Sarah's Story

Sarah's mum Meryl died aged 89 in February 2019, after several years of deteriorating health, including battling osteoporosis, and then finally after suffering a stroke. Here, Sarah talks about the pain watching someone you love die, the complex and contradictory feelings of anticipatory grief, and her complicated relationship with her mum.


Sarah lives in Cambridge and is married with three children and three grandchildren. She is also a homelessness support worker, a runner and is seven years sober.


Sarah and Meryl together, shortly before she died.


The word grief is too short, too simple, and too easy to say.


Grief to me is guilt, regret, sudden uncontrollable weeping in Sainsbury's because they have no quavers but really because I just saw an old lady who looked just like her. It is wanting to be okay but knowing you’re not and actually, you never will because this was your mother for goodness sake. Who else remembers what Uncle Roger said on that day in 1978 when you both laughed and laughed?


My mum was a very difficult person, with her own unresolved grief to carry around like a shroud. Her husband, my dad, and her mother, my grandma, died within 6 weeks of each other in 1966 when I was a noisy 2-year-old and my sister a truculent 12. As was common in those days things were never talked about ‘in front of the children’, so I had a lifetime of my own unanswered grief, although of course I had no idea what it was that made me so sad and angry and, ultimately, an alcoholic.


Mum was very much a product of her time in one way and a complete mystery in another and suffered all her life with depression, anxiety and the condition of ‘Don’t make a spectacle of yourself’.


As she grew older, her moods and sense of life spiralled up and down until in 2018, we could just not see any spark whatsoever.


She suffered from crippling osteoporosis which she refused to take any form of medication for, insisting that tablets made her feel sick and she would rather have a broken crumbling back than be nauseous. I lost my temper with her so many times about this, but she would simply look away and make a comment about the weather so she didn't have to answer. She could be harsh and unkind, looking innocently surprised when she realised how hurt I was, but she could be loving and wonderful and there when I needed her right to the end.


On November 4th, 2018, my phone rang at work – and I knew, I just knew it would be from her sheltered home.


It was.


She had been found collapsed, had a stroke they thought, but was awake now and talking. When I got there, she was half sitting up, shouting at the paramedic for getting her name wrong - she smiled lopsidedly at me as we got her into the ambulance and said ‘You’re Sarah aren’t you?’


That’s when the anticipatory grief began, although I didn’t know what it was called. or what I was going through. It was the beginning of the end; she’d never return home. She would never remember anything with clarity again and she would die, three months later, after amazing everybody around her who gave her a week.


She stayed in hospital for four weeks, getting smaller and frailer every day but somehow hanging on. For someone who weighed 5 stone when she was admitted and ate only yoghurts for the rest of her life, she had the strength of an ox. When she was moved to a care home for end of life care she thought she was at our house, fretting that she had taken our youngest daughter’s bedroom, worrying about who would drive her home and poignantly calling me ‘mummy’ when she was feeling sad.


Losing someone so slowly and so obviously was almost unbearable. So many times I wished she would just slip away, just let go, but at the same I was terrified of losing her. I spent every day there with her, and on too many occasions I got cross, tired, fed up annoyed. Just talk to me Mum! Just say something sensible! She never left her bed again but insisted she had been shopping and got furious when I suggested maybe she hadn’t. She sang loudly to songs on the radio, not caring who heard, something the real Meryl would never have done: ‘Don’t make a spectacle of yourself’.


This unrelenting grief that we were going through was exhausting. I said everything I'd ever wanted to say but still didn’t have enough time. There was never enough time to get through the 54 years I’d known her.


Grieving became an everyday part of my life – even though she was still alive. Grieving for the inanities she would come out with, for the love in her eyes when she saw her great grandchildren, mourning the person that had always been there and loved me, even when, as my illness was at its peak, I loathed her. Wanting just one spark of recognition so we could say our goodbyes properly.


It never came.


Meryl, with Sarah's granddaughter, Ava.


When, after a week of silence, when she was in her final unconscious few days and I was there every day waiting for that last breath that never came until I had gone for a few hours, she finally left me; I had no idea how to be, no idea what to feel. I had already grieved the person I knew, in all her forms, so what should I do now? It was an empty, somehow unreal mourning that made me feel like an imposter.


Now, 18 months on, I am still grieving, still mourning, still missing her and want so much one more day at her bedside. I was on a plane last week coming back from a holiday and for no reason at all, the tears fell. Looking out of the window and thinking of nothing, I thought of her. At work, I can be involved in something really tricky or interesting or dull or day to day and she is there, in my head.


There is no rhyme or reason to grief, and there is no cure.


This quote says it all to me:


"Grief is not a disorder, a disease or sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love."


I would add it’s also the price you pay for being loved.


Meryl, with Sarah's grandson Lucas

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© 2019 by Alex Collis

(Portrait photography by James Murray-White, Logo by Carla Keen Design)