I don’t need to feel that my mother still exists in some form
Coping: This would have been her 59th birthday – some anniversaries just need to be got through
Laura Kennedy and her mother
Less than eight months ago, I walked into my mother’s room at Milford Hospice in Limerick in the very early morning and sat next to her body. I had received a call half an hour earlier that tore me from sleep. She had died. I hadn’t expected it to happen. Now I was sitting next to the body she had lived in, and she was gone. A wail escaped me that could have been heard halfway down the hall.
She wouldn’t have approved of wailing in general. Self-indulgent displays of emotion weren’t her thing, and they aren’t mine either. I hope that day was the only exception to that rule I’ll ever make.
I cried out in distress, but not because it was traumatic to see the lifeless body of someone I loved so absolutely. I was not horrified or upset to see her that way. The desolation came from what was absent. She was absent. It was a complete confirmation that she was, in fact, gone.
We talk a lot about how our bodies don’t define us. You’re more, we say, than your weight or your funny voice or your receding hairline. More than acne or ugliness or even incredible physical beauty. Your selfhood extends beyond your body.
When people die, we can forget that a little. We are horrified by the idea of treating a body with anything but respect. I would certainly never advocate doing anything else, but we can forget that this universally accepted social rule is not there for the deceased but for the people left behind.
The body resembles the person who lived in it. To disrespect it is to appear to disrespect the person who has died. It is all that is left of them.
Today is my mother’s birthday, and I’m struggling. She would have turned 59 today, and the thought of her shy smile as I handed her a gift every year in my living memory sets a muscle in my jaw to short, quick little spasms. She was surprised, always surprised, to be remembered.
A few days before her death, she asked me not to forget her, and a great tension I had been unaware of inside me snapped, and I cried. As if I could forget her. As if I ever, ever would.
Although I think about her every day, today I’m consumed mostly by negative thoughts – the wandering the mind sometimes embarks upon, thinking about what should have been. Labouring with the deep injustice of the way she died, and when. The knowledge that she is really gone catches some days in my throat – on the bus, or while chopping vegetables – and I’ll have to take a moment to hunch over and remember to breathe.
After a while, the pain subsides from a hot, sharp twist in the gut to a dull ache I’ve grown accustomed to, and then I’ll go back to chopping.
Some people get in touch because they know it’s her birthday. They are thinking about her just as my brother and I are. They are remembering her, and that is kind and wonderful. But they encourage me to talk to her, to know that she is watching me, and I can’t tell them that I don’t believe any of that, for fear it will make them anxious.
There might be an afterlife, but I’ve seen no evidence of it. If it does exist, the idea that it operates according to the rules laid down in some antiquated book or other, obfuscated by centuries or translation, strikes me as absurd. If there is another dimension where souls go, it is beyond the smallness of temporal human comprehension. We can learn about it when we get there, if indeed it is. There, I mean.
Some anniversaries need to be got through rather than celebrated. Few philosophers who chose to tackle great questions neglected to theorise about an afterlife. But I don’t need to feel that my mother still exists in some form to cope with her absence. Other people do need to.
We cope with the agony of loss in different ways. Tomorrow will be better.