The manifestation of grief

Grief manifests in very strange ways. And you never know when it’s going to hit.

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster of a month for me.

I’ve been working very hard on our pancreatic cancer awareness initiative #PurpleOurWorld and that always stirs up some feelings. I spoke to a lot of my mum’s students in the week leading up to World Pancreatic Cancer Day and it was a very difficult presentation to give. These were students who have been impacted heavily by my mum, she cared for them, educated them; for the eight hours that they were at school, she treated them as her own. The outpouring of love the school demonstrated was exceptional. Her ex-students went to great lengths to honour her memory, as did the staff she worked with.

Last week, I learnt something new. That for the rest of my life, grief can creep up on you, no matter what day or time. Something as small as the realisation that you won’t have access to a car for a weekend, while hours away from home, can send you into a tailspin.

Halfway through my panic attack, as I slowly understood why the tears were falling, I realised that no matter how old I get, there will always be a first time that I experience something that mum will miss. There will always be something that will make you remember, that will made you sad. Something you had no idea would affect you. There will always be some sort of reminder. And you never know how it is going to hit you. It could be the scorching heat that suddenly makes you anxious – all because she loved to swim. The shortness of breath could start just because you hear a song on the radio. Every time I hear Moondance on the radio, a flurry of emotions follows. It can all go downhill very rapidly, because you visit a place you last visited with her.

The day before mum’s birthday, I was watching our favourite show, Gilmore Girls (side note: why I’ve chosen to start re-watching every episode of a show dedicated to a mother-daughter duo, and a show my mum and I adored, is beyond me). I was already starting to tear up at random things, knowing the next day was going to be exceptionally hard and sad. And without so much of a warning, Thank Heavens For Little Girls blasts out through my television speakers. When I was little, my mum would sing this to me. Until she passed away, the song served as my ringtone whenever she was on the other end of the phone. The tears welled. Yet at the same time, a smile formed on my lips. Ever so slight, but it was there. I didn’t actually know what I was feeling but in hindsight, I guess it was a mixture of incredible sadness that I’ll never hear her off-tune voice sing out to me (never thought I’d say that), and a tinge of joy.

Because, when you lose someone, I think the scariest thing of all is to forget.

I’m petrified I’ll forget her voice, forget her touch, forget her smell. I’m so scared that I’ll forget the little things we used to share.

I think even though it may hit me at the most random times, without me even suspecting it, for me, the tears and heartache are a blessing in disguise. When I cry, and hopefully my tears will continue to be accompanied by the sliver of a smile, it’s only because I’m remembering her.

I don’t know why I worry though, my mum truly is unforgettable.


Grief is a strange process. Some people expect you to be fine after a week, some a month, some a year. And some don’t understand how you can’t be ‘over it’ after five years. The thing is, everyone grieves differently and everyone copes differently.

And the truth is, one never truly gets over the loss of a loved one.

It seemed fitting to me that one of the first books I read after my mum passed away was one by Jodi Picoult. Mum and I always shared a love of Jodi’s books and would often debrief following a read – ‘did you pick the twist?’ ‘Did you expect that to happen?’

I didn’t read the blurb about Leaving Time before downloading it. Turns out it’s about a daughter searching for her mother after she disappears under mysterious circumstances. It’s also about the way elephants grieve.

There was a paragraph that really stayed with me, long after I’d read the final page:

“I think grief is like a really ugly couch. It never goes away. You can decorate around it; you can slap a doily on top of it; you can push it to the corner of the room – but eventually, you learn to live with it.”

Some people say that grief is a subjective state – a feeling that arises after a significant death. Whereas mourning is a set of rituals or behaviours according to your culture. In some cultures however, there is no difference. Some languages don’t even have a word for ‘grief’. Personally, I will be mourning and grieving for the rest of my life. I will mourn the loss of my mum, yes. But I will also be grieving for everything else that she will miss and everything else that we won’t be able to do together.

Cultures respond to death differently. In Islam, traditionally a person mourns for three days and then they must accept Allah’s verdict. For her husband, a woman mourns for four months and ten days.

In Hinduism, mourning lasts for 13 days. For Catholics, the length of mourning depends on the relationship with the deceased but three stages of mourning are distinguished – heavy, half and light.

While most animals have no qualms about leaving the weak to die alone, elephants often stay with their loved one for an extended period of time, watching over them and ensuring their body is safe until they can bury them.

In Judaism, there are stages of grief designed to help the mourner re-enter society. The shiva period – the first seven days after burial – where mourners are not allowed to do anything for themselves, sit on the floor or low stools, do not work and do not do things for comfort or pleasure. Mourners wear the clothes that they wore at the funeral and prayer services are held at the place where the shiva is held.

For me, the shiva period is a blur. I don’t know who came or went. My husband and I were camped on the floor of my mum’s study. I don’t know what I ate or how I even moved around the house. But those seven days came and went, and following, I was expected to return to some sort of normalcy.

The sholoshim marks the end of the mourning period for siblings, parents and spouse of the deceased. This lasts until the thirtieth day after burial. During this time, mourners can go back to work and their daily routine but cannot attend parties, shave or cut their hair and do not listen to music (among other things).

For a child of the deceased, mourning continues for a year.

In July, it was a year (according to the Hebrew calendar) since my mother passed away.

It’s been a hard year, there’s no doubt about that. They say that the first is the hardest but I’m not sure it’s ever going to be easy.

It was a year of firsts – first birthdays without her, first anniversaries without her, first holidays, first holy days.

And I’m not sure I’m quite ready to let that go. Because the thing is, you never stop grieving for the loss of a loved one. You grieve for the loss of memories created, you grieve for the loss of the laughter you would have shared, you grieve for the loss of hugs and kisses, coffee dates and dinners. You grieve for the questions that go unanswered. There will always be something you’re grieving for.

But there are also moments where you realise just how far you’ve come and how strong you’ve been.

Since mum passed away, I’ve quit my job and gone freelance, my family and I have launched an awareness campaign for pancreatic cancer (#PurpleOurWorld), we sold our family home and my dad bought a beautiful new home – one where we will make the most magical memories together as our family grows. We’ve been on two wonderful family holidays together, where we cried because she wasn’t there, yet still managed to laugh and enjoy ourselves. My husband and I continue to build our own home together, one where my mum will forever be present. My sister and brother-in-law found a new home for their little family and my nephew continues to grow and develop into a spirited and special little man.

The thing is, I will never come out of mourning. The official period may be over but like Jodi said, you just learn to live with it. You learn to see grief for what it is, deal with it when you have to and adapt when you can’t. Cry when you want to and smile when you can. Because when you’ve lost a person who shaped you, who loved you and cared for you, who raised you and taught you everything you know, finding your way out of the darkness is all you can really do.