In this week's grief story, Lulu talks about the difficulty of navigating bereavement and loss when family relationships are difficult and family members are estranged. Last year both Lulu's mother and her sister Sophy, neither of whom she had any contact with, died. Lulu's story is a brave account of how she faced those deaths and the old feelings that they dredged up.
Lulu is a Norfolk turnip by birth, an incomer to Cambridge of 25 years, a music teacher, textile experimenter, housing campaigner, 5 rhythms dancer and cider maker. She likes silence, loves her two black cats, and her favourite sandwich is onion bhaji on wholemeal bread with mango chutney.
Estrangement from my mother and sisters over eighteen years ago has been like bereavement.
It was unexpected so it was a shock and, because it was the result of failed relationships with people whom I will always share a familial bond, the unknown outcome in the future, the possibility of reconciliation or further hostility has hung over me like a whining mosquito.
Estrangement doesn’t happen on one day. It’s a process.
Gradually after the initial silence between us, our inability to try or our determination not to try (or both) made communicating with each other trickier. Contact often made matters worse. Someone had to step down and away from their ‘position’ before we could face each other. Part of my problems with being a member of our family was I felt my acceptance as a person hinged on not being honest with or about my mother.
She kept toxic secrets. Those secrets caused so much unhappiness between all of us.
There’s a history of incest in our family, spanning I believe, many generations. I experienced over sixteen years of it. My maternal grandfather was the main perpetrator and the second was my mother. To my shame, my daughter was also a target as I failed to protect her. Incest casts a long shadow. Discussing it with my sisters, Rebecca and Sophy, who also experienced it, was dreadfully painful. However when this history was exposed to the wider world by a bureaucrat working in child protection, my sisters - all younger than me - closed ranks against me, assuming I’d blown the whistle. Since I hadn’t kick-started the process I couldn’t stop it. The ensuing police investigation naturally had a very polarising effect.
Soon after the investigation, my youngest sister, Susannah, called to tell me her second child had been born safely but that she didn’t want any more contact with me. A while later, she and my middle sister, Sophy, told me I wasn’t to send Birthday Gifts to their children anymore because I was ‘unfit to have contact with them. ’ I was told explicitly by all my sisters they expected me to apologise and ask for forgiveness. Since I didn’t want to communicate with them I didn’t tell them they shouldn’t hold their breath. Where Sophy and Rebecca had previously supported my attempts to heal our shared familial wounds they’d now taken up the falling-out between my mother and me as their own, with Susannah joining them.
The range of emotions these estrangements elicited is vast. Yearning for love, recognition, acknowledgement, acceptance; wanting answers, to be listened to, to be understood; anger, rage, confusion, despair, disbelief, depression; jubilation, a sense of liberation and release and sometimes a wish to return to how it was before, although that was a toxic way to be.
This, then, is the backdrop to the deaths last year of both my sister Sophy in June and my mother in November.
Both times the news reached me as if from very far away, like a flagged message via semaphore. My Dad told me my sister needed a transplant early last year, told me when that operation failed and the proposed remedy. He was very worried, I wanted to support him and we talked a lot about the whole process she was undergoing. He also called me, barely managing to tell me, when she died.
I feel heartbroken for my Dad and my step-Mum, for my sisters and my mother, heartbroken for her children and for her husband, for everyone who loved her and most of all for her. She was 51.
We’d had zero contact during those eighteen years. I’d sometimes wondered if, when our mother died, assuming she would die before us, we might find our way back to each other. I’d lost her so many years ago. Her death makes that loss permanent. I’m very sad about that and I feel relieved.
It feels brave to write this.
I know some people expect me to feel devastated or, if they know why we were estranged, they wonder why I feel sad about someone who betrayed me. To them, from the outside, the state of our relationship sounds straightforward.
Estrangement isn’t straightforward. I needed to establish a very firm boundary with our mother. Sadly for me my sisters felt they had to choose.
It never occurred to me I wouldn’t be able to go to Sophy's funeral but my mother and Sophy's husband were adamant I shouldn’t be there. Friends have wondered why I would want to go. I wanted the choice. She was still my sister. I wanted to be a part of the ritual of death. I wanted to support my Dad. I wanted to say ‘goodbye’ publicly. I would have stayed at the back with my partner. I would have left quickly. I wanted to pay my respects. We hadn’t always been estranged.
My step-Mum and Dad were forced to compromise on their initial expectation I would go. I still haven’t been to my sister’s grave not just because it is in another city but because it now feels like a really big deal.
When my mother died I found out that anyone can be banned from a funeral held at a privately owned crematorium in the same way they can be banned from a pub.
I was allowed by my youngest sister to see my mother’s body and to send a floral tribute. I’d always been afraid of my mother even after a lot of therapy, which had lessened it greatly. Nonetheless, I needed to see her body to check that she was dead. I sent a single rose because I insisted on doing the few things I was allowed to do.
My sisters asked if I would like some of her ashes. Astonishingly, I had the foresight to accept. They’re in a small cardboard tube on a shelf in my bedroom. I thought about throwing them in a bin for several weeks. I know some people expect me to feel ashamed of that impulse. I don’t. I still don’t know what to do with them.
My father agreed my sisters had no right to prevent me from being there but wisely wondered if I wouldn’t find being there a bit sickening? Maybe I would find the service too painful and find it hard to contain my reactions. Maybe my sisters were afraid I would stand up and shout out something about our mother? Those questions are fading. The hurt of the rejection is still present. I mind intensely despite not being sure if I would ever have been able to reconnect in any meaningful way with my mother.
I’ve always wanted specific things from her which were non-negotiable. Likewise, I believe she would have wanted specific, non-negotiable things from me. I doubt we would have been able to satisfy each other’s wants. She told me several times over the years she wanted to write but found it difficult. She never did. What would she have said? Would it have been enough or would I have felt I had nothing new to say?
The worst thing is that no one really knows how to respond to my grief about my mother’s death or when I mention my sister. No one asks about either of their deaths anymore.
Feelings can be chaotic and destabilising so I do know how difficult it is to bring bereavement into a conversation.
At the time I was devastated by being excluded again and thrown off course by those rejections. I felt as if I was unravelling inside. I am fortunate to have a very loving and supportive partner and some very close friends who generously scooped me up, looked after me in the immediate aftermaths of both deaths and exclusions, giving me space to talk or not talk, not expecting me to be anything other than wobbly.
This grieving is very different than other bereavements. When I feel the loss of either of them, that sorrow is always accompanied by so many questions. There are still no answers. There is enormous and very tangible relief. I felt physically stronger and healthier very soon after my mother died. I felt my shoulders relax and I stood up straighter, having always hunched them. I felt my whole body relax and I felt a part of the fog obscuring my ability to think dissipate. I stopped feeling afraid of her. I took some photographs of her body to be able to look at to remind myself she’s gone now. She can’t do anything to hurt me anymore. I hardly need to do that now but for a few months after her death I really needed that reassurance.
That’s what going to her funeral would have given me but my surviving sisters were adamant that I wasn’t to go. I’ve more or less forgiven them for that. I feel very sad for them too. First they lost their sister and then, less than 5 months later, their mother. Their lives can’t have been easy in the aftermath of those deaths either.
In the future we will have to come to terms with each other somehow when our now very vulnerable father, who has both Alzheimer’s disease and Vascular Dementia and needs 24-hour care, dies. How will we cope with that I wonder? I hope we will be able to be kind to one another in our grief which I know will be very deep.
I also know some things stay broken.
'Norfolk Turnip' Lulu with one of her beloved black cats