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“Loss doesn’t bring all families closer.” 10 things I’ve learned since my Mum died.

It’s nearly 20 years since I heard the sentence that would ultimately change my family.

Sensing something was up, I perched at the top of the stairs of our suburban home, and nosily listened into my parents’ conversation.

“It’s the Big C,” Mum said. I was 14.

She put up a courageous fight for over nine years but on May 16, 2009, my beautiful mum Cheryl passed away. It feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago at the same time.

The early days of grief are talked about a lot but what does it look like a decade on? Here are 10 things I’ve learned in the last 10 years without my mum.

1. The ‘big’ days hurt but they won’t necessarily be the worst.

Birthdays. Anniversaries. Christmas. They’re all tough but you expect them to be. There’s a build-up that allows you to brace yourself. In my case, the anniversary of Mum’s death, Mother’s Day and her birthday all fall within 17 days of each other. I know it’s an emotional and draining time I just need to get through.

It’s the random out-of-nowhere days that will have you bawling your eyes out in the shower on an ordinary Tuesday. And that’s okay. Riding the emotions is all part of your ‘new world’. It might get somewhat easier but you’re never ‘over it’.

2. Loss doesn’t bring all families closer together.

There’s a perception that close-knit families become even closer when they lose someone. And I’m sure many do. But not all.

It became clear just how much Mum was the glue in my immediate family. So much so, my Dad wasn’t at my wedding and we’ve had a very challenging relationship over the last 10 years. That was its own grieving process that I never would have expected to go through.

3. Adulting is harder without your Mum.

You grow up quickly when a parent is diagnosed with cancer when you’re 14. I think of myself as a strong, resilient, capable woman. But there are hundreds of questions I wish I had the chance to ask her, from the big to the small.

Mothers also tend to be the keepers of so much family detail – little moments and memories from my childhood that are gone now too. In particular though, becoming a mum one day myself without her by my side is a confronting prospect. (A huge shout-out to Zoe Marshall for sharing her experience with this so honestly, it’s not talked about very often).

The fact my future kids will never get to meet her is hard to accept.

family loss
Mum circa 1985, just one year older than I am now when I was born. Image supplied.
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4. The tough memories of the last days start to fade.

The vision of Mum being wheeled into an ambulance, her head in her hands, knowing – I’m sure ≥ that this would be the last time she was at our family home, is still as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday.

But a lot of the other memories of those last awful days at the hospital that infiltrated my thoughts non-stop when she first died have now faded around the edges. Thankfully, the many happier memories of our 23 years together are the more frequent ones now.

family loss
Like mother like daughter. Mum and I rocking a nautical theme 20 years apart. Image supplied.

5. People you expect to step forward won’t, and people you didn’t expect to step forward will.

And this can be a challenging one. I’ve lost friends, but I’ve also been humbled over the years by the people who have stepped forward. Who always text on anniversaries and birthdays (Mum’s little sister, my Aunty Shell hasn’t missed one).

No one can replace your Mum, but I’ve found it’s important to foster close female relationships with women beyond your own age group. I’m lucky to have an amazing mother-in-law, Jan, who I think of as one of my closest friends.

My husband Paul has been my rock. I’m so grateful he got the chance to spend a few years with Mum in the early days of our relationship. They adored each other, and he just gets it.

When her theme song, Staying Alive by the Bee Gees (our Cheryl didn’t take herself too seriously!) comes on the radio, a knowing look from him makes all the difference. The little things mean a lot.

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family loss
Mum and my husband Paul had a special connection. Image supplied.

6. Finding ways to honour her memory that felt right to me was important.

I knew early on visiting Mum’s grave wasn’t how I wanted to best remember her. Over the years, I’ve written her letters. Played the songs on her iPod. Cooked meals from her handwritten recipe book. Completed the Mother’s Day Classic in her honour every Mother’s Day (including once on two hours sleep thanks to my surprise hens night!).

And on her birthday, I’ll eat one of her favourite foods. Which is a great excuse for apple crumble for breakfast. Most importantly though, I don’t shy away from talking about her. That might make some people uncomfortable but she’s still a huge part of me.

family loss
"That time we did the Mother’s Day Classic on two hours sleep after our respective surprise hens and bucks nights!" Image supplied.

7. It can be hard to see friends and their mums together.

Even now. And even harder when they complain about them. But I try to keep it in perspective. Mum and I could push each other’s buttons like nobody else! It’s important not to just look back with rose-coloured glasses.

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8. Tread carefully when someone you know, has someone they know, diagnosed with cancer.

I’m always sensitive to the fact that I’m their worst nightmare: my person isn’t here anymore. But I also know from experience it’s so much better when people do acknowledge it rather than pretend it isn’t happening. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way.

9. That feeling of wanting to make your Mum proud, doesn’t go away.

In fact, it probably gets stronger. I heard recently of a surfer who lost his father and still looks back to the beach when he catches a great wave, out of the habit of making sure his dad saw it. Even 10 years on, there’s still an instinct when something good or bad happens to call her and share it.

I can’t believe it’s that long since I got to have a conversation with her, something I took for granted my whole life until that point.

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Holding onto all the good memories. Image supplied.

10. A big personal loss does change you.

Grief is so personal but over the years I’ve became more and more determined to live my best life possible, not just because I’m grateful to be here and have the opportunity to do so, but on Mum’s behalf too. Whenever someone complains about getting older with another birthday, I can’t help but remind them it’s better than the alternative!

Ten years on, I know I’m a different person, and I think a better person, thanks in part to what I’ve been through in losing my Mum. I also know that it’s okay to still ache for her to be here. And miss her smile, her laugh, her voice, her cooking, her text messages and even her terrible singing.

From my experience, grief isn’t something that has an endpoint. It’s something that changes as you slowly but surely get better at coping with it. Life indeed does go on but it’s not life as you once knew it.

Nicole Redfern is Managing Blog Editor for leading Aussie travel site, Wotif.com. Her writing is usually of the more up-beat holiday variety. You can read more from her here.

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