After Death

It’s been 10 days since I found my Mum. I am feeling a lot better than I was in the first week. I spoke to my brother today and he echoed my own feelings when I asked how he was doing.

“Yeah… better,” he said, and he sounded like it.

He was a lot brighter than last time we spoke. He’s lost his mobile phone (this happens often), so at the moment I can only speak to him on a Thursday when he visits my Dad. He is more resilient than I thought – I have worried about him every day since Mum died.

As for me, I am still restless at night, although I am very firm about not thinking about what happened. I simply put it out of my mind and focus on anything else. I know well that mulling over things in the dark is the absolute worst thing to do, as I spent so many hours of my life doing it over my miscarriages, hospital treatment, and the births of my children. There is nothing you can do to make anything better at night, so the best thing is not to give the thoughts any leeway. Thinking of what I saw and the last conversations we had could turn into something that would haunt me forever.

The nights aside, I am doing okay. My Mum was so dreadfully sad and so unwell that I think there probably wasn’t much that could have altered the course of events in the long run. I am still going to make an official complaint to the NHS as I do believe that her treatment in the last couple of months shortened the time she had left, and that her symptoms were sidelined when they should have been investigated. However, all they can do is maybe apologise (if that), so I don’t care for the outcome, only that I register my voice.

I’m in the midst of all of the practical things that you have to do after death. Funeral arrangements, notifying distant friends and relatives, sorting through possessions. I have removed four car loads of stuff from Mum’s flat in my seven-seater. Every bag and box packed by me and brought down in the lift. Two car loads I recycled. Two car loads I brought back to our house and distributed the contents in piles upstairs, in the loft, and under my desk. There are at least two car loads still to come, plus all her furniture which will have to be taken away as I cannot store or use it.

This is the third death that I have personally cleared up after in the last few years and I can tell you that sorting out what is left of someone’s existence takes hours and hours and hours of your time, most likely spread over months. The older I get, the less I like stuff. Having too much of it in the house makes me feel chaotic and overburdened. I have inherited a huge collection of things from Mum, who was a bit of a collector. It has reinforced my already solid commitment to minimalism. We can’t take anything with us when we go. All we do is leave it to someone else. Every piece of paper, every letter, every document, every diary, photograph and trinket – it all gets seen by someone when we die. Our life is laid bare, our secrets (if there is physical evidence of them) outed.

As long as we have the basics – utensils to eat, somewhere to sleep, something to keep us clean, access to good food, the luxury of an interest or hobby – what else do we really need? Life is better lived than collected.

I will most likely set a date for the funeral tomorrow as I am seeing the funeral director that managed my Uncle’s funeral last year. I liked him a lot, so I’m glad he will be looking after Mum.

I feel like I cannot grieve in peace, or sort my own thoughts out, until everything is dealt with. The stuff, the endless stuff, the funeral, the ashes, the paperwork. It will be months before I can put this behind me, just as it was with Eric and my Nan. I feel resentful of the administrative burden of death.

Getting our lives in good order, and ridding our homes of unused and unnecessary possessions will make for an easier time for our loved ones when we go, whenever that time may be. I certainly hope that when my time comes, my affairs and belongings are simple enough that my children can deal with them without excessive pain and aggravation.

Goodbye Mum

A week ago today, I found my Mum’s body in her flat. 

I see her every Tuesday with my daughter, F. We’ve done this routine ever since her brother died last August. Mum saw Eric three times a week and they spoke on the phone every day. Sometimes more than once. So when he suddenly passed away, Mum was devastated.

The grief never subsided. She picked up a bit before Christmas, but then seemed to regress again after the new year. The shitty weather in this country – months of cold, damp, dark, grey days – does not help. She had two spells in the psychiatric ward as she was struggling so much and her psychosis seemed to be causing her ongoing problems. They discharged her three weeks ago, handed her care back over to the normal mental health unit. In my opinion she was worse after this than she was when they admitted her the first time.

I had tried to call Mum on the Monday, but she hadn’t answered the phone. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to face up to it. She wasn’t really well enough to leave the house as she had become physically very weak and had a severe tremor that had worsened over the last 6 weeks, leaving her unsteady on her feet. I told myself she had been readmitted to the hospital and hadn’t yet remembered to call me. However, with hindsight I was just postponing the inevitable.

When we arrived on Tuesday morning, she didn’t answer the buzzer at the communal door. I was about to call her when another resident came out, so he let us in. We went up to her flat and I put my arm out and pushed on her door. It was like part of me knew what to do. The door opened – she had left it on the latch.

I walked in and called her name a few times. It’s a one room flat with a small kitchen and bathroom, so after passing the kitchen and looking in the lounge/bedroom I was about to leave. I thought maybe she was better than I had thought and had walked across the road to the shop to pick up some food. Failing that I thought I’d go back to the car and call the hospital and maybe go and see her there.

I was about to leave. I passed the bathroom and noticed the light was on. The door was almost closed. I called again, “Mum?”

I pushed the door a fraction, not wanting to disturb her if she was on the toilet, or feeling unwell, but also certain that she wasn’t in there because she would have heard me calling. Then I saw her legs in the bath.

As soon as I saw them I knew immediately that she was dead. She would have answered my call. I said “Oh,” out loud, catching my breath.

I had to be sure what had happened. I pushed the door a little further and stepped half into the room, holding F back so she didn’t see anything. The bath is behind the door and I had to lean around it. She was lying in the bath, slightly to one side, her face just under the water. She looked like she was sleeping… except as I tried to look and and not look, my eyes scanning the scene as fast as possible so I didn’t have to see the detail, it was immediately obvious that she had been there for some time.

Getting help

I called the police. They came out really quickly (it felt like forever while we sat in the lounge/bedroom). They were brilliant, cannot fault them at all. More police came, and then CID, and then eventually they decided it wasn’t a crime scene. They called the undertakers and two big men with iron handshakes, dressed immaculately in black suits came to take Mum to the hospital. They left her rings on the side, and she was gone. It took three hours in total.

The police all left, and we were alone. I went into the bathroom and rinsed the bath out as I couldn’t leave what was in there to dry. Then I drove Francesca home. The rest of that day, and the next are a bit of a blur. I collected the boys at the end of school, drove to my brothers but couldn’t find him, so drove to Dads. Then I drove home again. I got the kids into bed and then stripped off, and scrubbed myself down in the shower as all I could smell was Mum’s flat and the strange, sweet, rotting metallic odour from the bathroom. A week later and I still catch it multiple times a day.

I got three hours sleep the first night, between 1:30am and 4:30am. I had to leave all the lights on because I was terrified mum was going to come and get me, all bloated and dripping and angry, for allowing her to die that way. The next day I did everything on autopilot, still in shock and utterly exhausted. I drove down to her flat with the intention of starting the clearing out process (it’s rented and I have four weeks to empty it), but all I did was sit on the bed crying while F watched children’s TV.

I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had seen.

Piecing it all together

Gradually, I have rebuilt her last few days. I saw her on Tuesday and arranged for a GP to call her about the tremor. On Wednesday she went to the GP to collect a form for a blood test. I spoke to her that evening. On Thursday her friend Ted drove her to the hospital for her blood test. I called her that night. On Friday a man came in the morning and cleared away an old fish tank and a cabinet she no longer wanted from her flat. She also had a meal delivery I had just arranged for her. Then Ted took her out for a coffee. They said goodbye in the afternoon and I spoke to her at 4pm. She sounded sad, hopeless, and angry about her health and NHS waiting times. It was a week before she had another call with the GP and would get her blood test results. We spoke for less than four minutes and despite my attempt to convince her that we were going to get it all sorted and she just needed to wait until next week to get results and we could go from there, she sounded dismissive. I signed inwardly. And I asked her, “What can I do to help Mum?”

“I’m alright,” she said after a long pause. “I’m alright.”

We said goodbye. After that she ate dinner, ran a bath, and never got out of it.

She’d been dead four days when I found her.

Moving on

Life doesn’t stop when someone dies. It carries on with all its noise and mess and laughter and chaos, oblivious to the enormity of your shock and grief. After four days, I slept properly. After five days, my appetite started to return. A week on, and I have already removed two car loads of stuff from her flat and I am feeling better. I have lots to do. Lots to keep me busy. Plus of course the kids – nothing waits.

I don’t know if I will regress, but I already feel like I am healing. It’s like an old wound is finally closing. I have written thousands of words in my journal and lengthy emails to my closest friends. I have realised, with surprise, that I actually lost my Mum when she moved out, back when I was fifteen and my brother was nine. I can still see her walking up the road, brown suitcase in hand, heading to the station. My brother crying so much. She was never the same after she left. We grew apart, I couldn’t find common ground. She behaved in ways I coudn’t understand and no longer seemed like the mother I’d know from days long gone. She had always been distant and unaffectionate, but she was somehow more normal when she was married.

I have grieved the loss of my mother for 28 long years. I have wanted her back, and wished things were different for almost three decades. I could never bridge the gap that her leaving opened between us. She cut off all her hair, moved in with a woman I didn’t much care for, got new animals I hated (a screeching parrot and many dogs that wee’d everywhere in the house). She became something I couldn’t relate to. While I was striving to get my degree and start a career, she seemed to drop out. Then her health deteriorated and the psychosis became a problem. I lost her so long ago. Her death feels like the end of a period of black grief that has overshadowed my entire life, especially in the years since I became a mother myself.

It’s getting late and I need to sleep, so I’ll stop here for now.

Life and Loss

A young Eric. Sideburns were all the rage.

On Tuesday we had a lovely family day out at the zoo. We bumped into a friend from school so all of us toured the zoo together and all the children had a brilliant time.

We arrived home and within a few minutes the phone rang. It was my Mum, and she’d been trying to contact me all day.

My uncle – her brother – died somewhere between Monday night and Tuesday morning. He was found dead in his bed, although the police said there was some blood on the floor and they think he’d had some kind of a fall. The body will undergo an autopsy to determine cause of death.

He celebrated his 70th in May. That makes him sound old, but he was physically well and active, running car boot sales most weekends. Also, in my mind, he was always Uncle Eric, aged about 40. Pitch black hair and a big crazy laugh.

Mum saw him on Monday and he was fine. On Tuesday he was gone. She is devastated. They lived in the same town and did everything together.

Last night baby F woke and screamed like mad at 10:30, 12:30, 3:30 and 4:30. She’s been back in with me since the peak of her croup/fever/infection last week, the cot taking up all the floor space in our small room. Each time I was jolted out of sleep and then (of course), remembered that Eric had died, all over again.

Usually you only get that effect in the morning. Like a broken heart or other tragic news or circumstance you re-live all the grief and pain in a tough moment of remembering each day, until it becomes integrated into who you are and you no longer go through that moment of “everything is ok” followed by “oh my god everything is not okay”.

I feel totally shattered this morning, both physically and emotionally. We also managed to leave C’s bedtime bear at the zoo yesterday, so we need to ring them and hope someone has handed him in. C cried for ages last night before he finally fell asleep exhausted.

I am so fed up of trying to deal with life through a constant treacle-fog of exhaustion. Life is too fucking hard to feel like you are dragging a boulder around behind you all the time, but that’s how life has been for so long. Everything I do, my running, looking after the home, the children, my business, it’s all twice the effort because really, all I want to do most days, is go to bed and do nothing.

How long can a person keep fighting the current before they give up? You need to be fit and strong to thrive in this world. Bad news and obstacles will forever be out there, waiting to show themselves at the craziest of moments.

None of us can afford to neglect our mental or physical health, because if we’re running around with a badly maintained engine, any bump in the road could veer us off course and into a ditch of depression, self-pity, despair or worse. And then we have all the effort of getting back out and moving forward again. And often we have to do that ourselves – there isn’t always a recovery truck on hand, someone who cares enough to stop and help.

I’m kind of rambling with this post, but I’m sat here in bed this morning and I feel so very tired. I’m helping Mum collect up Eric’s things today. We need to rescue bedtime bear from the zoo (if he has even been found). Tomorrow is C’s 6th birthday. I have lots to do to get the boys ready for their return to school in 12 days. The house needs cleaning from top to bottom. I have piles of paperwork to deal with. There will be a funeral to organise. I have to break the news to my little brother today and he will be so upset. There are lost relatives to track down (Eric was estranged from his own son and his brother).

I need to get out of bed and get on with it.

Keep pushing through that treacle.

Why Minimalism Matters (It’s Life and Death)

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve been unlucky enough to lose my last two remaining grandparents. Both of them lived a long life.

Aside from the immediate grief, and the frequent moments of nostalgia that I found myself slipping into, there was something else members of our family felt during the aftermath: the heavy weight of clearing out somebody else’s home.

Neither of my grandmothers were hoarders, but emptying their respective flats was still a difficult job for my parents. In the case of my maternal grandmother, I was the executor of her will, which entailed sorting through and cross checking bags and bags of papers.

When somebody leaves us, the physical items they leave behind take on a completely different perspective. And in a way, it helps to gently remind us just how unimportant so much of our stuff really is.

When we look at our own collection of pens, books, clothes, and DVDs, we really believe that we need them all. Or even, that we need more! We go shopping and buy things we already own, in different patterns or colours. We have so much.

But when you look at the possessions leftover from someone’s life, you realise how little they really did need after all.

When someone dies, their worldly goods end up being  scattered far and wide. The most precious and sentimental things are shared between relatives and friends. Useful items that no one has the space or need for tend to be donated to charity. A lot of things – a surprising amount – just ends up being thrown away.

Without wishing to be morbid, take a moment to think about everything you own, and what would happen to it all if you died. Where would it go? Who would find a use for it? Would people even know what it meant to you? Would they know the stories behind certain pieces of jewellery, old photographs or dusty dresses that had seen better days?

It may seem morbid to think about our things like this, but actually, it’s a fantastic way of seeing clearly what really matters – especially when it comes to keeping sentimental things.

When you are gone, everything you have will be laid bare for your family to sort through.

Why Minimalism Matters

So, the crux of this post: why minimalism matters. Minimalism is important because it gives us grace in both life and death.

In life, less physical (and emotional) clutter gives us space for new adventures – from our youth to our oldest age.

In death, less physical (and emotional) clutter allows us to pass on knowing that we didn’t stagnate in a lifetime-collection of our own existence.

Minimalism gives us freedom. And it gives those we leave behind freedom.

Because when we are gone, it will not be our possessions that had the greatest impact on those that knew us, but our minds.

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