Helen’s Story

It’s difficult to remember us as a family unit that actually included my mum fully as she died when I was seven-years-old so my memories that include her in the house on a normal day just don’t really exist. My mum met my dad when they were teaching at the same school. They had me and my two brothers very close together and my mum gave up work to look after us. From what I can remember our mum was very dedicated to creating a happy family unit and together my parents committed to having three children in close succession, but mum became very ill with cancer only a couple of years after my youngest brother was born.

It’s hard to remember what our life was like with mum because most of my memories exist through photographs that other people took (by that I mean, I didn’t take the images so they aren’t my memories). We are catholic so I have memories of Sunday best church outfits and biscuits afterwards which was the best bit. Once my mum passed, Sunday Mass was followed by a trip to the cemetery.

I do remember growing up in very close contact with mum’s family and we grew up with a strong connection to our extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. I’m so grateful for this, particularly mum’s family who we spent the most time with. They absolutely made sure that each and every day spent with them would be filled with fun, particularly in the weeks just after mum died. My Nonna (my Italian grandmother on my mum’s side) became our rooted safety net – a much needed maternal figure that grounded us and supported us year on year.

However, actually talking about mum in our younger years never happened and looking back I feel I could have got to know her but through people like my Nonna. Being so young it was hard to read when and how I could instigate talking about her without upsetting people, and myself. For sure between myself, my dad and my brothers, the subject of “mum” was totally off limits and that’s how I grew up. Luckily that’s changed now, but in doing so we all forgot about her for many years.

I do remember that she loved children, and that she was a baker and we were spoilt with puddings and cakes. She was also a meticulously house-proud cleaner, and I remember her being very soft in nature.

Now I’m older and have a clearer understanding of what she went through when she was diagnosed. I sympathize so much with how she must have been feeling due to her illness. The early stages of her illness were dealt with inside our immediate family, she therefore carried on full childcare for us and I can only imagine how exhausted she much have felt.

She died at age 38 from cancer. Her illness lasted about two and a half years and started in her breast. Despite this being fully treated, the cancer returned and spread into her bones and blood. Towards the end she was admitted to St Peters Hospice in Bristol where she died on 18th August 1987. I was seven when she died – my elder brother was eight and my younger brother just six.

As a young girl I immediately buried my feelings and I distinctly remember telling myself just to forget about her and not think about her anymore. This was my survival tactic and for many years I was actually OK with it all. I had loads of social distractions, mainly great school friends, who really looked out for me (and still do) plus amazing support from their mothers who “girled” me. I loved the attention from my friend’s mum’s and one in particular really adopted me. She often saved me from all the boys in my house.

Later into my teenage years around age 18 I found that my first big boyfriend break-up instigated a need to confront my feelings of loss. I think the predominant feeling in a break-up is grief, and this period marked the beginning of my outward grieving recovery. Again friends helped, and I realized how strong I could be with the right level of determination. I’d love to say that my dad and brothers played a part in my recovery and but really they didn’t. This is significant because after she died, although not immediately, I had a distinct feeling of “them and me”. Our house was often a battle ground of kid tantrums and teenage arguments manifesting in resentment that seemed to last for years, really until myself and my brothers became young adults and stopped living together. We have a great relationship now, we just didn’t care to understand each other back then.

A letter to Helen from her mother…

When I had my first child, Sonny, it went some way to healing the loss of my mother. No one can prepare you for the body achingly deep love you feel when you meet your child, and I’m so grateful to have experienced this. But when Sonny was around 8 weeks old I was with my cousin who’d come to visit and we were changing him and I became overwhelmed by feelings of pride for him and telling her how much I wished my mum could have meet him. I think I said something like, “She’d have loved him. I’m so gutted for her and I can’t stop thinking about her and what she’s missing out on.” That was the first time I really considered my mum in the midst of starting a family. The first time I admitted that her face was in my head all along. From that point on I have thought about her absence in the context of my young family every day. I feel sad that she’s missed out on being a grandmother. I mean really sad for her. I reckon she’d have been a great Nonna. And missing out on this role as grandmother must have crossed her mind when she was dying, right? And it’s how she would have felt about things like this before dying that really makes me sad.

Today I spend about 50% of my day feeling really hard done by, just wanting another pair of hands to get kids shoes on instinctively, and then the other 50% saddened by the fact that I can’t share the experience of them as babies with her. Although I also wonder how would we have got on, because I honestly don’t know, I really didn’t know her all that well.

I miss my mum immensely. I miss the words of a reassuring figure; on a bad day, someone who can tell me exactly what to do. I also miss having fun with someone who can laugh at them and enjoy them unconditionally as I do. I think all mums-without-mums experience a type of loneliness in amongst a chaotic household – someone to have made that cup of tea that you actually drink warm rather than bonkers cold. Someone who is looking after you so you can look after the everyone else.

But my children keep me busy and deep in role play most of the time. I do admit to dwelling sometimes, particularly if I’m having a tough day. But I have some lovely memories of her, and I try to think of that, particularly the time she handed me biscuits through a window at school. I still remember her look, and those biscuits, and how unbelievably special it made me feel.

All words are ode to my Nonna, my mums mum, to which I owe plenty.

Helen is 37-years-old and lives in Kingston Upon-Thames with her husband and their two sons, Sonny aged 4, and Benicio aged 1.