A Father's Role, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Love, Mother Loss, Motherless Daughter, The Importance of Family

The Important Role My Dad Played in My Life Following My Mother’s Death.

My dad is the reason I am a well-adjusted, grateful, loving and happy person today. I have no doubt about it. Sure, I have my down days. There are days when the developments in our world deeply upset me. I truly wonder at the human race. There are several occasions when I miss my mother who died when I was only eleven years old. I feel angry and ripped off and lonely for her and for the person she would be today. I crave the companionship of my mother when I have questions only she could answer, or when I see a mother and daughter out to lunch or sharing a dressing room in a boutique that I know Mam would have enjoyed. I miss Mam often throughout my days. It’s a given. I loved and I lost. But I have to say that I feel truly, unimaginably blessed to have the father I have. Who would I have become without his love and guidance down through the years? I don’t know. I don’t wish to know.

My mother chose well when she chose Dad. She married in her mid-thirties having waited until she was sure she had found the right man. She had. My dad is a gem and she knew that. I wish I could ask her to share with me that story. I want to know when exactly she knew that dad was the one for her. There are things I really want to know the answer to but these answers were hers only and they died along with her in 1988. As a child I never thought to ask these things. How would I? The American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, says in her poem of the same title “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.”

Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Last year, shortly after I started writing about mother loss, I received a thoughtful, courteous message from a man who had read my piece “3 Things I’ve Learned Since Losing My Mother” in Huffington Post. He told me that his wife had died and that he was now raising their young children alone. He appreciated my article and wondered if I could tell him some of the most important things Dad had done to help during my moments of grief. He said he wanted to be that kind of father for his own children. I wrote back to him immediately.

When I hear from fathers looking for guidance in how to raise their motherless little ones I feel three things. One, my heart aches because out there is another father struggling to get through life without his beloved wife. And other heartbroken children are commencing a new and challenging chapter of their lives without their mommas. The second thing these messages do for me is give me hope. These men want to do their very best for their children. They are not afraid to reach out for support and to ask for help. They love their daughters and sons and they want to do right by them. And, thirdly, I feel blessed that I can offer some advice to these fathers based on the experience I was fortunate enough to have in my own life.

Hope Edelman says in “Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss.”:

“The degree to which a surviving parent copes is the most important indicator of the child’s long-term adaptation. Kids whose surviving parents are unable to function effectively in the parenting role show more anxiety and depression, as well as sleep and health problems, than those whose parents have a strong support network and solid inner resources to rely on.”

Dad had no guide book, no therapist and no Google but he followed his heart and helped my brother and me in the best ways he could. He prepared us for Mam’s death by speaking to us about the seriousness of her illness once it became clear to him and to the doctors that Mam could not survive much longer. He let us know that he was going to be there for us, then and into the future and that we wouldn’t be alone. He was true to his word. He was always there for us.

Dad offered guidance when necessary and listened to our stories, our hopes and our worries without judgment. Dad allowed us to grow into ourselves without criticism or fuss. He collected me from late night discos when I requested, never complaining about the hours he had to stay up. He didn’t ask too many questions and I always felt able to tell him anything. He patiently taught my brother and I how to drive and generously loaned us his car. He trusted us. I died my hair pink, green and bright red while I was in college, before it was a thing, and Dad just smiled. He welcomed my friends into our home and never complained about the loud music blasting from my room. I truly felt my dad embrace me for who I was as I grew into my womanhood and in return for his trust we gave him no reason to worry.

Of great importance to us was keeping Mam’s presence alive in our home. We kept plenty of Mam’s things around and I was free to use any of her stuff as I wanted. I wore some of her clothes as I grew into them, used her comb, dabbed her perfume on my arm and took one of her rings as my own. There hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t worn it. Dad welcomed questions about Mam and did his best to answer them. He brought her name into conversations and shared memories of her from time to time. Memories of Mam surrounded us in a healthy way, and still do. Photos of her were kept in their frames and cards from her were stored as treasured keepsakes. Dad supported my writing of “A Lovely Woman”, the memoir I penned about losing Mam. He asks from time to time how the search for an agent is going and I know I have his blessing every step of this journey.

I am one of the fortunate ones. Not because I lost my dear mother way too early in my life, but because I was blessed with a caring and kind father who gave so much of his heart and his life to raising us children in a supportive and loving home following such a huge loss. Many, many motherless daughters and sons live a very different story to mine. Many have their family lives ripped apart because a father cannot cope emotionally. Some abuse their children. Often times fathers flee the scene and the child no longer has a secure and loving life that was once theirs. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories that I know this happens frequently.

There are other ways, different to my family’s experience, to find happiness in the wake of mother loss. Although generally extremely difficult for children whose fathers remarry, depending on the age of the child, children do grow up to adore their new step-mother or at least to accept them. Many find a new love and happiness in this extension of family while some experience the pain of replacement. I’m sure we all know some wonderful, devoted step-mothers who love bereaved children as their own. It is important for grieving fathers to find their happiness again too. It is a complicated affair.

I am blessed to still have my dad in my life. We don’t see each other as often as I’d like due to distance but he is always at the end of the phone line and when possible we spend quality time together. Recently I asked him about the immediate impact of losing Mam. He said he felt lost at the start and wondered how he would manage. He admitted to feeling his way day by day as time went on. Following Mam’s death he says he was exhausted but that having us, my brother and me, was a great help to him. He concentrated on our needs and we were companions for him. Helping us, he said, helped him.

As Father’s Day approaches this coming weekend I want to acknowledge the love and devotion my father gave to me and emphasize the significant role that fathers play in the life of a motherless daughter or son. I learned to thrive and grow into the considerate, assertive, loving person I am today because of what I went through and how my father guided me in those years when Mam was sick and following her death. Dad’s love and support is invaluable while the rewards for both parent and child are boundless. My heart overflows with love for my dad and when we have an opportunity to spend time together every moment is treasured. Losing my mother at such an early age resulted in a constant anxiety about losing my father. That is practically a given when a child loses a parent. But it has also given me reason to appreciate the moments. I got married last September and my father was there to walk me up the aisle. For both of us this was a moment. I choked back my happy tears when those doors opened to a room full of smiles and Etta James sang “At Last.” This day was a blessing, in more ways than one.

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Love heals us. Love is the answer. Love is the way through the pain and into the light.

I am sorry for those who have lost their fathers. And I am sorry for those who never knew theirs or have suffered pain at the hands of their fathers. There is too much pain in this world and sometimes I wonder how we get through this life at all. Perhaps, again, the answer is love. Finding love where we can. Seeking out those with a loving heart. Healing each other. Sharing our pain and learning from other people’s stories. Listening. Sending an abundance of love into this fragile world.

I conclude by wishing my kind, sweet dad a happy Father’s Day, and to all the dads out there doing their best for their children, I wish the same! Your presence in your child’s life is significant. You are valued. Let your children see that they are valued too.

My father quote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Without My Mother, Death, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Love, Moments, Motherless Daughter, The Importance of Family

Celebrating Christmas Without Mam

In my life I’ve celebrated ten Christmases with my mother.The first couple I don’t recall. And the last two were very difficult. Mam was in hospital for my ninth Christmas. She wasn’t well enough to come home. Dad took my brother and I to visit her and we sat around the hospital bed thinking this was not how Christmas was supposed to be. For my tenth Christmas Mam was at home but both she and I were ill. In hindsight I’m certain that I was terribly anxious about the situation (Mam’s cancer) and my body was buckling under the stress. I spent all of Christmas (days of celebrations in Ireland) and my birthday, which is on January 3rd, in bed sick. Mammy returned to hospital on January 4th, and died at home with us on March 2nd, 1988, when I was eleven.

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Christmas 1983

The Christmases with Mam that I do remember are filled with happy memories. It was a time for close family to be together; playing with toys, reading books, going to mass, sitting by an open fire, preparing, sharing and eating delicious home cooked meals, drinking tea, sharing stories and watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory together. My small family consisted of Dad, Mam, my older brother and me. We all loved Christmas. The carol singing, the tree decorating, the lights, the cosy fire, the warmth of family, the good food and the joy of giving and receiving.

The Christmas when I was nine and Mam had to remain in hospital was confusing and sad. I understood for years that Mam was battling an illness. But that she couldn’t be home with us on the most special day of the year (it was that to me) was hard to take. My dad did his best to keep Christmas morning as normal as possible. I got my Cabbage Patch Kid beneath the tree, we visited Granny and my aunt in the morning and we went to mass. But of course it didn’t feel the same without Mam. Something was very wrong and life was showing us at an early age that we couldn’t always have what we wanted. Even when all we wanted was our mother home with us on Christmas Day.

After the hospital visit with Mam, my dad took us on a drive to a small lake. We stepped out of the car, wrapped up in our winter clothes and a beautiful swan floated gracefully before us on the water. For a few minutes at that lake all I could focus on was the beauty of the swan before me. I held my dad’s hand and stared. I remember that moment. There was beauty in it. My dad remembers it too.

The Christmases that followed Mam’s death were hard but they got easier. She was, and still is, always, missed. We kept some of the same Christmas rituals. We place the tree in the spot where Mam liked it in our living room. The majority of our Christmas decorations are a collection that Mam and Dad gathered together, some so old they are beginning to fall apart, several in as good a shape as they were twenty years ago; vintage and unique. We go to Christmas Eve mass as a family, though I get away with skipping Christmas Day mass now (staying in bed is more appealing!) We place gifts beneath the tree and open them as a family in front of Dad’s beautiful fire. My brother and I still hang our Christmas stockings on either side of the fireplace as was the case when Mam first got them for us, our names in red velvet lettering across the tops of each.

After Mam died we started going to my aunt’s house for dinner. Christmas Day became a different kind of day but it is still one that I love. If I were to list the reasons I love Christmas my list would include: time with family, messages from friends, decorated tree, warm fire, time for rest, delicious food, conversation, gift giving and receiving, Christmas songs & choirs, candles lighting, time to read and lots of hot tea. Time. Time to be still.

I credit my dad for the smooth transition. No doubt there was terrible sorrow and disbelief at losing the mother we loved so much, my dad losing his beloved wife. But Dad remained strong and he held us all up. He worked hard to create a nice memorial place for Mam, her grave colorful with freshly planted flowers and free of weeds. I never felt close to Mam at her grave. It never felt right that the cold earth separated her from us, though I can appreciate the beauty of the fresh flowers and the nice headstone where her name is engraved. We visit it every Christmas Eve after mass. Dad was always able and willing to talk about Mam to me. In my earlier days I didn’t talk about her too much because I didn’t want to upset anybody. Outside of our immediate family Mam wasn’t discussed often. But Dad spoke about her. She was and is, always remembered in our little family.

“…when people stop mentioning the dead person’s name to you, the silence can seem worse than the pain of hearing those familiar, beloved syllables.” Meghan O’Rourke

This Christmas I think I’ll light a candle in Mam’s honor. We did this on my wedding day last September and it was a beautiful thing, to have a light shining in her memory, with flower’s from my dad’s garden in a little jug (her jug), beside us as my husband and I said our vows.

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I think about the people who don’t like Christmas, who feel they have nothing to celebrate, who feel lost and lonely, hurt and afraid. Christmas can be a terribly hard time for people. I think back to my little self, a small nine year old, holding hands with my dad as we took in the beauty of the swan before us while my mother lay suffering in the hospital on Christmas day. I worry for my ten year old self, sick in bed on my mother’s last ever Christmas with us. My poor mother. I consider my father. My brother. The pain that so many go through, in different ways, at different times. I’m one of the fortunate ones. The light came through. Mam lives on inside of me. I write about her and it helps. Poetry and the written word speak volumes and I always find a quote that resonates. Let’s look for the beauty where we can. And if we cannot do it this Christmas, maybe another day.

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A Messy World, Being Kind, Gratitude, Grief, Love, Moments, Motherless Daughter, On Writing, Storytelling, Writing Memoir, Writing on Grief

Showing Myself Kindness

It’s a messy world out there. And I’m one of those deeply feeling people Glennon Doyle Melton is talking to when she says,

“You are not a mess. You are a feeling person in a messy world.”

These words have really helped me. And my new goal with this quote in mind, is to be the kindest person I can be…to myself.

I’m writing a memoir about losing my mother to ovarian cancer when I was 11 years old. In fact, I’ve written the book. I just have to edit it, again, for maybe the eighteenth time, because there are too many words in the book. At least, that’s what I think, and I’ve read that agents will not look at a first time author’s work if the word-count is too high. So I’m back editing my memoir again, and it’s painful. It’s painful because I have to reread all the heartbreaking things that happened in my childhood as a result of Mam getting cancer…

…The first time she told my brother and me that she needed to go into hospital to get an operation. The time I lay awake in bed crying into the night because I missed her. All those Mother’s Days when Mam was not around. The Christmas she couldn’t be with us at home because she was in hospital. The time she got stung by a wasp when she was already so sick and weak. The time I saw her in a taxi coming from the hospital and the happiness poured from every cell in my body because I didn’t expect to see her and yet there she was, heading home, to be with us. Gripping my dad in the hallway of our home as sympathizers lined up to tell us how sorry they were…

Every time I reread the words it breaks my heart. And so, I need to be kind to myself.

Writing this memoir has been cathartic for me because it has allowed me to feel, to cry and to release my love and pain into this story form. But it’s not easy to go back over the story day in and day out, year in and year out, while I reexamine and query agents and wait. It’s difficult for me to know what I should take out and what I should leave in. I want to leave it all in. But the word-count is dropping and I do feel like the memoir is improving.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

And so, yesterday while I was meditating with Oprah and Deepak, I realized how tight my jaw was, and my neck. I noticed how good it felt to lie on my yoga bolster and breathe.

I breathed in and I let go.

I’m a newly wed and exhausted from all that the wedding entailed. The upcoming election has me exhausted. The injustices around the world have me exhausted. And my current work project is so close to my heart and so draining at times, that I decided I needed to find a way to connect with my deepest self and be gentle with that person. I considered ways to do this. And since I’m a writer I wrote down what came to me. Here it is:

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I will try to remember these questions throughout my day. And at night I will run through them in my mind before going to sleep. These questions ground me and remind me of how to be kind to myself. All of them are true to who I am. There is nurturing in all of them.

And I will keep telling my story. Mam’s story. Our story. Stories have a way of connecting all of us, reaching others, ignoring our differences and splitting our hearts wide open in this messy, messy world.

Meanwhile I will go through my list and ask myself “Did I…?”

I am not a mess. I am a feeling person, sharing my story.

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Gratitude, Grief, Motherless Daughter, Writing Memoir, Writing on Grief

Revealing is Healing

Two years ago I left my job as a kindergarten teacher of ten years. I was a teacher before that, in elementary school, or primary, as we say in Ireland, for a couple of years. I loved teaching and I love children but I was no longer feeling fulfilled in my job. It took me a couple of years to put some savings together and plan for at least eight months of living expenses without needing to work. My plan was to write my memoir. I needed to write my story for several reasons.

I lost my mother to cancer when I was 11 years old. Mam was diagnosed when I was 5 and for the next several years we watched her fight, suffer, live and die. The pain of all this was almost unbearable but my brother and I were blessed with an amazing father so we pushed on through to the other side. Thing is, I never really grieved back then. I cried, of course. My heart broke. But I wanted so badly for everything else to be okay: Dad to be healthy, my brother to be healthy and there to be no more illness in our lives. I was so tired of hospitals and drips and doctors. My 11 year old self couldn’t handle anymore anxiety after years of hoping, praying, anticipating. My memoir would allow me the opportunity to process what happened from a safe distance. I would relive my thoughts and emotions, be in control of my story and make sense of it all on the page. Writing my memoir would allow me to heal.

And it did. While I wrote I often cried. I laughed too. And I realized how blessed I have been in my life. Writing about Mam’s actual death had me hanging my head in sorrow while tears dripped on to the table top. At times I sobbed aloud. Every time I revisited that scene my emotional response was the same. But gradually the sobbing subsided and I found peace. I broke through to the other side. I was ready to leave those twenty four hours behind on the page and spring forward.

I came to understand that before and after Mam’s illness there was so much love. I was such a happy little girl. My parents were attentive and loving. Writing about my happy childhood brought me all sorts of good feelings. And following Mam’s death my father cared for us with such devotion and love that I realized my memoir would not be complete without paying tribute to his huge heart. I saw that my father continued on after Mam’s death with grace and courage. I was able to look back on our family story as a whole story – the good and the bad, and by writing it all down I was able to see that beneath all the suffering emerged a true love story. My life has always been filled with love. Suffering: yes. Anxiety:definitely. Trauma, grief and anger: yes, yes and yes. But so much love. And plenty of happiness too.

My main reason for writing this book was to reach out to others. To continue a conversation that Motherless Daughters and grieving families are now having, that they weren’t having when I was growing up. I knew of no motherless daughter when I was a child. As a family we spoke about Mam, but there were no books for me to read, no person outside of the family to talk with about my feelings. Starting an author’s page on Facebook was my way to connect with people about grief and loss, in particular motherloss. It’s also my way of sharing posts about writing and how writing can be healing.

“Through our reading we can travel to other times and other places, into other peoples minds and hearts and souls: it is a transcendent experience.” ― Louise DeSalvo

Through my local Motherless Daughter’s meet-up group I recently found out about a workshop at The Blackbird Studio For Writers in Portland. A small group of us had the pleasure of learning from Hope Edelman and Jennifer Lauck while discussing our stories and writing. Through social media I’ve been networking with women who are reaching out, writing and learning about their own pain and loss. Writing is bringing women into my life who would never be in my life otherwise and the connection to these brave, inspiring ladies is one of the best reasons for sharing my story. To not feel alone, to find compassion and support, to be acknowledged for who you are because of how your life has been, are gifts that come only from opening up and revealing who we are, and why.

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak….it was born in the moments when we accumulated silent things within us.”
Gaston Bachelard

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Gratitude, Grief, Moments, Mother and daughter, Motherless Daughter

The Beauty of Mothers

There is a young Asian woman living across from me. She has a new baby, a young child, a partner and a mother. I’m aware of this not because I know her, we’re both relatively new to this neighborhood, but because throughout my day I catch glimpses into her life. My writing desk is situated close to a large window that looks down directly into the back of her home. Like us, that family has a large glass sliding door in their kitchen and that’s where I often see the young mother rocking baby or feeding baby or singing to baby. I also witness this when I’m in our kitchen sitting at the table. What has struck me the most from witnessing all of this is the longing I feel, not for a baby as many might imagine given my age, but for my mother.

This woman’s mother is tiny. She wears her greying hair tied up in an Asian style knot where her glasses often rest. She shuffles about in slippers and wears a light pair of pants and a heavy mauve sweater that comes almost to her knees. Buttons run the entire length of her sweater on the back and she wears a turtle neck underneath, even when it’s sunny. It’s not like I’m spying on the family. Our glass windows face theirs and they spend a few hours a day on and off the patio, especially now that the weather is so warm.

What I’ve been noticing are the little things. How the old mother is so helpful; stepping inside the house for a paper towel that she hands out to her daughter with the baby, taking the empty food bowl from her daughter and bringing it inside while daughter rocks baby in the shade. This adorable little mother comes out with the mop when her daughter has taken the baby inside, and she rinses it out over and over, presumably after mopping the kitchen floor. I’ve watched her spoon feed the baby until the child’s mother came out, in her black and white tie-dye pajamas, ready to take over. I’ve seen her water the family’s plants and sweep dust from the doorstep.

These are the things I notice that touch me deeply because I am without my mother. It’s not that she lives far away or that I don’t get on with her or anything like that, it’s that my mother died and there is no hope that I’ll ever get to see her again. And so when I witness a woman with her mother, doing everyday things that most people take for granted, it stirs several emotions. Sometimes there’s jealousy and sometimes sorrow, and almost always that sudden intense reminder that I am motherless. Even after all these years. But there are other emotions too. Strong ones. I feel a rush of love for this mother and daughter and for the bond that they share. I want to dash over and tell them how lucky they are and how lovely. I’m certain that many daughters don’t realize how blessed they are in the moments. When that woman is holding her daughter’s baby, cooing into its ears, rocking it to sleep so that her daughter can have a little break, that is a gift so precious to behold.

Every relationship is different and I understand that mother-daughter relationships aren’t always smooth. I’ve known women who’ve lost their mothers after a tumultuous life-long relationship with them and yet they miss their mothers dearly. Each relationship is unique but from my point of view I know what I am missing. I’m missing a dear woman who would love to be a part of my life today and if I could have any of these little moments that my neighbor has with her mother, with or without the baby, for even a minute, I would take it. I would look deep into my dear mother’s eyes, I would touch her soft hand and I would say “Thank you. I love you.”

I’ve heard this quote though I don’t know who originally said it-

“Life doesn’t come with a manual, it comes with a mother.”

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