Mother’s Day: ‘It was savage grief pushing through’

March 14, 2015
Anna Pasternak and her mother on her 21st Birthday
Anna Pasternak with her daughter Daisy and mother

Still grieving the death of her mother, novelist Anna Pasternak had a ‘childish’ tantrum on Mothering Sunday over the flowers her daughter had given her

Returning from a family holiday in Italy last summer, I sat on the plane, tears plopping onto the pages of my book. I was reading Wild, the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed which has been made into a film starring Reece Witherspoon. Strayed’s account of a 1,100-mile hike up America’s Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to Washington State, is an excoriating description of grief and despair. It is also the most moving portrayal of mother-daughter love I have encountered.

She makes this arduous journey alone in an attempt to come to terms with her mother’s sudden death from lung cancer. What makes it so inspirational is not just Strayed’s physical bravery and stamina to walk for months – losing toenails, suffering suppurating blisters – but her inner, psychological journey.

Step by step, she moves from the recesses of deep, howling grief, through rage, to the final resting place of acceptance. Hers is a redemptive journey in which she shows us how to learn to live with what you cannot control.

Unlike Strayed, whose mother died when she was 22, my mother died three years ago from a sudden stroke when I was 43. There was no warning, no last hospital hug, no final precious words. No tear-stained goodbye. One minute she was drinking champagne with a girlfriend, enjoying a seafood lunch in Lyme Regis – then, that night, she had a stroke and died.

She was a glamorous and active 80-year-old. A true eccentric who used to dead head the daffodils in her dressing gown and pearls, she drove appalling old banger cars, wearing Hermes scarves and flashing diamond rings.

She had her secrets, too. Due to her vanity, she never let us see her passport, so I had always assumed she was a decade younger. It never occurred to me that we didn’t have much more time together.

When she died, my grief was seismic as my world upturned. My sense of self was instantly obliterated. I was loved utterly and whole-heartedly by my mother. She represented safety, nurturing and eternal reassurance. I simply adored her.

Unbowed by authority, she was refreshingly politically incorrect and always true to herself. As she wanted that for me, she challenged me, believed in me and championed me. She had an outrageous sense of humour, so we laughed together, uproariously.

For the first 18 months after her death, I was in shock. I felt cut adrift from myself and despite the best endeavours of my family and friends, unsupported. My heart was in such extreme physical pain, it was like an artery had seized up. When you have had a loving mother, you always have somewhere to go, a safe harbour. Without her, I was rudderless. For the first time, I felt insecure and alone. It was as if the umbilical cord was only cut when she died.

Because I did not say goodbye to her, I was furious about the feeling of lack of completion. Grief is essentially selfish and narcissistic. It wasn’t the ending that I wanted. So I fought my grief by refusing to accept what had happened. This proved self-defeating and exhausting.

I definitely became unhinged. I would fall against virtual strangers, sobbing, if they were women of a certain age and style. A cashmere jumper, string of pearls and well coiffed hair and I could not control myself. I once threw myself against a woman who reminded me of my mother the minute we had been introduced, staining her cream jumper with my mascara. I would sit in restaurants openly weeping if I saw mothers and daughters enjoying lunch together. I was out of control, which was the scariest thing of all for me. My mother’s love had felt tight and safe.

Eventually, like Strayed, I made a pilgrimage – not up the East Coast of America, but in a village in the Chiltern Hills. Eighteen months ago, I began to see a therapist there for my grief. Mrs O, as I call her, slowly, painstakingly helped me to see that no one could help me but myself. My only salvation came in learning to mother myself. The antidote to feeling bereft was to self-soothe. I had to embody my mother’s generous, nurturing side. I had to stop crying because Mummy would never again put fresh sweet peas by my bed or a cool flannel on my brow. I had to do it for myself.

Learning to fill the mother-shaped hole in my heart and stem the daily ache of her absence has become the greatest accomplishment of my adult life. It has also helped me to become a better, more compassionate mother to my own daughter, Daisy, 11. I have accessed a softer maternal side that was dormant when my mother was alive because she was maternal enough for all of us. Grieving women, I now know, need time and space to reconnect with themselves and to heal some primal wound of loss. I have learned when my grief feels frantic, to be silent and still. I must take my own inner counsel, not look outside for maternal reassurance.

Mothering Sunday has become bittersweet for me. I spent every single Mother’s Day with my mother – 43 of them – so the last three have been unbelievably difficult. Last year, I had a tantrum over the flowers Daisy bought me. I had asked for a tied posy and she sweetly chose me an orchid plant. It was unforgiveable, spoilt, childish behaviour on my part, but really it was just my savage grief pushing through. The real tantrum was because my mother is dead and I want her so desperately on Mother’s Day.

This year, I feel hopeful for a happier day. I intend to perform a ritual, placing three roses – representing Mummy, Daisy and me – on the spot where we scattered her ashes. I’ve been assured the tied posy has been ordered, and Daisy and I are going out to lunch, just the two of us. We have much to celebrate because, finally, I know how proud Mummy would be of me. Ironically, it is only through her dying, that I have become the mother she wanted me to be. A mother like her.

My grief has been pulverising, yet transformational. I have had to grow up from the dependent daughter to the adult mother. But this has freed me. I feel stronger inside and more self-reliant. I will, on sad low days, always still feel like a motherless child. On good days, I feel her love more than my grief. My mother was my greatest teacher and she has taught me as much about love in death as in her life.