We are never ready for this
Maggi Stamp, laterlife's counsellor on human
relationships, shares her personal experiences of loss and bereavement.
I went on holiday over the New Year and while
sitting in a café on New Years Eve received news that my dear little cat had died.
Although Betty was an old cat, almost seventeen, she had been a playful, fit and
affectionate companion throughout her life. I was very upset on hearing this news, and for
the rest of the holiday I had half of my mind on getting home and experiencing her absence
in a more everyday way. On return we found a perfect little grave in our tiny front
garden, complete with a beautifully made cross bearing her name. The neighbours, our
regular cat sitters, had done this for me and out of affection for the little grey tabby.
They had carefully washed and put to one side all her feeding dishes but left her sleeping
basket in place.
I was struck by a variety of thoughts and feelings.
How sad to come home and not be welcomed as normal over all these years by my little
friend, always on the neighbour`s wall awaiting my homecoming. How strange not to hear the
cat flap swinging or hear her purring on the sofa as she settled in for the evening. Why
did it have to happen when I was away? Maybe if I had been at home she wouldn't have
wandered but curled up and kept me company. I was touched by the kindness of my neighbours
taking care of everything and their sensitivity at leaving a most personal part of saying
goodbye, putting away her bed, to me upon my return.
These thoughts and feelings were so similar
to ones I had experienced, on a much greater scale of course, on the death of both of my
parents. Though those events were eight years apart and neither was entirely
unexpected, they had shocked me. The kind rationalisations of friends wanting to comfort
and ease the pain were perfectly accurate. My mother had been ill for a long time, was
tired of living as an invalid and would have hated going on in this state. My father at 86 years was `a good age'. Once proud and strong, had he come out of hospital
he would have lost his independence and would have needed a great deal of personal
attention and care. But this doesn't stop any of us going over and over in our minds
what might have been, what we could, should, ought to have done for our lost parent.
Whatever kind of relationship we had with our
parents, their death takes away forever the possibility of saying important things to them,
of letting them know how we feel about them - good or bad - of putting things right,
apologising, saying how much we felt let down or neglected, or loved and supported by
them. We can no longer ask them about the details of their lives which we, or our
children, now more than ever want to know about. It is too late to thank them and say we
I am struck by how many elderly people near death
bravely make great efforts to cover some of this ground for us, their children. I was
fortunate to have heard both of my parents talk of their life and mine before they died,
and I often hear accounts of such conversations from the bereaved when talking of their
losses. No matter how well we try to prepare ourselves for this inevitable event in our
lives we are always left wishing things had been different, that we (or sometimes they)
had said more, asked more, done more to help or change things, or just been there. It is
this part of the grieving pattern we all follow in some way. The shock of the actual death
hits us powerfully but the questioning takes over as we try to come to terms with it.
How we deal
with the feelings is an entirely individual thing. No two people grieve in the same way
- we all grieve, go through similar feelings, just not in the same order. Some folks can
talk about their loss openly, will be tearful or angry, others will quietly hold their
loss to them and try to go on as normal, the day to day structure of life feeling solid
and reassuring for them. What we all need to guard against is getting stuck in `if
only I/they had
', but move into the naturally healing stage of recalling and
recognising, sometimes for the first time, our parent's gifts to us. These are
revealed to us not all at once but right through life. They are stories we were told, how
we deal with difficulties, the way we show or receive affection and care for ourselves,
how we meet the challenges of life and much, much more. Even things we feel were missing
can positively encourage us to build them into the way we raise our own children. For my
part I have resolved to tell my family how much I love them and of the joy they give me,
now - in case I run out of breaths.
As we heal we find it easier to reminisce,
think of times spent with our parents, both recent and long past. It is then that we are
more able to see their lives, and their place in ours, in a broader way.
At the weekend I told my granddaughter of how her daddy brought a kitten home nearly
seventeen years ago, about games he played with Betty, in a trice I was telling her of my
great-grandfather, a great, gentle bear of a man, a shepherd, who adored his old cat and
his sheepdog. I never knew him but it was my father's voice I had recalled. I am the
family storyteller now.
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