In Memory


There is nothing that kills a conversation quite as effectively as the words ‘my sister died.’

When asked how many siblings I have, I always say that I was one of four. Or that I have three siblings; or that I have two sisters and one brother. It’s only when people ask where my siblings live, or how old they are, that things can get awkward.

People are always shocked. And then they want to know when, and how old she was, and how (2004; sixteen; drowning). And then they often say that they’re sorry they brought it up, that it must be hard for me to talk about. And then we move on.

The thing is, it’s not hard to talk about it. What’s hard is that it happened. Talking about her is lovely. I want to talk about her. I’m just not so sure that other people do.

I had a tattoo for Helen this week. I guess it’s my way of memorialising her. We have lots of ways of doing that, us humans- and many of them are public.

Flowers in cellophane are tied to lamp-posts, with a photo that eventually fades in the sun and turns to mush around the edges in the rain. Trees are planted, and songs written, and plaques screwed to benches, and Facebook pages created. The Taj Mahal was built by a grieving husband as a monument to his wife (the fact that she was just one of his several wives takes away some of the romance, but let’s gloss over that…).

For me, written words have been my way of creating a memorial for Helen. I have always loved writing, but losing Helen cut something open in me, and words poured from that place. Notebooks are filled with long letters to Helen and short (bad) poems and angry scribbles. There are folders of writing about Helen tucked away on the laptops I have used over the last twelve-and-some years. And there are pockets of my grief dripped like spots of ink across the internet.

So it made sense to me to use words (EE Cumming’s words) to memorialise Helen in a tattoo. But why did I write it on my skin, forever? Why not just read the poem, or have it framed? Why do so many people get tattoos in memory of someone they have lost?

Most obviously, of course, it’s about honouring the person with something permanent and indelible. My tattoo will last as long as my love and grief for Helen will last- that is, as long as I am living. It’s about making Helen present, somehow.

But there’s something else, too. For me, it’s the same as the roadside memorials, or the Taj Mahal. It’s about making private grief public.

There’s a short period of mourning after a death, when it is demanded of you to outwardly grieve, to talk, to emote. But when the world perceives that the immediate, acute wound has healed over, that’s the end of that. And never mind the scarring that remains. Normal life can cover that up like a heavy-duty concealer.

Often when I’ve written a blog about grief, I’ll get messages from people I know. ‘My sister died too.’ ‘It was like that for me, when my husband died.’ More often than not, if they are a newer friend or a work colleague, I’ll have had no idea that they went through this loss. You can’t tell, from looking at someone, what they are carrying around with them. You can’t tell from the outside if someone’s heart has been shattered, and cobbled back together.

So maybe having a tattoo, or tying bunches of flowers to a lamp-post, or drinking a little too much gin on the eve of an anniversary and misery-posting twenty photos of your loved one onto Facebook, is, in part, wanting to signal your loss, to show that you haven’t come to terms with it, or got over it, and that you never will.

I feel uncomfortable writing this, but let’s grasp the truthy nettle: I do want my grief to be recognised. More than that, I want grief, generally, to be recognised and spoken about. Not just to rear up for a few days of stricken hashtagging and tortured newspaper think-pieces when a famous person dies. Or to be packed away along with the funeral outfit that you never want to look at again.

Look, I don’t want to lie on a chaise longue and weep about my sister all day. But I do wish that we could talk about grief as easily as we talk about birth, or love, or Kimye. Let’s face it, a conversation about sex is far more likely to happen in an office environment than a conversation about grief, and something about that seems off to me.

So, in the interests of talking about loss- and if you’ve made it this far- this is what it’s like, for me, almost thirteen years down the road of grief:

I miss her every day. (See, sometimes words are so over-used that they don’t do the job unless you dig into their meaning. I miss her. Every day. If you know what that feels like- here, have an awkward hug from me. If you don’t, can you imagine? Missing someone, every day. The constant hum of something like homesickness. The longing.)

I cry for her every day. Crying doesn’t necessarily mean tears. Sometimes it’s a heavy fullness in my chest when I am washing up. Or sometimes it’s a messy, snotty sob fest into my pillow- and that kind of crying, actually, feels the best.

I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.

I can be happy- I am happy- but I’ll never not be sad.

I’ll love her until the end of time.

And, always, I carry her heart (I carry it in my heart).

I can only speak of my own experience. But if you know someone who is bereaved- even if it happened a long time ago, and even if they haven’t built a marble palace or injected ink into their skin to make their private grief public – maybe ask them about it sometime. The chances are, they miss their loved one every day too.


Chapter Nineteen: The Fear

Last Friday as I walked home from the shops, I had to jostle the buggy through a cluster of photographers and journalists lining the pavement outside our local church. Within the grounds, crowds of people stood, wearing dark clothes, the air heavy with what could only be grief.

A photographer confirmed, when I asked, that it was a funeral, for a teenage girl who died recently
in tragic circumstances and whose death has been in the news (incidentally, he sounded fairly disgusted with me for asking, which was a bit rich coming from the man waiting outside a funeral with a telephoto lens. Just saying).

The only other time I have seen the same church so busy, and have felt the same heaviness in the air, was for the funeral of my sister. She was a teenager too; she too died in tragic circumstances (though thankfully her death did not garner so much media interest). On that day in summer 2004, hundreds of people packed the church, sitting, standing, her classmates cross-legged on the floor.

I now attend the church, and each Sunday I still have a moment when I am stunned by the fact that we had to have that funeral, when I stare at the space at the front of the church where her casket stood. My sister, her casket. It still doesn’t compute. Some days I literally can’t believe that my worst fear- to lose one of my siblings- came to pass.

Now I am a parent I have a new worst fear to add to that one, of course. And I am fearful, every day. It feels like it will stop my own heart sometimes.

It struck me as I tried to stop the tears, and snapped at the cameraman whose tripod took up the whole pavement and forced me and the buggy onto the road, that one reason the media make so much of an untimely death is that it is comforting for it to seem unusual, foreign, the thing that happens to Other People. An everyday occurrence isn’t news. We want tragedy to be freakish.

And in a way, it is. Sixteen is nowhere within the realms of a normal life expectancy. But it does happen every day. It did happen to my sister. Maybe I am more afraid than others, for that reason. When people say that they can’t imagine losing a child, I can. I do imagine it, in spite of myself. For though I haven’t known that specific loss, I hope I’m not throwing a pity party when I say that the loss of Helen was devastating, and that I can’t imagine loving Helen more than I did, so while I may not know the particular pain of losing a child, the pain I do know provides more than a hint of that horror.

But maybe I’m not more afraid than any other parent. Maybe we are all, but for the most optimistic/blissfully ignorant/rational among us, gripped by The Fear. Maybe all of us feel somewhere deep down that we were reckless fools ever to have children, because now look what we’ve done. Our happiness and potential happiness and potential despair is poured into these vessels; we are hostages to fortune. It is, as Barack Obama put it in the wake of the Sandy Hook atrocity, ‘the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around’.

And maybe I’m not any more afraid than I ever was. I have always worried about losing my loved ones, almost obsessively at times. When Helen died it felt like a confirmation: I was RIGHT to be fearful. But yet, totally wrong. Because it didn’t make any difference, did it?

How do I handle The Fear? Do I forbid my children from going into the sea? Then the sea won’t take them as it did Helen, but they’ll also never know the joy of jumping over waves and floating belly-up in the sun- or even that strange slow-motion thrill of being sucked under by a big wave and it taking just a second too long for comfort to spiral up to the water’s surface. And then where does it end? Do I keep them out of school? Keep them in the house? In a sterilised pod where nothing and nobody can do them any harm- no disease, no evil, no runaway train or roof falling in?

Giving in to The Fear is not compatible with the life my children deserve to live. They deserve to have adventures and make choices and walk to school without me keeping them on a lead. They don’t deserve to be the only kids at university whose mother installed a cctv camera in their halls of residence.

I got myself into this heart-outside-of-my-body business, so beyond the obvious safety measures, I have to just suck it up, keep loving and enjoying them, and be grateful for all the days I have with them, even the crappy ones (though if either of them ever gets into that extreme sport where you ‘fly’ down the side of a mountain with a bat-cloak as ‘wings’, I will stage an intervention, so help me God). And hope that when I eventually go, they are still around, and well and happy, to remember their silly old Mum who would scuttle away from the window when they arrived home, pretending she had not been stood watching for them.

Chapter Nine: Here Comes The Sun

My Leila is special. Oh, yes I know, bla bla subjective-biased-parent-cakes. But it’s true. She IS special. She has a glow, a spark… So many words she conjures up are to do with light.

My sister, Helen, was another of these luminescent, special people. After she died nearly nine years ago, I sobbed to my family that my life was over at only 23. I really believed this was true. How could I, how could we, ever be happy after the loss of our sweet Helen?

She had told her friends that if she died she would want Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles to be played at her funeral. So it was, and it was comforting, though I couldn’t imagine the sun shining for us again.

But as a family we all worked to rebuild our lives- and quickly learned that to carry on and to strive to be happy is not the easy route but the hard one. Sinking into the black hole would have been the easy option. But clawing our way out of the black hole, or at least building around it, meant that life was not over.

Slowly we came to experience happiness, whilst also carrying our loss. My surviving siblings found wonderful partners (I already had G), we had adventures, we travelled, we made homes. We lived.

But it wasn’t until three years ago tomorrow- February 9th, 2010- that I found myself awash in the most beautiful light of a happiness and contentment I never thought would be possible after losing Helen. The birth of Leila lit up the dark corners of my heart.

little darling, it feels like ice is slowly melting/ little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here

She made life golden. Not just because a baby brings joy and new life, but because of who she is: her openness, her sense of fun, her enthusiasm, her feist and her sparkle, which were evident even when she was a tiny baby.

Here comes the sun/ Here comes the sun/ And I say it’s alright

There have been moments since her birth when I’ve felt not just happy, but perfect happiness. She has made it possible, and has taught me that utter joy can exist alongside deep sadness.

little darling, the smiles returning to their faces/ little darling, it feels like years since it’s been clear

I’ll always grieve for Helen- and the pain of knowing that my two quirky, funny girls will never meet twists my insides regularly. But grief can’t overshadow how wonderful the past three years have been, and how bright the future feels with Leila (and now Asher) in it.

So if I’m a lot a little emotional about Leila’s third birthday tonight, it’s because, you see, she’s special.