By Sam Dineen
In February 2006 my mother died. Unexpectedly and tragically, she was struck down by a drunk driver and I became an 8 year old with no mother. February became a dreaded month, and its incoming presence crept closer and closer to me the second Christmas ended. I found myself wishing I could just skip the month completely – forget Valentine’s day, that’s the day of her funeral. I created traditions and coping mechanisms, under the impression that after a certain amount of time my grief had to be bottled up and kept at bay, and it was only allowed to rear its ugly head around her anniversary, or maybe her birthday, mother’s day, Christmas. All the grief I felt every single day of my life was boxed away appropriately – it occasionally tried to escape in teary eyes and bad moods, but it was on curfew and it had to be back in its box if it wasn’t her anniversary in the next week. I grieved simultaneously with my grandmother; she had lost a daughter and I had lost a mum, and we both needed that back and couldn’t have it. The closest we could get was fulfilling that role for each other.
She became my mum. I spent countless hours telling her about friends and fights and break ups and cramps and school and life and grief.
“She helped me with my homework and had an even larger gap in how to do maths than most parents (I hear the method changes every decade or so) and I was terrible at maths.“
Together we could get through February. It didn’t help that her husband, my grandfather, also died on that same day – in the middle of a February before I was born. You then have a mother with no daughter and no husband, and one horrible day on a calendar that took them both away from her. That point in February felt cursed. My family joked about wrapping each other in bubble wrap for the whole period. There was an air of relief every year when we got through it without someone else dying.
My seven day window of grief became an everything goes kind of deal. On my mum’s anniversary my grandmother would bring me to her grave and we would clean it up, maybe have a cry (always me, never her, somehow). We would lay flowers, we would go to a restaurant and eat whatever we wanted, then we would go home and watch whatever we wanted and be shrouded in our overwhelming grief together. I would get through mother’s day because I knew I could buy her flowers, parent’s evenings were okay because she could go along with my dad, and I could go to her to buy new clothes, despite how different our tastes were.
“February was possible because of her, a beacon of strength and admiration, an unbelievably resilient patron saint of surviving things.”
Then the unimaginable happened. Two years ago, the day after Valentine’s, on the tail end of the worst week of the year, she had a heart attack and died.
I cursed the world and its insane cruelty, I screamed and shouted and smoked like a chimney, as if fate had broken its end of the deal. If my mum had to go when I was eight then I should get to keep my grandmother forever. At least well into her 90s. And for her to be taken from me on THIS WEEK of all weeks, it felt like I had drawn out in some kind of horrible luck lottery. I watched my plans for mother’s day, my graduation, my future wedding, my life disintegrate right in front of me. I could only handle the first death because of her, when I felt like I was drowning in it she was there to grab on to, to hold me still in the tides of it, to keep me safe. She was my rock, what are you meant to do when your rock sinks underwater?
You’re meant to keep going. You’re meant to do exactly what you did before and find appropriate windows to allow your grief out once you’re past a few months of the initial shock. You go back to work and travel and see your friends and get on with life, you meet a man and fall in love and occasionally have a pull on your heart that neither your mum or your grandmother will ever meet him, and mutter under your breath at how lucky everyone with a mum and a grandmother or either really is. You keep yourself busy and you get on with it.
And then an international pandemic hits and stops you from getting on with most things.
Tsunamis of grief burst through the floodgates that were routine and stability. You find yourself drowning out in the water with no choice but to swim through it. There’s nothing else to do so you’re going to have to do this now. You cry all the time. You are reminded of them constantly. You no longer bottle it all up for February – it seeps out every month now. You look to your few friends who have lost a mother, a new found respect for them arises along with the awareness that you and they know this horrible secret reality about life that other people are blissfully unaware of. You find yourself apologising that you’re upset about the same thing again and long for the world to reopen so you have something else to do. You have weeks when you’re okay because you’re painting and writing and running a one-woman magazine, but you learn that grief can’t be ignored for 11 out of the 12 months of the year.
And then it’s February again.
The reason for this otherwise very intense outpouring of my own experiences is to start a dialogue. If you know someone who is grieving (and that doesn’t just mean someone who has lost a loved one this month, or in the last year), think about how you talk with them. Encourage them to talk about their loved one they have lost, no matter how long ago they lost them.
“Don’t make the dead person’s name a taboo for the risk of upsetting them,”
be open and understanding that their grief is not a fixable problem, that it’s not the sort of thing a person can get over or move on from. Know that they are grieving every single day, and thinking about it more than you, or anyone else could imagine. The world is in a pretty horrible state at the minute and people are mourning their loss worldwide.
If you have lost someone, ever, I’m sorry. This is not an essay for or about sympathy. This is an essay of acknowledgement, this is me saying out loud and on paper to you that this is horrible. There’s no reason for you to pretend that it isn’t to make other people more comfortable.
Grief is not reserved for anniversaries.