Bereavement: A way of seeing
My mother’s last gift to me, though she didn’t know it, was a camera. My mother was always brilliant at encouraging me and at picking up my enthusiasms and running with them. She gave me the camera at Easter, but I was in the middle of moving house at the time and didn’t get round to opening the camera box and setting it up. Just a couple of weeks later her heart gave up on her quite suddenly, although she had never been diagnosed with a heart condition.
When the roses begin to bloom
When I heard the news about my mother I was in London and rushed back home, leaving most of my things in London still in boxes. She spent two weeks in hospital, hovering between life and death. She was not conscious for most of that time and unable to speak, though we talked and read to her. By a strange twist of fate, my father had been hospitalised with a serious heart problem and was due to have an operation. This added an extra burden of strife to that whole time. Thankfully, my father recovered.
After my first visit to the hospital, I found the box with the new camera and began to try it out, without reading the instructions. I haven’t stopped taking photos with it since. I photograph lots of things, mostly very impulsively. I particularly love trees and flowers of all kinds, especially roses. They were her favourite. The garden at home is still full of the roses she planted. When the roses begin to bloom, I seek them out in parks and gardens, and record them.
A dear friend
I was very close to my mother, so in losing her I also lost a very dear friend. She reminded me that I was gifted and loved on an almost daily basis. She was a gentle soul who loved nature and saw the best in people, despite having had a difficult life.
The clarity of time passing
Six years later, I am able to look back at that time with some clarity. I realise that I was very fortunate in being protected in that experience of grief by the loving family my mother had made. Her love remains wrapped around us and we support each other. It is true when they say that love is never lost, that it is stronger than death. Although I had feared her death would destroy me, or plunge me into a very dark place, it did not. I had already been seeing a psychotherapist, as a result of having had cancer three years previously, which allowed me to see past the recurring sense of crisis leading to anxiety and learn again that people, and circumstances, could be trusted.
A cold feeling
For me bereavement was mostly a cold feeling that was with me every morning when I woke up for weeks and months on end. I cannot say when that coldness really faded – it is still there at times, and doubtless always will be on occasions, but I am able to enter into that feeling knowing that I am able to withdraw again back into the light. There was a particular loneliness knowing I had lost my best friend, but I dragged myself back to ‘normal’ life because I knew that in the end, putting one foot in front of the other was the only way to get through it. Grief makes us want to be centred on ourselves, to nurse the pain, and that’s a very natural response. But in time we need to look out again at the world.
A still point in my changing world
I didn’t fall into a clinical depression but I was certainly veering in that direction. At one of my worst times I started reading the book Silence by Shusaku Endo, about the Jesuits in Japan. It is not the most obvious book to read if you are feeling unhappy, but the sense of Christ suffering with us in our pain was of great comfort. Perhaps more simply, through reading the book I recognised the still point in my changing world: my Catholic faith.
Faith is not just comforting to the bereaved because it gives us the hope of life everlasting, but also because in the familiarity of the Mass, the richness of prayer, we can find some continuity with the rest of our lives. The Mass has been with me since I was a child and will always be there for me. The Church makes a space for emotion which might not seem appropriate elsewhere, for example, my mother’s choice of music for the funeral drew out the tears I needed to cry. Few things are more beautiful than a Requiem Mass.
A way of seeing
More than anything, bereavement helped me to recognise and rejoice in the gift that God has given me in abundance: wonder. The beauty in the world around me pierced through the fog of low mood and shone through the rain that sometimes looked like it would never stop – I took some of my best photos in those months. The camera was not just a tool for recording these moments for the future and preserving them, but, I think, a way of seeing in itself. One of the important aspects of this gift of wonder in me is the desire to share this with others, but I don’t much care if two or ten thousand people enjoy the photo I took (it is usually two!) if I’ve passed on something good to another. When people compliment me on my photos I find it hard to accept that it is my skill they are complimenting. I take photos of what I see. It is God’s work they are finding glory in, not mine. St Ignatius’s dictum of ‘finding God in all things’ helped me through my bereavement in a very day-to-day way without working any great miracles, and it helps me now.
This is part of a series for Mental Health Awareness Week. Read the others:
14-20 May 2018 is Mental Health Awareness Week, an initiative to encourage discussion about and reduce stigma around mental health issues. The Jesuits in Britain want to take this opportunity to help our readers and listeners to pray, think, learn and talk about life’s uphill struggles, whether they are associated with diagnosed mental health conditions or other circumstances.
Across our online platforms, there are a number of different resources about situations in which people struggle to find peace of mind and heart. Our written and audio content will explore some of the causes, effects and manifestations of anxiety, and look particularly at the dynamic between faith and mental health.
We will be considering ideas, offering prayerful support and sharing experiences. However, please seek professional help if you are concerned about yourself or somebody else.