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Coping with Bereavement:  Ailim’s Mother

My mother was a Scot, and came from a very large family, so funerals were normal for everyone. I can remember being taken up to Scotland for a funeral in the 50s when I was little, and being able to see my dead uncle in his coffin, lying in the house. I've seen my maternal grandfather in his coffin in his bedroom. My maternal grandmother died in hospital at a venerable old age.    I've seen aunts, uncles and cousins being buried or cremated over the years. In one year alone, we had 9 funerals to attend in Scotland - mostly natural deaths occurring due to the age group that they were in. All of those deceased were left pretty much in their natural state, in other words, no embalming was carried out.

So when my own mother died suddenly in November 1992 in Bristol, England, I was shocked to see her laid out like a marble statue. I touched her, and she was so cold and hard. That wasn't the mother I knew. I was in the Middle East at the time, and had last spoken to her on the telephone 2 weeks previously. Phone calls were expensive, but we wrote a lot to each other as well. I still have her last letter written and posted probably a few days before she passed on due to a heart attack. During that phone call she was telling me that she couldn't move her left arm, and that the doctor just dismissed it as being a symptom of the flu he was treating her for, saying she had to keep taking the tablets. Now of course, we know that she had suffered the first minor stroke, which he had ignored. She was upset that simple things like going to the toilet were difficult without the use of her left hand, and I remember saying that it wouldn't be long before I was home for good.

I had lived in the Middle East with my husband for 10 years, and when we returned after our summer holiday in UK in 1992, I didn't want to go back and recall seeing my mother for the last time as she waved us goodbye from the bus station. She looked frail, and I suddenly realised that I had missed seeing her grow old due to being away all the time. But my husband said it would only be until Easter 1993, when I could come home again for good. When that last phone call ended, I remember saying, "I love you." My husband commented that it had been the first time he had heard me say that. We are not a demonstrative family, I take after my father, pretty cynical and tears don't come easy. I didn't know why I said it either - it had been spontaneous. Two weeks later she was dead.

It was about 4.30 a.m. in the morning of Saturday 14 November, when the phone rang. It was my father, and he said just two words, "She's gone." We were 4 hours ahead of UK at that time, so this was about 00.30 his time. He couldn't talk much then, but later explained how she had suddenly regained the use of her left arm the previous evening, and had been so happy, full of life again. She started to carry on with her crochet work (she made some beautiful things), and was looking so well, until she stood up and then collapsed on the floor. He called the doctor, who came quickly and called an ambulance. The ambulance got lost and arrived 25 minutes later. Mum passed away just before they arrived. In one sense it was good that it happened this way, because the doctor was present and therefore no autopsy was needed. It was also good for my mother, because one of her fears had been to die alone - she would joke about it, saying that she could die in bed at night, and father would be snoring in front of the TV, and probably wouldn't even know until morning. She died in his arms on the floor of their front room.

Of course I was in shock from that call, and spent about 2 hours crying myself dry. I've never cried so much in my life, not even when my beloved aunt and grandmother died. I didn't think I would ever stop. But I had things to do. I went into work and handed in my resignation. I contacted the Duke of York's Military School in Dover, where our two sons were boarded, and asked that they be prepared to come home for their grandmother's funeral. I found out later that the House master was so sympathetic that he called them both into his office and said bluntly, "Your grandmother is dead." The boys didn't even know which of their grandmothers had passed on until they arrived in Bristol. They were 14 and 17 years old.

My husband managed to get me on the next available plane which was the following day. It took 24 hours from the phone call until I landed at Heathrow, catching the 6.30 am bus then a taxi before arriving at my father's house about 9am on Sunday morning of the 15 November 1992. Still wearing summer clothes, I didn't even have a coat to wear and that November it was pretty miserable. The next day, my father and I had to register the death, and then go to the funeral parlour to arrange the funeral. Thankfully, my cousin Ronnie, and his wife Avril, had taken a week off work and travelled down from Scotland to help us.

My family have a pretty cynical view of life in general, and the first touch of humour that day came when we walked into the Co-op funeral parlour (this was in a different location to their Chapel of Rest). As we stood just inside, there was a bell continually ringing. Suddenly a lady came running out and said, "Please come in." It was only a small place, and my father and I went to the chairs, followed by Ronnie. The bell continued to chime. The lady beckoned urgently to Avril to come in - when miraculously the bell stopped. Seems that their door bell was activated by pressure on the door mat, and Avril had stopped on the mat - therefore activating the bell continuously.

We sat there looking at the brochures of the caskets, and as each page turned the price went up. The lady was very pleasant, but obviously it's in their interest to sell as much as possible. Eventually, we decided on a plain coffin, nicely finished but with none of the elaborate furnishings, and obviously much cheaper. As father said, "once she's in the ground, not going to matter how fancy a coffin is." When it came to choose a plot, we were given 3 burial ground choices. Next we were asked how we wanted her dressed, in pink or white. Its only when you are going through all this, that you realise just how little you know about the arrangements needed for funerals. You end up relying so much on what they advise. We chose a Bristol South plot and were then asked how many? Dad sat in confusion, but I promptly said, "Two". Dad looked at me strangely and I explained, "Well, you may as well book yours now. At least that way you'll know where you're going to end up." The Funeral Parlour lady just could not understand how we could joke at a time like this. But this is when black humour comes to the rescue - because without it, we would all have been snivelling wrecks and unable to do anything.

Then we had to decide on a date for the burial. I was shocked when she was offering us dates a week or more from the death. I asked what has happened to the Christian 3 days and then burial? I was told that due to the number of funerals being held every day, it was impossible to have it sooner. I said something about pre-booking our own deaths in future so as to accommodate the funeral directors schedule. She wasn't amused. However, after much talking, she agreed to try and slot us in for the Wednesday (18 November 1992). We then had to arrange for someone to conduct the funeral. My mother was Church of Scotland, but didn't attend any church regularly in Bristol. She would go to various churches and enjoy their services. I spoke to the Minister of my local Methodist Church, who arranged for someone to do this for us.

The next trip was to visit my mother in the Chapel of Rest. I never really thought I would see her lying in a coffin. It's not something you really think about. After all, your mother and father are always going to be there for you. She had been embalmed. We had never even been asked whether we wanted this done or not. She didn't look like my mother any more. When I touched her hand (they cover the body and only leave 1 hand showing so that relatives can touch), it was like marble. I checked that they had her name right on the coffin lid, and said my farewell to her. The boys went in also to say their last goodbyes. This is something that I feel is SO important. It is only then that the realisation of death can be achieved. It is the closing of the door.

I recall my cousin being asked time and time again, whether she wanted to visit her mother, who died at 41, before the burial. She refused, saying she couldn't face it. We all tried to get her to have that last viewing - but she was scared I guess. Years later, it haunted her. And she would say how much she wished now that she had taken that one last look.

During all this time, my husband was still in the Middle East, having now lost his job. I felt as though the world was upside down.

On the day of the funeral, the heavens parted. After a nice but bland service given by a minister who didn't even know my mother (though he made it sound as though he did from the notes I had given him about her life) we moved to the grave side. Umbrellas blew inside out, the rain lashed down horizontally, the wind howled. The minister stood shouting against the elements, his robes being tugged by the wind, and we all stood dismally, getting wetter and wetter by the minute. Afterwards, as he finished, I assumed that he would indicate for us to scatter earth onto the coffin, as I've seen so many times. As he made to walk away, I asked. He looked at me and said that if I wanted to pick up mud, that was up to me. I didn't know what to do, and I felt so lost. It was as though the entire funeral was just another day to him - yet to me and my family, it was The Day that we lost a very dear and beloved member of our family.

And this is where I feel I let my mother down. She had been involved in so many family funerals up home, that she knew how to make each one a little special, dropping a red rose onto the coffin, ensuring that everyone had plenty to eat when they returned to the house, ensuring that the cars were in the right order, with the right people in them. It seems that in Scotland they do things so much better than we do in England. What did I do? I turned and walked away. Perhaps thinking back, a handful of mud would have been better than nothing. I suppose by this time, the shock was wearing off, leaving us in that state of mental confusion, where our confidence has flown out of the window. Three days later, we returned to the grave to find it flooded as they hadn't filled it in completely due, they said, to the bad weather. My father jokingly said that it wouldn't have surprised him to have seen her coffin float down into the Avon and make its way back to Scotland. For me, I had nightmares about coffin robbers, and worse. We put a complaint in and the grave was properly filled in the next day.

It took me 2 years before I could really say I was over my bereavement. It was like a roller-coaster. One minute I would be laughing and getting on with life - the next, I would be a miserable tear-eyed person where the slightest mention about Mum would set the flood gates open. But gradually, over those two years, I found that the bouts of crying became less frequent, until eventually, my normal life came back and I was able to move on.

One of the things that is natural in our family, is to talk about the deceased. We talk about things that happened, their quirks of nature, their jokes. We remember them in the good times and the bad. We laugh at the memories and remember more. During the first week of my mother's death, I guess we spent hours and hours talking about her, about her favourite things etc. It's like a healing process.

I still miss her terribly, and even writing this makes me want to cry. But I know she's near me, I know she's still looking over my shoulder, and I know that one day I'll go where she is, but when my time comes - I don't want my family put through the agonies that we went through. So my husband and I have already bought our burial plot - in the Bristol Memorial Woodland. I hope to write my own funeral service, and hopefully one of the Dobunni (my druid grove) will conduct it for me. I'm not being morbid - I just want to minimise the disruption that happens at these times, when the bereaved are in shock and the funeral directors just want to fill another slot in their diary.