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I was expecting it to be complex. I’d talked about it at some length, both to my family and close friends. But that was before. And though I know you can’t be prepared as such, if I’m honest, I thought I would understand myself better. Except I don’t.

I’m talking about grief following my mother’s death.

I always thought that I was ‘good’ at death, ‘good’ at working through emotions. I expected something more dynamic I guess. Instead I’m experiencing deadening, a lack of emotion, a blankness that I find difficult to recognise.

After the first frantic whirl of Morna’s dying, the arrangements and organisation, the ‘holding-myself-together’, I waited for the loosening of my emotions. It didn’t come.

I thought I’d slowly, but surely, come to terms with her death; it wasn’t as if it was out of the blue. I had a notion that my memory would focus on certain things throughout my life-long relationship with her that would either make me howl with tears, cry with laughter, or make me angry.

I believed that I would feel her presence, be aware of her in my thoughts and dreams, that she would come to me somehow. But none of that happened. Instead I find I’m not allowed look at her death. My mind has put up a dividing screen, the kind they have on TV shows. When I attempt to look, the screen appears…one that’s clever enough to increase in size if I try to peer over it or around it.

I’m a person who usually needs grounding. I could very easily disappear into space if I wasn’t careful, hence my very earthy occupation of farming – nothing more grounding than stock and mud! Though recently even this has changed and I feel as if I’m descending down, down; down deep into the earth. I can’t tell you how strange this feels. I need air? I need lightness? Me, who in normal circumstances is ready to float away like thistledown?

They say that when your mother dies she gives you her mantle. She gives you everything, both positive and negative. It’s up to you to process this. I guess there’s truth in the old adage ‘she’s turned into her mother’.

My mother had a slight psychosis which was latterly overlaid by her dementia. During the last twenty odd years, through her own conflict her body became contorted and bent. Now I feel her twisted shoulder, the strange bone ache; I experience her confusion of her mind. I watch as I flounder for a word, confuse a date, become muddled. I watch myself watching myself and I feel the fear that maybe I am becoming her.

My family, I’m pretty sure, don’t see it, in fact a puzzled Robert said to me after reading this “But you coped so well, brilliantly. You’ve prepared yourself. Come to terms with it over several years. I really can’t see it. You’re waiting for something that isn’t going to happen. She’s dead and that’s it.”

And perhaps in a way he’s right. I am waiting for my more typical expressions of grief. Maybe they will never happen. Maybe these unfamiliar emotions will be the only ones I experience. But I hope, somewhere along this unknown path I meet with her and, if only for an instant, I’m able to touch our closeness again – mother and daughter.

early purple orchid

early purple orchid

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Morna's funeral 2nd February 2009

Morna's funeral 2nd February 2009- the same day as the celebration of Candlemas and the celtic Imbolc

I decided I wanted to arrange my mother’s funeral myself.  I have a dislike of conveyer belt type funerals, most probably inherited from my mother who always said she found undertakers and hearses somewhat foreboding and sinister.

For a good many years, well actually from the time I realised I wasn’t immortal, I knew exactly what I wanted done with my body when I no longer inhabited it. Simplistically, if there were any functional parts left these could be used (providing my family felt okay with that), followed by my burial in one of our hedge banks with an oak tree – grown from an acorn from my special Hartland oak – planted on top of me. I checked out the legal requirements so I didn’t land my family with an impossible task, and hoped, because I’d talked about it enough, it wouldn’t cause them any distress.

In our sanitisation of modern life we’ve become very good at prolonging life and very bad at coping with its ending.

We seem to have developed a deep embarrassment about death and a nervous reluctance to discuss coffins, burial sites and what happens when life stops. There was a comment in the Independent on Sunday last week on this very thing: in a recent survey the majority of those questioned said that they would sooner discuss the most intimate details of their personal lives than what their dead relative or friend might have wanted in the way of caskets and burials.

setting out the candles

setting out the candles

I knew my mother was dying. The fall she had after Christmas was the beginning of her last journey. After I accepted this, which took time, I knew I had to make those final weeks as peaceful and as gentle as I could; to give both of us the time and space, and love, to learn how to travel that ultimate path together and how to let go.

After she died it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to bring Morna back to Locks Park  and continue to look after her here until we were able to take her to Kent and bury her alongside my father in the village she never really left.

I’ve never done anything like this before, but with the help of Jane Morrell, the author of the book We Need to Talk About the Funeral, and the support of my wonderful family it was a truly extraordinary and special experience. I won’t go into great detail here, but caring and administering to Morna daily and planning a funeral ceremony that was such a personal celebration of her life was a gift.

Morna's shroud

Morna's shroud

Morna, my mother, was buried in a shroud made from the wool of my sheep, by a friend, Yuli Somme. We took her up to Kent ourselves and decorated the church with armfuls of paper-white narcissi, ivy, yew, myrtle, willow and hazel. The music was heavenly, the hymns, reading and poems moving and poignant. She was buried beside my father, with the snow falling in silent white peace. It was totally spiritual, even magical.

Jeremy, one of Morna's godsons, took nine hours to get there in the snow. We took him to visit Morna's grave in the evening

Jeremy, one of Morna's godsons, took nine hours to get there in the snow. We took him to visit Morna's grave in the evening

My mother died this morning.

On Wednesday we went to a funeral far away in Carmarthenshire. It was the funeral of a friend of my mother’s, a very good friend; she died last Thursday from complications following a fall on Boxing Day.

Morna, my mum, and Marjory always joked that they had some kind of telepathic communication. If one phoned the other always swore that she had her hand on the phone ready to dial the other’s number. Dates for visits or jaunts pencilled in diaries were often similarly mirrored. Far too many incidences to just be coincidences, I remember them saying!

Our families met and became firm friends when we all lived in Singapore. We children, their four sons and I, shared summer and Christmas holiday together. During those years we had enormous fun, and, as we teetered on the brink of childhood and adolescence, the spark of an innocent romance blossomed between me and one of the boys, an experience both sweetly delicious and excruciatingly embarrassing.  Eventually we all left Singapore, grew up and drifted apart, our lives taking different direction. But we still kept up with occasional news of each other through our mothers, whose friendship and contact continued.

I shouldn’t, therefore, have been too surprised when I received a call from David, one of Marjory’s sons, last Friday. Shattered, he told me of Marjory’s fall and subsequent death. The timing and similarity to my mother’s was hard to miss – just another of those coincidences.

Morna isn’t doing well at the moment. She’s all but given up eating, disappearing into her own vivid memory world. It seems our interruptions, when trying to persuade her to eat or drink, to change her and to move her or to encourage her to walk, painfully shock her into an unwelcome waking nightmare, bringing her face to face with her distorted, wrecked body. When she escapes she is – I think, I believe – once again happy, active and healthy, she can’t see what all the fuss is about. And I am in both her worlds – she knows me, her eyes seek mine, she talks to me and of me. But she’s diminishing in front of my eyes. This is so hard…

And so we went to the funeral to celebrate the long friendship of these two women, one still teetering on the brink of life, to share joint memories and to renew old friendships. Out of our combined bewilderment and heartache we reunited and found the warmth and fun we shared as children, almost forty years on.

my oak says it all

my oak says it all

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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