There is a bright side to losing a parent young. And not just for the few who stand to inherit thrones or massive trust funds. Of course a parent’s death is never easy, but there’s a sweet spot during late adolescence and your early twenties when you are phenomenally equipped to cope with the death of a loved one and can even lead a more fulfilling life because of it. Hear me out...
I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 19, and in the 14 years since, I’ve learned two things. First, loss is far easier to handle amidst the many distractions of youth. Second, you never get over your mother’s death. It stays dormant like an emotional cancer quietly metastasising into enormous tumours that you discover at the worst possible moments, like your wedding or the birth of your first child. Okay, maybe tumours aren’t the most sensitive metaphors, but another thing I’ve learned is that humour is the best salve for the grieving heart.
That’s always been the M.O. in my family, where people kick the bucket right and left – heart attack, malaria, cancer, aneurysm, falls from great heights – so you’ll forgive that I’m a tad callused in matters of death.
I was in my first year at Sussex University in England when I got the news of my mother’s rapid decline. A week later, I was back home in Trinidad, sitting beside my emaciated mother with my two younger brothers and my father, watching her go. She was 44.
Everyone had strange immediate responses to my mother’s passing. My father, aunts and uncles began popping questionably procured Prozacs and Zolofts, which made them wildly inappropriate jokesters during the nine-day prayers, funeral and wake. Meanwhile, I became fixated on my hair; hours before my mother’s funeral, I was sitting in a salon chair with foil sticking out all over my head, taking my blond up a shade to platinum. Bizarre? Yes, but frivolity was the distraction I needed.
After two weeks at home, I was back on campus, relieved to be away from the epicentre of grief that was Trinidad, and ready to plunge myself into every distraction I could find, hair-related and otherwise. Within weeks of my return I cut heavy bangs, a classic sign of internal distress.
I studied intensely, graduated first in my class, and embarked on a prestigious master’s programme at Imperial College, but that was the wholesome tip of the distraction iceberg. The rest of it was continual partying, dabbling in the popular drugs du jour, and avidly pursuing romance (euphemism alert). The combination of vice and raw ambition, those twin pillars of youth, anaesthetised me so effectively that as my twenties roared ahead, I genuinely believed myself to be tough-as-nails when it came to death.
Cut to: me sobbing at 28 because my mother couldn’t take me wedding-dress shopping. Then my first marital fight and no one to confide in—because here’s something that hits the motherless gal for six as she gets older: all the other mothers and daughters become besties, and their closeness cannot be replicated. I found myself hesitant to confide in girlfriends, cousins, or aunts because I realised they were part of a closed mother-daughter circuit I would never have.
Then I got pregnant and realised the scope of my loss. I’d lost my own history for starters; no-one knew my infant milestones or how my mother’s pregnancies had been. My dad couldn’t remember how my mother’s deliveries were either so I went into childbirth with zero familial reference point. My fifteen hours of couplet contractions (i.e. no breaks) and an emergency C-section did jog his memory though. 'Oh yeah, she DID have difficult labours!' Thanks, Dad.
As for postpartum support: You. Need. Your. Mother. The moment you become a mama is when you need your own more than ever. Why? Because you plummet down the priority chute once you have that baby. The only one still devoted to your needs is your mother. Becoming a mum also peeled back a layer of understanding as to what my mother must have felt leaving us behind, and that in itself cut deeper than before.
So it turns out I am not the emotionless bad-ass I believed myself to be. I simply had the 'luck' to lose my mother at an age when you don’t really need mothers. All you need are friends and freedom at 19, in my experience anyway. Only as I’ve gotten older have I realised that grief is my arthritis, settled deep into my bones, flaring up acutely as I age and hit those major milestones.
I understand now that I won’t get over the loss; my grief will simply evolve along with me, colouring how I live. Again, though, that comes with a bright side. Facing mortality early on reinforced that death comes a-calling whether or not you’ve achieved your dreams.
Caught up with full-time work and parenting, my mother never focused on her ambitions. Though she painted as much as possible after her diagnosis, it was too late for her to become the artist she longed to be. In that way, my mother’s death was also her greatest parenting lesson. Life is short, kiddos. Don’t waste time.
It’s no coincidence that I’m a writer, my middle brother is a painter, and my youngest brother is a music producer. Nor is it a coincidence that the overarching message of my debut novel One Year of Ugly is exactly that – grab life by the balls and chase your wildest dreams – as told to my young protagonist through the manuscript of her deceased aunt. It was a lesson I’ve had 14 years to internalise; there was no way it wouldn’t come out in my writing.
And this brings us to that unresolvable catch-22. Do I wish my mother were still around? Of course. But would I change the parts of myself that have been moulded by losing her? Absolutely not. So much of the good in my life is a direct result of what that loss taught me. I also know that the blow would’ve been much harder to accept now than at 19.
But why dwell on things I cannot change? Instead, I do as my mother taught me. I don’t waste time and I stay focused on the bright side.
Caroline Mackenzie's debut novel One Year Of Ugly is available to download as an E-book now.
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