Saying goodbye in our own way

Mum’s funeral was a day of coming together for many people that had touched her life, even though many people hadn’t seen much of Mum for a few years – such was the torture of Alzheimer’s disease in stealing her away from so many people. It was a moment of remembering the person she was before the disease and celebrating that person.

For my Dad, sister and I, who had known her throughout the years of Alzheimer’s disease it was a huge day of acknowledging the journey we’d been on and felt like the first day of many in processing it all. We have been grieving for years, as she’s slowly slipped away from us, but her passing away is a new level of grief. Though the disease made her a different person to the one we’d known and loved for so many years, it never took away our love. We miss her so much, even though we wouldn’t have wanted her to have carried on the way she was. We cherish all the memories we’ve shared with her and feel so sad that she was stricken with such a cruel disease, from her early sixties, at a time she had started to enjoy her retirement and was so involved in the lives of her grandchildren.

The day of the funeral started early, as the service was at 10.00am. Mum’s sister drove down from Bath, arriving at 8.30am, so she could travel with us in the family car to the service, behind the hearse. The cars pulled away slowly from the house that Mum had called home for over forty years, and the sun shone through the clouds lighting up the wreath upon the coffin. Family and friends had made such a huge effort to attend the service, many driving over four hours from different parts of the country to be there. Due to the pandemic many people hadn’t seen each other in nearly two years. Funerals are often bittersweet occasions, that bring people together even though the circumstances are somber. Seeing dear aunts, uncles, cousins and friends all together was a reminder of the way our lives are all so closely interwoven and the impact we have upon one another in different ways through our lives.

“If you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

FRED ROGERS

It was a short service, with time to reflect on Mum’s life, to celebrate and to acknowledge the struggle of the past ten years, but also the love that never failed to bind us all together – and which makes moving forward without Mum’s presense all the harder.

I feel like I’ve been treading quick sand ever since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis and whilst watching my children grow I’ve had to see my Mum drift away and no longer be able to partake in her Grandchildren’s lives. I’ve been grieving the loss of my Mum, in stages, for many years, sad that she’s been unable to write and talk to her grandchildren, to celebrate their achievements and life stages. She fought so hard to stay present with them, until around five years ago that struggle became frustratingly hard for her. I have been missing Mum’s presence in my life for a long time – but now it’s really final and for the first time I am able to fully acknowledge that and learn to move forward.

There are so many things I’ve wanted to talk to her about over the past several years, questions I wish I could have asked, moments I wanted to share with her, but communication through the fog of the disease changed the relationship we once shared. I felt a constant guilt at being on the other side of the world, as the only time we could really connect was when I was there, in person with her, and up until the pandemic I’d started to visit twice a year. I wish I could have brought her grandchildren with me on those visits – she still knew them and when I stepped off the plane, in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, her first question, in the arrivals area at Heathrow airport, was, ‘Where are the children?’. I couldn’t explain how hard it was for us all to travel together, there were so many things I couldn’t say. Within a moment of her asking that question she was gone again, blank and confused, in the chaos of the busy airport terminal.

The last time she’d seen them was when we all travelled to England, as a family, three years ago, for Christmas 2018, and I cherished the smile on her face from the moments of connection she had through the fog in her mind. I so wish I could have brought her grandchildren to see her in her last months of life, but with the difficulty of getting back into New Zealand, with the closed border, it just wasn’t possible. On the daily visits to the nursing home I showed her photographs and I could tell she wanted to ask me questions and say things, but it was too hard for her to communicate. I am so sad for all that we couldn’t share and I know it does no good to dwell on those things, but I feel I have to a little, in order to move on. If I ignore all these thoughts and feelings, push them down and bury them, then they just build in a knot deep within me, weighing heavier – so to let them out of the box and notice them, every now and again, helps to lighten that weight somewhat.

After the funeral service we had a coming together of family and friends at the wake. By mid afternoon we were back at home, giving Dad time to have a pint or two with his older brother (whose dear wife had passed away the previous year) down the local pub, whilst Claire and I sorted things out at home and had a little walk in the fresh air. In the evening we enjoyed the company of two of Dad’s sisters. It was a huge day!

The funeral was on the Wednesday and my flight back to New Zealand scheduled for Sunday evening. My Dad, sister and I talked about what to do with Mum’s ashes and there was one place we all felt drawn to – Penarth, in South Wales, where Mum had enjoyed a very happy childhood and where her parents had lived for most of their married life. We all had happy memories of Penarth, it was where Mum and Dad began their married life and a place we visited several times a year whilst my Mum’s parents, my dear grandparents, were in our lives.

The drive from my Dad’s house to Penarth was over two hours one way, so we didn’t want to visit on the day I was scheduled to fly back to New Zealand. The only day we could make a visit to Penarth work was on the Saturday – but the weather forecast looked abysmal, however there was a small gap in the heavy rain forecast – around early afternoon – so we decided to go for it.

We drove through the rain, from Hampshire to the Welsh border, crossing the Severn Bridge into South Wales, arriving around midday. As we approached Penarth the rain abated and when we stepped out the car there was a calmness in the air. We parked up on the esplanade, walking down the steps to the pebbled beach by the victorian pier that juts out over the north shore of the Severn Estuary at the southern end of Cardiff Bay.

The tide was on its way out and the beach was quiet. We let Mum’s ashes float on the outgoing tide, along with three yellow roses, one from each of us.

There was a moment, as we let the ashes go, when a slight breeze blew some back on Dad’s trousers and we couldn’t help but laugh and ackowledge Mum’s spirit was with us. Being there, the three of us on the beach, in a place we’d spent many happy memories with Mum and her parents felt so right.

We spent the next hour on the esplanade, having some chips (Mum would have approved) and walking out along the pier to the end, as we’d done many times before.

By the time we were ready to head back to Hamsphire the rain started again. The weather had gifted us a moment of time to say goodbye in our own special way, and yet it is never really goodbye for she will always be with us, in our hearts and thoughts.