birthdays, and just trying to get through their deathdays as best you can.

And as others have said, you are celebrating your mum by telling us about her.

Also the getting drunk thing.

LaurenR said...

My ex-husband lost both his parents, and though they weren't my parents, I was very fond of them and still feel their absence. Sometimes I just like to think about them. I tell my son about his grandparents sometimes. Funny stories or things about what kind of people they were. I like the idea that when I am gone my son will maybe just think about me sometimes -- just sit still and let his memories and thoughts come -- and maybe share some of them with his children.

You've got a lot going on, though. Maybe this isn't the year for thinking too much, eh? Maybe the deep thinking can wait. :)

linda said...

I have struggled for the last two years in very similar ways with marking the anniversary of my father's death. Thank you for writing this and for articulating the artificial vs crass element for me -- *yes.*

the queen said...

It's only year and a half since Mom died, but for the first anniversary my friends and I held a Lobster Slaughter. I boiled lobsters in honor of the strong practical nature she gave me. The nature that allowed me to hospice her to death, per her wishes. Dark. She would have loved it.

WrathofDawn said...

I'm not given to the public observances, either. I prefer to remember my parents daily in a happy way and just allow a bit of misery to creep in on birthdays and death days. They've been gone quite a bit longer than your mom, though.

I miss them most when good things happen and I don't have them to celebrate with. I am royally pissed that neither of them lived to see some of the clever stunts I've pulled in the past few years.

The nerve of them.

Also, they are jointly responsible for my wrong sense of humour. The above "nerve" comment would have been typical of either of them.

diabolo said...


Thank you for writing this. No words will aid you tomorrow, that much I know. I lost my mother and father 21 years ago. I was 3. My main carer subsequently was my grandmother, she died when I was 9. Such days feel much more full of grief when you are undergoing difficulty, because it is when you need them, when you want someone who understands you implicitly, and who loves you unconditionally to be by your side. If I were you I would try to put the usual Wednesday woe aside and spend some quality time with Fingers and Lashes, passing on the love that your wonderful mother gave to you. No sitting eating bad chocolate and dreaming of gin cocktails. Tomorrow, as contrived as it sounds, live as how she would have done.

Lots of love to you xx

SUEB0B said...

"Everything I've tried feels empty."

I absolutely know what you mean.

Anonymous said...

I would sit on a sofa and share your memories of her, photos, stories and such, with your children. Then drink lots of wine and toast her memory.

mothership said...

Oh Emma. There is no way out but through, eh?
Maybe a long walk and a chat to her. I talk to my dead grandmother every year on her birthday and it's enormously comforting. Stumbling along crying in a field somewhere and telling her your woes could be awfully cathartic and then you could come home and have a cup of tea, eat some biscuits and then I don't know..Not good at this kind of thing, but nobody is, are they?
Sad for you and thinking of you.

tigerbaps said...

Oh Waffle. My husband died when he was 29 "leaving me" with two very young children. Hannah doesn't remember her dad, she was 18 months when he died. I don't do rituals either. I rarely go to the cemetery (I once ran out of the car, and 'frisbeed' a holly wreath on to his grave from a few feet away, because it was raining. I'm not proud of that!). I don't remind anyone when 16th May comes around - what's to celebrate? Why remember that date? Despite being in a new relationship and stuff (it's now 17 years later) I think about Eddie every day, not consciously, but how can I not think about him, when I look at my two beautiful daughters now 23 and 18 and see him in them? Hannah never knew her dad, but she has his mannerisms, and that gladdens my stony heart. I'm an atheist, and don't believe in life after death etc, but looking at my daughters faces with their dads features and the way they sometimes look at me, means that he lives on in them.That doesn't help you, sorry, but I just wanted to share it. x (Woops I've just realised I've turned your story round to being about me. Scottish people are good at that!)

Laura said...

My gran died on New Years Eve about 4 years ago (I can't remember how long exactly and although I could look at the funeral card, I just don't want to). I've found it so hard every year since then, especially on that day - we were very close.

I think that she would want to be remembered happily, so I try not to think too much and just get the day over with.

Just do what makes you happy today, it's hard enough to get through like that - I'm sure that's what your mum would want. Think about her life, not her death.

Thinking of you. x

Anonymous said...

My father died 10 years ago - as a father he was pretty crap, but as a person, we got on so well together. He was a computer geek before the word existed and every now and then when I discover something new on the internet, I suddenly find myself about to send him an email with the link ...
Are you Ektorping today?

Z said...

I deliberately don't remember death anniversaries if I can help it. I'm going to have to push the thought of the 40th anniversary of my father's death in January away (fortunately, I've slightly forgotten it - I've a choice of three dates, one is the day my stepfather died and one is when a particularly favourite dog was born. Actually, I know, but I *won't* know) and celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth next July instead - which is still artificial but at least feels more of an occasion. There's someone who writes in the visitor book in the church on my mother's birthday every year which I rather like.

Ritual does nothing for me either. Meeting someone who is pleased to find I'm the daughter of my parents and has an anecdote about one of them brings me the most pleasure. I suggest that you get quietly drunk and talk to your mother. She's the only person who can comfort you and you know what she would say. Listen to her - I'm not being religious or spiritual in saying that. You can speak for her or hear her in your memory.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

I occasionally mark my mother's birthday - not the passing - in the place where we scattered her ashes - An island she was very fond of. I am such a big baby that I have not even got around yet to doing the same for my poor dad who died 4 years ago in March, and those were his wishes - So he lies, in a parlour somewhere, waiting... Somehow, I don't think he'd mind, and I think he understands that I haven't been able to do that oh so final thing yet...

Remember her in your own rituals Emma, not others... Light a candle in the home, buy a rose for her, or whatever her favourite flower or scent was, drink to her memory, share happy memories with the bratfinks, think warmly of her as you do, but she would not wish you ever to waste your whole life in misery, would she? I know my dad would be the same...

Be glad that we had them in our lives, guiding us and protecting us, and the Adult Orphan feelings still live on, hein?!

Love and light to you and yours, Fhina xox

JChevais said...

My dad died in 2002 and I remember, before we decided to let nature take its course and let him slip away that I hoped to heaven that he wouldn't die on my birthday.

That sentiment alone is what haunts me.

He didn't. His body waited three days before giving up. I still think of him but never know what to do.

Margaret said...

One of the things ritual is supposed to do is give you comfort. If it doesn't, forget it for now. Maybe some day a ritual will work for you. Just get through the day or days as best you can.

Sewmouse said...

My grandmother left about 25 years ago - I still miss her. There are days - never a specific "anniversary", just any day that I miss her more than usual - when I go to the cemetary and "have lunch with Grandma". I bring my lunch, eat it in my car, then go up to the plots and tell her all my joys and sorrows.

No, I don't think she's really "there", and I don't think she "hears me in Heaven", but the mental imagery of talking out things with Grandma the way I used to do comforts me, and helps me find that cozy spot in my heart/mind that she helped me build when she was still with me.

We also "talk" when I quilt. She still "berates" me for using too long of thread and taking too large and uneven of stitches. *sad smile*

Lucy Fishwife said...

My dad died a year ago last month (the morning after Mr Fishwife's birthday, actually, which makes it gloomily easy to remember) - don't really know how to mark it, and feel quite hypocritical doing so as we were estranged at the time he died and I don't feel comfortable forgiving myself about it yet. Ramble ramble. Am very middle-class about the whole thing, ie no emotion whatsoever then blub like a weedy baby when watching "Ratatouille". No answers really - appreciate the relationship you had, and be grateful for it. Make Fingers & Lashes some nice tea, and eat it with them. xxx

Ami said...

Ah, no advice but just want to say that grieving in your own way is fine, or not grieving is ok too. Drinking always helps. Your mum would understand.

bevchen said...

Personally, I think this post is a much better way of remembering than lighting a candle somwhere. Also, definitely have the glass of wine.

My step-mum died of Christmas Eve. There is no good way to mark THAT date.

FloreatMagdalen said...

Lovely post, thank you for writing it. My father died four years ago, and every time that day comes around it's just as depressing as every other day without him. But I don't want to let that pain go either, it's just part of me now, I suppose...

72suburbs said...

Have you ever read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking? It's a memoir of the year after her husband died unexpectedly, and she comes up against a lot of the same problems you talk about here. It's some of the most arresting writing I've read lately.

Laura Jane said...

Ah, Emma sweetheart. Grief IS shitty.

By now the day will have passed, and reading your posts from that day it looks like you found a particular level of Halloween hell to occupy it. So lucky!

All this Grief might be made easier by the re-adoption of Victorian mourning traditions. I recall feeling it was entirely approporiate when my brother died (1992), then when my Dad died (1994). I didn't limit myself to black, but some days I just felt Right in black, even though I wear it a fair bit anyway.

So....black, grey and mauve, go for it.

Tough week, but lets hope you're getting it all out of the way at once.

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