Join this 28 year old as she navigates her way through her first experience of grief and explores the bitterly fascinating psychological issues it unearths…
This weekend just gone, my husband and I drove up to still-snowy Hertfordshire to visit an elderly relative. This 85 year old woman – going on 65 to look at – is in fact my only Polish relative living in the UK and as my father reminded me via Skype (from his home in Poland) the other night, our last living connection to my grandfather, who passed away the year before last.
This great aunt (who it transpired over the course of the visit is actually my first cousin twice removed i.e. my grandfather’s cousin), was widowed last summer, a couple of short months before my mother passed away. Although a relative of my father’s my mother has maintained contact with her since my parents divorce and my father’s emigration back to Poland.
A couple of week’s before Christmas, a well scrawled birthday invitation landed on our door mat, inviting my husband and I to Ciocia’s (Polish for ‘Aunty’, pronounced Cho-Cha) 85th birthday, on January 5th. Unfortunately we already had a 40th birthday party of a close friend booked in that same night and so I had to decline the offer.
I have felt guilty ever since.
This guilt is probably uncalled for. After all, we genuinely had plans on the date in question, which I had informed her of, I also made sure to send a birthday card and I had every intention to keep my promise of making a belated birthday trip to see her at our earliest convenience, which we did this weekend.
So why the guilt? Well, I believe this emotion probably originated from a new sense of ‘inherited responsibility’ I now feel towards not only Ciocia, but also many other relatives and acquaintances my mother dutifully kept in touch with.
This Christmas just gone, while I chose to pretty much ignore the celebrations around me, the thought of my mother’s Christmas card list, did creep into my mind.
Despite devoting much of her time to visiting her hundreds (and I mean hundreds!) of acquaintances across the year, my mother always used Christmas as an opportunity for a comprehensive correspondence catch-up. She would spend weeks before the holidays writing extensively detailed Christmas cards to every single person whose address appeared in her, now battered, black leather Filofax. The extent of the Christmas card list is not to be underestimated, it included the likes of: our old piano teacher; her college ex’s sister and the man who adopted our 2 sausage dogs when we had to give them away after my parents’ divorce. Everyone got a card.
It was exhausting work to watch, and with the addition of year-round thank you cards for everything from gifts to dinner dates, it is a burden (my word not hers), which I have at times, felt obliged to undertake myself with both my own peers as well as some of hers.
While I may personally feel that this commitment my mother put upon herself was unnecessary (no one expected this of her and although she never admitted it, watching her slave over these cards each year began to look like quite the chore), this was her way. And I must admit that while maybe not expected of her, I do know that her cards did touch many people and are part of why, since her death, condolences have come from all parts of the globe; across generations and from the very vaguest of acquaintances (who no doubt she had been in Christmas correspondence with for years).
This Christmas when I was struck by the memory of the card list. I felt a little pang for all those people not receiving my mother’s Christmas card this year. I wondered how many of them would notice the missing card on their mantel this year.
I also wondered whether I should be taking her place?
It occurs to me now that, had my mother died at a ripe old age I had expected she would, I would not be asking this question. For one thing, my grandparents’ generation would no longer be here had my mum died in her 70’s or 80’s. But some of them are still alive now and I wonder whether I should be taking on the responsibility of contacting them on my mother’s behalf. One example that springs to mind is my mother’s own aunty in Dublin, another elderly lady I barely know, but who I am aware was very fond of my mother.
Similarly with my mother’s own generation, there are some of her friends and our relatives that I am naturally drawn to and actively contact of my own accord, such as those I grew up visiting during childhood summers spent in Ireland, (and others too, with whom new relationships have formed through a bond formed from my mother’s death). However, there are also those on my periphery, whom I know were important to my mother, but I have never had to make much of an effort with, as my mother maintained those relationships herself.
I suppose the reason I feel so responsible for these acquaintances of my mother’s, is because I can feel the gap her early departure from the world has left. Thinking of the Christmas card list for example, makes me very conscious of the extent to which one death can affect so many lives and resonate through many and varied groups of people. All these people have lost a friend, but they are not yet at the time in their lives where this has become common place (as it will in old age), which only makes the gap feel more poignant.
As the eldest daughter – and quite like my mother in many ways – I (rightly or wrongly) feel an unspoken duty to fill the void she has left. Maybe I feel that by stepping up and ‘representing’ my mother in her absence, it may help ease other’s pain. Or maybe I just feel that that is what she would have expected of me.
Like a teenager who may briefly play host at a family party while their parents pop out to fetch more booze, I too feel overwhelmed by this responsibility. An awkward teenager, unintentionally abandoned and expected to fill my mother’s incredibly large shoes is exactly how I feel these days. I am not her, I do not have the same relationships with these people that she had and I can not replace her. But that doesn’t stop me feeling like I ought to keep the party going – for her sake. Keep up appearances and make sure the whole thing doesn’t fall apart.
Now, I am not one to shy away from obligations and I hope what I have said so far doesn’t sound like I have no interest in those people who have contributed to the fabric of my life and won’t make the effort to contact them as time goes by. However, without my mother to guide me I am not quite sure of the extent to which/whom my obligation lies and also importantly, whether I agree with this.
Part of my ‘inherited responsibility’ dilemma comes down to a personal battle I am currently working through with my bereavement counselor, regarding my relationship with my mother before she was ill. A relationship where I felt judged by her own high standards, and one that in her absence I am now trying to establish a healthy balance over. On one side: I do not wish to lose those characteristics I admired in my mother (e.g. I do as it happens love writing carefully thought out cards and letters), while on the other side I am attempting to remain true to my own feelings and beliefs (e.g. admitting that perhaps I want to reserve said cards for only close friends and relatives who are important to me, which may be far fewer than my mother corresponded with).
As I said, the above is my personal battle and work in progress. I do however think that there is a more general question here which I’d like to address: What is any child’s obligation to their deceased parent’s family and social circle?
Things might have been easier if I had been a monarch. As it is, when my mother found out she was dying there was no discussion regarding carrying on the family name, keeping up with the relevant heads of state, maintaining continuity. Although, I wouldn’t have put it past my mother to present me with a list of people to keep in touch with, but in reality it was not something any of us considered at the time.
Another thing preventing me from embracing inherited responsibility is bereavement itself. Perhaps it is just too early to be worrying about getting in contact with anyone, but this guilt starts somewhere and I think it is triggered by all the attention death invites upon the bereaved.
Grief it turns out makes you very popular, my mother’s funeral drew very strange parallels with my wedding day, only a few months earlier. The same people were present and they were all there to see me (my sister and my step-father). We were the stars of the show lavished with overwhelming attention that we couldn’t quite process at the time. Now in the aftermath of the ‘Big Day’, the guilty thank you cards (for gifts and sympathy) remain unwritten.
So it turns out that, procrastination and grief can be pretty firm friends and while I fret internally about all my mum’s acquaintances whose sympathy cards I haven’t responded to or the multiple catch-up phone calls I haven’t made yet, my body is physically refuses to action these responsibilities. I find it hard enough these days to make the effort to see close friends, much less those beyond my inner circle. My step-father referred to it recently as ‘keeping a close squad’. These are the people I am at ease with and who are up to date with my emotional state.
That is not to say that I am avoiding opportunities to see my mother’s acquaintances when they arise, on the contrary I try and embrace these opportunities (as they are much easier than make the initial contact myself) e.g. visiting Ciocia because I was invited to her 85th or responding to comments left on this blog by the daughter of my mum’s best friend.
As I will explore in my future post: ‘Friendship Crossroads’ (working title!), these new and unexpected relationships can have pleasant results. However, I must mention that these meetings can be tougher than imagined, as I discovered when visiting Ciocia this weekend.
What I forget is that these people are experiencing a grief of their own and my close relationship to the person they too have lost, can lead to discussions; sharing memories and many other things which currently I am not comfortable dealing with – this is not how I am grieving. [I will explore this idea further in the ‘Grieving Styles ‘post I promised this weekend (which is coming soon!)].
Perhaps I am putting too much pressure on myself all round, after all, I can honestly say that I am doing the best I can in my current situation. As time goes by and I try to maintain the balance I talked of earlier I think I am slowly coming around to the conclusion that maybe I don’t have to become a slave to my mother’s legacy.
For one, I am not alone in this position. There are still elements of my mother in both my sister, father and step-father too. The latter is already ahead of the game and has actually managed to work through his own sympathy thank you list (an achievement I have tried not to compare with or feel guilty about). Yet, even he, who is renowned for being an incredibly good man, has already told me that there are some people in her Filofax that he will probably not contact again after this. This statement has given me great reassurance that it is ok to not maintain all contact with my mother’s social circles.
Hopefully overtime, as I feel up to it and as opportunities continue to present themselves, I will make the effort to reach out or reply to some of those who want to remember my mother. This doesn’t mean I have to trawl my mother’s Filofax checking-in on every name each Christmas, but perhaps it is time to pull out of my adolescent funk and be more aware of those people who also loved my mother and may want to share that love with me in the future. I think what is important to me now is that, whichever of my mother’s relationships I choose to connect with, that I do so as myself and not a Mini-Musia.