“I remember wishing that I had some manual to tell me what to do and what to say and what to feel”Leoni Boyle

As I excitedly filled my parents in on my first fortnight at University (the workload, my incompetence at doing laundry and some of the less incriminating drunken shenanigans) over a takeaway coffee on King’s Parade, moving to college really did seem to have provided the breathing space and pretense of normality which I had desperately hoped for.

Having two parents with cancer punctuated my sixth form years with endless scans, appointments and operations. My Mum’s admission to hospital in Week 4 of Michaelmas therefore felt simultaneously like a punishment for my naivety, and an inevitable vindication of the dread that I had carried for over a year. Of course, this presentiment couldn’t prepare me for the news that the cancer for which she had previously been given the all-clear had spread and would kill her within a matter of weeks.

“As I got up to leave, she angled her cheek upwards, gesturing for a kiss”

I was still unable to feel much beyond shock and surreality when I visited her in hospital the next day. Seeing her slipping in and out of lucidity rendered me unable to think of anything to say, so I talked about the recent US elections and what we planned to have for supper that night while holding her hand through a latex glove (we were in lockdown 2 at this point and I was wearing full PPE). As I got up to leave, she angled her cheek upwards, gesturing for a kiss. Most days, I think about the fact that I refused because I had to keep my mask on. That was the last time I saw her.

Five days later, exactly a month after that coffee on King’s Parade, I was in the kitchen chatting with the people in my household bubble over the washing up when I saw a missed call notification from my Dad and I sensed immediately that my Mum had died.

Being at college made it especially difficult to know how to react; I remember wishing that I had some manual to tell me what to do and what to say and what to feel. In the end I phoned my boyfriend, sat for a long time on the window ledge in my room with the window wide open and watched the reflection of the streetlights on the river. Then I joined my household to watch Bake Off.

Despite college excusing me from all of my academic commitments for the rest of term, I resolved very quickly to try to continue with my work as normally as possible – I even briefly considered still attending my 10am class the next day. I thought that I’d benefit from the structure and reliability of my academic timetable. However, I ultimately cracked under the self-inflicted pressure of juggling supervisions and essays with eulogy-writing and meetings with funeral directors.

“I went to great lengths to give the appearance of coping well”

The academic standards that I continued to demand of myself also allowed me to avoid fully processing what had happened. I went to great lengths to give the appearance of coping well and avoided asking for help when I needed it out of the belief that no one else could possibly understand how I felt. While there is perhaps some truth in this, it remains a gross underestimation of the empathy of the people around me from whom I was now isolating myself, who had done nothing but support me and who, believing in my carefully constructed façade, had perfectly understandably become less worried about my wellbeing.


Mountain View

How being vulnerable saved me

I felt suffocated by the pressure to grieve in a certain way, although I likely created most of that pressure for myself. My guilt prevented me from enjoying any actual joy that I felt, and I hated the surprise that my decision to stay at college for the rest of term provoked in my extended family and college welfare staff alike. The innumerable messages of support and grief that I received from my Mum’s many friends whom I hardly knew, although very thoughtful, seemed to contain an expectation that I reciprocate or validate this outpouring of emotion, which I simply was unable to do.

Returning home at the end of term was harder still in some ways. Christmas without her, emptying her drawers of clothes and jewellery, and finding shopping lists written by her in our kitchen forced me to confront the loss in a way that I avoided while at college. At home, I was therefore forced to begin slowly to build a new reality with my Dad; a reality in which, I hope, we may learn to be less emotionally repressed with one another – something of which we have been previously guilty.

While it is all still too fresh for me to consider my experiences objectively, the one reflection that I can give at this point is that I believe thoroughly in the need to dismantle our rigid notions of ‘grief’ as something homogenous and our societal squeamishness surrounding death. There is less benefit to be derived from expressing your feelings when the reaction to it is couched in clichés such as ‘passed away’ or ‘left us’.

I am at peace with the ultimately painless and mercifully quick circumstances of my Mum’s death, and look forward to the day when I’m able to remember my mum, Amanda, the life and soul of every party with a penchant for red hair dye, the seaside and baking, with less pain.