The tough days ahead of you will determine who you are.

The lessons I learnt about loss, and life itself.

 I like many others, are a week away from finishing the first semester of university for the year and heading off to experience a European Summer. My dad keeps asking is there anything I need help with before I go, but the one thing I want – is something he can’t give me.  

More than anything, I’d love my mum to pay me a visit, and over a cup of coffee, catch up on everything she has missed. Being a travel agent herself, I also need to grill her about all the best things to do in Europe, where to eat and what to see.

That won’t happen. My mum has been gone for over four years, or if I am to get technical, 1,481 days without her big brown eyes, infectious laugh and brave soul.

I was just fifteen years old, when cancer struck my mum at only 55. I didn’t take her illness seriously. I always thought, mothers are meant to be invincible, right? Mothers have a way of letting you think that nothing in your life can go wrong, with them in charge. My mum, Deb, as she was known to her friends and family, was the life of every party, and I couldn’t imagine the party of life itself, without her in it.

The last time I really saw her was Mother’s Day 2013, she was propped up on a nest of bright white pillows upon a hospital bed, recovering from an operation. She was doing well according to the nurses, and she was due home in a matter of days. That last day with her was spent having wheelchair races across the hospital lawn. With an audience cheering on, her popularity that day as the ‘hospital queen bee’, reminded me of how admired she was by so many.

Despite being in the most-darkest time of her life, this roaring energy of hers and light within her I couldn’t ever see being extinguished. However just like that, two days later, her long battle ended all too quick. I never saw it coming.  

All I can say, is that in the short time after the death of a loved one, it is the first time you’ve ever been truly speechless. It is the most present, the most alive and the most scared you have ever been.  Overnight I had become a member of a club, that I never pictured myself joining.

***

In many ways, I was alone from then on. The glue that had held us together, that nurtured and guided, that binds and strengthened, had dissolved. My dad tried to reassure us that it would all be okay. “Even though it’s just you and me, we’re still a family”, trying his best to make our ‘new normal’, normal. However, when you lose a parent, you are reborn into a world that truly has no guidance. In the words of UK Journalist Kiran Sidhu, ‘It is a great irony that the death of your mother is the most grown-up experience you’ll ever have and there’s no other experience that will make you feel more like a child’.

Life had to go on, however. I had boyfriends. I studied. I went to parties. Made best friends and re-discovered old friends. That year I finished Year 11 and sat my Higher School Certificate exam the next.

But for many months after her passing, and in many times since, I found myself lost in the vast and endless black hole of grief. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, in her 2016 UC Berkley commencement speech, labels grief as ‘the void’, a void impossible to fill and difficult to explain, ‘An emptiness that fills your heart and your lungs, constricts your ability to think or to even breathe.’  

For so long, it felt as if the impenetrable grief would never leave. At times, I tried to outrun it. In the beginning, it seemed as if this thing just had to be endured and then it would be over and my mum would be back. For a long time, I rejected that her absence was permanent. Because how could she not see me get married, nor have the opportunity to make a cringe worthy speech at my 18th or 21st? How could she not help me through my first break up, or give me the recipe to her famous spaghetti bolognaise? I mean, how do I make huge decisions about my life without listening to her opinions and advice first? Her job was nowhere near over.

In the most simplest of language, I lost my best friend man, I was robbed of my best friend.... I asked myself continually, how could this possibly be okay? How would I ever be the same.... I wonder what type of person I would have been today if she was still here. And it is excruciatingly painful knowing I have to live with the question of 'what if?', for the rest of my life. 

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Yet, as crazy as it sounds, my mum’s passing has been my greatest lesson in life. Some say, the day I lost my mother I lost myself, but I like to think, the day I lost my mother I learnt about myself, and I learnt about life itself. In this ‘lesson’ as I call it, I learnt three fundamental things that I would love to share with you:

1.     Nothing lasts forever.

In life, there will be the job that doesn’t work out, a loss of opportunity or love, and broken relationships that can’t be put back together. Yet our hardships do not have to affect every aspect of our lives. We should accept our feelings or circumstances, but know that they won’t last forever.  

2.     Things will, sometimes, always be out of your control.

The situations that challenge us and that are out of our control, can ironically be a great lesson. Why? Because no individual is born with a pre-determined amount of resilience. It becomes a muscle that you can build up when you find yourself within testing situations, and be able to draw on it when you need it. In that process, you may be able to become, the very best version of yourself.

3.     Live your life, as cheesy as it sounds.

Find beauty in the weirdest of places, buy a one-way ticket across the world, quit that job you have never enjoyed or tell the person you love how you really feel. Why? Because my experience has made me realise that in death, there are no second chances. No second chances to right your wrongs or relive a certain moment. Instead of focusing on the negative, I look for the positives in each day, the positives in ‘right now’. After a significant loss, many people lose themselves or get caught up in the bad rather than the good.

Yet, finding gratitude and appreciation is the key to resilience. Each night, go to bed after writing down three things you are grateful for in that day, and I promise, you will be all the happier and healthier for it.

I want to end on this note. Dr Rita Bonchek writes “Death ends a life but it doesn’t end a relationship that lives on in the mind of the survivor”. This relationship has allowed me to learn about the brutality of loss, and the depths of sadness. However, in a bittersweet twist, I learnt that in the face of any challenge, you can, choose happiness and meaning.

In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, ‘The easy days ahead of you will be easy, it is the hard days, the days that challenge you to your very core, that will determine who you are.’ No matter what you are experiencing, whether it be a breakup, a job loss or stresses about university; ‘When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface and breathe again’.

I know I did.

Written by Holly Anderson.